Category Archives: K12

Unplug the Games: The value of human to human play

This summer we’re teaching a series of optional free camps at Computers4Kids. The goal is to provide a fun and engaging experience, but also introduce concepts that might pique the students’ interest. Last week I observed a phenomena that I had noticed before — a definite lack in students’ problem-solving skills. This wasn’t in an unfamiliar content area, but a simple game of 20 questions where the items were familiar animals, foods and objects. It was hard to watch the student stymied by the task. He wasn’t able to construct questions, even with prompts, that would lead to him guessing his hidden animal. He seemed frustrated and embarrassed, but other students lent him support and he was able to succeed eventually. This game that seemed so familiar to me and most of the students was clearly foreign to him.

Observing this interchange made me think about how important games are to children’s development of problem-solving and critical thinking skills. How many hours of my childhood  journeys were occupied with searching for objects that started with certain letters or fit into different categories, guessing a word, or out-spelling the driver? Thinking about strategy, getting tricky, and being clever were all skills that offered gratification and reward. Successful thinking was play and fun. It was valued.

Certainly many of these experiences can be duplicated on smartphones. There are plenty of free or cheap apps with guessing games built in, some lacking a few key components:

  1. An authentic feedback loop. It’s more gratifying to hear a peer or adult congratulate you for fresh thinking or more efficient guessing than canned computer feedback, no matter how intelligent the system is.
  2. Evolution of gameplay. When you’ve planned the same game mile after mile, you begin to shift the rules and boundaries to keep the gameplay challenging and new. The negotiation of the rules to keep play fun, challenging, or to make it appropriate for different levels of players is a critical skill for young players.
  3. Reading the opponent. When people play games against one another, they observe the strengths and weaknesses of the other’s play. Predicting a player’s next steps is often crucial in competitive games. Being able to parse the psychology of a colleague is a valued skilled in real life.
  4. Spontaneity. Humans almost always bring a sense of unpredictability to gameplay. While a computer algorithm can be analyzed and predicted, humans tend to ignore logical steps and respond “irrationally”; sometimes a perceived “losing” move is a strategically savvy one. Many computer programs aren’t equipped to play the long game.

Certainly I don’t disdain computer games and apps completely. I can’t stop playing a Tetris clone on my phone, but I see that games still need to come out of the digital sphere and into our human one. Sitting in the backseat affixed to the smartphone is no substitute for playing a game of I Spy out the window. Just because an activity is lo-fi, doesn’t mean that it’s not valuable.

Serving your Learner

My natural inclination is to design for the imagination. I’ve long believed that if you give students the best tools to create with, that they then can transfer that knowledge to other applications. By the end of my time at the k-8 school, where I taught the same students for 3 consecutive years, I had 3rd grade students creating Flash animations and writing action-scripting. To me this was a major accomplishment, indicative of incredible potential for these students to become producers of multimedia, interactive projects. Every year, however, the complaint was that the students weren’t learning how to format papers in Word. The parents saw computer class as a support to the other academic classes, not as a curriculum in its own right.

Now that I am working with students who have been traditionally under-served, I wonder about my own obligations to provide opportunities for academic success. Should this curriculum emphasize more immediate academic skills, formatting papers, learning powerpoint? Or should I emphasize their personal expression and storytelling through exposure to professional graphics, audio and video software applications.

I already know where I stand on this. I am still in touch with the majority of my inspirational art teachers. I learned more about how to present myself professionally from them than any of my drudgerous academic classes. I don’t know if I can inspire disaffected students with any software app, but I feel that it’s more likely in Alice, than it is with Excel.