Idea Sex in the Classroom

I’m reading the post-apocalyptic workout with one side of my brain and thinking of violent revolution with the other.

In the coming days, after Jimmy Hoffa returns from Hades to become President or Rarotonga develops the Bomb, there will surely be things we need to know, or we will die. Like bow hunting, skinning, which mushrooms to eat and which pustulating skin conditions to avoid coming into contact with. Nina Bargiel has compiled a list, and I’m following her progress on it. Like me, she’s pretty much starting at zero.

It’s a shame, because if I were handier with an antelope’s thigh bone and better at swimming, I’d be whomping the testicles of Mr. Russ Pitts, Acquisitions Editor of The Escapist, right now. “Videogames and learning,” Russ. Twelve hundred words. You must have been howling into your coffee as you passed that one out. It looked so easy. Find a kid with bad grades and good StarCraft abilities. Show how his vile little mind adapts to strategic warfare easier than reciting multiplication tables. No problem. In the bag.

Uh huh.

Videogames and learning is a book, Russ. Or 10 books. A film. A blood-soaked revolutionary saga with the guts of treacherous editors strewn all over it.

It’s almost enough to make a man go back to bureaucracy. But not quite.

So here’s the deal: I found a way to wrap up more than 10 trillion words of debate and argument and desire and vision into your filthy little package. I discovered what’s wrong with the world and what could be great.


I have solved education, Russ. I did it like a true journalist and visionary. I went and talked to my mother. And I found your bloody revolution right there.

Dr. Helen Anderson is the Academic Director at Manukau Institute of Technology, a set of concrete towers in the vastness of South Auckland, New Zealand. She came up through bridging education, the hardscrabble world of taking people who didn’t finish high school and getting them ready for college degrees. She uses words like “potential” and scowls at words like “failure.” She showed absolutely no interest in computer games when I was a pimply, pain-in-the-ass teenager, but now views them as a developing research area.

The Escapist: So, we’ve both, separately, come to the conclusion that computer games and learning is a bit of a red herring. Why?

Dr. Helen Anderson: Because the direct value of computer games in learning environments is obvious to just about anyone who looks at it – certainly, for example, to readers of The Escapist. Something that can simulate rich, complex environments at staged levels of difficulty, offer continuous feedback, allow you to “fail,” then learn from that – sure. Works well for everything, from putting business students in front of Capitalism to young sportspeople in front of Madden or Rugby.

TE: Is that bad?

HA: It’s not bad. It’s great. And obviously it’s getting a lot of attention, well beyond the old back-and-forth about “educational software.” But there’s another level to all this. Computer games in classrooms have been here since at least the early ’80s, to varying degrees of usefulness, but what is it that games actually do? What’s going on at a gut level – the DNA of this learning process – that makes games work so well when compared to other teaching/learning methods?

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TE: Why is StarCraft better than math class?

HA: Exactly. And this really comes up in early childhood development, literacy teaching. I mean, statistics from around the western world suggest that at the moment we – meaning the combination of schools, parents, teachers, society that surround a child – have serious difficulty teaching some kids the basic skills of reading.

Yet James Gee, a University of Wisconsin researcher, points out that many of these same kids can very easily get their heads around Pokémon, which has upwards of 150 different creatures per game, plus the different types like fire and water, plus the evolutions, the moves – that’s a lot more complex than learning the alphabet. What’s going on there at a root level?

Coming from the other side, classic childhood development researchers – Lev Vygotsky and Barbara Rogoff for example – have “explored the building blocks of how children learn.” They used established research techniques and came to very similar conclusions to those of games designers; effective learning occurs in real time, in authentic contexts, and it’s hugely helpful if kids are having fun.

The real question, the real deal, is how do we tie these areas together to make other kinds of learning more effective?

TE: What’s the state of practice? What’s happening in schools?

HA: That’s a big question with many sides to it. But I think you could say things are not changing at a rate that will keep up with the world.


Think of the different lifecycles involved. The internet evolves on what sometimes seems like a monthly or even daily basis. It takes, what, between one and three years to make a game now? Our current school system says it takes 10-15 years to educate a child. And actual change in the school system itself, well ….

You have an environment still dominated by what we call “skill-and-drill”: teaching to exams, regurgitation, standardized assessment. More broadly, you have massive systemic forces at work – the whole structure of schools, districts, funding, standardization, both in New Zealand and in other western countries – that are a sometimes necessary, sometimes painful brake against rapid change.

TE: Why do you even need rapid change across teaching? Seems to me there are some fundamentals that always need to be taught – like your example of literacy.

HA: Sure. But one part of what’s happening – and the potential of games is a fantastic example of this – is an increasing awareness of how many different ways people can learn, and hence, how many ways there can be to construct rich learning environments. The current core set of ideas and institutions around western education have their roots in the first half of the 20th century; you know widespread standardized testing in the U.S. emerged from World War I conscription requirements? It’s like a monochrome blob coming into contact with 32-bit color.

And sure, schools cannot and should not ever be the only places to learn things. But look at the potential, the opportunity. Kids in the western world spend between four and 12 hours a day in school. For a variety of historical and social reasons, there’s a young, captive audience sitting in a “learning environment” for up to half their lives. Should we take a default and just accept that schools will be behind the times and increasingly irrelevant when it comes to future learning?

TE: So what do you want to do? What can be done?

HA: Obviously it’s very easy to sit as a researcher and make noise about this. Harder to go into even a single classroom and make a difference, though it can be done. Changing the whole thing … teaching is a tough job. And it’s enmeshed in the bureaucratic, social, political systems we talked about before.

TE: I remember when I worked in government, seeing all the potential and all the weights around its ankles.


HA: Yup. And this is my argument: Just putting games in classrooms or computer labs is like a soggy band-aid. It doesn’t change any of the fundamental teaching practices, the learning environment, the whole idea of classroom, teacher, students. Even technology-based learning isn’t yet down to looking seriously at the DNA-level pedagogy.

TE: In a perfect world you’d want to tear it all down with a wrecking ball and start again?

HA: Mayyyyybe.

TE: Weren’t several of the really scary revolutions in history started by mothers and teachers? Anyway, what about this world? What’s doable here and overseas?

HA: Three things. No. 1: professional development. We’ve got to teach teachers better, all the way through their careers. It’s hard when your students may have a better grasp of technology and the learning environment than you.

TE: Like me when I was a kid.

HA: Exactly; having to deal with smart-aleck know-it-alls is not helpful.

No. 2: connect with design. Keep the classroom, but change it and everything around it. Make the money in education slosh a different way. Have schools, colleges, communities, businesses and all other parts of the education system talk to each other a little more. Look everywhere, starting with games, for new ways to operate.

No. 3: my big, mad slogan,: bring it all back to what learning’s for. Learning is about bettering and expanding lives in some way. If you cannot learn from the world around you, you are dead. And in this world we’re moving into so fast, the definition of basic skills is constantly evolving. We’re a long, long way from just food, shelter and thighbones.

TE: I’ve gotta show you this post-apocalyptic workout.

Colin Rowsell is a writer and strategist working out of Wellington, New Zealand. He can be contacted, hired, and abused on [email protected].

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