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Chapter Four: Paying Attention to the Chocolate-Covered Broccoli: How Video Games Can Change the Ways You Understand Teaching

Chapter Four:  Paying Attention to the Chocolate-Covered Broccoli:  How Video Games Can Change the Ways You Understand Teaching

Chapter Four:

Paying Attention to the Chocolate-Covered Broccoli:

How Video Games Can Change the Ways You Understand Teaching, Learning, and Knowledge

 

Cristiane Sommer Damasceno 

Chocolate-Covered Broccoli  – (Cristiane Sommer Damasceno, 2013)

The rhetorician Richard A. Lanham defines attention as the “action that turns raw data into something humans can use” (qtd. in de Castell and Jenson 390). In this sense, when you see attention at play, you must assume that there is intelligence at work. So, please, pay attention to the chocolate-covered broccoli, because attention is central to learning. However, this chapter does not talk about attention. If you want to know more about this topic, read Patrick’s chapter. Shall we approach video games before exploring our food metaphor? These little electronic devices have the power of engaging people in immersive playful experiences. For this reason, they fascinate educators who struggle to keep students focused in the classroom.

If you think that this chapter will teach you how to use games in order to make your class more interesting, you are completely… wrong! Nevertheless, do not give up so easily, because these field notes are meant to expand what you understand as teaching, learning, and knowledge. This is accomplished in three steps. The first section of this chapter explores the metaphor “chocolate-covered broccoli” and explains how video games offer the possibility of engaging in uncommon forms of learning in formal educational settings. The second section discusses the workshop that our guest speaker, Nicholas Taylor, prepared in order to make us reflect on the relation between learning and tools’ affordances. The last section brings up a discussion that our class had after the workshop and outlines some learning outcomes from that experience.

 

The Provocation (aka Paying Attention to the Chocolate-Covered Broccoli)

“If this is okay with you, I want to start with a provocation.”

Nicholas Taylor, a guest speaker in our Duke21C course, began his presentation with the aforementioned sentence. His statement is based on the assumption that video games offer a great and unexplored potential for learning that clashes with the structures, discourses, and material affordances of our current schooling system. In order to unpack Taylor’s provocation, we need to step back and look at the Industrial Revolution. This outlook of the past is necessary because of how greatly socioeconomic and cultural imperatives influence our current formal education. In this sense, Ken Robinson explains that the system of formal education was developed during the Industrial Revolution and the intellectual culture of the Enlightenment. In a similar way, Cathy Davidson states that “mandatory, compulsory public schooling developed over the course of the last half of the nineteenth century and got its full wind at the turn into the twentieth century as part of the America’s process of industrialization” (72). Both authors stress that some values, such as efficiency and objectivity, influenced the creation of the school system that we know today. For instance, Anson and Miller-Cochran point out that objectivist models of teaching involve experts who transmit information to novices, but do not allow much space for collaboration (38). Lectures are an emblematic example of this type of teaching practice and a great part of higher education inside and outside the United States adopts this approach (Anson and Miller-Cochran 41).

Formal education is influenced by premises and values from the late 19th century that established what counts as knowledge and what counts as learning in school settings. In the book New Cultures of Learning, Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown explain that our educational system adopts a mechanistic approach to learning (34). In other words, learning is understood as a series of chronological steps that need to be mastered by students. This approach “presumes the existence of knowledge that is both worth communicating and doesn’t tend to change very much over time” (40). This traditional model of education values explicit knowledge over tacit knowledge. On the one hand, the first includes what is easily articulated, transferred, and testable. For instance, learning how to perform mathematical operations involves explicit forms of knowledge. On the other hand, the second characterizes what is unsaid and assumed as a product of our experiences. For example, learning what constitutes humor in a different culture involves the acquisition of tacit knowledge.

Are you still here? Great! Now that you have some background information, let’s go back to the provocation from the beginning of this section. According to Taylor, it is common for people to think about video games in education as a tool to transform curricular content perceived as boring into fun and playful activities. Therefore, formal learning is framed as an important but non-stimulating task, and playing video games is seen as a trivial but engaging action. In other words, the convergence of both practices creates the chocolate-covered broccoli, as Taylor explained:

 

It is such a horrible way of conceptualizing knowledge or of conceptualizing learning. Learning is the broccoli, it is inherently unpleasant, but it is good for you. Playing is the chocolate, it is inherently seductive. When you have the chocolate-covered broccoli, you have this mixture that will make you engage with learning. This is a long hangover of an institutionalized approach to formal schooling that goes back to the industrial revolution.

 

According to Taylor, the convergence of text-based content and video games creates forms of digitized content delivery. Nevertheless, video game mechanics enable types of learning that are usually not valued by formal education, especially tacit forms of learning. In this sense, Suzanne de Castell and Jennifer Jenson suggest that digital technologies afford pre-literate ways of transmitting knowledge (390). This statement might sound abstract, but Taylor used the example of a famous video game to explain this idea. For instance, what do we learn by playing Guitar Hero? We definitely do not learn how to play an actual guitar. The game cultivates an appreciation of different genres of music, a type of knowledge hard to convey through a textbook. It is important to highlight the fact that the potential of video games is still unexplored. In this sense, Jonas Linderoth suggests that mastery over a game does not necessarily mean that the player engaged in a rich learning experience (58). Nevertheless, digital games open the possibility of including knowledge currently ignored by traditional schooling.                 

At this point you might be asking why we should include these types of knowledge in formal education. What is the point? Some scholars offer insights to this question. Thomas and Seely Brown, for instance, suggest that our practices with digital technologies involve a great amount of tacit knowledge: “In the digital world, we learn by doing, watching, and experimenting. Generally, people don’t take a class or read books and manuals to learn how to use a web browser or an e-mail program” (77). In a similar way, Kirsten Drotner advocates that youth digital practices provide them with a set of fundamental skills for their future socioeconomic and cultural success (167). In addition, Taylor believes that the value of educational games relies on the fact that they can introduce new forms of practices, experiences, and structures of knowledge that enable a model of education focused on the cultivating dispositions and affects. In this sense, they can help to develop more well-rounded individuals, not just productive subjects for the labor force.

In sum, video games have the power to capture people’s attention and engage them in immersive playing experiences. For this reason, they seem appealing to educators often struggling to keep their pupils’ attention. In the same light, more and more people view video games as an alternative that might introduce a playful aspect to content usually perceived as boring. However, video games offer an unexplored potential to teach pre-literate and tacit forms of knowledge, such as cultivating the appreciation of music, which can be hard to teach through text-based tools, like textbooks. Now that we have explored the metaphor of the chocolate-covered broccoli, let’s understand the class activity that Taylor proposed to make us speculate on the relation between tools’ affordances and learning.

 

The Workshop

One week before our class, I met Taylor to discuss his ideas about the video game class for the Duke21C course. He is Assistant Professor of Digital Media in the Communication Department at North Carolina State University. Prior to joining NC State, he worked as a post-doctoral fellow on a three-year, international research program sponsored by the US government that studies the connections between avatars in virtual environments and their real world users. Coming out of York University’s “Language, Culture and Teaching” PhD program, he has also done school-based research in the educative potentials of games. I first met him when I was a student in his “Gaming and Social Networks” course. While we worked together during the semester, I had the opportunity to talk to him about formal learning because his research involves game culture and education. Therefore, when I decided to lead a class about video games, I knew that Taylor would be interested in the experimental aspect of our course at Duke.

I was already familiar with his research, but on that day our conversation revolved around ideas that were unfamiliar to me because they involved metaphorical chocolate and broccoli.  Taylor told me that he wanted to propose a workshop to explore the relation between the affordances of particular design tools and the creation of learning games. He was going to divide the class in two groups and ask students to develop a game about a given topic. Each group was going to receive the same topic, but different materials.

Taylor: “Do you think it will work? Do you think people will understand the point of the workshop?”

Cristiane: “Yes, that’s perfect because we read McLuhan’s book The Medium Is the Massage this week. It is a great way to explore what we just read.”

Taylor: “Oh, great!”

I asked Taylor if the students could select the topic because we were implementing a collaborative approach to learning in our Duke21C course and I wanted to engage my peers with the workshop before the class. He accepted my suggestion, but told me that he would reveal the instructions for the workshop and the materials only during class. These elements should be a surprise. Long story short, the class selected poetry as the workshop topic.

Dear reader, before we continue, let me share a short digression with you. Being responsible for selecting readings, inviting a guest speaker, proposing an activity, and leading a class discussion is a nerve-wracking responsibility. When I said to Dr. Taylor that people would understand the workshop, I assumed that they would. Even though I enjoyed his idea and it made perfect sense to me, I was slightly worried that it would not make sense to my peers. Sincerely, Cristiane.

On the class day, Taylor revealed the workshop instructions and the available materials. I am sharing his guidelines with you:

The challenge

Two groups:

●     Make an educational game that communicates something about poetry

●     Avoid text – and more importantly, EXPOSITION – wherever possible

●     Use either Lego, or construction paper, or another medium to build a prototype

Practical considerations:

●     What is the play mechanic?

●     What is the victory condition?

●     What genre / play experience are you enacting?

Conceptual questions:

●     How does your game encourage learning? What’s the ‘outcome?’

●     Is this pleasurable (would you play it outside a formal education setting?)

●     How do the prototype materials influence your design?

Surprise! How should we develop a game that teaches poetry without using exposition or… text? I looked around the classroom and people seemed puzzled. Jade, the student who led the discussion about McLuhan, was not in the classroom that day. Maybe she would have understood the assignment. Anyway, I could not tell for sure what was going through my peers’ minds. The environment became silent for long seconds. Slowly, people divided into two groups. Patrick, Omar, Jenny, Elizabeth, and her colleague who was auditing our class were in the group using paper and pens. Barry, Christina, Cathy, and I were in the group working with Legos.

Without words, the Lego pieces and colors became rhythm, meter, and metaphors in a competitive game which involved players finding the right poetic structure to cross a path. Without exposition, the other group created a game in which players would have to remix forms of poetry in order to advance. By excluding an essential element from poetry and by imposing material constraints to our development process, Taylor forced us to think differently about ways of teaching and learning.

 

The Talk

The creation of our games was followed by a collective reflection of what we learned from the workshop and the exercise’s value and importance in a classroom setting. Here is part of the conversation that we had about the learning outcomes of this experiment.

Cristiane: “We had to think differently about poetry because we had to create a game about poetry without words and this was very challenging.”

Cathy: “It is a very abstract way of thinking. I mean, we took out the primary element of a genre and this made us think about other qualities that this genre has. If poetry is not about words, what is poetry? We came up with rhythm, rhyme, formalistic rules, and metaphor.”

Christina: “I did not understand the assignment at the beginning. When he was talking, I was thinking: ‘Okay… I don’t get it.’ However, I learned that by physically doing and talking to people out loud, you can make something that is incomprehensible on a screen, real. The activity made sense to me after we started actually working on it.”

Jenny: “Unlike when you are creating text, when you are creating games, it is harder to gauge an anticipated audience in terms of age range. Games have power to reach a broader-gauge audience. For instance, I am thinking of the way I play video games with my niece. I think that video games afford the delivery of cross generational ideas.”

Cathy: “Even in a situation of so much shared assumptions, the way you can actually work out a problem can be so vastly different. Anytime you have a problem, the more you can switch it up, the more you can see the possibilities. There is a capacity with any group to come up with so many different ways of solving a problem.”

Omar: “The remix is another way of bringing people together rather than putting them against one another. You are taking such extreme differences and finding the merger, making the brand new, the sum is greater than the individual parts. In this sense, the millennial generation is changing the way we interact with one another.”

Patrick: “I learned that intelligence is adverbial to attention. That is, whenever we are focusing our attention on a task, game, problem, or inquiry, we’re necessarily exercising and expanding our intelligence. If intelligence acts as an adverb, modifying the verb attention, it also reminds us to think about attention not in passive terms, but as something ‘paid,’ as a mentally kinetic force that is fundamentally active.”

Elizabeth: “I was the scribe for the group. […] You have to take what somebody else said in the process of remixing, and you cannot reject it. You have to say ‘yes’ and have to add something on the top of it. It is a way of thinking [where] instead of deconstructing or finding errors, you have to do this other process of thinking of how you can connect with this, how can I build more. I believe that project and task-based learning encourages this process.”

Elizabeth (guest):“I have been thinking about how constraint leads to creativity and how that played out in the exercise. I’ve done this exercise before with fewer constraints and it was much more difficult. I was reflecting on how having restraints on the game design tied in to our creativity when creating the games.”

Barry: “If we were asked to come up with the crucial element of poetry, we might all converge on ‘words.’ However, by not having words, we lost the one area of agreement and definition. In this scenario, divergence comes and allows for the emergence of creativity, fluidity, and personal preferences. We are trained to learn what we need to pay attention to in schools and when you make a vacuum, you create the possibility for creativity.”

Cristiane: “I believe that tacit knowledge is important because it enables a way of learning through experience. However, the power that schools have rely on the fact that they can propose reflections on experiences that can lead to a deeper understanding of what is being learned.”

 

Intelligence is adverbial to attention. So, if you paid attention to this chapter, you learned that current assumptions of what constitutes knowledge, teaching, and learning are tangled with ideas and practices forged during the Industrial Revolution. In this sense, knowledge is conceptualized as stable and explicit sets of information that needs to be mastered by students (Thomas and Seely Brown 40). Along the same lines, processes of teaching involve an expert conveying knowledge to novices (Anson and Miller-Cochran 40). Finally, formal learning is understood as an important, but inherently discouraging activity. In other words, learning is the broccoli that needs to be covered with chocolate to become palatable.

These assumptions about knowledge, teaching, and learning are challenged by digital media. In this sense, the workshop proposed by Nicholas Taylor made it explicit that tools’ affordances are intrinsically related to the content they convey and types of learning allowed. Therefore, books are a great medium to deliver explicit and static content, whereas video games enable the cultivation of post-literate and tacit knowledge.

By proposing the workshop activity, Taylor made these ideas tangible to us. The activity allowed us to reflect on our own collective practice that led to other learning outcomes. We realized that tools influence the solution of problems posed to us, but also that collaborative work has the potential to produce creative and innovative solutions. Even though our Duke21C group does not have a definitive formula for how to foster collective work, our discussions brought up some interesting insights on the topic:

●     Constraints force you to find innovative solutions to a problem.

●     Disagreement can bring different perspectives on a topic and enrich the final solution to a problem.

●     Group work produces better result when people are working together and not against each other.

●     Reworking and adding new elements to other people’s ideas might produce better results than trying to find flaws in their ideas.

The American author and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes once stated that our minds never regain their original dimensions when stretched by a new idea. Therefore, I hope this chapter stretched your mind and helped you to broaden your understanding of what constitutes teaching, learning, and knowledge. In addition, I hope it helped you to become aware of the chocolate-covered broccoli and to think mindfully about the best tools you have to convey diverse types of knowledge. And, finally, hopefully this chapter also encouraged you to engage in collaborative forms of learning.


 

Works Cited

 

Anson, Chris M., and Susan K. Miller-Cochran. "Contrails of Learning: Using New Technologies for Vertical Knowledge-Building." Computers and Composition 26.1 (2009): 38-48.  Print.

Davidson, Cathy N. Now You See it: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way we Live, Work, and Learn. New York: Penguin, 2011. Print.

De Castell, Suzanne, and Jennifer Jenson. “Paying Attention to Attention: New Economies for Learning.” Educational Theory 54.4 (2004): 381-391. Web. Accessed 1 May 2013. http://www.sfu.ca/~decaste/techcourse/payingattention.pdf.

Drotner, Kirsten. “Leisure Is Hard Work: Digital Practices and Future Competencies.” Youth, Identity, and Digital Media. Ed. David Buckingham. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008. 167-184.

Jonas Linderoth. "Why Gamers Don't Learn More: An Ecological Approach to Games as Learning Environments." Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds 4.1 (2012): 45. Print.

Robinson, Ken. “Changing School Paradigms.” Online video clip. YouTube. 14 Oct. 2010. Web. Accessed 2 May 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LSGU4x2NFgs>.

Thomas, Douglas, and John Seely Brown. A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change. Lexington, KY: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2011.Print.

Resources:

Chocolate-covered broccoli:

<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VrK7VXCfsS0>

Changing schools paradigm:

<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U>

Dr. Nicholas Taylor:

<http://nickttaylor.net/>

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1 comment

As a gamer and graduate student in Ancient History, I have gravitated towards video games like "Civilization," an excellent series of simulation games that allows a user to create their own civilization from scratch--starting from the Neolithic Revolution and growing as an empire. In an ironic way, this chapter has made explicit my own feelings towards the value of this video game experience in my own learning. Among the many tacit types of knowledge that I've gained in playing games like "Civilization," I've gained an experiential understanding of how a peoples' spatial conception of the world changes over time (in the game, the "map" transforms as the user sends out units to "explore" the world). How people see the world--and how this changes--are things normally considered as "cultural"--processes that can only be understood by experience. Video games offer a simulated environment for students to gain such knowledge that, as you say, cannot be conveyed in a book or lecture format. Thanks for putting words to my feelings!

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