The Learning Game

It’s the second time I came across this idea in a book on higher education. It was that instead of the traditional method of lecturing, assigning homework, and readings followed by an exam within a fixed timetable, education ought to provide students with a game-like experience that allows them to take as much time as they need to master material before “moving up to the next level”. The writer I was reading today in a book titled College Disrupted went so far as to suggest that we learn from gambling casinos and video games how to draw students into “flow” experiences that totally engage them.

College DisruptedThere was a part of this that really made sense. Our traditional model often seems to conclude that if the student did not master the material, it was of necessity the failing of the student. Often they were moved on to another course without really mastering the material in a given course. College in this model is often more a matter of surviving until one acquires a sufficient number of course to get a degree rather than really learning something. The new model seems to propose that failure is a lack in the curriculum rather than the student and that the ideal is that everyone masters the material, that all get “A’s”.

One of the forces driving this is a deepening concern that when a student or her parents are investing $100,000 or more in this process, there should be some measurable outcome besides lots of good (and hopefully few bad) college memories and growing up experiences.

Nevertheless, there are some fundamental questions I have about all this:

  • Is this model suggesting that all of life be structured as a game, where the goal is to “level up”?
  • Whose responsibility is it to create the “game” and if it is someone other than the learner, what does this say about personal agency? This seems a highly deterministic view of human beings.
  • What about the parts of learning that involve slogging through and tedium? A good amount of academic research involves the tenacity that runs an experiment 50 times, altering different variables.
  • What about the parts of life that don’t conform to the game model? What happens when you try everything and still have a colicky infant? What happens when you try to “level up” your physical condition only to come smack up against a chronic illness that no diet, exercise or yoga routine can remedy?
  • I’m also concerned with whether this will lead to a new kind of “common core” thinking where college must produce a certain number of deliverables and university teachers will also be compelled to become teaching technicians, adjuncts really, to the “game”.
  • Lastly, I wonder if it is not games per se’ that lead to learning, but the  “immersive experience”, whether that be an engaged class discussion, a passionate lecture, an internship that draws out unexplored capacities in a student, or a project that arouses a deep curiosity about the unknown.

That said, College Disrupted also observes that only about $1 billion a year goes into educational research, a paltry amount compared to what we are spending on other forms of research. In particular, it seems to me an interesting question to explore how it is that those transitioning from youth to adulthood learn. Educators clearly have found that adults learning is a very different thing from childhood learning. What about this “in between” space of the 18-22 year old?

The one thing that strikes me, whatever the answers to all this are, is that these people, and their futures are too important for us to play games with their lives.


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