06 February 2011

Making a Game of Education

Games provide flow but rarely provide meaning. Education provides meaning but rarely provides flow. Time to bring gamers into the classroom?

Csikszentmihalyi has spent decades studying flow, the psychology of what engages and absorbs people. It seems to me that successful game designers are experts at creating flow. However, even though games offer an abundance of flow they don't offer much meaning; success at games rarely changes society or provides a living to the game player.

By contrast, education is meaningful. A degree can lead to a job and the work started in pursuit of an education can lead people to rethink society at its most basic level. (The founding fathers, for instance, were all students of the Enlightenment.)

It seems as though there is enormous potential that could come from creating a dialogue between educators and game designers. Perhaps the simplest thing would be to have gamers either enter the classroom or study curriculum to look for opportunities for creating flow. These gamers could work with educators on one simple, but impactful, goal: increase the amount of time each day that students spend in flow. Once they reach a critical point in this - say, once students are in flow for 20% of the day - they could begin to share educational practices.

I suspect that this seemingly simple goal would have profound implications for education. One condition for flow is feedback on how one is doing. Another is a balance between skill and challenge. Yet another is a clear goal. Creating flow experiences for students would mean - among other things - changing how and how rapidly students receive feedback. It would mean accepting where students are and starting there before pulling them to the next level (maintaining a balance between challenge and skill). And it would mean thinking about which goals would be meaningful to 8 or 10 or 14 year olds. This would mean redesigning education.

For now, education still seems heavily influenced by the goals and setting of religious instruction from the early days of formal education. We generally don't trust pleasure or the child's impulses as guides to learning. Beliefs from this orientation form a pattern. Children's attention needs to be directed with rebukes and reminders. Students may find education distasteful, but with enough self discipline, students can succeed. We cannot trust the self but instead have to repress it. And feedback comes instead in the form of judgment, often long after the task is done.

But what if we thought instead that what humans find naturally fascinating is, itself, a basis for an education? What if educational success was less a matter of self discipline than passion? And what if the joy a baby finds in learning to walk or talk is something that could continue to animate learning into one's 30s or 60s?

One last thing that I'll mention about the benefits that would follow from this approach to designing education is simply this: many of the same issues of flow and meaning that need to be addressed in education need to be addressed in knowledge work. Advances in education could hardly be contained to learning but would impact productivity as well.

Instead of telling kids to leave their games outside the classroom, maybe we should ask them to bring them in.


cyberdrive said...

I agree there has been too much stigma around the 'meaningfulness' or lack of in terms of computer gaming. What needs to be recognised is the learning that runs simultaneously. Whilst there are a lot of games out there that seem all about destruction there are also a lot of games that give the user creative choices and consequences, Fable III for example. Involving students in the development of these games could potentially stimulate the imagination of even the most dis-engaged and then the self learning would tend to happen as a by-product. Bring in the Gamers.

Anonymous said...

How compatible is the process of learning with the process of flow? My understanding is that flow involves doing activities and tasks in a manner in which a sense of self is diminished where as learning requires working with material in order to connect the material with other materials already learned, to memorize or retain the material so that it is accessble for later use, and to work with the material to use it in ways that are not present in the current learning context (synthesis).

Ron Davison said...

I'm sure that some minds would take well to developing games ... many, as is the case with math or poetry and every other subject, would not find it interesting or engaging. It seems to me that one outcome of designing education for flow would be further customization of curriculum to different personalities, talents, and goals.

good point that so often learning is without context. That is, of course, just an approach we use now. It is not necessary. We could do more to create context through projects - even projects that really do make a difference in the world. As I said - and you've quickly seen - designing education for flow would transform education.