Game-Based Ed Gains XP

Say the word “game” to someone and their first thought might be of a frivolous (perhaps even trivial) pursuit. However, effectively merging the best of games with education offers real potential for increasing learning and personal development in many areas.

The Atlantic has covered some of the leaders in bringing game-based learning to higher education. Notoriously slow to change its pedagogy, college and university learning is dominated by the lecture approach that too often bores students and proves less effective than desired in helping them learn. A few professors have applied the principles of game design—narratives, quests, collaborative guilds, experience points (XP), etc.—to their classrooms, and have seen increases in attendance, engagement, and performance.

The use of gamification isn’t limited to the college level. Perhaps the most widely known gaming-and-learning Minnesota educator is White Bear Lake elementary teacher Ananth Pai. He has put significant time and personal resources into using technology-supported games to help K-12 students learn better. The results have been impressive.

In higher education and the K-12 environment, the benefits of games reach far beyond test scores. The effects of well-designed gamification support collaboration, persistence, and problem solving, along with many other tough-to-measure areas. Gaming at home, whether with classics like chess or newer games like Set or Quarto (both of which have been around for years, but which are still new in comparison to chess), has also been shown to help children build executive function, strategic thinking, concentration, and impulse control, among other areas.

As with all innovations—especially where technology is involved—the use of game-based education shouldn’t be enforced by top-down mandates. Instead, it relies on teachers putting the time and effort into changing the way they teach to use gaming principles effectively. They should be supported in this effort. Teachers who have already had success would make good candidates for local, teacher-led professional development for other interested teachers.

There is a lot of good to be reaped from integrating games and education, and teachers who are interested in doing so should have the flexibility, trust, and support they need to make it happen.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: Higher Education  K-12 education  Classroom Methods  Curriculum 

Summer Melt’s Impact on High School Graduates

Many new high school graduates are spending the summer thinking about their fall college plans. College is an enormous shift for recent grads. Between classes, being away from home, and finalizing school financing plans, new, soon-to-be first year college students shoulder considerable anxiety.

For most nervous graduates and their families, however, high school resources are suddenly unavailable to them. Many students struggling with the high school-to-college transition are reluctant to approach their new school’s staff for fear of ‘making a bad impression." Returning to their high school support system can bridge the gap.

According to an Associated Press investigation, “first-generation college students and low-income families are particularly vulnerable” to this post-grad “summer melt.” In a startling statistic by Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research, up to 40% of prospective community college students in large metropolitan areas abandon their plans.

As many as half of these students decide not to pursue post-secondary education due to financial concerns. They are, however, making this decision without professional guidance.

What is the solution to this growing problem in Minnesota? Enhance the number of counselors in our schools and extend summer counseling hours for recently graduated seniors.

Minnesota’s counselor shortage is well-documented. In February of this year, the Minnesota School Counselors Association urged Governor Dayton to continue working on Minnesota’s dismal counselor statistics. With one school counselor for every 792 students, Minnesota ranks 48th in the United States.

The press release also cites the fact that counselors offer a unique range of talents that help students. Their role in the school “helps students maximize their academic success, career readiness, and personal and social development.”

This service is crucial to all Minnesota families and reduces many issues facing students and colleges. Having a better understanding of financial aid plans can improve the financial health of students. Knowing what college courses will be like can lead to less time spent in remedial courses and improve retention. Familiarity with academic and procedural deadlines can ease students’ navigation of college bureaucracy.

Counseling is crucial in preparing students for college of any form. After leaving for college, when many students need it more than ever, this already limited resource ends. While not all graduates will take advantage of school counseling resources, many will. While “summer melt” is a real phenomenon, it doesn't have to be a reality for Minnesota’s high school graduates.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: Higher Education  K-12 education 

It’s About the People

One of the drawbacks of the more technocratic approach to education reform is that, in its attention to numbers and markets, it can lose sight of the human element of education.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Jal Mehta’s thoughts on the race problem in deeper learning. The schools and teachers that use deeper learning practices like experiential and project-based learning are more likely to serve white students, which aggravates equity gaps in education. Gia Truong of Envision Education followed up in a guest post, sharing a personal story of being shunned by a teacher over cultural misunderstandings. She offers it as an example of “institutional racism, when a system makes it possible for white privilege to negatively impact a person of color without anyone batting an eye.” She illustrates the importance of the classroom level relationship between student and teacher and how race, culture, and privilege inform it.

At the macro level, Professors Kara Finnigan, University of Rochester, and Alan Daly, University of California-San Diego, describe the importance of relationships between central office administrators and principals. If these relationships are weak or nonexistent, system-level change becomes difficult, if not outright impossible. Strengthening these ties by, for example, creating additional collaboration time and explicitly addressing the lack of strong relationships, can help the system as a whole make change faster. Ensuring that these relationships involve trust and are two-directional, as opposed to district administrators sending information to schools without receiving information in return, is also critical.

As we have shown before, Minnesota’s student body is growing more diverse and each district’s experience is different. Left unaddressed, this is a recipe for aggravated institutional racism and districts struggling with their own internal relationship networks as they adapt. While these challenges may trickle into test scores or other performance indicators, the underlying causes need to be addressed by teachers and administrators. This requires both the individual attention to race, culture, and privilege that Troung advocates and the attention to district-level relationship networks that Finnigan and Daly describe.

Education is a human endeavor. We can put numbers to parts of it but the real work of changing our system for the better must come back to human relationships. Our policymakers would do well to remember this and it’s one more argument for inviting the voices of educators, students, and families into school-specific reform more often.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Education Administration 

The Corinthian Collapse

Corinthian Colleges, a country-wide for-profit college company, recently collapsed while under federal review. For-profit colleges like to portray themselves as a good option for students who haven’t succeeded anywhere else but this happy story doesn’t always match reality. Corinthian’s story illustrates how the for-profit approach to college can go very wrong.

I’ll start by noting that the effect of Corinthian’s collapse in Minnesota will be minimal since only one Minnesota campus, the Everest Institute in Eagan, was part of the Corinthian system. However, other for-profit colleges like Rasmussen and Globe University (which acquired the Minnesota School of Business) have a more significant presence in the state. If they were to fall prey to the Corinthian experience, many more Minnesotans could be hurt.

Ultimately, Corinthian’s problems came down to money. The system’s finance relied on a constant stream of students using federal grant and loan money, and Corinthian was aggressive about recruiting. When the federal government, concerned about for-profits gaming the federal loan system, required that at least 10% of Corinthian’s money had to come from non-governmental sources, the company raised tuition to get more private loan money (which hits students with even higher interest rates). The end result: A company whose profits depended on convincing primarily students of color and low-income students to go into debt, much of which was financed by the government. In the end, no one really won.

The major argument for companies like Corinthian is that they provide an alternative to public and nonprofit colleges. Students who have struggled at a community college may find themselves recruited by a company like Corinthian, sold on the promise of a credential and a job. That the education Corinthian provided was markedly inferior -- to the point of leaving it off resumes for fear prospective employers would see it as a negative -- is both sad and unsurprising. It should also be a call to arms for increasing investment and attention on the public community college system, so that fewer students feel the need to consider options like Corinthian.

Stories like this should haunt arguments for trusting the market to provide an equitable education. Whether it’s for-profit colleges or new K-12 schools starting under a voucher system, providing a great education isn’t a path to fortune. Those who treat it as such should be viewed skeptically, and we should make sure that private players are well-regulated and that strong public options are the default choice.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: Higher Education 

1 Comment ->

The Free Lesson in MnSCU’s $2M Consulting Contract

Minnesota State Colleges and Universities’ recently announced a $2 million contract with consulting group McKinsey & Company to assist with a system-wide initiative, Charting the Future. The contract made headlines when Chancellor Steve Rostenstone did not mention McKinsey or the contract after a student asked about the cost of the initiative. Additionally, Rosenstone did not update the Board of Trustees on the contract agreement.

For a bit of background, Charting the Future is a MnSCU initiative, announced in November of 2013, which, according to their website, strives to “work together to improve transfer [student experience], marketing to increase the number of students each campus serves and collaborating on expanding programs that prepare students for the careers of tomorrow.” This system-wide project is meant to lay out a sustainable road map for MnSCU as the public higher education provider for a strong majority of Minnesotans.

McKinsey & Co., whose contract began in January 2014, recently finished their fact-finding mission and has made smaller recommendations based on preliminary data such as, if 10% of MnSCU’s five-plus year degree seeking students graduated in four years, the students would save $14 million dollars.

While Charting the Future initiative seems worthwhile and McKinsey has already produced some interesting analysis, the process has been bungled and deserved greater public discussion.

What this story points to, in fact, is that there is a gap in the oversight of Minnesota’s largest higher education institution. Currently, any contract expenditure under $3 million does not need to be approved by the board of trustees. Public reaction to the McKinsey consulting contract suggests a change in non-board approval triggers may be coming.

Lowering that threshold to $1 million dollars, would increase transparency and reduce concerns about the selection of consultants like McKinsey. While outside consulting firms can provide a new set of eyes on a project or problem, MnSCU stakeholders also need on-the-ground perspective about how to refine and finance higher education for Minnesota’s students.

Speaking for professors, administrators, and students by speaking past them instead of working with these groups about how to improve MnSCU educational mission isn’t the only option for answering problems. Higher ed consultants sift through data and make policy recommendations. Higher ed leaders make leadership decisions that create a prosperous organizational path forward, drawing community together. The latter is much harder than the former. Let's not confuse the two.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: Higher Education 

There Is No One Right Way

Two traps are easy for those who think and write about education policy to fall into. The first is the idea that what worked for “me” (whoever is doing the thinking or writing) would work for everyone else. This creates nostalgia for the “good old days,” which were really only ever good for some people. The second trap is the idea that what would work better for me would work better for everyone else. Both traps can be avoided, but it helps to know that they’re there.

In the past few days I’ve written about the benefits of arts education and learning in the wilderness. Neither one was of much interest to me as a student. I took one semester of drama to satisfy my high school’s arts requirement and called it a day; exploring the arts never spoke much to me as a student. As for wilderness learning, while I was a Boy Scout, I generally stuck to the minimum camping requirements, being more interested in community service and leadership development.

However, I know that great arts opportunities saved many people’s educations, and others have learned more outdoors than they ever would in a classroom. The education that worked well for me didn’t work as well for them, and I probably wouldn’t have done as well if school focused more heavily on the arts or on time outdoors.

Matching students to the learning opportunities that work best for them takes effort and resources. The more resources a family has, the easier it is for them to find good options. Opportunity gaps in this area are keenly felt.

It’s nigh on impossible for one school to be all things to all students. This is one argument for school choice, provided it’s focused on creating the right opportunities for students, not counterproductive competition.

However, one school can provide many opportunities to many students, if they know what students need and have the freedom and resources to offer them. Inviting families, students, and teachers into decision-making helps schools accurately identify what their students need. Expanding the definition of “a good education” beyond test scores to encompass other learning opportunities allows schools to pay attention to their students’ needs. Investing in schools enables them to provide what their students need.

There is no one right way to educate all students, but democratic, well-resourced schools can support many right ways for students to learn.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Arts & Music 

Taking Another Look at Year-Round School

As we reach the halfway point of summer break, those worried about summer slide may be looking for options. One policy, year-round education, got some attention in a policy brief from the Congressional Research Service back in June. That report is worth a read.

Teaching students year-round can take a few different forms. One is simply to extend the school year, running it later into June or July and starting it in August. This gives students more seat time, but can also add significant expense, as many workers (including but not limited to teachers) will be working more hours.

Another option, less concerned with increasing seat time and more interested in minimizing “the summer slide,” rearranges the school year. A common version is the 45-15 calendar, where students and teachers are in class for 45 school days (roughly nine weeks), then off for a 15 school day (three week) intersession. These intersessions don’t have to be full-on breaks; they offer excellent opportunities for mid-year remediation, heading off the gap-growing effects of the long summer break.

Some schools have also used this sort of on-off calendar to address capacity issues. With careful scheduling, as the CRS report explains, a school with capacity for 750 students at one time can serve 1000 students by breaking students up into 250-person groups and rotating 15-day intersessions.

The report notes that the research on this approach isn’t conclusive, in part because the methodology in most studies hasn’t been great. As with most educational innovations, the effectiveness is in the details of design and implementation. This is why involving teachers, families, students, and community members in discussions of schedule changes is so important.

Many teachers, for example, are interested in trying an on-off, year-round schedule, and some communities would likely appreciate its benefits if well-implemented. At the same time, calendar changes of this scale can be very disruptive, and should be undertaken only after informing the public and conducting democratic deliberation. Not every community needs or wants a year-round calendar, but every community should have the option to make an informed choice on the matter.

We know that some of the most significant equity gaps in education come from the years before students are in school and the disproportionate effects of summer break. The latter in particular makes year-round scheduling potentially appealing, and many communities should give it serious consideration.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: School Calendar 

1 Comment ->

Education in the Wilderness

Some of the best learning happens outside of the classroom. Some of the best learning happens in intentionally crafted, equity minded programs. Sometimes, these are the same thing.

MinnPost recently covered the work of Wilderness Inquiry, which has been putting metro area students in canoes on urban waterways and finding other ways to increase students’ access to experiential, place-based learning. It’s an interesting mission which appears to be both full of potential and totally outside the general parameters of the education debate most other advocates are having.

Naturally, Minnesota isn’t the only place where people have dedicated themselves to helping students learn and grow by spending time in the wild and well outside their comfort zones. Alaska Crossings, for example, has been taking Alaskan students with mental illnesses on extended outdoor adventures since 2001. As with Wilderness Inquiry in Minnesota, the organizers have put significant energy into building a program that broadens students’ horizons with an eye towards improving their knowledge, skills, and mindsets. It’s the kind of learning that’s very tough to make happen in a classroom.

Nor is this approach limited to groups outside of schools. Northwest Passage High School in Coon Rapids is in large part built around preparing students for “expeditions” that get longer and more intense as students progress through the school. (For more on Northwest Passage, check out my 2012 post about their presentation at the Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs conference.)

Running through all of these programs is the value of experiential learning and the clarifying effects for students of exploring the outdoors in ways that would previously have been alien to their everyday lives. While this type of learning does provide a new context for understanding ideas and skills from a variety of academic disciplines, much of the value is in the less measurable effects on students’ confidence, coping skills, and interpersonal skills.

As we continue to discuss equity and opportunity gaps, it’s important to remember the many ways that people learn and the different experiences available to students from different contexts. Minnesota’s children grow up in a huge range of circumstances and environments, and it’s beneficial for all of them to push outside of their comfort zones with the help of well-structured programs that keep them safe as they learn.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Youth Programs 

Let the Children Play

There is such a thing as too much break time; the evidence on the summer learning slide is clear. However, it’s possible to go too far in the other direction when school is in session.

Tim Walker is an American teacher working in Finland and he blogs about his experiences at “Taught by Finland” (with occasional guest posts from other American teachers in the country). A recent post of his discussed the importance of play and regular breaks in the Finnish school day, with elementary school students and teachers alternating 45 minutes of class time with 15 minutes of break time outside. When he believed this approach to be too “soft,” he tried lengthening the amount of time spent in class (offset by longer breaks), only to see his students grow more frustrated, stressed, and unproductive.

This, it turns out, reflects other research, which has found benefits of intercutting 40-45 minute blocks of class time with 10-15 minute breaks. These findings aren’t limited to Finland, turning up in East Asia as well. Eventually, Walker concluded, “[O]nce I started to see a break as a strategy to maximize learning, I stopped feeling guilty about shortening classroom instruction.”

The idea that time not spent focused on classwork could be helpful for students and teachers alike doesn’t have a lot of currency in today’s debate about education in the U.S. Schools that extend learning time are celebrated. Kindergarten classes cut end-of-year performances to have more study time. Principals require teachers to set bathroom time quotas in the interest of maximizing learning time.

This seems symptomatic of a mindset that only time spent in a seat following a teacher’s directions (even if those directions are to practice independently or do group work) counts as learning. Outside this bubble, though, it seems that students may well learn better when you give their minds a chance to relax or stretch in new, self-chosen directions. The idea that children could always be learning, and that giving them 15 minutes to play (or read or converse or…) outside every hour will hurt their chances of success, should be reconsidered.

The high-intensity, “no excuses” approach does work for some students. Reworking our school system to emphasize that approach over time for play and breaks, however, may be the wrong choice for many students. Our focus on rigor shouldn’t become a counterproductive obsession with constant seat time.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Classroom Methods 

Legacy Amendment Yields Engaged Learning

When voters approved the Legacy Amendment in 2008, they weren’t just approving a .375% increase on their sales tax. Minnesota voters gave policymakers the message that arts, culture and environmental preservation are important and must be protected and cultivated.

Over its 25 year tenure, the Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund (19.75% of the total tax revenue) is projected to raise $1.2 billion in available revenue. This money has been earmarked for significant, educational endeavors and projects valuing Minnesota’s rich cultural tapestry.

This fund has benefited many institutions and numerous projects include education for Minnesota’s school children. Establishments as wide-ranging as the Minnesota Historical Society, the city of North St. Paul, and individual artists throughout the state are receiving grants as a way to further Minnesota’s artistic and educational heritage.

The “Hands On” History Curriculum for Minnesota’s Students focuses on creating experiential learning opportunities that conform to state social studies standards by using primary sources and physical materials to encourage students interaction with history.

Significantly, this curriculum will be made available across the state for social studies teachers. The development of this curriculum is a significant example of the good that the funds from the Legacy Amendment can be used for and is a resounding endorsement of the decision Minnesotans made six years ago.

This project contributes critical curricula to Minnesota’s school districts. As teachers have less time to develop independent lesson plans, these well-researched and vetted contributions become increasingly valuable.

This is just one example, of course, but it demonstrates the value of these efforts for Minnesota’s students, teachers, and schools.

The Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund supports many diverse projects across Minnesota and will, hopefully, continue to do so until at least 2034. Its success proves that when the revenue they raise is spent effectively and efficiently, marginal tax increases are well worth the investment.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Curriculum  State Parks 

Next Page