99: Whyville: Saving the Children

"'When you put a man on the moon, that kind of carries the day for a couple decades, but nowadays putting a man on the moon's just not going to do it. ... One of the things that will do it is if we start teaching science in a more hands on manner and inquiry based fashion.

'That's exactly why NASA is in Whyville. NASA is the sponsor of the Whyville Aeronautics and Space Administration, and in that particular place in Whyville, you get to learn about rocket science and spectroscopy and ion engine technology, and they're literally playing what you and I would call almost videogame vignettes. [Kids are] sitting down to play Tetris, only in order to succeed in Tetris you have to learn something about spectroscopy.'"

Russ Pitts speaks to Jay Goss, Chief Operation Officer of 2 million member online community Whyville.

Whyville: Saving the Children

Unfortunately, there is no one way to improve education. The fact of the matter is that kids are different: some of them will jump headfirst into mathematics and science, and others will question why they have to be there at all. You can't apply the same solution to both of them, because either the kids who get it will feel stifled, or the kids who don't get it will feel lost, and eventually some of them are going to end up resentful of education as a whole. This is the price that we've paid for assuming that the worst thing that can happen in a kid's education is not, in fact, not being educated, but rather being made to feel segregated or inferior.

Things like this are excellent - it reminds me that there are still people out there who believe that kids naturally want to learn, and aren't afraid to look for answers to the question of why, if they like learning so much, they don't like doing it in school. Most of the "edutainment" I've seen has been poor as an example of entertainment, or as an example of a game, or both, but these people seem to be doing it right.

But because games are interactive, they can offer variable difficulty, adapting themselves to the varying ability levels of the students. Each child can play at her own level, so that no one has to feel either stifled or lost.

The problem is how to let slower children hide the fact from their peers that they're still only on level two. Crushing their self-confidence is the worst thing you can do to a student.

I'm not sure if I could disagree with you more Pavitra.

The problem is that you think that child who is on level 2 is inferior. The problem is that you think they need to hide results. Hiding results is only going to hurt self esteem and enforce the stupidity already present. You make a grave error in this. Games are a wonderful medium for teaching, certainly not the only, or even the best. The correct solution to improving confidence in children is to let them fail and deal with consequences, share their results normally, and coach the students along who haven't caught on yet, they may not ever be the best at it, but they will be good at other things.

You crush the pride you receive for achievement by hiding results. This unspoken assumption that all children should be treated equal because all children are equal is ludicrous. Not every child is going to be great at something, but helping them be the best they can at what they want to improve at is the job of teachers. That's not to say you shouldn't help them gain a general understanding of many things, but how detailed that understanding is should vary from student to student.

TomBeraha:
I'm not sure if I could disagree with you more Pavitra.

The problem is that you think that child who is on level 2 is inferior.

The problem is that we still think in 'levels' and 'achievement'. School shouldn't be a place where people go to get accomplishments--it should be a place where people go to get tools. It should be the place where kids go to learn how to do the things they've seen in the real world and said 'man--I wanna do that.'

Cheeze_Pavilion:
The problem is that we still think in 'levels' and 'achievement'. School shouldn't be a place where people go to get accomplishments--it should be a place where people go to get tools. It should be the place where kids go to learn how to do the things they've seen in the real world and said 'man--I wanna do that.'

I completely agree that teaching kids what they want to learn is something schools should be better at. I disagree that recognizing levels and especially achievement are problems. Yes the majority of the teaching should be attitudinal, but don't discount the value of positive reinforcement. It can be used quite effectively to create the attitude that "man-I wanna do that" type of teaching can provide.

I don't foresee a future where jobs aren't going to be measuring their employees based on how well they achieve the company's goals. Having a measure of how well you do at something isn't a bad thing. The bad thing is the stigma we've created with failing being some terrible thing. I'm not going to quote Edison at you, as I think he took it to an extreme. However, failure is an important part of learning - and you can't fail without measurement. Kids who are never measured may turn out to be exceptionally bright and hard working, but what happens if they get a boss who tells them they suck and they're horrible workers because they don't catch on to a new concept, idea, technology, skill immediately. What happens when relationships don't work no matter how hard someone tries? Failure isn't bad when you learn.

Pavitra:
The problem is how to let slower children hide the fact from their peers that they're still only on level two. Crushing their self-confidence is the worst thing you can do to a student.

I disagree. The worst thing that you can do to a student is fail to educate him/her.

Bongo Bill:

Pavitra:
The problem is how to let slower children hide the fact from their peers that they're still only on level two. Crushing their self-confidence is the worst thing you can do to a student.

I disagree. The worst thing that you can do to a student is fail to educate him/her.

I don't think any kid without self-confidence was ever really educated. They maybe have passed and gotten a degree, but they haven't been educated.

In fact, crushing the self-confidence of a student may even prevent them from passing, let alone being truly educated: "Experimental evidence gathered from rural Uttar Pradesh, one of the poorest regions of India, shows a pronounced difference in performance between low and high castes when social identity (caste) is announced before participation in a maze-solving exercise. When social identity is not announced, there is no caste difference in performance."

When a kid loses self-condifence, they think 'I can't do this'. From that point on, all education is wasted on them. They become incapable of absorbing and synthesizing most of what is taught to them, and what little they do will go to waste--their decisions later on in life will be based on the assumption that flows from the loss of that self-confidence: 'I can't do this'.

It's not so much that self-confidence is or is not more important than education. It's that self-confidence is a necessary prerequisite to education. Talking about educating a kid without self-confidence is like talking about building a house without a foundation.

TomBeraha:

I completely agree that teaching kids what they want to learn is something schools should be better at. I disagree that recognizing levels and especially achievement are problems. Yes the majority of the teaching should be attitudinal, but don't discount the value of positive reinforcement. It can be used quite effectively to create the attitude that "man-I wanna do that" type of teaching can provide.

I have a feeling we're basically saying the same thing. I should have said schools are the place to get tools *and* to practice in an environment where failure has no repercussions. That's what I meant when I said: "learn how." Not just sit there as a passive sponge, but get to 'play' in much the same way lion cubs play chase with each other. They're learning how to hunt without starving if they fail, or getting their jaw broken by a kick from a zebra if they fail badly: the F-minus of life.

From reading the article, that seems to be why Whyville works--there are no tests, just activities that indirectly test your accomplishments. Like the cafeteria--it doesn't hand out achievements in return for passing a formal test of one's knowledge of nutrition. Eat poorly, you get sick. Eat well you stay well. Plenty of ways to measure one's self, just none that are imposed from above. None that tell you you've failed, just ones that tell you you are not succeeding.

Also, I'm not discounting positive encouragement at all; I just don't think positive encouragement should be reserved for accomplishments--it should be given for failures as well. Instead, what I was going for was the idea that education--at least early education--should be:

(1) a place where the only way you can fail is if you give up trying to succeed, not because you didn't succeed the day the teacher decided to test you.

and

(2) a place with far more freedom to pursue what interests the kid when it interests him/her. That's more what I meant by doing away with levels--it's only in the maths and sciences that learning requires linearity in curriculum, and even then, you can do a good bit of geometry without doing any algebra; from what I remember, the first half of calculus had very little to do with algebra. Get rid of levels, and kids can learn what they want to learn when they want to learn it.

As for "a boss who tells them they suck and they're horrible workers because they don't catch on to a new concept, idea, technology, skill immediately"? I don't think has much to do with academic education. That's more about life-skills, and realizing that you have to pick and choose the people you allow to have an effect on your opinion of yourself, and who you just treat as jerks to be avoided if possible, and if not to be used in pursuit of your own end goals.

Cheeze_Pavilion:

I have a feeling we're basically saying the same thing. I should have said schools are the place to get tools *and* to practice in an environment where failure has no repercussions. That's what I meant when I said: "learn how."

I still think that facing the consequences of your actions is part of learning, the advantage to a training situation is you can mess up and have someone available to show you different methods to dealing with a problem.

Cheeze_Pavilion:

Also, I'm not discounting positive encouragement at all; I just don't think positive encouragement should be reserved for accomplishments--it should be given for failures as well. Instead, what I was going for was the idea that education--at least early education--should be:

I completely agree that positive encouragement should be given for failures. I think that the ideal teacher is constantly pushing a child to go just beyond his comfort zone and grow.
The teaching process needs to be changed from "Lessons -> Questions -> Re-Hash -> Quiz" to one that allows a child to try to do things and fail at them. Kinesthetic learning is almost completely ignored in many school systems.

Cheeze_Pavilion:
As for "a boss who tells them they suck and they're horrible workers because they don't catch on to a new concept, idea, technology, skill immediately"? I don't think has much to do with academic education. That's more about life-skills, and realizing that you have to pick and choose the people you allow to have an effect on your opinion of yourself, and who you just treat as jerks to be avoided if possible, and if not to be used in pursuit of your own end goals.

I think we agree here too- I'm just suggesting that we shouldn't abandon all forms of testing and grading because they're going to experience them elsewhere - I didn't clarify that in my head I was thinking of said boss making his statements from results from testing of his employees, rating them on metrics - etc. I don't think you've suggested we should - I just think that we shouldn't discount their value just because other methods also have value.

TomBeraha:

I still think that facing the consequences of your actions is part of learning, the advantage to a training situation is you can mess up and have someone available to show you different methods to dealing with a problem.

Maybe we're saying the same thing because I agree that part of the teachers job is to help students who are stuck. It might just be language getting in the way: I say we chuck everything that smells of approval and disapproval, including words like 'fail' and 'facing the consequence' and all that. It just encourages bad habits.

TomBeraha:
I think we agree here too- I'm just suggesting that we shouldn't abandon all forms of testing and grading because they're going to experience them elsewhere - I didn't clarify that in my head I was thinking of said boss making his statements from results from testing of his employees, rating them on metrics - etc. I don't think you've suggested we should - I just think that we shouldn't discount their value just because other methods also have value.

See, I don't think we should be encouraging children to think of the tests and ratings bosses give them as the same thing as what they experienced in school. They *shouldn't* be experiencing the same things in school as they will in the real world. People in the real world don't give you tests because they're interested in your personal intellectual development--they're interested in how much money you can make them.

Your boss's opinion of you is just that--his opinion. He may be dumb. The test may be dumb. Who knows. Education, though, should feel like you're not just looking to please the person giving the test. It should feel like real learning where you're not being tested by a person; instead, you're testing yourself to see how much you've learned. When you fail a test in school, the answer should always be to try and pass. When you fail a test from a boss in real life, the answer is sometimes to get as far away from him as you can because he's a fool and will only waste your time.

I'm all for teaching people about the real world, but, to me, testing in schools send precisely the wrong message. It sends the message that as long as you pass all your tests you'll be fine, and that's not what real life is. We should be teaching kids that the real world is all about getting people to give you money. Maybe that means getting a degree from an Ivy League school because that impresses people and they'll give you more money for the same work as someone else. Still, it's not about passing tests or anything like that--it's about getting people to give you money.

I say we keep the real life lessons in a course about real life, and keep the academic education unpolluted. Any form of testing and grading that prepares a person for a boss undercuts it's own value as a tool of academic education, you know? I guess what I'm saying is that a good test from a boss's perspective is usually a bad test from a teacher's perspective.

I completely agree - So long as we teach kids that they will meet dumb people who will make judgments of their ability based on test scores and other measurements such as production time, efficiency, and accuracy. Some of those abilities will naturally be improved by an environment that encourages limitless mental growth in every possible direction, but as you say a test a boss thinks is good is probably not going to be a test that a teacher thinks is good. If we teach an intelligently designed "real life" set of classes then the kids will be being prepared on every front.

One example of such a class I can think of is a Young Entrepreneurs class that sets kids in groups of 3-5, has them make business plans, and actually try to get businesses started. Some of the kids in those classes the last couple years have actually gone on to start successful business. The class doesn't have grading, but it does have feedback and measurements, and it does address the needs of a student to figure out how to impress a venture capitalist.

This class isn't going to be a substitute for a business economics class. But it's going to provide the real world training in effect that so many classes fail to do. I think more than losing standardized testing and pass fail metrics we need to abandon standardized knowledge. We need to stop teaching only a single point of view that we believe is the best.

@TomBeraha: Yeah, I basically agree with all that--I'm probably just a little more radical and iconoclastic when it comes to education, but, in spirit, I feel the same way.

Of course students should be evaluated on their performance. Feedback is essential for good learning. I only meant that students should not be able to see each other's test results (whatever form those tests may take).

I realize that some students are fiercely competitive and thrive on head-to-head opposition with each other. There should be areas of the game for them. But I know for myself that I will stop doing something if I think I am subpar; I will actively hide the level of my progress if I am interested in something, lest I be crushed and pushed away from it. I feel that a system which deprives me of the privilege to do this is unforgivably cruel. I must be able to hide.

Let the teacher see. She is mature enough to respect my need, and honor my progress. She will give appropriate feedback. But don't let my classmates see. Let me choose what my classmates see.

 

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