Boys, Games, and Learning

Ali Carr-Chellman gave a talk at TEDxPSU about boys, video games, and learning.  She basically says that boys, at a young age, tune out learning because of:

  1. Zero tolerance policies in schools that make it easy for boys to tune out school cultures,
  2. Absence of male role models as teachers,
  3. Compression of curricula, especially in the early grades.

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Her take-away: Bring gaming into the classroom.  Interesting.


One response to “Boys, Games, and Learning

  1. Dear All,

    This is indeed an interesting talk, and it does reveal that something isn’t working about boys, but I do question some things about this talk.

    1. The absence of male teachers in elementary school has always been a problem. For instance, every year I was in elementary school, our school was lucky to have more than one or two male teachers! Even elementary school teachers portrayed in movies, TV shows, and books are almost always women–which reflects the fact that elementary school teaching has always been dominated by women. So I question if this is a problem today mainly because far more boys today are being raised by single parents, which are almost always women since the mother almost always wins custody of the children.

    On top of that, we do live in an anti-intellectual culture where scholars are considered squares, geeks, nerds, antisocial–in short, scholars are portrayed as the kinds of people we should not strive to become. Being stupid or at least of average intelligence is the “cool” thing to do. Take Urkel on “Family Matters,” for instance: Is he the kind of person we should strive to become? I think not. Even those words “geek” and “nerd” planted on us by popular culture suggests their negative views of scholars: We are far from normal; we are misfits because we do the kinds of things that no “normal” person would do. I also find that most people I know who do not work in academia or other scholarly careers tend to have far less appreciation of scholarly interests than those who do work in such careers.

    So boys who lack male role models who are interested in scholarly work or at least have an appreciation for it tend to suffer in school. With the culture we have today, many boys are not able to find many male role models outside school who also have an appreciation for education and learning, which probably explains why the lack of male teachers in elementary school causes more serious problems today than what was the case a few generations ago.

    2. I do agree that zero tolerance policies are often extreme. Though I can understand the banning of toys in school, especially so-called violent toys, treating a boy who brings a toy gun or other toy weapon to school as if it is a real gun or real sword is way out of hand. Toy weapons might be out of place in school (in the sense of what school is supposed to be about, not just in terms of zero tolerance policies today), but they are not actual weapons, and the ones who bring such toys to school should not be treated as if they had brought a real weapon to school.

    Did the boy who shot all those kids in the Littleton Colorado school use a toy gun to shoot them? The last time I checked, he had used a real gun, not a toy gun.

    School culture does forget that countless boys have played with toy weapons over the years and have turned out just fine. For instance, I did play with toy guns and other toy weapons as a kid, but do you see me out there shooting people?

    However, a boy wanting to write about the destruction of tornadoes because he wants action in his writing is something I would question. Does he not realize that, though such things might be “fun” in movies and stories, they are not fun in real life? In other words, such things happening in movies or stories is one thing, but that stuff happening to real people is a completely different matter!

    3. It is a shame that schools have a negative attitude about games and learning. It might be true that many video games and other games are brain drains, but not all games are. Even if they were, who says that educators don’t have the authority to create games that are fun but also promote learning and thinking?

    Likewise, many math textbooks are junk, but I don’t see that as a reason to continue thinking that we must continue to write junk math books.

    Some online schools don’t have required discussion assignments or use only a few of them (take Florida Tech’s online programs as a good example) because they don’t want to give students free points. Though many classes with required discussion assignments might offer a lot of free points to students, that does not mean that discussion assignments must be this way. Many teachers might abuse their grading in making the grading too easy, but does that mean we must do the same?

    These are other examples that are similar to the flawed thinking behind video games: We see flaws in the way that an idea is being used and then automatically conclude that liking that idea means that we and other people must endorse as well those bad uses or misuses of that idea.

    I see that flawed thinking all the time in discussions about math education. For instance, I might be attacked for wanting to see more writing in math classes because that means that I must be promoting as well the idea of having trivial writing exercises. And, yes, I have seen many lame attempts at bringing more writing in math classes by using assignments that do not promote any real thinking or learning of math! But I know that the real problem is not with having writing in math classes but with the way that this idea is often applied.

    So video games can play an important role in the classroom, but the reasons for opposing them are based on flawed logic.

    By the way, for my own personal life, I stay away from video games for several reasons: One reason is that today’s gaming systems are too complex for me to figure out. Controllers have gone from having just a few buttons to having zillions of them! Another reason is a bigger one: Even if I decide to be patient in learning today’s gaming systems (and I probably could), if I find a game I really like, I get addicted! Once I start enjoying a game, I cannot peel myself away from it. With the kind of work I do today, I cannot afford for this to happen to me. Video games are to me what alcohol is to an alcoholic: I cannot enjoy them in moderation. I am not this way with non-video games.

    4. I do not think that “compressed curricula” are a major problem with today’s schools. They might be a problem to some extent, but I think much more serious problems lie elsewhere. In fact, the opposite is often the problem: Many curricula are watered down to try to prevent anyone from failing a class or as a reaction to decreasing literacy and academic success rates among students. I remember a friend of mine looking at an old copy of his grandfather’s fifth grade reader, which he said is about the equivalent of today’s tenth grade readers. Another sign I see is that Poe and Dickens wrote their stories to the general public, yet their stories are significantly harder to read than most of the reading I see today. Most of today’s high school and college students would struggle to read them. I have two Master’s degrees, and I don’t find those stories to be easy reading! So I have no reason to doubt what my friend has said.

    One major problem is with the focus on standardized testing and with covering a curriculum rather than with helping students learn. Another major problem is that curricula are often determined by tests. Teaching is often test training (how often do we hear about educators sobbing about low test scores and chanting about solutions to getting higher test scores as if high test scores is the ultimate purpose of schooling?) and mere transmission of information in the classroom. The latter point is illustrated like this: As long as I, the teacher, get the information into the classroom, I have done my job. If students can’t see the relevance and don’t understand it, it’s their fault, not mine. That attitude is often going away with today’s test obsessed K-12 school culture, but it is still common at the college level.

    School curricula at all levels should be examined thoroughly. The real problem is that curricula are either often outdated, not customized, irrelevant, or missing what is needed in helping students become thinkers and not just memorizers of information. Traditional math curricula for courses before algebra and even in algebra itself often lack what is needed to prepare students for algebraic thinking. So when students later take algebra, algebra becomes to them mere meaningless symbolic manipulation instead of genuine thinking about mathematics. In short, the problems I see are often not that curricula are “too hard” but that they lack motivation and relevance and what students need if they are to become thinkers and not just memorizers.

    Sorry that this post is long, but I did not find it easy to compress without altering the meanings of my message.

    Jonathan Groves

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