I heartily agree with David Williamson Shaffer, an education science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who was quoted in the Washington Post’s article “Give a child a video game — and maybe a job” last week saying:

…young people in the United States today are being prepared for standardized jobs in a world that will, very soon, punish those who can’t innovate. We simply can’t ‘skill and drill’ our way to innovation.

Shaffer is the author of the book “How Computer Games Help Children Learn,” and has helped develop a series of “Epistemic games” described as:

…computer games that can help students learn to think like engineers, urban planners, journalists, lawyers, and other innovative professionals, giving them the tools they need to survive in a changing world. When students play epistemic games, they participate in simulations of a society that they might someday inhabit. These games help them to develop ways of thinking and knowing that are valued in the world, giving them a way to imagine who they might someday become.

David Williamson Shaffer

The slogan of the Epistemic Games blog is “Building the Future of Education,” and it is full of links to articles relating to innovative uses of technology in the classroom.

With respect to educational reform and the recent report “Tough Times or Tough Choices” issued by the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, Shaffer states:

…reports like these don’t go far enough in rethinking our system of education because simply doing more of what we’ve been doing, only better, won’t get us education for innovation and creativity in the 21st century.

Amen brother! Preach on! Shaffer continues in the same article:

To cultivate creativity in our schools we need to look to the same technologies that create global competition and place a premium on innovation in the first place… Computer and video games can change education because computers now make it possible to learn on a massive scale by doing the things that people do in the real world. They make it possible for students to learn and think in innovative and creative ways, just as innovators in the real world learn to think creatively.

My own caveat to this exhortation is to observe that “computers” by themselves cannot change education. Only visionary educators and educational leaders can change education. Technology is a tool which can be used to serve varied ends. While students may tend to be more engaged with technology tools than analog utensils like paper and pencils, merely using technology tools offers no guarantee that educational goals or tasks will change in fundamental ways. Plenty of people are running around today touting 1:1 learning initiatives and other hardware/software solutions for schools that replicate traditional learning methods with digital technologies. We don’t need digital worksheets. We need new pedagogies of learning altogether.

Shaffer also makes a strong case for apprenticeship learning, as well as the uses of computers in the classroom for innovative purposes instead of carrying out “the same old standardized tasks.” I picked up on on the theme of apprenticeship learning and developing critical thinking in schools a few weeks ago, before the Christmas holiday.

The problem with this news article and Shaffer’s exhortations for school reform, of course, is that they will likely fall on deaf ears. Most legislators, school board members and school district administrators seem wholly focused on fulfilling high stakes accountability requirements instead of cultivating creativity and 21st century workforce skills. How can we change this formulaic response?

By redefining education. Redefining the ways we measure learning. Redefining the ways states pay school districts. It is time to REDEFINE. The familiar vocabulary of seat time, classroom lecture and notes, and standardized assessments are the language of the past. We need to embrace a new educational vocabulary of 21st century learning which embraces complexity, creativity, collaboration, and student creation of knowledge products. Innovation and creativity may be the keys to the future, as Dan Pink argues, but most of our educational policymakers are looking for keys to the wrong door. They’re still focused on the factory-model of 20th and 19th century learning, and until we help them see the NEW DOORS of learning and work which are ascendent in the 21st century– I think we’ll continue to see them attempt to put skeleton keys into doors of control and teacher-directed learning.

skeleton key

Thanks to my mom for sending me this link! To learn more, check out a video of David Shaffer and other panelists discussing gaming in education from last summer’s International Conference of the Learning Sciences (ICLS) in Indiana.

Hopefully the Epistemic games described on their website will be released sometime soon!

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