Should classrooms incorporate more of what kids like, including gaming and video games? (AJC File)

Should classrooms incorporate more of what kids like, including gaming and video games? (AJC File)

Rick Diguette is a writer and instructor at a local college. He’s also a frequent contributor to the AJC Get Schooled blog.

In this essay about the new pushes and pitches to make college classrooms more student-friendly, he mentions the zeal to add technology and video game mechanics to the classroom. I get weekly emails from video gaming experts on how to apply the technology of Mario Kart 8 and Minecraft to the classroom.

It’s interesting to note the change in the big picture education discussions. While a few years ago, the focus was simply how to get students to learn, it’s shifted to educators themselves learning how to entice kids to learn. That approach — turning learning into something more akin to fun or at least  delivering in a format that kids associate with fun — is debate worthy.

I’ve been struck by the surge in parent essays on how school is wearing out kids and making them anxious. (I have my own ideas about why kids are so anxious and it has more to do with travel soccer clubs, competitive cheer and parental dreams of future Olympians or at least D-1 college athletes.)

An essay making the rounds right now is by a mother who describes students coming off her child’s school bus as exhausted. School, she says, is no longer fun. I would argue school and college were never designed to be fun. And the demand that school be so reflects a new phenomenon. I would love my kids to have more fun in school, but there’s no evidence a fun school is an effective school. In fact, I’ve found the classes where they had the most fun were the ones where they learned the least.

I go back to a comment from a leading mathematician about the efforts to make math more fun: “I never really found it fun. I was always nervous when I had a test because I knew it would not be easy. Math is hard; it’s hard for the teachers and it’s hard for the kids.”

With that background, here is the essay:

By Rick Diguette

These days full-color emails arrive two or three times a week alerting me to yet another conference dedicated to student success.  It might be virtual, meaning I can attend the conference without ever leaving the book-lined comforts of my office, or I can travel to places like Hawaii and San Diego where the offshore breezes will no doubt fan the flames of pedagogy into a veritable bonfire.

No matter the locale, success is typically related in one way or another to technology, today’s Rosetta Stone of learning. Adding mobile devices and apps to the classroom mix began to get a lot of play a few years ago.  Some of the apps, like Evernote, are both useful and ingenious. Others, like Photomath, take cheating to a whole new solar system.

Now the next big thing is gamification, or bringing video game mechanics to bear in the classroom. As always, enhanced student engagement is the promised payoff.

Although I attend at least one conference every year and present a paper or participate in a panel discussion, the latest next big thing tells me my days in the classroom are numbered in the single digits. Right or wrong I associate video games with children, even though I know some adults are well on their way to becoming lifelong gamers. What I want to do is encourage the young people in my classrooms to become lifelong learners. And based on some of the unsolicited testimony I’ve received over the years from former students, I’ve succeeded.

Student success in higher education can be defined in a variety of different ways, but the prevailing meme dictates that a college education must be, above all else, utilitarian.  If what students learn doesn’t translate into lucrative employment, then they and/or their parents have not enjoyed a sufficiently robust return on their investment.  Which means I have been very mistaken about my role in higher education. Whereas before I thought of myself as a kind of catalyst in the classroom, it would appear that I’m really nothing more than a job trainer.  Just when the business world decided it didn’t do job training is a question I can’t answer, but then I teach English.

As far as student success goes I hold fast to a few ideas, threadbare though they may be, and will share them as all professors in their dotage are wont to do.

First, students can expect to succeed if they attend class and open their minds to the information provided there.  It is not enough to show up and only appear to be present. The mind must be summoned into action, and students are in charge of their brains.

Students will also succeed if they’re willing to let their professors know they are confused about something that may or may not end up on the next test. Why so many students feel compelled to keep this a closely guarded secret is really no secret at all.  They have told me, and I believe them, that they don’t ask questions because they fear others will think them stupid.  Which of course is a really stupid reason for not asking questions.

Another good practice involves purchasing or renting the textbook, opening it as needed, and bringing it to class.  This is true whether the textbook is a rather cumbersome byproduct of actual trees or a one dimensional, fully transportable, functionally enhanced eBook.  Of course, a textbook is only any good if they actually read it, which brings me to my final retrograde point regarding students and academic success.

Reading proficiency is a fundamental key to academic success, and it takes practice. Intensive reading, which is what college students are most often called upon to do, also requires a high degree of concentration.  This can’t be accomplished while doing other things like monitoring a cell phone, surfing the Internet, or listening to music.  The brain really can’t multi-task when it comes to complex mental activities.  Instead it attends to each task separately, switching back and forth.  This may be fine when the level of complexity is fairly low, but it won’t work if students have been assigned to read David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding or a chapter in their calculus textbook.

Notices about the next “next big thing” are sure to begin arriving in my mailbox any day now, or at least once gamification turns out to be just a game dressed up as something else.  Until then if you come looking for me and my office is dark, that will probably mean I’m out in San Diego letting those offshore breezes wash over me and my margarita.  Being an English professor isn’t all that easy, but someone’s got to do it.

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