TE: Why is StarCraft better than math class?
HA: Exactly. And this really comes up in early childhood development, literacy teaching. I mean, statistics from around the western world suggest that at the moment we - meaning the combination of schools, parents, teachers, society that surround a child - have serious difficulty teaching some kids the basic skills of reading.
Yet James Gee, a University of Wisconsin researcher, points out that many of these same kids can very easily get their heads around Pokémon, which has upwards of 150 different creatures per game, plus the different types like fire and water, plus the evolutions, the moves - that's a lot more complex than learning the alphabet. What's going on there at a root level?
Coming from the other side, classic childhood development researchers - Lev Vygotsky and Barbara Rogoff for example - have "explored the building blocks of how children learn." They used established research techniques and came to very similar conclusions to those of games designers; effective learning occurs in real time, in authentic contexts, and it's hugely helpful if kids are having fun.
The real question, the real deal, is how do we tie these areas together to make other kinds of learning more effective?
TE: What's the state of practice? What's happening in schools?
HA: That's a big question with many sides to it. But I think you could say things are not changing at a rate that will keep up with the world.
Think of the different lifecycles involved. The internet evolves on what sometimes seems like a monthly or even daily basis. It takes, what, between one and three years to make a game now? Our current school system says it takes 10-15 years to educate a child. And actual change in the school system itself, well ....
You have an environment still dominated by what we call "skill-and-drill": teaching to exams, regurgitation, standardized assessment. More broadly, you have massive systemic forces at work - the whole structure of schools, districts, funding, standardization, both in New Zealand and in other western countries - that are a sometimes necessary, sometimes painful brake against rapid change.
TE: Why do you even need rapid change across teaching? Seems to me there are some fundamentals that always need to be taught - like your example of literacy.
HA: Sure. But one part of what's happening - and the potential of games is a fantastic example of this - is an increasing awareness of how many different ways people can learn, and hence, how many ways there can be to construct rich learning environments. The current core set of ideas and institutions around western education have their roots in the first half of the 20th century; you know widespread standardized testing in the U.S. emerged from World War I conscription requirements? It's like a monochrome blob coming into contact with 32-bit color.