Posted by Bill Ferriter on Sunday, 07/13/2014
Those strands started rolling through my mind again this morning when iMagine Machine dropped me a Tweet asking me to check out their new geometry themed game, The Land of Venn because they thought it aligned nicely with my quest to find learning opportunities -- not technology -- that motivates kids.
So I spent a few minutes poking around the Land of Venn's website -- and walked away more convinced than ever that #edtech conversations and companies are headed in the wrong direction.
Now don't get me wrong: There's nothing inherently evil about The Land of Venn. From the description on the site, elementary kids in grades one through four are exposed to geometric terms and shapes while trying to save an imaginary land from an evil wizard who has set out to destroy a rock guitar playing Elegast. "Mesmerizing gameplay and an original plot," the site explains, "captivates the child in a unique and exciting world of monsters and magic juice."
Sounds better than a worksheet, right?
What bugs me is that like most educational games, The Land of Venn seems to place a heavy emphasis on traditional instructional strategies like memorization and repetition.
Marketing statements like "Sneakily teaches geometry step by step without the child even realizing it" and "The Child will draw over 5000 geometrical shapes while being continually exposed to a variety of geometric terms and principles over 5000 times" hint that The Land of Venn isn't all that revolutionary. Sure, drill and practice plays a role in learning. And yes, mastering basic skills and concepts is a first step towards doing more meaningful work. But shouldn't reimagining the classroom be about something more than find exciting substitutions for memorization and repetition?
I'm also bugged by the fact that so many folks believe that we need digital games set in fictional spaces with recalcitrant zombies and talking unicorns and whizz-bang magic spells in order for kids to develop the skills celebrated by supporters of gamification.
People who promote the gamification of education celebrate the recursive, collaborative and reflective nature of the learning that happens in games. As gamers work their way through new challenges and levels, they fail and plan and strategize and modify and share and collaborate with one another.
Those ARE skills that matter.
But to suggest that students will only willingly embrace those skills when they are working through "exciting worlds full of monsters and magic juice" is a cop out for teachers and an insult to kids. Imagine how much more meaningful learning could be if kids were failing and planning and strategizing and sharing and collaborating with one another while trying to address a REAL problem facing REAL people in the REAL world?
Clean water is a problem in this world. Heck, every 20 SECONDS, a child dies because they don't have access to a fresh water source. Global poverty is a problem. So is pollution and violence and deforestation and the loss of pollinators and bias in news sources and unfair elections and immigration and fracking and powering the planet and access to safe community spaces like libraries and parks.
Couldn't we build "gamified" learning experiences around those issues too?
My personal goal over the past several years has been to encourage students to become active contributors to the communities around us. Inspired by Marc Prensky's argument that technology gives kids power and Will Richardson's push for schools to give kids chances to do work that matters, I'm trying to deliver essential skills within the context of projects designed to make a difference. Whether we are Kiva lending, creating anti-bullying PSAs, or raising awareness about the sugar in the foods we eat, the projects that leave my kids inspired are the projects that are connected to something beyond our classroom.
Don't get me wrong: I bet that some kids will LOVE having the chance to save the rock guitar playing Elegast from Apeirogon the dark wizard in The Land of Venn. But I'd love to see those same kids saving their own communities from the metaphorical Apeirogon's that we wrestle with on a daily basis.
Doing so would leave them more than engaged. It would leave them empowered.
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