All Day Every Day Video Game Learning

All day, every day video game based schooling. Great.

A Popular Science article (print version, Jan 2010) extolls the virtues of a recently opened school in Manhattan designed around a  spanking new videogame curricula. Called Quest to Learn (Q2L) the school is heavily funded by interests (such as Intel) outside the NYC school district. And yes, every subject is taught via the medium of video games.

Another oh-gosh-isn’t-this-fabulous article appeared in the mass market magazine Parade and the flurry of media attention continues to accelerate. Soon every school child will be agitating to replace the boredom of classwork with the excitement of gaming.

Their eagerness will be nothing compared to the frenzy of those who make Big Decisions in education. Anything having to do with technology seems to make these folks feel they’re finally hip. Actually, they toss money at any curricula that promises to keep the little darlings quiet, busy and able to pass proficiency tests. In a few years you won’t be able to spit without hitting a school district boasting a version of this all day, every day video game schooling. Just great.

Q2L sounds impressive. Designed by the (soon to be rolling in bucks) Institute of Play, its curricula isn’t structured around ordinary educational games. Learning is integrated between subjects, offers hands-on components and promises to put the student in charge of his or her education. Q2L promotional materials assure parents their kids won’t be glassy-eyed screen droolers. But, and this is a huge but, it’s all day, every day.

Research tells us that high quality video games are known to promote rapid decision-making, logic, visual-spatial skills, risk assessment and intense focus. Author Steven Johnson notes in Everything Bad is Good for You that today’s technologies offer complex intellectual challenges that engage students in ways never before seen. All great. Except for a little thing we call balance.

Candy substituted for every meal, even with all the required vitamins, fiber and omega 3 fatty acids packed into it by a clever non-profit candy making institute, may make kids wildly happy but it still isn’t a real meal. An all day video gaming educational model may be new, shiny and sound perfectly thrilling but without balance it’s simply another way to train the next generation of workers to ignore the vital need for balance in their lives.

A truly balanced education is one that can’t be prescribed or predetermined by any curricula developer because each child is different. That’s that beauty of Democractic Schools, relaxed styles of homeschooling and unschooling. Those of us who educate this way know from experience that children, when raised in an atmosphere of loving trust and fully involved in the life of the community around them, tend naturally toward balance.

Video games may indeed be a wonderful way to learn but not all day, every day. They can be part of a wider concept of education.  It would be wonderful to see schools reverse the trends that have segregated and stymied the maturation of young people ever since modernization forced them into mandatory schooling.

For starters, today’s students could use a whole lot more of these missing elements to restore balance in each educational day.

Play. Not the sort of play that happens on carefully designed liability-friendly playgrounds or within the limits of       supervised games, but unstructured free play.  This sort of fun is actually essential for the development of imagination and innovative thinking as well as social and cognitive maturation.

Creative, hands-on engagement in open-ended work. The high scoring Icelandic and Finnish schools that keep our educational Big Deciders in a jealous froth aren’t test happy. Instead they include daily arts such as knitting, woodwork and felting while U.S. school kids rarely get to work with metal or wood in shop class let alone have the opportunity to paint at an easel.

Pursuit of interests. There may be no greater motivator than the ability to engage in one’s interests for hours, days, weeks or longer plus the freedom to move on when those interests are depleted.

Community involvement. Schools segregate young people from vibrant adults in the community precisely at the developmental stages when kids are primed to imitate, help and adhere to role models. No rote field trip or Skype interview can come close to collaboration and engagement in the real world around them.

Nature. People of all ages are missing out on the invigorating and focusing effects of spending regular time in nature.  Most of us suffer from Nature Deficit Disorder without recognizing how much is missing from our lives.  Even our eyes indicate that we’re intrinsically structured to be outdoors. New research indicates children who spend more time outdoors are much less likely to need eyeglasses. Something about the intensity of sunlight or the benefits of looking across wide open spaces seems to be a protective factor.

All day, every day video game based schooling. Another example of an educational trend taken too far in one direction. How great is that?



Creative Commons image credit


Materialism: What’s With Wanting So Much Stuff Anyway?

“You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?” Steven Wright

When times are hard, my husband and I tend to quote a few lines from an old movie called “The Jerk.”  Lines like, “All I need is this lamp and this chair, that’s all I need.”  Or, “It’s not the money, it’s the stuff.”  We chortle like merry imbeciles at our bad Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters impressions but really, materialism itself is pretty ridiculous.  What’s with wanting so much stuff anyway?

Accumulating material goods, past the point of sustaining a reasonably enjoyable and healthy lifestyle, is ironic if you think about it.  The simple equation of working for wages means that each expenditure represents more hours of life that you have to trade in to buy them.  You also require an ever larger space to store what you own.  If you run out of living quarters and garage space, you’ll wind up filling storage space too, then devote more working hours to paying rent on that.  Silly.

Sure, I hanker to own beautiful things. I particularly adore buying original art. That way I get the excuse of supporting someone else’s creative process while adding some beauty to my home.  I haven’t hung a new painting on our walls for too long because there are pesky bills to pay, but I still buy artwork to give as gifts.

Fortunately I’m twisted enough to get a kick out of frugality. For example, my husband and I still refuse to replace the last blanket we received as a wedding gift. It’s pretty tattered, but there’s something about waking up with our toes in blanket holes that strikes us funny.

We’ve also spared our kids indulgences like fancy toys, designer clothes or the thrill of being ferried around in a late model car.  For the first eight or so years of their lives they weren’t exposed to commercial television (except those glimpses at grandma’s house) and we didn’t make shopping a recreation, so they didn’t notice any painful contrast. Judging by peace they show now with worn jeans and scuffed shoes, they still don’t care too much.

There are reasons why some kids are more materialistic than others. A fascinating post on Half Full: Science for Raising Happy Kids explains,

“Turns out that there are two things that influence how materialistic kids are. The first is obvious: Consciously or not, we adults socialize kids to be materialistic. When parents—as well as peers and celebrities—model materialism, kids care more about wealth and luxury. So when parents are materialistic, kids are likely to follow suit. Same thing with television viewing: The more TV kids watch, the more likely they are to be materialistic.

The less obvious factor behind materialism has to do with the degree to which our needs are being filled. When people feel insecure or unfulfilled—because of poverty or because a basic psychological need like safety, competence, connectedness, or autonomy isn’t being met—they often to try to quell their insecurity by striving for wealth and a lot of fancy stuff. Because of this, relatively poor teenagers ironically tend to be more materialistic than wealthy ones. And less nurturing and more emotionally cold mothers tend to have more materialistic offspring.”


I can’t help but wonder if, metaphorically, this says something about our larger cultural obsession with stuff.  Are we as a people suffering from insecurity?  Sure.  And the more we listen to political pundits, the more insecure we feel.  Is there something about this current time that causes us to have unfilled needs for connectedness?  Having read Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community I’d have to agree with this too.

Materialism may feel good ever so briefly. Maybe seeking out, buying and bringing home the goods stimulates some primal instinct to hunt and gather. Maybe owning things makes us feel safe from deprivation (even while it increases our debt). Or it maybe it makes us feel worthwhile, at least on a superficial level.

Let’s face it, mindless consumption isn’t great for the planet. The developing world can’t live as we do in the U.S. without critically depleting what’s left of global resources. A shift of priorities is in order, one that asks us to be less selfish. Really, how hard can it be to give up lifestyles based on driving to big box stores in gas guzzlers to buy too much crap, then never paying off the resulting credit card debt? Better for us, better for the planet. Yet research indicates that people with the most materialistic attitudes care less about the environment than folks with stronger value systems.

Interestingly, materialistic attitudes aren’t good for individuals either. Studies have repeatedly found that the more a person focuses on the accumulation and ownership of stuff the less happy they are. They are more likely to suffer from depression, narcissism, low self-esteem, antisocial behavior and substance abuse. They’re also more likely to have health problems including headaches, backaches and digestive disorders. Clearly the gimme gimme approach doesn’t do squat for happiness. And really, whether we raise our children in a grand mansion or a small apartment the factors that go into making a family have very little to do with the things money can buy.

Happiness can be as simple as waking up next to someone you love, laughing because the blanket covering you is riddled with holes. What else do you need? Okay, maybe a lamp. And a chair.

Research cited from the following books:
Simple Prosperity: Finding Real Wealth in a Sustainable Lifestyle
The High Price of Materialism,
Less is More: Embracing Simplicity for a Healthy Planet, a Caring Economy and Lasting Happiness

Getting and Giving, Big Time

We haven’t gotten this far through brutal force or greed.

Nope. It has taken cooperation, curiosity and cleverness.

Ninety-nine percent of our time on earth as a species has been spent as hunter-gatherers. Our ancestors wouldn’t have survived without collaborating to find food, raise children and stay safe from large predators.

This is still true now no matter what 24 hour news channels tell us. Each moment of the day we’re more likely to react with compassion, calm interest or cleverness than with any form of overt negativity.

Cooperative efforts abound all around us. Perhaps we simply need to look at life-enhancing innovations we take for granted in a new way. Consider these examples.

Want to travel the world finding friendly strangers offering you a place to sleep for free? You can through CouchSurfing. Their motto encourages everyone to “Participate in Creating a Better World, One Couch at a Time.”  Started in 2004, this non-profit network has connected travelers with locals in 232 countries. This has resulted in nearly 3 million positive experiences, almost 2 million reported as friendships. People who never would have met are connecting, sharing experiences and developing greater cultural understanding.

How about Freecycle? Nearly 7 million members across the world make up this grassroots, non-profit movement of people who give and get goods for free in their own communities. The Freecycle Network, which started humbly in 2003, says, “Our mission is to build a worldwide gifting movement that reduces waste, saves precious resources & eases the burden on our landfills while enabling our members to benefit from the strength of a larger community.”

Or consider books set free to find new readers. Since 2001, BookCrossing members in more than 130 countries have shared millions of books with strangers. They’ve also enjoyed the treasure-hunt pleasure of finding books they want to read. It’s all part of an innovative network linking books and readers.  More local book-sharing concepts are springing up everywhere. Recently a small town in the UK transformed an unused phone booth into a book exchange. They outfitted the booth with shelves and waited to see if anyone would participate. Residents continue to share books and movies anonymously at the booth, which is always open.

Maybe you need a bigger example. There’s always the Internet. Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain notes in a TED talk that the net itself is built by millions of “disinterested acts of kindness” and based on trust, curiosity and reciprocity.

Giving and collaborating seem to be an intrinsic part of human nature. That may be why people freely share their expertise by editing Wikipedia entries, providing support online or otherwise helping people they’ll never meet via the net. That may be why giving inspires people to greater heights of generosity or creative expression, even when the act remains anonymous. The blogosphere abounds with art, craft and music exchanges.  Increasingly this is taking place IRL more often too.  In October an art collective calling themselves the Future Machine transformed an unused newspaper box into a “Stranger Exchange.”  Located in Boston, the box features simple instructions on the side.

1. Leave an item; 2. Take an Item and 3. Don’t be a Stranger.

Their website offers a simple way to link people who give and take items in the box.  Items in the box have included a map of Luxembourg, AA batteries and an invitation to a long ago New Year’s Eve party. They’ve also included projects created specifically for Stranger Exchange such as artwork and a mix tape made in response to another mix tape found in the box.

A post about this phenomenon by Rachael Botsman noted, “Interestingly, the early ‘members’ of the Stranger Exchange seem be participating for similar intrinsic motivations that are fueling the open peer-to-peer movements such as Flickr, Wikipedia, BitTorrent, BePress and so on. For these systems to keep flourishing, people need to “give before they get,” a dynamic that is built on a new kind of trust, trust in people you don’t know or are not even friends with.

This in turn reinforces certain behaviors—collaboration, kindness, openness and honor—that are critical for sharing to happen between strangers. What’s interesting is that once people participate in these exchanges, they experience the proverbial “warm inner glow” and they crave that experience again. In other words, the altruistic action and indirect reciprocity becomes self-reinforcing.”

Botsman is co-author of a book coming out next fall titled What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption. I’m looking forward to what the book will tell us about the rise in sharing, trading, gifting and swapping in communities around the world. I suspect it will have to do with the cooperation, curiosity and cleverness—-the foundations of our early survival and the building blocks of our shared future.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Erica Reid’s Flickr photostream

Crazy Busy

simplify holidays, crazy busy, holiday frenzy solutions,

Orin Zebest’s work on Flickr

Who isn’t busy all the time? But around the holidays we’re crazy busy. At least women are, and those lights in our lives we call children make the pace even more frantic.

Sure we make all sorts of efforts to simplify and de-stress but for most of us the joys of holiday shopping, gifting, cooking, decorating, visiting, hosting and merrymaking have to fit right into our regular (overburdened) schedules.

It’s not like we can make more time where there is none. Well, maybe we can. Or at least use our time differently. I confess to the Crazy Busy Syndrome but I fight back with these tactics.

Renounce the How-Does-She-Do-It-All Disease. You know the symptoms. You show excessive responsible because you’re sure no one else will do it (or do it right). You uphold traditions your family counts on. You pay close attention to get just the right gifts. You worry about money more than usual. You try to keep the focus on intangibles like faith and togetherness. When the frenzy is over you end up with an empty feeling. I’m the first to stand and admit that I’m still in recovery from this disease.

The cure? Talk to your loved ones about what means the most to them, slice away the rest. If that doesn’t work, slice anyway.

Shun Those Voices. They’re everywhere around the holidays. They seem so genuine and alluring but their sole aim is to make you feel insufficient. They speak to you from TV, magazines, websites, blogs, store displays— let’s admit they’re ubiquitous. These voices tell you that you’re not enough. To compensate you must do more. Dress beautifully, make elaborate meals, buy lavish gifts (and wrap them a whole lot better too).

This is the only diet you need to go on. Don’t watch a single cooking show, don’t open one slick women’s magazine, it’s best if you avoid stores as much as possible. You’ll have a lot more time plus you won’t have to reassemble what’s left of your self esteem.

Screw Tradition. No, I don’t mean avoiding your house of worship or shunning Grandma’s house. I do mean it’s possible to celebrate the season without so much of the heavy Gotta Do It weight hanging over you.

Some of our most memorable holidays have actually been those that veered wildly from tradition. My family will not forget a holiday dinner at Becky’s house featuring walls of wet paint, an oven on fire and a dog getting sick everywhere. The zinger, she was eager to show foreign guests how we celebrate here in the U.S.

If you’ve always gone to the movie theater to see the newest holiday releases after a day of shopping, skip both and go to a play at your community theater. If you’ve accepted every holiday invitation despite the costs of babysitters, travel and lost sleep limit your selections to those events that are warm and wonderful. If you’ve always made a big meal, consider ordering take-out from a locally owned restaurant and serve it on your best plates. If you’ve always accommodated your kids’ requests for gifts because it’s Christmas or Hanukah or Kwanzaa put new limits on materialism, letting them know you’ll consider one or two items they consider their highest priorities. If you’ve always driven around to see the holiday lights, go outside on a frosty night to sing together (even if only to a lone tree lit by moonlight). You’ll not only save time and money, you’ll also create new traditions.

Rethink Gift-Giving. Things have gotten out of hand. Children in this country once looked forward to a fresh orange, maybe a piece of candy and if they were lucky a toy or useful gift like a pocketknife or sewing kit. Historian Howard Chudacoff writes in Children at Play: An American History that most toys co-opt and control a child’s play. They’re better off with free time and objects they can use to fuel their imaginations (yes, a cardboard box).

I admit things got out of hand in my own house. In a quest for meaning (let’s rephrase that to my quest for meaning) we’ve always had handmade holidays. Yes, I’m one of those annoying people….. Meals from scratch, homemade organic cookies, handmade gifts. Each of my four children made gifts for everyone every year, gifts that took substantial effort such as woodworking, felting, and ceramics. My teens still make some of the gifts they give although thankfully I’m not the one coming up with the ideas and supervising the process. The last few years economic realities have made hand made gifts ever more necessary, for other gifts I turn to non-profit and artisan sources. Try products offered by non-profits you support, works of art sold at local galleries, and these resources for simple holiday giving.

Last Resort. This tactic is heavy duty, the one I bring out when I start to feel sorry for myself. Because we’re not crazy busy in comparison to women throughout history. We think we’re stressed? Our foremothers hauled water; carded, spun and sewed clothes; chopped firewood and maintained the stove they cooked on; ground grain and made bread each day; planted and weeded gardens, then canned or dried the harvest; stretched limited food reserves with careful planning to last until the next harvest; cared for babies, children and the elderly with no professional help; treated the sick, stitched wounds and prepared the dead for burial; well, you get the idea.

Worse, many many women in the world still do this sort of grinding labor each day. Typically, women in developing countries work 17 hours a day.  Our sisters receive a tenth of the world’s income while performing two-thirds of the world’s work. These harsh realities put any concept of busy or stressed right out of my head. For more information and ways to help, check out the wonderful book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.

So fight the Crazy Busy Syndrome with all you’ve got. Remember to count your blessings, including the joy of not eating my homemade buckwheat cookies!