Sheltons Organic Turkey

if I empty out all the unimportant stuff here, maybe there'll be more room in my head for important things

name: shelton brett
location: western u.s.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Learning, Complexity, and Simplicity (II)

See, there's this heater between our offices that lets communication pass through the vents, so I hear his Barry Manilo and he hears my Supersuckers, but the conversation normally never gets this far, which is why we must blog. Gotta blog, people. Dr. Wiley reflects on many things here, including why "learning" playing Sims 4 may be valuable, but let's just say that I stub my toe quite often and don't like it. Does that mean I've learned to stop stubbing my toe? Show me the learning.

Okay, let's start a little earlier. David writes that the order in which things happen make all the difference, in terms of "stimulus-response" vs. "probe-gather data," and that humans work in both modalities. His perspective is that we are "learning agents with goals and purposes" who are able to grab control of this experimental mechanism to meet certain circumstances. I think based on purposeful action and motivation certainly it seems that both happen, but that's where the "cyclical" part comes in. I think that where ever the cycle "begins" it doesn't really matter (tomato-tomahto), these perception-repsonse cycles happen extremely quickly. If David wants to argue that purposeful, meaningful action always begins at the "probe environment" level then that, to me, is an argument that dodges the idea of making complex connections about our world. Again, the stimulus-response mechanism is for dealing with our immediate environment, and no doubt it plays a role in our understanding of complex concepts. However, because it's a cycle, it's less useful to argue when we enter/exit that cycle but rather how what new experiences we have mesh with our previous understandings.

Dave goes on:

To stand on a soapbox I have almost broken with use, effective instructional design is a radically interdisciplinary undertaking. “Message design” is Brett’s term, not mine, but to work with it I would say that a more sophisticated understanding of message design would include considerations like the sociocultural context in which the messages are being sent / received, the mode of their communication, and the artifacts in which they may be reified.

Actually, message design is not my term at all, but one that has a long history of studying how we make meaning from our world, covering areas from semiotics and cogntive science to learning and instructional design. I think message design experts do attempt to take into account sociocultural context, and is very much an interdisciplinary pursuit. I was merely attempting to delineate what level of importance David was making in studying the "messages" being passed back and forth between learner and her environment, and the role of instructor/designer. I was arguing that the role is much larger than carefully formulating "messages" themselves, so now it feels as if he is backing off of his original idea. Or, there are two more possibilities--either I'm not getting his point or we actually agree (land-sakes! there's oil in them fields!).

So here is the crux of the conversation, I think. David then goes on to disagree with me somewhat on the value of "learning" with something like Sim City. He says that managing individual components of a game, like zoning, parks, taxes, civic infrastructure, are somewhat simple but that the complexity lies in the interactions of these components. Understanding collective patterns from these components is difficult.
Yes, the learning is definitely secondary. Should we devalue it because it is secondary? Do we look down on the amazing learning of history and culture one gains by becoming proficient in games like Civilization III? Who would you rather have for the Mayor of your town - someone with a degree in management or someone who has mastered Sim City?
Interesting how the word "secondary" made David feel as if I were writing about the value, or lack thereof, of interacting with a sophistocated system (yes, I think Sims is somewhat sophistocated). Secondary, in this case I meant "unintended" rather than "less valuable." { This is great, I'm the guy who teaches instructional simulations and games and now I have friends arguing to me about how valuable they are. It's almost like when I told Dr. Wiley that the faculty is the department. ;) }

But this is the interesting assertion that parents and scholars alike seem to conclude, and David is certainly not the only one. Do kids have "amazing learning" about history and culture from their gaming experiences? Not that I can tell from nearly all of the literature (check out DeJong and Jooligen's piece on scientific discovery learning, for example). But you say, "But I can see it! I can see the learning!" Well, show me the learning. Show me that a Sims expert makes a better mayoral candidate than a business graduate. Show me that because I can do an activity, and be successful at achieving the ends of that activity, means that I've learned something valuable, complex, important and applicable.

Was that activity a designed learned activity meant to teach me something meaningful? Great! Still, prove to me I learned. Well, you say, I can do that any number of ways, most of which include an assessment exercise. Okay, I'll buy that. But now prove to me that I learned something meaningful from a game, designed to be a game. Oh, but that's not what you mean, this "other" learning from my activity is also valuable, things like social skills or confidence. Well that's okay too, I'm just saying that let's say what those games are good for, and stop assuming that anyone who runs a Sims town is ready for public office.

But wait, let's assume that David's right, and that kids learn about culture and history from Civilization III. It's then my assertion that they learned these things from game-based activities that were closely aligned with learning objectives teaching culture and history. Could these learning objectives be implicit rather than explicit? Highly possible. Did it feel like a learning objective was being met during game play? Probably not. But I would argue that it was there, even if it was integrated seemlessly into game-like features of the player's activity. And really, that's my whole argument for intructional game design. If it's designed properly, then perhaps the gamer learns while playing, and the learning doesn't take away from the motivational elements within the game that makes so much educational software disengaging.

David writes:

We might rightly argue that all meaningful learning always is secondary - it is not learning for the sake of learning, or for the sake of a grade, it is learning in the service of accomplishing some goal which helps an agent meet some purpose of their own.
Well I think that is what we strive for in education, isn't it? Making learning meaningful to people? I can't tell if David's being cynical, or indicting our school system, but to me "secondary" learning is not unvaluable learning, but rather learning besides what the instructor/designer intended. I'm in favor of designing valuble learning, and I'm pretty sure David is too. So let's design for intended learning objectives, shall we?

Show me a game that you argue has valuable "secondary" learning in it for implementing in schools, and I'll show you an entire curriculum of Space Invaders and a group of graduates that can't tie their own shoes.