Meandering Learning is Anti-American

James Paul Gee in What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy goes into great detail explaining how video games have built into them ways to force players to explore their surroundings. He uses Metal Gear Solid games as an example that if you try to directly attack your enemy you will quickly die. The game forces you to be sneaky and to explore side passages where you discover hidden objects that help you in the game.

Gee then compares this style to his preferred learning style stating his cultural biases that were challenged as the following statements:

The final goal is important, defines the learning, and good learners move toward it without being distracted by other things’ and ‘Good learners move quickly and efficiently toward their goal.’ I also hold other models: ‘there is one right way to get to the goal that the good learners discover (and the rest of us usually don’t)’ and ‘Learning is a matter of some people being better or worse than others, and this is important.’ (173)
…For one last example, I held a model like: ‘When faced with a problem to solved, good learners solve it quickly, the first time they try or soon thereafter. If you have to try over and over again, this is a sign that you are not very good at what you are attempting to learn.” (p.174)

A straight path is not always the best. Photo by chasingtheflow

Video games usually punish rather than reward this kind of learning, encouraging players to explore and discover how to solve problems through trial and error. His statements echo the way that most teachers and schools work. Standards based grading helps with some of these by allowing students to re-assess and learn at different paces.  PBL also gives students some freedom to explore the curriculum in non-linear fashion according to their interests. I like to go on “rabbit trails” when students are engaged in fascinating questions that may or may not be directly related to the standards. But as a teacher I still feel myself driven by making sure students meet the standards (efficiently) and rushed by the amount of curriculum we are supposed to learn (quickly). So much of American culture is built around speed and efficiency that schools fall prey to this same thinking.

So how do you build into your class ways for students to “meander” as they think their ways through problem-solving? How do we fight the culture that says “faster is better or smarter” and focus on deeper, non-linear learning?

PS: And this is one of my major problems with the Common Core. Standardization leads to vanilla classes inevitably preparing for “the test” leaving no time for authentic meandering.

5 thoughts on “Meandering Learning is Anti-American

  1. Dhouseman

    As I was reading your post, I was thinking of my son who is now 14. He’s exploring Mindcraft gameplay. It has poor graphics but I think that’s some of the attraction. He has put up his own Mindcraft server now and I notice he has to constantly learn new things in managing his server. I believe this ability to get a deeper knowledge level and build upon his skills not only applies to his Mindcraft project, but life in general.

  2. concretekax

    That is exactly the argument that Gee makes that video games are designed according to excellent learning principles that schools unfortunately often ignore. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Paul Bogush


    I just cannot figure out why teachers are not up in arms about Common Core!!!

    I think the fact that most teachers have no idea about the common core, and most teachers are falling in line saying how wonderful they are (teachers I know f2f), show what a real problem we have with ed in USA. We can blame whoever we want, we can blame whatever social ills we want, but until the profession looks in the mirror we will just keep following corporate interests.

    I get meandering time in by doing some things superduper fast. But all with a plan…the reality is sometimes we are given a big project to do with less time that is needed, and sometimes we get a project with more time that is needed and we get to meander. So instead of planning each unit with the perfect amount of time, some get cut short and we practice for those times when we don;t have enough time and what we hand in is not our best–do the best with the time given. That opens up days to stick onto some other project.

  4. Anonymous

    Have you read Brain Rules by John Medina? Great book! Let’s just say, I doubt Arne Duncan has read it. It pulls together the neuroscience for what’s described here as the natural way the brain learns. What Duncan is pushing is not natural. Duh. But it’s profitable!! Testing has been harmful to kids & teachers, alike. Fear fuels the system at nearly every level.

    I think people, at their cores, are just exhausted by the stress, their incomes are at risk, their mortgages are underwater, they’re sick, and they just have nothing left to pay attention to Common Core. Lao Tzu would be impressed! I did a seminar on Common Core while teaching at a school of primarily migrant students, whose big goal is to get out of the fields and into the warehouse where it’s air-conditioned. College is just a word. Whether they get to eat today is what counts.

    I personally found Common Core utterly offensive. It’s disrespectful of the gifts & talents the American people have to offer the world, the struggles people in poverty experience, many of which are created by outside forces, and it’s prejudiced toward English Language Learners. Not to mention there’s the millions that must go to technology, putting money into, say, Microsoft’s pockets? Totally corrupt.

  5. Anonymous

    The goals of education are lost as we backpeddle into the 1700’s (education to produce workers, support status quo.) Educators must take control by doing what is always best for children. However, in a system immersed in socio-political and economic battlefields, one cannot free the children to learn unless all schools are funded to teach. When classism and economics drives who gets the opportunity to reach full potential as an inventor, researcher, designer or agricultural philanthropist, we all suffer. Do I like the common core? No, but I understand what climate facilitated its inception.

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