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Friday, April 30, 2010

In education, customization is important, like air is important

When people look back at the current industrial education model in twenty years, they will be dumbfounded by the lack of customization.

The truth is that children are much more diverse in make-up than adults. As time progresses, we will be discovering so many more ways that children can be different from each other. But just some initial ways include:

  • Facility with numbers.
  • Facility with words.
  • Facility with foreign languages.
  • Facility with music.
  • Facility with peers.
  • Facility with authority.
  • Tolerance for being separated from parents.
  • Tolerance for being separated from siblings.
  • Tolerance for being separated from home.
  • Effective discipline approach.
  • Effective motivational approaches.
  • Productivity when working alone.
  • Productivity when working with peers.
  • Need for exercise.
  • Need for movement when processing thoughts and ideas.
  • Need for sleep.
  • Need for food.
  • Need for aesthetically pleasing surroundings.
  • Need for social accord.
  • Time of day the person is most able to produce written work.
  • Time of day the person is most able to absorb new concepts.
  • Time of day to most accurately take tests.
  • Engaging situations used for examples.
This rule both seems the most self-evident, and also the rule most disregarded. Schools today tend to wish these differences didn't exist, and work hard to get rid of them. It is much more measurable and cost effective to employ just a few fundamental approaches to education. It mimics the factory on which it is based. But applying few education approaches necessarily means unbelievable tedium, ineffectiveness, and a sense of "being different" for all students.

There are some people who argue that students need to learn to conform to a single model so that they can "fit in." Instead, each student needs to figure out how to be his or her best in order to excel.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Expose More, Teach Less

Children should be as exposed to as much richness as possible. This includes different careers, different lifestyles, different cultures, and different forms of meaningful work. In this process (and perhaps only in this process), each child will find what it is that resonates uniquely.

Here are some guidelines for the process of successful exposure.


  • Travel. While this can seem to imply a big trip, it shouldn't. It is amazing how much is available in a one hour car-drive radius of most people.
  • Talk intimately to authentic experts. Find the people who care more and know more and do more (people who have studied more don't count). Engage them one-on-one if possible.
  • See experts in their environment, doing what they do best.
  • Be flexible according to a child's interest. Force a few minutes, but then be equally prepared to leave quickly or stay all day.


  • Use a standardized checklist. There should never be an "approved" standardized list of early life stimulation (although many have pushed for foreign languages and high culture such as art, history, or music). This is for many reasons, including that there are just too many potential areas, they should evolve, and one has to be flexible when the right opportunities arise.
  • Subvert the experience with directive-style teaching techniques. There should never be a test or paper required after an exposure event, for example. These extrinsic motivation techniques overshadow any nascent and emerging interest.

Meanwhile, the use of media or highly staged events is a double edged sword. Where tickets are involved, exposure-based interests are seldom born. Movies, museums, Broadway performances, air shows, fairs, and sporting events can be used as a last resort and where they do not break the above guidelines.

Exposure is inefficient in the short run but transformative in the long. Which means that exposing a child to a great scientist has a low probability of predictably pushing him or her down a scientist path, but over the years any child leading a life of rich exposure will predictably find what they love and where they can uniquely contribute.

Author's note:

One tragic and common cycle is:

  • Year one: Adult discovers and loves classical music.
  • Year two: Adult believes that a few high school students might also equally love classical music.
  • Year three: All high schoolers have scheduled sessions to listen to classical musical.
  • Year four: All high schoolers are tested on their knowledge of classical music to make sure all are paying attention.
  • Year five: Elementary schools and middle schools want to seem advanced so they also have classes, with papers and tests, on classical music.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Under-schedule to take advantage of the richness of life

One piece of myth is, the busier a student, the more he or she learns. Children's days, the common thinking goes, should be scheduled tightly to maximize the amount of formal instruction and rehearsals and events.

But when a schedule is a bit more porous, it can allow for happenstance. Here's a real example.

A homeschooler and parent are driving in their car and see two local police cars. They slow down, then stop. They sit and watch as a third police car comes. The student and parent get out of the car. Then a state police officer arrives with dogs. A crowd is forming. People start talking. There was, people are saying, a person who left a suicide note and is now missing. An ambulance and fire engine arrive. Then a thundering Life-Star helicopter. The paramedics swarm; the person is found. The local news arrives, interviewing people. Moments later, in a cloud of dust, the Life-Star helicopter is flying off to a local hospital.

When there is room to explore, there is the opportunity to watch the real-world evolve in a way that has so much more resonance than a text book or museum exhibit or teenage novel or Hollywood blockbuster.

Life is educational. But only if you let it.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Homeschooling isn't going away, and neither is government-run schooling. Now what?

Government-run schools (and their privatized counterparts) are not going away. Here are two very different reasons why.

First, most people in power today got there by successfully working the school system. They are the top 5% students. Now, this may also explain a lot about the condition of the world today, but that is a different issue.

Second, schools provide free day care. For this reason alone, they will always attract a majority of families.

Having said that, homeschooling isn't going away either. Again, here are two reasons.

First, parents will always have more control of their children than the state.

Second, homeschoolers can march on government offices very effectively, because they love and use technology, the event is a perfect contextual "unit study on government," and homeschooling students testify VERY well. And because government organizations can't even afford the students they currently have, adding more is anathema.

Having said that, children and parents on both sides can easily fall into the habit of treating people who have made different decisions around schooling as wrong, or even corrupting. This could be tragic. More than ever, the two sides need to learn from each other. The future is a spectrum of choices. That groundwork needs to be established today.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Virtual Worlds, Simulations, and Games for Education: A Unifying View

What is the difference between a simulation and a game?

This article was originally published in Innovate (http://www.innovateonline.info/) as: Aldrich, C. 2009. Virtual worlds, simulations, and games for education: A unifying view.Innovate 5 (5). http://www.innovateonline.info/index.php?view=article&id=727 (accessed May 26, 2009).

The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher, The Fischler School of Education and Human Services at Nova Southeastern University.

Many practitioners have been struck by a paradox. They sense an overlap between virtual worlds, games, and simulations, and but they know that one is not synonymous with the other. The three often look similar; they all often take place in three-dimensional worlds that are populated by three-dimensional avatars (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Virtual World

Yet as I have argued elsewhere, the differences are profound. Games are fun, engaging activities usually used purely for entertainment, but they may also allow people to gain exposure to a particular set of tools, motions, or ideas. In contrast, simulations use rigorously structured scenarios carefully designed to develop specific competencies that can be directly transferred into the real world. Finally, virtual worlds are multiplayer (and often massively multiplayer), three-dimensional, persistent social environments with easy-to-access building capabilities. They share with games and simulations the three-dimensional environment, but they do not have the focus on a particular goal, such as advancing to the next level or successfully navigating the scenario.

It is not enough, however, to categorize virtual worlds, games, and simulations as either entirely synonymous or utterly different. It is more useful, and perhaps more complete, to see virtual worlds, games, and simulations as points along a continuum, all instances of highly interactive virtual environments (HIVEs) (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Virtual Worlds, Games, and Educational Simulations as a Continuum

This framework recognizes the relationships among virtual worlds, games, and simulations:

  • All games take place in some kind of virtual world—and not solely a Second Life-style, massively multiplayer online environment. Even physical games are played in a synthetic world structured by specific rules, feedback mechanisms, and requisite tools to support them. Children playing stickball on the curb create a play world structured by the broad requirements of the game and overlaid by its rules. Those rules become stricter in more intricate games and in simulations.
  • Simulations share key characteristics with games, including the use of a virtual world (that is, to some extent, also structured by the rules and constraints of the simulation) and the focus on a particular goal, but simulations use a more highly refined set of rules, challenges, and strategies to guide participants in developing particular behaviors and competencies that are highly transferable.
  • Participants often shift subtly between the various modes, moving from undirected exploration of a virtual world then to games and then to more structured simulation as they become comfortable in the environment.

The Swimming Pool

One of the most natural examples to show how participants move across the different uses of a HIVE while staying in the same virtual environment is the process by which children are introduced to the swimming pool. The pool is a synthetic, albeit not a virtual, environment. Some of the rules associated with dry land are the same in this new environment, and some rules are different. From the moment they first approach the pool, children naturally move from treating the pool as a virtual world, to seeing it as a place for more-structured games, and then to using it as a venue where they practice the skills they will need to swim well.

Their behavior and expectations as well as the expectations of those around them change at each stage. At first, new young swimmers perceive the pool as a scary, foreign environment. The challenge at this stage is simply to get them to enter and move around in this strange world. A parent or swim teacher may force them to get in or coax them in, or the novices may dip their toes in while watching other people or they may just jump straight in. Similarly, when introducing students to a virtual environment, an instructor’s first goal is to get students into the environment and practicing basic tasks of navigation, manipulation, and communication. In a third environment, a would-be pilot experiencing a flight simulator for the first time begins by looking around and perhaps trying to move the plane a bit. The goal is to get comfortable simply existing in this new environment.

Once children get comfortable in the pool itself, they start to play. They see how long they can hold their breath; they do flips in the water or sit on the bottom of the pool. They invent small games or their swim teachers give them broad rules for light games, such as tag or undersea kingdom. These games start off very casually and tend to become more structured and more complex. Likewise, as students get more comfortable in the virtual world to which their instructor has introduced them, they begin to mess around. They build crazy objects; they change their clothes and hair and body; they visit places they are not supposed to. In the same vein, the new pilot may try to see what the virtual airplane can do, perhaps by trying to fly it under a bridge or into similarly unlikely situations.

Finally, the children begin to test themselves (either on their own or because their swim teachers or parents push them) through increasingly rigorous rules and specific challenges. They go into the deep end, sometimes getting unwelcome mouthfuls of water. They practice new strokes. They try to swim the entire length of the pool underwater. They go from open-ended tag to racing each other. This is the educational simulation part of the experience; these exercises force them to learn skills that they can transfer to other bodies of water, such as lakes or oceans. Meanwhile, the students in the virtual world, having demonstrated their comfort in that world, receive an assignment requiring them to work together to achieve an instructor-defined goal. They fight a bit as a team and get frustrated; they resolve the frustration and complete the assignment. When the work is done, the class debriefs around a conference table or, perhaps, in the virtual world itself. The pilot-in-training is also working harder, having been tasked with increasingly challenging scenarios, such as landing with broken gear or under stormy conditions. The pilot crashes quite a bit at first but gradually gets more and more comfortable and confident.

The ease with which the children in the pool, the students in the virtual class, and the pilot in the flight simulator move from exploratory virtual-world behaviors to structured but simple games to taking on rigorous simulation challenges illustrates both the differences across these three instances and the connections that link them. It is only by building from open experimentation to increasingly rigorous rules, structures, and success criteria that children learn transferable water survival skills and pilots learn critical flying skills.

Distinctions and Connections

As the HIVE model sees virtual worlds, games, and simulations as both different and connected, there are two large sets of consequences: one emerging from appreciating the distinctions among the three and one related to the view of them as connected.


The HIVE model asserts that virtual worlds, games, and simulations are all different; each has its own affordances and purposes. A virtual world will not suffice where a simulation is needed. The virtual world offers only context with no content; it contributes a set of tools that both enable and restrict the uses to which it may be put. An educational simulation may take place in a virtual world, but it still must be rigorously designed and implemented. Organizations routinely fail in their efforts to access the potential of virtual worlds when they believe that buying a virtual world means getting a simulation.

Likewise, a game is not an educational simulation. Playing SimCity will not make someone a better mayor. Some players of, for instance, World of Warcraft may learn deep, transferable, even measurable leadership skills but not all players will. The game does not provide a structure for ensuring learning. Just because some players learn these skills playing the game, that does not mean either that most players are also learning these skills or that it should be adopted in a leadership development program. Conversely, a purely educational simulation may not be very much fun. The program may have the three-dimensional graphics and motion capture animations of a computer game, but the content may be frustrating. Specific competencies must be invoked, and students’ assumptions about what the content should be, likely shaped by their experiences with games, will be challenged.


However, the ease with which players in a new virtual environment move from exploratory behaviors to more structured simulation structures also illustrates the connection among virtual worlds, simulations, and games. There are overlaps of both processes and best practices between them. For instance, the same structures that help students get access to a virtual world (say in a university or corporation) also help them get access to a simulation and vice versa. These include help desks, technology test tools, accurate and understandable download information, and password and username management. The aspects of computer game design, such as scoring mechanisms, scripted storylines, and competition-based motivation, can drive increased engagement in an educational simulation. By the same token, a good teacher with a good curriculum can use a relevant game as part of a meaningful learning experience, but the experience must be carefully prepared, presented, and debriefed (Exhibit 1).

One example of the commonality across all HIVEs is the need for introductory structures. These asynchronous, self-paced levels or locations allow students to learn and demonstrate basic competencies in manipulation, navigation, and communication before moving on to the “real” exercise. These have been successfully adopted in Second Life where students often have to navigate through a custom challenge before joining a class for the first time. Computer games frequently have single-player levels with scripted stories and even their own training sequences that players must complete before joining multiplayer teams. Given the parallels between simulations, games, and virtual worlds, multiplayer simulations designed to teach specific skills may do well to include a significant single-player mode in which students can first learn the basic interface and gameplay.

A second area of commonality is the need for communities around games and simulations. Community-building tools and opportunities can be built in as a seamless, integrated piece of technology within the world or simulation or they can be provided separately via a chat room or other tool.

The biggest area of commonality, and this will be true for years and perhaps for decades, is that HIVEs get people to do things. In a formal learning program, this means that they can be integrated with the goal of getting students to learn how to do, not just what to know. To accomplish this, instructors in virtual worlds will find a range of techniques already refined in stand-alone simulations useful, including assessment methodologies such as benchmarking and coaching strategies to manage student frustration and to provide effective debriefing. More complex interactive structuring techniques, such as the use of branching structures or mathematical modeling to allow students’ decisions to guide the development of events in the world, can also help by increasing the interactivity of these environments.


This HIVE taxonomy has a range of implications for instructors structuring classes and for students exploring virtual worlds. Accepting the idea that HIVEs exist on a continuum, each providing its own benefits but each also being linked to the others, will affect how classes in virtual worlds, serious games, and educational simulations are conceptualized, developed, and deployed. Virtual environments provide a natural way for people to learn by nurturing an instinctive progression from experiencing to playing to learning; instructors should encourage the shifting across experimentation, play, and practice in which students naturally engage. In fact, instructors can exploit that behavior by providing stages that accommodate each stage. Light games and self-paced introductory levels can be used to get students comfortable with basic concepts and the interface necessary to exist in the virtual world, and the complexity can be increased to encourage students to move on to play and practice stages.

Content created for virtual worlds should reflect the nonlinear nature of HIVE learning and exploit the opportunity to learn by doing. The goal should not be to repurpose existing content but to rethink its goals and to imagine new types of content and new modes of presentation that fully access the power of HIVEs for learning. While best practices in content structuring may be transferred from stand-alone educational simulations to virtual world-based simulations, metrics and learning objectives for the different contexts should be different. Learning objectives and assessments around games, for instance, should be focused on the engagement, exposure, and use of simple interfaces while those for educational simulations should measure the development of complex, transferable skills.

Community is also an important element in virtual world-based learning, whether in games or simulations. Even stand-alone simulations need to provide participants some opportunity to access a community even through a separate tool if it is not possible to integrate the community into the simulation platform itself.


This emerging, unifying view of HIVE learning is the future of education (Exhibit 2). It represents, finally, the practical convergence of best practices and technologies, leveraging and building upon what we already know for better results for all involved. However, the critical trick for today is knowing when to look at virtual worlds, simulations, and games as part of a greater whole, sharing best practices when appropriate, and when not to let this holistic view obscure the critical differences among them, optimizing the sense of place and presence offered by virtual worlds, the fun engagement provided by games, and the rigor and transferability of skills promised by simulations.


Aldrich, C. 2009. The complete guide to serious games and simulations. Somerset, NJ: Wiley.

Exhibit 1: Examples of Commercial Games Used in Classrooms

  • Sid Meier’s Civilization Series by Firaxis for history and social sciences.
  • SimCity Series by Electronic Arts for urban planning and social psychology.
  • Age of Empires Series by Microsoft for history.
  • Zoo Tycoon by Microsoft for planning and economics.
  • Roller Coaster Tycoon by Chris Sawyer Games and Atari for planning and economcs

Exhibit 2: The future of HIVEs

Here are some brainstorming thoughts, some personal speculations, about how content may be created and experienced as universities, corporations, and other organizations increasingly explore the power of nonlinear and engagement-based media.

2010: Understanding and Procuring HIVEs

In the near term, educational and commercial organizations will explore their understanding of HIVEs and where HIVEs may fit in their missions. They will seek to how and when to use virtual worlds, serious game, and educational simulations.

And they will make mistakes. As more organizations acquire access to virtual worlds, corporations and academic organizations will use them primarily for building communities and bridging distances, although about 80% will be greatly underused. Large organizations will commission their own customized, self-contained simulations to teach foundational skill sets, mostly using external vendors. Others will buy and often modify off-the-shelf simulations, such as those now available from Harvard Business School Publishing and Capstone Business Simulation. We will see a proliferation of short, stand-alone simulations, typically using Adobe Flash and often connected to online communities, as the dominant model of customer-build stand-alone educational simulations.

Both socially focused virtual worlds, where users meet primarily for interpersonal interactions rather than to pursue goal-focused activities such as games, and self-contained simulations, when done well, will work better for learning than people now realize, developing in students a greater understanding of and interest in the content and a better ability to apply their learning, beginning a rethinking of the multitude of flawed current assessment methodologies currently in use, such as tests and papers. However, corporations especially will still pursue the Sisyphean task of “managing through metrics,” trying to assess the usefulness of an active virtual community or an effective simulation by seeking a quantifiable return on investment.

In universities using three-dimensional virtual worlds, these environments will increasingly be used to host student work, providing a venue for students to create interactive content, rather than as virtual classrooms. Schools that do not focus on the students’ role in building interactive content will wind down their use of virtual worlds in favor of easier tools, such as enhanced virtual classrooms. At the same time, the military will continue to lead the way in using simulations, using specifically developed simulations to develop soft power through the application of interpersonal skills, an effort begun in earnest a few years ago with projects such as the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), a University of Southern California (USC) project funded by the U.S. Army.

A widespread and growing preference for highly interactive content will have far-reaching implications. Business models structured around the production of linear content will continue to deteriorate. Newspaper and book publishers, as well as schools and traditional training providers, will find themselves in increasingly dire shape. But there are also huge problems in those consulting industries whose major outputs are traditional analysis and recommendations to large clients. Corporations will simply no longer buy traditional reports of events that are accurate, even profound, because they just sit on shelves unused. And the sale of interactive applications via providers such as iTunes and Android will continue to flourish. Simply, the market will shift to reward HIVE production as opposed to traditional media.

2013: Authoring in HIVE Environments

Widespread availability of robust and easy-to-use authoring tools and environments will develop quickly in the next three years. While small vendors will initially meet these authoring needs, these tools and capabilities will increasingly be aggregated by the biggest software vendors. The availability of these tools will enable large organizations to bring sophisticated authoring capabilities in house, as students who grew up authoring in Second Life enter the workforce. The time it takes to build a useful simulation will be reduced asymptotically to about four weeks, but larger budgets will be available for more complex simulations that take years to build. The range of development time for simulations will reflect both the maturity of the tools and the market value of these products.

Just as games have developed and refined such genres as first-person shooters and real-time strategy, the increased focus on HIVEs for learning will catalyze new ways of structuring content around the goal of “learning to do.” The power of simulations and virtual worlds to help teach the Big Skills (also known as 21st-century skills) will be recognized and embraced. Linear content will be viewed with increased suspicion as thin and ineffective compared to the robustness of well-created HIVE content. Institutions supporting schools will try, and fail, to build simulations around traditional content, such as biology and literature. HIVEs will increasingly be seen as a continuous whole; students and teachers will expect a smooth transition between the real world, the open virtual world, the fun game, and the relevant simulation.

Second Life will suffer as corporate customers follow younger users to better looking and more dynamic, but also more splintered, environments. Ironically, as the virtual world market fragments, the platform for simulations will converge. Adobe Flash will run everywhere (including hacked future versions of Xboxes and Playstations) and be the common authoring environment of choice, enabling schools to assign simulations without babysitting hardware.

2016: Rethinking Knowledge

By 2016, the culture will be rethinking the possibilities and necessities of captured wisdom. Research organizations and consulting groups will reluctantly reject the easy lens of linear content and, pushed by competition and client requests, follow a research and analysis process similar to the complex methodologies required to generate simulation-based content, even when not building a simulation (Supplement 2-1). Business reports will talk about actions, systems, and results, not just processes and tips. Search engines will be significantly challenged, with huge investments and infrastructure trapping them in old content, as people realize that you can’t learn leadership from Google. Instead of straight information, people will be seeking interactive, learn-to-do content; they’ll want to access virtual environments that allow them to practice particular skills, such as negotiating scenarios. Google has the same constraint as all linear content is shocking. You can’t learn stewardship, relationship management, innovation, or security any more from Google as you can from a traditional book, magazine, or traditional class. As a shared understanding of the limitations of “learning to know” vs. “learning to do” emerges, the realizations of the limitations “Learning to know” approaches becomes obvious.

Increasingly, everyone from the MacArthur Foundation to Accenture will default to producing interactive content over passive. Reports will be produced not as binders but as experiences, not as bullet points and inspirational quotes but as equations, interfaces, and dynamic relationships. For example, rather than having a report describing new market conditions and evolving customer preferences delivered to top executives of a large retailer, a consultant firm might produce a fifteen-minute mini-simulation that all employees of the company can access; in place of a mass of data that must then be disseminated through the corporation, the client will have a tool that can create across the corporate heirarchy a shared belief in the changes identified by the consultant and an understanding of the new behaviors necessary to adapt. This new research will cycle back into increasingly detailed simulations. As the perceived value of information and expectations for its presentation change, journalism will disappear as a distinct college major and career.

Open-source simulation design will flourish and be compatible with professionally created content. When the $49 laptop becomes a reality, sometime before 2015, China and India will both announce that a majority of their school curricula across all ages will be simulation based. Game makers will enter the educational simulation space for real here, as they see there is a market for finished goods, but they will be too late to create real brands. They will still manage to wipe out large tracts of smaller companies.

2019: A New View of Knowledge and Wisdom

Moving forward, school curriculum in the U.S. will be retooled around teaching innovation and stewardship and other Big Skills. The first Pulitzer Prize to a simulation will be announced in 2019, as well as the greatly diminished use of multiple-choice standardized tests (after years of decline). The last textbook publisher will fold. Pure linear content will be looked at the way we listen to scratchy phonographs. Finally, and truly, the most valuable content in the world will be educational simulations and serious games. IBM will launch a new initiative into this space.

Supplement: Research Questions to ask Subject Matter Experts When Designing an Educational Simulation

Most business research relies on the same intellectual constructs as other forms of linear content- including linear analysis, case studies, and inspirational examples. And like with movies and magazines, these reports end up impressing with their cleverness but don’t actually enable effective action (or any action, except more presentations), because they are not designed to.The process of creating a simulations or other “learning to do” content, requires a different process. Even if the goal is not a simulation, the new types of questions can result in richer, more action driven content. Here are some examples of different questions for Subject Matter Experts:

  1. What situation have you experienced that you feel epitomizes the subject matter? (This could be a real-time event or an event that took place over weeks, months, or years.) Were there multiple situations?
  2. What were your available options? At each moment, what could you have done in that situation, and what might a naive or inexperienced person done? What did you end up doing?
  3. Why would the naive approach fail? What would it not have taken into account?
  4. What were clues that informed your analysis of the situation? What did you see immediately, and what information did you have to look for? How did you look?
  5. What did you want success to be? What did the conclusion end up being?
  6. What were you looking for to suggest that things were going well? What were you looking for to suggest that things were not going well?
  7. What were the “maintenance” or routine activities that you had to do (even including body language) to keep the situation developing well? What would happen if you did not do them?
  8. What was the moment were you knew you were successful (or not)?
  9. What was each person’s best case and worse case outcome? What were their strategies and actions?
  10. What would have been three to five legitimate alternative approaches to the problem or situation?
  11. What were the three to five high-level metrics that you were monitoring? Time? Commitment? Alignment?
  12. What trade-offs were you willing to make? What trade-offs did you make?
  13. Can you graph the high level metrics over the course of the experience?
  14. What were the inflection points for each?
  15. How do the actions impact the high level metrics? What else impacts the high level metrics (be as specific as possible)?


This article may be reproduced and distributed for educational purposes if the following attribution is included in the document:

Note: This article was originally published in Innovate (http://www.innovateonline.info/) as: Aldrich, C. 2009. Virtual worlds, simulations, and games for education: A unifying view.Innovate 5 (5). http://www.innovateonline.info/index.php?view=article&id=727 (accessed May 26, 2009).

The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher, The Fischler School of Education and Human Services at Nova Southeastern University.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

33 Critical Skills Seldom Taught, Tested, or Graded in High School

Schools like to say that they rigorously teach all of the important skills. Rather, so many important "learning to do" skills simply fall through the cracks. (If you are ever unsure when talking to a school teacher or administrator, ask what skills the schools test and grade, rather than what they say they teach.)

Here are some skills, both simple and complex, that should be essential for any accredited high school curricula:

  • Adaptation
  • Applying Economic, Value, and Governing Models
  • Budgeting
  • Communication
  • Conflict Management
  • Containment
  • Cost-Benefit Analysis
  • Creating and Using Boards and Advisers
  • Creating New Tools
  • Creation and Implementation of New Actions or Processes
  • Decision Making
  • Estimating Benefits
  • Estimating Costs
  • Ethics
  • Gathering Evidence
  • Innovation
  • Leadership
  • Long-Term Planning
  • Maintenance
  • Negotiation
  • Nurturing and Stewardship
  • Prioritizing
  • Probing
  • Process Reengineering
  • Procurement
  • Project Management
  • Relationship Management
  • Risk Analysis and Management
  • Scheduling
  • Security
  • Solutions Sales
  • Sourcing

Be the kind of person who goes to museums, but then go somewhere real instead.

We all admire the kind of person who goes to museums. They are well-educated and focused. They care about their children's education. They have the right priorities.

There is only one problem. Museums are dead.

Schedule the same time. Prepare the same way. But go somewhere real instead. Go to a construction site. Or a hospital. Or a state-house. Or a police station. Or a farm.

You may have to spend more time. You will not be spoon-fed any anointed pieces of culture. But you will learn more about how the world really works, rather than a highly edited, sanitized, and curated static presentation of a committee's view of the past.

Having said that, here are two exceptions.

First, if someone genuinely loves the content provided in a museum, go there. In fact, go there everyday. Live there.

Second, museums are better than a classroom lecture. So between the two, take the museum.

Museums may just be the vitamin manufacturers of the cultural world. They offer predictable super-concentrations of seemingly self-evident value in a way that promises to meet (and thus off-load) needs of individuals. But just as people would do better to eat real fruit and fresh vegetables, so to might exposure to (and stewardship of) richer history and lifestyles in real and relevant contexts better serve the individual and the community.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Learn only what is reinforced during the rest of the week (you will forget everything else anyway)

This rule is very simple. Use directive style teaching only for content which is reinforced in the productive world in the next seven days.

There are two reasons for this:

First, it keeps a formal curriculum from spiraling out of control into the highly theoretical, legacy, or adult pet projects.

Second, knowledge (and especially "learning to know") decays quickly. So even if you do learn something theoretically interesting, since it is not reinforced, you forget most of it anyway. Teachers often say, "it is frustrating when students come back from vacation because they forget everything." What they mean as a shared complaint is a sweeping and devestating critique of the entire school system.

Now, a great result of this philosophy is that it should not simply impact what is formally learned, but also encourages more activities, be it meaningful work or microcosms. For example, math should be subsequently applied to managing a budget for a project. Working on writing then is reinforced by blogging news articles.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

There is no one answer to how to educate a child. There may not be any answers.

The bad news is that there is no answer to how to best educate a child.

Every child is different. Every home context is different. The notion of "one path for education" is orders of magnitude more absurd than "everyone should drive the same kind of car."

It gets worse. Education is an incredibly young science, not yet out of its own adolescence. This is not the equivalence of physics, engineering, or biology. Educational theory makes economics look accurate.

And then it gets murkier still. Let's say it takes thirty years to get a rough feeling if the process used to raise a child was right. And let's also say the world fundamentally changes, even just in terms of technology and careers, about every ten years. You can see the problem.

Anyone who says they have the answer to the best way of raising children is lying. In fact, they probably want something from you.

The good news is that if you understand the bad news, you can avoid the charlatans with their over-confidence promises, detailed and inflexible processes, desire to eliminate competitive approaches, and their fear-peddling. Then, and only then, can you really begin.

Friday, April 9, 2010

If you care about learning, start with food


How a school (or other place of learning) views food sheds a lot of light on how it views education. And the other way around.

Mass-produced, highly processed, standardized, low-cost, and packaged products, engineered and marketed centrally and shipped out to be reconstituted at their point of use, while predictable and cost-effective in the short run, do not work. This is as true with food (such as frozen hamburgers prepared by cafeteria workers) as educational experiences (such as textbooks and curricula presented by teachers).

This comparison is much more than just a semantic flourish. Consider that:

  • Food is a uniquely perfect microcosm of learning. Anyone who does not eat well has failed in his or her own ability to systematically learn (while they may be productive in other ways). Which necessarily means that any instructor who does not eat well is hypocritical in trying to teach anything to anyone - he or she is a cautionary tale rather than a role-model.

  • Learning is impossible without being fed. The act of growing according to one's genetic blue print supersedes the act of learning. Students who are adding inches to their height are biologically different from people who are not, and the same eating schedule will not accommodate both.

  • Every stated goal of an educational institution (or real goal of a parent) is predicated on a student's life-long health, which requires good food as a foundation.

Given this, almost any school can be evaluated by the simple act of observing lunch. Likewise, learning environments (and accreditation bodies should take note), be it public, private, or home, must include the highest quality food in order to be credible.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Homework helps school systems, not students

The industrial educational system is addicted to homework. From a "business" perspective, it meets the needs of the school perfectly:
  • It reduces the responsibility and accountability of the existing teachers and school processes.
  • It makes parents accountable to the school, instead of the other way around.
  • It keeps the student feeling guilty and unempowered.
  • It maintains the illusion that there is so much to teach and the school mission is so important that it is worth consuming all aspects of a child's life.
But the cost is extraordinarily high on the students' education. Homework:
  • Robs children and their families of meaningful time.
  • Robs children of self-paced experiment and reflection time where so much learning to be, learning to do, and yes, learning to know actually occurs. This is where people can learn what they love.
  • Covers up bad processes and bloated curricula.
Self paced projects, especially involving teams, are powerful and meaningful. But if something cannot be conveyed or scheduled during the school day, it is the people who are in charge that must adapt and re-engineer, not the students and their parents.

Keep a focused journal

One of the most powerful tools for developing a new situational awareness (and feeds into any portfolio) is recording something relevant accurately and comprehensively. For example, for one month:
  • Write down everything you eat, in terms of calories.
  • Write down everything you spend.
  • Take a picture from the exact same spot of a construction site. Or a garden in spring.
  • Measure the rainfall per day.
  • Record the number of steps you take each day.
  • Record the number and types of commercials during a consistent half hour of television.
  • Record the number and makes of cars during a consistent half hour that go through red lights.
This collapses time and draws attention to patterns that otherwise would be noise. It also helps overcome the subjectivity and superstition of personal experience.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

One school day includes less than three hours of formal instruction and practice. Which you can do in two.

If you look at class schedules and other school propaganda, you might think that a) students' entire day is filled with hour after hour of rigorous work, and b) even more is needed. But if you followed one student as an anthropologist might and actually kept track of time spent with instruction and practice assignments, the real number is a little less than three hours.

For most students, three hours of formal work is the most they can absorb anyway. This is an upper limit. And if you want students to remember and learn much more than a typical school student, you may decide on even less formal time.