Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Why learning should not be like playing video games

I was reading, recently, a conversation between Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, and Sebastian Thrun, founder of another online education platform, Udacity. Thrun talked about the directions he hopes to go with online learning and asked: Can we make learning truly addictive in the same way we make video games addictive? If so, how do we get there?

The question is in keeping with a constant refrain in education, demanding we find ways to allow students to follow their passions (something I've argued against before), to get them excited and engaged in learning, to make learning FUN. Like video games.

But I’m wondering if we are heading down a dangerous path. Addictive things, it seems to me, are not what we want to chase in the first place, and our methods to achieve this state are worrisome: we use games, excitement, action and play to hook kids and sweeten the “bitter pill” of learning. Learning, surely, is in and of itself, delicious, but it is a taste that needs to be acquired over time. It’s hard work, focussed attention; it demands learning things you didn't know you didn't know (not just what you’d like to know) and pushing yourself to stick with hard things longer than you ever imagined you’d want to, past the fun part, past the easy part, past the frustrating part, past the part where it becomes easy again until it becomes a part of the way you think and know the world. Perhaps learning is addictive, but not in the way video games are, not in the way sugar and drugs and alcohol are - instant, easy. It’s only addictive years after the hard work has been done, after difficulties and failures and pain and frustration have allowed you to understand that the end is just a signpost, that the journey, including – maybe especially – the hardest parts (the parts that aren't fun at all, in fact) are what make it worthwhile.

I don’t think that means learning needs to be dull drudgery, but it’s certainly hard and it’s always slow. It’s possible to entice people into learning something hard for the short term with games and gimmicks, but since sticking with it is always an inner struggle against the lure of easy and instant distractions, that method is like encouraging children to eat vegetables with the promise of dessert. It too often leads to a desire for the prize rather than for the good thing we wish to instill.

Indeed, it seems to me that our current efforts in education are designed to thwart deep learning, to create a mindset that waits for learning to arrive custom-fit, always fun, easy and engaging. No wonder so many of our children now are bored in school. The problem, we are told, will be solved if we make learning more FUN, if we personalize and tailor the experience so it is just right for each child, if we infuse play, inquiry and choice into our lesson design, if we add tents and bouncy chairs to our classrooms. I’m worried that our solutions are crippling our students rather than helping them, atrophying their capacity to sift, sort, figure out, struggle, seek, fail, restart, persevere, and find their own way. Surely, a better question than how we can make learning fun might be – how can we support our students to do hard things?