Reading, Writing and Video Games: Pamela Paul Weighs In!

Dear Commons Community,

Pamela Paul, the features and children’s books editor at The New York Times Book Review, explores gaming and K-12 education and questions its value in an op-ed piece today.  Citing a number of studies and surveys, her analysis is that a good deal of learning is hard, tedious, and repetitive.  It isn’t fun and games.   For example:

“Many of the games marketed as educational aren’t as much fun as video games children would play if left to their own devices. But the added bells and whistles still make it harder for them to focus on plain old boring work sheets and exams. Imagine how flat a work sheet would seem after a boisterous round of Zap the Math From Outer Space.

Technologists aim for educational games that are “immersive” and “relevant,” “experiential” and “authentic,” “collaborative” and “fulfilling” — adjectives that could easily apply to constructing an art project out of found objects. It’s easy to foresee a future in which teachers try to unpeel children from their screens in order to bring them back to such hands-on, “real world” experiences. To renew their “focus.” “Imagine if kids poured their time and passion into a video game that taught them math concepts while they barely noticed, because it was so enjoyable,” Bill Gates said last year. Do we want children to “barely notice” when they develop valuable skills? Not to learn that hard work plays a role in that acquisition? It’s important to realize early on that mastery often requires persevering through tedious, repetitive tasks and hard-to-grasp subject matter.”

She also defends the teachers who have expressed concern about gaming and technology in the classroom:

“When experienced teachers express skepticism about the value of computer games in school, they’re often viewed as foot-draggers or change-resistant Luddites. A 2012 Project Tomorrow report (paid for in part by the technology industry), found that only 17 percent of current teachers believe technology helps students deeply explore their own ideas.

“Technology firms are understandably eager to enter the lucrative school market and acquire customers at the earliest age. News Corporation is introducing in schools a new tablet computer that directs a child’s wandering gaze with the on-screen message: “Eyes on teacher.” Perhaps the child would have done just that had he not had a colorful screen blinking in front of his face. Take-home games for the device include one in which Tom Sawyer fights the Brontës. (Lest children avert their attention to the actual books.)”

Her conclusion:

“How’s this for a radical alternative? Let children play games that are not educational in their free time. Personally, I’d rather my children played Cookie Doodle or Cut the Rope on my iPhone while waiting for the subway to school than do multiplication tables to a beep-driven soundtrack. Then, once they’re in the classroom, they can challenge themselves. Deliberate practice of less-than-exhilarating rote work isn’t necessarily fun but they need to get used to it — and learn to derive from it meaningful reward, a pleasure far greater than the record high score.”

I would have to agree with Ms. Paul.  While I have always been a major proponent of teaching with technology, I also support the primacy of the pedagogical value of the applications.  Gaming programs such as The River City Project developed by Chris Dede at Harvard have much to offer and is well-done.  But much of the gaming that has evolved in K-12 in recent years is designed more for the “fun and games” and lack the development of deep learning skills.  Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch [News Corporation] are of a mind that any technology is good for kids and they are wrong.



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