Blog Post

Achiever-Learner, Socializer-Observer, Explorer-Novelty Seeker, Killer-Competitor: What kind of learner are you?

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 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.






sounds like sir ken robinson's talk on, which is always worth watching.  

there has been some dispute about whether there are different kids of learning modes of late, there was just a paper published last month or at least very recently that did an extensive literature review and found that learning modes and learning styles seem to have no real empirical backing, and are possibly just based on some early already disproven research.   That doesn't really mean that they don't exist, just that they aren't scientifically well-supported according to the paper, just that they are contested concepts and perhaps not really the basis of good policy.

that said, i agree that we should be teaching students and encouraging them to learn in ways that actually map onto their future success, and that probably isn't happening now.


Thanks for the pointer to Robinson's TED talk -- I'll have to take a look. And I am interested in the article you mentioned, too. Do you have an author/title? I'm curious what kinds of research they covered and analyzed. Sounds like a good resource.


I think Buridan is referring to "Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence," by Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Vol 9, No. 3 (Dec 2008).  It's a healthy corrective, suggesting that, in different situations, the same person might learn in one style or another, there aren't rigid norms within each individual.  That is certainly correct.  I learn material in my own field quite differently than I learn, say, a new software where explanation is useless.  I have to actually use it and make it part of my almost automatic or reflexive habits or I might as well not know how it works.  I need the practical, hands' on, tested, and then practiced.  Etc.   My objections to this study, though, is its rigidity and its emphasis on a purist methodology that gives it limited utility in actual education.  "We conclude therefore, that at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice."   Assessment is their main issue, not learning.  I'm happy to substitute "learning preference" for "learning styles."  And I'm happy to underscore the variability within each learner.  But, in an interview, the PI of this study, Pashler, noted that the "review was strictly focused on the question of whether there is evidence to support the utility of testing students' learning styles and selecting instructional methods accordingly." (Here's the link to the article in Education Review   That's very limited utility.


Sir Robinson's TED talk is a classic.   Let us know what you think after you see it.



Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence," in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Volume 9, No. 3, December 2008  

Now i'm not saying it is ultimately the downfall of learning styles, but I think that it is worth thinking through.   one way of thinking about 'assessment' is 'learning outcomes' and if styles can't provide access to differential analysis of outcome then it is unclear that they exist.   From my perspective, which is that humans always learn, but they don't always learn what you want... learning styles or preferences or modes are really less important that student desires and mapping those desires into their current learning.  That said I do think people learn differently at different ages if they are trained to learn differently at different ages, so currently modes of learning change over age, and people also have different modes based on different capabilities.