26 04 2015

by John Spencer


We’ve all seen it before. A student suddenly gets “in the zone” in the midst of a project. (It’s even better when it happens with an entire class.) Time seems to simultaneously slow down and yet speed up all at once. There’s a sense of challenge and urgency but also a sense of relaxation. You can feel it intuitively. Something is different.

This state of optimal concentration is often described as “flow.”

I experience this place most often in creative work. I get lost in what I’m doing. I seem to be “zoned in” to the code or the design or the plot structure. There’s a sense that everything just fits right. Unfortunately, I see this happen more outside of the classroom than inside of it. I see kids hitting a state of flow on the basketball court or in theater or at a skate park.

I like the way Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi,  author of the book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, describes what “flow” looks and feels like:

The flow experience is when a person is completely involved in what he or she is doing, when the concentration is very high, when the person knows moment by moment what the next steps should be, like if you are playing tennis, you know where you want the ball to go, if you are playing a musical instrument you know what notes you want to play, every millisecond, almost. And you get feedback to what you’re doing. That is, if you’re playing music, you can hear whether what you are trying to do is coming out right or in tennis you see where the ball goes and so on. So there’s concentration, clear goals, feedback, there is the feeling that what you can do is more or less in balance with what needs to be done, that is, challenges and skills are pretty much in balance.

So, I’ve been reading up on the theory of flow and consciously trying to create an environment where this happens in my classroom. I’m still learning. I’m still trying to figure this out. However, I’ve grown passionate about this topic over the last two years. With that in mind, I’ve found a few things that seem to work in my classroom:

1. Slow down. Provide longer learning opportunities with fewer interruptions.

In my first few years of teaching, I thought student engagement required an action-packed classroom. I didn’t realize that my frantic pace was actually getting in the way. Students never had the chance to focus in a leisurely, relaxed way. Since then, I’ve realized it’s less about action and more about suspense. If there’s a true challenge that feels meaningful to students, they are more likely to stay focussed and get lost in what they are doing.

2. Provide the right scaffolding as you match the challenge to the skill level.

One of the key ideas in flow theory is that the challenge has to match a student’s perceived ability level. Too often, kids give up because what they are doing is way too difficult and there is a sense that they will never learn it. Other times, students are bored and the excessive scaffolding becomes a hurdle they have to climb over. This is why I try and differentiate the scaffolding I offer by keeping it optional and treating it like something students can use rather than something they are required to use.

3. Provide boat loads of choices.

It’s not surprising that students hit a state of flow when they are out on the ball field or in a theater or while playing an instrument. Not only do they feel competent (because of the right amount of scaffolding) but they also love what they are doing. I can get lost in writing a novel. I will never get lost in the moment of fixing a sprinkler system. This is where student choice becomes so valuable. Students get to decide topics and tasks that fit their own interests.

4. Restrict the choices.

This is the opposite approach to the last one. It’s the idea that certain restrictions can lead to creative breakthroughs. I’ve seen students get into a place of flow because they are focussed on solving a problem using limited resources. Here, they discover that freedom and choice are not synonymous and that sometimes limitations lead to opportunities.

5. Integrate mindfulness and metacognition into the projects.

I want students to know what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how they are doing. This begins with students internalizing a rationale for the project. It has to feel meaningful to them. However, it also requires a state of mindfulness in the moment. I want students to be able to figure out the progress they are making in the moment and adjust when needed.

Looking for More?

Make a Game Out of Learning But don’t gamify it.

7 04 2015


Teachers predominantly use games as rewards or reinforcement, rather than starting points for learning.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Brad Flickinger/Flickr.

In MIT’s Education Arcade, classic game consoles line the office corridor; rafters are strung with holiday lights; and inflatable, stuffed, and papier-mâché creatures lurk around every corner. When I stopped by recently, the arcade’s director, Eric Klopfer, and creative director, Scot Osterweil, talked enthusiastically about the surging interest in educational video games, now used by nearly three-quarters of America’s grade-school teachers, according to one survey.

But these optimistic, play-loving game gurus have come to despise the biggest buzzword in their field: gamification. According to Osterweil and Klopfer, both MIT professors, gamification too often means “making a game out of learning,” in which players win points, magical powers, or some other reward for practicing math, spelling, or another school subject. Klopfer and Osterweil argue that the best educational games capture what’s already fun about learning and make that central to the game. Gamification undermines what they see as the real opportunity for games to radically, albeit playfully, transform education.

The arcade, part of MIT’s Scheller Teacher Education Program, partners with schools, gaming companies, and nonprofits to make educational video games. The staff also trains teachers to make their own games and to weave them into lesson plans, via on-campus courses and a new massive open online course, “Design and Development of Games for Learning,” that launches Wednesday.

“If somebody comes to me and says, ‘I want to make math fun,’ I don’t want to work with that person,” said Osterweil, “because they don’t think math is already fun.”

In gamified math, equations are often wedged into high-energy video worlds with wacky characters, points and player rankings, and maybe some explosions. It’s a model used by many popular educational games, such as Math Blaster, which has sold millions of copies and been reissued several times since it was introduced in 1983.

In Math Blaster, players fly space ships while math problems appear on the ships’ consoles and numbered asteroids hurtle toward them. If a console reads “15 – 7 = ?” and the ship’s laser guns fire at asteroid 5, nothing happens, except a red cabin light flashes to indicate a mistake. When correctly aimed at asteroid 8, the guns blast it out of the sky. Osterweil and Klopfer call games like this “drill and practice,” or “shooting flashcards.”

“This game isn’t telling you why you got a problem right or wrong or asking you to think about what arithmetic is,” Osterweil said in a video in their new MOOC. “If you’re good at arithmetic, Math Blaster’s fun, because it reinforces that you’re good at math. If you’re not understanding arithmetic, you’re getting nowhere with this.”

Back in the arcade offices, Klopfer said games that “make math fun” typically don’t require players to use math in any real sense. Instead, he said, “it’s ‘do some math so you get to shoot some asteroids.’ ”

Whenever the arcade team brainstorms a game, by contrast, it starts by finding people who are passionate about math, history, science, or any other subject and asks what drives and engages them.

“Maybe they love solving puzzles with math or experimenting with science,” said Klopfer. “Maybe they like how understanding math and science make the world seem different, or more comprehensible. Tap into that thing people already find interesting, and enhance it in the game.”

For instance, Education Arcade is now piloting The Radix Endeavor, a free, multiplayer online game designed to supplement high school math and science lessons. Based on conversations with working scientists and engineers, the game has players explore a fictional world called Ysola that’s ruled by evil, science-hoarding overlords called the Obfuscati. Players encounter Ysola’s beleaguered citizenry and embark on various quests while evading the Obfuscati, such as finding a cure for a deadly disease or using math to reinforce dangerously weak buildings.

“It’s not about solving this math problem, so you get a magic wand that can make this building stronger,” said Klopfer. “It’s figuring out how to learn the math, so you can use that understanding to keep the building from collapsing.”

A few years ago, Osterweil distilled what he calls the “four freedoms of play,” including freedom to experiment, freedom to fail, freedom to assume different identities, and freedom of effort (meaning the ability to mix full-throttle effort with periods of relaxation and disengagement). For Osterweil, these freedoms are about more than good game design.

“I argue that real learning happens in moments of playful exploration,” he said, “and all those freedoms should be present.”

Schools overemphasize the learning of facts and formulas, as well as the right answers for standardized tests, he said. Rather than changing that educational model, “bad ideas like gamification replicate it.”

The problem isn’t just the drill-and-practice design of many games, according to Klopfer. It’s also that teachers predominantly use games as rewards or reinforcement, rather than starting points for learning.

“The game should be an experience, where kids get to explore and problem-solve,” Klopfer said. “Then a teacher or a peer can help them make the connection between the game experience and concepts that can be generally applied.”

Along with games, the Education Arcade creates optional lesson plans, online forums, blogs, and one-day teacher training sessions, all to help bridge game learning with other classroom instruction.

Mark Knapp was teaching biology in the Boston public schools in 2012 when he heard about the Education Arcade’s plans for Radix and volunteered to be one of the teachers who helped with the game’s development. Knapp said Radix isn’t a substitute for the science curriculum he covers. What the game does do, he said, “is get kids interested in how scientist think and solve problems.” Since 2014, Knapp has been teaching kids with special needs in grades six through 12, and continues to useRadix in class.

“There are so many little skills, like dealing with frustration, that these kids are also getting from this game,” he said. “I can see kids becoming less frustrated with stuff they don’t understand. That’s really important for any student.”

Klopfer doesn’t think games should be the only way kids learn in school. “There are lots of other things to do in school: dialogues with peers, solving problems, building things. Sometimes, even lectures are helpful,” he said. “But there are aspects of good games that work well in school, even if they’re not part of a game.”

“I agree,” said Osterweil. “There should still be rigor, and kids should be guided to explore topics they may not have known they were interested in. But, learning should still be damn near all play, all the time.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Blended Learning.