homeschooling,  programming

Homeschooling and Computers

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When my oldest was starting to take an interest in computer games, I was skeptical. Sure, I love computer games. Sure, I remember learning to spell to play computer games when I was a child, but somehow I still bought into the idea that too much screen time is not good for children. I’ve worried that using computers distracts children from exploring the real world. They don’t get outside enough. They don’t get the ability to manipulate physical objects or gain the social play they should. I’ve been skeptical about using computers for educational purposes because I’ve assumed it is too easy for children to guess at the solutions to game problems than to actively figure it out. I’ve allowed them to play computer games, but I’ve limited the amount.

All my beliefs about the uselessness of computer games have been challenged. First they were challenged when I realized that my children – particularly my oldest – really does think things through on the computer. He’s figured out all sorts of patterns and strategies on games. He really is thinking, evaluating options and practicing making choices. Second, the computer games would be among the most challenging parts of his day. He’s a super bright child and he likes to be challenged. Computer games give him complex situations to try to understand. Then there’s the ability to practice math. Using a math game he can review an enormous number of multiplication facts without the nagging it would take to review them with a worksheet and with less effort on my part than playing card games. (Though I still try to do the card games when I can.)

The book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, by James Paul Gee, is confirming what I have been beginning to suspect about computer games. Mr Gee’s book challenges the idea that games are mindless fun by pointing out that learning is about so much more than information. It isn’t about memorizing facts or content, it is about learning how to think about things.  He notes how computer games encourage people to develop a strategy but also to challenge that strategy, developing pattern recognition and then recognizing the exceptions to the patterns. He argues that a good computer game can challenge people to reflect on their worldviews and he connects the role playing done in computer games with the taking on of roles students need to do to actively learn. (Students need to identify themselves as scientists, mathematicians, etc.) I’m trying to find one line that really sums up what he’s talking about and to an extent it is a line in his conclusion that he advocates “understanding the ‘play’ of identities and perspectives as they work for and against each other in the world, now and throughout history.” Computer games (like other games, I would argue) allow a person to experiment with different identities and perspectives.

From Mr. Gee’s webpage I found this wonderful paragraph:

 But here is a well kept secret: deep learning is a drug for humans. It is as attractive and addicting as real drugs and sex. It fills a primal need in humans. Schools have obscured this by making learning noxious, as they would with sex if they taught that. However, out of school, popular culture has learned that hard learning is sexy and sells. Popular culture activities like the card game Yu-Gi-Oh and the video game Civilization are as complicated and hard as anything most kids see in school these days. They require effort, commitment, persistence past failure, lots of practice, and eventual mastery. They also make tons of money.

I think that should be my guide when I’m trying to review what I’m doing on schoolwork. Is this encouraging real learning? Is it… not fun in the shallow sense, but fun in a deep addicting way? There are a lot of people who do special “learning activities” where they write children’s spelling words in paper and then let the kids pop the balloons to get the spelling words and games like that to “make school fun.” With three children I don’t have time or energy to do that but the bigger reason I don’t want to do that sort of thing (much) is that I want the fun to come as much as possible from the depth of the learning. The learning itself should be fun, not just the activities it is dressed up in.

I think about learning and what is involved in learning quite a bit, as a homeschooling mother. I think in some ways the issue of identity helps explain why some people find their children learn better as unschoolers (with less or no structured schoolwork) than doing structured schoolwork. If an unschooled child starts to identify as a scientist, he will learn to be a scientist, whereas if he starts to identify instead as someone forced to learn something he doesn’t want, then he won’t learn as much. The message is the identity. The learning is the identity. So the solution isn’t to say all children should be unschooled and never structurally taught anything, it is to keep an eye out for what the message being really conveyed is, and what identity the child is taking away is.

That said, I want to figure out how James Paul Gee’s ideas fit and/or clash with the book Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. It has been a while since I’ve read Postman’s book, so I’m working from a pretty sketchy memory here, but my memory is that Postman argues that certain ideas just cannot come through the form of television. Short video clips cannot convey the same depth and type of ideas that longer discourses could. (I imagine Postman would have something not very favorable to say about the character lengths of twitter, possibly something similar to what Charlie Angus said when leaving twitter.) And the medium itself ends up helping to guide the content. Television will focus on the visually appealing (or perhaps also the visually repelling). News clips will focus on what makes news clips good news clips, not on what people actually need to know and understand.

So perhaps Postman would say that yes, computer games do provide some educational activities but that people have to be highly aware of the limits of them. Certain ideas and worldviews are easier to transform into the visual world of computer games than others, so these ideas and worldviews will be more readily available to gamers than other ideas.

I’ve been idly dreaming of what type of computer game I would make if I could find enough time to attempt on my own what is normally done by a team of programmers. I’ve thought about trying to do one about Ancient Rome. It would be an adventure/quest game. Possibly the person would play a soldier in Julius Caesar’s army, and work their way up to be powerful enough politically to be asked to participate in the conspiracy against Caesar. Or perhaps I would set it in the year of 4 emperors. Or perhaps I would use the letters of Pliny the Younger as the base and have the character travelling around solving problems in one of the provinces, as Pliny was sent to do. I would want to try to build a model within the game of what power means, particularly political power and influence. Yet how would I make the game fun without compromising that model? Would a game in which a large part of the job is to decide which clients requests you should pass on to people who might grant you favors be entertaining? Would I end up having to focus on the bizzare details of Roman History in order to appeal to youth, rather than on the historically significant issues? I would want the game to be open ended enough that players could experiment with their character’s character, being more or less honorable, more or less power-grabbing, etc.  And that the character could choose which of several endings the person wants – perhaps to try to become Emperor himself, or to maintain the democracy or to help a friend become Emperor.

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  • Malea

    Your son and mine sound a lot alike. I had a lot of the same concerns, but my son has dispelled every single one. He is constantly learning something new, figuring something out, problem solving like a pro…and has emerged as a leader in some of his online games. He also has developed a strong set of morals that he follows, and enforces, both in his online gaming world and in his everyday life.

    I’m going to read that book too. Thanks for this post! 🙂

  • Patricia

    I, too, have been skeptical to say the least. I also homeschool my 6 year-old son who loves computer games very, very much. I have already accepted that I cannot control how much he enjoys them obviously, and have started to brainstorm on ideas on how to focus on the benefits of video games rather than their cons. I appreciate you sharing your opinions, and will make sure to get the books you mention here as well. Thanks a lot!

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