Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Some teacher perspectives on technology (especially video games)

This evening I did was is called a "resource session" for a group of teachers in our Interdisciplinary Studies Program (IDS), a master's level program focusing on action research in which the curriculum is co-created between one primary professor and a group of students over the course of the 2-year program; other "resource people" are brought in periodically to supplement the expertise of the primary professor. The topic was "technology." I asked the primary professor several times prior to the session what specific topics I should prepare, and gave her a menu of possibilities:

  • Using google docs to collaborate
  • Web 2.0 applications of all sorts
  • Photo editing
  • Video editing
  • Data analysis
  • Charts and graphs
  • Google maps
  • Handling large files
  • Open source instructional software
  • Tech integration—given a particular subject area and grade level
  • Virtual environments (Second Life) for teachers
  • Digital storytelling

Her answers were vague, including this response: "I would think web applications and tech integration would be standard. But can you do the more exotic too, like digital storytelling, second life, data analysis. The sessions will be about 3 hours or so, so there should be time, no?"

I tried to point out that any ONE of these topics would easily take 3 hours to even begin to introduce, but decided I would prepare three primary topics: what is technology integration, Web 2.0 applications and education, and a brief intro to using Excel and Access to analyze student performance data. Obviously, with less than one hour per topic, I intended these to be overviews, hoping the students would ask questions about other things that interested them, and would take advantage of the many links to other resources I provided on a session outline on my web site.

Well, not unexpectedly, things didn't go according to plan. First, when I arrived and described what I intended to do to the primary professor, she blanched at the data analysis piece. "We don't need that!" I responded, "but that was one of the things you suggested I try to cover!" She said "I thought you meant qualitative data!" From her perspective, since the IDS program is about action research, and the participants are expected to collect qualitative data as part of their research (and not quantitative data), the students didn't need to know about analyzing quantitative data. "But in addition to participating in the program, they are teachers, aren't they? Don't they have to deal with student test data? Wouldn't they want to know something about that?" "Well," she said, "you can ask them, and if they want it, you can do that. But I hope you're prepared to rustle something up on the fly."

Turns out she was right. When the students arrived, we went through the agenda, and I asked them about their interest in learning how to use Excel and Access to analyze data. "Is that some kind of database program," one asked. When I described what it was I was going to show (how to take Illinois Student Achievement Test (ISAT) test data and look at subgroups, a chorus of heads shook. "Oh, we have people who do that." "They do the analysis for us." I didn't say anything, although I was thinking "aren't you the least bit curious about how that it done?" For most of them, the answer is an emphatic NO.

But this conversation needn't have happened, because we never had time for it anyway. While talking about what I took to be the major reasons to do technology integration--focusing on "meaningfulness" as the ultimate educational criterion--I made an off-hand remark that I thought that video games have a lot to teach teachers about education. OMG! That set off a firestorm of conversation that took up most of the next two hours.

I know that the idea that video games are relevant to education is somewhat controversial to the general public. However, I had no idea it is that controversial among this cross-section of suburban teachers. "What about violence?" "We don't want our kids sitting in front of a computer screen for five hours at a time!" "Yeah, sure, their learning a lot shooting up prostitutes in Grand Theft Auto...."

One teacher was intrigued enough by my statement that he asked me to explain exactly what I thought video games have to teach us about teaching. I talked a bit about "goal-based scenarios" (Roger Shank's term) and "simulated virtual environments" such as Sasha Barab's QuestAtlantis. A bunch of heads nodded when I discussed how placing students into complex situations in which they are instrumental in solving problems was intrinsically engaging; that most young people liked video games in which they had to master multiple tasks and complex sitautions to solve problems rather than just shooting their way through the game; and that classroom teachers would do well to pay attention to the ways virtual environments could be used to place students into sitauations of social complexity and responsibility. But some of the teachers (especially some of the younger women) couldn't get past Grand Theft Auto.

"I teach middle schoolers, and the last thing I want is for them to go home and stare at a screen for hours learning how to kill people." "They have to learn how to make good choices and these video games don't teach that!" "What does Halo 3 teach kids about how to get along in social situations." This led inevitably to "what's gonne happen to these students who spend all their time playing with the computer and never learn how to interact with others," and so on.

One teacher described how he sees groups of kids walking down the sidewalk, each person's head buried into their cell phones, oblivious to the others, texting away. "What about the people you're with? If you're texting all the time, how can you learn how to interact with real people?" I pointed out that there were plenty of social situations when *I* was growing up in which having the option to text with someone thoughtful would have been a welcome escape from the prepubescent nonesense and even (often) hurtful barbs. "But how do we know they're texting with someone thoughtful," he asked. "How do we know they're not?" I asked.

I pointed out that for a 40-something person to look on the activities of a group of 12 year olds and judge it from their own 40-year old perspective (which clearly is more focused on possible long-term effects of activities) which has NO experience of participating in that same situation (with that option for texting) was kind of short-sighted. I pointed out that taking a more historical or sociological perspective (and paying attention to research) might provide a better perspective. While that teacher listened thoughtfully to my response, the group of young women over on one side of the room couldn't get past Grand Theft Auto.

Clearly, this is a push-button issue for many people. My belief is that whenever people REACT to a topic with such knee-jerk, pre-programmed responses (especially when they are so quick to dismiss any potential for good in a new or unfamiliar mode of being), there's very little thought going on. I did what I could to raise questions and offer alternative views, but they were already set in their beliefs, and the more I suggested that they look at it differently, the more dismissive of ME they became. (In other words, because I am open-minded about this stuff, I'm part of the problem.)

After this long discussion, I showed a video of a TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson called "Do schools kill creativity?" He doesn't talk much about technology in that talk, but at the end, I asked them what this had to do with technology. "You were able to show this to us using technology." "Well, yeah, but I mean what did the CONTENT have to do with technology?" It took a while before someone suggested that maybe technology could enhance creativity. I added that often times the "creative" energies of students took them in a direction otehr than that which the teacher wanted. I also pointed out that many times the response of teachers is not about encouraging thinking OR creativity, but about getting the students to do what they're told. "It's about control. Schools are...and have been for much of their history...instruments of control." The primary professor piped in: "And teachers often become agents of that control."

YES. And it's attitudes like those that emerged from my offhand comment about videos that often play into that role.

Later in the discussion, I pointed out that teachers have a moral obligation to express their own values even if they differ from those of the school. "Change starts with each of us," I said. "Schools will never change," one of the more vocal anti-video-game teachers said. "There's nothing we can do."


I guess the kids will have to take over, for real. Let's hope they do it before they get completely socialized into the beliefs of some of their teachers.