Sunday, November 08, 2009

some things stick to your ribs

I was at ISACS with my head of school and our 4th, 5th and 6th grade teacher Michelle, who carried a book with her at all times. When you get deeply engaged in a novel, it can be hard to put it down. You want to know what comes next, and you can hardly wait to find out.

Several presenters at the conference gave information on the effects of video gaming, and the neurohormones involved that are stimulated through play. For instance, some games set your heart racing through the creation of adrenalin, creating a flight or fight syndrome. You can think of a video game as a book on steroids. One presenter mentioned having played the games with her sons as part of her research and found herself thinking of the games throughout the day, having them intrude constantly in her thoughts. The games are approaching a sense of complete reality through which their effects create a sense of real fear. Many of these same games are designed to hold you without blinking, a neurological state that induces the creation of dopamine, a chemical that creates a sense of euphoria. We learn best through two things, pleasure and fear, so there are many who are proclaiming computer games as the ultimate teaching device.

So now, imagine a student in a classroom. In order to get the effects of dopamine, the body must be engaged in increasingly long periods of blinkless engagement. Your student may have stayed up to two or three in the morning to get his full effect from the games he has grown to love and become dependent upon for their contributions of adrenaline and dopamine to his nervous system. The lessons he (or she) has learned from the games are equivalent to the fearful lessons of survival in the wild and it is hard to compete in the classroom.

When that student enters your classroom, is he or she thinking about the lessons on the blackboard, or delivered in lecture, or Grand Theft Auto? If you or I or a teacher can hardly put down a good novel, imagine what it is like for a child addicted to the neurohormones racing through his tender body being required to sit still and attentive for classroom learning.

So the "bright side." The game creators are attempting to create games that utilize adrenaline and dopamine to further engineer our children's learning. Many parents think that gaming is great. Many of those parents never had the opportunity in their own education to understand the creative engagement of their own hands, so they have little comprehension of what they are depriving their children. You can see why some are excited, and those of us with more experience in the real world, not so.

I got an email from my wife while I was in Columbus. My daughter's iPhone had been taken from her purse while she was in a restaurant in New York City. Theft. That is the kind of experience that creates real adrenaline, and a lesson that will be long remembered. Alongside the message informing me of the theft were advertisements on the side panel of g-mail for iPhones. Google's incredible software and computing technology had scanned the title and contents of the message and paired it with advertisements to promote the specific product. In the same way, technology using adrenaline and dopamine will create lessons for our children through advanced gaming, shaping them to become perfect consumers and compliant, manageable adults, mindless, easily manipulated, lacking in personal creativity.

So what things do we want sticking to our children's ribs? Their own creativity or things that come in a box?


  1. Your last sentence brought forward the dilemma quite well: ("In the same way, technology using adrenaline and dopamine will create lessons for our children through advanced gaming, shaping them to become perfect consumers and compliant, manageable adults, mindless, easily manipulated, lacking in personal creativity.")

    It is my opinion that we're dumbing-down education when we allow our children uncontrolled access to these games. Just more evidence that we have now entered an "American Idol" society where the "flash" becomes more important in our decisions & judgments than does the "substance". I've discovered that meaningful substance is obtained best when intellectual thought is induced through hands-on activity... not something that is going to be stimulated by playing hours and hours of computer games.

    I am also led to wonder if such uncontrolled exposure to these technologically induced adrenaline and dopamine highs only contributes to their inability to make rational decisions or do they only encourage instant gratification? Someone once said that, "a democracy can only survive through an educated populace" and I'm convinced that drifting away from hands-on learning is not making us a more "educated" country. Sad.

    You would think that these studies would make the obvious case for more hands-on education in and out of the classroom but I won't hold my breath expecting the "obvious" direction.

  2. As these adrenaline and dopamine highs become more easily available through game play, they become more and more elusive in commonplace, everyday activities. With pleasure learning in the classroom with others becoming more elusive, expect, more solitary engagement in self-medication through gaming.

    Want you kid to actually grow up and leave the house and become a mature adult? Kill the x-box and give him or her some real tools to work with.