Beginning as of two days ago, we’re trying a new (to us) experiment in our little academy. I like to call it “reality gaming” and it goes something like this:
Each day, my wife and/or I come up with between four and five questions, brain teasers, and thought experiments. The subjects cover social science, language arts, “consumer arithmetic”, science, and what I like to call “epistemic synesthesia” or “ES” for short. That last term is a fancy one for “how you know what you know and how you can apply it”. Well-developed ES is the fertile soil needed for building critical thinking skills.
We write the activities on a whiteboard in multiple colors, along with a scoring rubric. Now, that may sound like “school at home” but really it’s different. Instead of making the points system into Yet Another Pointless Assessment (YAPA), we borrow from the language of video gaming, with which my children are more than fluent and enthusiastic. We call them XP, or eXperience Points, and each child is expected to develop their own method of keeping track of their own points. That changes the entire perception of these exercises in their minds and establishes a whole new set of expectations on their part.
That’s exactly what I need for the next bit.
Each child has the full day to decide a) whether to participate, b) how much to participate, and c) when to participate.
Let’s break those three decisions down:
Whether to participate: Children, like adults, have “learning moods”. If “learning” is defined by always being focused on a particular learning activity, then some days they prefer not to “learn” at all.
In my own kids, we’ve observed that this is a period of time (sometimes just one day, and other times multiple days) where they seem to be resting their cognitive functions via daydreaming and aimless play and wandering.
To those of us who were brought up in Prussian-based schooling systems, this would be unthinkable, for how could the child possibly be learning by doing “nothing”. But they’re not doing nothing. They’re processing information they’ve accumulated from days before.
I don’t have solid evidence to share (yet) other than to say that I’ve observed a child struggle with a concept or activity, take a few days off, and then seem to have mastered it a few days later with little to no practice in between. To the outside observer, it seems like a miracle, but even public school educators have found that there is value to this cognitive downtime.
How much to participate: In our reality gaming, each child has the option to answer between one and four questions. Answering one question earns you 20 XP. Answering two questions earns you 80 XP. Answering three questions earns you 120 XP. Answering all four questions earns you 200 XP.
When to participate: Some kids learn better at some times of the day than at others.
One of my kids, Web pseudonym “Chewy”, learns best after 7pm.
Another, “Pixel” is an “all day” sort of learner, but also does her best work in the evenings after a full day of swim practice, horse lessons, playing with friends, doing art, and making crafts.
My oldest, “Slashdot”, is an all-day type of video gamer (which is actually a form of therapy for his autism spectrum), but early on the first morning that we started the reality gaming, he was fully engaged (one might say obsessed) in finding the answers. That actually surprised me since he’s usually the first to resist attempts at making learning “fun”. However, as soon as he saw that XP scores were involved, he quickly forgot about hurrying through breakfast and turning on the computer. He wanted those points!
The youngest, “Go-Girl”, is still learning to read, so she’s going to catch up with Reality Gaming later.
You must be wondering about the purpose of the XP scores. My wife, having read the book Punished by Rewards (it’s on my reading list for the future) has tuned me into the detrimental, unintended consequences of reward systems. Having not yet read this book, and drawing on personal experience and observation of at least Slashdot, I’m not as sure as Alfie Kohn that all reward systems destroy a love of learning. I think it depends on how it’s set up and what the ultimate expectations are.
In the case of our reality game, the rewards system is more co-opetition than competition. Whatever the reward is at whatever threshold of XP earned (we’ve not yet decided on either), every child will participate in that reward together as a family activity. That’s because we will wait until each child has achieved that point level. So, for example, if we decide to make 10,000 XP become the first award level for the game, then each child who has a higher score has a built-in incentive to help another with a lower score.
I admit fully that a big part of the motivation behind a co-opetition-based approach is the fact that my kids are unevenly matched when it comes to their competitiveness. Slashdot despises zero-sum games, in all forms, unless he’s playing against himself or a computer. (The one exception, curiously, is dodgeball.)
Pixel, on the other hand, is as competitive as they come. I had to talk her down from the ledge a couple of times with this game and re-explain that it wasn’t a competition against her siblings. It was for fun and personal satisfaction in learning new things.
There are many more possibilities for reality gaming on our horizon. Will we introduce levels? Will there be a “big boss” at the end of each level? What items, virtual or real, can be earned during gameplay? How does one add those items to “inventory” and track them?
- Gentile cites positive, negative effects of video games on the brain in Nature Reviews article (medicalxpress.com)
- Alternate Reality Gaming for Kids (wired.com)
- Ten Reasons to Abolish Homework (And Five Alternatives) (coopcatalyst.wordpress.com)
- Teaching Children to Think (psychologytoday.com)
- Please Unplug My Kids (4mothers1blog.wordpress.com)
- Motivations on Work and School (leotapioca27.wordpress.com)
- 1.5 How Do You Get the Student Involved? (godigitalstudent.wordpress.com)
- In the Ring with Video and Computer Games-A Battle Worth Fighting (dramykids.com)
- Are Video Games Good for Girls? (wellconnectedmom.com)
- Job Interviewers Now Asking Brain Teasers Questions (minx.cc)
- Portal Becomes A Reality–Sort of–With This Kickstarter Project (pcworld.com)