Sunday, August 12, 2007

Analogy: Learning as Painting

I heard an interesting analogy today that I hadn't encountered before: we learn in coats of paint.

First we get a general big picture with broad strokes, then as we revisit the material we add finer and finer details. This is why there's so much review in school; the first time you learn something like integral calculus it's all very new and confusing, but the third time around it gets a lot easier.

Interestingly, this is also how we play video games. At first you have a basic idea of what's going on -- the basic controls to make things happen on screen. After playing for a little while you find additional layers of strategy (or increase your skills) to the point where you understand finer details about how the game works. We even have a name for this: the MDA framework. The broad brush strokes (from a player's point of view) are the aesthetics, the feeling you get from playing the game. The medium-level details are the dynamics, the way that various components in the game interact with one another. The fine details are the mechanics, the underlying rules of how everything is actually resolved by the computer.

If this is, by its very nature, how we learn new material -- learning it once formally and then revisiting it multiple times until we finally grok it -- that has a number of implications for structuring a class. Among other things, it means that any individual course shouldn't be designed in a vacuum; it should have a lot of connections to other classes within the overall curriculum, so that each later class reinforces the material from the earlier ones. (I ended up doing this in a lot of my classes last year, not by design, but more because I thought some topics were important enough that I should make sure all of my students encountered them, even if they only took one class and not another.)

People who have Ph.D.'s in education probably have a theory named after some famous person in the field to describe all this, but I'm still just figuring it all out as I go...

1 comment:

robert_thinks said...

I am doing research to help a local college get a "Game and Simulation Programming" certification off the ground. I saw a posting of yours on the IGDA Game Education SIG mailing list. I've read through some of your blogs and would like to communicate with you more about teaching. This particular post is very much inline with how I began to approach my research. Given a set of courses and course descriptions, I sought to understand/identify the bigger concept of the certification program and how the classes were related. I felt that students would benefit from such a view and that the professors teaching would also benefit. I had even previously stumbled across the MDA framework paper. I even jumped off the virtual deep-end and started a blog of my own. By the way, my wife is completing a PhD in Education, so when I get her to explain the theory for all this to me I'll let you know. We'll adapt it to gaming and call it the "robertian" (Robert-Ian, sorry for taking first billing) theory for teaching game development.