Portal 2 is an ingenious game with a pretty simple goal: Figure out how to get from point A to point B. Ok, so maybe the game, and plot, are a little more complicated than that. Your character wakes up in the labyrinthian depths of Aperture Industries, now in ruins and abandoned. Except for a homicidal robot who remembers how you tried to destroy her (in the original game) and plans to return the favor.
For the majority of the game (maybe all of it, I haven’t finished it yet) you don’t know what happened to the people who worked at Aperture. Everything, the offices, the jargon of the old CEOs recorded voice, is circa the late 1950s-early 1960s. There are a couple of exceptions, the killer robot GlaDOS, another robot who tries to help you escape, and a wormhole gun.
The wormhole gun is where things get really interesting. You can shoot two different color wormholes, orange and blue, which connect each other no matter where or how far apart they are. This effectively allows you to teleport from one part of each room to the other, or teleport tools you need from one place to another. In some cases there’s a dripping pipe that needs the liquid rerouted through a wormhole to come out somewhere different, or a block that needs to be transported to a lever to hold it down so you can exit the room. You don’t really die in the game, just return to the last puzzle you were working on. And so it is that Portal 2 hinges on the ability to analyze the game environment, think in terms of cause and effect, plan a sequence of events, and rethink failed combinations. In other words, Portal 2 is about problem-solving.
What if our educational system was like that? No, not in terms of homicidal robots. But what if, as Seth Priebatsch presented at SXSW, we had a better-designed game? The current educational system still encourages rote learning over problem-solving, individual work over cooperative goals, and standardized testing like our MCAS over the portfolio option. In fact, when I was working in school systems more directly, the portfolio option was only considered for students who had been identified as learning disabled. Students would spend weeks being taught to the test, because student performance evidenced teacher performance evidenced school performance. The stress level of teachers and students was palpable. Even in Gr. 4 the kids were picking up on it, and by high school those that still managed to be invested in this educational model made themselves sick in those weeks of testing. Even the most animated and creative of classes became rows of quietly scribbling individuals trying to regurgitate what the state had determined they needed to know.
People who live outside of the day-to-day experience of public schools may have no clue how Orwellian education has become. Year after year we see creativity drummed out of students and teachers alike, through no fault of their own. Administrators become increasingly embattled as well, with test scores putting their jobs on the line. The images in Portal 2 of rows of office desks with rotary phones have become a chilling metaphor for where our educational system is headed if we continue to focus on grading rather than progress, individual memorization over group problem-solving. I have seen elementary schools remove recess periods to spend more “time on learning,” thereby depriving many children the one safe place they have to play in their city, and an important milieu to learn social skills. In high school, parents continue to push their children into Honors and AP classes and emphasize grade point averages in order to get into the “right” school, and an entire industry called the College Board has sprung up to encourage this with SATs, prep courses, handbooks on writing the college essay and “more great products.”
What if progress was really leveling up? What if you completed tasks and solved problems, got a reward or achievement badge, and unlocked a new level. This is very different than sitting in one “grade” for 180 days and then advancing for time spent there. But that is what effectively happens in schools. Retention is rarely considered a good option for a number of reasons, and kids are pushed through. What would it look like if students stayed with their teachers or group until they were ready to unlock another level, and motivated to do it? In Portal 2 there is an overarching storyline that unfolds as you progress, a mystery to solve. Why can’t we have some similar mystery to progress through in school, some storyline other than “to get into a good college” or “to get a good job?” Is it any wonder why our children are often identified with behavioral difficulties or social skills deficits? They’re bored and frustrated!
And what if cheating weren’t cheating? Why is it in the age of Google we still artificially force children to cram in and rely on information only in their heads? And what is wrong with children copying from each other, with working in a group and helping each other? When was the last day you went to work and didn’t allow yourself to get help from a co-worker, calculator, website or an answer that was not “in your head?” Cheating is directly tied to trust and fun, any gamer knows that. If the game is fun and the rules are clear, and people are given the option to work together and at their own pace, I predict you’ll see a lot less cheating. I did get stuck in Portal 2 a few times, and truth be told I looked up the solutions on the web, but most of the time I wanted to succeed within the unnecessary obstacles of the game mechanics, and I turned off the solution video the instant the immediate problem was solved so as not to “spoil” the game. If we can begin to present education as more intrinsically rewarding, we will see a lot more persistence. And if we can begin to present learning as group problem-solving we will see a lot more trust and teamwork, which will set kids up for succeeding in a global Web 2.0 world.
Psychotherapists are often uniquely positioned to help with this, but many of us have not embraced the technology and mindset to do this. We continue to set up sticker charts and give out stars when we could be using Chore Wars or the WoW Achievement Generator. We could educate teachers and parents about the amazing work John Lester is doing which can allow virtual field trips to explore learning about Paris or the Orbiter Shuttle. We could help adolescent patients problem-solve and learn how to use Facebook to enhance their social skills or use Twitter for school projects. We could model taking learning out of the classroom by taking therapy out of the office sometimes, using Skype to get a tour of where the patient lives.
Last month I did a learning exercise on Twitter, called the “DBTgame.” For one day I tweeted every hour an exercise and it looked like this: