learning in the new millennium

Recently Mr. T took a circuitry class for homeschoolers. Although the class sounded interesting, T didn’t love it. For part of the class there were experiments that the teachers had set up, each with a diagram and a supply of parts. Kids were supposed to build the circuit on the card and to test it.

T didn’t want to do that (although he did it anyway.) He really wished the teachers would just set out the supplies and let kids experiment freely.

T explained, “The teachers put out the stuff and tell us what we have to do and how to do it. I don’t learn like that. I like to figure things out myself. I like to decide what I’m going to do.”

And then he blew me away with this:

“I like learning the way I do when I play video games.”

Any of you who have been following me here for a while know about my waldorf guilt (more here) and my mixed feelings about video games. It’s been interesting having two boys who are absolutely drawn to video games. Especially one who’s almost ten years older than the second. H refused to let me write off video games; he demanded that I allow them, that I approach them with an open mind. So it’s been many years—first with H and then with T—of negotiating the play they’ve desired with limits I could live with.

It’s been an education. My boys have taught me that time spent on games is not just mindless entertainment. It’s changed the way they think; it’s nurtured their creativity. And although I never expected it, gaming has provided my boys with a model for learning.

Just a few days after Mr. T made that video game comment, I happened upon this quote while re-reading a section of A Whole New Mind. (If you were at my house right now, I’d foist the book on you, yet again.) Daniel Pink quotes James Paul Gee, a professor who wrote the book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy:

“The fact is when children play video games they can experience a much more powerful form of learning than when they’re in the classroom. Learning isn’t about memorizing isolated facts. It’s about connecting and manipulating them.”

Interesting. But I guess I didn’t need a book to tell me that. My nine-year-old already has it all figured out.

26 comments… add one
  • marta Feb 16, 2011 @ 10:53

    Oh yeah, my kids would second that!
    I’ve read (and written to you) about your waldorf guilt. Til last Christmas no video gaming was available at our home. Then my in-laws gave the kids (3 of them, boy, 10, girl, 8, boy, 5) a Wii. I won’t go into the details of the whole story ;), but suffice to say, I did not like it.

    I’ve set the same limits as with tv – only until 10 am on weekends, nothing on weekdays. They wake up around 7/7h30 am… that’s plenty of gaming on Saturday and Sunday, I’d think.
    Well, I’m still to understand what they learn with/from it! I try to have an open mind (well, maybe I could try harder…). I see that the “active” games, like Sports or Sports Resorts, are very interesting technically speaking… but my kids are very active, outdoor-type kids who don’t need to have that kind of “stimulation” to get moving.

    But the Mario games… those are really uncomprehensible to me. The graphics are tacky (Mario, my god!), the purpose of the games, or so they try to explain to me, is to jump and avoid and throw and jump again all sorts of obstacles and stuff… Just a case of quick eye/thumb coordination…

    There’s this school of thought that says videogaming – and the easy, quick access to digital media, be it mobiles, the net… – changes the way the kids think and play, in a negative way. The info is given, not searched for; the memory and storytelling with its slow, natural, faltering rhythm is lost; as Mr T. said about the teachers, it’s all set with only a proper way to solve it – be more quick with your pressing the button!

    Sorry, Patricia, but you’ll have to be more specific about how they learn while playing videogames for me to accept my own kids videogaming…

    ( But I’ll tell you this – my 10 year old, mad at not being able to win some race with Mario and Luigi or whoever, threw away the handcontrol and said, “This game is stupid, because until I figure out which one is the only way to win, the machine will always win!” He hasn’t played that game again. But he loves PES… 😉

    Marta from Lisbon, Portugal

    • patricia Feb 16, 2011 @ 21:50

      So nice to see you here again, Marta!

      I’m no expert on this topic. I’ve struggled with videogames just as you struggle. I still don’t give T free reign with gaming; I feel a need to help him manage his game time. But since I’ve been at my struggle for several years now, it’s given me time to watch my boys, and to talk to them about their gaming. (Lulu has also played videogames over the years, but never with the same compulsion that her brothers have—although I know that some girls really take to gaming. Lulu prefers the social networking aspect of the internet…)

      I just checked out a book from my library which you may want to try to find in Portugal: Don’t Bother Me Mom—I’m Learning by Marc Prensky. It’s a book specifically about the positive aspects of videogames. I’ve skimmed through several sections and it’s good stuff! I figure that if kids are going to play videogames anyway, it can’t hurt to understand what good may come of it.

      One distinction that’s important: I’m not really talking about what my kids have learned from videogame content. (Although they have learned from the content of several computer games and Wii games. Zoo Tycoon and Age of Mythology come immediately to mind.) What I’m really talking about here is what videogames have taught my kids about modes of learning.

      When T says he likes learning the way he learns from videogames, he means that he likes to be in control of his learning. He learns how to play games by trying them out and experimenting—not by being told what to do. He gets to choose where he goes, what tools he should use. He gets better by practicing and by building on the knowledge and expertise he’s accumulated.

      (And yes, there are many games that have only one way to win. But there are others that are more open-ended. T cites Spore as an example of a more creative, open-ended game that he likes a lot. But he also likes games that have a more narrow path. When he gets frustrated with those types of games, he asks me to help him search out cheats on the internet. I’ll tell you this: he’s learned a lot about how to research the internet effectively by searching out cheats with me!)

      T understands that he has learned and mastered something when he plays videogames. He likes how he gets to control that learning. When he made that comment about learning the way he does when he plays videogames, it made me realize a few things: T knows that there is more than one way to learn. He knows that he likes to be in control of his learning, and he likes to learn by experimenting and playing rather than through a lot of direct instruction. How powerful for him to understand all this at nine! And as a homeschooling parent it gives me a particular challenge: How can I help T. make all his learning more like this, more like his videogame learning, since he finds it so rewarding?

      I also think videogames have lots of potential for literacy learning, but I think I’ll save that for a follow-up blog post…

      It’s taken a lot of years and a particularly articulate oldest son to help me get to this point, Marta, so I don’t expect to convince you with a single blog post. But maybe I can start you thinking about the possibility that videogames might have some redeeming qualities. Maybe…

      • I have been browsing your blog for a few days now. Read your post on helping our child to write and it was a confirmation for me on something I did a while back with my DD9 and DD6 and it so worked. They both wrote essays on a movie they watched on Beavers. They dictated and I wrote it down. I was amazed by their vocabulary and how articulated they are. When I read your article it clicked that I was merely their secretary and yes, they can write! 🙂

        anyway, about video games… We don’t have a video game console but my children play games and use educational websites on their laptops. All day long. As long as I allow them to. I am trying to be less legalistic in this area because I have seen how they are learning. My children are learning science, history and language arts by playing games and watching videos on websites. My DD6 learned to spell and took off reading by playing a game called “worms”?? I think.. I don’t even know the name. Now, he is learning Math by playing these games on a website called Cool Math games. He is also busy building and protecting his Backyard in Backyard Monster. He is learning about time because he needs to calculate when he has to check on his monster in order to feed him. So funny!!

        Even my DD4 is learning by playing games and watching videos on the computer. of course, they do more than that. We read, they play pretend games and make up their own intrigues and stories all day long. They are active children, running and interacting all day long with each other.

        I don’t care much for video games. My DH is a computer geek. He loves the gadgets and plays games too. Like him, my DS6 learns by trying to figure it out on his own. I noticed that my son doesn’t like to be taught (like yours). He will watch something, or read, or observe and then he comes up with his own explanation. When we do an art class for example, he doesn’t want to follow directions. He wants to do his own thing. He wants to experiment in his own way.

        So I am learning to let go… and I provide interesting websites and games. I browse and search high and low for fun and intriguing things for them to explore and I let them learn. When I am bothered that they are at the computer for too long, then I ask for a break and ask them to help me with something around the house. That usually provides them with an opportunity to begin a new activity.

        anyway, I am so happy I found you, 🙂

      • patricia Feb 24, 2012 @ 8:52

        Hi Tereza,

        I’m glad you were able to experience the power of taking dictation from your kids! You’re right: young kids can be surprisingly articulate, and speak with much larger vocabularies than they might if expected to write on their own. Keep it up!

        The video game issue is all about balance, isn’t it? I think it’s natural for us parents to have reservations, but it’s good to have an open mind about it too, as you have. I’m glad you’ve been able to see the positive learning that is happening for your kids. How lucky they are to have a parent who is willing to keep searching for appropriate online venues for them!

        So nice to meet you here!

  • Amy Bowers Feb 16, 2011 @ 20:08

    Ah! So timely! I have a 7yo who loves video games (although we are on a hiatus for the moment). He loves Mario and Lego Star Wars and can memorize paths and strategies and has a huge patience for figuring out the puzzles. I, however, am fixated on the shooting and violence. I think there is something that he really tunes into with them – but also something that I don’t get. The problem that he and my husband agrees on – is that to really move on from level to level, you need to play for more than a half an hour – like two hours! And then he wants to play everyday – that is just too much for me. He is really active, kind, creative and all around great – I need more information and understanding on this topic. It causes me stress and guilt.

    • patricia Feb 16, 2011 @ 22:00

      It’s so hard when they’re little, and you’re dealing with this stuff for the first time! I remember that all so well. I highly recommend the book I mentioned in my comment to Marta, Amy. It sounds like you want more information on this, and I think the book would be a great starting place for you. (It also sounds like you have a husband who understands the other perspective, which can be really helpful–although probably challenging too.)

      I’m planning to write a bit more on this, and hopefully others will comment, so stay tuned!

  • Amy Bowers Feb 16, 2011 @ 20:10

    oh, and that is the way my son learns too. he works on his legos and snap circuits for hours – experimenting and learning on his own. why can’t i let him do it with video games too?

    • patricia Feb 16, 2011 @ 22:02

      I’m betting you’ll get there. But you can negotiate at your comfort level as you go…

  • marta Feb 17, 2011 @ 3:48

    Thanks for the patience with this un-expert mom. I’m with you and Amy, I just can´t relax… and at the same time I really want to be open and talk and listen to what they have to say…

    My 10 year old son LOVES Spore and it’s the only game so far that I’ve truly endorsed. He loves it because it seems endless with endless possibilities – and that way he can learn a lot about choices, consequences and all that you write about. It’s also the only computer game he has ever sticked to (not that he has tried a lot of them, but he usually follows his more knowlegable friends on this field… and he usually comes out after a couple of days trying the game out with a shrug and a “so what?”). They have 3 Wii games (Sports, FlingSmash and some Mario…) and have borrowed from friends other Mario, Sports Resort and PES. Again, PES seems open ended. He plays with my husband and they really enjoy it. I’m ok with that one as well. I’ll check the Age of Mythology (He’s into Percy Jackson now as well…) – is there a Wii version?

    What I really can’t get are ” the only way to win” games, which they seem to have to play endless hours to get to the next level and then the next and then discard. My son finds these games much less interesting but because there’s another level and another one, he just wants to keep playing, arguing that 1/2 hour sessions won’t make him proficient. Well, his friends, who don’t have time limits for screens, do pass all levels pretty quickly because they play non-stop. I tell my son that if I’d allowed him all the time he wanted to play he wouldn’t get to go to the pool, to handball practice (a sport he has chosen and which he adores, go figure!), to the park… He knows that, of course, but still there’s this competitive thing…

    Also, with “one way to win” games, even if you do experiment and search and try and fail and try again to get to the one right way to do it, all the rules are narrowly set by some adult/company/commercial interest that gives you nil freedom. I can’t see it as a learning process.

    As for the cheating – my son has been advised by his friends that the only way to get some stuff on Spore (can’t remember which stuff) is to get something from the Internet. He was in awe with them. He told me about a year ago: “They don’t like Spore anymore because they’ve cheated and now they think it’s not fun to look for the stuff and conquer the galaxy”. He’s also the guy who’d rather hand in his homework with mistakes than go check the solutions on the back of the textbook…

    To be honest, my main concern is my 5 year old, who gets to play and see others playing at such a tender age. He’s very used to having his siblings around as playmates, so he’s not very keen on playing on his own – he’ll always be doing what the other two are doing. Sometimes he gets my mobile phone lying around and I don’t hear from him and I see him engrossed with playing Tetris or something… that’s the only alone time he can manage 😉 and I’ve never seen him so deeply attached to any single toy/book/puzzle… But he’s very active as well, so with time-limits, I think I’m able to get by…

    My girl plays for a bit but, like your Lulu, has no compulsion. Nor for screens, except for movies…

    OK, I’ll continue to read more on this subject – and would LOVE to read what you have to say about it too 😉

    Marta from Lisbon

    • patricia Feb 18, 2011 @ 15:34

      Age of Mythology is only available for computers. It’s an older game, but has something of a cult status among many boys, according to my older son. It is, though, somewhat violent, so you’d want to do some research online to see if you’re comfortable with that. Every boy I have ever known to play it becomes somewhat obsessed with mythology as a byproduct of playing. So a videogame sends them to traditional books, which is a funny irony.

      I know how you feel about your youngest. H and Lulu bought our Wii with their own money, against my better judgment–and of course it was their younger brother who played it most. He was six at the time. I did monitor his time closely, however, and I found that his playing inspired all sorts of creative play and storytelling, which I’m planning to write more about soon. It also gave him a way to interact with his ten-years-older brother.

  • Just Peaches Feb 17, 2011 @ 8:44

    I was absolutely dead set against video games ten years ago. Like you, I struggled with the idea of my child being glued to a machine and not interacting with others. My son didn’t get a video game until he was about nine — before that he watched over other kids shoulders at school and began “mapping” his own game play out on paper. Finally we relented with parameters.

    He recently told me that what he likes about gaming is strategy. But he also likes the creative aspect. Both he and his sister have recently been consumed with a new game that is in beta called “Minecraft”. Unlike any other game on the market, this game allows players to build worlds on their own from scratch. If the player wants to build a zoo (like in Zoo Tycoon for example) they would first have to find the resources to build the pens. If metal metal cages were wanted, the player would have to mine the ore and then smelt it. The the animals would have to be caught and domesticated. Each player is given a completely original landscape and builds whatever they want. The game is open-ended and very creative — the parameters are set by the player (of course there are still limitations because it is in beta). I can’t believe I’m plugging a game!

    To relax, my son likes to play Tetris. He told me it was designed by a Russian psychologist to help people relax. I had to look that claim up! While it isn’t true that it was designed by a psychologist, studies have shown that it boosts general cognitive functions such as “critical thinking, reasoning, language and processing”. There are studies being done on using it to help people with post-traumatic stress disorder.

    Who knew?

    • patricia Feb 18, 2011 @ 15:42

      Mr. T has a good buddy who, along with his older brother, are huge fans of Minecraft. Their mother, Carrie, who comments here, is savvy and careful with this technology stuff, and she raves about the game! In fact, T’s friend is writing an ultimate guide to Minecraft, so the game is inspiring him to write, which I think is fantastic.

      It’s good to know that there are more open-ended creative games out there, so parents who are uncomfortable with gaming don’t have to fear that they’re all mindless and violent.

      It’s great that you talk to your son about what he gets out of playing these games. That, I think, is key. Our kids are part of a whole new world, and it’s important for us to try to understand it, rather than to hide and ignore it all out of fear.

  • Amy Bowers Feb 17, 2011 @ 12:35

    I will check out the Pink book. I have listened to him on TED and read articles and like him! Thanks! I am enjoying this thread. I guess my issues are also my 5yo watching and playing. I also love how they play with blocks and legos for hours, role playing and negotiating with each other. It seems like that does not happen as much when there is alot of gaming going on. Maybe I am wrong. Today, after we did our veggie business (www.frontporchproduce.com) I gave them some time and they are having a blast! I will loosen up and embrace it!

    • patricia Feb 18, 2011 @ 15:45

      I do love Dan Pink’s books. But the book I recommended specifically about the positive aspects of gaming is Don’t Bother Me Mom—I’m Learning by Marc Prensky. I’ve only read parts of it so far, but it’s fantastic. Great reading for a parent who is somewhat open to the idea of videogames, but is feeling anxious at the same time.

      • Amy Bowers Feb 18, 2011 @ 15:56

        thanks! i have it on my library list now! i appreciate it!

  • Kristin Feb 17, 2011 @ 17:56

    Jumping right in–

    And if you’ve got a visual/spatial learner, well, video games are meeting the learning interests of your child.

    In moderation, I think they’re fine, but my husband and I dislike the blatantly-realistic-human-killing games and forbid them in our home (for our 14 and 18 year-old boys). They end up going over to their friends’ houses to play the video games we don’t permit–so our tactic isn’t working, except that their exposure to those games is limited. So they play a lot of FIFA, hunting games, and mythical games; both of the latter still involve grotesque killing.

    That’s what I object to the most: I think the violence is desensitizing their ability to have compassion for others. (purely hypothetical)

    BTW: I’ve heard of adults having to go into a rehab clinic in Amsterdam for their obsession with World of War-craft. It’s kind of scary how much video games can impact and even take over a person’s life.

    Balance is what we aim for.

    Personally, I think that kids need more exercise and more exposure to nature more than they need gaming these days. This is old fashioned thinking. I also feel that kids have become too sedentary and I think that they may be over-weight from gaming too much (and eating too much junk while they are doing it), but that’s purely speculation and a whole other topic.

    • patricia Feb 18, 2011 @ 15:55

      With the whole gaming issue, you nailed it: balance is key.

      Kids need to know there’s a world out there beyond videogames; they need to get moving and experience it! By the same token, I think we parents need to consider the notion that videogames are not all evil. I think that stories like the one in Amsterdam–while important to consider–feed the fears of people in our generation, and they get a lot of attention because of it. But if we open our minds to something new, we might discover there are some positives in playing videogames as well.

      What I like best about the book I referred to above is that it encourages parents to talk to their kids about what they’re doing when they play videogames, and what they get from playing them. What they say can be enlightening! If we want them to listen to us, it’s important that we listen to them.

      I know you’re good at that. 🙂

  • molly Feb 18, 2011 @ 13:42

    did you hear this?

    it gave me pause. as much as i’d love my son to play with woolen dolls and wooden toys all day long (kidding, kinda), it is an unrealistic fantasy, especially for modern children like mine 🙂 aidan is always pointing out ways he learns from video games – just today, he showed me he was writing a story on club penguin.

    my biggest fear with video games is not the games themselves, or what they do to my child’s brain, but the whole issue of moderation, and more importantly, the desire to do things besides gaming. i’ve witnessed a worse case scenario at my cousin’s house – her son, a senior in high school, does nothing but WOW, and plans to do nothing but WOW when he goes off to college. i just want more for my boy.

    can’t wait to see what else you have to write on this topic. and i always love when you refer to your waldorf guilt – i can definitely relate. have i told you that my kids call it “waldork”? out of the mouths of babes . . .

    • patricia Feb 18, 2011 @ 16:09

      Thanks so much for the link. Very interesting!

      Moderation is really what it’s all about, isn’t it? I’ve always talked to my boys about their videogame playing. At one point H played World of Warcraft, and his obsession toward it was really concerning his dad and me. We talked to him *a lot* and came to understand that WOW in particular is designed to make players want to keep playing, to proceed higher and higher through the levels. It seemed to go on infinitely. I know that many, if not most, videogames are designed to encourage continued play, but this game seemed particularly insidious in that regard. We finally asked H to stop playing it and to find another game that involved limited sessions that ended, instead of going on and on… It was really tough for all of us at the time, but it was what H needed to gain that moderation, and I was glad we did it. (Rather than doing something more drastic like forbidding videogames altogether, which would have only alienated him and made him furious.)

      Waldork. Oh my gosh, you and your kids kill me. As soon as I mention that Chris, he will never use the proper term again.

  • Carrie Pomeroy Feb 18, 2011 @ 22:27

    Another interesting post! I’m curious–Patricia, you and many commenters referred to setting limits on videogaming. I’d love to hear what limits people have, how those limits have changed over time, and how they came about.

    My eight-year-old plays a half-hour a week of a game called Marble Blast that his dad has approved as “demonstrating pretty good physics principles” and a half-hour a week of games on Lego.com. I think he would like to play more than that and would totally love more narrative, complex games, but I’m resistant to having more videogaming in our lives, worried like some others about struggles about how often and how much, and also about how addictive the games can be for some people.

    I’d love to hear more of how others have worked with this.

    • patricia Feb 19, 2011 @ 12:04

      I’m loving all this discussion in the comments. I have a follow-up post half-written in my head, and I’m hoping that will generate more discussion.

      T is allowed two sessions of screen time a day, usually for around a half hour each. It often creeps into more time if he’s really involved in something. I probably wouldn’t allow so much time if he went to school, but as a homeschooler, he has lots of free time at home, and he spends plenty of it playing, drawing, reading… I also see a lot of what he’s doing onscreen feeding his creative playing, drawing and writing. That’s something I’m planning to write about in another post…

      I think the addictive qualities of gaming can be a concern, but not all game-playing is addictive. I shared in my response to Molly how we had to deal with that when we saw it happening with our oldest. Being involved and helping our kids monitor their screen time is a pain–but I think everyone in the family learns from it.

      (And I definitely think that our oldest’s interests in filmmaking are rooted in the game-playing and messing around on iMovie that we allowed when he was young.)

      • marta Feb 19, 2011 @ 17:22

        We have screen time limits: 1/2 hour after dinner on weekdays, until 10 am on weekends (they wake up around 7.30). Sometimes on Saturdays we watch a family movie. Sometimes on Saturdays (just like tonight), we have friends over and the kids play Wii. Screen time includes the tv (old shows, mostly, and movies), computer (Spore… they’re not much into surfing the web) and Wii.

        This is a compromise on my part – for me this is far too long glued to the screen… On the other hand, they play a lot on the neighbourhood park and are into sports, so it’s not so much about the level of physical activity they are missing when gaming/tv watching.

        It’s more a question of time, and what to do with time, really. They go to school, so there’s that to consider. But whereas doodling and drawing and painting and messing around or bouncing a ball down the corridor is not a waste of time and is really experimenting and feeling and seeing and hearing and touching real stuff, pushing buttons and shouting at the screen, for me, is a bit… well, I really have a problem with that. Time goes by and they cannot explain what they’ve just been doing… they just know they were gaming… I don’t know, some part of their brain seems to shut down, not the other way round…

        Also, what I see is that they connect and interact pretty well with actual playing – dress-up, playmobil, legos, what-have-you – but are much more cranky and distracted with gaming/tv watching. They don’t have mobile phones nor laptops but I see their peers and friends, more and more, with this sort of gadgets – not only that, but carrying them around. I still cannot understand how these multitasking abilities are beneficial – you get to do everything, but only on a very superficial level… My husband teaches at University. He says his most intelligent students (not necessarily those who get better marks) are the “old-fashioned” kids who know how to listen, how to ponder, how to wait for results… Most kids think they have – are entitled to! – all the answers at a click away.

        Ok, I won’t go down the luddite road now. As I said, I even like some open-ended games my kids play and I’ll definitely check the Age of Mythology!

        I just think we’re all losing a lot of what childhood, youth (life!) used to be – playing and messing around in the real, dirty, risky, unexpected world – and trading it for a pre-set, virtual, clean – sterile even – one.

        Marta from Lisbon

    • patricia Feb 22, 2011 @ 10:05

      Marta, the books mentioned above and in my follow-up post might give you a better sense of which games might encourage more higher-level thinking and cooperation between kids. Every game isn’t equal, and some have more positive benefits to offer.

  • Carrie Pomeroy Feb 20, 2011 @ 21:12

    Hi Patricia,
    I just saw a mention of this interesting-looking book in the NY Times today and thought of you–


    I found this interview online, as well–


    Thanks for pushing my thinking–I’m definitely going to investigate the subject a bit more.


    • patricia Feb 22, 2011 @ 10:00

      Great links! Thanks, Carrie. I’ve included them in my follow-up post.

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