Teachers all across the world are struggling to engage their students.
Standardized tests and archaic curricular that must be rushed through in a matter of months, are filling up the classrooms.
At the same time, we see a development in our society towards an increased integration of technology into our children’s lives. While struggling to stay awake at school, most kids will gladly spend an entire night in front of the computer, playing games, surfing the web or chatting to friends on Skype.
The question that many parents and teachers ask in concern, is whether the investment in technology is compromising our children’s education. They will say that it is hard enough to motivate them as it is, without some screen distracting them and pulling them away from what matters. While that may be true, I am here to share a different perspective.
A couple of years ago, I made it my mission to teach in a way that was relevant to the students. I started experimenting with various topics and methods with the aim of unlocking the students interest of learning rather than sitting across from them, one zombie regurgitating information to another – just because that is the ‘normal’ way to do things.
I discovered that every single person in this world wants to do something that matters; something that is real and that has a real impact in the world. No one wants to spend years on end in artificial facilities doing simulations of real life while being told that their perspectives don’t matter – and this is exactly what schools do.
I also discovered that what students care about, is the real world around them, that which they hear about in the media or read about in the news. Above all, something that almost all my students had in common was a passion for modern technology, the Internet and computer games in particular.
I decided to embark on an adventure with my students, an adventure into ‘their’ world, the world of computer games.
I have never myself played a lot of computer games. It is simply not something that I’ve found particularly interesting. I do however have a passion for modern technology and all the opportunities that the Internet opens up. So I make it a point to stay up to date with the latest technological developments, gadgets, social media sites and various apps coming on the market. So on one hand, I embarked on a journey into the world of gaming simply because it was something I respected that my students were passionate about. On the other hand, it was made easier by the fact that I was already open to the current developments of modern technology.
I know that many adults are cautious towards the current developments and that many parents worry that their children are gaming too much and that they do not spend enough time outside playing or spend time with their physical friends (rather than the ones they meet in cyberspace). I also understand that there are some pitfalls and dangers about the Internet, such as kids having access to pornography, issues with privacy and cyber bullying.
However, it is also my perspective that the current development of modern technology is unstoppable and that if you as a parent prohibit your child from having access to a computer or the internet, they will simply find another way to get on – because being online has become an integrated part of what it means to be a child today.
Because the development of technology and digital media is like rushing river of rapid development, the best way to approach it is through embracing it by going downstream with the flow, rather than trying to fight it or slow it down, which is virtually impossible. It is something that like a force of nature has its own momentum.
Our Gaming Project
The students and I started the project with the younger students (ages 6-9) working on creating board games inspired by their favorite computer games. I laid out the foundation of the way we would be working with creating the games by saying that my goal was for this game to be so fun and challenging that they would want to play it with their friends. I shared with them how I had created board games as a child that weren’t a lot of fun because they weren’t very challenging.
So the first few lessons we spent creating a plan of how we were going to design the game. We talked about various ways that board games can be structured and how they don’t have to go from ‘start’ to ‘finish’ but can be circular, like labyrinths or have a completely new structure entirely.
I started asking the students about the computer games they play and I could see how genuinely pleased they were with being able to talk about their passion in a ‘school setting’. Most of the younger students have Minecraft as their favorite game so they would tell me all about it and what they liked about it and what elements from Minecraft they thought would be cool to incorporate in our board game.
Many of the students had lots of ideas that incorporated digital elements, where I had to show them how it unfortunately wasn’t transferrable to a physical board game. Instead we had to ‘translate’ the elements of the computer games into the board game in a way that could work effectively.
One group for example decided to create a game where, during the game it switches from day to night and at night the monsters come out, just like in Minecraft. We then had to figure out a way to incorporate the day-to-night element into our game and together came up with the idea of using an hour-glass that, when it runs out, the game switches from day to night.
Another student decided that in his game there should be four different ‘worlds’ or ‘games’, each based on its own computer game, so there was a ‘Minecraft world’ and an ‘Spiderman world’ and to go into each world you’d have to go through a portal.
Throughout the process of creating the games, the students would speak and write, for example to create cards to use in the game or through writing instructions for the game. These elements are all included in what is my actual task as a teacher, to teach them a language. We could have done the exact same project focusing on math elements or art – or even all of these in a multi-disciplinary project. The point is that throughout this project there has been absolutely no resistance or boredom coming up within the students.
I call it ‘sneaky learning’ when I am able to incorporate elements like grammar that otherwise would be perceived as ‘tedious’ and ‘boring’ and the students don’t even notice that they are learning grammar. They are doing it because it is an important part of the game. Like one student said: “If you don’t have instructions, you can’t understand how to play the game”. So obviously we had to create instructions, but it wasn’t a deliberate ‘language learning lesson’ and therefore working with the language came natural and with ease – because it had a purpose, because it was a tool to be used to support something that the student was passionate about, proud of and invested in.
Through this project, the students have created the most amazing and inventive board games. They have come up with ideas that I would have never thought of. Throughout it all, I have stood as a sounding board to assist them to manifest their vision and to make suggestions and share perspectives that may support them to consider details they hadn’t thought of before.
The result of doing this project is that students go home and write more cards by themselves without being prompted to by me as ‘homework’. One first grader (7 year old) even continued to work on the game while he was sick at home. Another student considerately went to the store and bought an hourglass with her pocket money – again, without being prompted to do so by me.
It is my perspective that all learning is supposed to be like this, no matter how old you are or what subject you are busy learning. This doesn’t mean that learning will always be thrilling or fun. When you are passionate about something, it sometimes requires some hard work or that you do some tedious task, but the difference is that the students have not resisted this aspect of learning in this project, because what mattered was their creation process and their vision of a final result. The more I have stepped back and humbled myself as an adult, the more the students have stepped forth and shown me their potential, their strength, their passion.
Based on the example from this project, taking the students passion as its natural point of departure ought to be a focal point of all education. Because we have all been educated in the same wretched school system, we have come to take it for granted. We have come to accept (because that’s what we’ve been taught) that learning is not fun, that it is forced upon us and something we must learn to force upon ourselves. Learning in schools happens through intimidation, competition and force and the question is how much is actually grasped at a foundational level within the students. I mean, how many of us remember anything we learned in school? What many will say is that they remember specific teachers who were passionate or fun or they will remember specific projects where they got to work independently or choose their own topics.
With the day and age that we live in, it just happens to be so that modern technology, digital media and the Internet is one of the biggest interests of kids today. It would be a shame to not embrace that momentum and let the stream take us on a journey together with the kids, a journey where we can be there with them and stand as support along the way. Because one thing is certain; modern technology is not going anywhere anytime soon. But our kids are going places, that’s for sure. The question is whether we are going to be stubborn and stay behind in fear of the unknown or whether we are going to go on this journey with them and see where the river of modern technology takes us. Because if we don’t, we are holding them back. We are dismissing and diminishing something that matters to them. We are trying to force them to learn in unnatural ways through intimidation and then we miss the opportunities where real learning could have taken place.
There is not a single human being on this planet who is not aware of how much easier it is to learn when it is something you have decided for yourself, when learning is something you want to do. You do not only learn more easily, but you also remember it better. When learning is self-directed and passionate, it integrates into you and becomes part of who you are as a real time expansion of your being. It is something that never leaves you. This is what learning is supposed to be like.