Classrealm is an idea for a learning management system (LMS) unlike any I have seen. It’s a struggling idea (failed its kickstart fundraiser), but worth thinking about.  The LMS itself will be nothing new. But layered over the LMS nuts and bolts will be a Tolkienesque fantasy world. Students have a hero persona that advances a la video game style as the student completes assignments. The fantasy component is meant to motivate students to learn the standard state/local curriculum. Gamification, as Classrealm’s creator suggests, is a way to motivate students to complete otherwise unappealing tasks.

My take is that Classrealm is more of a different way of grading than a different way of learning. Instead of a grade point average, you have a hero persona with health a la a video game. Assignments are linked to quests and so on. My first impression is that Classrealm will only function as a crutch to help a curriculum that students do not find interesting. Nevertheless, it may very well find success in reaching students who would otherwise fall behind their classmates.

I see great potential in using games for learning and development in every part of society, but they have to be designed from the ground up. I think that the real sea change in using games to teach will occur when professional game designers with a serious budget (think Sony or Nintendo) are presented with the task of creating games to teach the content.

Sept 30 update: I started a Gamification course created by Keven Werbach at UPenn delivered through Coursera. Apparently, the field is moving more quickly than I thought. I found two up and running gamification services: Bunchball and Chore Wars, but there are more out there. Very similar to ClassRealm, both reward users for tasks completed outside the game. Chorewars is free/cheap and aimed at home users or cubicle workers who are tired of cleaning up others’ break room messes while Bunchball looks like a more serious business venture for more serious subscription rates. Personally, I would like to see some webisodes of a show about heavy users of Chore Wars in the same vein of humor as The Guild or The Office.


Differentiation! An agreement with David Brooks op/ed

In a recent op/ed in the NY Times, David Brooks’ makes a claim that schools are failing to provide ways for rowdy, competitive boys to find success in school. Brooks’ claim is that many typical behaviors are not supported by the environment. As a result, this subset of boys must either change or fail out of school, he says. He cites falling numbers of high school and college graduation as evidence that many are failing out.

I agree with Brooks. I think his point is supported by the cry for differentiation that has been echoing for decades. Differentiation theory calls for multiple paths to success. Paths can still be rigorous but they need to be available. And I think that schools are too often structured in the wrong ways and not structured enough in the right ways.

Wrong structures, in my opinion, are those that suppress behaviors that are, according to psychologists, both developmentally normal and necessary for adulthood. This includes setting ones’ own schedule and choosing ones’ own tasks (see executive function). Typically, I would argue, the teacher is setting schedules and choosing tasks. Executive function, according to psychologists, develops from preK through high school and into the 20s (see auto insurance rates for men under 25; their deficient ability to assess risk as a group will be apparent). Schools may either help or hinder this development in each of the many types of students present in each classroom. I think the rigid schedules and task lists inhibit development of executive function in students who have a strong impulse to set their own agendas.

Another wrong structure is the tragic application of only 1/3 of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Domains. Bloom’s taxonomy is one of the most widely applied theories on learning in the K12 world. I challenge anyone to find a school in the U.S. where the teachers have not heard of it. Benjamin Bloom (1956) theorized that there are three parts to learning: cognitive, affective, and psychomotor. Standards typically focus only on the cognitive functions while affective and psychomotor domains are often ignored. Sure, there’s PE class and sometimes teacher’s ask an obviously upset student, “What’s wrong?”, but affect and motor development typically fall by the wayside. Arguments we find for applying only 1/3 of Bloom’s are simply a defense of the status quo and not a defense of what children need to develop into whole adults.

So if the development of executive function and affect are largely ignored by schools, what should change?

I think a right way to structure schools is to diversify the setting such that rowdy movement, impulse, and friendly competition (some of the traits that Brooks argues are inhibited) are a viable path to success in school. I will add that the quiet, nervous boys should also have a way to succeed. I think the boys who like collaboration should be challenged to succeed. It’s not that the current environment is wrong, it’s just too narrow. I think Brook’s would agree here.

Before you think I mean to say that all behaviors emerging from developing boys be encouraged, I do not say that. Schools do need rules. A school cannot be chaotic. I do not propose that kids do whatever they please. There must be structure. But I do think there should be room, often literally, for children to run and explore and build, to define problems, to formulate solutions, and then to follow through to completion. As children grow into young adults, these activities should increase in sophistication.

So what would be an example of what I am talking about? Schools need to facilitate solving the types of problems which students would like to solve. For upper elementary grades with classes of 11-15 students (student/teacher ratio being issue close to my heart), schools might add the following options: building a wooden fort and the accompanying applied geometry called carpentry. Damming a stream (one of my favorite childhood activities) in order to learn about watersheds, materials technology, and even some basic physics if a teacher is there to explain it.  Having student run competing newspapers that cover school events and select news from mainstream papers. Having students run competitive gaming leagues of whatever type they like DURING school hours. Brooks mentions learning to deal with both wins and losses. Schools should provide these opportunities. Failure is just as valuable a learning tool as success. However, the failures that are a part of the learning process should not be defined as academic failures. Similarly, the characteristics that emerge from a subset of healthy children should also not mean academic failure. Remember that boys have been boys for tens of thousands of years, while compulsory schooling has only been around for about a hundred. We’re still working out the kinks when it comes to formal education.

Training at Artomatic 2012

Artomatic 2012 officially closed yesterday.  If you don’t know already, Artomatic is an occasional DC metro event wherein a massive amount of art is rapidly installed and deinstalled into an otherwise vacant building. I had the opportunity to work there as a site manager, which meant I was onsite nearly every day of the event. I worked alongside gallery managers every day and was helped by a fabulous leadership team behind the scenes. This year it was held in an 11- story building in Crystal City. The show was open for five weeks in May and June. Before opening, we built three bars, dozens of tables, five performance stages with light and sound, and facilitated 1000+ visual art installations. On the weekends, we had 5000 to 8000 people come through. This means several thousand people in the building at any given moment. Total attendance was close to 80,000 people in five weeks.

Another opportunity disguised as a disaster.

The 1200+ participating artists provided all the labor for the event, each artist generally performing three five-hour shifts. Training was an ongoing, everyday task. Some days I was the only person in the building familiar with any of our operating procedures. Every day from Wed to Sun, two or three shifts of about 20-45 artists arrived for their mandatory volunteer shifts. I was not delivering planned, structured training. I was verbally explaining tasks that the learner would have to immediately implement. I usually had less than a minute to debrief a volunteer on their duties before leaving them at their station. I was constantly floating to monitor task performance throughout a 380,000 square foot building. This was a very short, very real-time training cycle!

Defining the Essential: What was important versus not important?

Rapidly assessing my learners and knowing what to communicate to them was essential. Moreover, I was training adults, many of whom were older than I am. I worked in schools for four years. I’ve worked with other adults for 12 years. However, I have never been in the position of telling adults exactly what they needed to be doing at every moment for five hours.  I have trouble imagining a more intensive introduction to training adults. I tried to apply what I know about Adult Learning Theory to my task. I had to know if this volunteer needed to know how his task was important to the overall functioning of Artomatic that day, or this person could perform without that knowledge. I had to know what problems they might encounter (or create!) and adequately explain the solutions. When I failed to do any part of this, the “cogs” did not work well together. Volunteers became flustered, visitors perturbed. When I succeeded, volunteers were able to perform their tasks and visitors’ experience was pleasant.

Previously, I have done volunteer work such as disaster relief on the Gulf Coast and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. But I have never participated on such a people-intensive event as Artomatic. Definitely a transformative experience in my life. I would do it again in a heartbeat.