[Edu-sig] re: Education Arcade

Jim Harrison jhrsn at pitt.edu
Sat Dec 13 16:14:38 EST 2003

on 12/13/03 2:57 PM, Arthur at ajsiegel at optonline.net wrote:

> Learning is about demystification.  I would probably not go as far as the
> Waldorf folks and deny kids a great magic show.  But that's precisely what a
> good video game is. In some sense it is the opposite of a learning
> experience.  
> And the power relationship is perverse.  The machine has the power, the
> developer has the power. The kid is a shmuck. Exactly the wrong lesson.

In the early stages of learning, kids are expected to take a great deal on
faith about the way in which the world and society works, and we typically
start the demystification process with relatively easy, middle of the road
examples with a lot of unstated assumptions. That's true for any kind of
instruction with any kind of instructional material. Explorations of the
difficult boundary conditions and underlying assumptions are left until
later, both in the sciences and the humanities. So a lot remains
un-demystified for a long time in traditional instruction.

For example, elementary physics typically includes macroscopic solid body
problems, not quantum mechanics. There are a lot of assumptions inherent in
those problems that ultimately need demystification, but initially we
concentrate on the most obvious issues and work toward the others
incrementally over a significant period of time.

Instructors often illustrate physics problems with a small physical
apparatus that represents what happens in the wider world, and kids watch.
It would be substantially beneficial if the kids each had their own
apparatus for experimentation, but that's usually not possible.

In the absence of that, I don't see the harm (and do see benefit) in
providing kids with a video simulator of the same problem that provides
responses that appear to be identical to those occurring with the physical
apparatus, and that allows experimentation. I don't believe the kids have
any problem isolating the display from the non-demystified computer behind
it and understanding that within the confines of the simulation the actions
they see represent real-world responses. As an aside, the greater problem is
going the other way--convincing them fully that what they see in some cases
does not represent the real world.

Similarly, I have no problem with starting kids learning
computing/programming in a GUI (a form of simulator) to allow them to
acquire a basic skill set rapidly under reinforcing conditions, then
progressing from there to the command line ('cd is just like opening a
folder'). I've seen this work fine.

And I don't buy the machine:power/kid:schmuck scenario. When kids can
manipulate a simulation to produce a result, they feel empowered. If the
result doesn't honor the parameters of the simulation, the kids immediately
label the developer/machine "lame" -- not themselves.

Jim Harrison
Univ. of Pittsburgh

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