World of Peacecraft


Junior Achievement BizTown in Georgia simulates a macro-economy 

What if we thought of education as simulating peace, literacy, and innovation the way video games simulate war? As James Paul Gee argues in his book “What Video Games Have to Teach US About Learning and Literacy,” “the theory of human learning [is] built into video games.”  Video games are addicting, right? They are also challenging. How do video games manage to achieve this mix of challenge and appeal? I think this come in a large part from simulation and role play.

In this post I take a look at some examples that different schools and classrooms have used to simulate real-life peace-time (or peace seeking) challenges.

Industry and finance: In Atlanta, 6th graders can visit Junior Achievement BizTown, which is a marketplace in which actual franchises set up a mock store in a mall-like interactive marketplace. Every student is given a job assignment at one of these businesses. Then they go to the Junior Achievement Finance Park and make a personal budget based on the scenario they have been given.

STEM: The Challenger Learning Center has two rooms – one room that simulates a space station, and the other that simulates a base on earth. Astronauts in space collect data that is given to the base for students to analyze. They have to work with “quarantined” agents using a glovebox, catch things like extreme pH in the water, assemble a robot, and check astronaut’s blood pressure. While this requires a visit to a well-established center, started as a living memorial of the Challenger space shuttle, there are science resources for individual classrooms as well. For example, the Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College provides scenarios for role play and a mock environmental summit.  The advantage of active learning in science is that there is no reason in many cases that it has to be a “simulation” at all. Students don’t need to “simulate doing science” they can do science. Lab work is very hands on.  And this can also be taken in new directions focused on innovation, such as in International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition in which college and high school students build a plasmid (bacteria DNA insert) that give bacteria specific traits.  There are also journals where students (middle and high school) can publish scientific research.

Governance: Simulated court cases are a common educational tool. Moot court cases simulate a court of appeals and mock trials simulate a court of appeals. Model parliament simulates the Westminster parliamentary system. There are also some less formal resources available for setting up a mock congress in a classroom.  On a larger competitive level in the National Model United Nations, college students are assigned to act as diplomats for different countries. They prepare for about 6-8 months to be able to represent the interests of that country (whether or not they agree with those interests).

History: As Mark C. Carnes described for the Chronicle, he developed a simulation of events in history in which students debate the issues of the day and can decide on an alternative history if desired. As the student Maharaha Hari Singh said, “One thing this class has taught me is that it’s very hard to learn history in retrospect.” One thing this class has taught me is that it’s very hard to learn history in retrospect” (Reacting to the Pest: The student Perspective (2012)).

Right now a MIT dean Christine Ortiz is leaving her position at MIT to create a new university that will be centered on project-based learning. The only lectures will be online and the classrooms will be large centralized laboratories.  Maybe this is one step toward thinking of education as simulating a World of Peacecraft?

Finishing: The endless battle

In second grade, letter grades were something I only paid any attention to once a year and the end of the year ceremony when I got my report card. I was a B student. The teacher gave us each a cheesy picture of a bunch of kids playing on a playground and swing set under a big cartoon sun. We had just learned about flash floods with our science teacher – terrible surprising things that catch people off guard. The more I looked at that cheesy smilie face of a sun, the more I could picture the footage of flash floods, full of before and after shots. So soon the kids in the drawing were kayaking over to their neighbors’ houses, designing the new rules of an underwater playground, and going on daring expeditions to retrieve canned goods from their basements, swimming and kayaking around the house. If I had thought more about grades at the time I might have even put some of it on paper. But I doubt I would have crafted a story that excited me enough that I would actually remember it any other way. I don’t think I was as upset about turning in an almost empty page as I was that they hadn’t given me enough time to finish. I was kind of jealous of my friends who had written out their stories, but secretly I still thought my story was the best.

In high school on the other hand I designed for myself a desire for grades – I was not forced into one. After the third grade I wasn’t given grades – a smattering of tests in math and such, but never course grades – until I was in high school. In high school biology I found I wanted these tests. I love biology.  But test for me allowed me to say I was finished with this module and it was time to move on.  It gave me closure. Which is I think, the best and worst part about testing. Testing can lead to an “I’m finished” attitude. If you need to foster curiosity and motivation, this is the counterproductive. But testing was important for me, to solve the opposite problem. I would absorb everything in my biology text, memorize it, read it over and over, and the test was the thing that would convince me it was actually time to move on. It helped progress.   It broke something big into manageable pieces. And – even though this is a two-sided coin – it gave me a sense of completion. I content that a sense of completion, and a deadline for completion, can be a really useful thing.

I think there can be a tradeoff between motivation and completion. I never struggled with motivation. I did struggle with completion. I think we need to recognize that being motivated to do something and being motivated to finish something are not the same thing.

So the question is, which is better?   The sense of accomplishment at a completed module, and the work behind it? Or the sense of pride at a blank-page that was better than the rest?

Silly Mama, tables are for eating

As a young kid I was convinced dinner was “supposed” to come directly after lunch, but this was just never fully practiced. I had asked my mom once why she seemed to care so much about clearing and washing the table after lunch.  She said, “so it can be ready for dinner.”  Seemed to me like a lot of wasted momentum.  She always seemed to forget about dinner as soon as she finished clearing the table.  We weren’t really hungry at that point anyways.  Mama’s can be so silly sometimes.

The readings this week talk about how the way we think effects the way we learn.  What we are looking for in the information we receive completely changes the way we learn, what we learn, and how useful the learning is.  I want to  look at the way kids think differently than adults, and some of the learning benefits to thinking like a kid.

Dr. Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, has a theory that kids are like “the research and development division of the human species.” She is featured on a recent Freakonomics radio podcast, as did a professional magician. The magician demonstrated what he says is common knowledge in his profession: that kids are much more likely to figure out how a magic trick was done than adults are.  On the podcast they and others attempted to sort through the ways of thinking that make this the case.

One explanation is that kids are constantly coming up with theories while adults are essentially waiting for the punch line.  Kids come up with running hypothesis as they go and are not as worried as adults about throwing in some silly ones.   I imagine the consequences for giving a “silly” hypothesis a working, vocal, chance are greater for an adult than for a child (or at least the perceived consequences, but in certain social and professional settings I think the negative feedback can be real). I think adults tend to look for the safest answers. The “grownups” feel duped if they are caught making a guess that turns out to be wrong, whereas kids feel duped if they never make the guess that turns out to be right.

The readings this week were about how to capture a mindset – almost how to capture a child-likeness – that enables learning. Referencing the examples in psychologist Dr. Ellen Langer’s book The Power of Mindful Learning I would summarize her argument as the idea that learning is undermined when it operates on the mindset that there are right and wrong heuristics.  She powerfully argues for the importance of recognizing heuristics for what they are early in the learning process and asking the why behind a habit before over-practice and under-thinking ingrain the habit itself as some sort of underlying truth.

I used a slightly different vocabulary than Langer does to reflect the point that I take away from her examples. Her original wording says that learning is debilitated by the mindset that “there are right and wrong answers.” I see the mindset that “there are right and wrong heuristics” fitting more directly with the her examples. As a scientist I take issue with the idea that the mindset that the word is unknowable and intractable is likely to lead to a more active scientific process. Like kids figuring out a magic trick –  they assume it is knowable, and they look to solve the mystery. Whereas adults are essentially assuming that if it is a good magician the trick will be unknowable (to them). Trying to figure out the mystery could put us in a position of looking the fool. So we don’t. From my perspective we are already too often guilty in science of looking at the world the way a bunch of “grownups” watch a magic show.

I think kids are naturally good at wanting to understand not only how to do something, or what to do, but why to do it.  I like the way the readings illustrate the value of allowing people to rethink patterns we might otherwise have long taken for granted.

In the meantime it’s getting late. I had better go clear the table for breakfast.