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Educating kids in the virtual world

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After 10 mindless weeks of Rat on a Snowboard, Fruit Ninja HD, Triple Town, Presidents vs. Aliens, Where's My Water? and To-Fu 2, our bored little gamins -- gamers all -- finally are going back to school. What they will find there this fall are saintly but overstressed teachers, tubs of crayons, printed worksheets and dog-eared texts -- relics of an analog age, tools of instruction barely altered since the Greeks.

Among the sylphs whose cerebrums have been powered down since June -- except for the occasional click on MathBlaster or JumpStart -- is my own little daughter. Lizzie starts second grade in Maryland on Monday, ready or not.

Confronted by this dichotomy -- classical learning in the schoolhouse versus an unquenchable yearning to diddle away vacation days playing video games on the iPad -- a father looks to the experts to tell him about his child's digital destiny. But an afternoon with people who are doing some Big Thinking about the role of video games in elementary education leaves all of us scratching our heads.

The setting is a Washington think-tank called the New America Foundation. The session is entitled "What Kids' Gaming, Tweeting, Streaming and Sharing Tells Us About the Future of Elementary Ed." The panellists are a second-grade teacher from a Manhattan private school, a couple of fellows of the foundation, and a woman named Alice Wilder who helped to write a popular television program for preschoolers called Blue's Clues.

Ms. Wilder declares she feels "education is finally catching up -- it's about DOING, not just TELLING all the time.

"We listen to kids' voices," she boasts. "We use their voice to create product."

On Skype, we see a writer named Scott Traylor, who tells us the key to awakening the adolescent brain is "making learning an extrinsic aspect to gaining points and status."

He may be onto something: When I ask Lizzie what she has learned from reaching Level 12 in Where's My Water?, she answers "I learned how to dig."

Another speaker wonders if we should be trying to figure out "the kind of learning that might be best guided by adults" -- if, in fact, there is any -- leaving the rest, apparently, for the kids to work out themselves as they interact on the Massively Multiplayer Online games that the cyber-cognoscenti call MMOs.

A researcher named Lisa Guernsey informs us the typical American child between the ages of six months and five years spends an average of two hours a day online.

Six-month-old babies!

"This is not about a PC on a desk," Ms. Guernsey says. "This is not about whether schools should buy iPads. What can we learn about learning by watching children interact with technology? Is there really a separation of virtual and real worlds in a child's mind?"

The second-grade teacher from the private school in Manhattan, a man named Joel Levin, also happens to be the co-owner of a company that adapts a Swedish MMO world-building game called Minecraft for classroom use. Mr. Levin confesses he is "struggling to teach the concepts of digital citizenship.

"Video gaming is the baseline experience," Mr. Levin announces, the passion that equalizes poor and rich, white and black, city and country, Hispanic, hick and hipster across this unequally favoured land. Then he offers an anecdote about a group of kids who were co-operatively designing a house on Minecraft when one girl purposely broke a digital window, causing a boy to leap from his real-world chair and accost her.

Mr. Levin says he used this incident to teach his pupils that "how we treat people in a virtual space matters."

"Having the teacher in the classroom to provide the human element is essential," this teacher concedes, but does he or she have to be a licensed professional educator? Why not a geek well-schooled in Poptropia or Wizard 101 or Moshi Monsters?

A woman named Annie Murphy Paul tells us she has been studying the so-called "flow experience," when children become so absorbed in a game or website that, as she puts it, "time slips away.

"Kids don't need prizes or punishments," Ms. Paul says. "We should be promoting an intrinsic value for learning."

It's not often that I speak up at these events, but after more than an hour of discussion, I raise my hand and suggest we have heard a lot about "product" at this seminar, but not a single word about outcomes.

"All of us in this room are smart people who went to college, and none of us played Minecraft when we were six years old," I venture. "In my generation, we got the 'flow experience' from Alice in Wonderland and Huckleberry Finn. Looking 10 or 15 years into the future, what kind of people are you seeking to encourage with your 'product' -- fewer window-breakers? higher test scores? or Americans who can compete with the Chinese?"

With commendable candour, the second-grade teacher from the private school in Manhattan answers, "My focus as a second-grade teacher is where they'll be at the end of second grade."

At the end of second grade, I am thinking, will come another summer of trying to drag Lizzie off Rat on a Snowboard and into the swimming pool.

"We need to talk as a country about what we want our learners and thinkers to DO," says Alice Wilder. "Education was designed for a different purpose. But what is our purpose now?"


Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 24, 2012 A12

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