Friday, December 11, 2009

On Baking Pies and Raiding Dungeons

My son has been having trouble with fractions.

He's eight-years-old, a twin, in third grade, obsessed with D&D and 'Diary of a Wimpy Kid'.

And he hates fractions.

So last night, he and my wife baked a pumpkin pie.

You can see where this is going.

This morning, he took the pie to school to demonstrate a practical application of fractions to the class. I don't know if he snuck the whipped cream into his bookbag.

A couple weeks back he was really interested in pendulums. So we made one out of a string and a teacup. Again, he took it to school and showed the kids what he'd made.

He's good at making stuff.

And he understands math when it means something more than words and numbers on a page.

I've been thinking about this all morning. And I've been thinking about how well (or how poorly) we manage to let kids 'make stuff' to demonstrate their understanding once they are in high school. I'm particularly wondering if we really understand today what it is that kids are 'making'.

My Latin I students are reviewing for the midterm today. Lots of memorization and plugging away at vocab and grammar. And that just comes with the territory; you can't learn a foreign language if you don't nail down the basics. But just a couple weeks back, the same kids researched, wrote, directed, and acted in a play of their own design on the life of Julius Caesar. And I can safely say that while after a semester of daily classes I have a safe guestimate of how each student will do on the rote midterm stuff, I had little idea of where they would go or how individually they might shine on the performance assessment.

Turns out, one of the shyest kids in the group absolutely killed on stage -- a total natural.

Yet without that performance assessment, I'd never had guessed.

Veteran teachers know all about this. I've talked with teachers of 35+ years experience who marvel at how the quiet kid (or the 'troublemaker', for that matter) was found out to have hidden talents through performance assessment.

We know this stuff works. And we know that the opportunity to perform can then motivate the kid to engage more deeply in the traditional modes of work often necessary for success -- especially in the case of subjects like foreign language and math.

So, it's with a certain dismay that I pick up teacher hostilities towards gaming.

Yes, I realize that last sentence might seem like it's coming out of left field; allow me to explain.

I had a student in my class last year who by all standards would have been considered 'average'. He got 'average' grades in most classes and he produced 'average' results on exams. He did have two qualities, however, that often suggested that something was going on with this kid that was entirely 'not-average'.

First of all was his imagination. I've never had a student who so regularly asked questions that seemed so completely out-of-the-blue, and yet seemed to get at some of the big issues in relatively accessible ways. I'm not talking simple daydreamy teenaged stuff; I'm talking really really far out stuff on what seemed at the time like the most random topics -- from economics to war to social relations.

Second was his complete lack of interest in all things extra-curricular. No school play, no sports, no clubs, no nothing. Just this kid with an extraordinary imagination who wanted to rush out of this joint as soon as 2:45PM hit.

Later I came to understand how all of this fit together.

Turns out the kid was working a level-80 character on World of Warcraft. Led his own guild; mastered dungeon raids; and in an act of gaming obsessiveness I can't begin to fathom, pushed his character through the final 15 levels in two week's time over Winter Break (this is a task that takes even hardened gamers months to accomplish).

When I told another teacher about all of this, the reply was: "Well no wonder he had lousy grades".

I think that's exactly the wrong way to look at this.

Consider, if the kid had been captain of the football team. Or captain of the chess team. Or lead in the spring musical.

Only the most cynical of teachers would have said such a thing about him.

But because he spent countless hours gaming, he was just a lousy student.

I contend that the fact that we had such a monster gamer in our midst and neither recognized nor reached out to him to help him bring those talents into focus with our goals in education is actually an indictment of our role as educators.

In fact, he wound up leaving this place thinking that gaming was the source of his mediocre academic record. How cruel!

The fact of the matter was that he didn't need statistics class to teach him numbers. He didn't need psychology class to teach him human behavior. He didn't need literature class to teach him how to analyse.

The game taught him all of those things. In spades.

Here was a kid leading other real human beings (only in avatar form) into battle and through dangerous and complex quests. This was a kid who had mastered a complex system of auction houses and was making in-game gold by the pound. This was a kid who could tell each person individually in his 25 man group what kind of armor to bring to a specific battle based on intelligence of the comparison of fighting classes across a spectrum of character types, classes, and races -- each with its own particular and peculiar modifiers.

And yet, on paper he was a 'C' student.

I think we failed that kid.

Because he was anything but average.

And that brings me back to the baking of a pie.

Early on as young teachers, we learn that kids learn best if they can manipulate things (whether physically or metaphorically) and if what they are learning motivates them to learn more.

The baking of a pie, for example, can produce two great effects: understanding of fractions and love of baking.

Yet, when it comes to gaming, this correspondence so often appears to be beyond the grasp of a teacher. And while it may be understandable that someone may have a knee-jerk reaction against the violence depicted in many games; that does little to dispel the fact that it's often the kids who are masters at such games who are also masters of logic, strategy, and cunning on par or greater than any of your best athletes.

In the end, I guess I'd like to see more kids baking pies and more teachers levelling up and going on dungeon raids. Because there are all sorts of performance assessments; and serious gaming may offer some of the greatest clues into the real creativity, task determination, and intellectual aptitude of a given child.

At the very least, understand that if you see gaming in competition with -- rather than as a potential complement to -- your teaching, then you are going to miss those kids every time.

Game on.


  1. What a great perspective to have. If we (teachers, parents, administrators) just step back and learn more about our students as people, we would see their strengths. If we took time to learn what skills are used in gaming, skateboarding, running, etc. we might find that many of them are transferable skills, especially in math and science. We, as adult professionsals, need to be slower to judge and quicker to accept and even embrace the activities that students love. We will become better educators as we use more creativity.

  2. Great Post!!! Have your read any of Brock Dubbels (@brockdubbels on Twitter) materials? He's a Minneapolis elementary teacher using gaming in his classroom. He would be a good resource for collaboration.

  3. Wonderfully done!

    Can you imagine what an amazing project he could create in a high-school economics class using the idea of auction houses?

    Or how about the correlation of preparation for raid (the research, knowledge and know-how) and preparation for a big test/paper (research, knowledge and know-how)?

    There's a thin line between gaming and education, but the teachers that can walk it are reaching our "future" students in a very real way.

  4. Awesome! I have seen the same scenario described above with the World of Warcraft-playing student many times in my 10+ years in education. In fact, it's these very sorts of things that inspired me to start the WoWinSchool project:

    It has now become a collaborative effort and the community that's emerging around it is even writing full-fledged lessons that use World of Warcraft.

    My after school program is now underway, and we have about 15 at-risk 7th and 8th graders participating. It's a fascinating thing to watch! I've shared some observations already at

    -Lucas Gillispie

  5. I did my final thesis in graduate school at Teacher's College about Warcraft. There is NO doubt that the skills- and the enormous amount of time- spent achieving within Warcraft are potentially valuable.

    However, here's my issue with this.

    The REASON why people forgive the captain of the football team or the lead in a school play is that these skills have relatively specific real-world and cultural benefits (as evidenced by the fact that athletes and actors are the professions that are arguably MOST valued in American culture). Warcraft is... not.

    The educators who talk about nebulous "system knowledge" or "leadership skills" when explaining why leading a guild is actually useful need to stop and think about the CULTURAL value of the entire MMORPG enterprise. There is no monetary reward, but more importantly, the cultural rewards are ENTIRELY in-group. Only another warcraft player can recognize how much skill and effort it takes to earn epic shoulder pads, or prestige with a certain clan, whereas the very NATURE of sports and acting is that they are entirely populist: they have audiences, for god's sakes. Those hobbies win you real-world points. They get you noticed. They get you laid. This matters.

    Educators should be very careful about blindly advertising games like Warcraft as educational or skill-building. The skills that are built in-game are virtually never transferable to the real world, and are almost never appreciated by anyone else, which often makes them, in very real terms, culturally useless.


  6. I'm one of the core world-builders of the White Wolf Game, EXALTED. I'm a strong believer in the power of games and world design in role-playing games to be teaching environments; indeed, I incorporated aspects of ancient China, and my reading of Icelandic sagas and Indian mythology, and classical history, into everything I wrote.

    Underlying all of that was a thorough grounding in Art History and History. I wouldn't have been interested in the stories without the objects; I wouldn't have been interested in the objects without the stories; I wouldn't have been interested in the objects or the stories without knowing the interrelationships between them.

    I was in a D&D club that was part of the talented and gifted program at my school around 1980. Then it got banned from school (someone complained, I have no doubt), and we went underground. Instead of it being fodder for the "talented & gifted" kids it became an outsider haven for the allegedly-talentless, and the allegedly-lowlife, and the confirmédly-geeky. It's telling where we went from there — one drifting from a shiftless suburban punk scene to New York and (I think) into a nigh-criminal underworld, and one into a high profile NCO spot with the Coast Guard, and one to a moderately important job with a bank. Then there's me: freelance world-designer for roleplaying games, school teacher, and philosopher.

    All things considered, we didn't turn out better or worse than the kids in the talented & gifted program, but our teachers certainly looked at us as likely future failures because of our interests in gaming.

  7. Interesting insight. If you're interested in understanding online gaming from a sociology point of view check out Play Between Worlds by TL Taylor. Also check out for online games with a more specific focus.

  8. I find this argument fascinating basically because I completely agree with you, and as an educational consultant cone across very few other professionals who do. As we go forward in the movement of incorporating advanced technology for teaching, I feel it behooves us to build bridges between the ways our students are using technologies outside the classroom and applications for those skills both inside the classroom & workplace. I do NOT think we can allow the buck to stop with "video games are culturally irrelevant". We are the teachers. No one is going to do our job for us, and making excuses for not making our students lives relevant is something we have been trying to do since the 1960's. However, that transference has to be both practical & provable. And that means ultimately that students will have to show it on paper, just like in college and in professional exams such as the CSET, LSAT, GRE and so on.

  9. I am the partner school in the WoW in School Project and I can say from first hand experience that the students participating are not only learning the social dynamics that have previously escaped their grasp - but we are constantly referencing curriculum connections while playing....You said it all when you said, "In the end, I guess I'd like to see more kids baking pies and more teachers leveling up and going on dungeon raids. Because there are all sorts of performance assessments; and serious gaming may offer some of the greatest clues into the real creativity, task determination, and intellectual aptitude of a given child." May I extend to your readers an invitation to join teachers who are doing just that: The Cognitive Dissonance Guild in World of Warcraft, Alliance, Sisters of Elune server. For more info about our journey "Learning to Game to Game to Learn" goto or

    May Elune light your way!
    Peggy aka Maratsade (Level 80 Human Paladin)


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