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21st Century Education

Mark Calleja (6 May 2016)


"I am always willing to learn, but I do not always enjoy being taught."

 - Sir Winston Churchill


“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

-Albert Einstein


We at the HackLab HQ are some of the last members of the generation who had to struggle alone in bedrooms and basements; teaching ourselves core technology concepts through passion, dedication and personal interest as there wasn’t the infrastructure in place to teach us the most central concepts of working with, breaking and adapting technology, finally becoming powerful users after much hard work and exploration. As such, most of us didn’t enjoy or fit into the traditional education role of the student; we were more curious, more adventurous and often more intrinsically motivated to learn topics which we felt were relevant to us personally. As such, we often felt that the system of assessing our learning that was in place didn’t quite fit us (or anyone else) either. We can use standardised curricula as baseline aims for education systems; but if something isn't right for everybody, it likely isn't quite right for anybody.The education system we have today was set up at a time when we needed it to turn out workers who could tell the time, count their paycheque at the end of the month and do what they were told with a minimum of challenge to authority, creativity or innovation – industrial workers created on an educational production line. As Sir Ken Robinson so eloquently put in his exceptional speech at the RSA in 2008:


“Schools are still pretty much organised on factory lines; ringing bells, separate facilities, specialised into separate subjects. We still educate children by batches; we put them through the system by age group - why do we do that? Why is there this assumption that the most important thing kids have in common is how old they are? It's like the most important thing about them is their date of manufacture!”  

When PMo and I started HackLab, our core mission was to help schools and parents get their techie kids doing what they love, with people who know what they’re doing. We wanted to inspire kids to a love of learning by empowering them to take control of what they wanted to learn, or felt was relevant to them – education professionals call this Agency. Working as a teacher in both Australian and UK schools, I felt as though the archaic standardised system forced upon me to assess the learning of my students (and by extension, my performance as a teacher) didn’t account for the different learning styles, interests and thought processes of my students – commonly referred to as ‘individuality’. Ironic then, that we are simultaneously asked to teach students that they are all special and unique, yet lump them all together when it comes time to see how they are progressing on their individual journeys. Our community depends upon a diversity of talent, not a singular conception of ability  – something which we have held over from the ‘olden days’ when academic ability was defined by deductive reasoning and a knowledge of the classics. We are trying to raise a generation of thinkers who can solve the new problems of this century using a system of education which was designed to solve the problems of the last. Mark Twain once said (although it has also been attributed to Henry Ford and Albert Einstein) “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” But the world needs something new.


The education system today is alienating thousands of children who don’t see a point in going to school - I was one of those kids. Throughout my academic career, I was told a story that millions of people have been told since formal education was founded, that once used to be true. It goes something like this: ‘Don’t go to school, don’t get good grades. Don’t get good grades; won’t go to uni. Don’t go to uni; won’t get a good job. Don’t get a good job; die poor and alone of scurvy in a back alley in Algiers.’ I’m sure most of you heard a similar tired tale growing up. But times have changed and kids today have realised this for the outdated claptrap that it is; through the examples of lots and lots of people who have defined their own paths to success through innovation, creativity, collaboration and exploration. Think about some of the great names who never graduated from (or never went to) university: James Cameron, Walt Disney, Oprah Winfrey, Ted Turner, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Abraham Lincoln (who left school at 12),  both the famous Steves – Jobs and Wozniak….I could go on. I’m not disparaging further education by any stretch - you should definitely get a degree if you want one, but it’s not a necessity anymore; it’s not a guarantee of a career, or even a job these days. Unfortunately, the school system is set up in such a way that if you don’t conform to the outdated role of a ‘classical academic’, or are too square to cram yourself into the round hole set for you by the system, you should be written off as ‘unsuccessful’ or ‘a bad student’ or (terrifyingly more often) ‘ADHD’.  The SATs here in the UK are the perfect example of this. The fact that education is often about conformity and punishing those who either don’t fit into this mould or are unwilling to change things  which they feel are important about themselves to do so, is a fairly concerning concept.


So, how do we fix it? We need to make education relevant, personal, individualised and able to increase the ability of students in the skills required for the 21st Century, while still equipping them with the fundamental skills and knowledge they require to thrive. Students generally walk into a classroom or approach new assignments thinking of themselves as having an A* (at least subconsciously) at the outset and from there, with every mistake, there's nowhere to go but down. How depressing. Traditional education generally focuses on summative assessment metrics, giving students one chance to get their learning right and providing feedback to students only at designated times; often after the work has been completed and not at the point of delivery. This method of education and assessment inherently inculcates a fear of failure in students by teaching them to avoid being wrong, rather than using their mistakes as an opportunity to improve quickly and repeatedly. This is the way our brains have evolved to make sense of the world, is at the very core of how we learn as a species and why play is such an integral part of the learning process for pretty much all the animals on our planet.


Gamification - the application of typical elements of game playing (e.g. point scoring, competition with others, rules of play) to other areas of activity - allows us to re-contextualise the system of grading used in formal education today. We could have all students start at zero and always gain points as they go, continuously progressing incrementally towards clear and tangible 'levels' with their own benefits. This way, each assessment and test feels rewarding rather than disheartening... it's always more fun to gain things than to lose them, right? Gamification also provides myriad opportunities to improve the lives of students through increasing their sense of personal agency in their own learning and greater lives, as well as providing opportunities for tangential learning, innovation, exploration and creativity when solving problems and increasing students application of these core ‘21st Century Skills’ on a daily basis - something often not provided for in traditional education methods at all. Gamification also allows educators to take advantage of the myriad metrics inherent in games to better understand the overall progression of their students both individually and as a group, thereby tailoring educational programs to better suit the ability range of their students, provide targeted support to those who are struggling and extension opportunities to those who are ready.


The current system of western education does not prepare students for the 21st century, where new skills are required to succeed - critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity - skills which can never be learned by rote, only by refinement through experience. Standardised testing is the quintessential example of this educational disjunction in the UK, and something we have recently been seeing a bigger and bigger backlash against in the media and society at large: thousands of parents across the nation chose to pull their kids out of school on the days that SAT tests were run this month. Students in the UK (and around the world) are currently being tested by using assignments and standardised tests in order to ascertain their level of knowledge in a given subject. The downfall of this system is that students complete the assignment and a week later it is returned to them with a grade on it: with no chance to revise or redo the assessment and learn from their errors because by the time you get your work back, it’s time to move on to the next concept. Students are expected to have gotten it right on the first try (in a stressful context) or simply be punished with a low level, which affects their future learning in a very concrete way.


SuperMeatBoyCompare that to how we learn in games: think about how many challenges in games you’ve failed, only to try a new tactic or experiment with a different solution next time. (Super Meat Boy, anyone?) Gamers aren’t trained to fear that failure - they are trained to overcome it. By utilising the rapid feedback cycle inherent in games, students are able to adapt, adjust and iterate over their mistakes, providing much greater opportunities to learn through their failures. Failure still has consequences in games, but players are taught that what matters is finding a workable solution to the problem in front of them as efficiently as possible, rather than just ‘getting it right’ on the first attempt. There is a fundamental difference in asking students ‘Can you find a way to solve this?’ as opposed to the far more common ‘Do you know the solution?’ Each challenge in a game is a chance to learn and improve rather than simply a test to see if you already possess the knowledge required to overcome it. The approach to education that games provide is vastly more beneficial for students today, as it allows challenges to be a learning opportunity rather than simply reinforcement or assessment. Students need to be trained to find innovative solutions: they need to apply the limitless data they have to hand in the 21st century to solve the problems that confront them. Gamifying education allows us to do away with discouraging students from taking risks and ‘having a go’, and instead prepare them to innovate for the future.


To quote the legendary Sir Ken again (a personal hero of mine, and one of the few people who gives me hope for the future of education) in his 2006 TED talk; ‘we need to stop educating people out of their creative capacities.’ A famous study by George Land and Beth Jarman which tested Kindergarten students as to their propensity for divergent thinking was published in their book Breakpoint and Beyond: Mastering the Future Today  – where 98% of them tested out at the ‘genius’ level. As this was a longitudinal study, the two researchers then retested the kids at age ten (only 32% of the same group scored as high) and again at fifteen (when only 10% made the cut.) A group of 200,000 adults given the same test only produced 2% of people who could test as high as pretty much any 4 year old. Terrifying.


Alongside this, games allow the provision of Responsive Learning. It is impossible to give every student in the room the instant, detailed feedback they require to succeed to their full potential, especially with the increasing class sizes in our schools. It’s simply too much work for already beleaguered teachers, as large groups of students just don't allow for individualised lessons. Games are already filled with metrics that teachers can use to quickly garner large amounts of targeted data to help individual students in their classes and more easily tailor an education plan to each student. More than that, games contain hundreds if not thousands of embedded ‘micro-tutorials’, cues and reminders which can help students remember content previously learnt while the game is running. This responsive learning cycle ensures that students are moving along at their own pace, while being supported and reminded of prior knowledge the entire time they are engaging in new challenges and tasks. They are allowed constant scaffolding from their previous learning in order to recombine their existing knowledge and innovate new solutions to problems, to think laterally and engage in ‘divergent thinking’ or what the revered Edward DeBono would refer to as ‘thinking laterally’. Gamers are inherently allowed to make choices based upon their previous experience, in order to succeed in the future.


Gamification, more than any other method of education, allows students Agency in their own learning - in a game, all of the choices are your own and you get to see the consequences of those choices on a condensed timescale. In the real world, you may have to wait weeks or months to see the ramifications of a choice. In the real world you may not even see the connection between the choice and its real consequences, especially when the decisions might be so small and seemingly irrelevant that their impact can only be seen by compounding over time. Students are often unable to realise the longer-term outcomes of poor choices which have no immediate consequences. Smoking a cigarette (or not) will be decided hundreds of thousands of times in a smoker’s lifetime; how are they supposed to gauge the impact it might have on them at all at the point of choice? Would they even have that first one at 15, if they did? In games, that level of abstraction is greatly diminished, if not removed all together; you make a choice and you see results instantly (sometimes in a few seconds, always less than a few hours.) Your choices are often simultaneously very spontaneous and very concrete in games: you made some on-screen numbers rise or fall, you won or you lost, you lived or you died. These things all train players to think about their choices, to understand that all of their actions have ramifications on some level, even if it’s only tiny and cumulative. Moreover, by letting us remake those choices repeatedly, games allow us to see just how far-reaching these ramifications can be. They teach us that minor changes in action can be the difference between triumph and disaster, and in this way they imperceptibly increase our care over the decisions we make on a daily basis.


Now, I’m not saying we should dump everything we are currently doing and just get every kid an Xbox, though that wouldn’t be catastrophic – loads of games have so much tangential learning in them these days that kids today understand some fairly abstract concepts thanks to games (gravity, quantum physics, resource management, order of operations, scientific method…any game with a visible score system reinforces counting) along with a lot of classical knowledge they wouldn’t have known before and a host of opportunities to engage in outside research to satisfy curiosity. What I’m saying is we need to start creating better systems of delivery for our students if we want them to start succeeding in the new century. Bucket loads of studies have shown that people assimilate information better when they’re studying topics they’re interested in, rather than things they’re forced to learn for school or for work. Like how you probably can’t remember the lyrics for the national anthem, but can confidently sing all the words to the Neighbours theme tune.  Consider how many people now know about the details and horrors of the D-Day landing by watching Saving Private Ryan, or how many people now know more about classical mythology is because they played Age of Mythology, then went away and googled stuff. (If you click any of the links in this article, you’ve just proved tangential learning is legit!) If we could only harness that personal interest and desire to interact with entertaining and exciting media, then slide the important concepts we want to impart to our players/students into that context, we will see incredible leaps forward in our ability to individualise education for our kids and keep them engaged with their own learning throughout their lives.


Keep learning and Game On,