Who Gets to Play?

February 1, 2010

Talk presented by Dr. Katherine McMillan Culp at Creating a Literacy Spine By Design as part of the panel "What will disrupt literacy learning/instruction as we know it?" Los Angeles, February 19, 2010

I should first introduce myself, as I'm new to this group. I am a research scientist at a group called the Center for Children & Technology, which is part of a larger, non-profit research and development organization called Education Development Center, Inc. Since the early 1980s, CCT has been a group of developmental psychologists, designers, and former teachers working to explore potential applications of technology to persistent challenges in K-12 classrooms.

I should also say, given the audience today, that I am not a literacy expert. I'm a developmental psychologist, and I've spent almost twenty years watching students and teachers use electronic media and trying to understand whether, how, and under what conditions, new media and electronic tools can support improvements in teaching and learning.

I'm going to talk a bit today about a project that was recently, and generously, funded by the Gates Foundation. We're just getting started, but we're going to be developing and building two games for the Nintendo DSi that will help struggling readers in the middle grades to cultivate some of the skills they need to read at grade level in the content areas. We expect these games to focus largely on vocabulary and on morphology.

We're going to approach this work by doing what we pretty much always try to do at CCT-looking for intersections between the persistent challenges of teaching and learning and the things that a given technology is actually good at. What are the kinds of obstacles to good teaching, like limitations of time and resources, which can be handled differently with technologies in the mix? What are the things that are particularly hard for students to learn that technology can help to deepen or enrich?

I should note that this work is building on another effort that's underway at CCT, which involves the development of games to support seventh grade science learning, and particularly using game play to help dislodge and address persistent misconceptions about difficult science concepts. The Institute for Education Sciences, at the U.S. Department of Education, funds that project, and I should also mention that our development partner in both of these projects is a game development shop called First Playable.

We have just begun this project, so unfortunately I can't show you how fun these games are going to be yet. Instead I'd like to share a little of the thinking behind this project, because I hope it will help you to think broadly about how new media and kids' own interests and social interactions might be invited in as an active part of the effort to both broaden and sharpen not only the scope of kids' vocabulary, but their ability to view words as nuanced, complex tools of expression, analysis, insight, and also humor.

To do this, I'm going to ask and answer four questions.

1. Why games?

Just to be clear, by "games" here I do not mean crosswords, word searches, or vocabulary quizzes. These kinds of activities all require kids to already know the vocabulary involved - they are rehearsals of knowledge already gained. This is the kind of activity you'll find if you search for "literacy games" on the Internet. By contrast, we are seeking to develop games that engage kids directly in the work they need to do to build conceptual knowledge.

So we are interested in games because truly mastering a language requires the experience of playing with the language. Word play allows us to experience how slippery the meanings of words can be as their context changes around them. It can help us track down the inter-relationships among families of words. And it can help us build bridges between multiple forms of expression of the same idea or experience. If you've ever played exquisite corpse, dictionary, MadLibs, or a text-based role playing game, you know what this feels like.

2. Why hand-held games?

We are going to be developing for the Nintendo DSi, a game machine that you are probably familiar with and that students are probably not allowed to bring into your schools. These are very popular right now, and were initially marketed to high school and middle school age students, but are increasingly being used by younger students as well. We are interested in the DSi because it's an interesting example of a form factor and a set of capacities that many tools can or will have. We're not so much deeply interested in the DSi in particular a we are in the broader idea of designing for portable, multi-functional, Internet-connected devices that can support students in playing alone or in terms, and across a wide variety of settings, including their homes, classrooms, the bus, a library, or a doctor's waiting room.

There's broad recognition now that schools need to not only integrate technologies into traditional classrooms, but also need to think much more broadly about how to extent instructionally relevant resources and experiences into a whole range of both formal and informal learning experiences and environments. We know that we cannot simply inform content-area teachers, for example, that they now need to add extensive vocabulary instruction into their teaching, and expect it to suddenly happen. So we need to think creatively about how to make use of the tools and practices that are already available to kids, particularly portable devices can cross boundaries - that invite kids to play in informal ways with words that they may only otherwise encounter in formal contexts. We are thinking in terms of creating what my colleague Naomi Hupert calls "chances for kids to use language that they're uncomfortable with, in a setting that they are comfortable in."

So as you think about how games might support literacy learning, think also about how a handheld device like this can move with a student, from the classroom to the bus to pretty much anywhere.

3. What kind of games?

This one, the answer is really "I don't know." I have two excuses for this-we just began this project two weeks ago, and I am not the instructional designer or the game developer on the team - I am their trusted servant, the research director.

What I can tell you is that we expect to focus in on those activities that meet three criteria:

  1. They are critical to building the content-relevant vocabulary of our target audience;
  2. They are difficult for teachers to otherwise integrate into existing instruction;
  3. They are well matched to the kinds of game mechanics that work well on the DS and that are likely to be familiar and appealing to kids.

So for example,

  1. We will stress multi-player aspects, because they encourage kids to make active use of new vocabulary in communication with their peers.
  2. We will stress the role of context in shaping the meaning of level 2 vocabulary words, because games are perfect environments for engaging kids with imaginary and magical narratives, and worlds where anything is possible;
  3. We will encourage repeated play, because it is an inherent part of game play and a necessary part of mastery vocabulary;
  4. We will stress humor, because subversion, cleverness, and snappy comebacks are fun, motivating, and something not typically associated with, say, seventh-grade science class.

4. Who gets to play?

This is really a question I want to pose to us all, although I expect I am preaching to the choir. It's important, because the people who get to play are, to a large extent, the people who get to learn. We know this, we're comfortable with this idea in early childhood education - young children need sand tables and water tables and all of the experiences that will allow them to make sense of the formal learning structures they will then encounter in school. But it's also true that older children need opportunities to play with the abstract concepts we expect them to grapple with at higher grade levels.

We know that students who come into the middle grades not able to reading with comprehension at grade level are often penalized dramatically. We take away their opportunity to engage with critical new conceptual knowledge by changing the text we give them, rather than giving them tools to prepare them for the texts - and the ideas - that they are otherwise ready for. I want to note here that these ideas are critical not only to their academic success but also to their rapidly evolving social, emotional and political relationship to the world around them.

Deanna Kuhn, the developmental psychologist, notes that the cognitive developments of early adolescence only become fully present and accessible to a student to the extent that kids have opportunities to rehearse them and translate them into explicit strategies. This need for rehearsal collides, with the onset of adolescence, with an increase in the adolescents' autonomy. That is, just when we, as educators, badly want students to immerse themselves in exercising their steadily expanding cognitive capacities, they are become increasingly free to choose whether or not to do so.

So in this project we are looking to gaming as a mechanism for bridging some persistent gaps. We want to meet teachers' needs for literacy supports that do not impose on their limited instructional time. We want to meet kids' needs for opportunities to rehearse and explore literacy strategies in a format that is fun, flexible, familiar to them, and that can be social or private according to their wishes.

Overall, we want to give more kids the chance to succeed in middle grades core content courses by providing them with ways to rehearse and play with the language they need to engage fully with the ideas and practices those courses invite them to learn - so that they can come into your classrooms as ready as they can be for the work you need to do with them. Play can be, in John Bransford's phrase, a form of preparation for learning.


Katherine Culp