We're boring our kids in school: This easy reform will actually help them learn

Students have a rich world available to them to develop and train their minds. It's not school -- but it could be

Published May 12, 2015 9:57AM (EDT)

  (<a href=''>wavebreakmedia</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
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Excerpted from "The Game Believes in You"

In 1967, media critic Marshall McLuhan predicted that within two decades, technology would make school unrecognizable. “As it is now, the teacher has a ready-made audience,” he wrote. “He is assured of a full house and a long run. Those students who don’t like the show get flunking grades.” But if students were given the choice to get their information elsewhere, he predicted, “the quality of the experience called education will change drastically. The educator then will naturally have a high stake in generating interest and involvement for his students.”

McLuhan was right about one thing: students can now get much of their information elsewhere. Many young people “are now deeply and permanently technologically enhanced,” said business and education consultant Marc Prensky—his observation will hit home to anyone who has watched teenagers sit in a Starbucks, wait in line at a Walgreens checkout stand, or attend a family function. But in school, those who don’t like the show still get flunking grades. However, these students have a vision of something different. They now have the experience, outside of school, of diving into worlds that are richer and more relevant than anything they get in school. There’s a technical term for this phenomenon, in which someone sees the possibilities that lie just out of reach but must spend time doing lesser things. It’s called boredom, or as theologian Paul Tillich once described it, “rage spread thin.”

In spite of our teachers’ heroic efforts, our schools are fighting a losing battle with boredom. Indiana University’s High School Survey of Student Engagement finds that 65 percent of students report being bored “at least every day in class.” Sixteen percent—nearly one in six students—are bored in every class.

Perhaps school, for all its efforts, simply isn’t challenging enough. In a 2006 study of high school dropouts, eight in ten said they did less than an hour of homework per night. Two-thirds said they would have worked harder if more had been demanded of them. When American journalist Amanda Ripley in 2013 surveyed hundreds of exchange students from around the world, she found that nine out of ten international students who spent time in the United States said classes were easier here; of the American teenagers who had studied abroad, seven out of ten agreed. “School in America was many things, but it was not, generally speaking, all that challenging,” she wrote. “The evidence suggests that we’ve been systematically underestimating what our kids can handle, especially in math and science.”

This is all happening at what is probably the worst time for our fortunes as a nation. Recent high-profile international comparisons show that our kids are falling behind others in places like Finland and Singapore in skills and knowledge. But in the long run, our kids care less about competing with Finland than about having schools that challenge them and engage their interest. While games haven’t yet improved schools in any kind of systematic way, that could soon change. A generation of teachers who learned division with Math Blaster, history with The Oregon Trail, and the principles of urban planning with SimCity now see games as just another tool, like a calculator. Each spring, Baby Boomer teachers are retiring by the thousands. Their young replacements, born in the late 1980s and early 1990s, well after the dawn of the home video-game console, have never known a world without video games. Among students, only 3 percent don’t play games.

The shift has happened quietly, but it has been complete. When she went to college in the fall of 1990, journalist Megan McArdle believed that any freshman who brought his game system with him “would have been essentially announcing that he did not plan to have sex for the next four years. Now the consoles proudly sit in the living rooms of thirtysomething homeowners.”

How different is the present moment? In 2012, the Educational Testing Service, the folks who bring you the SAT, formed a partnership with, among others, the video game giant Electronic Arts, the folks who bring you Madden NFL, Mass Effect, and Battlefield 3. The result is an experimental nonprofit dubbed the Games, Learning and Assessment Lab, or GlassLab, which is creating educational versions of commercial video-game titles with deep learning analytics under the hood. Based at Electronic Arts’ Silicon Valley headquarters and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, GlassLab is bristling with PhD-level learning scientists and assessment experts who are experimenting with ways to combine game mechanics with academic content. The effort’s ultimate aim is essentially to do away with standardized testing as we know it. The group has already created a software tool that gathers data from gameplay and translates it into instant reports that teachers, parents, and administrators can use to see how well students are doing against established learning standards. GlassLab has also mined textbooks to develop a tool that teachers can use to replace chapter assignments with games that cover the same content.

The U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation are investing millions of dollars into gaming experiments. Deep-pocketed philanthropies like the Gates and MacArthur foundations have committed to spending upward of $100 million to promote educational gaming. In 2011, publishing giant Pearson LLC joined forces with Gates to push for more education-related games, and President Obama, at the urging of several experts, invited a video-game scholar to be a senior policy analyst in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Obama also launched his Digital Promise effort that seeks to push for more research into, among other things, educational games. At a White House event that fall, sharing the stage with White House deputy policy director Tom Kalil was, improbably, Gabe Newell, co-founder of a company called Valve. If you are not a gamer, the beloved Half-Life and Portal video game series. The former is a ground-breaking, sci-fi-themed first-person shooter. The latter is a dryly comic, devilishly difficult series of logic puzzles that invites players to escape from a concrete-slab, maze-like laboratory by strategically blasting dimensional holes into the walls. “It’s really about science,” Newell said of Portal a few months earlier. “It’s about spatial physics, it’s about learning reasoning.” Looking a bit bored by the White House proceedings, Newell sat staring out from behind little round John Lennon glasses, a guy in a golf shirt surrounded on all sides by suits, his arms folded across his broad chest. If he’d had a portal gun at that moment, he’d have surely blasted his way out of the building. But he sat patiently and eventually promised to share Portal’s code with science teachers so they could use it to teach physics.

U.S. educators have spent a decade studying Finland for its educational secrets, but the Finns these days might offer a few surprising insights: they’ve found, for instance, that Finnish boys routinely outscore girls on English tests. Since boys play video games more frequently, and since the games are mostly in English, they’ve concluded that the games are teaching English. Meanwhile, Rovio, the Finnish company behind the Angry Birds games, is developing a preschool curriculum built around free play. Created in conjunction with the University of Helsinki, Angry Birds Playground covers all of the basic subjects, including math, science, language, music, physical education, and arts and crafts, and offers “a healthy balance between rest, play, and work,” according to the company.

Each year, Keith Devlin, the popular Stanford University math researcher, observes an unusual little ritual. He is invited annually to address the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and each time he asks teachers to raise their hands if they are gamers. By 2010, he’d been posing the question for five years, and each year the results were the same: just a few hands went up. Then, in 2011, at the group’s annual meeting in Indianapolis, he saw something different: nearly every hand in the room went up.

Devlin mostly attributes this to a generational shift (also, the iPad had first appeared in the spring of 2010). But he said nearly all teachers are realizing that games are here to stay. “Nobody would think of being a teacher if they could not read,” he said. “Well, video games and other digital media are new literacies.”

According to Devlin, teachers have a responsibility to learn about kids’ interests. “It’s not the students’ responsibility to put themselves in our place. As teachers, it’s our responsibility to put ourselves in the students’ place. And if they are in a digital world, where they will invest many hours solving difficult, challenging problems in a video game, it would be criminal if we didn’t start where they are and take advantage of the things they want to do. That’s the world they live in, that’s the world they’re going to own and develop. As teachers our job is to help them on that journey. We have to start where they are, and if they’re in video games, we need to start there.”

Excerpted from "The Game Believes in You" by Greg Toppo. Copyright (c) 2015 by the authors and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of St. Martin's Press, LLC. All rights reserved.

By Greg Toppo

Greg Toppo is USA Today's national education and demographics reporter. Toppo was a 2010 Spencer fellow at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and in 2011 he co-led the team that investigated cheating in the nation's public schools, most prominently in Washington, DC, schools under then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee. He lives in Ellicott City, Maryland.

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