Hitting Reset on Education

By Roger AndersonMarch 2, 2017

Video games don’t pass judgment.

When players fail, they’re allowed to learn from mistakes, develop new strategies, and make another attempt at progress.

“The way children gain knowledge while playing video games and interacting with media is a stark contrast to the classroom setting, where failure is considered the worst outcome,” says Reed Stevens, learning sciences and an Institute for Policy Research associate. He should know: he’s been studying how technology mediates thinking and learning for nearly 20 years.

“When I began this work, I didn’t just want to study play; I wanted to distil our observations and explore how they might advise the creation of a nontraditional learning environment,” he says.

In 2011, Stevens cofounded FUSE, a set of interest-driven, hands-on learning modules that rely on media, technology, and the video game mentality of leveling up, or progressively facing more difficult challenges.

An informal, in-school, after-school, and weekend program, FUSE has been adopted by educators throughout the United States and as far away as Finland. In September, the program launched in five Chicago public schools, adding to the thousands of area middleand high school students who have benefited from the pedagogical innovation.

Each FUSE challenge engages teens in different science, technology, engineering, arts/design, and mathematics (STEAM) topics. The program features dozens of challenges that include 3–D printing objects, Android app development, ringtone development, building solar-powered toys, and more.

“I think of learning through play as fundamentally being about exploration,” says Stevens. “The reality is that schools don’t frequently excel at supporting exploration. There is a curriculum and it is followed. When schools give students permission and encouragement to explore, interesting things start to happen.”

With FUSE, students frequently become the teachers, sharing their expertise with peers, while the adults in the room act as coaches.

Stevens is an ethnographer — his research relies on observing individuals in natural environments — and his study of video game players involved recording the interactions of eight- to 12-year-olds while they played.

“This idea of a kid interacting with media, like a video game, in isolation is a caricature that just isn’t accurate. Typically, there is incredible socialness to playing,” says Stevens, adding that video games are not intrinsically detrimental. “No matter what you may think about an individual game’s content, one of the powerful takeaways is that these children are ‘learning to learn’ and learning to teach, which is an important part of life.”

Stevens’ research examines and compares cognitive activity in a range of settings — including classrooms, workplaces, and science museums and has also revealed many aspects of how kids play games. While some played according to the rules, competing for points and leveling up, others became interested in subverting the game, developing their own sets of goals before attempting to achieve them.

“This mimics what people do in real life. When we are working within constraints, we frequently push the boundaries,” says Stevens. “Children are really good at finding ways to learn, and they’re willing to rely on each other’s expertise to complete a challenge.

This rich culture of peer learning is precisely what we wanted to capture with FUSE.”