Monday, March 21, 2011

Games and Television as Professional Development

Earlier today I watched a student-created video that Michael Wesch tweeted and I think it is very instructive. The explicit message is about advertising and mobile technology but there are other lessons to be learned from the video. One hidden message for teachers who watch that video is this: teachers need to learn more from marketers and game designers.

Learning from Marketers

In the video, one fact jumps off the screen: 90% of students remembered advertising campaign slogans such as "Yo Quiero Taco Bell" and "Just Do It" but only 40% remembered that July 4th, 1776 was the date the United States declared independence. In the context of the video, this is meant to frighten us about the power of marketing and while I understand that sentiment, I think there is a much greater lesson to be learned. The lesson is that someone figured out how to get 90% of people to remember something. How did they do this?

Professional educators only succeed in the same task 40% of the time with much better material. Don't get me wrong, I love tacos as much as the next guy but the awe-inspiring, soul nourishing message of freedom and self-advocacy in America's colonial past should make a much deeper impression on our brains than a celebrity spokesdog. It should, but it doesn't. Why?

Here is my back of the napkin answer to this question.

1. Marketing campaigns stick in our long-term memory because of repetition. They are short, dynamic presentations that are played over and over on TV, radio and in print. We remember them partially because the message is repeated over and over again. If you read my earlier post, you'll know that I firmly believe repetition is the mother of learning.
The lesson for educators: Don't expect people to remember things you mention once in the middle of a 45 minute long class, or do once a week or apply once a year during their education. Say it multiple times. Have them do it multiple times. Have them apply it multiple times. Repetition is the mother of learning. Repetition is the mother of learning.

2. Marketing campaigns understand the power of narrative. From commercial to commercial in the series, we follow this cute little dog on his quest to get what he wants. What he wants happens to be Taco Bell, but if marketers can make us root for him, teachers should be able to make us root for the Founding Fathers in their quest. The stakes were a lot higher, there was more drama, their story is our story and it really happened.
The lesson for educators: Whatever you are teaching already has a narrative. It is already amazing, you just need to discover why and then be a conduit for the discovery.

3. The commercials were funny. Okay, maybe I didn't personally laugh out loud but a cute little talking dog just brightens your day. It is entertaining. If it wasn't entertaining on some level we wouldn't remember it. When is the last time someone laughed learning long division?
The lesson for educators: Standing in front of people and talking in and of itself isn't boring; look at stand-up comedy. Lecture works when it is entertaining and funny.

Learning from Game Designers

The decrease in our national attention span is a myth. Teachers will point to the fact that in 1970-something, kids could sit still for 45 minutes taking notes quietly while a teacher lectured. Today they can't. That may not even be true, but let's just accept that it is for now. This does not prove that our attention span is shrinking, it proves that we are more bored by lectures than we used to be. Kids have amazingly long attention spans for things that they like. In fact, kids can sit in the same place, staring at the same video game for so long that parents and lawmakers around the world are frantically trying to get them to stop. Gaming is the new addiction for kids.

So they can't sit still for 45 minutes of lecture and note taking, but they can sit still for entire weekends playing games. Why?

Here is my back of the napkin answer to
that question.

1. Games are more interactive. Gamers are doing, controlling, making decisions, having a big impact on their own stimuli. People's brains interact with the spoken word a lot more than we think they do, but it doesn't compare to the interaction of playing a game. The constant feedback loop from the problem solving, trial and error and incremental progress is mesmerizing.
The lesson for educators: Get the students "doing" as quickly as possible. Let them make mitsakes mistakes through trail trial and error, then give feedback as they make progress.

2. Games are a multi-sensory experience. Have you ever seen the panoramic screen shots or the terrifying characters from God of War? They are visually stunning. The music is as good as anything you will hear from Hollywood, and the sound of metal crashing into rock, of water lapping at the shore or of monsters growling all add to the sensory experience.
The lesson for educators: instead of beginning your class with a lecture-style intro of a topic, maybe try an introductory video. If you can get to the computer lab, maybe intro with a game that teaches the principles.

If I thought about it more, I might reword these or add to them or erase them completely. Can you see anything I missed or got totally wrong? I'd love to know your thoughts.


  1. Learning from Game Designers : I love your comments to this. We really need to take notice of our students interest in games. I think what it really comes down to is the challenge and problem solving that the game provides in an energized environment. So I think we as teachers need to project energy and give our students problems that challenge them.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Beth! I think the trick with challenging students is that with a class full of kids with different abilities, it can be hard to find that balance between too easy and too hard. When we find it, it is like riding a wave though, right?

  3. There is no doubt that games are helpful for child brain development, and improve their knowledge/learning skills. We should try to get the online Top 100 Free Games for the kids to play and enjoy their leisure time in a better way.