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Belief Gap

Gamifying education and making it personal: Is it a fact or a fad?

Just when I mastered Minecraft and developed something of an addiction to it my boys moved on to Fortnite.

Damn. I’m too old for this nonsense.

I’ve made lazy attempts to learn the ins and outs of the new game, but there is a whole universe of rules, prizes, and strategies to master just to get into the gameplay. Who has time for all that?

A good dad would realize how important it is to keep pace with his sons by sharing their interests, which today includes ranking well in Battle Royale.

I’m mediocre by that criterion (but trying).

Watching them makes me say over and over “if only we could find a way to make Fortnite (and whatever comes next) the primary way we teach content our kids would all be heading for Harvard.”

Which reminds me of Mr. Pai, the teacher I met in White Bear Lake, Minnesota who had successfully gamified his classroom and boosted the achievement of his students.

Mr. Pai came to my attention by a friend who was actively steering black boys into his classroom because his success with them was besting his colleagues. In fact, the district was failing miserably with students of color and the mostly white district was out of answers for how to turn it around – but Mr. Pai was proving their potential.

His colleagues hated him for it because his students developed high expectations for how engaging teaching should be. That was a problem for teachers following Mr. Pai who, like me, weren’t exactly ready to learn a whole new game.

In his class, the district-issued textbooks sat unwrapped on the shelves. Instead, he had crafted his own learning sequences and a series of tech stations to keep each student challenged and progressing.

There were math, reading, and science games on Gameboy handhelds, desktop computers, and laptops that his students eagerly jumped on and off of as if they were in an arcade.

And that thing about competition being bad for education didn’t hold true because the students were so enthralled with scoring as well as their peers on the math-based games that they would keep playing from home at night, on weekends, and during holiday breaks.

It was all magic to me. Why wasn’t this around when I was bored as hell in school?

The educator and fellow blogger who visited Mr. Pai’s class with me were less enamored, and they raised pedagogical questions that were over my head, which made me uneasy about my enthusiasm, but at the same time, I’ve kept the faith.

I know enough to be appropriately cynical about anything in education that looks or sounds too good to be true, but watching my kids learn complex concepts by accessing YouTube and playing Xbox games makes it obvious to me that personalized learning and technology are keys to making learning relevant for modern students.

Others with better credentials than mine seem to agree.

Call it confirmation bias if you will, but it’s why I seize on opinion pieces like this one by Sean Oaks writing in Crain’s New York:

When ed tech software gamifies learning by offering students levels to conquer, points to accumulate, and badges to earn in pursuit of a goal, it gives students more opportunities to engage and delight in their education. Students report that they enjoy the learning process more when activities allow them to take an active role and engage directly with material. Higher engagement rates also make students more persistent when they encounter setbacks—helping them to develop grit. Simply put, students work better and harder when they feel like an active participant in the classroom.

But ed tech wasn’t first to figure this out—teachers were. Both project-driven learning and student-centered learning give students more autonomy in the classroom, allowing them to drive discussions, pursue their interests, and set meaningful goals. When teachers combine personalized instruction with incentive-driven in-class projects, they tend to see benefits like improved student motivation and better learning retention, too. Some research even suggests that teachers who prioritize goal-setting also experience fewer disciplinary problems, simply because their students are more engaged.

Better learning. More engagement. Fewer problems with discipline. Why wouldn’t that be compelling?

Well, there are valid cautions.

Not everything people call personalized learning is actually personalized learning. Education tech enthusiasts seeking brave new roads to the future may be guilty of overheated claims of success. And, of course, as can be said with any novel idea, there is much about personalized learning that can be lost during implementation (as I’ve said before, school districts are often hospice for good ideas).

Still, my position is “who are you going to believe, the negative research or your lying eyes”?

Beside’s Mr. Pai’s classroom, I saw firsthand how student-centered learning pushes young people to find their pace and rhythm in school on a visit to Summit Sierra school in Seattle, WA. Students there were able to show me their personal learning plans with easy-to-understand displays showing their progress toward academic goals they set for themselves (with help from educators and parents).

That in mind, for now, I’m a believer. As I see it, research and experience support me more than it doesn’t.

Here’s more on gamification in education:

Here’s more on the research on personalized learning:

So, what do you think: is personalized learning and gamification a fact or fad?

Let me know on Twitter @citizenstewart.

Pursuing the power of self-sovereignty and personalized learning to create secure citizens and abundant communities. #TheOppositeOfSchool #AllPowerToThePupil

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  1. pdexiii

    July 15, 2018 at 5:59 am

    Fad, fad, fad, fad, fad.
    I’m reading currently ‘How I Wish I Taught Maths’ by Craig Barton, a book EVERY. SINGLE. MATH. TEACHER. should read. His approach for successful math instruction is not only sensible and aligned with my experiences, but supported Cognitive Psychology research. Personalized Learning and Gamifying minimize the role of teacher instruction, which for struggling-novice learners is proven to be disastrous. While the charts presented here are colorful and appealing, even the PL authors admit there must be more rigorous studies to measure effectiveness.
    This may sound cynical, but so many of these instructional approaches seem to make a teacher’s day-to-day job easier; explicit instruction, regular and frequent assessment, careful planning of instructional activities and student practice is time-consuming and exacting, but are aligned with how humans learn. PL and Gamifying are too much ‘plug-and-play’: plug the child in, sit back, and “Voila!” they learn. For high-knowledge students that may work; most of our students aren’t yet still need explicit, teacher-created and led instruction.

    • Blog Master

      July 17, 2018 at 1:48 am

      Still, I believe 😉

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Belief Gap

Teachers see black children as angry when they aren’t

Black children aren't angry

From right to left, the story for why black children aren’t reaching their potential lives within the child. Or, their family. Their culutre. Their community.

If only they had two parents, better jobs, more time to read at home. It wouldn’t hurt if they had middle-class social benefits. Put those things together and there wouldn’t be a racialized gap in student achievement.

Ok. I won’t argue there. But lets set aside the condition of the child for a moment and consider this new study that finds teachers are less likely to accurately read the facial expression of black students. This only adds to the research I won’t stop talking about that shows black children are seen as less innocent, less capable, and older than they actually are.

When we talk about inequities in education, why don’t we talk about these things?

Eventually, we have to ask the question: “regardless of the condition of the child, aren’t their too many problems in the system that need fixing before blaming children for their own maltreatment?”

Read this from the study:

Prospective teachers are more likely to perceive Black than White elementary and middle-school students as angry, even when they’re not, according to new research published in Emotion. The findings suggest that Black children face a racialized anger bias in school.

“We know a lot about emotion and emotion expression, and we wanted to use our skills toward a question that really mattered and specifically, mattered for social justice,” said study author Shevaun D. Neupert, a professor at North Carolina State University and director of The Daily Well Being in Adulthood Lab.

For the study, 178 prospective teachers from three training programs in the Southeast were shown 72 short video clips of child actors’ facial expressions, and were asked to identify the emotion being displayed. The video clips included both Black and White students and male and female students.

“We hired child actors to display six different emotions and we had professionals who could make all six facial expressions on demand to work with the children until they were able to do so,” Neupert explained. “Then we took short video clips and we made sure that each expression was showing the desired emotion and only that emotion.”

Those emotions included happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise or disgust.

Overall, the researchers found that teachers were more accurate at identifying the facial expressions of girls than boys. The teachers’ emotional evaluations also tended to be more accurate for White girls than Black girls, while being more accurate for Black boys than for White boys.

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Belief Gap

We’re in trouble when a $4 sandwich matters more than a Black life

We know something has gone terribly wrong in our world when a $4 sandwich is worth more than a black life.

On April 23, 2009 scientists observed a gamma ray burst for 10 seconds which is “the most distant object of any kind and also the oldest known object in the universe.”

But let’s get to the important stuff. On that same day there was a near riot at Minnesota’s one Popeye’s Chicken franchise. The company had advertised an 8-piece meal for $4.99, but the local store was not honoring the deal. Cars backed up in the drive-thru, customers became angry inside the restaurant, and the police were called to stop a melee.

The great chicken riot of Minneapolis made the news.

See here:

A local reporter talking about the hubbub said “I haven’t seen people this passionate about something in a very long time.”

I made fun of this incident for years. Mostly because it conflicted with a truism I hear in community meetings all the time about how we aren’t showing up for school meetings or city planning meetings or policy debates because we’re busy working two jobs.

Yet, Popeye’s.

Marketing folks seem to generate a ton of passion in our communities when a dollar is involved. In this case chicken skirmishes have become such a mainstay that it’s created a genre of YouTube videos.

Enough to have videos titled “The Best of Popeye’s Chicken Sandwich Fights.”

The “best of,” really?

For a while I’ve thought these fights were funny. Seriously funny. Like Friday or Next Friday funny. Like Pootie Tang or Booty Call or Madea funny.

Lowbrow, but funny. I grew up on Popeye’s chicken. Loved it as a fat kid in New Orleans does. It took a long time (and some health concerns) to figure out it ain’t food as much as suicide.

Today, what was funny has turned serious. It popped up in my feed that a 28-year-old (the same age as my oldest son) was stabbed to death over a damn Popeye’s chicken sandwich.

Stabbed. To. Death.

Stories like this always make me think about how a person gets to the point in their life where they explode with anger over something trivial and then commit an act that irreversibly ruins their life and the lives of others.

What happened when that person was a teenager, a middle-schooler, or a baby?

There must be a story there. A traumatic one.

I can only imagine.

My guess is that when a child receives endless messages telling him he has little value, he comes to believe it. When he is told that his mind is immaterial, he either responds with anger because he knows it isn’t true (and that it is massive injustice to say it is), or he absorbs the critique and lives it out.

When he’s told he can’t read, he doesn’t. When he’s told he isn’t beautiful, he hates beauty. When he’s told injustice is equity and crooked is straight, as our society so often does to the people it wants to gaslight into a life of subservience, he becomes a violent truth that pays us back for our mannered delusions.

Our children know when the world has pushed them into an unjust corner. They are smart even when the tests they take in school doubt it.

Even as those of us in education activism harp on the idea that our kids aren’t learning, the truth is they are learning every day, but they are learning from our absenteeism and negligence and dedication to mass-consumerism rather than our values and love.

It doesn’t let us of the hook. Chicken fights, social absurdities, and moral laxity are explainable by our history and social conditions, and by our lack of access to the precursors to healthy development (such as home resources, healthcare, and education), but we are not the revolutionaries we think we are if we aren’t calling out and defeating the self-destructive behaviors endemic to our communities.

Every child is born with unsurpassable worth afforded to them by a mighty God. We fall short of our faith if we allow friends, families, or the broader society to rob our kids of that worth.

If they’re ever in a Popeye’s Chicken injuring others over a heart-attack, hypertension, and diabetes inducing sandwich, the trail of their tears leads back to us.

How are the children?

ACT NOW: What does this blog post mean? I could just be me making sense of the needless suffering in our world. It may not be profound. Yet, if forced to think of an action to take that would make this post more than a meaningless buffet of words, I’d ask you to…

commit to a course of action today that changes our culture of neglect of children. Affirm every child you come into contact with by telling them “you are so amazing, I know you are going to do great things in life” – or something like that.

Or, donate to groups who prepare and inform new leaders or educators in communities that need both (here, here, here, here).

Or, as always, pray (here).

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Belief Gap

A short note about Kamala Harris’s integration opportunism

No one should discount the possibility that a little black girl or boy might succeed in life without bathing in whiteness.

Earlier this summer Kamala Harris and Joe Biden had a terse exchange about integration and public school busing.

An article in The Atlantic described it this way:

There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day,” Harris told the former vice president, her voice quaking. “That little girl was me.” It was the defining line of the debate, inspiring the creation of a T-shirt Harris’s campaign is now selling for $29.99. The point Harris was highlighting was clear: When busing would have mattered most as a method of desegregating schools, in the 1970s, Biden didn’t enthusiastically support it.

Powerful stuff.

We love a good come-up story, especially when it invokes the morally superior virtues that define a beloved community.

I can almost feel the warmth of Harris’ torch for the power of white acceptance, and the disdain for Biden’s blue dog resistance.

And, I could tell you a very different story (that won’t sell T-shirts) about a little black boy who was once bussed three hours a day, away from neighborhood friends and familiar surroundings, to a white school in the hills where moneyed white students and their teachers dislike school busses and students invading “their” school.

That little boy was me.

I turned out ok. Even grew up to have children, who are multiracial like Harris, proving I ardently support integration.

But, I am here to constantly challenge the incessant and dangerous romantization of simple integration stories. While most people called the Harris/Biden tussle in favor of Harris, I still call her rehearsed passion play phony baloney.

Which is why I appreciate this Washington Post article that goes a long way to add context to the oversimplified “I was bussed therefore I am” claptrap that intoxicates the best of audiences.

Especially this part…

Kamala Harris wanted to go to a black school. That’s what black folks called Howard University in the early 1980s when Harris was a teenager considering her future.

Harris, she would say later, was seeking an experience wholly different from what she had long known. She’d attended majority-white schools her entire life — from elementary school in Berkeley, Calif., to high school in Montreal. Her parents’ professional lives and their personal story were bound up in majority-white institutions. Her father, an economist from Jamaica, was teaching at Stanford University. Her mother, a cancer researcher from India, had done her graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley, where the couple had met and fallen in love. And Harris’s younger sister would eventually enroll at Stanford.

Harris wanted to be surrounded by black students, black culture and black traditions at the crown jewel of historically black colleges and universities.

In this we see something curious, but not uncommon, which is how sending children of color off to majority white schools can cause dissonance in the face of microagressions and culture stripping.

Maybe Harris wouldn’t admit that, but she wouldn’t be the first to see an HBCU as cultural finishing school for proper black people.

Indeed, the stories of black integrationists who are celebrated by white media are often punctuated by the fact that they only discovered their blackness in college and now they overemphasize it as the false currency they use in minstrel fashion to Afrocentricize white progressive ideals.

I name no names. I just admit what I’ve seen.

No one should discount the possibility that a little black girl or boy might succeed in life without bathing in whiteness.

Maybe a bus saved Harris, the daughter of privileged middle-class professionals.

Or, maybe, it’s just a good story to gather votes from an electorate that loves simplicity.

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