“Better games than drugs right?”: How teachers level up to catch up with their students

I’ve seen first hand what computer game addiction can do to student performance. In one of my student’s failed quiz papers I wrote,

“I used to consider you one of the best. Now, I’d like you to set your priorities straight. I still want to remember you positively at the end of the year.”

And that was for someone who topped my class but bragged about games like RAN. I noticed that this student recited less, became more distant and appeared more distracted. I had high expectations of this student and felt somewhat disappointed that this student just slid off like that.

Ironically, I never had the heart to give back that paper. I found it too much and didn’t want to put the student down at all. Fortunately, that student really picked up and performed at the end. My solution? I made school work into a game.

This essay summarizes my teaching philosophy on the internet’s place in the classroom. A lot of teachers reflexively put up a wall between their students and the internet, but I know that this is just not possible. Video game addiction, as extreme as it is, gives us an insight into how students learn these days.

This insightful article by Noemi Lardizabal-Dado summarizes how we often think about computer game addiction. I agree that it can be a social problem (read article “Internet addiction in China becomes a huge social problem”). Students definitely lose track of their priorities when they’re trapped in a fantasy world, and there have been several scholars who lost their state-given privilege to study for free. Naomi offers some excellent parenting tips on how to limit computer and internet usage, although I wouldn’t rush to adopt them when I become a parent myself for reasons I would state later on.

I also recognize that how we access information these days has changed society so much that our youth learn differently. If the MTV generation wanted information fast, colorful and in bite size chunks, the YouTube generation wants it faster, in the colors they choose and in megabits per second. Today’s generation is more impatient, more excitable and have the capacity to do so much in so little time as if they move in lightspeed.

So whenever I look at the problem of computer game addiction, I ask this basic question, “Why do our students prefer games over their school work?”

Simple answer: because they’re more fun and the gratification comes instantly.

Unlike in school work where they have to labor through books, equations, lectures and tests only to receive a satisfactory grade at the end, video games offer a satisfaction that is much more instant. Whether your online character fights monsters, reads books, solves equations or pores through a long NPC speech, everything is done at the speed of a mouse click. And if they click enough, they level up. They become stronger, faster, smarter until they beat the game, earning the ultimate bragging rights that they reached the highest level in the shortest time.

School work rarely offers such satisfaction. There is no ‘leveling up’ but only tons of frustration. But it doesn’t have to stay that way.

It falls on the shoulders of teachers to catch up with how this generation learns. If lectures and the Socratic method worked for us, it will be less effective with this generation. They want information faster, easier to chew, and in the manner they choose.

In my teaching, there are two myths which I bust as a foundation of my teaching philosophy. The first would be myth of the internet as an inferior source, and the second is the myth of school work as perpetually boring. The use of the internet for research shares the same roots as their penchant for games — instantaneous access and instant gratification. This can be dangerous but when done right, it can guarantee a little more time away from their games and into what they must do as students.

The myth of the inferior source

The first myth I debunked in my classes is that books, journals and magazines are superior to internet sources. With the way information is structured and delivered on the internet — self-regulating, self-policing, self-updating — it can even be more up to date than what we can find in published works.

I allow my students to use internet sources as long as these are used to (a) supplement or add on to what they learn in class, (b) serve as review guides in case they missed anything, or (c) serve as material which they will use for creative presentations (ie. when they need to learn how ancient people dressed, dated, danced, etc.). I also welcome questions they have when they read something that either contradicts or adds to what we discuss in class.

However, I emphasize that if they want scholarly and well-documented perspectives into topics, then reading a book is the only way to go. The same information structure of the internet that makes it up to date makes it unreliable if you want insights and analysis you can trust. When I read opinion pieces and commentaries on the internet, I take them all as second opinions. I do not discredit the real thinkers on the internet; I just find their work more raw as compared to what they would normally publish on a book or journal.

[Read more on my thoughts on how to use the internet for learning in “A teacher’s guide to learning on the internet”]

For me, what maintains the reliability of a published book would be the credentials of the author and more importantly, the peer review aspect of the work. Books and journals are not cobbled together as quickly and as easily as internet sources, and thus the labor, patience and perseverance required to bring a book together is testament enough for me to take them a little more seriously.

Nonetheless, this does not assert that books are superior to internet sources. They’re different animals to me, and they suit different needs and purposes. Both media will remain ‘in print’ so to speak, even as more books find their way online.

What the internet offers differently, in my opinion, is the structure in which students learn these days. Wikipedia is an excellent model. Articles are concise and keywords are linked to other articles, which are then linked to others, and so on. In the classroom, different subjects are related to one another only when teacher tells you they are (and not too many do). On the internet, subjects are related to one another because you discover it by clicking on one link to the next.

Education is more personal and more thorough at the same time, and thus students learn at the pace they’re comfortable with until they reach the depth they’re comfortable with.

In this environment, the role of the teacher is to guide students in how to search and to teach them tools to distinguish reliable data from unreliable ones. Most history courses begin with a lecture on primary, secondary and tertiary sources; this basic lecture is still integral for a student reading through Wikipedia.

Secondly, the teacher must use the fact that information is so readily and quickly available to create innovative classroom and learning experiences to engage the student. Now, we debunk the second myth.

The myth of the boring classroom

I teach Social Studies which to some is just history, the most boring subject of all.

In one of my classes two school years ago I began with the pledge, “I will make social studies your favorite subject!” While I managed to achieve that, I stopped making that claim. I didn’t want my students to expect too much and set myself up for failure.

But most importantly, I wanted to surprise them at every turn.

As a person, I dislike being bored with what I do. It makes me less productive, enthusiastic and passionate. I also believe that when you truly love something (or someone), you will always find ways to be creative. This is why I aspire to top every project I lead my classes in doing.

My students love and hate it whenever I send them off to do one crazy project after another. They always complain that the other sections don’t get to do so much, and I respond, “tough luck you’re with me.” What I never tell them is that what matters more to me is the experience of getting to do the project. If they work as well as I hope they do, they would learn way much more than we would in the classroom. While they may complain that the other sections have it easier, I silently guarantee that my students learn more.

In a large way, this is because I know how they work and learn. I can make my class as difficult for them as can be because I know how they take it easy.

Students have always felt being able to ‘cheat’ the teacher by turning in ‘research work’ from the internet. I have disavowed them of this satisfaction by allowing internet sources in their work and not asking them to turn in research work.

The last thing I need is another print out about the First Emperor of China or Genghis Khan or the British in India. Knowing how information is structured these days, I believe that we can do so much more in school than asking students for ‘research work’ which they simply plagiarize over the internet.

Thus, enter the essays and the crazy projects.

I am notorious for making my students write essays all the time. I find objective tests too ‘small’ for them, even though they’re easier for me to check. Essay writing makes them think about the information they get, which for me is more important now than simply getting information. I value analysis and judgment over recall and memorization. There are a lot of whys, hows, and if you weres in my exams. I am less interested in them telling me about the life of the first emperor of China than them discussing why the first emperor did more harm than good, or vice versa if they feel so inclined.

These essays are my way of making them slow down to think about the Wiki world they are in. With information is so easy to come by, the challenge for us is to use this knowledge. That is what I teach now.

Secondly, our information age has allowed for greater avenues of creativity, as the recent Pisay Meets World has shown. While that is my first experiment of an online project, I’ve had other attempts before. Batch ’08 had The War of the Emperors, a trading card game based on the different empires in Asia, and Batch ’09 has the Tianxiaverse Project, a collaborative comic book project revolving around different historical epochs.

While both had their strengths and weaknesses, what they had in common was a certain open-endedness. I would give a certain direction and some parameters, but that’s about it. They would cover eras we would never even touch on in class, and the impetus to create something new would drive them to independently learn more about history. After all, if they were to adapt the life of Asoka into a comedy, they had to know who he was first right? If they were to create a deck of Aryans versus Mongols, they had to know how these armies behaved in the past and imagine how an interaction between them would go down.All these creative projects are made possible by how easily information comes to my students these days. The use of internet sources is a means, not an end. What I am more interested in seeing is how they use this knowledge to create something new and memorable. Their only limitation now is their creativity, which is continuously challenged by the give and take nature of the internet.

“Better games than drugs right?”

Students learn differently. Their attention is sustained differently. These insights are gleamed from the profound changes our society has undergone in the current information age. It is possible to tap into the same psychology that games present in order to motivate our students into devoting more time away from their games, and into their books.

One of my best innovations two school years ago was the Bushido System which I used extensively with Batch ’08 for one school year. While it was unnecessary for those who found themselves personally and intellectually invested in my classes, it was a fun addition for those who didn’t care much about Asian history.

In this system, all students earn Experience Points (EXP), level up and earn items such as bonus quizzes, long tests, and even exemptions. I lifted this straight from their video games, and it proved an effective motivator (ie. those who reach level 100 get exempted from the exam). Students worked harder and had more incentive to go the extra mile. They were more diligent in their tasks and participated more actively in class. Everyone was rewarded big time.

However, when this recently concluded school year began, I did away with the system. I felt that I did a good job with it, but I wanted to be an even better teacher without it. I also realized that it wasn’t completely fair, especially to those who excelled in my class without it. This doesn’t mean that the system is broken though. It just needed some adjustments.

While I did away with the Bushido System when I began ’09, I brought it back for the duration of the Tianxiaverse Project. The system, again, proved to be an effective motivator since the students instantly felt the payoff from their hard work. Despite the tight deadlines, they rushed to meet it. And those who were worked harder got more rewards.

The Bushido System was developed with the gamer in mind, and that would encompass almost all of my students. And even to those who didn’t play games, they were sold on the reward system alone.

I have always had a positive view of technology. I believe it is a means for us to be even more creative and productive, and thus we must exhaust all the options available to us. While I don’t condone video game addiction — addiction is still addiction — it has taught me a thing or two on how to convert a classroom into a captive audience.

A lot of our youth today choose video games over school work because quite frankly, it is a more satisfying experience. We’re not competing against an evil; we’re competing against something that gives them more value for their time and money.

The best way to curb video game addiction is to get students interested in their school work again. We won’t stop them from playing games, of course, but it is our hope that once they commit themselves to our classes, they will stop themselves when they’ve had too much.

So to succeed as teachers, we must think like their games. The good news is that we have all the means to do so. The bad news — and the fun part — is that our students beat us to it.

Game on.


10 thoughts on ““Better games than drugs right?”: How teachers level up to catch up with their students

  1. Given your interest in technology and lifestyle, you might like to read the essay, “Why I’m Not Going to Buy a Computer” by Wendell Berry – summarized on my blogspot – “Necessary Therapy”. I’d love to read your response.

  2. What a great article. Once again you’ve shown yourself to be a really innovative educator. I may have said this before, but I wish more educators here in America were doing the sort of things you are.

    I completely agree with you on the need for emphasizing critical analysis over memorization—it is one of the skills I see most lacking in people in their 20’s and 30’s.

    One of the things I have always thought was that most formal education does not have enough project-oriented work—opportunities that allow young people to not only learn, but to analyze what they are learning so they can apply that analysis as they complete a learning process. You emphasis on analysis is right on target.

    Really, you set an outstanding example for educators. I hope the school and students where you teach recognize what a gift they truly have in such a passionate teacher.

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