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The Future of Education: Lessons Learned from Video Games and Museum Exhibits

COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS, NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF EDUCATION AND SOCIAL POLICY: June 2001

You chose a great year to graduate. Education is in the news The President of the United States is for it. The House & Senate just passed new education bills.

Education is hot in business as well. The rise of corporate universities is well established, with companies literally spending billions of dollars to educate their employees. Education is now a business, with multiple companies offering courses and degrees as a successful, profit-making business.

Of course, one of the problems when everyone is for something is that everyone has a different idea of what it is that they are for. Everyone who is for education seems to have a different idea of what to do, hence the challenge. The one thing everyone agrees upon is that our educational system is in trouble. Something has to be done to fix it. But what?

To me, anything that is truly worthwhile is something that is also a major challenge. If you were facing an easy task, why bother? So it's a great year to be graduating, for anything truly worthwhile, anything that will make a difference, not just to you, but to many, is going to be hard. This is a great year, for there are great challenges ahead of you.

Education Throughout Life

We will solve the fundamental problems only through social policy, through organizational change, and through deep understanding of organizations and the people who comprise and are served by them. We need to change the way we think about education, and through that understanding, change the way we do it.

One erroneous notion is that education only takes place in the classroom, mostly through books and lectures. The basic recipe for education of a nation is very simple:

Take young children:

  • Open up the tops of their heads
  • Pour in all the information they are ever going to need to know to get along with life
  • Continue as long as possible -- for 12 to 20 years

Now let them loose upon society, to spend the next 60 - 80 years as productive citizens, never having to be educated again.

A very simple scheme, practiced by nations throughout the world. Simple, and simple-minded.

This standard practice is wrong for lots of reasons. It concentrates all the learning into one period, when the students are not interested, when they don't care, when they are not ready. It assumes that what is learned today will be available when needed, many years later. And it ignores the powerful social impact of groups, social discussion, and cooperation.

Most of our lives is spent interacting with others. Most of our work is done jointly. In the workplace, we are encouraged to ask others for help. When we do not know the answer to something, we are free to ask for help, to form groups.

Indeed, one of the few places where solitary work is required is in the classroom.

Informal Learning

Informal learning, that's what we call the learning that takes place out of school. I just spent a day at the Science Museum in London where the staff prided themselves on the social interaction among the museum goers. To me, the most fascinating exhibit was a simple quiz game.

People sat around a circular table, each seat having a button to push, and a dish-size disk they could spin. A computer projector was directly overhead, projecting an image on the table, displaying the game and, on top of each dish and button, whatever meaning it was meant to have at that moment.

So, not only was the technological wonderful -- interacting with a computer without being stuck in front of a big screen, keyboard, and mouse, but the game was fascinating.

The table image explained some new technological concept, say the ability to embed chips in children, so that satellite systems could track them and parents would always know where their kids were. The fun began with the quiz: Is this a good idea? Should parents be allowed to do this? Would kids allow it?

You spun the plate to select the answer you wanted to give, then pushed the button. But the clever part was that everyone could see everyone else's answer, so that the participants would start discussing the issues with one another, sometimes friends against friends, sometimes one group of strangers with another, sometimes parents with their children. (Footnote: Link to London Science Museum website.)

photo of game at London Science Museum

(My photograph of the game at the London Science Museum, taken June, 2001. Only 2 people playing [my photography got in the way]. Click here or on the picture to see a larger image. The projector is above, pointing down at the table [and not visible in this picture]. The game has 8 playing positions: Note "turn" instructions centered over the rotating dish.)

So, here is a simple game, motivating, interesting. It imparts some real knowledge, and afterwards, the participants can discuss and debate it.

It uses high-technology, but intelligently. It doesn't flaunt the technology -- in fact, participants don't think of it as technology, they think of it as fun, a quiz where they learn, that they enjoy, and that they recommend to their friends. Notice too that the procedure exploits social interaction. There you go: exams that teach, technology that is hidden, exploiting social interaction and discussion.

ESPN Zone

Look at another form of informal learning: Video games. The other day I visited the ESPN Zone on Ohio St. in Chicago. Now that's an interesting place -- I commend it to you. Filled with machines, filled with games, filled with people --- of all ages. It's all voluntary. In fact, people pay a lot of money to participate. Imagine -- paying money to learn! They are engaged, intense, involved. They are performing, playing, competing. And most of all they are learning.

Children, we are told, have short attention spans, caused, of course, by the prevalence of games and TV and commercials in our society.

Nonsense.

Watch people at video games. You can't tear them away. More importantly, they truly are exercising their minds. They problem-solve. They take notes, read books of hints and strategy. They save the game state, try out a new course of action, and if it doesn't work, return to the saved game state. And they form social communities, sharing hints, tips, and methods. Many of you will understand, for you do it too.

Video games aren't restricted to children. Today, the average age of a game player is pretty much the average age of the population, and women play almost as often as men. Different games, perhaps, but games nonetheless.

The only problem with games is that the skills are either for make-believe worlds, often violent, or for sports: skate boarding, skiing, tennis, baseball, football, motorcycling. Nothing wrong with sports, and as the games get better and better, controlled by real skateboards, motorcycles, and so on, they can be quite effective at teaching the skills required to do the real thing. The military uses games in real training, as does the aviation industry, except they don't call them games, they call them "simulators." One person's simulator is another person's game. The important point is that they teach: effectively, efficiently, and well. And students enjoy them.

"But," you may be saying, "that's all very well for simple things, or for sports, but what about for learning the really hard stuff, subjects that take time to master and that are more abstract, such as writing, literature, history, or math?" I believe the same principles apply to almost any topic. Obviously one game does not fit all people or all topics. But any time you get this amount of interest, this amount of sustained, concentrated attention, it is worthy of study. Actually, there already are a number of examples of games that help teach literature or arithmetic, city planning or evolution, history or geography. We need a lot more sustained research and development of these ideas (and note that development is always more expensive and, in some ways much more difficult, than research).

We, as a nation, don't spend anywhere near the amount on education that we spend on games. And we don't get the same kind of energy, of commitment, and of excitement that we find on the game field.

The Lessons from Science Museums and Computer Games

Museums and video arcades exploit similar themes: meaningful activities, learning that takes place invisibly, not as the objective, but naturally, effectively. Exploiting social interaction and discussion. Participants don't think of themselves as interacting with technology, they think they are doing something interesting: discussing an interesting topic, playing basketball, riding a jet-ski, skateboarding. They exploit social interaction and cooperation. The result is high intense concentration, true learning, with people anxious to go back and do it again, paying for it out of their own money.

People learn many things, if only they care about the topic. People are hungry for learning, as long as it isn't called education. Hence book groups, discussion groups, and clubs of all sorts.

The future of education is outside of education. It is in the everyday life. In business, in the world. In life long learning. But the principles can be applied inside of formal education as well. They require a change in thinking, to move toward problem-centered, meaningful activities in the classroom. To exploit people's interests and subvert them to lead to natural, inspired learning activities. To exploit group interactions and social themes. To change teachers into guides and mentors. And to recognize that education should take place over a lifetime, not just in the formal classrooms of the first few decades of life.

You already know all that, right? That's exactly what you have just been taught. The hard part is making it happen, and that's where you will need all the skills you have learned: social change, social policy, human psychology, and human development. It is not going to be easy.

Wonderful! Nothing like important challenges to get you going, eh?

A GREAT YEAR TO GRADUATE

Change is never easy. It will take a long time. People are very slow to adopt change, especially in things they consider fundamental to their lives. Studies of the adoption of new technologies and procedures show them to take decades to be adopted, whether it be a new consumer technology, a new type of seed or fertilizer. Adopting new methods of education will be even more difficult, even slower to be adopted. But even educational systems change eventually.

One way that the personal computer got into the workplace -- over the objections of the information technology groups in companies -- was because people used computers in the classroom or at home, discovered how valuable they were, and then sneaked them into corporations.

Why not the same thing in education?

You are graduating from a very unique school. At first glance, it brings together a strange mix of disciplines: education, social policy, organizational change, human development, and several areas of applied psychology. It is a strange mix, but, in fact, it is exactly right, for these areas are all inextricably mixed in the real world of business, education, and everyday life. Real issues never exist in a vacuum. They live in the world of policy, of social practices, of organizations, and of people. If one is to make any progress at all in these matters, one must combine these very disciplines, plus perhaps even a few others, such as technology and business. It is no accident that your faculty have appointments in computer science and close ties to the business school.

The academic education is only the first step toward change: the further steps are up to you. You are the agents of change. You can indeed help make the world a better place, a more intelligent, social place.

It is not going to be easy. It is going to be hard work. And it will take time. It will be a challenge.

So hurry up and start: the sooner you start, the sooner we will get there. And you can literally save the country, save the world.

 

Footnote: (You can sort-of see it on the London Science Museum website. Click on the image of the top floor.)

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