Kids coding in Costa Rica

We’ve mentioned Abriendo Mentes in a couple of previous posts. They are a local non-profit working here in Potrero. Their goal is to help enhance educational opportunities for the local children. The local public school available for children is only 3 hours per day. Abriendo Mentes provides additional programs such as art, team sports, English, and computer skills. Most of the children here do not have computers in their homes. Having computer skills and being able to speak English will open up many more income possibilities for these children when they reach working age. I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to temporarily take on running the computer classroom/lab. Aidan is also helping me with the class and serving as my Minecraft expert.

AMComputerLab

 

I was a little unsure what type of curriculum to provide. I’m used to being around children that have grown up with computers as part of everyday life. After getting a sense for what the previous person had set up, I spent the first few days watching and learning what the kids already seemed to know and enjoy. It was interesting to watch these children use the computer.

Here are a few observations:

  • I noticed that many of the sites they like to use for games are only available in English and so they miss a lot of the subtleties of the story etc.
  • I was surprised to see that because of their lack of experience, there are certain patterns of interactions that they just don’t understand. The “radio button” selection for example. It is an interaction convention that provides a list of options from which you can only select one. This part they understand. What they don’t understand is the “commit” or “submit” requirement after that selection.
  • Another one I noticed is the use of the same button for 2 purposes (a dual state button). You also see this every time you use a video player on YouTube where the play and pause button is the same button. There are a couple of places that they have encountered this and have trouble. The first is the video player example. The second in the coding tool where they need to “run” something and then need to “reset” it to start over.
  • They have recently been introduced to Minecraft. They play differently than the U.S. kids that I know. The most interesting differences are what they build and how they play in the world. They build replicas of their local physical environment – small houses (Costa Rican Casitas) with lots of horses, cows, dogs, and chickens. They run and play with their horses and put them in a corral at night. They put little signs in their small 2 room homes with their name or sometimes their name along with a friend’s name. The materials that they use are all very simple and the same as what they see in their environment e.g. stone and wood. When they do play together in the same world, they do not create/build together but will build complimentary structures – neighboring houses or a corral for the house that the other is building. This is almost exactly opposite of the way I’ve seen kids in the U.S. play. Those kids collaborate to create elaborate structures from their imaginations and search diligently to find and use a variety of resources/materials.
  • There is a large disparity in the games that the girls play and the boys play. Girls will choose to play fashion (clothes, hair, make-up) games or Disney princess games. The Boys will choose to play Minecraft, soccer, or driving games. This isn’t 100%. I’ve seen a couple of boys play videos of songs from the movie “Frozen” and I’ve seen a couple of the girls choose to play Minecraft together, but not regularly.

Based on some of these observations I decided to try a couple of things with the kids, with some mixed results.

With Minecraft I tried to introduce them to a couple of concepts – creating larger environments from the real world and creating things from their imagination. The first thing was to put a group of 4 students into a world together. I then tried to help them to visualize and build the Potrero town square. This is not very large. The town center is the soccer field. Around this are the community center (where they take English and art classes), a church, a market, and a few houses. This proved to be incredibly difficult for them and ultimately they lost interest because it was so challenging.

Next I had Aidan create one of his favorite things to build – an enormous and elaborate roller coaster as a demonstration of imagined things and explain how you make it. This didn’t inspire too much creativity or interest. Then Aidan created a large thing that used a lot of “red stone” which are really circuits. I thought that maybe the cause and effect would be interesting. Nope.

AidanComputerLab

Next I tried something that seems to be working. My own children have used code.org with success. I was concerned about trying this or Gamestar Mechanic because of the large amount of English required. Then I discovered a beta section on code.org that was visual programming for early readers. This meant that the tools were mostly using only arrows rather than written English to describe the actions. It worked very well and the kids enjoy it. Many of them seem to really seem get the underlying concepts and enjoy the thinking involved in moving the Angry Bird along to catch the bad pig without running into walls or blowing himself up. I see sparks of that joy of the success of making something happen with a sequence of things you put together on the computer. I’m hoping that this base understanding will help them move along without too much trouble to the coding that involves some English paired with the arrows.

I’m enjoying the opportunity to meet and interact with these kids. They are all bright and friendly and I get a little different view on Costa Rican life than just interacting with adults. They teach me some Spanish and laugh when I make conjugation mistakes. I think Aidan is enjoying the experience of working with me and being the “expert” in something. Without a doubt it will be something we remember about our Costa Rican adventure.

AidanBeachStanding

Gamification

One of the approaches that we’ve been using for unschooling as part of our new adventure is something called gamification. I’ve referenced this a few times in the past but I’ll go into this in a more detail here and why we think it is a powerful educational approach.

What is gamification?

There are a few good definitions for gamification out there. We like Gabe Zicherman’s definition:

“Gamification is the process of using game thinking and game dynamics to engage audiences and solve problems.” (gamification.co)

In terms of what Deb and I are trying to do with Aidan and Vie’s unschooling, gamification.org talks about it this way:

“Gamification is a business strategy which applies game design techniques to non-game experiences to drive user behavior.”

The behavior we want to drive, pretty simply, is an interest in learning. We think all of the rest will follow.

Where it started for us

Deb and I both worked with an education focus in our graduate design work at the Institute of Design in Chicago in 1995. I focused most of my work there on games and education, even though at the time we didn’t have a word for it. For me it came from a profound but simple insight that came when I was observing kids.

I had a project where we had to teach a chapter of a science book to middle schoolers in inner city Chicago using interactive media (like all of those old “educational” CDs that were out at the time). Many of these kids could not read and the vocabulary of the textbook was daunting. I chose the immune system chapter, because I loved biology and did graduate work on this subject at Stanford. The vocabulary in this chapter was particularly tough and few kids even wanted to read it. It wasn’t “coming alive” for them.

I didn’t know these kids well and so as part of my design process – understand, create, iterate – I went out and researched what they liked to do. At the time, Mortal Kombat was a popular standup arcade video game and these kids were all spending a lot of time playing it. I’d watch kids play and asked them questions. They had such deep and thorough knowledge of these video game characters. Things like:

“…if you want to defeat Scorpion when you’re playing Sub-zero, and Scorpion throws his ‘air throw’ move, then you need to counter with ‘cold blast’ and then…”

I was stunned. There was not much difference between that and real immune system interactions. For example:

“…if you want to defeat Streptococcus (a bacteria) then you need to use a B-Cell, (not a Killer-T Cell) and have it shoot antibodies at the bacteria so that complement (cellular dynamite) can attach to it and blow it up…”

I’m not making this up; it’s real biology.

Instead of just adding interactive media to the same content as the textbook, I basically created a prototype of a video game called Body Defenders where the kids could play different immune system cells (“characters”) and defeat various types of germs. In doing so, they’d focus on all of key immune interactions and the vocabulary would come as part of the game. It was such an easy format to work with that I could actually go beyond their textbook and teach them college level immune reactions.

killer t cell

A Killer T-Cell in Body Defenders

The kids loved it. More importantly, they learned everything that was in their science textbook chapter and a lot more. I learned that games offered a powerful tool for learning – something I continued to pursue in grad school with other kids and other projects.

Why it works

There is a ton of material out there on the subject of gamification, why it works, and how it works. I’ve included some good references here and on our Resources page.

We’ve likely all seen the incredible engagement many video games create. There’s a simple, basic process at work: challenge, achievement, reward. This is a basic behavioral process in us; it is not tied to games per se. Simply put, when we encounter a challenge and accomplish a goal, overcome an obstacle, achieve a result, etc., we are rewarded with a small release of dopamine. It’s a brain chemical tied to motivation and reward and when our brains release it, we feel good. Really good. And we want more. So we try to do whatever it was that produced the dopamine again.

This happens outside of games too of course. For example, I just got a boost in yoga last week when I managed to achieve a pretty tough pose I had been working on. But that pose, like many challenges, was tough enough that I could not just do it over and over. Even if I could, doing the same challenge again has a lesser effect.

Games, particularly video games, create a succession of different challenges that can be “achieved.” Unlike many things in the physical world, you can do these a lot more frequently and get that dopamine effect more often.

I mentioned Ananth Pai in a previous post. He’s the educator that brought gamification directly into his Minneapolis classroom and took a failing third grade class and increased their math and reading scores incredibly, surpassing other grades and other schools. His story, and his success, is inspiring. He uses this approach every day and it works. You can see some of what he dos at Team Drill Head.

What I really like about gamification is the impact that it has on fluid intelligence. According Raymond Cattell, a psychologist that first proposed this theory, there are basically two types of intelligence: fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence. Crystallized intelligence comes from prior knowledge and experience. It’s based on facts or “book learning.” We accumulate it over time. It describes most of the type of learning that most of us have grown up with (and been tested for).

Fluid intelligence is very different. It is the ability to think logically and solve unfamiliar problems in novel ways. It is a key component of pattern recognition, abstract thinking, problem solving, and quick reasoning, Not surprisingly, it has very strong ties to innovation, creativity, and the ability to effect change (something else I’ve written about).

What is particularly interesting is that you can indeed increase your fluid intelligence according to Andrea Kuszewski. She discusses 5 ways:

  • seeking novelty
  • challenging yourself
  • thinking creatively
  • doing things the hard way
  • networking

It turns out that you can find all of these playing most modern video games. (Thanks to Gabe Zicherman for connecting a lot of the dots here. He talks about all of this and more in one of his videos.)

One of our favorite examples of a video game that really pushes these boundaries is Portal (I and II). If you haven’t seen it, it’s probably unlike any other video game you’ve seen. You can play solo or work with someone else as robots solving some clever and difficult interactive problems as part of a rich and very humorous story line. I just learned that you can now create your own levels – something for Aidan and Vie to try.

How we use gamification in unschooling

In our unschooling with Aidan and Vie, we don’t rely solely on gamification, but it is a big part. And no, Aidan and Vie don’t play video games all day, as much as they might like to J

In general, we try to use many of the game mechanics, or tactics, involved in gamification. There’s a pretty good white paper overview of many of these (as applied to use in business). Essentially, as part of the different things Aidan and Vie are working on, we look for opportunities to bring in some of these game mechanics. I talked before about giving Aidan and Vie a “paper quest” to write a paper about the difference between two video games. It was a collaborative project that ended with a 28 page multimedia paper. We also borrowed a game concept of defeating a boss and turned into a grammar “test.”

Part of their regular unschooling involves several great online tools that involve game mechanics. One of the more general tools we use is DIY.org. It has broad topic coverage and basically provides a “gamified” framework for working on various types of activities, such as making videos, cooking, illustration, etc., that can fit into the regular “curriculum” that the young adults have worked out with us. They really like earning achievements there.

We also use some other tools for specific things. For example, Vie and Aidan use StudyStack to supplement the Spanish lessons they take with a local teacher here. Deb and I are even getting into it, although we prefer Duolingo. This well-designed, and well gamified, site has leaderboards, achievements, levels, challenges, etc. all around learning Spanish, We get to compete with some of our friends. You might want to try it out if you are planning a visit!

Of course, as Ben Franklin wrote, “All things in moderation.” and that certainly includes gamification. What gamification is not, for us, is something that touches every aspect of unschooling. For example, Deb’s brought in much more discussion and group work. It also doesn’t mean that we need to use technology in every aspect of what we do. In fact, we are still working to find ways to tone that down even more. Hopefully, we’ll be creating a baking card game with Aidan in the near future as one example of bringing in gaming without technology.

We are still working continuously with the young adults to tune their unschooling and try different things, not all of which involve gamification. Some things seem to work well. Others don’t and we learn from those. My challenge continues to be more around “how” we help them with unschooling more than “what” they focus on. The parent-child dynamic can often affect the learner-helper dynamic and we haven’t found gamification to help there, yet.

Why it matters

We think gamification is an important trend in general and one that applies beyond learning. Businesses are waking up to its potential. As one data point, Gartner notes that “by 2015, more than 50 percent of organizations that manage innovation processes will gamify those processes.” (Gartner) This is the world our young adults are growing up in.

On the flip side, we see schools struggling to keep up with what they have to teach and how they teach it. As I mentioned in Why We Decided to Unschool, there are growing demands on what teachers have to cover in their curricula, producing more and more homework and focusing on memorization. Take a look at the heart-wrenching documentary Race to Nowhere for some sobering reality here.

The focus of the schools in most cases is on what to learn i.e., developing crystallized intelligence. It’s easy, and reasonably non-controversial, to test for after all. Far less time is spent on how to learn or how to look at problems creatively and solve them in novel ways; i.e., fluid intelligence.

Now consider that, according to IBM, “90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone”. When the current middle and high-schoolers reach the working world in a few short years, much of the “prior knowledge” that they’ve learned in school will be out of date.

What good, then, is the radically increasing body of knowledge students must learn in school when a good deal of it may be out of date? More importantly, with the majority of school and after school work focused on developing “prior knowledge,” where is there time for learning how to think creatively and differently about solving new problems? We are giving students fish and not teaching them how to fish.

Whether you believe that the “video game generation” is or will be different than their predecessors, there is no doubt that video games and technology in general are influencing this generation heavily. I might argue that for those kids that play video games, some of the most valuable, and “evergreen,” types of learning probably comes from those video games.

Now imagine combining the two approaches. There is plenty of room still for learning “things.” Working with that, we can add new ways to learn – ones that inspire kids and not keep them up late and stressed about their homework and tests. Hopefully they would be better innovators and problem solvers. They world they inherit will need more of that.

That’s essentially what we are trying to do. We won’t get it right the first few times but we’ll keep refining it and we’ll continue to share progress along the way. It’s very Intentionally Off Path. Pura vida!

The Grammar Boss

It’s amazing what a simple adverb can lead to here on our new adventure. This past week I created a bit of a grammar test for our young adults. I couched it as a “boss level” which, in gaming terms, is a part of a game where your character has to fight a difficult opponent – a “boss” – and you have to defeat it in order to move forward in the game. It was indeed a test, even though I worked hard to make it fun. And it all started with a debate about an adverb.

You see, I have a bit of a pet peeve about adverbs – specifically when people do not use them when they should. It irks me when “people drive slow” (i.e., slowly) or when they “do cook bad” (i.e., badly). For a good while now, I have been pointing out correct adverb use to Vie and Aidan. I usually get groans.

Awhile back, Vie and I got into a debate about some adverbs which didn’t seem to exist at all in Vie’s vocabulary, adverbs like “wrongly” and “cooly.” Eventually I had to look these up to prove their existence. The response I got was something like “Dad, people don’t talk like that.”

Now I do understand that colloquially we tend to drop the poor adverb’s “ly” in conversation. It doesn’t detract from its meaning. I hear young adults do this more often than older people and I may have a slight fear that adverbs in our language are going extinct. Nonetheless, I wanted to at least be certain that Vie and Aidan knew their correct use and more broadly, developed good grammar skills. .

So I told them I was going to make a grammar “boss level” and they had to pass it as part of their unschooling. While most of their work is self-directed, I felt I needed to make this ask. They are writing fairly regularly as part of their projects, but we are not doing an English or grammar “class.” I wanted to be sure they continued to develop their grammar skills.

The “boss level” was simply a short story that I wrote with 60 grammar mistakes. They needed to get the boss down to “25% health”, which means that they needed to find at least 75% of the grammatical errors to defeat the boss level. I have the whole thing here under our new Resources menu on our blog along with the answer key. And like many boss levels, it’s hard to defeat the boss in one try; you need to replay the level a bit to get past it.

I started creating the boss level with something either creative, or insidious, depending on your point of view. We all like adaptive games and so what’s wrong with a little gamification of grammar? I went back to some of their writing and studied their individual problematic grammar patterns – things that they would do regularly in their writing. I incorporated these into the “boss level.” It was a little insidious in that these would be tough things to catch since they made these mistakes regularly.

I had a lot of Vie and Aidan’s writing to draw on. Their “paper quest” – a 28 page multimedia paper comparing two video games – was a gold mine, particularly their rough drafts. I also scrutinized Aidan’s herbs and spices flash cards. I reviewed the emails we trade regularly.

I noticed several distinct and unique grammar issues each one had. Vie writes with incredible detail, but also likes to use the gerund form of a verb in sentences to the point that the sentence is really a phrase and not a complete sentence. For example:

And Diablo being an action role-playing game.

Vie is also a fan of run-on sentences. Commas are pretty rare indeed.

Aidan has a rich vocabulary but tends to have a bit of a blind spot for subject-verb agreement (“…fennel seeds is…”). He also tends to not catch the differences between “your” and “you’re”, “their”, “there”, and “they’re”, and “its” and “it’s.”

And of course, adverbs tend to be used sparsely in their writing.

I created a list of all the types of grammatical errors that were patterns in both of their writing and then I incorporated similar patterns into the grammar boss story. Here’s a sample paragraph.

“Your a fool. There is no differences between my army and the greatest Orc army of all time! it’s ranks stretch two the very edges of the hall. My soldiers is well known for being brutal. You cant even compare them to another Chieftans army. When you army stands next to mine their, you can see all the differences such as, their hugely size, large teeth, terrible disposition, and etc.”

I tried not to get too subtle with things they had little practice with so far, such as writing with dialog, but I did put in several very subtle errors that they should be familiar with. I also included a healthy supply of what I assumed were going to be very obvious errors. My goal was that on their first pass they would only find about 40-50% of the problems.

I gave them the test and allowed them to work together on it. I was hoping that since they each had their own blind spots, working together might help them both catch a good number of the errors. In their first pass, Vie and Aidan only found 30% of the errors. I was surprised especially because I told them that there were 60 errors and they stopped at 20.

Vie then took a pass alone. Some of the subtleties started appearing and Vie diligently worked through several iterations, getting closer and closer to the goal. I helped a bit b identifying how many errors were in each paragraph. It was pretty amazing though to see what did not pop out at all. As I expected, patterns were often missed, but even some of the more obvious errors didn’t get identified. Vie hit 90% after 4 tries.

Aidan needed a little motivational encouragement to get through the level. Well, actually, a lot. In each of his iterations, he would find a few more and then want to stop. When I explained that this was like one of the games he played where I’ve seen him play the boss level up to 10 times before he gets through it, he got the rationale I was using for the grammar boss. He then buckled down and made it through. He hit 75% on his 5th try. Unlike Vie, it didn’t seem to be interesting enough to raise his score more 🙂

I’m sure the boss level was tougher than was probably appropriate for their level. I’m clearly not an English teacher and I don’t have a good idea of what level of writing they should be at (yet). I also don’t have other examples of student writing handy to gauge where they are. But, the grammar boss level was doable. It wasn’t so frustrating that they wanted to give up. Even if it was not as “fun” as I had hoped, I did see engagement.

In the end, it was nice to see them collaborate on the first pass. I need to build more collaboration into their projects. It was interesting to see them develop a bit of an eye for proofreading. It’s a useful skill that I still see many adults shy away from. And, somewhat not surprisingly, Vie and Aidan identified every one of the adverb errors in the first pass. The most priceless thing since then is that I’ve watched them watch TV shows like MasterChef and one or both will correct someone who forgets the “ly” in their adverb. I hope I didn’t create little grammar monsters like me. Well, maybe I do 🙂

You can try the Grammar Boss Level here. The answer key is here.

Type-A Detox

I learned something very valuable this week from my son Aidan here in Costa Rica on our new adventure. You might even call it “my second mistake.“ It was about unschooling, parenting, and patience. Mostly though, it was about myself. It was simple. I even knew it in my head logically – I just didn’t embrace it. I might not have even paid enough attention to learn something if I hadn’t had yoga and a quiet chance to reflect.

There are other paths to learning and to achievement than the “Type A” way (here is where you can say “duh”).

I’ve been pretty successful, and fortunate, in my education, my career and my life so far. For as long as I can remember I have driven myself to learn new things, to do more, to push myself to do things better, and to take on big challenges. I like it when things are hard. I like competing with, and working with, people who are better than me because I learn more. I like trying lots of new things. I get bored when there isn’t a lot going on. You might call me Type A (though by Seattle standards I am probably in the middle).

The places I’ve chosen to work, particularly startups and Microsoft, really reinforce this Type A approach to things. I found that working with others like me creates a great energy to push the envelope, It was well and good while I was in those environments, but it isn’t as helpful now as I work with Vie and Aidan in unschooling. They are not Type A.

Aidan also has a different way of learning than I do. I tend to just go try things. I learn by doing. Aidan likes to see how things are done first – for example, watching a YouTube video. Neither is better than the other. They are just different ways of learning.

I had the hubris though of thinking that making progress, accomplishing goals, and even learning was better in a Type A way. I hadn’t actually realized just how ingrained in me it was. One of the more insidious things about being successful as a Type A person is that it can blind you from other ways of being – ways that can be equally as effective. I was unconsciously expecting Aidan and Vie to do things like I do. Debbie had even been coaching me with gentle hints, though I didn’t really embrace them either. It’s time for me to detoxify myself from Microsoft and this Type A way of doing things. It’s not working and when something isn’t working, you need to change it.

How did I come to this rather obvious realization? It started with Aidan and his unschooling cooking project. In the last few weeks, it’s been a little difficult getting Aidan to be “diligent” about unschooling. He’s been watching videos of Master Chef and lots of YouTube videos of cooking different things. He had recipes he was working on and I didn’t see him working on those directly, either through cooking or writing up the recipes.

When I learned how much he was watching videos, I lectured him about watching too much “TV” and not “doing” enough on his recipes. I asked him to give me a breakdown of how he was going to spend his unschooling hours this week and that they couldn’t involve “TV.” Can you believe it? I was expecting him to be a Microsoft Project Manager.

I went to yoga afterward and in the part where you do a bit of meditation, I thought about all of this. I had the blindingly obvious insight that I was expecting Aidan to be me and not Aidan. He was learning his way, which was more about learning through study, and he was doing it in an exploratory path, not necessarily a goal-driven one.

When I came back we went out and had coffee by the pool and talked. He was indeed watching all of the videos so he could learn how to do the different techniques needed in cooking his 10 recipes. He also got “distracted” by other videos of interesting recipes and techniques. I’d now reframe “distracted” to mean that he was exploring the wide world of culinary arts his way – by sampling techniques, looking at different approaches, seeing interesting ways others put together recipes, etc.  In other words, he had a perfectly acceptable, but very different, way of learning compared to me. I told him that I was wrong and I didn’t appreciate his approach to things as much as I should have.

Compounding all of this, Aidan is also a very social learner. He loves working with others (I like that too, but I can just as easily focus intensely and work on my own). One downside of unschooling in another country is that he doesn’t (yet) have easy access to others he can work with.

So, after our coffee chat, I suggested that we cook together. He had been learning to pan fry steak so he could create one of 10 recipes for his project: bacon wrapped steak with pineapple chutney. Aidan had come up with this all on his own. What followed was pretty inspiring, confirming unequivocally that there are other effective ways.

Aidan had watched several videos on pan-frying techniques and had practiced that. Recently he had been watching a number of videos on the best way to cook bacon wrapped steaks. It involves searing the steak in a pan and finishing it in an oven.

When we started making steaks for all of us, I just helped him get organized and then acted as his sous chef. He did all of the actual cooking. He just did it. There was no hesitation. He had a plan. He was very thoughtful about differences in steak thickness and how to adjust cooking for them. He carefully monitored all of the steps. And the steaks came out perfectly. They were perfectly seared, moist and flavorful. The bacon too was cooked perfectly. They were the best steaks I’ve had here anywhere, including in restaurants. Vie raved about them. And Aidan did it in one try.

Aidan was indeed learning. I probably would have spent a lot more time cooking and “burned” through several steaks. I probably would not have benefitted from seeing multiple diverse approaches. I now appreciate his and other approaches far more – not because I saw the results, but because I was reminded of the process and understood it. The University Cooperative School Aidan attended had a great tag line that I love (and should have channeled more): “Childhood is a journey, not a destination.” The same holds true of learning. Intellectually, I knew this. Behaviorally, I didn’t embrace it. I still have much to learn myself, especially about unschooling.

I’ve talked about how change is difficult, particularly when there is complexity. Change is not safe. I was proud of what we are doing here because we are not playing it safe; we are changing everything. Or so I thought. Well, now it’s time for me to embrace more change as I help Vie and Aidan unschool their way and not mine. As a (hopefully former) Type A parent, maybe this is just another way of being “intentionally off path.”

Thanks, Aidan, for the very gracious lesson. Pura vida, bud.

The Paper Quest

In our young adults’ first unschooling project, they collaborated to create an amazing 28 page multimedia paper. Deb and I were excited, surprised and very, very proud of them. We were also really excited to see that our first unschooling “experiment” worked. That was important because it is a big part of our new adventure. The project revealed the power of passion and motivation. Here’s the story. I hope it is as inspirational to some of you as it is to Deb and me.

As I noted briefly in Unschooling Begins, we actually ended up starting the unschooling with a “quest.” In gaming terms, this is often a side activity to the main game plot in Role-Playing Games. Quests involve the players performing some task or accomplishing some goal, usually for reward.

It started with a conversation at dinner about Diablo III and Borderlands II – two Xbox games we all play. We were talking about their game mechanics a bit and then we got a good idea. I offered them a “quest.” The quest was for them to write a “paper” comparing and contrasting Diablo III and Borderlands II across many different attributes/dimensions.

And then it happened. A spark. We saw Vie get visibly excited.  Really excited. Aidan followed quickly. We talked about what dimensions they could use, whether they wanted to collaborate on it (they do), and even what form the “paper” might take. That was a great spark to start with.

For some “back story” context, Aidan hasn’t generally been excited about writing at all. When we’ve helped Aidan with papers in the past, it was really tough pulling out more than a sentence or two. He seemed to be pretty typical of students his age. Vie enjoys creative writing, but doesn’t enjoy writing “school” papers. Notwithstanding that, both Aidan and Vie had a very good understanding of the basic components of a good paper and the steps to take to get there (rough draft, review, revisions, etc.).

Vie and Aidan worked on the paper for about 6 days, a few hours each day. This work included playing and watching games to get details, identifying details they wanted to talk about and then organizing these into larger themes, arranging the themes into an ordered outline using card sorting, writing a rough draft, gathering images and audio samples for the final paper, revising their content several times, and assembling everything into the final paper.

As an active and passive observer in all of this, I saw a number of interesting and noteworthy things. First off, their observation skills were beyond what I expected. They both knew the games pretty well. I suggested in addition to playing that they watch someone play. I humbly volunteered to play Diablo III while they watched J. For about 90 minutes they watched, commented, discussed, debated, and critiqued both the game and how I played it. They made some very shrewd and unexpected observations, such as noting that there is a definite pattern in Diablo III when a “rare” (mini-boss) monster appears. You can generally identify it by the type and cluster of “minions” it has before you even see it. It was pretty subtle. Their attention to detail was amazing; it would give a good field researcher a run for their money.

Another heartening thing was their focus. Several times in several of the days, they would work for 2-4 hours straight, writing, editing, formatting, capturing images, etc. I was there in case they needed help (which they rarely did), but they were driving their own focus. It wasn’t until the third time that I realized they were working like I (and many) do when I am in “flow.” I think this is important so here’s a brief description:

According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand (Wikipedia, from Csikszentmihalyi).

This is the state we all strive to be in on a good day at work. Even in the best circumstances in school, I don’t think we could see this. Inevitably there are class distractions and certainly more limited periods of time to actually work on something. There were of course some occasions where they needed a little motivation to get started or they themselves got distracted, etc., but the fact that I was even able to see this is pretty surprising – at least to me. And when distractions came up, we just took a break and picked it up later. They drove their schedule.

One of the more surprising things to me was seeing them collaborate so well. They wanted to work together from the beginning. I was hesitant, but open to it. I think collaboration is an essential skill for kids to learn, which is why I like project-based learning. Like most siblings, though, they have their share of arguments, periods of bossiness, etc. I wasn’t sure if the two of them could really collaborate well. I was definitively shown that they could and they could do it well. Vie was more of the driver in the project but they both worked together on every part of the paper writing experience. And, testimony to good collaboration, the final result was stronger than either one would have been able to do alone.

Finally, they were really developing their critical thinking skills. Coincidentally, I, and then all of us, just watched the excellent documentary Race to Nowhere. It is an emotionally powerful look at what the volumes of homework students are now being assigned are doing to them. I highly recommend taking a look if you are a parent. One outcome the film pointed out was that because students are so over-tested, they are studying and memorizing for the test, only to immediately drop that “data” afterward. They are not learning how to learn and they are not developing critical thinking skills – two skills that are essential when confronted by novel problems. This is at the core of creativity and innovation.

When students study for tests, they may pass the test, but they likely won’t figure out how to solve the problem. As a pre-med at Stanford many years ago, I sadly saw this there as well. In a particularly tough Physics class after a test where I did poorly, the TA told me I as taking the test “wrong.” I needed to memorize more formulas and just write down all of the ones that applied so I could get partial credit. We weren’t really developing the skill to solve problems. I found it disillusioning that if I was a “real” physicist, or doctor, and could not remember a formula, I could look it up. But, if I didn’t know how to solve a problem, then I am at a loss in my field. Many pre-med classes taught you indirectly how to study for the tests through memorization primarily. The Race to Nowhere, showed the same exact behaviors, only now penetrating high school, middle school, and even grammar school.

We’ve always tried to teach the young adults that “I don’t know” is ok and that we often don’t know something. When we don’t, we go figure it out. We try different approaches until we get what we want. The internet makes this a bit easier as there are experts and “how to” videos everywhere, but the principle is the same. In the case of this quest, there was no test and no right answer. There was no model of what a good result looked like. They found no example papers on the Internet (not that they looked or wanted to). I wanted to see them create something they were proud of. They did.

To give you just a little flavor of what they did, here’s a short excerpt from Aidan and Vie’s paper that shows some of their analysis and how they crafted it:

Along with many things, the gaming styles are different. Borderlands being a first person view, and Diablo being third person. Each having their own advantages and disadvantages. Such as Borderlands with first person view

DIABLO borderlands

you are not able to see all around you and can’t see out of the line of sight straight forward. This can be an advantage sometimes, since you are able to aim accurately, especially with a scope.

scope

There are also some disadvantages though, for example enemies can sneak up on you easier when out of your line of sight. In Diablo however, you can see most of your surroundings and can see all directions. Your line of sight is a lot wider…

We saw a lot of potential in this “quest” for learning across multiple dimensions, but as I reflect on the kinds of skills they learned, I see several nuanced ones I didn’t initially appreciate. If I break the skills into two groups based on what we expected they would get out of this activity and what we discovered that they additionally got out of it, I get the following:

Expected”                                                

  • Expository writing
  • Research
  • Collaboration
  • Proficiency with Microsoft Word
  • Writing process
  • Critical thinking
  • Value of written communication

 “Discovered”

  • Observation
  • Finding “flow”
  • Forming and defending an opinion
  • Planning and organization
  • Time management
  • Design tools (e.g. card sorting

And since every activity is a learning experience, here’s what I learned in the process:

  • I really had to resist trying to have them fix every grammar issue. I focused on key principles and issues and left the rest for other papers. This could have easily become exhaustive and I did not want to lose their energy. I’m hoping it was the right call. It felt right.
  • I had no comparable bar to gauge their writing, since I had no other students to compare them to. I had to resist using my own bar. I can get really anal with some things. Vie and Aidan are still only 13 and 11.
  • I had to appreciate and celebrate their improvement and success, which was incredible. It was hard for me. I had to step out of my Microsoft (or in fairness, tech industry) mindset of focusing on the flaws.
  • I had to let them make mistakes, and watch it happen. Intellectually, I knew this was a good way to learn and wanted to engender it. It was just tough sometimes when I knew the path wouldn’t work out and I wanted to save them time.
  • On that note, I had to ignore time. I thought they could do it in a week. They could have if we didn’t take time for other fun things. But, this was my schedule, not theirs. I needed to remember what I tell them a lot: “do it well, not just quickly.”
  • And while it is something I firmly believe, it was reinforced again and again in this project: “kids” can do a lot more on their own than we (adults) tend to think they can.

One of the things I am excited about with unschooling is that I expect to learn a lot too. We don’t have much experience here. We’ve read a lot, but there is no “manual” of how to do this. Every learner is different. We certainly won’t get everything right. We’ll make mistakes. Then, we’ll iterate and make them better. It’s just like real world problem solving. And if Vie and Aidan see us making mistakes and figuring things out as we help guide them on this journey, then hopefully they’ll have a model that this approach is not only “ok”, but that it works.