I wrote this back in 1993 as a lead article (ie it had a picture about it on the cover!) for the London Times Educational Supplement. It makes interesting reading alongside the "Play to learn, learn to play" piece i wrote in 2006.
They say the difference between being a radical and a conservative in education is about 10 years. Maybe it's thirteen!
Just to get some idea of how long ago 1993 was, I notice that I had added the following note to the email I sent to Merlin John , the TES technology editor. In those days just connecting a computer to the phone lines at all was a work of heroic valour and I'd been under the hotel bed with screwdrivers, pliers, wire strippers, test lights and crocodile clips. Here's what i wrote to merlin when I mailed him the piece below:
"Ho Merlin - gor blimey the technology nearly let us down there - the conference ended friday, the Applelink room shut, we spent a day and a bit trying to work out a wiring system for the hotel phone to get this out to you - I took a photograph - you'd be amazed (so would the hotel management if they could see!!) "
Those were the days?
To get a record into the top twenty, which most of us remember as the hit parade, currently requires as few as 20,000 record sales. When Segas Sonic the Hedgehog II was released last year it took over one and a half million pre-orders around Europe before it had even been seen. Many games for the home market have developed the same short fashion lives that pop music once had and indeed children share the same fascination for top ten charts of weekly games sales that their teachers had for the Fab Four on Parlophone. Computer games are of cultural importance to the information generation.
Perhaps because of this a whole catalogue of social disorders are laid at the door of the games industry. From parents and the media today Sonic and his friend Tails, or the Super Mario brothers get the same sort of critical press that Mick Jagger once got: Children cant read because they play too many computer games and watch too much TV. The games make them violent. Children only see gender stereotypes as virtual heroines queue up for actual rescue. Children become hopelessly addicted, social misfits trapped in an electronic never-never land. Children have fits, are exposed to pornography and truant from school. Or that is what the tabloid press would have us believe. Ironically, many of these wild and improbable claims are made by the generation who were supposedly corrupted and debauched by Mick Jaggers antics in the sixties. They ought to know better.
Of course there is cause for concern in some instances: content, ethos and cost are all real issues but the constant search for negative criticism has meant that we have been typically unable and unwilling to consider that computer games are important to education and may have a useful contribution to make. It is time to re-evaluate the games revolution and seek that contribution.
Of course, underpinning all this we are witnessing rapid technological progress: the faithful old BBC B in our schools has evolved into a multimedia workstation and in our homes the repetitive ping pong TV games have evolved into frenetic games consoles and powerful home computers; Sonic the Hedgehog for example, is a visual and aural feast with blindingly fast graphics and complex challenges. The hardware evolution at the heart of games revolution is clear to see and, if you can draw a line on a graph, easy to predict. Weve all noticed it.
However, to focus only on the technology is to miss another key change that schools and parents everywhere ignore at their peril: change in people. As we move further into the Information Age we are changing our habits, our capabilities and most important of all, we are changing our expectations. Whilst we have watched computers in home, school and business develop over the last two decades, the computers have watched us develop even faster; typically, the younger we are, the more rapidly we have changed. This is fundamentally important and poorly understood.
It is easy to illustrate the magnitude of that change and its impact on home entertainment: children in the 50s who were lucky enough to live in a house with its own TV set offered it their full attention during childrens hour. For technical reasons they had to; the poor screen meant that curtains were drawn and the glowing nine inch tube was a primary focus of interest. Other families would sit together around a wireless on a Sunday and enjoy their favourite programme. Today there are very few households in the country where the family sit down together and listen to the radio; monomedia is not usually enough to sustain our collective interest and radio listening figures indicate thbat listening is mainly done as a background activity to a primary task - commuting or dusting perhaps. Indeed the television in many of our homes is reduced to a small information window in a larger social world - children watch it whilst browsing a photo-magazine, listening to their Walkman, talking to their friends, doing their homework, playing with their pocket game computer and so on. Children especially, expect to be in control of the focus of their attention; if the TV is interesting , they look up, if not, they look back at their homework, game or magazine. Although this sounds as if they are grazing information, and there is of course a serious debate about the quality of retention that this information grazing supports, we should nevertheless be excited by their behaviour. Why? Because the alternative is for children to sit down and give their undivided attention to the latest game show or soap drama; this passive state is exactly what we mean by couch potatoes.
Curiously, when children have computer games plugged into the TV we have seen almost the opposite change in behaviour. Where the early ping pong games required little concentration the current games are so complex, fast and full of traps for the unwary that children need to offer their undivided attention to the computer games screen, indeed this is a common complaint levelled by parents: she never seems to leave that screen anymore but there is a difference; with computer games the childs role is complex, usually interactive, often collaborative and never passive.
Children expecting to be more active information consumers sounds like good news for education, but in fact this has left traditional educational broadcasting at a crisis point - children no longer comfortably dedicate 45 minutes of concentrated attention to a single narrative TV screen that offers them no interaction. TV in school has moved in 15 short years from an exciting learning stimulus (So now you really know what it was like to be a Roman) to a drudge (Will you please sit still and watch, you cant concentrate for 5 minutes, any of you!) whilst at home the childrens relationship with a TV screen, through their games, has become more complex and absorbing.
We are justifiably proud that generally we try to value the experiences children bring to the classroom and that we seek to build on those experiences, having progressed from a deficiency model of children. Curiously enough, in relationship to TV and computer games, we have instead adopted wholesale a deficiency model of young learners. This is misguided, it is not that their concentration threshold has declined; rather, they are not happy anymore to adopt the role of passive information consumers. This is real progress and we should harness it to improve our learning environments.
This deficiency model of children and their games playing highlights a real problem for teachers and parents. When adults observe children playing computer games what we see is coloured by our own experience. Our experience does not typically include computer games in any depth. We see a cacophony of sound, an anarchic blur of vision and action. We see children reacting to this, absorbed in their activity, but we typically undervalue what is happening because we dont see what they see. They see sophisticated cues and clues, they see categories of visual information, they have expectations about the behaviour of objects on the screen and within this environment they see challenges and solve problems that their parents and teachers are not even aware of.
This is no different to the way in which a sophisticated reader sees books and text differently to a non reader; for a non reader a library is confusion of books, unstructured, chaotic. For teachers and parents, with an individual history of familiarity with books and libraries the same shelves hold past memories: Fiction, Romance, Reference, Travel and so on; the books are familiar friends and they can be referred to in conversation with other literate adults.
The problem for teachers and parents is that, while they may be adept at computer based work, they are typically illiterate computer games players. At ULTRAlab observation and filming with children playing computer games suggests that, with the best games, they are engaged in a sophisticated cycle: Observe, Question, Hypothesise, Test, that parents and teachers would be delighted by if only they were aware of it. We have been trying to drum this cycle into children for years; now, they have discovered it for themselves.
The problem for schools is simply how to acknowledge and take advantage of the sophisticated skills that children are developing through computer games if teachers and parents undervalue, or are unaware of? them. What we seem to be observing is the Andy Pandy generation leading the Sonic generation into the information age, and the Andy Pandy generation have some homework to do. This home work, for teachers and parents, can follow some useful guidelines:
• Engage children in dialogue about their games, learn something of the vocabulary, begin to share their understanding.
• Play some games, not in the privacy and shelter of the staff room or study but with the tuition of young guides, learn from them. Investigate the problems, see where the challenges lie.
• Be aware that, just as books can be morally suspect or of pulp quality, so not all games are excellent. But without a shared vocabulary and experience how are teachers and parents to enter the moral debate and help children be more critically aware?
• Value the skills and strategies of young games players. Help them to see that problem solving approaches developed and honed on computer games can be re-purposed in the science lab, or the maths room.
Finally, look at the faces of children as they play games in small groups - concentration, collaboration, self esteem and delight. How much of that do we see as children are prepared for their SATs this summer? If we truly value our children, computer games deserve a closer look.
© Prof Stephen Heppell 1993