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Can Teacher Come Out and Play?

When I started reading that a public school in New York was called Quest to Learn, I thought at first that I’d bumped into either a send-up or another article on branding—like, say, a story about a new convenience store named Quest to Graze or about a family farm calling itself Quest to Bring In the Sorghum Harvest. The impression of parody or irony deepened as I read that the school offered a course in video games called Sports for the Mind,  “a primary space of practice attuned to new media literacies, which are multimodal and multicultural, operating as they do within specific contexts for specific purposes.” Things became yet more complicated when the reporter advised us readers that this class was “really…a class in technology and game design [emphasis added].” Is the reporter winking and nodding at the helping of baloney offered as a course description while letting us in on its secret?

We are no closer to disambiguation after a long description of a lesson in “enemy movement” in this class, during which the teacher navigates his “sprite” through a maze pullulating with hostile “spiky-headed robots” and into a goal zone. The lesson reaches its climax when the teacher attains the goal with a mere two seconds to spare, causing the students to cheer, pump their fists, mock-swoon, etc. All that’s needed to make it a perfect Hollywood teacher movie moment is the swelling choir of brass and string instruments, but it doesn’t make sense. If this is a lesson in “enemy movement” in a course on the design of technology and games, the reader wonders why no designing has been done; no enemies’ moves have been analyzed; no principles of design have been elucidated, explained, or practiced; and no learning of any kind has been seen or verified.

The key to the mystery appears to be a question-and-answer about sixty lines into the story: “Had he taught anything? Had they learned anything? It depended, really, on how you wanted to think about teaching and learning.”  When I see a line like this, I begin to fear that the writer will start talking about “paradigm shifts,” and that is exactly what happens. Another idea for liberating our thoughts about teaching and learning from actual teaching and actual learning requires “new thinking.” We see it here rising like a turkey that believes it’s a phoenix from yet another educational ash-heap. The ashes came from a bonfire in which “teachers gave up the vestiges of their educational past, threw away the worksheets, burned the canon[,]… reconfigured the foundation on which a century of learning has been built,….blurred the lines between academic subjects, and reimagined the typical American classroom” in order to see what would happen if they did so. Surely only one thing could happen, which explains why so many of education’s pell-mell reforms fail. (William Spady, who has spent much of his professional career promoting “outcome-based education,” used to describe its adoption as requiring a “paradigm shift.” During a two-day workshop for administrators given in 1990, which I attended as a teacher on sufferance, he and his faithful sidekick appeared on the second day wearing t-shirts proclaiming that SHIFT HAPPENS. So it does.)

The argument for all the turmoil this article advocates comes down to three propositions: that children are becoming game-oriented, and so education should too; that kids find games fun, so they should find their classrooms fun in much the same ways; and that classrooms will be left behind if they do not innovate, usually in ways requiring lots of expensive purchases and consultations.

To take the last argument first, some years ago I went to an Indian cultural center operated by the Indian High Commission to watch a film about education in India. The setting was a school whose classroom was the shade under a large tree. Students sat on the ground, except when the teacher addressed them. Then they would spring up with alacrity so they could be standing when they answered him. If this is a feeder school for Bangalore or the Indian Institutes of Technology, where is our argument? I mean that question in two senses. Where is the argument from necessity if (at least some) Indians can become the engineers and designers of tomorrow by starting under the shade-trees of today? And where is the general hope in methods that require funding of a school on a scale achievable only by supplements from an immense private foundation and a school district with a budget in the billions? Many schools, even in the U.S., do not have much bigger facilities budgets than that Indian school’s watering bill (though it might repay study to examine how Finnish schools, generally acknowledged as the world’s best, make do with rather less funding than American schools get).

To answer the second proposition we may start with William Blake’s apt and characteristic observation that “I love fun, but too much fun is of all things most loathsome.” This from a man who penned a poem that is one of the great short critiques of grimly bad education. He still managed to see, as we should, that we must not overdo a good thing. We then move past Blake to view the photograph that appears at the top of the article I am writing about. It shows three children, gadgets in hand, looking excitedly and intently at something, presumably a game screen, behind the photographer. If this is what education-by-games means, surely it must be worth doing if they are so involved in it? When I saw this picture, I thought of another, taken in the early 1960’s by Alfred Eisenstadt. The kids in this picture are just as absorbed as, and perhaps more worried than, our three students. What are they so absorbed by? A puppet show. The proposal attached to the New Paradigm is to enter an arms race of thrills requiring gadgets whose costs will be immense but whose benefits to students may be achievable much more cheaply.

To the first argument I reply with Flannery O’Connor, always helpfully astringent and final: “Ours is the first age in history that has asked the child what he would tolerate learning,” or, I would add, how he would tolerate learning it. Since the kids are not in the position to know the answer to the question What will I learn?, we must put our discretion and the courage of our convictions at the service of the education we lay out–not for their amusement, but for their instruction.

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