Dan Perkel's Stuff on the Web

Category: learning (page 1 of 2)

Thoughts shook up from an unlikely source

I don’t read Wired that much but this article by Daniel Roth was kind of provocative. It presents a few schools where some reforms have been implemented that would try to make kids all “geeks.” Okay, so that’s not particularly provocative. The interesting part to me is how the means to this end is to break down youth culture in the school and to surround them by adults throughout the day:

But more important, Rosenstock keeps the students surrounded by adults. There are no teachers’ bathrooms or lounges. Parents roam the halls. And the students are required to present their work to outsiders. This, it turns out, is the key to geekifying education. “A big chunk of the school experience is having them hang out with the adults they could imagine becoming,” says private-equity manager Tom Vander Ark, former head of education investments for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a onetime school superintendent. “A big high school has a youth-owned culture. You’ve got to break that.”

Huh. Rather than see schools as being the proxy for a particular style of “adult culture” with many  kids getting the shaft, it turns it completely around and sees that youth culture pervades schools. That’s reminiscent of Paul Willis’ argument in Learning to Labour (Put rather poorly: Youth have some agency in their path to the class reproduction that is a product of schooling). I don’t know who Daniel Roth is or if the schools that he’s talking about are as rosy as he presents them, but this really is getting my brain going.

As an aside, perhaps the school referred to above might also break down typical “adult culture” in the school as well and perhaps that makes as big a difference as the break down in youth culture? After all, the adults lose their bathrooms, lounges, and have to be around kids all day. A study of the adults at that kind of school would be really interesting to compliment a study of where “youth culture” get relocated.

Corrupted-Files.com – So entrepreneurial

On today’s Inside Higher Ed we get some of the backstory on a service that offers students variable length corrupted files to turn into professors as they scramble to finish papers late.

Some quotes I enjoyed:

“Cheating is not the answer to procrastination! – Corrupted-Files.com is!” — The point is that somehow students face a simple choice when faced with a deadline they haven’t planned for: either turn in a ripped off paper or buy time with excuses. This site gives you better excuses. Obviously those are the only choices the site’s creator wants people to think about. Sadly, all of students’ other options aren’t even mentioned in the article. I guess I could list a few, but maybe I’ll let people think for themselves on this one.

“I used the corrupted file excuse back in my college days (I’m 25) as I started my first business at 19 so I didn’t have much time to do my schoolwork. When I couldn’t get an extension, I sent my professors a corrupted file to buy me time. I know this was not the most ethical thing but as a young entrepreneur, I did not have much of a choice as I valued my employees well above my academics.”  Well, this is America. Who can argue with that logic? The phrase “young entrepreneur” just warms the heart.

“Who are the best customers? “Not to anyone’s surprise, but my best clients are from Ivy and top tier schools. I guess the more perfect people think you are, the more likely in life you are to cheat to keep that perception.”” Hmmm… wonder if Berkeley students would do something like this? I’m teaching this summer and I better get my corrupted file detector working.

Peer pedagogy in an interest-driven community: The practices and problems of online tutorials

I am off to London to attend the Fifth Anniversary Conference of Media@lse, which is the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics.

I’ll be presenting a paper that is part of ongoing dissertation research. It’s called Peer pedagogy in an interest-driven community: The practices and problems of online tutorials. I co-authored the paper with Becky Herr-Stephenson who has been a colleague of mine on the Digital Youth project for the past three years (and a current collaborator on the MacArthur Foundation’s efforts to create a Digital Media and Learning Networked Studio).

Here is the abstract of the paper:

While many have celebrated youth participation in online activities as an empowering opportunity for socialization, creative expression, and learning, how this participation plays out in practice is not well understood. In this paper, we consider the ways in which peers teach and learn through the creation and posting of tutorials within a self-described online community of artists and media producers. We describe the practices associated with the production of tutorials in terms of genres of participation, modes of engagement with new media. Within the genres of participation framework, creating tutorials can be seen as a way to earn reputation and demonstrate expertise within the alternative status economy of a specific interest-driven community. However, we also show that tutorials can be a source of tension between participants in such a community, as members may view tutorials and their relationships to learning and improving one’s craft in contradictory ways.

The talk that I am going to give on Monday will mainly cover the second half of the paper–the point about tensions over the value of tutorials. While it seems that tutorials on deviantART are generally fairly popular and valuable to members of the site, it was interesting to hear that not everyone feels that way. We are still trying to figure out what it all means. Therefore the paper is still a work-in-progress in many ways and we welcome any feedback.

The downfall of the “Digital Native” and the “Google Generation”?

Henry Jenkins recently came to speak to the School of Information (audio here). While much of the talk was on his take on the notion of new media literacies, the beginning of the talk was more focused on the problematic concepts of “Digital Native” and “Digital Immigrants.” He recently wrote about the these metaphors that both academics and the popular press often invoke to refer to a sense that that the consequences of “those kids today” being born into an internet-ed world make their brains fundamentally different from those of their parents and the rest of us adults.

So, even though I’ve been lucky to have had easy access to a computer since I was in elementary school, have had difficulty writing essays in long-hand for the past ten years, and my laptop and I are best of friends, I am still an immigrant to some digital world. Jenkins talks about the power this metaphor had for him at one point but also why he can no longer use it. Not only does it rely on “out of date assumptions about immigrants” (the not-digital kind), the implications, he says are dangerous:

Yet, I worry that the metaphor may be having the opposite effect now — implying that young people are better off without us and thus justifying decisions not to adjust educational practices to create a space where young and old might be able to learn from each other.

I agree with Jenkins here. Additionally, however, I would add that the metaphors also imply a universal notion of what “kids today” do. This to me is just as silly as trying to describe what the rest of us do in universal terms.

One of the themes that the researchers on the Digital Youth project have discussed for the past three years is how complex the world of young people looks when you start to compare across situations and forms of technology use. We have been delighted and surprised by both the differences and similarities between what participants in our studies say and do and things that we thought and did in our pre-Internet days. For example, Christo Sims found at that…surpise…kids in rural California still value all of the freedoms that come with getting a drivers license (even though they should be able to do everything through the internet…right?). Starting our research with the assumptions that go along with the rhetoric of a generation gap would have been costly.

Recently, a UK study made some empirical findings to help bolster this critique of the notion of digital natives and digital immigrants, of the obvious generation gap.

Besides having one of the greatest report covers I’ve seen for an academic publication, some of the findings were quite interesting. The researchers used data presented in other studies (surveys by other organizations, such as Ofcom) and did their own research on how the so-called “Google Generation” and older people used various library services (note that the term “Digital Native” predates the rise to prominence of Google so this “generation” may be even younger, but it’s hard to say how to relate the terms precisely…). Their conclusion: the idea of a generation gap is overblown and misunderstood. When there are differences amongst age groups, they note that they don’t know what can be attributed to generational issues or what can be attributed to moving through different life stages:

This is a powerful reminder that people have different information needs at different points in their lives. There are very very few controlled studies that account for age and information seeking behaviour systematically: as a result there is much mis-information and much speculation about how young people supposedly behave in cybersace.

Later, they point out that while it is “generally true” that younger users are “more competent with technology” (confidence level: medium), they also believe that “older users are catching up fast.” Note that they don’t present empirical results that justify this sense of “catching up,” but it seems no more far-fetched than the idea that young people “naturally” are more competent than their parents.

Kid making a great face at a computer not in frame with reflection of Darth Vader

They have several pages addressing the usual claims made about younger generation vs. their elders and they shoot down most of them (see pages 18-20).

Here, their conclusions actually make a great deal of sense:

“In a real sense, we are all the Google generation now: the demographics of internet and media consumption are rapidly eroding this presumed generational difference. The evidence indicates that more people across all age groups are using the Internet and Web 2.0 technologies widely and for a variety of purposes…

In many ways the Google generation label is increasingly unhelpful: recent research finds that it is not even accurate within the cohort of young people that it seeks to stereotype.”

There’s a lot of other stuff worth checking out in the study, especially if you are a librarian or educator.

Read the full report (warning: large PDF).
Go to the “Google Generation” project page.

Big kids vs. little kids at a Pokemon tourney

Ryan forwarded me these two links regarding an adult’s (Gabe) participation at a Pokemon tournament (courtesy of Penny Arcade). Gabe wrongly suspected that there would be other adults there also and his reflections on participating, not just watching, are quite interesting, especially with regard to the different reasons people seemed to have for choosing their Pokemon teams (“cute” vs. powers and strategy) and also his battle with a slightly less big kid.

What I really liked though is 12-year-old Nausica’s response to his story.

Says 12-year-old “Nausica”:

Then the older guys came, I dunno how old they were but they were much older then most of the other kids there, they pretty much ruined the fun of it for everyone else there. I guess they weren’t really mean, but how they acted sounded alot like the boy you described…

So afterwards I really didn’t wanna play pokemon very much, and I thought I was gonna stop playing, cause I only really play to have fun, not to beat everyone else. Then today my mom (who is a big fan) showed me what you wrote, and it made me feel a million times better!!!

I couldn’t believe I almost let some jerks take away my love of pokemon!

It reminded me something that I’ve heard repeatedly from a few of my colleagues in the Digital Youth project: that we can’t idealize or romanticize kids’ social worlds uncritically. Kids have to grapple with politics and power in out of school, out of home, activities as well.

Gabe noted that he’d be “smiling for the rest of the week.” I think I might also!

On a related note:

I know someone who has either Asperger’s syndrome or high-functioning autism (not quite sure which and the Wikipedia article on Asperger’s notes some controversy on how to classify). He’s now an engineering undergrad at a large state university, but when in high school he loved playing Pokemon tournaments. I haven’t seen him in a few years, but he was (and I assume is) a really nice kid who I think probably loved to play with kids who were younger than him.

I remember him playing in a local tourney in Dayton, OH (at a card store?) when he came for a vacation; he was proud that he won the tournament and I couldn’t understand at the time why he would be excited about being kids who were several years younger. But, I think he saw them as social peers and there was nothing strange about it. Just yesterday, a friend of mine mentioned the amount of high-functioning autistic kids she has worked with in various internships who loved playing in Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! tournaments because it didn’t require eye contact, but I barely know what I am talking about here. I’d be curious to read more about this.

What 21st century debates regarding literacy could learn from 19th century ones

I recently read Jenny Cook-Gumperz’s historical account of the relationship between schooling and literacy (“Literacy and Schooling” in The Social Construction of Literacy*). Drawing on the work of other historians of literacy, Cook-Gumperz argues that history shows that widespread reading and writing in Europe and the U.S. occurred prior to the advent of schooling and formal institutions to teach them. There are two components to this account that I found particularly surprising and compelling because they directly speak to some of the contemporary debate and discussions–both in academia and in school policy makers’ offices–concerning the role of new media, schooling, and what might be meant by “new literacies.”

The first has to do with the scope of the term “literacy.” There are a number of research traditions concerning literacy, such as information literacy, media literacy, and others. Researchers over the past few decades have started to take note of the emergence of multiple forms of literacy, rather than just one. Furthermore, even outside of research people have started to talk about “visual literacy,” “media literacy,” “math literacy” (or numeracy), “computer literacy,” “web literacy,” and others. So today we have a sense that literacy should be always thought of as literacies, in the plural. There are multiple forms of literacy and depending on local contexts, the skills, knowledge, and tools that people bring to the practice of literacy are also multiple. What Cook-Gumperz shows in her work is that prior to “professional schooling,” almost 200 years ago, there was also a sense that “literacy” meant many things. In other words, it was schooling, or “schooled literacy,” that prior to the last couple of decades that gave us the sense that literacy was just about the abstract ability to read and write, a unitary thing.

So what were people reading and writing in the centuries prior to schooling? This question of form and content of reading and writing practices leads me to the second part of Cook-Gumperz’s overall argument that is key in light of today’s discussion of new media and literacy. Widespread literacy in Europe and America centered around multiple forms of popular culture: “broadsheets, ballads, and political tracts provided a key means for political discussion and recreation…” (p. 24). In fact it was the perceived fear of dangerous effects of popular culture by the elite coupled with the perceived liberating and empowering effects of reading and writing by others that paradoxically came together to fuel the movement towards the establishment of schools that would teach literacy.

In contemporary debate, especially regarding the internet, media production software, and other tools in the hands of public, many have noted the relationship between these new forms of media and popular culture and have hoped to find a way to harness the enthusiasm for popular culture and somehow institutionalize it through schools. The goal: find a way to incorporate what motivates young people outside of the classroom into the classroom, both in terms of the kind of subject matter and the technologies that young people today are interested in.

My point here is not to comment on whether or not this mission can be successful or not, or even if it’s a good approach to thinking about learning. Rather, the point is to raise the question of whether or not we are a semblance of repetition of history. Certainly, many are concerned and afraid of what negative effects new media and technologies are having on today’s youth. And others laud the possibility that new technologies and popular culture can and will unlock their creative imaginations. Finally, there are others that will see the use of these new media as critical to the skills required to compete in the so-called “new economy” workforce. I can’t help read Cook-Gumperz’s account of the Western history of literacy and wonder: if these interests all align and particular uses of new media become validated by society through institutionalization and schooling will we see a return to a more singular view of literacy, one that broadens the acceptable tools of literacy but not the acceptable social practices, that some scholars have been fighting for decades?

*Note, I read the chapter in the first edition. Apparently, she has spent some time re-writing the version for this second edition, but my understanding is that the basic argument is the same.

Fall 2006: Denmark, Informal Learning, Quality, and more Literacy

At the end of last semester, Ryan, Megan, and I sat around and talked about how it would be useful to write a nice semester recap, a chance to reflect on what we’ve been up to. I usually do this as a sort of “progress report” for my advisors, but Ryan said that he was thinking about blogging his, and I found what he wrote really interesting; even though I thought I knew everything he did this semester, it’s a lot different to read someone’s reflections than just hear what they have to say everyday about what has been going on. So, I thought I’d follow suit and write my own Fall 2006 recap.

When classes started again, it didn’t feel like I was at a beginning. I was in the middle of writing human subjects proposals for various Digital Youth projects and preparing for my first conference presentation at the DREAM Conference of Digital Media and Informal Learning. The conference was held at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense, the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen. It was attended mainly by Europeans, the majority of whom were from Scandanvia. It was a great experience for me, because I was so unfamiliar with most of their work. I also met many interesting doctoral students, some with work that surprisingly similar to mine, such as Oystein Gilje’s, and others that were quite different. I really enjoyed the presentation of this paper on game design and toy theater by Jacqueline Reid-Walsh.

My presentation on my “Copy and Paste Literacy” paper went well, in that I got some good feedback from people with a lot more experience than I do. Some people really liked the ideas presented, some people didn’t get it, and I think some people thought that I was kind of out of my element. I’m trying out Slideshare and thought I’d include my presentation (warning: without notes, I’m not sure how useful it is…):

(As an aside, the “Copy and Paste Show” on Rhizome decided to include my paper on the reading list. The rest of the show is a bit more interesting, though. Check it out…)

Usually people say that the best part of a conference are the conversations that happen in the halls and the connections you can make between your work and others. That was a great part of my time in Denmark, but I have to say that my favorite moments were hearing some of the keynote talks, especially the keynote roundtable where James Gee, Julian Sefton-Green, Sonia Livingstone, and Glynda Hull spoke very candidly about their views on topics. One of which took aim at the title of the conference.

Already, I had begun to pick up a lot of chatter of people questioning the continuing usefulness of the distinctions between “formal learning,” “informal learning,” and “non-formal learning.” Julian Sefton-Green (author of the 2004 Futuralab report on the topic of informal learning outside of school claimed on his blog before the conference that he would be arguing that the term “informal learning has become a way of describing the value of digital technologies but that the term has no real meaning—there is only learning” (http://www.julianseftongreen.net/?p=12).

This issue was the first on the table at the Keynote speakers’ roundtable. When asked to comment on the usefulness of the distinction, Hull argued that that we should just toss out the distinction. I think she said something to the effect that looking at contexts for learning doesn’t include or exclude either informal or formal. Sefton-Green followed up by saying that the term came out of a perceived historical necessity: people had been focusing so much on learning in classrooms that they had been completely ignoring learning everywhere else. But now, what difference does it really make? Now, there is only learning or not learning. Livingstone argued that we should be looking at what kinds of institutions organize learning. Finally, Gee weighed in by acknowledging that while the concept of “informal learning” may have had some value, we also can’t ignore some of the problems it has caused, primarily that for a while people had ignored all of the teaching that goes on between people in “informal learning.” He argued that “teaching is always going on.” The literature on informal learning, he claims, has largely ignored the parents’ “curriculum.” Livingstone later said that an important question may be to look for what is continuous across a range of contexts.

I had already been a bit concerned about the notion of “informal learning” going into the conference, but this conversation and others at the conference made me really concerned. It’s a term that seems to resonate in many circles, and was a part of the thinking behind the Digital Youth project. So, I don’t know if it’s worth trying to change people’s minds about it. But how should I use it, if at all, in my own work? In response to one of Gee’s point above, we probably have a valuable contribution to make in thinking about the teaching between peers, “technementors” (see Freshquest by Megan Finn et al.), parents, and siblings. Many of our projects are trying to address this issue and have been from the start.

The week after returning from Denmark seemed like the real beginning to my semester as I scrambled to catch up on classes and start new stages of my research. The smartest decision I made was to add Paul Duguid’s and Geoff Nunberg’s class on the “Quality of Information” to my schedule, despite having to play major catch up. There are very few people that I have met who can deliver 2-3 hour lectures that are incredibly interesting and entertaining, yet each of them did an amazing job. I ended up writing a paper on the search for quality information about the video game Bully, which launched last October but was on some people’s radar for much of the year and half between the actual release date and the original game announcement way back in May of 2005. The original focus of the paper was on how members of a Bully fan site negotiated and made sense of the variety of rumors and misinformation, but I slowly turned to pouring through the version history of the Wikipedia article on Bully and noting how the article evolved with respect to a few pieces of information, including the release date, the rating, and the game’s presmise. I didn’t reach any grand conclusions, but I did get the sense that on Wikipedia the model is that information is assumed to be quality until someone makes an edit. Lack of discussion, verification, or change over time implies quality. However, on the fansite, lack of verification, comment, or discussion usually seemed to indicate a lack of quality. The notion of “quality” comes only from interaction, discussion, and active verification. I can’t generalize to other Wikipedia articles, but my research left me a bit more confused and ambivalent about the site (despite the fact that I still use it). I think that someone needs to do a detailed study on the site by looking at how people actually read and use Wikipedia articles in their everyday practices, not by studying what is in the articles themselves.

Another class I took last semester was my second on the topic of literacy. Taught by Laura Sterponi, this is one of the core classes taught in the School of Education for their doctoral program in Language, Literacy, and Culture and consists of a heavy dose of theory and writing on a range of literacy related topics. The class had many small writing assignments and no major project to complete the semester, but I wrote a paper for my third class on Computer-Mediated Communication, that tried to show the relevance of the study of literacy to thinking about CMC. The basic point of the paper was to argue that scholars who have been researching literacy have been studying “mediated communication” in the form of writing (and more recently other media). In my CMC class Coye Cheshire and Andrew Fiore repeatedly made the point that it’s important when thinking about CMC to think about the “mediated communication” part of the acronym and to not get too distracted by the “computer” part. Therefore, the relationship between literacy and CMC seemed clear to me, but required a lot of thinking and writing.

All of this has helped me think about my ongoing work on literacy practices on MySpace, though I don’t have any grand statements to make here. I spent roughly ten hours a week last semester doing participant observation at a youth and technology center where I had a chance to watch how some teenagers use MySpace in their “natural” environment for using it. My thought is that one way, by no means not the only way, to understand online social networking is not by just studying online interactions, but by talking to people and observing them and their tools as the use them. This isn’t that novel a proposition, but it is challenging to make it all work. The jury’s still out for me on where this research is taking me.

One place where I hope it’s taking me is the development of a good dissertation topic. I feel myself playing the role of a stereotypical PhD student in this regard…where everything is fairly interesting, but nothing seems captivating enough to want to spend years on, only to one day suddenly realize that there is life after dissertation, so I might as well just pick something…anything. My plan is to find that something soon. This semester will be difficult, but fun, I think.

However, I am refreshed after a great winter break. I’m glad I took some time off over break to learn to ski (it’s taken me way too long to get off the little bunny hills. Now I have to get off the slightly bigger bunny hills.). I also had a first trip to Hearst Castle and a first time attending an Indian Wedding. Each of those firsts have its own stories for my friends and family.

Well, maybe something for this site as well. The most fascinating part of my Hearst Castle trip was learning more about the working relationship between Hearst and architect Julia Morgan. While I recognized her name from various Berkeley sites, I didn’t know much about her. The tour guide talked mostly about Hearst, while the exhibits and other materials talked a great deal about Morgan as well. However, what I saw is how much Hearst Castle is a product of the their collaboration. The creativity and “genius” was not so much in the vision of Hearst or the execution of Morgan, but in the interplay of their ideas and work over the course of many years. And of course, it is likely that there are others in this story who are critical but who remain nameless. If I were to do a historical paper on collaboration and creativity, I might start with the building of this castle.

Why is collaborative media production for kids important?

A (former) colleague of mine, noting what I write on my bio, asked me the following question:

“In three sentences of less – ‘Why is collaborative media production for kids important?'”

My response:

I think it’s important for kids to have opportunities to learn to produce media, beyond film and text, because it provides another outlet for creative expression and a hook into participating in various communities outside of their classrooms. Not only might they learn technical skills that prove useful down the road, they learn how to learn, and potentially engage in a deep committed learning. Doing all of this with other people, kids or adults, provides three additional benefits: a) some research in learning argues that people learn better when working with others; b) it provides a social experience that may be increase motivation and desire to participate; and c) perhaps most importantly, I think that working with others help spark some who are not the “solo genius type” to be more creative and actually produce better quality work (not to mention other benefits of just learning how to work with others and experience a chance to understand diverse view points).

Amateur Game Design for Consoles

One of the my fondest memories of playing games as a kid has to do with having the chance to design for them. After battling through dozens of Lode Runner levels on an Apple IIe, a friend gave my dad a floppy disk that let us not just play the game, but let us design new levels (aside: if you haven’t had a chance to play Super Serif Brothers, I highly recommend it. The ability to design new levels for others to play is just nostalgia-inducingly great.)

“Modding” PC-based games–creating new levels, maps, characters, or even new games out of existing ones–has been around for quite a while. And, while I’m sure that there are people out there who have discovered all kinds of ways to hack into console games (anyone want to send me links?), creating games for consoles has generally been something that is not possible for amateur game developers.

Microsoft is trying to change all that. This past week, Gamasutra ran a story about XNA, Microsoft’s new platform for developing games for both the PC and the XBox 360. The software itself is free, and for a subscription fee of $99 a year, game designers will be able to join a community of designers and be able to produce and share games to other subscribers.

I think that this is a big deal.

I can think of lots of reasons why this is a great business idea for Microsoft and why people may see this as just another part of the company’s plot to take over home entertainment. But, I also see this as waking up people to the idea that game consoles, like PCs, can be platforms for an incredible amount of creativity.

I won’t claim that consoles are “ubiquitous,” but studies have shown that people of all socio-economic backgrounds in the U.S. have game consoles; in fact, a 2002 Markle Foundation report indicates that at that time low-income households were more likely than high-income ones to have came consoles. And, it’s not shocking to think that a couple-hundred dollar console would be more prevalent amongst lower-income families then PCs with the memory and graphics capable of running the latest and greatest games. So, the idea that people (still using PCs) can develop and share games for consoles is really appealing.

Hopefully Microsoft’s initiative is a step towards leveling the–er–“designing field” when it comes to practices like game modding (of course, “modding” games would require toolsets provided with games for the console, but I see this is a distinct possibility). In the current vision, the console will be a distribution platform for content made on a PC, but who knows what tools could eventually be developed for the console itself (or some hybrid platform?).

In the XNA FAQ, Microsoft pushes the utopian rhetoric:

“Eventually, you’ll be able to distribute that code to other Xbox 360s, opening up a unique publishing avenue which will democratize game development on consoles.”

One day we’ll stop talking about “democratizing” everything. As it stands now, this initiative will not “democratize game development on consoles.” It will allow people who know or are willing to use a Microsoft language (C#) to make games for Windows PCs and XBox’s. Of course, if this effort is what it takes for the other players to step up or, better yet, to pave the way for some kind of open-source game console to hit the market, than maybe Microsoft is, in its usual way (read: causing panic), helping the cause.

I hope that Sony and Nintendo follow suit. Fast. Because, in Microsoft’s initiative I have a vision of all sorts of possibilities for motivated people of all ages making games for each other to play. I like where this is heading, but I don’t want it to be controlled by Microsoft, and I hope that in the future, the technical and economic barriers to creating console games will be significantly lower.

There have been many interesting discussions about this on the web, and some updates from Microsoft. This post on the Wired blog talks about Microsoft’s upcoming camp for kids aged 10-16 to develop XBox games.

In the ensuing discussion, one person mentioned that he’d rather build for the PS3, because “the tools don’t cost money and are mainly based around open source libraries.” It also looks like I have some more reading to do.

Spelling, Geography, and Competition

8:42am – The national spelling bee is underway. CNN showed a few of the participants this morning. I heard on sports talk radio that this year ESPN will not be showing the Bee. Rather, it’s broadcast partner ABC will be showing it to cable and non-cable audiences alike this weekend. This comes in the wake of a Hollywood movie, Akeelah and the Bee, and the successful documentary Spellbound from 2001. Kids competing against each other in national competition to spell words is now a Big Deal. I am ambivalent about the Spelling Bee.

I like the idea of national attention on smart kids and on academics. But, I wonder if that’s what we are really getting with the national coverage. Does anyone care about the intellectual aspect of the Bee? Or do we just care about the event as a sporting event? Does this motivate kids around the world to do better in school? Do kids look at these other kids as heroes to be emulated as they do our sports stars? Or is this mainly entertainment for adults? I don’t know enough about the Bee to be to critical. I just wonder.

Last week, a New York Times column about the National Geography Bee caught my eye. I had never heard of the National Geography Bee. In it, Charles Passy (a staffwriter from the Palm Beach Post and parent of a participant at the regional level of the Geography Bee), makes a compelling argument that the National Geography Bee should receive more attention than it does, and that it is actually a better competition, from a learning point of view, than the spelling bee. Not only does the Geography Bee teach us “about the world we live” (the implication being that this is a better outcome than knowing how to spell words), but that “the bee itself requires a different method of preparation.” In other words, the process of preparing for the Geography Bee is a qualitatively better learning experience than the process of preparing for the Spelling Bee. Here’s are his reasons:

Spelling Bee contestants get a word list. Geography Bee contestants must fend for themselves. “They must be more creative and resourceful, relying on a combination of atlases, almanacs and publications. They also usually become voracious newspaper readers…”

The questions “require different levels of thinking.” It’s goes beyond “memorization or etymology.” There is some memorization involved, but you also have to know about the relationships between nations, cultures, and people and their environment. The questions can come in a wide variety of forms.

Passy concludes with this explicit comparison between the two bees:

True, spelling is a gateway to understanding language, but what possible value is there to knowing how to spell “appoggiatura” (a musical embellishment) and “pococurante” (an indifferent person), to name two of the more recent winning words? By contrast, knowing about Cuba or Russia means knowing about Communism, the political ideology that has informed much of America’s foreign policy in the past half-century.

And yet the spelling bee continues to receive all the attention. Perhaps that’s because spelling is a tantalizingly easy concept to grasp. You either spell a word right or you don’t. The answers are all in the dictionary.

Geography, on the other hand, asks more. But it offers more in return: to know the world is to know how to make it a better place, from a path to peace in war-torn regions to a promise to conserve our planet’s natural resources.

I don’t know if I buy that all participants at every level can get out of the Geography Bee what the author is claiming is possible, but I guess there is something compelling about this vision for the importance of a Bee about something a bit more socially, culturally, and politically relevant than just spelling words.

The author’s point, though, aligns itself with a column in today’s New York Times by Emily Stagg, a three time finalist in the Spelling Bee. In her column, she argues for adding for other aspects to the Spelling competition. In her words, the Spelling Bee no longer emphasizes the right “real world skills.” An alternative, she proposes, is a “Definitions Bee.”

I am also not sure I agree that the Spelling Bee is more popular simply because it’s “easier to grasp.” Rather, I am guessing that it has to do with the fact that ESPN started making a big deal about it in the early 1990s, just as the National Geography Bee was getting underway, and that the Spelling Bee has been going on for a long time (78 years). Anyone who went to school in this country participated at some level (perhaps just in their home room).

Two days after I read the column about the Geography Bee, I happened to catch the last round on PBS (Alex Trebek of Jeopardy was the host). I was amazed by range of questions. I only knew a couple of the questions that I saw asked. I liked the fact that participants could miss once and still have a shot at winning. I was also intrigued that the handful of participants I saw competing at the end were all of south-asian descent, probably first generation Americans if not immigrants themselves. By the time I saw the top finishers awarded their scholarship checks, I was all ready to sing the praises of the Geography Bee as vociferously as the author of that column.

But, then I read the following from a letter to the New York Times:

I agree with Mr. Passy that the National Geographic Geography Bee beats a spelling bee any day and that we need more global learning.

But the Geography Bee is not the way to do it. As a former teacher who administered the bee for four years, I would vote to abolish it completely.

First, the learning Mr. Passy highlights should be part of real history curriculums, not outside preparation for a one-day event. Second, recognizing Kola Peninsula in Russia actually says nothing about a student’s ability to recognize Stalinism or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Finally, and most important, all this ultracompetitive bee did for my students — fourth and fifth graders — was make one kid happy and the rest either indifferent or on the verge of tears.

While the Geography Bee still seems better in many ways than the Spelling Bee, what I hadn’t considered very carefully is that it is still an intense competition. In fact, if it were to somehow eclipse the Spelling Bee it would still be 11-13 year-olds on national television under the spotlight competing to win.

I remember when I was a kid and participated in the spelling bee in my class room, school, and in my district. There was a time that I could remember which word knocked me out every year. I remember when ESPN2 started showing the spelling bee on TV. I found myself unable to watch these kids struggling to get through each letter and each word, under what seemed to be an incredible amount of pressure. A few years earlier, I had felt the pressure when I choked on a word as one of the last remaining in my district. I can’t imagine what I would have felt if I knew that people could be watching me on TV.

But, i know people who love when ESPN shows the spelling bee (and the highlights on Sportscenter). They find it thoroughly entertaining. I understand why. It’s a sport. You marvel at the ability of people much younger than you to memorize some words and decipher others based on their etymologies, definitions, and how they are used in a sentence. It takes intelligence, commitment, and dedication to do well. It’s heartbreaking when a charming kid fails. It’s aggravating and exciting when a kid who seems “a little too sure of him/herself” does well. At the same moment when you are marveling at the abilities of kids, you find yourself forgetting that they are just kids, not professional athletes, who get paid to be in the spotlight and to entertain the nation.

Both Bees emphasize and reinforce an assumption that is a big part of the American education system: “learning” and “competition” go hand in hand. Not every teacher, student, or administrator may believe this, but it seems to be a part of our culture. Why is this? What alternatives are there? Can we make knowledge of etymology, geography, and international culture important without resorting to the public spectacle of sports?

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