Ali Carr-Chellman

Head, Learning and Performance Systems Department, Penn State University


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Can we make public elementary schools more boy friendly? Does gaming offer a creative way to do that?

Boys are failing in our public elementary schools in numbers that far outpace girls. There may be many reasons for this, the compression of the curriculum (kindergarten is the old second grade), fewer male teachers, zero tolerance regulations, increased structure, less recess, few opportunities for play, lack of kinesthetic learning opportunities, the list goes on. The family as well as the school plays a role in this problem. How can we make schools that are more boy friendly? Can we do it without disadvantaging the girls who are doing well in the current system? Can games help us to re-engage boys in their learning? What kinds of games?

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    Feb 28 2011: Your talk gets at the core of a project I am currently working on, Nova Initia. While this game in no way advertises itself as educational, the core mechanic turns the web into the playing field, and uses the what we call "Tours" to allow users to create their own story lines and playing guides.

    The idea that the depth of games is what draws boys is very true. Every great game that holds our attention has intricate plot lines, much of which are not completely apparent from the content which the casually observing parent or teacher might ever see. The reason for this is that a core mechanic in most games is to make the player earn it. Your average boy needs to feel challenged in order to feel like they've gained anything of value. You see this play out in mathematics grades because not only is grading quick, producing scores which rank students, but the underlying mechanic of how it works is exposed to the student. The idea of "figuring out how the game works" is very prevalent among most gamers, it's simply stripping away the visual mechanics out of the game in your mind. This currently usually breaks down to math.

    I believe the path to educating boys in things like language and writing is the complete opposite of the way we are taught. Boys want to read and write exciting stories, but grammar and sentence structure typically bores them to death. I propose we allow students to develop story lines for games, with subsequent assignments creating branches in the story in which different writing patterns are developed. Think about it, even instructional and referential essays could fit into this scenario. These could then be played or read through by other students, at which point the need for proper grammar becomes obvious to the student. In games and the internet typos become very apparent, and poor wording and structure will lose the grabbing attention gamers expect out of stories. We can expose the students to these reactions either first hand, or through ratings.
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      Mar 2 2011: Cool, please post the link to the facebook page on this topic (search ali carr-chellman ted and it will come up) so I can get a look at what you're working on. Several other folks on that fb page are also interested in testing and trying stuff out.
    • Mar 2 2011: Many of the things you mentioned are true, no... change that to, everything you said is true.

      Typing tutor programs are an example of what you are talking about, but mostly without the elaborate game play. What's good about these typing programs is that the user gets instant feed back and scoring. In addition, they can repeat the lessons numerous times to improve their scores in a fraction of the time typing courses used to take in the classroom. Another benefit is that there is no peer pressure or pressure from the teacher which increases their anxiety level.

      Another example of using computers to learn... Years ago, I had to learn a subject. I took several online example tests and only got about half the answers correct. I repeated the tests over and over until I scored 100%. When I took the real test, I got 100%. Apparently, I learned the subject from the practice tests. This entire process only took about 1 hour. This type of learning would be excellent for subjects that require memorization, such as vocabulary. The instant feedback was instrumental in the rapid learning. Also knowing that I knew the subject was invaluable to me during the real test.

      Also, in a classroom setting, showing the aggregate scores of the class sets goals for the students.

      I realize that this is a type of flash card system, but I think improved with the addition of multiple choice.
      Good luck on your project.
  • Mar 1 2011: Another thought...

    In college, algebra was a required course. For me, algebra was a very simple subject and I was bored to death. I would sit in class trying to appear to pay attention while at the same time, trying to do other things. After a couple of weeks, I spoke to the instructor and he agreed to let me come to class only on days when there was a test. I made up some excuse about my schedule to justify my absence. I would open the book about 1 hour prior to each test and I finished the course with an "A".

    To sit there for an hour was pure torture and had I done so in todays world, they would have diagnosed me with ADD or ADHD. In other subjects that were more demanding, such as statics, dynamics, physics, and calculus, I was totally engrossed. I couldn't wait to get to class and didn't want it to end so soon.

    What's to be learned, or at least considered, is that ADD and ADHD is diagnosed for many students that are bored with either the subject or the level at which it is being taught. This is truly a travesty. For a doctor or a parent to put their children on drugs without considering the cause of the child's restlessness is nothing more than incompetence.

    The educational system needs to change. Our world is getting more complex and specialization, even at the high school level, needs to be addressed. A "general" education is no longer a viable solution.

    Well, that's my two cents!
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      Mar 2 2011: Yep, about 85% of the world's attention drugs are being prescribed for American boys--as the movie Raising Cain asks us, are we medicating them because they have a medical problem, or are we medicating them because they are boys? U of WI Steinkeuler found that boys reading materials THEY chose on topics they chose without dumbing it down read many levels beyond their "diagnosed" reading level.
      • Mar 2 2011: That's interesting...

        My opinion is that we trust the medical profession much more than they deserve. While doctors can do some incredible things, the medical field is still in it's infancy. During the Civil War, (just 85 years before I was born), a medical bag on the war front consisted of a knife, a saw, alcohol, and opiates. Harvard didn't get its first stethoscope until 1870.

        When it comes to the brain, we know even less.

        As for ADD or ADHD, we can assume that it can be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, or the abnormal structure of the neurons and synapses, or have a social causality. In any case, treating the symptom without knowing the cause can have deleterious effects. I don't know if tests exists to determine the cause of the symptoms, but I do know that it can't be determined by simple consultation with a physician. Except perhaps in extreme cases, medication should be avoided until we know more about the human brain.

        For all I know, most ADD or ADHD cases can be caused from boredom or from not letting children expend energy on the play grounds during recess. From what I understand, boys are now forced to "tune it down" during recess. I do remember how relaxed I felt after gym class during junior high and high school. Even in later years, during our breaks at work, we would go outside and play Frisbee or something else and after break, we would be more relaxed and more focused. Ironically, the business was afraid that we might get hurt at work so they stopped our afternoon romps. This resulted in people sitting in the break room and drinking coffee and smoking. Stupid, huh?

        Anyway, thanks for your response.
  • Mar 1 2011: I suppose that making games more educational would help, but I don't think that is the real problem with education. People excel in what they are interested in and tend to get bored with anything else. There seems to be a huge gap with what interests girl versus what interests boys and the educational subjects favors girls interests.

    As an example of how interest or lack of interest effects the learning process, I will use one of my favorite subjects, audio. Audio is a very complex subject. Most people, men and women, are not interested in audio and when I talk about it, their eyes glaze over and they only listen, for a while, to be polite. If I bring the subject up again, they will avoid it. Well, the same thing applies to the subjects taught in schools. Using myself in high school as an example, we would read classic books in english class and report on them. I would be bored to death and my grade would reflect it. Once we had to read a science fiction story which was my favorite type of story. I didn't read the book, I absorbed it. When we reported on it in class, it seemed, to me, that no one had read it. Our roles were reversed. That day, I was the "A" student, everyone else were "B" or "C" students.

    The point is that grades are not necessarily a reflection of intelligence, rather a reflection of interest. If the educational process was limited to what interest me personally, I would shine above all the rest. I would also go so far as to say that girls would be less interested than boys in this example and hence the boys, on average, would out score the girls.

    This considered, It is easy to understand the disparity between boys and girls. It's the educational process that is failing the boys. Want them to sit still? Then teach them something they are interested in.
  • Feb 27 2011: These TED talks show that if the curriculum and the images don't relate to boys then they just don't connect. Perhaps offering games and simply more images of boys doing things in the way boys like will help. Also not constantly correcting or re-directing the play that boys like.

    Here's a You Tube video for boys to get more of these images out there. Just showing an action hero doing yoga has helped more boys get interested in yoga.
  • Feb 27 2011: Couldn't agree more. My 5 yr old has a sweet disposition. His passion is for DS, Wii, my ipad or as he puts it 'games with electricity'. Anything with fighting is even more attractive to him. Just about all of his friends are in the same boat. It feels more natural to embrace rather fight it. I looked for educational games on the ipad, pc, tv, etc but have not found any that look nearly as appealing as Mario or super heroes and the like. I would love to discuss game development further. I work in technology.
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      Mar 2 2011: Vicki, there are some great apps out there, but bottom line, the ed market doesn't compel designers to create games at the level (with the hollywood soundtracks, graphics, and other things that make games amazing) for education. It's not as appealing for a reason unfortunately. We're talking more about it over on my fb page (search ali carr-chellman ted and it should come up). Feel free to join us there.
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    Feb 24 2011: The statistics are aggregated, so while there may be some public schools out there that do better with boys, others then do worse, but overall boys are not doing as well as girls. See the boy's project 100 girls stats. There's a fair bit of research that's starting to accrue, and Peg Tyre's done a good job of sharing most of the primary reasons and causes for the problems. My sense is that simply, the culture of boys is out of sync with the culture of schools.
  • Mar 17 2011: Boys are constantly getting trouble for "not sitting still" in school, but I have observed many boys between 6-12 lately sitting very still while locked into their DS, or playing a game on Xbox. So, I'm guessing, that it is just another thing that completely proves your point!
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    Feb 28 2011: These mechanics can be broken down into their elements for use in science and social studies. In science, once a thing is understood that thing can be used as a game element, and not before. In science, social studies and geography we can use the referential essay type story elements as a means of "testing', but also as a means of teaching fellow students. One quickly begins to see how an entire ecosystem for education can be created around these methods. In this environment we are teaching students not only the curriculum, but how others learn. When one understands how others learn, they not only become a better teacher, they become a better student.

    Games give boys a structure of meaning around learning often useless skills like rapidly tapping a button. Current educational systems teach very important skills, but often lack an overarching structure which motivates the student other than "their future". Using a game like I've proposed here, we could provide that structure in a way that allows the student to project their own importance into the structure, while at the same time giving the educator the control they need to focus the development into distinct areas.

    I'd really like to speak more with you about this when you have time. I have written a proposal in our game's wiki for use in educational environments which would link students and teachers from the K to University level which I'd like your opinion on.
  • Feb 27 2011: I raised four sons, now I have five grand daughters - culture shock. My boys grew up in the woods, playing in creeks, lakes and immersed in nature. But give them video games and they are locked in. My daughter had little interest. Boys cannot ' sit still ' as school commands. Able to observe boys and girls, the girls are into anything that connects them, I-Pod, cell phones, DS. While the boys are seemingly more into that which allows them to escape into a world of fantasy, especially ones that they feel they are in control of. Perhaps the level of the control in a game is equal to the level of feeling controlled outside the game. My sons grew up in the time of feminism, being pounded by media of women being more essential in a family, marketing portraying men as boys in big bodies. Commercials that see them as idiots, that cannot do anything right without the guidance of women, from getting ketchup out of a bottle to the stereo-typing add the sees the wife walk into pure chaos of the kitchen and baby while she was gone. They see sitcoms where women degrade, even slap men, while knowing full well this is forbidden by men. My son ( 25 ) said '' feminism seems to be the demand for unbridled actions without the inconvenience of consequence or accountability. '' As I looked at violent video games, there was the key element, unbridled action and no accountability for it.
    I raised children in a traditional scenario, a stay at home Dad, and a single parent. There could be no ' right or wrong ' there could only be what worked in my days then, regardless of what was expected of me, or my sons. I am 59 and play video games too. I find them a great distraction when things are chaotic, re-centering somehow. I don't analyze it, it just works.