Thursday, October 20, 2011

Game Models in ELA?

from Andrew Miller - cloud by Tagul
I am not a gamer - board, computer, and video games are not my "go to" activities.  So I surprised myself last week by taking a week long side-trip into video gaming.  First, I had to learn more. Serious gaming pedagogues point out that seriously interested teachers should learn by playing - but I had my fill of gaming with WolfQuest one long Friday a few years ago, an experience that also introduced me to Flower, a PS3 game that won my heart but would have broken my pocketbook at the time.  I am currently gameless.

So first I observed.  I observed my 2.5 year-old granddaughter, Beatrice, manipulate my iPad 2 for an hour at a time twice a day for a week (limits wisely imposed by her mother).  She played and explored apps in folders I had created for her.  Her favorites: 
  • interactive books (Green Eggs and Ham, Grover: There is a Monster at the End of this Story, Triceratops Gets Lost, The Itsy Bitsy Spider),
  • Build A Train,
  • Fish School,
  • Peekaboo Wild,
  • Tiny Wings,
  • Weet Woo!
Bea did not ask for help - in fact, she flatly rejected it.  Since I am fixated right now with the idea that "the brain you have at 3 is the brain you live with for the rest of your life," I asked these questions as I observed: Do I see significant independent learning happening?  Is literacy developing?

Yup and yup.

I observed:
  • transfer of a visual vocabulary from one game to another (directional arrows and icons, words like "start" and "play", glowing stars, moving and flashing objects)
  • transfer of textual organization from one game to another (corner clues generally)
  • transfer of tactile interaction from one game to another (swiping, tapping, dragging, press and hold)
  • transfer of learning and problem-solving from one game to another - If it did THIS in the last game, it should do THIS in this new game
  • sequencing of actions replacing random actions
  • reading of site words (including animal names and objects highlighted in the games), including attention to letter order in many words (spelling out the word: L-I-O-N)
  • number sense and number recognition
  • prediction, which was eagerly communicated
  • attention to detail and to the repetition of pattern, both of which were communicated to me
And then I read about gaming. 
 from James Paul Gee - cloud by Tagul
Who and what I read:
  • James Paul Gee:
    • Big Thinkers: James Paul Gee on Grading with Games - View this video to get a good grasp of Gee's influential ideas on gaming in education.  He is not really talking about "grading" - he is talking about a better path to learning.
    • "Good games confront players in the initial game levels with problems that are specifically designed to allow players to form good generalizations about what will work well later when they face more complex problems. Often, in fact, the initial levels of a game are in actuality hidden tutorials." ... 
"In a sense, all learning involves 'playing a character.' In a science classroom, learning works best if students think, act, and value like scientists. Games can show us how to get people to invest in new identities or roles, which can, in turn, become powerful motivators for new and deep learning in classrooms and workplaces." 

("What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy" - .pdf)
    • As suggested by the word cloud above (made from the article), Gee believes that gaming is the new - and essential - literacy, the key to learning in the current 21st century.  He does not believe that either reading or movie-watching engage and motivate the student like gaming, by causing them "to feel as if their bodies and minds have stretched into a new space."  I disagree with this statement - for the simple reason that when I read and watch great movies, I DO engage that deeply. And yes, the feeling motivates me to read - and learn - more.  It may be that children today have lost the ability to read, watch, and empathize deeply.  Isn't developing this skill one of the foci of Reading Workshop as it is structured today?  Isn't this why we are paying so much attention to "just right" texts? 
    • Gee's is, however, a persuasive point, especially his message about gaming as a path to difficult text - and thus to complex learning tasks.  The danger is that teachers will, in the rush to change that comes with all educational fads, offer games in place of text and stop there. Gaming should not mean giving up on "the read imperative"  - it should not become a substitute for challenging text.
    • I focus on Gee's as a message for meeting the literacy challenges of the individual student.  
  • Andrew Miller is a great place to go after Gee - for a simplified, entry level introduction, more like a how-to.  Miller is more concerned with the group dynamic of the game model than with the individual dynamic.
  • Judy Willis: "A neurologist makes the case for the video game model as a learning tool" offers a cognitive perspective.
    • Achievable levels should strike a chord with ELA teachers and literacy strategists. This is now the rage. I heard this morning about a 3rd grade veteran teacher who was required to remove hundreds of books from her classroom because they were outside of the tested reading ranges of her students.  There is danger in taking level measurements too literally. Assessment tools are not gods.  But there is no denying that achievable levels are clearly a key element in learning.  The thing is, in a gaming model it is the student who measures ability to achieve and who sets the achievable level.  What this means for the classroom is this: time, large chunks of it.
    • Rewards is a bit dicier as a concept strategy.  For example, the debate is still active about how and how much to reward students for reading.  Willis suggests that small, ongoing rewards for individual efforts (clearly identified) are formative as well as motivational.  This is key component of the game model. 
    • Risk and Failure ("no pain no gain") are another key element.  I think it deserves a place in the ELA Concept Hall of Fame.  Willis promotes building challenge, and therefore often failure, into what happens in the classroom: "Individualized achievable challenge level is one where a task, action, or choice is not so easy as to be essentially automatic or 100% successful."  Are we gradually, through reading workshop models and persistent testing, designing a teaching schema in which failure does not happen often enough because students are  not, in fact, encouraged to "level up"?  Or is the opposite true - are we, by making assessment scores and omnipresent choice accessible to students, motivating them to take on the next level?  Is an F-and-P score a badge?  Should it be used this way?
  • Mary Beth Hertz provides an "in the trenches" look at all of this: "Using the video game model in the classroom." 
    • Her article made me think specifically about writing development.  A true workshop model would outline individual challenges as part of a leveled process and also track success.  There should be an app for that! (that is the one I have asked Apple for).  It should also provide mentor texts for all levels - texts that clearly demonstrate levels of writing skill.  I love the use of short texts, blogged responses/imitations, etc. for just this purpose.  Writing well is a game.  Most students do like to play it when they see those small levels of success.
    • It also makes me think of my daughter's 1st grade class.  Spelling papers that were perfect were put on the board - a badge of success.  Willa reversed an "e" in one word (common for a 1st grade lefty) and was the only student left off of the wall. In her mind, that E was pinned to her chest every day for the rest of the year.  I think about the dangers of rewards as well as the positives. We can not make picky editing details the measure of writing skill.  Nor can or should we teacher-edit student work.  There is a great deal about writing workshop that is misunderstood - to the detriment of student writing development.
  • Aran Levassur writing for Mind/Shift asks "Is gaming the new essential literacy?" and returns us again to collaboration and interaction (with other students/workers), which are two of the buzz words for 21st Century Workplace Literacy - and (we are buying into this as a country) success.  
    • From my point of view, part of this is a wide river away from little Bea's experience - and from the experience extolled by Gee.  She did not need or want collaboration.  She wanted to interact on her own with the game environment.  Her learning was self-directed.  Will she make a good worker bee?  No.  Will she make a good queen?  Yup.  It might come down to the skills that employers really want to hire - on how the students learn to play the games.
    • On the other hand, Levassur also underscores the "embedded trial and error" that make the games, well... gamey. Or is he identifying creative problem-solving?  That is a bit cloudy.  I know boys who love to advance levels by cheating - for some, cheat codes are very profitable indeed.  Trial and error - problem-solve - cheat.  I don't see how it is possible to claim that the game model provides more growth through one than the other. 
Isn't the message here that today's students will learn best - and most willingly and happily - when they are in the "just right" zone?  Over 90% of today's kids ages 8-18 play video games (I heard that today on 99.9 The Wolf - it is supported by Pew data).  This is "empty data" - too many variables, too little disaggregation - but it is data that is driving change. 

So am I game?  There are many ELA units that would fit the parameters of the game model.  In fact, when I think of the best instructional practices in an effective ELA class, I see all of the elements at work.  Perhaps ELA teachers need just to be more metacognitive about encouraging risk-taking, riding failure to the next level, starting over, collaborating, setting achievable and individual levels but also having a Boss level always in mind (and made clear to students)...   Sounds a bit like a Universal Design lesson to me.

Is gaming really change for ELA?  Is the game model really more about engagement and fun - badges and success points - than it is about achieving standards?  Or is the game model really more about student-driven learning replacing teacher-driven learning? 

I think it can be all of these things - but the best ELA classes always have been all of these things.

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