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Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Campfire and the Veld

What follows is an excerpt from The Complete Guide to Simulations and Serious Games, my 2009 500+ page reference for the production of interactive content.
Consider, as you are reading this, that schools are based on not just media, but "campfire" style media, which structurally prevents them from being able to teach any "learning to do" skill such as leadership, project management, even stewardship.

The Campfire and the Veld

One can imagine the time in our pre-Paleolithic history (in a time before consistent writing) when formal learning consisted of two balanced parts:

During the day, people with skills would show others how to do something. “Grab the spear here,” the teacher might say, taking the hands of the apprentice and putting them in the right spots. “Go over there in that veld where you won’t hurt anybody and throw your spear at trees until you can hit the smallest tree every time.”

While at night, people around the campfire might tell of great adventures, including myths and legends. People would share ideas, and help their community expand their thinking. The audience would learn to know something. The best story storytellers would gain bigger audiences and develop their own craft of narrative and suspense.

Then came the technology of writing. And suddenly the balance shifted. Written work scaled well, where the work of one village could impact villages all around it. Communities were able to build on the “open source” written work of the past. The discipline of drama evolved geometrically.

Meanwhile, practicing in the veld didn’t change much. It was still a one-to-one activity.

Since the introduction of the technology of writing, many subsequent discoveries have further augmented the “learning to know”skills. Paintings, theaters, printing presses and books, photographs, schools, universities, sound recordings, movies, scanners, and Google all turned our culture into masters of linear content, enabling both great artists and our own building an exquisite vocabulary around plot devices, antagonists, suspense, and the hero’s journey, just to name a few. We can watch a Spielberg movie, a piece of campfire-style intellectual property that is the recipient of cumulatively trillions of dollars of investment and R&D, and evaluate it at a level of cultural sophistication that would awe citizens from a even a hundred years ago.

And yet, in the learning-to-do area, most of us are little better than our hunter-gatherer ancestors. For teaching the simplest skills, we mirror our ancestors (“put your hands here”), and for the more complicated skills, we don’t have a clue. Ask a top business school professor to develop leadership (or any of the big skills) in a student and she will go into campfire mode with PowerPoint slides of grids and graphs, case studies, and so-called inspirational stories.

The advent of flight simulators and computer games, however, has finally introduced technology and examples of media around learning to do that can scale. Today, there is a robust, if nascent, set of “veld” tools that is receiving a significant intellectual investment. Today’s “authors,” often in the form of game and simulation designers, are creating virtual velds where participants can repeatedly practice skills, instead of just hearing about them.

And, correspondingly, an entirely new language is being developed. Gamers now effortlessly talk about simulation content, such as mapping actions to interfaces, and the attributes of units on maps, as well as Sim elements such as end-of-level bosses and what constitutes good or bad level design.

During the next twenty years, the “veld” technologies (the learning-to-do skills built through games and simulations) will successfully challenge the campfire institutions of universities, movies, and books not only for the discretionary time of the community (which we have already seen), but for help in improving their people’s quality of life.

We see glimpses of the latter already available through both serious games, such as Carmen SanDiego, The Oregon Trail, Age of Empires, America’s Army, and Brain Age, and educational simulations, such as flight simulators, Full Spectrum Warrior, and Virtual Leader. Will Wright, the creator of SimCity, The Sims, and Spore, is the first Shakespeare or Beethoven of this medium.

In other words, people will engage Sims not to play a super-hero, but to actually become more like one. And the balance between learning to do and learning to know may finally be restored.

Excerpt from "The Complete Guide to Simulations and Serious Games: How the Most Valuable Content Will Be Created in the Age Beyond Gutenberg to Google" By Clark Aldrich (©2009 Jossey-Bass)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Schools can learn from homeschoolers and focus more on student portfolios

Unschooling Rule 46 (#unrules46) is: The future is portfolios, not transcripts.

Many homeschooling families have developed portfolios as an alternative to transcripts. Rather than lists of "easy-to-compare" grades, high school aged children develop "unique-to-them" collections of curated artifacts that more accurately capture their passions and unique gifts.

Depending on the interest of the child, portfolios may include:
  • Published newspaper letters or columns.
  • Photographs of accomplishments.
  • Video clips.
  • Art, including stories.
  • Annotated pieces of code.
  • Letters of praise from various businesses or officials.
  • Ribbons or awards.
  • Records of business transactions.
  • Models or simulations.
A good portfolio may be less than fifteen (web) pages and should be able to be skimmed in less than ten minutes. But any interested party can learn so much about the individual. Portfolios may even be created each year, with a more edited "best of" compilation that is used publicly.

Pioneering homeschoolers have already nudged many leading universities to accept these portfolios as an alternative to reams of pasteurized and homogenized test results. This can only be healthy for the evolution of all college admissions processes. And the next frontier is sending portfolios as a critical input to (and competitive differentiator in) the job application process.

The real transition, however, will be when portfolios in the form of blogs attract proactive businesses and, gasp, even colleges. Competitive institutions, using "blog scouts" akin to sports scouts today, will reach out to interesting high schoolers and actively recruit them.

To prepare for the future, traditional schools will increasingly have to learn from homeschoolers. The area of portfolios may be a first place to start.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

And the Purpose of Grades is...?: An excerpt from Simulations and the Future of Learning

In the lead up to the release of Unschooling Rules, I will be publishing some excerpts from my previous four books in areas that I think are relevant and related. What follows is an excerpt from Simulations and the Future of Learning, a 2004 text book organized around my first-hand account of the creation of the 2002 simulation, Virtual Leader (which earned a place on the Eduventures 100 list).

Here is a reflection on grades (as an introduction to the challenge of designing the scoring system for the simulation).

The Purpose of Grades is...?

I worked at The Chewonki Foundation. For twenty five years (including the four years I was employed there), it was run by Tim Ellis, who turned Chewonki from a little summer camp into, in the words of Down East magazine, “a center of progressive environmental education, a learning institute praised as one of the best of its kind in the country.”

The staff was filled with both teachers and non-teachers. Every year, we debated about grades.

What was their purpose? Were they to motivate? Were they a disciplinarian crutch? If so, what did that say about our content and processes?

Why did students get graded and instructors did not, especially since the students’ parents were paying for their experience? What happened if a student got great grades in every class but one? What did that say about those instructors? Did grades reflect the student or the instructor?

Was the purpose of grades to rank students? If so, what was the value add of an instructor, as oppose to an evaluator? Could the same person hold both roles? Should an instructor both elevate and evaluate the level of elevation? In that case, who watches the watchman?

Should grades be diagnostic? If so, giving one grade as opposed to a suite made no sense.

Should there instead be a pass/fail method, with the goal to bring everyone up to a certain competency? If so, what about the boys that came in already above that level?

Should grades mark absolute levels of achievement? Or improvement? Or attitude? Or work ethic? Or willingness to clean up after everybody else after everybody else left?

What is the impact of the outside environment? Should a student who takes one class and has no other obligations get the same grade for the same work as a student who has five classes and an outside job?

How do you grade when people work as a team? Does everybody get the same grade? That is never fair. Or do you just discourage teamwork to avoid having to deal with the problem?

What is the need for consistency of grades between instructors? What is the process to ensure the consistency? Is an “A” in one class the same as an “A” in another?

Is it acceptable to a teacher to give all “A’s” to his or her class? Is it acceptable to give all “C’s” and “D’s?” Or should an instructor always use the bell curve for distribution?

Should a student try to optimize grades? Or learn the most? We all knew in college pre-meds or candidates for high academic scholarships that only took classes in which they were assured of getting a top mark.

We never reached a satisfactory answer to these questions. And up in Wiscasset, Maine, to this day, ten years after I left, the debate continues. As it does––or should––among those who call themselves educators, from elementary school classrooms to the virtual world of high-level soft-skill development.