learning in the new millennium, part 2

So much interesting discussion on my last post! Do check out the comments.

Such doubts we have about video games! Which makes sense: it’s something that we parents didn’t grow up with, which many of us don’t understand, yet it’s becoming a basic part of childhood for many of our kids.

People always fear the unknown. And the media plays on fear. Stories that feed our fears and amplify them attract readers. Which is why it’s easy to find so many stories on the negative aspects of video games. How they’re addictive, how they keep kids from learning.

I respect any parent’s decision to keep video games out of their kids’ lives. But I respect that decision even more if the parent has really explored the issue first. Both sides, negative and positive. I think the truth is that most parents have only looked at the negative side of gaming. Or maybe, like me, they’ve allowed gaming, but they haven’t been happy about it. For me, the positives have only revealed themselves slowly, over the years.

But I think we’re doing our kids a disservice not to look at the entire picture of gaming. Because our kids are growing up in a different world, and there’s a good chance that video games can help prepare them for that world.

(I’m hoping that my friend Carrie L. will read this post and comment. Recently she had a conversation about gaming with a twenty-something young woman who works at Google–a Stanford grad, I think– and the conversation really changed her perspective.)

If you’re willing to explore the positive side of video games, my readers and I have some recommendations.

I mentioned this one in the comments. It’s a book I just found at the library, on the positive aspects of video and computer games: Don’t Bother Me Mom–I’m Learning! by Marc Prensky. It’s fascinating. I especially like that it promotes discussion between parents and kids about what the kids are doing when they play games.

Reader Carrie sent a link to this episode of Science Friday, from just the other day. It’s an interview with Jane McGonigal, who wrote the recent book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. I haven’t read the book, but I think you can get a pretty good sense of where she’s going with it in the interview. Compelling stuff. (You can listen or read a transcript.)

My friend Molly also sent an NPR link, from Morning Edition: Video Games Boost Brain Power, Multitasking Skills.

No one commented specifically on what T said in that last post, but I’m still fascinated by it. (I think the video game topic makes us parents just throw up our arms and get panicky.) T was using video games as a metaphor for how to learn. The fact that he thinks of video games this way makes me realize how much I’ve underestimated their value.

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

I asked him to tell me more and he said this,

“I don’t like someone telling me exactly what to do, but I don’t like being in the dark either. I like having my path clear, but my goal unclear.”

In other words, he likes knowing which way he needs to go, but he also wants to discover in the process. That strikes me as a very creative, meaningful way to learn. Video games gave him this metaphor–wow!–but he wants more of his learning to be like this.

It’s also been interesting to watch how video games play out in T’s life. Often, he’ll play onscreen for a while, and then he’ll turn off the game but continue to play it “live”, moving around the room, re-enacting scenes and acting as one of the characters. He’ll extend the story as he pleases. He’ll also sit down and draw characters from the games, and then he’ll dream up his own characters to add. Or he’ll take an idea from a game and write (or dictate) his own story. Playing the games is just the beginning; T’s own imagination fleshes out the game worlds, and invents new ones. (Are video games T’s only source of creative inspiration? Not in the least. I’ve written about how the ancient Greeks are a current passion for him. Although that passion was certainly fueled by his playing of Age of Mythology… Games and books and learning and life are all wound together for him.)

Because writing is a particular interest of mine, I’ve read lots on how gaming can engage boys with literacy. I have several recommendations: Boy Writers by Ralph Fletcher; Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys: Literacy in the Lives of Young Men by Michael W. Smith and Jeffrey Wilhelm; Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture by Thomas Newkirk. All point out how we miss an opportunity if we don’t allow boys’ fascination with games to become fodder for their writing. If boys can bring their excitement towards games to their writing, their writing often bears the same energy and passion. And for boys who don’t have a drive to read and write, gaming can provide motivation.

Do you have a sense of how much kids write when they’re playing video games–at least older kids who play more complex games? They often communicate with others as they play together online. Many post questions on forums for help, and some write game reviews.

I turned up an interesting tidbit while researching an article I’m writing. It came from this transcript which interprets writing test scores from the 2007 NAEP. (The National Assessment of Education Progress, also known as “The Nation’s Report Card”.) I’m not a fan of standardized tests because I think they can undermine how and what we allow kids to learn on an everyday basis, but it is interesting to look at them as a means of considering group shifts over time.

“According to our 2007 results, the gap between male and female 12th-grade students is getting smaller. Twelfth-grade boys are improving their scores at a faster rate than 12th-grade girls. However, the gap has not changed for 8th-grade students. Eighth grade boys and girls are improving at about the same rate.”

The transcript doesn’t offer an explanation for why twelfth-grade boys’ scores are improving, but I have an inkling. My guess is that in the last few years, boys have been writing more than ever before in daily life, with texting, Facebook and gaming. People like to dismiss this sort of writing as lazy and error-riddled, but they fail to see the bigger picture: the more you write, the more comfortable you get with writing, and the more your writing improves. I’m guessing that older boys are gaining a facility with writing from their everyday lives, and it’s spilling over into their school writing. My guess is that twelfth grade girls have already developed a certain level of written literacy for school–as evidenced by their long-running higher-than-boys writing scores–so their real-world writing isn’t making as much of an impact. Also, on the whole, they’re not doing as much gaming, and hence may not be writing casually as often as the boys. (The fact that eighth grade boys didn’t have the same increases may have to do with the fact that younger boys, in 2007 anyway, probably weren’t doing as much casual writing as the older boys. Just my hypothesis.)

Literacy is only one benefit of gaming. The books above offer many other benefits: collaboration skills, ethics, creative thinking, economic skills… There’s a lot to think about. H was the kid who really had to educate me on all of this. And when I consider his filmmaking interests, I realize that they are closely tied to all the time we allowed him to explore with the computer, both with games and with playing with applications like iMovie and Garage Band. H developed skill and agility on computers that led to real-life interests and plans.

I don’t mean to sound as if I’m saying Video games are great! You should let your kids play them all day! Not at all. One thread that came up again and again in the comments is the notion of balance and moderation. I’m right there with you on that. Quite honestly, it would be much easier to simply forbid gaming, or to let my kids monitor themselves. Monitoring kids on games can be a real pain. So much time spent researching the “right” games, so much time spent telling kids it’s time to get off. So much time. But I’ll keep monitoring this way. I think we all learn from our conversations about moderation. I’m helping my kids to learn balance; they’re teaching me to respect something that matters to them that I don’t fully understand. It’s worth the time.

I think that we parents sometimes look nostalgically at our own childhoods, wishing our kids could have the same freedoms that we had: freedoms to ride bikes across neighborhoods, to play unsupervised in creeks and fields and abandoned buildings. (Michael Chabon’s essay The Wilderness of Childhood is a beautiful exploration of this.) But I read somewhere recently (oh, where did I read it?) that kids today get their freedom in their lives online and on screens. I suppose that those of us from earlier generations would find this notion unspeakably sad. And I think it’s important that we try to find ways for our kids to develop freedom and independence in the real world. But I wonder if most kids today would find that notion of screen freedom depressing. I don’t think so. The virtual world is part of their real world, and we oldsters may never fully understand that. But I think it’s important for us to try. We can offer the best of our own worlds to our kids, but they’ll be more likely listen if we let them do the same for us.

15 comments… add one
  • marta Feb 23, 2011 @ 8:35


    First things first: T’s observation is, now that you’ve written more about it, indeed very interesting (and he is a very intelligent kid!) about the learning process. For me, at least…

    Because, you see, for me learning that way used to be what I thought about when I thought about child-led play and learning: how to ride a bike without training wheels, how to build a long-standing sand castle, how to draw, how to navigate the streets of your neighbourhood for the first time on your own. You had some tools (your body, ideas, past experiences, a map) but you never knew exactly when you were going to achieve the goal, unless you tried and tried again – and the goal might be very different, in the end, from the one you had first tought of. The experience was what really mattered – it was where the learning happened.

    Now, of course gaming can be another source of learning and experimenting, and some smart gaming can be indeed unique in achieving groundbreaking science progress. I won’t dispute or oppose that. It would be downright stupid.

    But gaming is just another source, complementary to so many others, taken in moderation, with balance, with monitoring (yes, it is a pain!!!)… (When one of the authors cited says the 21 hours/week is the optimal time spent gaming she’s saying it is 3 hours per day! That is an enormous amount of time, not only in children and young adolescents but also in adults!). It cannot, should not, replace any other activity. Because gaming, online time, mobile phones and digital gadgets seem to me to have come to replace not only previous activities favoured by children but also the long forgotten feeling of… boredom, yes!

    Which leads me to the last bit – I don’t think the media is fuelling our fears over gaming and online dependence. There are stories, yes, even in newspapers in Europe. But the majority of media coverage of this entertainment technology is to sell it, more and more, as a lifestyle, as the modern way to be. And while everybody is enthusiastic about Facebook revolutions and the power of gaming to cure serious diseases (I am!), I think we shouldn’t forget that before and after Facebook there were and there will always be revolutions…

    The world we grew up in (and our grandparents and their grandparents) is the same as it is today: there are seasons, there’s evil, there’s good, there are safe streets and dodgy neighbourhoods, bikes and bruises. I don’t think we should ever shut our kids away from it – and, unfortunately, that’s what I’m seeing around me more and more in our generation of parents and economic/social leaders. We’re taking kids away from the wide open world and feeding them a sense of freedom with gaming/online time. It’s us who press this virtual world into our kids, not the other way round.
    In my opinion, our job should be to show our kids that gaming is only – should be only – a small part of the 21st century world.

    (Sorry, I do get carried away by these issues!!!!!!!!)

    Marta from Lisbon

    • patricia Feb 23, 2011 @ 10:32

      I agree with you, Marta. I’ve been trying to advocate balance and moderation all along. Three hours a day seems like too much to me too. (edited to add: I looked back at the interview. McGonigal wasn’t recommending we play games for 21 hours a week; she was simply noting that research shows that if you play for more than 21 hours a week, you see a decrease in the positive impacts of gaming.)

      My point is that as much as we should be teaching our kids about what else is out there, we should be learning from them (and others) about the positive aspects of video games and other new technologies. We can’t expect them to learn from us if we aren’t willing to learn from them.

      The video game model has a lot to teach us about engaged learning. As Prensky says in his book, kids are motivated to play games because they want to master them–in other words, they’re learning. (We may not be thrilled with the content of what they’re learning, but there’s no doubt that they’re learning, or they wouldn’t be so motivated to keep playing.) On the other hand, schools, in general, are teaching with a very dated model for learning. I just think that rather than dismiss video games altogether, we should be paying attention to why they captivate our kids, and applying that model to other aspects of life–which was just what T was suggesting.

  • Kristin Feb 23, 2011 @ 10:43

    Hey Tricia,

    This is a great topic to explore. I ran across some beneficial viewpoints of gaming on the PBS teachers link you recommended to me awhile back and I twittered them on my blog this week. Here they are:


    and this:


    After you watch the video, there is a box below it containing other videos about individuals (educators) who recognize the value of the medium (video gaming), and who are employing that style of learning in their classrooms and such.

    I agree with you that looking at both sides of the issue is totally worth it. It’s here to stay and rather than run and hide from it, why not explore what’s working and emulate aspects of it so that it may be an instructional tool and not a demon.

    • patricia Feb 23, 2011 @ 22:42

      Great links, Kristin! I especially enjoyed the hour-long program on digital media and education. It includes most of the people who are featured in the extended interviews which you’ve linked to.

      Here’s the link to the full show for interested readers. It looks at ways that various digital media are being used in education. It also addresses some of the issues we’ve been talking about here.

      Good stuff!

  • Sam Feb 23, 2011 @ 17:15

    The Frontline segment “Digital Nation” might give pause to those who think multitasking makes us smarter or better (as the two are often linked… maybe only a different kind of smarter, but not smarter in the more traditional sense and maybe even less literate and capable of deep thought and analysis developed over time.
    It only partially addresses the effect of video games on desensitization of social skills. What is most alarming is the potential effect of a digitized society on deep analytical thought–which may be the strongest argument the program makes against trends toward an over-connected society.

    • patricia Feb 23, 2011 @ 22:59

      Hey Sam. I’ll give the program a watch.

      I would never equate multi-tasking with intelligence or being “better”–simply because I am an absolutely terrible multi-tasker. 🙂

      I do think it’s important to consider the long term effects of digital media. A while back I linked to an interview with Nicholas Carr, who wrote The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. I didn’t read the book–not that I don’t read books!–but the interview was thought-provoking. http://forum-network.org/lecture/what-internet-doing-our-brains

      On the other hand, what I’ve thought on most deeply and analytically over the past few days is this topic which we’re discussing here–via the internet.

  • CathyT Feb 23, 2011 @ 18:23

    This is such a fascinating topic to read on. I have two teens, ages 14 and 16 and one is much more of a gamer than the other, ever since he was exposed to computers at age 4 or so. Over the years we have negotiated limits and at times taken the computer away for a month or two at a time when we felt it was becoming addictive… Even now we have limits and for the most part the kids agree with them. For those who are wondering, we have no gaming until after dinner dishes have been washed on weekdays (6:30 or so) and no tech on Sundays until after 8 pm. Also we have no gaming on Wednesdays – new rule imposed last week based on concerns of how much time was spent gaming. My kids do go to bed around 10:30 so they get time to game if they decide to.

    I do agree that gaming and technology is here to stay and that kids can benefit from it, probably in ways I don’t even know. My older son is home schooled and he loves Facebook to share and IM with his friends. My younger son loves the war sagas. And I should say that all of us love Rock Band. Our family band has played in many venues and we have spent quality time together laughing, singing, and joking together doing a shared activity. My husband plays other wii games with the boys but they don’t interest me the same way.

    Ok, I also have two much younger kids, ages 4 and 6. They play wii maybe once a month and have fun skiing or driving. They love my iPad but only get to use it for about 1/2 hour the day after a babysitter comes (boy is that good incentive to be good for the sitter!). Right or not, they want to use the iPad more than I want them on it so this is the compromise I have come up with for now.

    I think there is so much more this discussion could delve into. My older kids do 75% or more of their homeschooling on line, using their computers in our designated “office” area. I can see their screen from the next room but they have a glass door separating them from their little brothers. The boys have made websites, blogs, flickr pages and written games and explored CAD programs. They have watched shows on Netflix and from other sites – The Daily Show comes to mind. How much is too much? How do you balance learning and life? We do the best we can and I think we have done it well, so far. But it helps that my husband and I sit down EVERY week with our kids and evaluate what they did with their time and how they felt what they learned. Felt isn’t the right word but I hope you know what I am trying to say.

    I could go on but I am going to stop. And I will read on more about this.

    • patricia Feb 23, 2011 @ 23:28

      It’s so interesting to read how others manage all this. And what cool things your boys have done with digital media!

      It’s hard to know what’s enough and what’s too much. This is all so new, and we’re all just figuring it out. But it sounds like your conversations with your kids are probably keeping you on the right track. You might enjoy the Prensky book I mentioned because he thinks those sort of conversations are very important, and he offers ideas about what to discuss (regarding gaming, at least.)

  • Carrie Pomeroy Feb 23, 2011 @ 21:47

    I just wanted to say that I did note T’s perceptive comment about how he likes to learn. It reminded me of something my daughter had said recently. We were talking about whether or not to sign up for a second round of classes at an open workshop where kids are provided with tools and lots of funky odds and ends and the support to build whatever they want, versus signing up for a class at a book arts center where the classes tend to be more directed and less open-ended.

    My daughter said she liked the open workshop better, because she preferred having the freedom to build what she wanted versus being told step-by-step what to do and how to do it. She’s only five, and already she knows this about herself! I sure as heck didn’t have this kind of awareness of my own learning style and preferences at five or even nine years old. I don’t think I had it 19 or 25. I think at 42, I may be just starting to figure out what works best for me, learning-wise, in part through what I’ve learned from homeschooling my kids and watching them figure out their own best ways to learn.

    • patricia Feb 23, 2011 @ 23:35

      Yep, I think that’s one of the absolute best benefits of homeschooling: kids can gain a deep understanding of what they like and how they learn best. Like you, I didn’t understand much about my own learning style until I figured it out as an adult. And I think watching my kids learn has helped me understand my own learning style better as well. Interesting how that works, isn’t it?

      Hope your daughter does some good tinkering!

  • Angela Mar 8, 2011 @ 9:30

    I love Mr. T’s observation and metaphor. My oldest is similar, and he’s increasingly getting into games. It’s fascinating to watch him pick the games on which he prefers to be Player 1″ vs. “Player 2” It’s also interesting to watch which demos he chooses to download. The games we buy at the store tend to be either selected by my husband or the highly marketed ones that he’s asked for as gifts from his aunts, etc. But when it comes to the demos, he tends to gravitate towards some very different types of games. Not that they entirely replace Mario Smash Bros. Brawl, of course, but there’s a breadth and depth there to what he enjoys.

    Re balance, we started out limiting, but we’ve given it up. What I’ve found is that there may be days where he really dives into games (or TV, or computer) and doesn’t seem to come up for air, but that’s usually when there’s something new. Then he self-regulates and moves on to other things, and he ends up watching/playing for less than I might have even set as a limit. But when there was a limit, he was going to make sure he got what was coming to him, and then of course there was much grousing and complaining when time was up.

    That said, we tried Netflix on the Wii and gave it up. They changed the offerings often enough that just as he’d get ready to move on, there’d be a new show that caught his eye that he wanted to sit and watch episode after episode. Of course now he’s on a Price Is Right and Lets Make a Deal kick (-:

    • patricia Mar 8, 2011 @ 23:38

      It’s great that you’re paying attention to what your son is choosing, and learning about him from that! And I admire that you have enough confidence in your son not to force limits. I’ve gotten a lot more flexible with how much time I allow, but I still feel a need to keep a hand in there. But I’ll bet if I didn’t, T would monitor himself pretty well on his own. Like your guy, if he isn’t playing something brand new, he moves on to something offscreen on his own.

  • Jo Dec 10, 2012 @ 6:37

    You might find The Art of Immersion by Frank Rose of interest – he explores how storytelling via games, film, books and the Internet have become intertwined. Mr T seems to be a prime example of how people today are adapting and building on stories for themselves and others.

    • patricia Dec 11, 2012 @ 8:36

      I hadn’t heard of that book, Jo, but it looks fascinating! I put it on hold at my library, and can’t wait to get my hands on it. It really seems to be the way my three kids have grown up–and they’ve brought me right along for the ride!

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.