There are plenty of models for learning to choose from and I don’t doubt that all of them arise from a body of evidence which shows they can be successful.
Since I’ve been teaching, the debate has centred on direct instruction vs inquiry learning, where belief and preferences for one, diminishes the other. In Australia, the movement for more open-ended discovery and enquiry has long been associated with projects and collaboration, despite a sustained body of evidence around the world that educator enthusiasm for discovery learning is not supported by research evidence, which broadly favours direct instruction. In the last few weeks, the media has reported on Gonski’s view that learning needs to be both personalised and conducted in ways which appeal to the student’s individual learning preferences, yet the psychological evidence is clear that there are no benefits for learning from trying to present information to learners in their preferred learning style all the time.
Ultimately, our school system remains married to ‘high stakes’ testing. In the study Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology reviewed decades worth of data on ten basic learning techniques, many of which have direct implications for reading and an interesting connection to writing as well. Of the ten, the author’s concluded that five were highly or moderately helpful and that five were of relatively little help.
The highly useful techniques noted in the study were the following:
- Practice Testing. Self-testing or taking practice tests over to-be-learned material.
- Distributed Practice. Implementing a schedule of practice that spreads out study activities over time.
The moderately useful techniques were:
- Elaborative Interrogation. Generating an explanation for why an explicitly stated fact or concept is true.
- Self-Explanation. Explaining how new information is related to known information, or explaining steps taken during problem solving.
- Interleaved Practice. Implementing a schedule of practice that mixes different kinds of problems, or a schedule of study that mixes different kinds of material, within a single study session.
The least useful techniques were:
- Highlighting/Underlining. Marking potentially important portions of to-be-learned materials while reading.
- Rereading. Restudying text material again after an initial reading.
- Summarization. Writing summaries (of various lengths) of to-be-learned texts.
- Keyword Mnemonic. Using keywords and mental imagery to associate verbal materials
- Imagery for Text. Attempting to form mental images of text materials while reading or listening.
This list appears to be out of sync with how many kids are learning at home from games. And this is the essential problem with competing fields using competing methods to find the ‘best solution’ or model – be that a theory of education or a system designed to enact that theory into ptactice.
The research points above are almost entirely focused on the classroom as a closed environment which arrives at a point where students encounter the high-stakes test. It follows that the ‘best way to learn’ debate is always headed towards a point where what has been learned (and how good you are) is measured by that test at nominal points in a students life – which they have no control over.
If we think about ‘the timetable’ – students are housed in a system which is entirely designed to condition them for these events – whether it’s in-school exams, NAPLAN or the HSC. This happens despite numerous industry and educational reports which express the idea of ‘jobs of the future’ being unknown and what students are learning today is likely to be irrelevant by the time they enter the workplace.
I won’t get into a debate about lack ‘soft skills’ other than to point out they are often set out as a lesser set than the hard skills in the table above the field of psychology itself is in a binary debate with itself about this).
Games are not represented in the hard-skills table. Being a good gamer is seen as an amusement – unless of course we look to dystopian novels where kids need to succeed at games to win at life – Hunger Games, Ready Player One etc., But no one’s getting a winner-winner chicken dinner award on their school report – yet kids STUDY these texts in some weird universe where these skills are relevant – just not here, not today – close the laptop.
Richard Van Eck argues Games and play can be effective learning environments, not because they are fun but because they are
- require the player to make frequent, important decisions;
- have clear goals;
- adapt to each player individually; and
- involve a social network.
My own elderly teen is amazingly good at games. playing in the top few percent of leagues and despite his age, is more than able to play with adults ten years older than him – many of whom are also streamers and well known in the game community. He doesn’t study for a game using any of the methods in the table above – and yet has developed the skills and ability to process and react to information in the way scholars such as James Gee have argued are very useful to developing multiple forms of intelligence. This of course has no bearing on his school performance — as he (like many) has almost no engagement with a system that he knows is going to require memorisation of facts for a high-stakes test. At the same time, his school experience has made zero effort towards using games or attempting to understand any of the literature about how games and their embedded systems, methods and cultures could actually be useful.
Van Eck asked us over a decade ago
- Are computer laboratories available where students can play games? Are they appropriately configured? Are they available for the extended hours that game play involves?
- Is the right equipment available, such as headphones, speakers, and special consoles?
- Is support available for the game, both technically and in terms of gameplay?
- Are there instructional designers who can develop games?
- Is gaming integrated into the curriculum or just added on?
For almost every student in our educational system – the answer is no. Firstly, computer labs have been removed in favour of cheaper and largely unproven 1:1 schemes of less powerful devices. These devices have poor processing, poor software and don’t adequately support video animation, filmmaking etc., Schools do not make game-spaces available to students — and often ban games in the little time students have between time-tabled classes. Consoles have never been taken seriously in schools – and I’m yet to see a school willing to make a six station game-room – nor do I see Sony or Microsoft making an effort to encourage it. Even worse, Microsoft has put all it’s education eggs in the Minecraft Edu basket and has become extremely blinkered in its representation of what gaming in schools could be, which has stopped any real development of games in classrooms – but it sells like hotcakes and fuels an array of ‘expert’ speakers who also make money from it – and probably couldn’t get out of Bronze in Overwatch if their life depended on it. It’s very hard for kids who are playing Fornite, PubG and Overwatch to get excited about Minecraft … but they are now required to ‘play’ it in school because that’s the only thing the teacher has to offer or is willing to accept.
My last point is about ‘instructional design’. Yes, people, it’s a thing. The way learning is presented – the quality of the delivery, the variations in activities, the use of space — all matter. Few teachers seem to engage with the basic idea that they have to be good instructional designers to be a good teacher. It follows that students who are presented with indifferent or poor instructional design experiences are not going to be able to apply either their own media-game understanding or the stuff that I stuck in the table above – which is geared towards ‘static’ text and high stakes tests.
The literature is clear when it comes to the poor use of an LMS, the scroll of death, the digital vending machine and the absent teacher who doesn’t know how to be present in an online space. I’m going to guess that these teachers don’t play games or haven’t yet watched kids play in an MMO or reviewed their media-habits when not playing games.
So why not let kids play an MMO before school starts? Because the idea of ‘school start’ is part of the problem. Why not get kids to play MMOs as part of their development as people? Why do they only get to play MinecraftEdu and not Overwatch or Fornite? Why is being an exceptional gamer of zero value in the way we assess student ability or capability?
I think it’s because education is on an endless search for the ideal solution which on one hand engages students to use their own interests and sense of self – but at the same time has to also deliver ‘results from high stakes testing. If a child’s preference and interest lie in playing Fornite and another is interested in drones – I guarantee the drone-kid will be scooped up by teachers and encouraged while the other is ignored. That makes me quite sad, because for kids who are actually GREAT at games, almost nothing in their school day is going to reflect their interests or understand them as a person – and over time, they are presented with insipid online activities and content as the cloud of high stakes testing forms around them with no shelter – until they get home.
Perhaps, if games were as accepted as drones and bots, then kids might go home an do something else. Perhaps if teachers played games, they might be more interested in instructional design … but as it is … the search goes on.