I must admit that to this outsider, the field of education seems very odd! It is surprising how enthusiastically the field embraces new ideas, and their eagerness to denigrate the old ways is even more unusual. I certainly can’t imagine engineers or biologists so willing to say that the last 200 years were done all wrong, and insist we need to completely reinvent the field – yet if this week’s readings are to be believed, pedagogy since the 1500s has been a disaster. Even Robert Talbert claims that organized lectures are useless for “information transfer”, and he was its only proponent.

As an outsider, maybe I have no idea what I’m talking about, but while the intersection of digital gamification and active learning seems to be innovative and useful, it is also hardly a panacea. As a product, or perhaps victim, of the old educational system (nearly was one of ‘ third of college students), I have a few layman’s criticisms:

1. Gamified learning sounds great, but is it truly accessible for all students? I like Dr. Carnes’s ancient Athens game, but that requires a lot of social interaction. There must be introverted students who can’t stand these games and intentionally withdraw as much as possible. Moreover, one must remember that the teenage years are marked by a need to rebel. A game that is embraced by juniors in private college is surely not going to be embraced by 7th graders, especially if it is mandatory, and especially the teacher is playing along. To be honest, when my lab forces us to play team-building “games” I feel heavily patronized – I’d rather sit and listen to a boring lecture. Some students just want to get the material and go home, and they will feel just as off-put by forced social games as any extrovert does in a lecture.

2. This seems like a brilliant addition to the standard curriculum, but it surely can’t replace the old-fashioned lectures and labs. It just doesn’t seem very applicable to most subjects – there are only so many ways you can gamify statistical analysis. Moreover, while creating video game levels for Aesop’s Fables seems like an amazing way to absorb that material – what does that kid do when they get to college and need to learn some mundane but necessary on their own? There are times in your academic career where you need to simply sit down and read a boring book, no fun, no play, no games, just the discipline to be bored. If we indulge the need to play from K-12, nobody will ever have the discipline learn something horrible like SQL.

3. For all this talk of active learning, does it work? Are we sure that it works? Has anyone proved that it works? Has anyone quantified how much more effective it is than traditional learning? My wife is a physician and often talks about her old medical school’s two curriculum system. Students had the option of the vanilla lecture / lab curriculum, or what they called “problem-based learning” (PBL) which sounds like it was inspired by an episode of House MD. The PBL students met every day to take on a case, typically from a catalog of real-life historic cases. They each had to do research, come up with a diagnosis, and a treatment plan, getting updates as they go. It actually sounds awesome. A heck of a lot more fun that sitting in a lecture hall. It must be more fun for the professor too, as they must decide realistic consequences for mistakes. But for all this fun, at the end of their schooling, the PBL folks in her class did far worse on the medical licensing exam than the traditional folks. They had a higher failure rate too, and a far lower placement rate in residencies. To be fair, this could just be a symptom of teaching for the test, and perhaps that test isn’t a great way to gauge ability. But even in residency, my wife claimed that the PBL graduates were well behind. This story is anecdotal, but the NIH studied this significantly.

Here is a metastudy, looking at 15 earlier studies that compared PBL to conventional med-school curricula. The study concludes “Twenty-two years of research shows that PBL does not impact knowledge acquisition; evidence for other outcomes does not provide unequivocal support for enhanced learning.” (Harting, et al. 2010). So, at the end of the day, are we certain that these changes are as beneficial as these authors claim? Or is active learning just another subtle improvement on a centuries old formula?

Side note: The “New Learners of the 21st Century” documentary makes an egregious false equivalence when it compares social-media and game addicts, who are condemned, to studious kids who are praised. The addiction to video games can be as pathological and compulsive as the addiction to hard drugs. It is a legitimate psychological disorder which literally kills a few young people per year. Though I suppose it is possible to do the same studying, it is certainly not something to be praised. On the contrary, an obsession with studying could also be extremely dangerous, while gaming, social-media, or studying in moderation is fine.

TL;DR: Sounds good, but: Introverts must hate active learning. Is it really applicable to all fields? Does it really work as well as these authors claim (I doubt it)? Addiction is bad.

  • Hartling, Lisa, Carol Spooner, Lisa Tjosvold, and Anna Oswald. “Problem-based learning in pre-clinical medical education: 22 years of outcome research.” Medical teacher 32, no. 1 (2010): 28-35.