Everything Bad Is Teaching You

In a stack of papers called Instruction.

  • Jul
  • 23
  • 2006

Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good For You (check out the NY Times 5-page adaptation of the book) makes a compelling case for the increasing complexity of popular culture. And even if what he discusses is not truly happening in pop culture, his ideas show a way to promote more complexity in any system. What if we apply a few of those ideas to education?

It’s Not What You Thought, But How You Thought It

Learning algebra isn’t about acquiring a specific tool; it’s about building up a mental muscle that will come in handy elsewhere….So it is with games. It’s not what you’re thinking about when you’re playing a game, it’s the way you’re thinking that matters (40).

The content of games is often trite and childish. You are a timeless fighter and have to find a bunch of heart boxes in order to beat the boss. You are a plumber and have to escape from a bunch of marauding turtles and clams. In both instances you also have to rescue a princess, a common theme running in many video games.

But games aren’t easy. Prioritizing objectives, solving problems, exploring possibilities, testing hypotheses. Sit yourself down in front of a Final Fantasy game and see if you can even begin to figure out what to do. And it’s not just a generational gap. The games are difficult. More importantly, the thinking involved with video games doesn’t apply to video games only. This realization exists in education as well.

Students need to be clear that the thinking different teachers require them to be engaged in has possibilities beyond a single content area, beyond academics. Being forced to memorize definitions of words provides more than just the immediate, meaningless payoff of passing Friday’s test. Working with unknown terms and forging connections to those terms is a skill that can be applied to many different areas. More abstractly, forcing your brain to make those connections to things outside your immediate experience comes in dreadfully handy whenever doing anything new.

On A Related Note

The way of thinking is far more important that what’s being thought about. The greater the complexity of thinking required, the simpler the task.

When first introducing a concept, plot diagrams perhaps, using simpler methods to teach the style of thinking necessary encourages students to partake in the thinking without feeling overwhelmed. I use children’s books.

For many students, charting out stories on a graph comes as a challenge since thinking about stories this way is not too common. To keep students focused on increasing the mental capacity, and not on the complexity of the story involved, things like Sylvester and the Magic Pebble fit the mold. Students can spend time figuring out how the plot diagram is at work in the simple story. They can spend time building complex thinking skills while working on simple content.

Skills Are More Important

Perhaps a shift away from content and more attention given to skills is in order. This is a big reason to advocate for the approval of any book ever written to be taught in the classroom instead of confining instruction to set lists, often populated heavily with THE CLASSICS, as if that moniker imparts value in and of itself. Who cares if I use Bunnicula with my seniors as long as I’m teaching a valuable skill?

Open Invitation

You’re more in control of the narrative now [when playing a video game as opposed to reading a narrative set in a book], but your supply of information about the narrative–whom you should talk to next, where that mysterious package has been hidden–is only partial, and so playing one of these games is ultimately all about filling in that information gap (30).

The gamer is not just a passive recipient of information. S/He is moving around and creating the story. A reader often is a simple receiver of information, particularly when there’s no discussion or reflection on what was read. And this is often the case with required reading, something that’s done out of obligation but certainly not pursued with any more passion than necessary.

If students enjoy being active consumers of media, how can schools provide that environment? Could we create a video game that would require reading and writing based on state standards, but still be in a cool, Grand Theft Auto world? The Myst games always struck me as possible candidates for classroom play.

Put It All In The Classroom

How can we harness all of this in education? What if we had students who were faced with puzzles that they spent much of their own time figuring out, thinking about, talking with others about, even writing about? Through all of that, don’t we teach valuable thinking skills that apply to real-world scenarios students will encounter after high school? Does high school education lack instruction on those kinds of thinking skills right now? Would the thinking skills promoted by complex video games and complex narratives of TV shows augment high school education?

Could promotion of those skills replace the current instruction? What if I taught 24 instead of The Scarlet Letter? What if I shunned all “old media” in favor of “new media,” creating a curriculum full of Web sites, TV shows, games, and movies? Is Hirsch’s idea of cultural literacy out of date? Is it really the content we should be so concerned with? Should it even enter the equation when deciding on high school curriculum? If I can engage more of my students with a TV show or video game than I can with a novel or short story, as long as I’m teaching the state standards, does the method of delivery matter?

If you wait long enough, is everything bad good for you? Or is this all merely as far as entertainment is concerned, not education?

P.S. The quotations I’ve used make it look like I only read a small section of Johnson’s novel. It just so happens that everything I wanted to write about here fell inside of a 10-page span, but I did, in fact, read the entire book. Honest. Go ahead, ask me anything.

1 comment

1. six5guy says:

[7/27/2006 - 7:12 am]

[…] Recently, I spent some time perusing The American Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (available in its entirety online thanks to bartleby.com), spurred on by Todd Seal’s thoughtful post concerning whether or not cultural literacy is relevant today (among other things). […]