Week 5 prompt: The why and how of imagination

One of the things that we have discussed this semester is the value of unquantifiable learning. Before this class, I just assumed that all the things that fall into that category such as, motivation for life long learning, creativity, and imagination, were just the product of “good teachers”. What I mean is that they were things that you could not formulaically develop in students, they were just fostered in students who just intuitively knew how to do it.

Non-quantifiable learning, like we learned about in class, was the domain of superior teachers. As we delved deeper into these topics I’m not entirely sure this is not true. Maybe it really takes a special person to stir up a students imagination and that is a skill that can not be taught.

What I am sure about at this point is, that we can very formulaically and systematically dampen a students imagination and creativity. The type of factory school that the general public is cycled through appears to have just that effect. Students overwhelmingly have more trouble connecting to the creative and imaginative pieces of their brain after a public education, than before.

While I keep working on trying  to find that elusive magic to inspire the students I teach, I realize that sometimes on the tough days the best I can do is to not diminish the passion that they already have within them.

Ninja Learning–How to Learn with the Sneaky Skill of an Assassin

We’ve talked a lot in class about the importance of creating a learning space where students are encouraged to use their imagination to solve problems in class instead of working toward a prescribed solution or answer. This open-ended methodology allows students not only to engage in content based on their strengths, to make a more individualized learning environment.

We are beginning to see these trends become more and more prevalent throughout the country, the resurgence of hands-on learning, combining both theory and practice in activities that help make learning relevant and fun for students. At first glace, perhaps it appears to be a rather obvious notion. When asked his opinion on the nature of education, and the “teaching to the test” mentality that seems inherent in America’s school systems today, television personality, special effects extraordinaire, veritable geek Adam Savage of Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters, had this to say: “If you want the kids’ test scores up, bring back band and bring back shop and get kids actually learning stuff instead of teaching them how to take a test.” Savage also added that STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) should be changed to STEAM “because you need art in there to complete an education.”

But we have this stigma around learning, that it has to be content-heavy, focusing on measurable results, that lead to productivity and ultimately that will produce students who can help boost the economy. And we forget that, when it comes to education, we are dealing with kids, and kids want to play. One of the best experiences that I had in school occurred in 8th Grade. We were in West Virginia History, in the last quarter of the year. We had already taken the Golden Horseshoe (an examination given to all 8th Graders in the state, which tests their aptitude about West Virginia history–those who perform well-enough earn the titular horseshoe as a consolation of their hard work and dedication), and state-sanctioned standardized tests were over. To cap off the year we, as a class, performed a mock trial, based on events that occurred during and immediately following the Civil War. Each member of the class had to take on a role, either as a witness, legal counsel, or even the accused and for the remaining four weeks of class, we had to carry on a trial. (The role of the jury was played by a class of 6th graders–who were a notoriously tough crowd). I was part of the defense counsel and I was in charge of a group of witnesses, one of whom, according to the script, died while giving testimony. I had to coach them on the appropriate answers to help ensure that our defendant avoided conviction. Navigating through special interests, hidden loyalties, even avoiding perjury, it showed how tedious and thrilling (not to mention, sketchy) the job of a lawyer can be. It was one of the best learning exercises that I’ve had in my life. Instead of merely learning or watching a video about the trial (which actually occurred, and centered around the alleged misdeeds surrounding a prisoner-of-war camp), we were able to recreate the actual trial itself, and in the case of our class, change history (the jury found our client not guilty).

This is the sort of thing Savage, and so many of the readings in this course, are talking about. Hands-on, active learning, providing an open-ended problem with limited constraints and then allowing a classroom to utilize their collective knowledge and individual abilities to collaborate toward a solution. In other words: to make students learn, without them knowing they are learning. I call this concept ninja learning.

Gaming the System

This week’s readings were awesome.  I especially enjoyed the discussions about the educational benefits of video games (and only partly because it helps justify how many I play).  The most powerful idea that I came across was that a truly excellent educational curriculum doesn’t require assessment because it is impossible to finish without learning the requirements – like a video game.  Once you beat a video game you can be pretty damn sure you know have some proficiency in all its elements.  I also found it an interesting prediction that violence in games will fade as complex dialogue becomes easier to implement.  Teaching children to design video games seems like a wonderfully worthwhile goal.  It exposes them to advanced technology, it requires them to teach something through the game and empathize with the players experience, and most importantly, its fun!  The kids seemed to be enjoying themselves in the video and that’s the first step to making life-long learners.

The distinctions between 20th and 21st century learning also seemed spot on.  Whereas the 20th C. learner did well to simply learn facts and enough literacy to be a factory worker, the 21st C. learner wades through orders of magnitude more information than their predecessor.  This requires different skills such as the ability to evaluate the reliability of information you come across and the ability to tie multiple pieces of information from multiple sources together into some cohesive narrative or solution.

Learning to Fly

I’ve never really given this much thought, but video games do foster learning. In this video, James Paul Gee talks about one of my favorite games ever (Portal!). I can rave about this great puzzler/problem-solving game all day, but I’ll contain my excitement for now. While I’m on the topic here were some other fantastic games from my school days: Battle Chess, Midnight Rescue. The Battle Chess gameplay (anytime you took pieces there was a brief animation/fight sequence showing the capture) was so brilliant to 7-year-old me, that I got hooked onto playing chess. Although, I had always wanted to learn more about the game (strategies, opening/ending games etc.), those kind of resources were just not available to me back then. Midnight Rescue was another brilliant game that was able to integrate learning fabulously into a PC game.

The key message James Paul Gee tries to convey in his brief lecture is that games today are only half the picture; when people get passionate about a game, they read up more about it and dig deeper. For the case of Portal, there are numerous active gaming forums and wiki pages that discuss the game, suggest and implement modifications and research the physics behind the gaming. While these are great learning resources for a gaming enthusiast, how many of us have read the gaming manual/forums or wiki pages before playing the game? I would probably guess none. All that wall of text makes much more sense once we’ve immersed ourselves into the make belief world of the gaming environment. We have thousands of textbooks in school, what we need are video games for those textbooks.

Hearing the Voices of Learners

Reflecting on the material for this week, it occurs to me there is much to these new ways of creating learning with our students. In previous discussions about mindfulness, the importance of being fully present in the learning experience with our students was critical to create the open spaces for learning to occur. This week’s focus on ways of learning outside the traditional lecture offers many different options for opening the learning space up and giving our students a genuine voice in the learning process. My concern is how to do it well. These are all very inspirational and motivating concepts, but where is the discussion about how to take these ideas and really turn them into a real classroom experience. The Reacting to the Past website (https://reacting.barnard.edu/curriculum) does offer a learning forum for teachers who want to or are implementing these games in their classes. But, I want to make sure my students are getting their money’s worth of learning in my classes. It would be nice if there was some sort of test lab where I could try out some concepts and learning models without making my students guinea pigs for a few semesters while I figure out what works or not. And how do we as junior faculty get a fundamentally different learning experience through the gatekeepers given what I perceive are the challenges of course approvals, meeting accreditation requirements and institutional cultures.


** After thought – this list of quotes are phrases that spoke to me, but I have not quite wrestled with, yet.

“The power and importance of play”

“from production to participation”

“collective expertise”

“embodied and situated experiences”

storytelling & exploration


Burning the Spark: What’s the Barrier to Widespread Implementation of Active Learning?

We know that people will invest time, energy, and money to pursue their passions so it’s a no-brainer to engage in efforts to make students passionate about what they are learning in school. Mark C. Carnes talks about using games to have students experientially learn about the past in a brilliant endeavor that has them …

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The candle problem

In an empty room are a candle, some matches, and a box of thumbtacks. The goal is to have the lit candle about five feet off the ground. You’ve tried melting some of the wax on the bottom of the candle and sticking it to the wall, but that wasn’t effective. How can you get the lit candle to be five feet off the ground without you having to hold it there?

This problem was introduced by Karl Duncker in 1945 as a cognitive performance test, and was used by Daniel T. Willingham in his article “Why Don’t Students Like School? Because the Mind Is Not Designed for Thinking” as an example of how critical thinking is hard. He claimed that the brain is not designed for thinking but designed to save you from having to think, because thinking is slow, effort-full, and uncertain.

In the candle problem, the solution is not tricky (check the solution here). However, if you don’t have enough background from similar problems it might take you a lot of time to come with the solution or you might give up thinking before solving the problem. He said that people mainly rely on memory rather than thinking. Most daily problems are ones we have solved before, so we just do what we’ve successfully done in the past and that’s known as experience. According to him, critical thinking is not a specific skill but it is a process tied to what we already know and stored in our Long-term memory. We relate what is in our Long-term memory to the current working memory to solve the problem.

An important concern he raised about students is that:

Working on problems that are at the right level of difficulty is rewarding, but working on problems that are too easy or too difficult is unpleasant.

If the student routinely gets work that is a bit too difficult, it’s little wonder that he doesn’t care much for school. Teachers should try to understand students’ feelings about problems they face for the first time like the teacher’s feeling when he hear the candle problem for the first time.

Finally, I want to add a conclusion from Jim Askew’s blog “Web-based instruction 4 teachers” the post with the title “Why Critical Thinking is Hard Work!“.

When teachers ask a question, they must WAIT for the answer. Students need time to process information! As students begin to understand, and practice the process, they WILL be able to process faster! 

Games in the classroom

It is very inspiring to learn from this week’s reading materials that games (i.e., video games and role playing games) can contribute to student learning. Games are not only designed for fun. They can motivate and actively engage learners in the learning processs, and kills utilized in games can be translated to the real world. Thus, Game-Based learning and gamification get a lot of attention and are fast becoming used in the classroom (see more information about Game-Based learning from Jessica Trybus’s paper “Game-Based Learning: What it is, Why it Works, and Where it’s Going“). It seems like bringing games to the classroom might be an acceptable, even accredited, alternative strategy to education.

I would also like to share an interesting TED talk by Jane McGonigal: Gaming can make a better world. According to McGonigal, if we can create engaging and fun games based on meaningful real world problems, we can leverage the combined knowledge, energy and enthusiasm to solve the world’s biggest problems and we can change the world.


Concerns Re: Digital Learning

Firstly, I am completely on board for finding new ways to engage children in grade school and teaching them how to become lifelong learners, not just parrots or test-taking machines. Therefore, one would think that I would be a strong advocate of the teaching strategies demonstrated and discussed in “Digital Media–New Learners of the 21st Century,” right? I thought so too. Then I watched the video.

I have to say I had two major concerns from the get-go that completely distracted me from the pedagogical practices that were being employed. They were:

  1. How is all this additional screen time affecting the health of these children?
  2. Much of the equipment shown seems rather pricey; would it really be possible for all schools to afford such digital resources? What about the kids who’s schools can’t afford the equipment?

Because I am far from an expert on either of these topics, I looked up a couple news videos and articles to see what the media and scholars have to say about these issues. As you might imagine, the news, literally and metaphorically, is not good.

Effects of screen time:

Ability of low-income schools to access digital resources:

Therefore, call me old-fashioned, but I am on the fence about programs such as those shown in the “Digital Media–New Learners of the 21st Century ” video. Do I think getting kids engaged is important? Absolutely. Do I find technology a valuable resource? Definitely. Do I think programs completely dedicated to digital learning are the way of the future? I’m not so sure. Especially not without making it safe for kids first (e.g. regular breaks, eye protection, ergonomic controls, outdoor time, etc.). However, I do think that digital tools and connected learning could offer great learning opportunities for students when used in moderation, and I definitely think we need to give students in all communities access to connected learning opportunities, especially those with little or none of that access currently.


The Martian, and how it recruited to Botany…

The Martian was my favorite movie in 2015. The science in the movie was fascinating. The movie did a beautiful job recruiting high school students to Botany. Think about it… How to create crops in an environment that’s not your average Earth atmosphere was fascinating. How do you trick the plants, to have the grow… How to create water to water your plants in the atmosphere of Mars… This movie could really speak volumes and volumes about how fascinating the sciences are… Though my knowledge is limited in these areas, I was intrigued by the movie… I thought it was really cool. This movie will pull-out the aspiring astronaut, scientist, and botanist out of the audience…

But why can The Martian do that, and a lot of our lectures in schools, colleges, and universities not do that? As Robert Talbert mentioned in Four Things Lecture is Good For , he stated that the traditional uses of lectures today are oftentimes not aligned with what lectures should be used for. He said that lectures aren’t made to help students regurgitate new information if you would, because there are 4 better uses for lectures in his view. Some things he mentioned are teaching students how to think, and teaching them things in a creative fashion that individuals with a lot of experience can come up with, but the average student probably wouldn’t come up with. And 2 more things here. However, unfortunately, up till today, we have lectures where some professors, especially in Math, choose to lecture to the board… And expect their students to decipher what they’re doing through the equations they’re putting on the board.

In “What Video Games Teach Us”, I was really thinking about how rewarding and enjoyable video games are… Some people have experienced video games at times, while others constantly have fun with them. As the author mentions, the analogy he posed is valid, regarding how society influences how we think and learn… And how sometimes we are willing to do something that’s counter-intuitive to our nature.. Especially in the cognitive sense.

That’s what got me thinking… if we can somehow inspire our students the way they are inspired by good teachers, by video games, and by movies like The Martian… We can get our teaching and learning at the best levels possible.

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