26 October 2012


Twenty years ago, I worked as a teacher and counselor at a private residential school in suburban Philadelphia.  The students ~ 40 girls and 20 boys ~ had all been removed from their homes by the judicial system because they were being emotionally, physically and/or sexually abused.  The age range was roughly 13-18.  All the kids had been diagnosed as SED, or severely emotionally disturbed.  I thought that attaching a clinical label was unfortunate, adding a certain stigma to their already difficult lives.  But all systems appear to need a set of shorthand terms, even if doing so makes diagnosis too easy at times.

I loved my kids.  It didn't matter that each had his/her own struggles, or that most were on daily psychotropic medications and seeing a professional therapist regularly.  In my classroom they were just Kevin or Wanda or Sean or Markisha.  Each student had good days and bad days, and some classroom days were more eventful than others, as one or more students acted out their distress.  Lesson plans were always tentative at best.  But the atmosphere was fertile with a blend of curiosity, boredom, friction, and creative thinking.

I discovered quickly that even though I was an authority figure, rapport was quicker and deeper if I openly expressed the affection and respect I felt, even as I was maintaining some semblance of order.  In fact, my core guideline for my students was that they themselves show affection and respect ~ and if affection wasn't always possible, respect was still required.  Very seldom did they let me, or each other, or themselves, down.

I taught math, algebra, biology, and environmental studies.  It was useful to incorporate other disciplines into our classwork, using and reinforcing what they were learning in history, English, government.  (Our school was small and non-profit, so we had no classes in the arts or music, something I deeply regret.)  It was equally useful to make learning fun.  We regularly learned or reviewed material using competitions and games.  My best friend and fellow teacher Tony was also a huge fan of gaming as a learning tool.  Ours were often the loudest classrooms, but it was a good kind of loud ~ young minds discovering, building, questioning.

Here's an example ~ each Friday featured recreation activities in the afternoon for those who had earned them during the week with good behavior and grades.  It would have been fruitless to try to teach a serious class in the morning, so I always substituted a game that reinforced our learning.  One of our favorites was an adaptation of Jeopardy! ~ I'd created my own game board using half-envelopes containing 3x5 card clues for each category level.  I crafted the topics and individual questions to reflect what the students had been exposed to in their classes, as well as topics and questions from contemporary life, and some that were just plain silly.  Each class had 12-15 students, ideal for two or three teams.  As MC, I got to ask each question, allowing 5 seconds for conferring within each team.  Then on my "Go!", a member from each team would race to the blackboard to write their answer.  The first correct (and accurately spelled) scrawled answer earned a point for that team, with prizes in the form of snacks awarded at the end of the period.

The mix of cooperation and competition fired intense concentration, and enhanced memory retention.  I probably had more fun than the students did.  We had lots of other game variations ~ not limited to Fridays.

Now, twenty years later, the notion of making learning fun, specifically including gaming, has gained wider acceptance.  It makes sense.  "You can't understand something unless you've gone through the process of building it", whether it is a grammatically correct sentence, the solution to a math equation, the structure of the human skeletal system, or the re-enactment (using models) of a decisive military battle in history.  That is why labs and field trips are so important in physics, chemistry, biology, and the other sciences.  (I was notorious for the number of field trips I proposed, as was Tony.)

Just today, a Scientific American article recounted how children in an isolated Ethiopian village were given "boxes containing more than a dozen tablet computers loaded with books, games and other apps ~ in English .... No instructions were given to the village children regarding what was in the boxes or what to do with them.  The villagers have no reading or writing skills, nor have many of them ever seen so much as a written word .... within four minutes the village children had opened the boxes and learned how to turn on the tablets.  Within a few months they had learned the A-B-Cs and were singing the alphabet song in English.

" .... The key to learning, the [project panelists] agreed, is to engage children rather than simply talk at them.  And one of the most effective ways of doing this is through play .... learning [is] a process of hands-on construction and reconstruction rather than simply information transfer .... Games create a need to know.  You find things out as you progress toward your goal."

If Ethiopian children using apps in English could make such progress, think of the learning revolution waiting to happen if every child on Earth had his/her own notebook computer.  Given the sophistication of learning programs, not to mention being connected to the world's library, each child would be introduced to horizons without limit.

It's also a shame that gaming isn't practiced more in the adult world ~ say, while training new employees or as an incentive to workplace performance.  In this respect we have much to learn from our own children.  Thanks to Andrea Kuszewski for the SA article link.

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