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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