Should School Suck?

James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy makes a provocative argument: playing video games, long disparaged as mindless and unproductive exercises, actually represents a form of learning. And one that educators ought to replicate. Gee particularly credits the ability of video games to teach players an elaborate network of symbols, characters and skills—a form of literacy, the author contends. But Gee is also making a deeper statement about the incentive for players, or students, to try, fail and exert effort. While students typically find school to be boring chore, the entertaining nature of video games encourages users to keep playing—effectively masking the learning taking place. So if video games can teach children new skills, and entertain while they’re at it, why can’t schools?

In many respects, the logic is obvious: students will learn more and feel more motivated in an environment that is fun. I don’t think many people, educators or not, would argue with that premise. However, I don’t believe the connection between having fun and learning is quite so seamless. Is it possible that a strong, effective education ought to be, to a certain degree, boring and hard? Certainly a 14 year old would probably be more motivated to play a video game than learn biology, but I wonder whether educators lose something by stripping education of too much discomfort. Maybe the process of encountering and overcoming stress and boredom is a crucial aspect of absorbing and retaining information?

I think Gee very convincingly demonstrates that video games teach its players to be “literate” in a universe of skills and symbology. But how well does that “literacy” stick? It would be fascinating to evaluate how well video game players retain the unique skills they develop through a game versus a standard high school class. Which knowledge set would be more firmly in place five years down the road? In the short term, it seems clear that young people would have more desire to acquire video game knowledge, but I wonder if that short term motivation comes at the expense of long term absorption.

In the article “Should We Really Abolish the Term Paper? A Response to the NYT Times,” Cathy Davidson builds on Gee’s discussion on how to effectively motivate students, but also subtly complicates his logic. She writes about the experience of discontinuing term papers and replacing them with student blogging projects, finding the latter to be a far more effective teaching method. Just as video games conceal the learning players experience, blogging, Davidson found, offers a more lively and engaging outlet for critical thinking. Once again, when people don’t feel as though work is drudgery, their motivation to perform increases.

However, one of the reasons Davidson believes her blogging experiment was successful was its relevance to real world issues. While on staff at Michigan State University, the families of her students were directly experiencing serious issues outside the classroom, namely the departure of industrial employers from the state. Davidson argues that blogging provided her class a forum to address these pressing “real-world” questions such as the keys to writing a resume, cover letters and applications for summer internships—a far cry from the abstract historical questions term papers might address. Davidson’s argument about motivation is thus two fold: students ought to be enjoying themselves, but also engage a topic that is relevant and tangible. This seems to be fairly significant departure from Gee, who would contend that the artificiality of video games creates the space in which players are motivated, entertained and willing to try and fail.

While I found both of these pieces of these arguments deeply compelling, I am left wondering the same question: is it really necessary to wholly redesign courses for the sake of student motivation and enjoyment? At face value it all sounds good: more motivated students; less “drudgery”; work that matters. But I think we should consider the possibility that “fun” education might also generate a host of unintended consequences.

What happens when graduates enter the work force or graduate schools with the expectation their professional lives ought to be free of drudgery, relevant to their own lives and, at some level, fun? Another student made this point in our seminar last Friday and I think it bears repeating: sometimes encountering stress and pressure can be a valuable experience, both personally and professionally. Gee and Davidson make very compelling arguments about an education system that undoubtedly needs reforming. But I would not be so quick to accept the formula that entertained students = educated students.

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