6th November 2014

Fighting Fantasy School – the Way Forward

I welcome the news that Ian Livingstone has formerly applied to launch a free school in West London next year. I have some serious reservations about the UK Government’s Free School scheme, which diverts state funding into independent schools, but that is another issue, for another post. In this post, I will focus on why I think the foundation of this school is a positive move and how I think education, primary, secondary, tertiary, as well as work-based learning, could benefit from adopting this approach.

In a nutshell, what Livingstone is proposing is a school which will use games-based learning to encourage diversity of approach and problem solving skills. He believes that the ‘relentless testing’, which assesses schools rather than the children, is not the way for the generation who have been ‘born into the Internet’ to learn most effectively.

The recent policy of the UK Government with regard to Education has been, to say the least, backward looking. Under Michael Gove, there was a nostalgic looking back to a supposed golden age of ‘rigorous examinations’ (without the possibility to re-take), solid foundation in ‘facts’ and a disapproval (and indeed purging) of specifications which are not ‘proper subjects’ – a criterion seemingly largely based on whether or not they were taught when Gove was a lad. So it remains to be seen whether Livingstone’s application will receive the go ahead. It depends, I suppose on whether his value as a Free School poster boy is seen to be greater than his annoying insistence on a pedagogy which stresses experience rather than the transfer of facts.

So what makes games-based learning better than what we have now?

1. The power of experience and immersion

Of all the ways in which a individual can chose to learn, learning by experience is one of the most powerful. I can read a French phrasebook, I can listen and respond to recordings of French being spoken, and I will learn something. But if I go to France, and I go about my daily business, communicating in French, immersing myself in the language, even for a short time, the results will be far better.

Obviously this has something to do with the time I dedicate to the activity. Repetition is a powerful learning tool, but it is also to do with the fact that what I am doing is ‘real’. I am experiencing French not just as a topic of study but as something which pervades the environment I am operating in.

Games can offer this immersion. There are many different ways to structure games to either provide reality and immersion (simulations) or to isolate a concept (abstract games), but in any case they offer an experience rather than telling or demonstrating a concept.

I can look up from where I am writing to see any any number of board games. Many of these are ‘simulations’ in the broadest sense, and will allow me to experience of being variously a Cornish Smuggler, the builder of an Oxford College or a captain of industry launching and growing a manufacturing business. The pieces (toys) I play with in these games are abstract. I will not usually find moving counters to be a feature of my business life, but the decisions these toys represent are real ones. I have through these games the opportunity to learn through experiences, which I could not otherwise have (assuming the impossibility of time travel for example).

If I look on my laptop, I can find opportunities to experience the physical laws of motion (Angry Birds). I can simulate (and improve) my performance at buying stocks and shares, without the commensurate financial ruination. I can command armies, fly helicopters, build bridges and skyscrapers, and the degree of learning I get from these is limited only by how meaningful and ‘realistic’ are the decisions and feedback mechanisms of the game.

2. A safe place to fail, and to learn to fail

Failure is not a popular concept in education. Success is great and is constantly measured and reported through grades, marks out of 10 and end of term teacher comments. A learner’s worth is evaluated through these indicators and life-changing decisions are made based on them. A culture of fear of failure ensues. I’ve seen it, as a teacher, and it’s terrifying. Have you any idea how utterly impossible it is to teach a 16 year old to code if they won’t touch the keyboard because they fear making an error?

Games make it safe to fail. Even dying is not final. Providing a safe place to fail means that learners can be more adventurous and they can discover more. The permission to take risks is implicit in games, because the real-world consequences have been removed, but it does not mean that in game failures do not deliver valuable lessons.

Take the kind of games I have been most recently involved in – business learning games. Those who fail inevitably leave with more than those who consistently succeed, because they have have taken risks. The risks may pay off or they may not, but the risk takers go back to the real-world with some (not so) hard won experience to apply.

Even more importantly games teach you that failure can be a force for good. You learn from it in a way you can never learn from success. Success breeds a culture of continuing to do the same thing. ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. Is this an entrepreneurial approach? No. You may do alright, but you will never fly. Entrepreneurs break things, just to see if they can make them better

 3. A problem solving mindset

Closely related to trying and failing is the concept of problem solving. A pedagogy based on ‘facts’ does not encourage a problem solving mindset. Just to be clear, I’ve got nothing against facts. They are absolutely necessary and provide the basis for learning about any situation. I just don’t see them as an end in themselves, or a worthy aim in a learning context. Facts alone cannot lead to understanding. It requires application, synthesis and analysis of facts to produce learners who can make use of facts when approaching similar, but novel situations.

Sandbox games such as Minecraft provide an excellent basis to learn problem solving skills. Players learn facts about the characteristics of materials, and the nature of ‘problems’ such as the threat posed by Creepers and they can then bring previous experience to bear upon new situations. The emergent properties of games like these mean that the potential for building new structures with new properties, solving new problems is beyond what the designers of the game could ever have imagined.

4. It is a idea whose time has come

Games and gamification are ideas whose time has come. By this I mean that the potential within education is only the tip of the iceberg. The fact that these are now considered legitimate areas for academic study and the rise of superstars of the field like Jane McGonigal, who innovate to use games as a way to make the world a better place, mean that games will only become more pervasive in every area of life, They will move beyond being a simple means for entertainment, into industry, politics and commerce. New ways of playing (living) will result, with forms of ‘games’ which don’t yet exist.

In this case, it is important that there will be a new generation of knowledge workers who understand games and games mechanics, who will be in a position to create this new world. They will be needed, just as surely as engineers were needed to push forward the Age of Steam. Livingstone’s school is a start which we should all welcome.



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