Driving educational change



In the past, education was assessment based - you sat a class, wrote down notes, memorized those notes, and wrote a test based on those notes. The focus was on following this generic structure, and not necessarily on understanding the material or building knowledge in additional areas.

Of course, some kids would understand many of these topics in good depth and be able to relate them to other topics easily - they were labelled the “smart” kids by their peers. I was labelled as one of the “smart” kids back when I was in school, but I also did a great deal of extra research and exploration on topics I wanted to learn more about. The rest of my class just followed the structure as best they could, which was perfectly acceptable by school standards at the time.

It was a good time to be a teacher though - teaching grade school and high school was an extremely easy job, and teachers were paid well in Ontario (and unionized too). One of the most boring classes I ever had in high school was Grade 12 History - every other day, the teacher would get sick of writing notes down on the blackboard, so he would have his notes photocopied to a transparency sheet and put up on the overhead projector for everyone to see. The entire class consisted of us copying down the plethora of notes while the teacher left the room (the notes were horribly unorganized). Near the end of the class, he would return, turn off the projector and tell us when the test would be on those notes. There is a reason why so many of my classmates wanted to become a teacher when they left high school…..

In short, the traditional structure of education was poor at best - it didn’t educate the masses (just the “smart” ones), and it certainly didn’t educate them quickly (note-taking overload).

The traditional education system has competitors today

It does, thanks to technology. There are hundreds of organizations out there today that do a good job of educating people - some of them are free to use (e.g. Khan Academy), while others charge money for access to resources (e.g. Lynda.com). Basically, if you want to learn something, you can be guaranteed that there is an efficient and engaging way to do it somewhere.

The reason why these organizations are so successful and popular is that they provide an educational experience that caters to different people. These organizations aim to educate people both quickly and effectively using a combination of software and Internet-based tools, a variety of different methods (video chat, computer simulation, video guides, blended learning, etc.), and a variety of different platforms (computer, mobile, etc.).

Competition is always a good thing - it pushes others to be better. And the same is true of our educational system. The competitors in today’s education space are forcing change within our traditional educational system.

“Today, many of us are suffering from a vast and primal hunger. But it is not a hunger for food - it is a hunger for more and better engagement from the world around us….We are starving, and our games are feeding us.” (Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken, 2011)

There is a type of intense experience-based learning method that has been used for almost a century in the military because it allows them to educate people very quickly and effectively - we call it gamification. As Jane points out in the quote above, we are efficient and eager learners, but are rarely given an environment that allows us to take full advantage of our learning abilities.

Games, however, give us creative liberty to learn, achieve results, and quickly experience the success that results from our efforts. Remember the movie War Games (1983)? In that movie, the military had a series of realistic simulations loaded on a computer called the WOPR supercomputer - some simulations were for “Theater-wide Biotoxic and Chemical Warfare” while others were for games like Chess. When David asked why games like Chess were listed, he got the answer “because those games teach basic strategy.”

At its core, a video game presents a series of problems that we must solve in order to get to the next level, accomplish a goal (e.g. win the game), or get recognition (e.g. obtain a high score).

Many video games today are extremely complex – for example, typical simulation, reality-based and Role Playing Games (RPGs) today have hundreds of complex rules and situations that the player must master in order to proceed to the next level (called leveling up). These games are almost always collaborative, and allow teams of players across the Internet to communicate and play the game together. More importantly, players have developed a means where they quickly and effectively communicate rules and strategies amongst team members. In other words, players are able to learn and enjoy the complexity of the game within a short period of time, and build their knowledge base at every level.

In short, video games have evolved into a collaborative tool that can be used to both educate and engage people in solving problems. And it works! People learn much more quickly and effectively when immersed in a game. By playing a game developed by scientists at the University of Washington, gamers were able to map out a protein that causes AIDS in rhesus monkeys in just 10 days…..a problem that has stumped scientists for 15 years!

The education system is going through a period of change.

By being the traditional player in a high-tech educational market, grade schools and high schools are receiving a large amount of pressure, and this is resulting in change. It isn’t revolutionary change, but there are signs that it is starting to happen…..and most of this change is happening in the high school system right now.

The local school board where I live has a course called Futures Forum that actively uses simulations, technology and gamification to educate students. Students must write online blogs every day and participate in social media. They are given access to a variety of different technologies and tools that they can use to research information online and write their blog posts, including laptops and iPads. One part of the course has students learn world dynamics by actually experiencing them within a a large, detailed simulation game (a type of gamification). People are assigned in teams to very specific areas of the world and given the ability to make detailed political and economical decisions that impact their region in the short and long term. Poor decisions can lead to future conflicts, poverty and starvation, while good ones can lead to sustainable economies and foreign agreements. In short, students learn more about world dynamics because they actually experience it - they make mistakes, experience the consequences of them, and learn from them. Although difficult to measure by traditional means, the results from the class have been hugely successful.

I’ve also been invited to talk to several Gr.11 and Gr.12 Information and Communication Technology (ICT) classes, where students examine everything from telecommunications and networking technologies to computer programming using languages such as C++. What I’ve noticed, is that in the past 5 years, many of the teachers that run these classes do not have a traditional teaching background - instead, they had many years of industry background in the field for which they accepted a teaching position. This is extremely exciting - perhaps the school system is becoming more bleeding edge?

A major roadblock in publicly-funded Ontario schools is that decisions are largely union driven, which slows or inhibits change at many levels. I’ve met some very talented and passionate teachers in recent years, but the majority of teachers that I’ve met could easily teach the worst unionized factory workers some new techniques about how to “f*ck the dog and bitch about The Man” to be perfectly blunt. And it’s these teachers who ultimately lead to teacher strikes and prevent change since they form the majority. The government and teacher’s union are always fighting as a result (including the latest fight over Bill 115).

I’ve taught for 13 years at a non-unionized, private post-secondary institution in Canada, and I’ve been a Dean at the same institution for the past 2 years. I’ve always been treated fairly, but I’ve also had to be accountable for my actions too. In my organization, instructors are hired based on their experience in the industry as well as their ability to teach dynamically and learn new technologies. Learners are given surveys after courses to rate their instructor - a bad review means that you have to improve for the next time….no exceptions…and I think that is a good thing as it pushes you to achieve more and do a great job. You can only truly enjoy your job as an educator if you:

  1. Are continuously learning new technologies, concepts and ways of teaching (i.e. You have to tackle new things that you know nothing about every year - be a rookie each year!)

  2. Are given the opportunity to incorporate new ways of teaching within the classroom to maximize learning

  3. Are embracing change every day

In short, the grass is greener all around in the non-unionized space. It’s not perfect though - we still have our share of CAVE people (Colleagues Against Virtually Everything), but we have the ability to change and be dynamic enough to maximize learning potential. As a result, I think that one of the key things that must happen in the next decade to allow our traditional education system to keep pace with the competition is the elimination of teacher’s unions.

Additionally, I think that the educational system must change their definition of assessment, and embrace faster, more engaging ways of teaching and assessing students. James Paul Gee from Arizona State University put it best when he said:

We take it as completely natural that you would be in an Algebra class for 12 weeks, and then I would give you a test on Algebra …. to see if you learned any Algebra. Let’s say a kid plays Halo on Hard …. and finishes Halo. Would you be tempted to give him a Halo test? No. Not at all. You’d say the game already tested him. So let’s think - Why is it that we’re not tempted to give him a Halo test, but we are tempted to give that Algebra test and use that as a judgement? We’ll its because you actually trust the design and learning of Halo better than you trust the design and learning of that Algebra class.