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Thompson: Greg Toppo Sees the Game's Future and It Works

image from images.macmillan.comI've always been confused by the seemingly absurd dichotomy. Brilliant computer geeks and digital geniuses create such potentially liberating technologies. But, they also became a driving force in corporate school reform and its efforts to turn schools back to the early 20th century.

Gosh, as Greg Toppo explains in The Game Believes in You, computer games were pioneered by a small group of mostly unconnected, visionaries, In the earliest days of the 1960s computer breakthroughs, some inventors were even influenced by LSD. So, why did such creative people commit to turning schools into a sped up Model T assembly line?

It would be too much to ask of Toppo, or any other single writer, to definitively answer this question but his excellent book helps us understand why so many architects of 21st century technological miracles helped impose test, sort, reward, and punish, bubble-in malpractice on our schools.

Toppo chose to study computer gaming after his still dynamic young daughter became disenchanted with reading, and after he tired of reporting on school reform wars.  The fundamental problem predates corporate school reform; for instance, 1/3rd of high school graduates never go on to read another book for the rest of their lives. And, as teacher and reading expert Kelly Gallagher says, the problem is both under- and over-teaching of reading. But, full-blown "readicide" has been made far worse by the test prep which was caused by output-driven, competition-driven reform. 

Toppo writes:

At exactly the same time that schools have taken the questionable path of implementing more high-stakes standardized tests keyed to the abilities of some imaginary bell-curved students, games have gone the opposite route, embedding sophisticated assessment into gameplay ... becoming complex learning tools that promise to deflate the tired 'teach to the test' narrative that weighs down so many great teachers and schools. 

The Game Believes in You does a great job explaining the cognitive science behind computer games (and in doing so he may foreshadow an explanation why corporate school reformers became so obsessed with competition that they helped impose nonstop worksheet-driven, basic skills instruction on so many schools.)

Games can be great learning tools because they build on students' desires to belong, to bond with their peers, and to compete. Games allow kids to fail without facing consequences that are too dire. And, they offer a holistic learning experience. As neurologist Frank Wilson notes,  "A hand is always in search of a brain and a brain in search of a hand."

Toppo explains that "kids are paying attention to everything including each other." So, as astrophysicist Jodi Asbell-Clarke  observes, the goal should not be "trying to turn your students into gamers."  We must turn "your gamers into students."  Moreover, Paul Howard-Jones is on safe ground in predicting "'in thirty years time, we will marvel that we ever tried to deliver a curriculum without gaming.'"

On one hand, games can create "infovores." As gamers process information and the rules of the system, they experience a "flow" of events that is closer to meditation than to the routine of our daily world. The gaming experience can also work like a medication. On the other hand, as Toppo doesn't get a reassuring answer to his question, "If media can teach us to be better people, can't it teach us to be worse? It can't simply be a one-way street can it?"

And that brings us back to the dichotomy which has so damaged public schools over the last fifteen years. Toppo describes the brain as a "three-pound, pattern-seeking drug dealer." It seeks patterns that allow for our survival. It still functions as if humans still had to continually fight to survive. Its rewards and punishment patterns thus drive us to compete. But, in the long term, survival is enhanced by softer qualities, such as altruism and creativity. The same evolutionary dynamics that promote the quest for dominance in today's market also helped us develop music, art, sports, and our desire to bond with each other. 

Perhaps the converse explains the irony of innovative pioneers helping to impose drill and kill on schools. To design computerized games, their brains needed to find the right balance, enough competition to spur interest, but with stakes being low enough to keep players engaged. To win in the corporate world, however, the drug dealer part took over and unrestrained competition ruled.  

In contrast to the battle between the best designs - that create bonds among the players - in a fight to defeat economic and politic opponents, no-hold-barred aggression has the advantage.  In their elite political sphere, divide and conquer trumps the type of teamwork that the best games promote. But, I believe Toppo is right, and I do not expect the corporate ethos to continue to triumph. I’m expecting better gaming to help produce better, more neighborly public schools.-JT(@drjohnthompson)



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