Diane Ravitch, former Assistant Secretary of Education, was recently interviewed about her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, in which she criticizes (among other things) the way the law requires school districts to use standardized tests.
"The fundamental principle by which education proceeds is collaboration. Teachers are supposed to share what works; schools are supposed to get together and talk about what's [been successful] for them. They're not supposed to hide their trade secrets and have a survival of the fittest competition with the school down the block."
That comment from the interview struck me, particularly in connection to something I learned in Greg Niemeyer's presentation during the Digital Media & Learning conference last month about gameplay learning: Achiever-Learners learn how to play, Explorer-Novelty Seekers learn how to work the system for short-term gain, Socializer-Observers learn how to bond, and Killer-Competitiors learn how to win (from research by Richard Bestie, 1996).
Should we be surprised that NCLB has failed? Congress designed a competitive game, and school districts went into Killer-Competitor gameplay mode to compete for scarce resources.
Ravitch said in the interview, "The basic strategy is measuring and punishing, and it turns out as a result of putting so much emphasis on the test scores, there's a lot of cheating going on, there's a lot of gaming the system. Instead of raising standards it's actually lowered standards because many states have 'dumbed down' their tests or changed the scoring of their tests to say that more kids are passing than actually are."
Interesting to think of 21st Century Learning and No Child Left Behind in terms of gaming -- I think Ravitch is using the phrase "gaming the system" as though the school districts broke some fundamental rule. But if the "game design" of the No Child Left Behind system was created to foster competition, then why be disappointed when schools become Killer-Competitors? No Child Left Behind has been like any number of commercial games: get high scores, earn money. If there had been a game designer (now there's a title: Chief Game Designer, Dept. of Ed) in the room during the crafting of No Child Left Behind, I imagine there would have been much discussion about how to design the "game" to foster meaningful outcomes, such as collaboration, teamwork, participation, networking -- being able to share successful strategies for better learning and real achievement.
One of the things that changed Ravitch's opinion about NCLB (she had been a vocal and staunch advocate until 2006), was research that found remarkably low percentages of families took up offers to transfer out of failing schools. This was a surprise. Ravitch wrote in Chapter 6, Measure and Punish (an except is available online) that, "When offered a chance to leave their failing school and to attend a supposedly better school in another part of town, less than 5 percent and in some cases, less than 1 percent of students actually sought to transfer." (I find that my parents friends want choice about their child's teacher more than choice about schools.) If NCLB was a game, it would be have to be rethought at fundamental levels.
For HASTAC and Digital Media & Learning people, the idea of serious gameplay and learning is second nature. But for most people, games are about entertainment, and sometimes it is the social memories we cherish about our own game histories, not the gameplay that we remember. This is likely an artifact of the kinds of games we grew up playing: unimaginative, with limited game design, that rewarded certain kinds of learning or game strategies. Andrew Curry wrote an article about the German board game Settlers of Cattan that taught me more about games as social, cultural processes of learning than anything else, particularly because my definition of gaming had been shaped by Monopoly as a kid.
Curry quoted Derk Solko, founder of BoardGameGeek.com as saying, "Monopoly has you grinding your opponents into dust. It's a very negative experience. It's all about cackling when your opponent lands on your space and you get to take all their money." To emphasize what we learn from games like Monopoly, Curry wrote that the game, "is a classic example of what economists call a zero-sum game. For me to gain $100, you have to lose $100. For me to win, you have to be bankrupt." No Child Left Behind is like the Monopoly game of public education, designed to reward killer-competitor gameplay.
But not all games are like that. In Settlers of Cattan, Curry wrote, "Through the complex, artful dance of algorithms and probabilities lurking at its core, Settlers manages to be effortlessly fun, intuitively enjoyable, and still intellectually rewarding, a potent combination that's changing the American idea of what a board game can be." At the time Curry published his article, Settlers of Cattan had sold 15 million copies, nearly more than half what the videogame Halo 3 had sold, and Settlers has been translated into 30 languages with plans for online gaming in the works.
We need an educational system that brings out the same kinds of learning we want the schools to provide, something that fosters interest, collaboration, strategy, and that supports and rewards a variety of learning modes. In other words, we need the system to demonstrate what we want our students to do.
Yesterday, Cathy Davidson asked the question, What does 21st Century Learning Mean to You? which the White House will be posing on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn this week. (We'll be compiling some of the answers here on HASTAC.) (Update: interesting comments might not be easy to come by from what I've read so far :) The easy answer is that 21st Century is not No Child Left Behind. But what is the complex answer? How can we change the way we assess school districts, schools and students so that we measure student learning as opposed to institutional achievements? If you were to design a game to reform an outdated model for learning, how would you design it so that it was interesting, social, collaborative, strategic, networked, that rewarded players both for individual play and teamwork, while allowing different kinds of learning modes? Ideally, it would be a game with many winners, more fun to play than Halo 3 or Monopoly.