Remixing education

By Felix Salmon
June 28, 2011

I went to a fantastic education panel this morning called Game Changers, with three inspirational educators: John Hunter, Salman Khan, and Katie Salen. Sal Khan needs little introduction, at this point; if you haven’t seen his TED talk, go watch it now. The other two were new to me, however: John Hunter invented the World Peace Game to teach his 10-year-olds; it’s a lot more chaotic and inspirational than it sounds. And Katie Salen is the executive director of the Institute of Play, which has already built one school in New York, and has another on the way in Chicago.

What all of these people have in common is an emphasis on teachers ceding control of the classroom and their curriculum. In its place, more than anything else, is gameplay. The Khan Academy gameplay is highly structured; the World Peace Game is more fluid; and the Quest to Learn games are in many cases designed by the students themselves. But in all cases the students are learning from each other, and indeed the teachers are dynamically learning from the students too. This is not surprising when you find 5th graders in Los Altos diving gleefully into Khan Academy’s calculus modules and becoming expert in undergraduate-level mathematics; and indeed another thing these teachers have in common is that they’re all fans of mixing up ages and abilities in classrooms.

Inspirational teachers are nothing new, of course, and it’s probably true to say that an inspirational teacher is always going to do great work, whatever the tools they have to work with. But Khan made the great point that high school students, in particular, can and do make incredibly inspirational teachers themselves, if only you give them the opportunity.

All of this boils down to what Hunter called “embracing chaos”. This appears in many ways: you have to encourage kids to make mistakes; you have to let them develop their own ways of learning; and, on a more mundane but in many ways much more important level, you have to give them much more access to the internet than they generally have right now.

Salen was very strong on this last point, complaining about how internet access is very limited in most schools, and that typical filters stop kids from going to any site with the word “game” in it. I asked about one of the things which worries me most about the present generation of kids — which is that they have not developed the critical abilities necessary to distinguish reliable from unreliable information on the internet. The classic example of this is the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, which kids believe in when they read about it on the internet, even if they’re initially skeptical. But Hunter was reasonably convincing that simply telling 5th-graders about the tree octopus is a very powerful lesson for them about not always believing what they read. And Salen was even more convincing that if we want kids to develop critical abilities, we need to give them access to the unfettered internet rather than confining them to canonical encyclopedias and the like.

None of which necessarily lends itself to pat solutions which can be scaled easily across a state or nation’s classrooms — although it’ll be very interesting to see what happens when the Khan Academy curriculum is adopted across the whole Los Altos school district for 5th and 6th grade. But I do think that there’s reason for optimism on the education front in the long term. I’m enormously excited by (and a little bit jealous of) many of the opportunities and resources available to today’s kids, even if they’re largely outside formal classrooms. And I can’t help but feel that somehow they will show up in improved productivity and creativity down the road. The panelists here in Aspen show how such things can be formalized and implemented by visionary educators; as their ideas spread, they’ll be remixed and reinvented in ways that none of us can currently imagine, quite possibly by people under the age of 12. The possibility space, in other words, is bigger than it’s ever been. And in a random-walk kind of way, it’s bound to be filled somehow, with games and game-changers both.


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This is incredibly exciting stuff. The Khan Academy could boost American test scores back up into the realm of the respectable all by itself.

A district in my state is spending ultra-scarce resources on giving all kindergardners iPads using a grant, corporate sponsorship, and targeted fundrasing. Taxpayers were up in arms and parents (75% of whom could probably not afford to buy an iPad themselves) were cold to the idea. “I’m not paying for that if Timmy breaks it!” I can’t even describe how awesome the things are for teaching 5 yearolds. The things (and the apps that run on them) are so intutive that the kids litterally teach themselves.

In an age of slow growth and austerity there is still pleanty to be positive about!

Posted by y2kurtus | Report as abusive

I was a math professor for 15 years, and I can’t tell you how many teaching horror stories in the subject I heard from students. Teachers using math as punishment, or not groking the subject themselves before teaching it, and so on. Peer learning, with some direction/explanation, can work even in math.

As for not believing everything you read, that’s a part of the learning process too. Much of what I learned in the classroom growing up was invalidated or greatly expanded as my world view became gradually larger. And that’s the true lifelong learning process; I’m certain that today I think I know things that I don’t really know at all. I can only hope to grow enough to understand just a little bit more before I die.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

Inspiring! This grown-up for one, would also like to play.

Posted by Stephen.Boylan | Report as abusive

Errrm, y2kurtus try to think like someone who will never be able to afford an Ipad … being you can’t eat it and then comment on how the poorer are reacting. (It seems you think they are ingrates) A piece of technology I know nothing about would leave me cold as well if I was poor, especially if it was expensive and I didn’t have a guarantee I wasn’t liable for damages.

I remember my Dad teaching what was later called “health” as he reminded the poor kids to brush their teeth and wash their hands so they didn’t ruin the books and could hygienically sit in that same desk every day. (they came directly from the fields) Sometimes you need to make sure the basics are taken care and you know the dynamics, before you go big.

What the parents need is some knowledge that working 3 jobs and putting food on the table might mean someday they can afford to put their child through College or at least better themselves… but they are pretty discouraged given statistics show most won’t make it through highschool let alone go to college.

Now if that Ipad promises that, maybe they will be interested. Also remember that the advent of the calculator was heralded, but few people left school being able to do much in their head … they had to make cash registers to figure out change.

Sorry to go off topic. I truly am all for anything that sparks a love of reading and learning in children, teachers and parents.

Posted by hsvkitty | Report as abusive

That’s ironic… We’ve made a conscious choice NOT to allow our children significant internet access (or other forms of electronics). At least not in early elementary school. Children that age need a solid grounding in concrete reality.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

The classrooms and the way of teaching is changing in India, especially in metros like Bangalore, Delhi, Mumbai etc. The Kindergarten kids are using iPads instead of slates. The traditional black boards are giving way to smart boards. lassrooms-and-method-of-teaching-in-indi a/

Posted by dealsIndia | Report as abusive