Supernova’s theme this year is Perestroika. It is sort of perfect to reference Perestroika in the Soviet Union with respect to the challenges of education in America.
The key issues in the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 20 th century, are similar to those that will dominate any deep change in our education system in the 21 st century. In the Soviet Union it was all about the collapse of political and economic structures that were overly hierarchical, centralized, and depersonalized. In today’s education system the battle is similar: between top-down teacher-driven, hierarchical forms of instruction, vs. distributed, project-based, personally-engaging, student-centered approaches to intellectual growth.
Back in 1989, my MIT colleague Seymour Papert often used the events of the Soviet Union as a powerful metaphor for thinking about change and resistance to change in education. I remember it really inspired me. The events in Eastern Europe established that change is possible in systems that just 5 years before seemed unchangeable. NO ONE predicted that in such a short time the Berlin Wall would collapse; just as most of us feel that our education system cannot change in our lifetimes. But what seemed unchangeable became changeable; so we must learn from these events about the process, the pain, and the difficulty of changing a large and rigid social structure.
When Gorbachev first began talking about Perestroika, he did not have any idea that there was going to be so much change so quickly. His intention was to shake the bureaucratic organizations and produce incremental improvements. Little by little, it became clear, that the problems of the Soviet society could not be fixed by tinkering with little details here and there. The same is true about our education system: Many reformers have tried to improve it by making small incremental changes, in the hope that it would eventually be transformed into a new, modern, well functioning system.
In the Soviet Union, creating conditions for initiative and enterprise emerged as the prerequisites for Perestroika. However, in our education system today, initiative and enterprise (of students and of teachers) are blocked by the administrative bureaucracy and by the overly structured curriculum.
The power of Constructionism is to create learning environments in which rich learning comes about in activities driven by enterprise and initiative. Certain uses of new media technology can provide the opportunity for creative, engaging, imaginative, and personally-meaningful learning -- by opening new possibilities for people of all ages to realize complex projects in which they implement a large range of important knowledge. This type of learning can lead to Perestroika in the education system.
But what’s in a full Educational Perestroika? Real restructuring of the rigid administration and inflexible curriculum must be driven by an “epistemological restructuring” -- Epistemological Perestroika – that is, the reshaping of the structure of knowledge itself, and therefore, reshaping the process of acquiring, learning and teaching of that knowledge .
So, with this in mind, I’ve been thinking about two big questions: How do we make education more engaging and relevant? How do we prepare today’s children for the complexities of the future? How do we cultivate Epistemological Perestroika? We all know that the old ways of learning are dying. The problem is that the new ways are not yet scaled to match students interests and urgent needs. So my life’s mission and passion in the past 25 years has been to build platforms and engaging learning projects that scale, as constructive bridges from past to future.
Everyone understands that literacy is essential. That knowing how to read and write is the basic pathway to full participation in the world. Today, I want to share with you a new idea that can lead to Perestroika—the idea that literacy is no longer just about reading and writing text. Text—the printed word—is becoming less and less relevant. Instead, there is a new kind of literacy: I call it game media literacy. The ability to read and write videogames. To tinker the world.
Meet the members of the “ Alliance of Super Tree Stumps.” That’s what these 4 eighth-graders called their team. As an alliance, they have created this character, “Super Toaster.” It’s the main character in a videogame about Fighting Global Warming. On their Team Wiki, they posted designs for Super Toaster and his side kicks, the “Magical Trees,” who transport the clean energy that powers Super Toaster. Players gain points by helping the Magical Trees cross the road, or recycle trash, by choosing the eco-friendly car, or by saving the penguins…
In gaining fluency in computer programming and game design -- they also found their voice . Working as a team, they gave free rein to their imaginations and feelings, and got connected to concerns about their world. By the way, these young kids come from one of the poorest counties in the United States. Their experiences and new identities as game programmers, was their first lesson in the ABCs of the new literacy . It was their Epistemological Perestroika.
Games are their medium. And the radical truth is that games are becoming the world’s dominant medium. Which is why knowing how to read and write games—not just how to play them, but also how to make them—is the new literacy. Worldwide videogaming is now bigger than the music industry, bigger than DVD sales, bigger by far than movies in a movie theater, bigger than television.
Which is why I believe we must become fluent in reading and writing games, from a young age. Like text literacy, game literacy has its own genres, knowledge structures, and complexities . Mastering it, begins in the same way—by learning the alphabet of game literacy — namely, by conceptualizing, designing and coding and game programming…
The bottom line for me, as a social entrepreneur, is to bring this game literacy into schools worldwide as a vehicle for Perestroika; to bring back passion to education, and to teach kids— boys and girls everywhere—how to read and write the language of their world. If we do not, we run two terrible risks: One risk is that we will fail to nurture the new literacy to its full potential as a medium —a potential for cultivating greatness around the world, as real as the greatness achieved by all major writers of the printed word.
The second risk is that we will fail the world’s children . We will fail to enable them to reach their own full potential—both for economic stability, and also for the chance… to activate and develop their own imaginations!…. It’s simple: If you know how to program games and simulations, you can become part of a wider conversation; you can engage with others in deep learning and world’s knowledge.You can form communities that bring people together; you can mobilize for change; you can influence and inspire! If you are game-illiterate, you cannot.
And something else: Game-media formats are the new place for stories, literature, philosophy, politics, and poetry. Yes, poetry… Games are today’s form of knowledge representation, self-expression and social change. They carry the narratives of our lives. They can illustrate, simulate, advocate, argue, persuade. Games can explore even the most complex, most difficult, BIGGEST ideas.
Because games are the language young people speak today, their method of exploration and self-expression, nothing less than the new frontier of learning and human creativity. In fact, learning theorists, epistemologists, brain scientists, and cognitive psychologists have known this for years: games put brains on fire . Good Fire. And here is the good news: Kids take to game literacy like ducks to water . Let me offer 3 reasons for why:
Reason Number 1. Games are complex systems, which makes them much more fun to figure out or create, than simple things. Reason Number 2. Making games is also a chance to engage, imagine, doodle and draw—and do you know a kid who doesn’t like to doodle and draw? And Number 3. Making games responds to the way the human brains like to work—building stuff in social communities. Kids can form these communities virtually, over the internet, where they are immune to time zones and physical and economical constraints.
I know this because it is the work we do at the World Wide Workshop , where our mission is to inspire and educate the next generation of learners, as game-makers, to change the world for the better with their games. We have launched the Globaloria.org platform, to teach youth how to design and program games for social change. We demonstrate creative ways for how social networks can meet education with social responsibility. What we begin see here are the blueprints of systemic change…
As over 2000 students have been taking their first steps with Globaloria in imagining their games,designing prototypes for their games,programming games about such critical issues as health, the environment, energy, democracy and policy, or peace.
My idea is that developing game media literacy is the gateway to participation in the world our children live in. It’s a learning gateway to Educational Perestroika. We owe it to our youth to make sure they are engaged in learning and equipped to open the door —ready to imagine and create, think and tinker, and spread their games through the social networks. They must know how to participate in global digital democracy to realize their own potential, and to change our world for the better. My time is up. Thank you . You can find more information and cool games made by kids on our network on this URL…and great video documentaries with Powerful Learning Stories….
So, You Think You Can
Game? Actionable Ideas for Turning Learning into Perestroika Idit Harel Caperton President & Founder, World Wide Workshop Supernova, Wharton, PENN. July 30, 2010