Friday, January 2, 2009

Games, perseverance, and status.

The serious gaming world continues to take itself pretty, well, seriously. Kids love video games. If we can just combine those games with education, we’ll eliminate the motivation and engagement problems prevalent in schools. Students will be beating down the doors of their classrooms to get a chance to traverse a cool 3-D world where they explode adverbs with diphthong bombs.

This promise to leverage current high tech interest to cure the ills of old-fashioned schooling has a very familiar ring to it. In the first decade of the 20th century, Thomas Edison predicted that you’d need an army with swords and guns to keep excited students OUT of school. They’d be bursting through the doors to watch films, silent ones at the time, laced with educational content. In the 1980’s the early edutainment industry promised that students would be playing educational computer games, acquiring content and mastering skills without even knowing they were learning. I’ve seen that promise repeated in the last year.

The shallow notion that punctuating popular entertainment with curricular content will make learning fun is wrong, and it misses the point. The serious serious (yes, I meant to write it twice) gaming crowd knows and argues that the opportunity to leverage kids’ fascination with video games lies deeper in the experience. In part it’s about understanding why people are willing to persevere in spite of repeated failures to advance in a game. It’s also about dissecting how games provide multiple entry points and levels to accommodate many different skill levels. How can we get our students to keep trying, and how can we support the range of abilities we find in the classroom?

I want to throw some thoughts at that first question about perseverance. Why do kids, and the rest of us, keep trying at some tasks while quickly giving up on others? When do I believe that my effort will pay off? And when do I think that further effort is futile, that I’m just not good at it? Part of the answer to these questions, the research suggests, has to do with stereotype threat. If I perceive myself and believe that others perceive me as good at something, I’m more willing to keep trying at a task to maintain that perception. I don’t want to risk undermining the stereotype of my capability. If I’m “good at math”, for instance, I need to be good at math all the time. On the other hand, if I’m not good at something, for me it could be drawing, I can give up quickly without any loss of identity. Nobody, including me, thought I was good at drawing anyway.

Status clearly plays a role here. As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, we (not just kids) value how others see us, and we want to maintain and improve our status. Stereotype threat focuses on the maintenance part. We don’t want to risk a status we already have. But what about establishing a new status? Kids who aren’t necessarily recognized as great gamers are willing to put in the time and effort to succeed. Beginning musicians struggle through endless hours of practice before they have the status of being good. The same is true for athletes, dancers, and anyone who achieves a level of expertise at anything. Even struggling students are experts at some things. Why persevere there but not in math or history?

Maybe status matters here too. Students, some of them anyway, gain social status for the success of persistent effort in some areas, like video games, but not in others, like academics. We need to give students multiple access points to learning and differentiated paths to success. Technology can help do both. Technology can also help students see the incremental value of their effort. Imagine a video game that, instead of listing only the top 10 scores, showed the improvement from your previous scores. You get the satisfaction of growth even if you’re not one of the best. And only 10 can ever be in the top 10.

However, we should also seek ways to award social status for that growth in academically desirable areas. We need to foster a school and peer culture that recognizes and appreciates the effort that leads to incremental improvements. If achieving status matters, we should provide ways for students to establish it in ways that matter to them.

No comments: