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What World of Warcraft taught me about Education

by Don Elwell, Ph.D.
Director, Greylight Theatre

This article was prompted by three significant experiences: ones that have really rewritten how I feel as an educator about what we’re doing. The first, as he title suggests, was getting sucked into playing World of Warcraft online. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an inveterate nerd, and did the Dungeons and Dragons thing in college, but I’d resisted getting involved in WOW mostly because I knew it to be a HUGE time sink. The second was acting as a camp director for Guard Up’s Wizards and Warriors LARP (Live Action Role Play) camp in Massachusetts one summer. The camp is basically a live-action version of games like D&D and WOW, with the kids living and playing the fantasy against monsters and going on quests. More on this later. The third was becoming aware of and ultimately involved in the “Democratic Schools” movement in the US. Based loosely on A.S. Neill’s Summerhill School model, the schools are run by the students, generally lack traditional classes or objectives outcomes testing, and stack up strangely well against traditional schooling models. How those knit together is the subject of this article, and of the change in my thinking.

If I were to summarize educational articles over the last five years it would run like this: “Why Isn’t This Working?” Our answers have been to pour millions more into education, and to get punitive with it. We punish kids with our constant “this will go on your permanent record” testing, we punish failing teachers with termination, failing schools with budget cuts, failing parents with chastisement. It is as if we feel we will somehow punish our way to a perfect America, to a perfect educational model, and it just seems to get worse and worse. Teaching in traditional public schools, I look around me, and the place is utterly joyless. The students are bored and surly, and not a single student interaction I see is around anything they’re learning. The administrators look angry. The teachers mostly look exhausted, their “teaching” having been reduced to getting students to spit back information on computer scored test sheets so that the district won’t be penalized.

I think back to the LARP camp. I think back to a little girl, about 7 or 8, who was too shy to speak to anyone. By the third day she was in the vanguard hacking away with a foam battle axe at an actor in an eight foot tall ogre costume. I saw breakthroughs like that all the time at the camp; in the solving of puzzles, in participation with the other campers, in learning to lead. . . .What was happening there? What was going on that I most distinctly was NOT seeing in our public schools?

So here, dear reader, is what I’ve learned. Here are the things that gaming, LARPing, and non-coercive schooling have in common that DO work and that our schools do so badly. I’ll leave it to you to sort out how they might be applied.

1) Neither gaming nor LARPing nor Democratic Schooling are punitive or coercive. When you “die” in World of Warcraft, you get resurrected. It’s an inconvenience, nothing more. You are ALLOWED to fail, without any real penalty, and then to go back with what you learned by failing and complete the quest. Fail once, fail thirty times, its all the same. Punishments are incentives NOT to do something, the threat of penalty. Yet we have used punishments on our students, our teachers, our school districts as “incentives” to do better. It doesn’t work. The great value of schools is the ability of students to fail, learn from it, and come back to succeed without dire consequences.

2) Gaming results in immediate rewards for success. In WOW you get gold and equipment and you get to “level up”, increasing your abilities and strengths. In LARP you get the adulation of your peers, the pride of group success, and, at least at the camp in which I worked, gold tokens that could be spent on real items in the camp store. In Democratic schools, students set their own goals and achieve them, the completion of personal or group projects becomes the reward. Yet what is the reward in our schools? We tell our students: Do this and when you get out of college you’ll get a good job. To a ten year old, “out of college” is over twice their lifetime away. It would be like someone telling me “replace the transmission in my Volvo and in 58 years I’ll give you a new car.” The disconnect is just too great, and too many things can happen in the interim to make the reward real.

3) Ask your kids (if they participate in online games): do you game for 40 minutes every day and then do other things? They’ll laugh at you. Gamers game for three or four hours at a time (how many times did you have to tell them to turn off the computer and go to bed because it was 3AM and there’s school tomorrow?) two or three days a week on average. They spend time with the game, working it, comprehending it, and then take time off to digest what they’ve learned. To our students, though, we don’t seemingly CARE how much they’re into solving the puzzles of geometry, or how interesting Poe’s short stories might be. Ding! Bell has rung, you’re studying Civics now. It’s rude, it breaks the train of thought. Worse, it breaks the train of investigation and concentration.

4) Human beings find things to do, things that interest them. We are driven to it by boredom and by our inherently curious natures. If a student in a “free school” tires of a subject, they’ll find another project to interest them. If a gamer tires of WOW they’ll do something else. No one wants to “just sit around” unless that “just sitting around” is actually contemplation, digesting thoughts and experiences, which is something we almost never allow our children to do.

5) “To get a Good Job” is not the be all and end all of human existence. I’m now seeing moves to start what is effectively job placement training as early as age 6. To make the objective of all education the student’s assumption of the yoke as a corporate drone is unlikely to excite a love a learning in our kids. The objective of our education system should not be jobs, test scores, or (as it was in my era) “beating the commies”. Our objective, as loving parents, should be to enable our kids to have good and happy lives, whatever those lives might be. George Santayana once defined a “fanatic” as one who had doubled their effort after completely forgetting their purpose. So it is, I feel, with our education system.

6) Looking at the LARP camp, some of the campers were always in the forefront, hacking away. Some stood to the sidelines and observed, learning, biding their time before participating. A few didn’t “get it” at all and spent most of their time back at the Inn chatting with the counselors and their friends. Kids have different learning styles and different learning rates. Similarly some of the counselors were always up front, theatrically urging on the campers (that would be me), others moved among them, working one on one, quietly advising, comforting, supporting….teachers have different styles as well. Yet we have evolved an industrial model of education. One Size Must Fit All, both for the students and the instructors. The horror is that a student would “fall behind” the goals we have arbitrarily set for their age. Yet what is the disaster if a student wishes to get ahead in History right now and to address mathematics later when they are ready and better able to apprehend the information? Is that “falling behind” and something for which the student, the instructor, and the school district must be punished? Or is it, rather, the student taking initiative and utilizing their own development and learning style to further their own knowledge in a way of their own choosing?

It is, after all, THEIR education, and their life we are discussing.

7) “Outcomes Testing” is really lousy at testing for things that really matter. Play any role based fantasy game and you’ll be constantly faced with challenges of reason, problem solving, and memory. The situations, however fantastical, will mirror and inform situations in your real life, and your success within the game may give you deeper insights into your own problem solving process in the real world. One success mirrors the other. However:

Old Yeller was:
A) A dog.
B) A goat
C) The Chinese Gardener
D) A & C

Tells you nothing about the story, how it felt, what it meant to the readers, how it related to their lives…..yet this is increasingly all we demand from our students: simple tests of memory that we can wave at accountants to prove the success of our “teaching” to avoid the punitive reactions we have built into the system (and, yes, I’ve seen questions during a brief piece of work for one of the testing companies, that were that offensive, idiotic, and inane).

Our current factory model of education was invented by the Prussians after getting clobbered by Napoleon in the 19th century. They wanted to create a population to feed a new army, one obedient and capable of comprehending the things necessary for the practice of modern warfare. In the process, they abandoned the centuries-old practice of “classical education,” of students studying directly with gifted teachers to pursue their own betterment as human beings, without time or grades or place constraints. Other nations in Europe, fearful of being militarily overwhelmed, adopted the same system, and thence to America. But unless your only educational objective is to produce scads of obedient cannon fodder, the system does not and has never worked particularly well. Nor does thinking of students as “products”, “consumers” or anything other than fellow human beings.

I do not know how to fix education, and I despair of it. The system has become too entrenched and too powerful to amend easily. I know individuals who are and have been brilliant teachers who have bailed from the system out of frustration and anger at the piling on of meaningless requirements and the arrogance that only an entrenched bureaucracy can acquire. I can tell you what advice I would give you, the parent; what I would wish for my own children:

I would send my kids, if i didn’t school them myself, to a democratic school where their love of learning wouldn’t be ground under the wheel of the system and where they could learn problem solving, democratic process, and to think and speak for themselves. I would encourage them to game, because it challenges logic and memory, and would encourage them to read and experience other thoughts, other ideas, other ways of being. If at all possible, I would travel with them, far and frequently. Not just to sites like the Grand Canyon, but to other communities, other cultures, other ways of life. And finally, when the time came for them to strike off on their own, I would make it clear to them that failure was not a consideration, that their happiness was my joy, that learning was lifelong, and that their place at my table would always be set and that they would always be welcomed back home with open arms and an open heart.

I can wish nothing better for my kids, and for yours.

Don Elwell
Greylight Theatre



Where to next? Pick one!

Posted in: Commentary on April 23, 2011 @ 6:44 PM

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