Video games and learning

Every few weeks, a comment pops up on the Cognitive Daily post I wrote back in April. The post reported on a Chilean study indicating some positive results using Game Boys to teach basic reading and math to students in distressed schools. It’s pretty clear that most people posting on the issue of video games have already made up their mind about them, which is a bit of a shame, because video games are so complex, so it’s difficult to conceive of how anyone could have already arrived at a conclusion about them.

Yesterday “Joshua” posted a response typifying the most paranoid voices from the anti-video game side:

I hesitate to think that people get so easily sucked into agreeing with studies about the benefits of video games, TV or computers. A child’s brain and body was not designed to sit and watch flickering images on a TV or computer screen. It was designed to move, work (like a muscle) and learn from real teachers and real experience. Not inanimate boxes programmed by someone with lots of knowledge of the machine and little real wisdom.

I don’t want to pick Joshua’s quote apart here, because that’s not really the point. The point is that there exists a segment of society that is so afraid of “technology” in general that they simply refuse to distinguish between different technologies and applications for particular technologies. To them, “TV” and “Computer” are “bad” and “book” and “teacher” are “good.” No high-falutin’ study is going to convince them otherwise.

In some ways, these people have a point. Just observing a small child watching television, eyes glazed over, mouth agape, you can’t help by think there’s something better he could be doing with his time. Or take a look at the “computer labs” that have been installed in so many schools, with rows and rows of computers loaded up with edutainment software. Is this really what we’re spending millions of dollars on educating our kids for?

The problem I see with the generic anti-technology point of view is that it refuses to acknowledge that there were plenty of problems with the old system, too. Just because a kid is reading books instead of working at a computer doesn’t mean she’s learning more; it depends on the book — and the computer.

The bigger problem with the anti-technology perspective is that by refusing to acknowledge any effective uses of technology, it forces us to the lowest-common-denominator. One fascinating (to me) aspect of the Chilean study is that it presents an alternative to “edutainment,” those slick CD-ROMs that offer plenty of flash but no proven results. These guys programmed ten-year-old battery-powered toys and achieved real results.

I think a real danger in technology and education is to default to the latest and greatest. If a Game Boy does the job, there’s really no reason to spend millions upgrading all the students to PSPs. If we can’t create a more effective teaching tool than a blackboard, then we should be using blackboards. But we also shouldn’t assume blackboards are the best possible teaching tools. After all, they’re technology too, only developed during the 19th century. The only way to learn which technologies are the most (and least) effective is to do research, and to see what the research shows us.

After all, who’s to say that kids were supposed to learn by sitting in desks staring at this bizarre technology called a “teacher” at the front of the room? Isn’t the standard classroom itself just another example of a learning technology? Shouldn’t we see if we could do better than that — even if it means dismantling the classroom, too?

This entry was posted in Technology. Bookmark the permalink.