Wednesday, July 31, 2013

What I Learn from Video Games Part 2

If you read yesterday's post, you'll know I'm a sucker for a great game. In fact, I credit Jane McGonigal's book Reality is Broken with legitimizing my love of gaming in the academic world. How amazing her job must be, to always be gaming... heaven!

Anyway, I wanted to continue on my gaming-connecting path and take a look at some other ways that video games- and the lessons I've learned from them- have made me a better teacher.

#1-At first, you don't have to know what you're doing to do it. See Part 1 for details on this gem.

I guess this applies to the art of teaching as well. You don't have to start out as the greatest teacher in the world; in fact, if you think you are the greatest  teacher in the world your first year, you're probably delusional and shouldn't be around kids. Nobody starts out as great. You might know a lot, but applying it in a real-world setting has plenty of challenges- managing a room full of students, managing your own knowledge of students, curriculum, and best practices, finding time to have a life outside of teaching, and figuring out all the power trips and pitfalls in a new (and constantly changing) work environment. I know plenty of amazing teachers that are still learning- and that's probably what makes them amazing.

You don't have to know everything about what you're doing to do it. You don't need to know everyone's name to step foot in the teachers' lounge, know every reading strategy to start reading a book, or know every classroom management technique to start the first day of school. Knowing those things may make your job (and life) easier, but it's not necessary to getting the work done. So stop freaking out about what you don't know, and just do it.

#2- Lay the foundation early and keep adding to it.

Video game lesson #2 comes directly from my current addiction, Knights and Dragons (as well as myriad other great video games. Foundations can consist of skills or knowledge, but it's important to set the stage for future play/ learning by building a firm and broad foundation. I actually got stuck on this part of my current game because I was working so hard to complete quests. The instant gratification of completing a quest was keeping me from seeing the big picture- namely that I needed to upgrade my armor in order to complete the quests. I kept getting stuck, dying just before I could complete each quest, and the heart of that failure was a neglect for building a strong game foundation.

So, here are the basics of the game. You build structures that generate gold. You collect that gold and use it to pay for armor for your knights. You can pay to forge armor together to create stronger armor at higher levels. Stronger armor means that you can withstand greater attacks by monsters. You fight monsters to collect building blocks that allow you to craft different types of armor. Gold pays for the armor, but you must have the building blocks- fire shards, stone slabs, dragon scales, etc.- to make the armor. You earn the building blocks by battling monsters in different game arenas. Quests guide you through the game arenas and push you to conquer more and more levels. [There are more pieces than just that, but that's enough to get you to my analogy.]

The quests push you to move forward, sometimes before you have the foundation to support a forward move. Ultimately, you can't move forward until you have a high enough level of armor to beat the monsters at the game arena. But you don't know if you have strong enough armor until you test it out. Failure means you have to wait to heal before you can try again. Winning building blocks to create better armor means you have to go back to game arenas you've already moved past in order to defeat monsters you've already beaten and earn enough building blocks to create better armor- the goal of which is to defeat monsters that are much stronger.

So, here's the analogy to education. Students build learning habits (structures) that generate access to information (gold)- the better the habits, the easier it is for students to access new information. Students collect that information and craft it into knowledge (armor). The more information you have, the more knowledge you can build. But information alone is not enough to build knowledge- students need skills (building blocks) to craft information into knowledge. This knowledge helps you pass tests/ solve problems (monsters)- both school-based and real-world. The more problems you solve, the more your skills improve and the easier it is to build more knowledge. Getting better, faster, and more adept at solving problems makes future- tougher- problems easier to solve.

Then, there are quests. In the field of education, we call them standards. Whether your school is on Common Core or State Standards, you have objectives that students are expected to accomplish in a particular time frame- before moving on to the next level. Let's continue with this quest analogy, because it offers some key insights into education as a whole. Quests move the game forward. They set expectations for what the next big move should be and put objectives into a logical sequence. That's great- clear, simple guidelines that help students navigate from one learning activity to another and maximize their educational experience.

Here's the problem... or problems. First, students don't always know what the standards (quests) are. I'm not a big fan of posting standards on the board- even in kid-friendly language- because it doesn't really mean anything to students unless completing the quest grants some form of reward. [We'll talk about rewards later.] Second, quests should be big objectives and as such require time to secure all pieces and complete. If you look at only English Language Arts, there are four Common Core strands (reading, writing, speaking/listening, and language) and 42 Anchor Standards if you split reading into literature and informational text. That's 42 quests in nine months- for just one subject! Quests take time, energy, dedication, and a sense of purposefulness- by the one on the quest, not the guide. Good luck with that.

Finally, quests don't take into effect the differences in questers (students). Some students start school with strong foundations- lots of skills and information to craft into knowledge with which to solve problems and gain more skills. Some students start school with no foundation and have to work to build it from scratch. Some students are better strategists than others. Some students have more time to quest than others. Some students "get" how to work the system and accomplish more. Some students have extra money to buy a "Mountain of Gold" or a "Dragon's Bounty" and start with a clear advantage (I'm back to the actual Knights and Dragons game now, but the same principle applies.)

To bring it around full circle, the point is this. Building strong foundations is important to accomplishing any quest- whether the quest is fair, reasonable, or even known is irrelevant to this fact. In order to build a great foundation, you have to keep working at it. You have to build and add, build and add, build and add, then test. If you want to know how well you've built it, you've got to test it, analyze the results, and evaluate the next round of additions. Keep building and adding to your repertoire of teaching strategies, knowledge of environment, curriculum and materials, and all of the outside factors that influence how effectively you teach. For every step up into new knowledge, build two steps out for support. And remember, it's the little things you do that add support for the big risks later on.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

What I Learn from Video Games- Part 1

I love games- sporting games, card games, video games. The whole idea of games and gaming- the competition, the thrill of winning, the drive to push harder, be faster, play better- compels me and excites me like nothing else. I could easily become addicted to the rush of gaming, which is why I tend to restrict any gambling games with very stringent rules and limits.

In Jane McGonigal's Reality is Broken, the author makes some fascinating claims about the role of games in human existence. As an avid gamer- though not in the most fashionable sense of the word- I can relate. In fact, she argues that there are psychological benefits and real life lessons that only games can provide. After reading her book, I've kept that idea floating around my head. Occasionally, it settles upon something that I see or do and resonates wickedly. This is one of those times.

I'm currently involved in a game on my cell phone called "Knights and Dragons." Oh all right- I'm a bit obsessed with this game. It's purpose is to wage war to procure experience, gather coins to buy better armor, and defeat enemies in increasingly tougher levels in order to complete quests. There's a lot going on in the game and very few explanations. As addictive as the game is, the creators very wisely included speed bumps- slow coin collection, wait time after battle before your lives recharge- that ensure that you never get your fill in a single setting. It may be one of the best crafted games- as far as addictiveness and "leaving-you-wanting-more" that I've ever played. [I can say this because I am currently stuck- and have been stuck- on a level of "Candy Crush" for over a month. I rarely go back to play- the frustration level is too high and the rewards do not come enough.]

So, in my quest to fashion the best armor, make friends, defeat dragons, complete quests, and gather my bounties of coins, just what have I learned from the experience?

#1- At first, you don't have to know what you're doing to do it. Sometimes, just doing is reward enough. You cruise along, collecting coins and slowly upgrading your armor. You battle some monsters and figure out how to use your power booster. You try things out and experiment, knowing that at this low level in the game, there aren't serious consequences. The small, manageable goals and successes draw you deeper into the game. You decide to do this- it works or it doesn't. You use what you've learned to get better, plan better, set better goals.You practice and play and plot... and sometimes you win. Then, the monsters crumble at your feet and gift you with experience points and rewards.

Later, when you get smacked around in the person-to-person battles with players who you should be beating, you can go back and figure out exactly what the secrets to lasting, substantial success are. But you have to get hooked first. Nobody works really hard at this kind of game- or anything, really- without being hooked. And nobody gets hooked by being told what to do. People are naturally resistant to other people bossing them around. When I choose to spend my time on something, it's not because someone told me I should. It's because I want to- for whatever reason works for me. I've been hooked. Sometimes its' seeing someone else's results and wanting to mimic them; sometimes it's looking for a challenge. People don't get hooked because they've been given all the answers. It's interesting that knowing how to win doesn't give nearly the satisfaction of figuring out how to win.

I truly appreciate the efforts, vigilance, and fast reflexes of chemistry teachers. Completely connected, I promise. If a student in a chemistry lab is told up front what is going to happen in their experiment, then directed step-by-step in how to do it, they most likely will not get much from the experience. I'm sure everyone has been in that situation where someone explains the mystery and thrill right out of an otherwise cool idea. Students who are hooked by the prospect of getting good grades will follow right along, listen attentively, and proceed to follow directions perfectly achieving the desired result and getting a high grade... and then promptly forget they ever did the experiment.

Of those students who are left, you have students who are and who are not hooked on the wonder of chemistry. The ones who are not will probably be asleep or ask to go to the bathroom and never return. They get nothing from the lab. But the ones who are hooked on chemistry rather than grades are the ones who start mixing things together to see what happens, who make predictions and test them out, who can't help but wonder- if calcium burns red and copper burns bluish-green, what color would that girl's hair, with all the gel in it, burn? Back to my initial comment about appreciating the efforts, vigilance, and fast reflexes of chemistry teachers.

The point: and the thing that I've learned from playing video games- a cheat might help you win the game, but winning the game is never the reward. Getting good enough to win, learning enough to win, and putting in the effort-sometimes monumental- to win is the point. The reward is so much more than winning- it's victory.

Monday, July 29, 2013

"When you become obsessed with achieving a result quickly, the only thing you think about is how to get to your goal, and you forget to realize that our process for achieving goals is just as important as whether or not you achieve them at all. The desire to achieve results quickly fools you into thinking that the result is the prize." - James Clear from Transform Your Habits

This very simple, free, downloadable guide to understanding how to form new habits has some great insights into how people can create positive habits that last. It's a quick and easy read (only 38 pages) and is a practical tool for making small, positive life changes.

What this quote means in the context of life may be important to you personally, but what it implies about teaching is even more valuable. Obsession with quick results is the government mandate in current educational practice. Students in the younger grades test multiple times per year, and students in the older grades have high stakes for the tests they take.

It's a lot like cramming for a history test. It's not getting an A in history that makes you a more historically knowledgeable person; it's the process of understanding why things happened, what were the causes and effects, what were the unexpected consequences, and how we can learn from the past to make a better future. Cramming for a test is not the process. Ultimately, being obsessed with a test grade is going to hinder our ability to learn from the past.

The result is not the prize; the process-with the experience, confidence, and knowledge that it brings- is the prize. It turns out that when we focus all of our energy on the result of our work, we miss the importance of meaningful work itself. This is not to say that all work is life-changing; productive work by definition is transforming, and every time we work productively we not only produce the goal of our work, but the process that changes- even if only minutely- who we are.

Here's a very practical example. We make goals for students that they need to be able to read and comprehend at a certain level by a particular time in their education. That students can comprehend what they read is the goal; there are test that assess whether students have achieved that goal, but if you think the test is the goal, you are missing the point of education. The ability to read and comprehend is the goal- the result of practice, both guided and independent. The ability to read, however, is not the prize and regardless of how quickly you achieve the result of comprehension, it is not the reason for learning to read. We don't want kids to read so that they are merely able to read; we want kids to read so that they DO read- and continue to read- long after we stop teaching them to read.

There is a huge difference between students who have been taught to read and students who are readers. When the process of learning to read- with the experience, confidence, and knowledge that it brings- is the prize of reading, and students who are readers seek out that prize whenever they can. If the only thing teachers are focusing on is the result- that students can read/ pass a test- they've completely missed the point of being able to read, which is to read for the prize of reading.

Once again, I've got to quote Chuck Jones:
Knowing how to read and not reading books is like owning skis and not skiing, owning a board and never riding a wave, or, well, having your favorite sandwich in your hand and not eating it.
In other words, what's the point? Where's the prize? And are we, as teachers, losing sight of the real goal of teaching students to read? It's certainly not just so that they can say they can; it's so they do...and expand their horizons in the process. And that's the whole point.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Do Unto Others

I was fascinated by a TED Talk called "Money Can buy Happiness" by Michael Norton from Harvard. His research is in how spending money brings people happiness. In a series of experiments, his TED Talk video relates how spending money on yourself doesn't do much to increase your happiness- regardless of how much money you spend or on what you buy. But spending money on others increases the giver's happiness- also regardless of how much you spend. Norton found this to be true all over the world, that there is a positive correlation between giving to charity and happiness in almost every country.

So, how is this a life hack for teachers? We do things for others all the time and often- at least for me- feel like we're being taken advantage of. One of the differences in what Michael Norton is talking about and a teacher's reality is the expectation of the receiver. In his research, the receivers are given gifts for which they express gratitude. In teaching, we give students supplies which is often seen by students as "our job"- hence, no gratitude. Although this is not a focal point of his research, I believe one of the reasons givers are happier is because of the gratitude they receive- or anticipate others would feel. In a classroom, the lack of student gratitude is often overwhelming.
Does this mean we stop doing things for our kids? Of course not. No one I know became a teacher because they thought kids were devotedly gracious and conscious of how much we do for them. So how can teachers- who give so much to students- feel the same happiness boost that everyone else feels when they spend money on others? Easy. We need to spend money on people who can truly appreciate our gifts, aka other teachers.
Donors Choose is a great donation site for teachers to help other teachers with things they need for their classroom. Support other teachers' quests for offering great educational experiences to their students- and include a message that shows how much you support them and understand what they are going through. It will be the same happiness hack that everyone else gets from giving money, only better because you'll appreciate exactly how much your gift means.

Power Pose

I've become addicted to TED Talks and the incredible wealth of free, intellectually stimulating information about life, happiness, and technology. However, I can't watch these videos without trying to apply the lessons learned to teaching and education. One of my favorites that I have shown in workshops is a talk by social psychologist Amy Cuddy about body language.

Body language helps us communicate with others, but Cuddy shows in her research that our bodies' nonverbal language also communicates with our minds. In fact, her "fake it 'til you become it" philosophy stems from research that shows two minutes standing in a power pose will affect your body chemistry and help you become an authentic, confident version of yourself.

Particularly powerful for me is how short a time it takes for our bodies to control our minds. In just two minutes, your body's posture can change your cortisol and testosterone levels and make you feel like a different person. Imagine how important your confidence is in the course of a day's teaching. If at the beginning of my high school class period, I take two minutes to stand in a power pose, my confidence will increase, my stress will go down, and I will be the most powerful, confident version of myself. When facing 30+ adolescents in an enclosed space for an hour, I need to be my best self if I want to keep that class focused and learning.

Compare the results of two minutes of power posing with two minutes slumped over, trying to take a break during passing periods and hoping to make it through the next class. Your body tells your mind that you are weak, powerless, vulnerable- and then 30+ students come in and confirm that.

Many teachers stand outside the door to greet the next class period. If you stand outside the door, stand tall, shoulders back, maybe even with your hands on your hips. These few minutes in a power pose will boost your confidence and make you the strongest version of yourself. And when that troublesome class comes along and you're at your wits end, maybe you take a two minute break in the hallway to gather your confidence. The point is to be aware of how your body's posture is influencing your mind, and to take advantage of the fact that it can.

Reading is Life

Chuck Jones pointed out in this letter to a class of students how silly it would be to not read when we have the chance:
Knowing how to read and not reading books is like owning skis and not skiing, owning a board and never riding a wave, or, well, having your favorite sandwich in your hand and not eating it. If you owned a telescope that would open up the entire universe for you would you try to find reason for not looking through it? Because that is exactly what reading is all about; it opens up the universe of humour, of adventure, of romance, of climbing the highest mountain, of diving in the deepest sea.
Special thanks to Belle Beth Cooper for this great quote and connection.

How many times have you been in front of a student who asks, "Why do we have to read?" and how many times have you been at a loss? How do you explain to that student that reading isn't a chore to be endured, but a door to be opened into a world you'd never experience otherwise? For anyone who loves books, this connection is too obvious for words. Unfortunately, school often corrupts the intrinsic pleasure of reading. If you want students to read for joy, stop testing them on it. If you want them to live different lives and explore different worlds, stop assessing them the same way. If you want to create a lifelong reader, hand them a great book.   

The same principle applies to how we read as teachers. If the only things we read are curriculum guides, memos, and news about the latest government hate-crimes against education, how are we supposed to be inspired? We need to read for our pleasure-whether its racing off into a fantasy world of witches, wizards, and dragons or settling into a heavy-hitting philosophy lesson. Teachers need to expand their horizons as much as kids do. We need to feel the excitement of the last chapter. We need to anticipate the sequel. We need to dream ourselves into the story as a new character. All of the humor, adventure, and romance that used to catch us, invest us in the characters and the stories- all of those attractors still apply... if only we make time for them. Dedicate some time to getting caught up in a story or tied up in a wealth of new information.

We owe it to ourselves to be inspired; we owe it to our students to be role models for the love of reading. The world can be an amazing place if we open our minds to experience it.