Practice, Play and Computers

By Kurt Cagle
December 11, 2008 | Comments: 2

Back channel communications at O'Reilly can be fun. Lately, we've had a running thread about the role of practice and play in learning, and how that impacts the educational process (and the educational industry, which are not even remotely the same thing).

I'm watching my eight year old daughter go through a distance learning curriculum, and its been something of an eye opener from a number of perspectives. Jennie is a natural on computers - she figured out the level editor for SuperTux at the age of six, was navigating through web pages by the age of five, even though she wasn't really "reading" yet (which says something very profound and disturbing about our assumptions about reading, I suspect) and has reached a point where she's gaming the cheat codes in Sims, without really realizing that she's actually using the programmer's interface into the program and beginning to learn LUA. She also does most of the practice math exercises in the GCompris quickly and usually enthusiastically ... especially if there is a game context associated with it.

The problems she face with this, however, are two-fold. She gets easily bored when forced into the school tempo, she finds physical writing to be frustrating (partially due to an abysmal first grade teacher, partially because of disgraphia) and overall she finds that repetition without some kind of contextual framework to be tedious in the extreme. My wife and I also tend to be at odds about the degree of computer interaction that Jennie should have; to me, what's important is the conceptual practice that she could get just as easily with a computer, with Anne, what's more important is that she do the repetition on the worksheets because she'll have to do them that way in real life.

While I'm not sure what the resolution of this particular conundrum will end up being, I think it does point out a somewhat bigger picture. I like computer-based "practice" precisely because it both gives you a stronger mastery with a shorter feedback time and it provides a way to easily test that mastery, especially in areas where repetition is significant. Moreover, it provides a way to build simulations that can help you work through a problem.

This doesn't mean that I approve of all educational software ... I've written educational software for Fisher Price, Microsoft and works such as The Oregon Trail over the years, and some of it (the stuff I usually didn't have a design hand in, generally, though I would think that) was pretty dreadful. On the other hand, the ones that worked well were the ones that provided an enjoyable context, a compelling narrative and enough awareness to determine when someone just wasn't getting it, and all the repetition in the world wouldn't help the student make the conceptual leap.

Yet this short feedback loop is very much at odds with the way that teachers currently teach - in part because they have 30+ kids to track typically, and as such,individually they can give these kids only a small percentage of time spent specifically with them. I think there's also been this emphasis in recent years away from repetition, both because it forces everyone to move at the pace of the slowest student and because in an age of media bombardment, kids lose patience with boring repetition that has no context and a non-contextual feedback loop (the students get back their homework two or three days after they complete it, typically long after they've moved onto new work and only with an indication showing them that they got the answer wrong, not why). This is especially true in areas like mathematics.

There's still a very strong Calvinistic ethic that permeates the educational culture, with one of the most insidious beliefs being that in order for something to be educational, it must not be pleasurable - that said pleasure actually distracts from the process of learning. The O'Reilly Head First books are a prime counterpoint to that - engaging, relevant, and generally fun, I think they are some of the best educational books out there, but there are a few people know who have told me that they don't seem like real teaching books precisely because they are flip and irreverent. Teaching is best done with massive tomes set in thick type with few examples, interspersed with deep theory, according to this viewpoint, though I've noticed that while books like these may get bought, they also have a tendency to sit on the shelves.

While I'm not a huge fan of a lot of computer games (way too much violence) I do recognize that there are games out there that challenge people to think, that justify the onerousness of repetition with a tangible reward (achieving the next level) and that provide a context and narrative in a way that "story problems" usually can't or don't.

Case in point. One of my eldest daughter Kate's teachers assigned a homework problem - design a simple floorplan for a house that had to fit within a lot (i.e., take up a certain area), one that had to include two bathrooms and two bedrooms at a minimum, then calculate the total surface area involved. Kate's solution was actually pretty inspired - she powered up Sims, created a building from scratch, then began putting in the various walls, fixtures and appliances, working within the constraints that each of these occupied both square footage and had implications for plumbing and the like. Once she'd done this, she printed up the floorplan, measured the dimensions, converted the units into meters and calculated the area from there.

What I find interesting here was that she used the simulation to help turn what could have been a very boring exercise into an engaging one, and one that also showed that there was much more to the particular context than just finding a number. She still had to do the math (my insistence), but with the same simulation she could also determine a significant amount of other information that she wouldn't have been able to do with the previous exercise (how much would such a house cost to build, how much to carpet, how much area did a staircase take up, and so forth).

To tie this back into the thread - she was playing, within the parameters established for that play. She gained immediate feedback that let her see when something worked or didn't (a hallway that was too thin for people to pass, a bathroom that was shaped wrong for a bathtub, etc.), and in the end, she had something that she could not only play with but also share with her friends (Kate's my social butterfly). She was problem solving (the use of a Sims game for laying out a house was not something I would have thought of), and she was practicing not just one skill, but several that were likely to be used in concert together.

Consider, for instance, the last time that you needed to just calculate the area of a plot of land. In the last several years, I think I've spent perhaps twenty minutes total involved in that particular exercise, after an investment of several years worth of learning the math to get me there. If I was an architect or a construction manager, I'd have done it on a computer using some kind of 3D rendering package, and if I was hiring that architect or construction manager, I'd probably fire them if I found that they were doing all of these calculations by hand.

Practice is necessary to learn a skill (it takes about a million repetitions, typically around ten years to master any given skill), but I think that we have become so fixated upon this necessity that we have to question if the skills that we are spending so much of our time and resource educating them are ones that they truly need.

If our children are going to live in a world heavily dominated by computer technology, is it worthwhile for us to be practicing skills that we'll only use a handful of times in our life? When we have the means to make learning subtasks engaging and fun, does it really behoove us to make them dull, pedantic (funny how that has become a synonym for dull) and time-consuming?

My own belief is that our children are growing up having to adapt to a world of information bombardment. Children generally learn to adapt to their world despite our best intentions in trying to teach them how to live in ours. This growing disconnect is going to eventually rupture as the mission of the school system becomes fundamentally incompatible with their needs. I think we are now in a position to start doing something about that, to recognizing that practice, while necessary, can be readily disguised as play, and that learning should be challenging but engaging, not repetitious and dull.

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This is something having being expressed already, in the Being Digital book by Nicholas Negroponte (1996)...and who also happens to be the person who created the One Laptop per Child. Characteristically he mentions in his book that children considered programming the computer as "hard fun".

Education and its relation with modern society and technology is a subject that is looked at from different angles on|en&hl=en&ie=UTF8

Especially check out the YouTube videos (which are all english).

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