Jordan Shapiro drew a lot of attention this year with his four misconceptions about the future of education. As with much of his work, he tries to take a cattle prod to the conventional education narrative.
In an era of highly polarized ed debates, Shapiro doesn’t fit neatly into any of the ideological “pro-anti” boxes polemicists like to construct. He teaches a wide range of courses in the Intellectual Heritage program and other departments at Temple University.
He’s the author of FREEPLAY: A Video Game Guide to Maximum Euphoric Bliss, and he wrote the Guide to Digital Games + Learning with our friends at the Mindshift blog from member station KQED.
Shapiro’s “four misconceptions” article hits on fundamental issues of equity and ed tech that are often misconstrued or misunderstood. I reached out to him to dig a little deeper. But first I had to fact-check whether he’s really an ed conference addict.
Do you really attend at least one education conference a month? That sounds painful. Death by aspiring TED-talkers and PowerPoint?
(laughs) Well I go to a lot of them. Is it painful? It is and it isn’t. A lot of it is friends, seeing a lot of the same people and continuing projects and meetings.
I’ve been to a few where if I didn’t have those hallway meetings with interesting folks …
It’s not so much that there’s nothing interesting, but it has this kind of church feel where it’s the same 12 sessions over and over again.
Yes, you write that many conferences are kind of “moral pep-talks dressed up in TED-style vesture.” Hallelujah! Do you think education folks are, to jumble metaphors badly, too often in a kind of intellectual echo chamber and preaching to the choir?
I think it’s true in every sector. I don’t think it’s so much preaching to the choir as much as that being a part of certain narratives has become more important than actual shifts. Take the standardized testing issue. I’ve never met anyone who is pro standardized test! So you go to these conferences where it’s the same story where, “If we could just convince this fictional other, everything would change.” Nobody identifies as the mainstream. The mainstream is usually the “other” you’re against.
A lot of straw men out there in the education debate.
Yeah and to what extent is having the narrative serving us more than we’re actually changing things? That’s one of the questions I’m often asking and writing about.
The polarized debate is blinding us to the more fundamental issue we need to be looking at?
We love the revolutionary story, we love the underdog who’s fighting the establishment story so much that I don’t think that’s necessarily serving the real things that do need to happen to make education work better.
Well let’s get to your four “fundamental problems” with the conventional “future of ed” wisdom. One, that kids are not engaging deeply enough in learning and they need more ed tech to do that. You say, “Nonsense, it’s all about the teacher.” Explain.
There is this fantasy that everyone is unengaged. This is not true. If you go into the best schools in the country, public or private, you are going to find super-engaged students. So this idea of lack of engagement has a lot more to do with socioeconomic realities than with a problem in a way we teach. I teach at a university. There are plenty of people who can give great sage-on-the-stage lectures that people are on the edge of their seats for the whole time. Let’s not get this idea that these old methods of communication are essentially boring. I love technology. I think we should put more of it into the classroom to engage students. But when we’re in this fantasy that what’s going on in the classroom is boring and somehow technology will make students more engaged, what’s implicit there is that we’ll replace bad teachers with robot teachers, which is what we’re all afraid of.
You write that the real problem is that, on average, better teaching seems to be commonplace at schools that serve more affluent communities. That it comes down to fundamental issues of educational equity.
I think that’s exactly true. I don’t think it’s as simple as, hey, we give rich kids good teachers and poor students bad teachers. I don’t think anyone does that on purpose. But that is still the way it pans out in our culture.
Another misconception is the idea that video games will lead to this promised land of putting learning content in context. You’ve written books and guides to digital games and learning. J’accuse! You helped create this idea yourself.
Yeah, certainly. Video games are a great way to contextualize things. When my son says to me, “Why do I have to learn my multiplication tables?” I know the answer. I know how important it is to his adult life that he knows how to multiply. That doesn’t convince him! He doesn’t care about adult life. I need to figure out a way to contextualize today, to say, “Here’s why you should care today.” And part of teaching is chocolate-covered broccoli to that extent. When I teach college kids I need to make Plato’s Republic matter to them today, when what I’m really doing is giving them a foundation to have it impact their lives five years from now. Video games actually give students motivation why the content is meaningful immediately. Because they can win the game. This idea it’s immediately contextualized is really great. But that’s not the same as saying, ‘It’s the only way.’ Video games are just one way to do it. Games, by themselves, cannot contextualize content. But they are great tools for teachers to use to contextualize content.
The promise of game-based learning you write is potentially to help address a socioeconomic injustice, the privilege of autonomy.
Why I’m such an advocate for is that rich kids have the privilege of finding themselves, of knowing who they are, of figuring out an identity, a narrative while they’re in school contextualized with academic content. That’s become a privilege and that should just be a right. And video games have the potential to even that out because they make the ‘I’ visible in a way that it’s not visible right now. The bigger evil of standardized testing, for me, is that students don’t even realize that there’s an “I” at the bottom of it. Testing is just part of what life is.
As an evangelist for game-based learning, with caveats, what do you think can be done to change attitudes about the issue? There seems to be a strong “you’re with us or against us” mentality around games and ed tech.
Well I think it’s a larger issue than games or ed tech. I think it’s an issue of really changing how we think about what education is. I think it’s an issue of thinking about learning as a much more playful thing. We need to bring recess and the arts and things like choice time back to the center and expel this idea that these are the expendable things. That ends up being this idea that ed tech is purely utilitarian and not about the fluid experience of learning. I think we get really caught up in this solutionism when we talk about education, where we’re trying to figure out, “What’s the fix?” And as long as we’re thinking about it that way then we’ll end up with this one-size-fits-all approach. Ed tech is not a solution just like the chalkboard is not a solution. It’s a potential shift in the way we do things
It’s a messy, complicated, difficult problem and challenge.
We need a cultural shift in how we think about what it means to learn because we’re shifting what you need to learn. Our society is changing in crazy, enormous ways now and in ways we don’t fully understand. This is one of the things that drives me crazy about the whole ed conversation: Instead of us having a conversation about what kind of society do we want to see for the next generation and how do we educate kids for that outcome, we’re assuming that we all agree on what they need to learn and then finding these utilitarian solutions to try to execute that.
Speaking of driving people crazy, let’s talk about fun and learning. You write that learning is hard and painful, you are breaking ties with how you understand the world. That is not always a fun thing.
It’s one of the most painful things in the world. It’s hard. You have to be severed from your old way of being and that’s always painful. There’s this notion in American culture that we should never feel any discomfort and our goal should be to eliminate that. If you were to ask my 10-year-old, “Was it fun to learn to read?” He’d go: “No, it was hard to learn to read. Nothing was fun about it. It’s really fun to read now that I know how. But first it was really painful. Everything was great. I used to get into bed and you would read Cat in the Hat to me. What’s fun about losing that?” I’m not saying there shouldn’t be fun. There should certainly be fun and play involved in school. But learning is not fun. I tell my kids all the time: Pain is inevitable but suffering is your choice. I have no idea where I heard that.
It came to you in a dream.
No, I think I heard it on an NPR show actually!
We’ll take credit for that.
A version of this story was published on NPR Ed in May 2015.