Friday, April 25, 2008

The Industry Veteran vs. The Karate Kid

Matt Sakey says:
One of the challenges for a games-based classroom is transitioning learners from their onscreen experiences to real world applications. A game that teaches algebra should keep that fact well-hidden. Kids immediately get suspicious when threatened with something that seems too much like a learning tool. Instead, conceal the algebra training inside an economic or management sim along the lines of Zoo Tycoon (which conveniently would also teach about animals, basic geometry, problem solving, etc.), and ramp it up gently. But at some point you have to help the learner make the mental connection, the “oh wow” moment… to realize, essentially, that skills learned in interactive zoo management work in life as well.

That "oh wow" moment is key for learning, but not just for game-based learning as Matt suggests. It's critical to draw the parallels between what you're doing in a classroom and how it's actually used in the Real World, whether you use games or not. Without that connection, you run into all sorts of problems:
  • Students learn rote facts and methods without understanding them in a broader context. When it comes time to apply their classroom knowledge, they'll have to go back and learn it again, because they never thought before of how to actually use it.
  • Humans are inherently good at understanding and remembering stories, moreso than random factoids. Course content is the latter; showing how it's used is the former. Without the context, it's harder and more inefficient for students to learn the material.
  • More to the point, a lot of students won't even pay attention if they don't see the value. If your class is perceived as just being an arbitrary hoop to jump through so your students can get a piece of paper, let's just say that you're not going to have your students passionately learning your subject.

And honestly, students are hungry for this understanding. If you teach a class, try this, if you don't already. One day, just take two minutes at the start of class to tell a story about how the stuff you're learning in class today was actually used to do, well, anything useful or cool. See if your students don't pay a whole lot more attention for the entire day.

And this is a problem with a lot of college classes. Many professors have no idea how their course material is used in practice (career academics are especially vulnerable to this), or they know but they aren't telling. When I first took Linear Algebra, we learned everything except practical application, so I did the familiar cram-for-the-exam-then-forget-everything method of study. Then I took Computer Graphics, which was really cool, and I realized that maybe I should have paid more attention since we were using scaling, rotation and translation matrices on a regular basis. And then I took another neat course where we learned about the math behind sending a space shuttle into orbit, which required a whole lot of dealing with vectors and matrices. And then I worked in the industry as a game designer of all things, and found that you could use matrices to solve certain types of game balance problems. This would have been nice to know when I was taking the course!

It's like a lot of professors out there imagine themselves as Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid. Wax on, wax off. Do that a few thousand times. After you're done, then I'll tell you how to kick the other guy's face in. That makes for great storytelling, but lousy pedagogy.

So, I see this as a huge advantage for professors who have actual, honest-to-goodness industry experience: we can share that experience with our classes. Why am I spending perfectly good class time talking about something abstract and obscure like positive feedback loops? Glad you asked, let me tell you about a game I worked on that had game balance issues because of a feedback loop that was unintentionally embedded in the core mechanics, and here's what we did to fix it. I'm not teaching you this stuff because the IGDA Curriculum Framework says I should, I'm teaching you the stuff that I've actually used myself on the job. So pay attention. (And they do, most of the time.)

Now, there is a danger here: you have to have the context but also the content. There is a perception in academic circles that the only thing an industry person does is come into the classroom and tell a bunch of entertaining war stories. You've gotta deliver the goods, too, so your students actually have the knowledge and skills that they're supposed to apply. But in my own experience as a student and as a teacher, there's more danger of too little context than too much.


Dan Gant said...

Well said; I always found it much easier to learn things when I'm doing so to achieve a specific goal, ie. picking up a new programming language or math technique. One of the more frustrating parts of being an Applied Mathematics major was taking classes in applied mathematics with absolutely no mention of the course material's applications.

A class on game design does have a few advantages in this regard, though. Among them is the fact that students are already familiar with (or eager to become familiar with) a lot of real-world examples. Many of the examples used to teach elementary math are fairly contrived ("A train leaves Chicago..."), but bringing up a familiar idea like the blue shell in Mario Kart in a lesson on feedback could generate a lot of instant "oh wows".

Ian Schreiber said...

Amusingly, I use that exact example in class when we talk about feedback loops. Mario Kart actually has a few negative feedback loops built in, aside from the dreaded Blue Shell: computer-controlled players that slow down if they're way in the lead, or get impossible bursts of speed if they're too far behind; increased odds of getting a really powerful ability like Lightning Bolt or Red Shell when you're trailing, and less powerful things like Green Shell or Banana Peel when you're in the lead.

Still, I'd argue that there are just as many interesting examples in other classes, if only professors would use them. Forget about trains leaving Chicago; how about figuring out, based on actual data, what the probability is of getting AIDS when having unprotected sex? Or figuring out how much money you'd have to save over what period of time to retire a millionaire by age 50? Or being able to draw your favorite Transformer in 3D graphics and doing a camera fly-by using matrix operations? Or figuring out whether the CEO of a major corporation is cooking the books? Figuring the point spread on the next Superbowl? These are all just off the top of my head. It's not hard.