A rant on boredom in schools

In pursuit of efficiency, and likely as an extension of our behavioristic and cognitivistic paradigms,  most classroom designs actively strip away the bodies, genders, cultures, histories, interests and calling of each child and demand of them to follow an impersonalized trajectory of learning created by politicians and publishers. Everything in learning science stands against this. If we take up an embodied, social-cultural, situated, narrative, place and community perspective, we realize that schools need a radical reform – one that mentors and challenges, begins with value and curiosity,and is willing to trust that folks want to learn and will learn “good” stuff. This lack of personalized education easily leads to a lack of curiosity and therefore boredom. By stripping a learner of their individuality, we have removed their drive – we are making them play a game that has only one ending, live through a spoiled story. This is a most-grave of crimes. The mind of a learner is an incredible force when their curiosity is fueling the fire. A mind wasted, just going through the motions, is a grotesque sight. Our heart sinks when we see a child’s body wasting away due to unclean water or poor nourishment for their body. I submit, that crimes against the mind are as great of a concern. Our systems, policies and economics are attacking the mind of children. This is as bad as poisoning their water.
Boredom is not only about destroying an individual, it is also a disrespect and avoidance of the world itself. Look up into the heavens and try to comprehend its magnitude in size, energy and complexity. Look now into the smallest things, from a few grains of sand, made of countless atoms bouncing about but bound to one another by unseen forces. The world is full of WONDER. To teach chemistry or math or history in a way that does not wonder is to ignore reality itself. To “know” that y=mx+b is not to celebrate the motion of a baseball thrown during a game or the power of hyperbolic bacterial growth. It is an insult to countless persons who have discovered these fields of study (as well as God himself) to strip our classical studies from their contexts. Our fields of discipline mean to reveal and celebrate the wonder of the universe we live in. Anything less is not education, it is wasting time, and wasting away life itself.

Wendell Berry on Education and Scholorship

Wendell Barry: “My approach to education would be like my approach to everything else. I’d change the standard. I would make the standard that of community health rather than the career of the student. You see, if you make the standard the health of the community, that would change everything. Once you begin to ask what is best for the community, what’s the best thing we can do here for our community, you can’t rule out any kind of knowledge. You need to know everything you can possibly know. So, once you raise that standard of the health of the community, all the departmental walls fall down, because you no longer feel that it’s safe not to know something. And then you begin to see that these supposedly  discreet and separate disciplines, these, “specializations,” aren’t separate at all, but are connected. And of course our mistakes, over and over again, show us what these connections are, or show us that these connections exist.”

Jordan Fisher Smith: “So this calls into question, doesn’t it, the whole structure of postgraduate work where people find a tiny speciality to become the worlds foremost expert on it?”

Wendell Barry: “It calls into question the whole organization of intelligence in the modern world. We’re teaching as if the purpose of knowledge is to help people have careers, or to make themselves better employees, and that is a great and tragic mistake.”

Wendell Barry:” There’s a difference between thinking about problems and having problems. Where experts are thinking about problems, the people who have have problems are usually absent, or not even well represented. The only way out of this is for the teacher, the person of learning, the researcher, the intellectual, the artist, the scientist, to make common cause with a community. They must commit themselves to a community in such a way that they share the fate of that community — participate in it’s losses and trials and griefs and hardships and joys and satisfactions — so that they don’t have this ridiculous immunity that they now have in their specializations and careers. Then they would begin to learn something.”

From Conversations with Wendell Berry, edited by Morris Allen Grubbs, 2007.

Rapid Mobile Media Design and Prototyping

Last week I had a lot of fun. Chris Holden, a long term mentor and colleague in NM picked up a plane ticket and brought a student, Daniel Gosch from CO to join our team here at UW Madison for a 3 day design Jam.

We basically locked ourselves into a little room with a whiteboard, post it notes, markers, laptops, iPhones and an LCD projector and proceeded to generate piles of ideas, improvements to existing designs and prototypes of new mobile games by using a SCRUM-like process with just 2 hour iterations.

The picture above is me working with Dee, a brilliant student from Shabazz HS who is working with the ARIS crew to improve the authoring tool.

The event included a public workshop to teach folks on campus how to use ARIS, our mobile design platform, as well as a public playtest of hte designs we created during the week.

Take a look at http://arisgames.org/2010/11/madison-design-jam-postmortem/ if you are itching for more info.

What Facebook, Rock Band and iPhones have to teach teachers

A few weeks ago I taught a 2 hour workshop entitled “Re-imagining learning” to a group of 20 or so faculty of Governor’s State University. I had been down there before and was invited back, believe it or not.

Yevette Brown, a associate professor of media and director of a group that facilities these kinds of learning ops asked me to inspire their teachers to look at learning in new ways and think about how technology might be a part of that process. In the end, I gave a presentation that combined stuff from the thing I did for the Digital Salon, a demo for maclearning and the recent article for educause. The main premise I worked with is that contemporary medias have a lot to teach us about how people learn and we should investigate them. It is just silly to look down on new things and complain about how “kids these days…” but instead look at why these things are so successful and learn from them. The idea is just a less in-depth expansion on James Gee’s book, “What videogames have to teach us about learning and literacy.”

For example:

  • Social media shows us that people can do amazing things when they have the right tools to connect them, have the potential for a genuine audience/impact on the world and a task worth working for.
  • Video games show us that play makes a fantastic space for identity building, creative problem solving, and new forms of community. Games excel as learning environments because they provide a real experience that is intrinsically valuable and are capable of producing the kinds of learners we really want: systemic problem solvers who aren’t scared to fail.
  • Mobile media is changing the way we do everything because now we have a computer in our pocket all day that knows where it is, what direction it is pointing, can playpack/record/produce A/V, is connected to the internet all while still remaining a personal communications device, connecting us to each other. A new kind of learner is emerging: one that learns on the fly, in the context of doing and out in the real world – leveraging the internet as an extension of their own available knowledge.

The session was received well and was followed by a lively discussion with a few faculty/staff that may start experimenting with our ARIS platform, reading the Engage website and coming to Madison for the GLS conference. My end goal was to realize that teaching is so much more than telling a student what you know, but instead using whatever tools are at your disposal to inspire questioning, curiosity and experimentation in the real world. These are how the fields on knowledge were developed in the first place.

Here are my slides if you care to take a look.

Mobile Learning Environments – Educause Quarterly

A short opinion piece I wrote for EQ was published this week. In the article, I make a case for a fundamental change in culture that is highlighted by the adoption mobile media, then show some examples of designs that look promising for situated, contextual, just-in-time, participatory, and personalized learning environments.

See the full article here.

Characteristics FM Radio Mobile Phone
Network model Centralized Peer-to-peer
Content customization Uniform Personalized to context
Information distribution Just-in-case Just-in-time
Role of audience Consumer Equal participant
Reliability qualifier Authority Social capital
Governance Institutional Relational

If you have thoughts, feel free to share them!

Leadership Summit on Digital Media

Click to Play Video

This summer, I had the pleasure of traveling out to D.C. to present alongside Nancy Proctor (Smithsonian), Chris Lehmann (Science Leadership Academy) and Yasser Ansari (NOAH Project) about the work being done by our GLS mobile learning team here in Madison.

Click the image above to see a brief video describing the larger context for this gathering, sponsored by the Pearson Foundation, Nokia and the Smithsonian Institute through the New Learning Institute

Educational Transfer – Two lessons from Virtual Worlds

In the field of instructional/curriculum design, the notion of transfer is of obvious importance. One of the earliest inquiries into the subject defined transfer as the “influence of improvement in one mental function upon the efficiency of other functions” (Thorndike and Woodworth 1901b). Practically speaking, it is the ability for a student to learn a skill, process or other knowledge in one setting, then apply that experience favorably to a novel situation.

The assumption that some form of transfer takes place is foundational to every design of formal learning. If a student was not able to apply classroom knowledge outside the classroom, what good is it? If knowledge and skills could only be utilized in the exact context in which they were acquired there would be no method for learning any subject outside of their most authentic practices. Even then, one situation within the practice may not transfer to another. Along these lines, Thorndike and Woodworth (1901a) conclude that:

For [the] functions [tested in this study being] so similar and for cases so favourable for getting better standards and better habits of judging the amount of improvement gotten by training in an allied function is small. Studies of the influence of the training of similar functions in school and in the ordinary course of life, so far as we have made such, show a similar failure to bring large increases of efficiency in allied functions.
Despite this bleak outlook, it seems safe to conclude that transfer does occur within the human mind simply on casual observation alone. The very notion of innovation requires previous knowledge to be applied in new circumstances and whole fields of study, such as engineering, mathematics and other sciences are founded on the application of generalized principles within new situations.  In many respects, the scientific method is a formalization of one particular process of transfer. For other domains and traditional school subjects, however, the process of transferring learning beyond the context of a classroom may be much more ill-defined.

Leander and Lovvorn (2006) approach two such school subjects, English and History, with a much more mature version of transfer and the practices around it by defining a set of “Dimensions of Displacement” through the lens of literacy studies. These dimensions include: identity translation, movements and positions of texts, rhythms of circulation and network continuity. Through observing class times of what many educators would assess as active and engaging teaching practices, this rubric seems to show that learning is happening in highly segmented and localized fashions. Translation is not happening past that of student identities. The representations are homogeneous save a few of the teacher’s personal stories. The texts are not moving past predefined curriculum, and the knowledge networks are disconnected. In sharp contrast, parallel observations are made of the same student playing a popular MMORPG, Star Wars Galaxies (LucasArts and Sony Entertainment, 2003).

In SWG, the student is engaged in a multi-modal, active process that produces numerous embodied experiences. This embodiment, through a 3-d avatar in the game, leads to a “ongoing construction and hybridization of a textualized self” (Leander and Lovvorn, 2006). Surprisingly, the player was also able to identify directly with a much more abstract representation of self as well, an mouse cursor moving across the map of the virtual world of SWG while narrating a future plan for travel. Instead of relying on textual descriptions and statistics about the different spaces within the game, the player often preferred to physically (virtually) walk around and make first-person observations.

Along the last dimension of displacement, network continuity, the contrast between the game and classroom also yields fascinating differences. In the classroom, teacher and student produced texts, such as note cards, whiteboard markings and lecture notes created engagement and capital only in the sense that they had graded consequences. After the last-minute production of dozens of 3×5” cards for a research project assignment and handing them in, it took weeks before they were returned and then had very little value to the student who produced them as demonstrated by the fact that they remained untouched at the bottom of his locker. Since a tub of single sentence filled note cards have no translation path into more valuable forms, the artifact of work retained no value once a grade had been assigned.

In games such as SWG and virtual worlds such as Second Life (Linden Labs, 2003), players are also able to produce tangible creations, but the value of these productions may be sustained more effectively due to the design of the system itself. For the player of SWG, the work of hunting results in experience points and a harvest of raw materials. XP, by design is a currency for increasing the avatar’s skill set along a set of orthogonal axis which result in new and improved abilities that afford new and hopefully desired actions internal to game system. The materials, through the XP driven skills, are converted into crafted objects which can be exchanged with other players, sold or used directly, all of which are examples of a continuous circulation of value.

Malaby (2006) investigates currency as it relates to virtual worlds by demonstrating how goods and services are transferred across the barrier of the game world into tangible market value of different forms. By defining capitol simply as a “resource for action” (Malaby, 2006) he identifies not only social and material capital in virtual worlds but also introduces a third form, cultural capitol. Star Wars Galaxies, Second Life and other virtual worlds do not simply happen to have these distinct forms of capital motivating players on chance alone as the value of each are networked into the entirety of the design. Capital in these environments requires both player effort as well as the support of the system itself. From the tools and verbs that allow player skill (both virtual and otherwise) to convert in-game assets (which may have their own value) into more valuable forms to the systems that allow these creations to be exchanged and sold to the copyright laws that attribute the ownership of the creation to the player, the game design directly supports the production of capital.  For the continued discussion of transfer, however, it is not the specific form and value of capital created that is relevant as much as the fact that the capital produces and sustains engagement. This is verified by the fact that players continue to play out of choice alone.

Through these studies of currency and literacy it now may be safe to draw a few lessons about what Virtual Worlds have to teach educators and curriculum designers about producing transferable learning experiences:

First, possibilities for embodiment should be designed such that the student’s perspective is shifted outside of the role of only being a student but also an actor within different space times (Leander and Lovvorn, 2006) outside the classroom. Through games we even see continued co-production of identity is possible within certain designed activities.

Second, continued and sustained engagement may be created by designing systems of currency production and transferability that replace traditional homework cycles. If the result of student endeavour retains value as differing forms of liquid capital it is more likely to be utilized outside context it was produced.


Thorndike and Woodworth (1901a) The influence of improvement in one mental function upon the efficiency of other functions (I) Psychological Review, 8, 247-261.

Thorndike and Woodworth (1901b) The influence of improvement in one mental function upon the efficiency of other functions (II). The estimation of magnitudes. Psychological Review, 8, 384-395.

Malaby (2006) Parlaying Value Capital in and Beyond Virtual Worlds. Games and Culture,1(2)

Leander and Lovvorn (2006). Literacy Networks: Following the Circulation of Texts, Bodies, and Objects in the Schooling and Online Gaming of One Youth. Cognition and Instruction, 24(3), 291-340