Why I love teaching but can’t go back

A few weeks ago I completed a week-long summer school class for rising 8th and 9th graders in video game design. I hadn’t taught that age group for nearly ten years but it was an incredibly enjoyable experience. I love working with that age group, but the ability to teach a course like game design this summer re-affirms the fact that I wouldn’t want to be a classroom teacher right now. Overly-rigorous standards mean I’d never be able to teach a course like this as part of the regular school year, which is too bad.  Talking about game design allowed the kids to really shine in ways that reflected true STEAM thinking. They conducted in-depth discussions with one and another about mechanics and genre. They provided insightful critique regarding the projects of their classmates. They de-bugged and trouble-shot problems for hours. They figured out how to innovate their ways around design problems. They also spent a lot of time playing games and having a blast while analyzing them. My teaching certification means that I’d be expected to make sure kids can correctly identify F=ma as Newton’s second law and getting into a conversation with parents every year regarding cosmology, the age of the Earth, and whether or not I’m telling their kids that they “came from monkeys”.

If we really wanted to provide developmentally appropriate content that engaged kids and allowed them to learn to be innovators and problem solvers, we’d open options like game design to all middle schoolers as full-year or semester-long courses. I’m not saying game design courses are a panacea, they aren’t. But they are pretty interesting and pretty relevant to a lot of kids and they provide the added bonus of providing opportunities to learn inter-disciplinary, real world skills.  Isn’t that what everyone claims they want for kids?

But that isn’t what policy makers and business leaders actually want. It’s so much easier to pay for more tests and fire more teachers and call that “reform”. Happy back to school.

Scientists? We don't need no scientists….

…if you happened to be at a huge-land-grant institution in the past 7 years or so, you’ve heard some mutterings about a very secret situation.  Science graduate students… highly trained, highly skilled, highly smart and highly unable to find a good job.  The kind of job they were promised they’d have if only, if only, they were really smart, studied hard, eschewed the typical pleasures of high school and college life to embrace the glamorous, secure life of a scientists. This was whispered about on campuses and in publications directed at scientists.

Image from Retrotyoys.com
Image from Retrotyoys.com

Weird huh?  How did this happen?  Are we graduating incompetent people?  Hardly.  But somehow, we keep hearing from politicians, educations, and folks in the business community that we need scientists and engineers.  There is a dearth of talent.  We need to improve science education!  We need to inspire kids!

Looks like the main stream  message is finally starting to catch up the the reality:  We don’t have jobs for all our scientists.  Got that? We can stop the mea culpa about not having enough scientists.  We have too many, and we can’t give these people the jobs they’ve been preparing for for 10-14 years.

This doesn’t diminish the role of science education by a long shot, but it should make us reconsider what science education is for and why it is important.  The key focus should be science literacy for citizens.  There is of course, nothing new about this, but it is a good time to reflect on our priorities.  Do we need another unemployed nuclear scientsits, or do we want to have an informed citizenry that avoids ghosts, gouls, and the alignment of stars in making policy decisions?

The trouble with games in schools

Parents start to disengage with their childrens learning at adolescence
Do parents start to disengage with their children's learning at adolescence?

At the EdubloggerCon Unconference this year, I ran into a woman who had a great insight for me.  I told her a little bit about what I did (produce  core science games for middle schoolers) and my ambitions for the conference (thinking about design consideration that will ease game implementation in the classroom, and she quickly said,  “Parents. You have to get it to the parents, make them put pressure on the schools.  That is the only way it is going to happen.”

It’s a compelling point and it made me reflect on some of the awards Operation: Resilient Planet Game was up for this year, awards we ultimately  didn’t win.  Many of our fellow finalists, and the ultimate winners, were targeted toward elementary school math and reading.  The games were designed to give parent’s progress reports, thus demonstrating a core understanding of a certain thriving market.

So these winners kind of figured some stuff out.  Parents have the tenacity and desire to get their kids playing games in order to learn.  And perhaps, as these types of efforts gain popularity among involved parents, schools receive pressure to bring these technologies into schools.

But what about those of us who are making games aimed for older kids?  Games with core, but challenging content?  Will we ever capture parents?  Will parents ever sign on to learn how their kids are doing on acquiring science content?  Tweens start to get a little scary for parents.  Parents back off.  Parents are less involved with their kids learning.  And besides, science is still seen as being periphery to skills like math and reading.  Will we even accomplish the first step towards getting parents to think about games for kids out of elementary school?

This is still a nascent field, but it was certainly odd to find our game about trophic models and ecological population counting methods going toe-to-toe with games where fairies and cowboys hold your hand as you master short and long “a” sounds.

At any rate, I think the unconference-goer I mentioned at the start of this post is on to something, and I think I see her poignant observation playing out with younger students.  I just really hope that despite my hunch, parents do remain interested advocates of their kid’s education beyond  2nd grade. It may not be the only way to get quality educational games into the classroom, but it is certainly vital.