I never liked school. Most of the people I know, many of my friends, they never really enjoyed going to school. Make no mistake, these are intelligent people, successful and full of bright ideas. Looking at them now, I see a thirst for knowledge that, while it was always there, had a really difficult journey to the surface, before being “exposed” and embraced publicly. Looking at them and many other, more famous, “dropouts” it’s pretty clear to me that people have a natural desire to experience, discover and learn new things. Problem is, the moment we are forced to do it, the moment we enter a system where we “have” to do this and that, our natural reaction is to fight against it, to refuse it. Why? Because, even if we might be interested in a certain subject, being forced to learn about it is the surest way for us to loose interest in it. It doesn’t matter that in 10 years we’ll be fascinated enough by “Star Trek” to pursue a career in engineering, or inspired by a Caravaggio painting to embrace the arts, we’ll hate the physics classes and we’ll avoid the art workshop. Because, at that moment, they don’t look like fun or interesting to us.
Let’s look at this from another point of view. As kids, we basically have two types of work, boring work and fun work. We see school, homework and classes as boring work, and we only do it because we have to, because otherwise our parents would get really angry and because the whole weight of the world would probably crush us unless we keep on studying. On the other hand, we build LEGO sets (and learn a thing or two about structural engineering), we have tea parties with dressed up dolls (and if that doesn’t teach you about social interaction and fashion, I don’t know what does), we play board games (and learn about strategy and tactics) or even video games (and those can teach us a little bit about pretty much everything). And we love it, we have fun doing it. So, there’s boring work and there’s fun work. Trick is, they are both work, that nasty thing we all fear because it smells like overtime and mean teachers or bosses. I could go on and make a little bet that the things we learn while having fun last more than the things that we learn forcibly, but I’ll stop here for now.
There’s another thing I remember about school with chills going down my spine and that is the fact that school is a solitary experience. I’m not talking here about the abuse you get from
the school bully or the friends you make throughout college, that’s something that nothing will ever be able to change. I’m talking here about solitude related to studying. Except a few special schools and the later experiences you’ll have in college, you go through school on your own. The few times you work together with somebody else is when you ask the friendly dork to do your homework (or when you, the dork, take care of somebody else’s homework) or when you desperately whisper to a nearby classmate about the solution for problem 1.III. (it’s “B”, btw; it’s always “B”) during an exam. Basically, cheating brings out the social animal in you and you are forced by the circumstances to require the help of others.
This is where we make a healthy jump back to nowadays and the wonder of social networking. You also might know them as “facebook”, “tweets” or “hi5 friends”. Yes, those. The wonderful thing about social networks is that they can create a much more tolerant medium than a real school. Whoever you are, you won’t stutter in front of the keyboard like you do in real life.
Now I’m going to go ahead a make a link between social networking and school, with a funny twist at the end, because it’s time and because that’s how I roll (something I would have trouble expressing in real life but, see, here is much easier). I’ve been playing a lot of Facebook games lately, mainly because they smell of future but also because they will directly impact the work I’m doing.
Facebook games are incredibly popular. If at first you had a niche of hardcore games (think red eyed people playing like crazy in a games cafe, or people that can remember every level in ever Mario game), the popularity of video games brought along a new (even larger) category of players: the casual gamers (think Solitaire, Zuma, Peggle or Bejeweled). Now, Facebook games are for casual games what the casual games were for hardcore games: a much bigger “audience”, easier to understand rules and so intuitive that anyone can pick up and play them. Also, they tend to be free.
But besides accessibility, one of the biggest advantages of Facebook games is the game mechanics they employ. They are reward oriented, which basically means that you will feel like winning the lottery every minute or so. Which, in turn, makes them very addictive, hence the popularity.
While the game mechanics employed here are so clear-cut, simple and effective, I’m getting really frustrated with these games because they are devoid of content and meaning. It’s like a lottery that you keep on winning, but after the fireworks and the champagne pops you are left with nothing at all, except a few more winning tickets. I’m frustrated because the developers have nailed the part where you get a lot of people to play the game but they don’t actually give anything back to the player. You don’t learn anything new, there are no skills that you increase and you don’t actually make any new friends. All that is asked from you is that you give the game some of your time, click the same buttons over and over again and watch the colorful reward pop-up a few times. So, while school has great content but it’s unattractive to the students, Facebook games gather a lot of player but don’t actually teach them anything. One is work without fun, the other is fun without any gain.
But what if you could mash them together? For example, take the knowledge out of school. Erase the work part. Pull the fun mechanics from the Facebook games closer. Replace the empty reward from the social network games with knowledge. In a perfect scenario, this would have the right ingredients for learning to be fun again. And when I say fun, I don’t think about giggles in the back of the class, but learning with passion, with interest, with pleasure.
There are a few hurdles to overcome here. You will have parents that will find the association between social networking and school worrying. We all know that these things are for pedophiles and people who like to swear a lot and post pictures of themselves drinking two cans of beer at the same time, right? You will also have parents that are worried by the fact that their child will be allowed, even encouraged by the school system to use the computer instead of reading a book.
First of all, yes, there will always be dangerous people out there, either on the street or on the net. But we’re not talking about that Facebook here, we’re talking about a close circuit social network, where only the students and the teachers are allowed into. Second, I’m all against staying inside and aimlessly browsing on your computer instead of going out. This should not replace that.
Think of it as a separate layer that is applied over the current school system, a layer that makes school more attractive and rewarding for the students.
I’ll give you an example. Here is ChoreWars, an online tool for making the kids (and adults) feel good about cleaning the dishes, sweeping or taking out the trash. Those are crap tasks, right? But, see, with the right twist, they can become appealing. In this case, they are disguised as part of a game. The chores are quests, adventures, that carry rewards. Clean your dishes after eating and you get 50 experience points. Clean up your whole room and you get 200 experience points and maybe a shiny trinket. And it works. It works because you present a problem as an interesting story or adventure, and because the rewards you get after completing a task really click with a generation of kids and adults used to level up all the time. The rewards are also very visible, so getting ahead of the pack is another strong incentive.
So what if you start combining the classes you have in school with something like this? Homework becomes a task that you must accomplish in order to advance your adventure. Teachers are, well, helpful and wise companions. Fractions are monsters. Shakespeare is a mountain you must climb.
More important, Hamlet is your bench mate.
This is where we can learn a lot from social networks. Remember when I said that school is a solitary experience? What if your classmates were part of your group. You’re the heroes of Lord of the Rings, the Allies on the beach of Omaha, the Musketeers. You must work together to push forward with the adventure and rise above all the challenges. You will be rewarded with riches that only go as far as shiny graphics and extra experience points, but the next day at school you’ll talk to the pretty girl and to the bully and to the dork and you will be bonded because you helped each other. Oh, heroes! But beneath all that, they will be happy because they did their homework. Imagine that. Do it quietly, don’t tell them or else you might ruin the moment. What the school system must do here is to come ahead and meet the social networking mechanics somewhere at the middle. Those rewards and adventures will be useless unless we allow the students to work together.
We must embrace this interactivity two ways:
- first, make the classes interactive. Allow the students to participate, not only listen. With tools such at social networks, this is easy to implement.
- second, let the students interact not only outside class, but also in class. Actually, make it mandatory. Create classes the require the students to work together. Don’t send them home to stay up until late with nothing but a big book of algebra problems and a pen&paper besides them. Encourage them to solve it together. Of course, this is harder than it sounds (what if there’s one student smarter than the others? what if some students don’t want to participate in a adventure?), but I feel like this is the right way to move forward.
The advantage of social networks is that the tools that teachers use to create an “adventure”, a “class”, a “homework”, could be handed over to the students. It’s an interesting role switch, and it would probably be one of the first times when a student doesn’t have to learn a certain lesson, but can modify an existing one or create one from scratch. You would think that is not something a student would be very interested in, right? Not if you present it as a regular assignment, but a story, a challenge, an adventure.
Take a book, any book. Let’s say that this social network school system has advanced to the point where classes are interactive, and you have the chapters of the book all available as text, graphics or even an interactive adventure (where you can mess with the set pieces). You could ask the student to add his own twists, his own ending or even new characters or chapters. Have the student explain why he did that, why he chose that solution instead of the original. Doesn’t that sound more appealing that a two page resume of the book? Don’t you think the student will remember that book, those characters he erased or modified more than he remembers them now, after a quick read?
Everything presented here so far are pretty much doable with the current tools and solutions. Adding a layer of social networking over the existing school system can be done even now, without having to revolutionize the way schools work. But in order for this to reach it’s full potential, schools and classes also have to change.
The last example I gave above cannot be implemented now without really putting effort in a new way of teaching. It’s time to face the facts: computers are as common as books (maybe even more so) and people are more used to browse Facebook and update their Twitter account than to reading a book. Forcing old methods of teaching down the student throats is not a solution. The problem does not lie with the computers, with Facebook or with Twitter. It’s not that these students are more stupid than their parents, the problem lies on the other side of the barricade. It’s the school that must change in order to reach the students, not the other way around. Keeping to an antiquated school system will not prevent students to drop out of school, it will actually favor it. Remember that it’s in our nature to learn, and school must adapt to new ways of offering us the knowledge that most of us crave for.