Reading Fortune’s Formula by William Poundstone, I find this anecdote about Claude Shannon, the towering genius who invented information theory:

Claude built things with his hands, almost compulsively, from youth to old age. One project was a telegraph set to tap out messages to a boyhood friend. The friend’s house was half a mile away. Shannon couldn’t afford that length of wire. Then one day he realized that there were fences marking the property lines. The fences were made of barbed wire. Shannon connected telegraph keys to each end of the wire fence. It worked. This ability to see clean and elegant solutions to complex problems distinguished Shannon throughout his life.

Ah! Wonderful. Think of the barbed-wire fences in education — then transform them!


The tail end of this interview with Jonathan Blow captures a split in the classroom as well as on the screen. There is the challenge, with bits of story stuck in it. But do the challenge and the story generate each other, or is the challenge just there to space out the story? And is the story just there to give a cognitive shell around the game?

Imagine a unit on the Civil War. For six weeks the students negotiate the steady stream of readings, responses in their notebook, lecture participation, probably a final essay or test. Does any of this feel like a Civil War to you? Of course not — it’s school. It would work the same way for a unit on robotics, or Catcher in the Rye, or what have you. The students are supposed to walk through the steps and pick up bits of Civil War story as they go.

Of course it is more active than that. The students write; the writing forms something in their minds. The same happens with reading, looking at maps, etc. The form of the classroom, if it’s good, is adequate for forming ideas in the students’ heads. Similarly, a good, innovative game can deliver a story as it goes along.

But there isn’t that unity among form and content that would make it profoundly meaningful. Silly though it may be, I recall very vividly a Constitutional Convention we held for a week in my U.S. History class in high school. As 16- and 17-year-olds, we were very attuned to acting, participating, playing a social role, making a claim and defending it. Those actions tied in so deeply with the issues of the Constitution that they got deeply into our bones — we acted out the dynamics of the situation.

How could the structure of a class be shaped by its subject? How about a biology class? A math class?



Interesting article from the Boston Globe about how cities make us dumber. I would make many of the same claims about the design of much of the curriculum students have to deal with. Reading noisy pages is hard for adult readers, as many of the studies in this book by Colin Wheildon show. Put words in all caps, or color, rotate them just a bit or put a shape around them, and they become massively more difficult to read for anyone. But we give kids pages junked up with colors and pictures and cartoon iguanas and screaming words. A bad mistake.

Can schools be charismatic? How about schools within schools? For all the cheese around the book (always be suspicious of books with a numbered list in the title), isn’t it worth a try?

Scholastic invites me, via bulk e-mail, to sell my lesson plans on Teachers Pay Teachers, where teachers sell lesson plans to each other. This strikes me as doomed. For one thing, teachers are a terrible audience for this: They’re cheapskates (and often poor); they’re generally rear-guard adopters of technology; they have their own networks of photocopies and fellow teachers, and consequently usually have more plans than they have time to use.

More than that, however, it feels like it has the rules wrong. It really isn’t the teacher’s role to pay cash for ideas to use in the classroom. Set aside the rather galling idea of teachers funding the classroom ideas with their credit cards. Systems that work well have elegant inputs. This input feels plug-ugly, just not thought through.

How about this: Start every teacher with a set number of credits to spend on lesson plans available on the site. As a teacher, can sell your lesson plans for credits. Add on a premium membership so you can have your lesson plans highlighted or evaluated. Now you’re spending money in the expectation that you’ll earn more credits, which gain you access to more lesson plans — and perhaps a planning tool, which encourages you to build units out of lesson plans.

Or: Schools could buy up these credits, and issue them to each teacher. Give each school a planning tool to build a full curriculum out of lesson plans, which are coded by what they do. Schools can earn back credits by feeding revisions or new plans back into the system. Acknowledge that teachers photocopy (no avoiding it) and only sell each lesson once to the school that buys it.

It needs to feel more like a game. A key to any definition of a game is that it needs at least the illusion that it doesn’t matter, that you can play without consequence. I don’t know of any game that involves taking out your credit card more than one (painful) time, and never up front. It needs a token economy so people can play with it. Otherwise, it hurt too much.

(There’s an analogy here to grades. When students are lagging, teachers sometimes emphasize how real and important grades are. They’re not just tokens, they say; grades have real consequences to your life. This is the opposite of what many students want to hear. They need more play, more lightness, more distance from consequences so they can play.)

So why go on about all this? I’m fascinated by the educational system’s unwillingness to acknowledge itself as a kind of token economy, of grades and events, as a game system with teachers and students as players. Playing within the system is thought to be insincere or trivial. But is it better for our decisions to weigh a lot?

I think there’s an unbounded field of possibility past these kinds of raw maneuvers. Teachers could be building their instruction through creative play. The curriculum could be expressed through game mechanics rather than institutional decree. But first we’d have to tokenize the system, let it become playstuff rather than teachers, up against the wall, opening their pocketbooks.

One of the hardest struggles in building a curriculum is the lumbering feeling of the classroom plan. At the level at which the student experiences it, it doesn’t twist or turn or adapt. Consider Raph Koster’s notes from the Game Designers Conference 2008, especially point#10:

#10: The best content understands exactly how the player likes to play and then makes it slightly harder.

Three scientists at U Essex had looekd at ways to procedurally generate tracks in racing games. And they wondered how to make them interesting, especially for different sorts of players. They called this “tuning for entertainment.”

They quickly disocvered that optimizing track performance is not interesting. A fun track is one where the player almost loses control. Drive fast on straightaways but brake fast on turns.

Rather than guess, they looked at how players performed as they raced and used it as a source to generate new kinds of tracks either live or in advance.

In other words, take how the driver seems to steer, then adapt that steering pattern to make it slightly uncomfortable. Using the player’s steering patterns as a normative reference, the challenges become small adaptations away from that norm. This makes those challenges A) properly scaled to the user; and B) apparent to the user as challenges.

Computer games can be adaptive; can a curriculum built on pencil, paper, photocopies and other paper materials be adaptive as well?

Game spaces


Some time ago I watched my son Elliott play on an appliance at a play area at the Point Defiance Zoo. “Appliance” is an odd word, one I use advisedly. Some game theorists use it for non-games like <I>The Sims</I>, things better thought of as toys than real games with rules and a finish line.

This appliance was a springy mat with holes cut for about 10 sprinkler heads, with lily pads painted around each sprinkler. The sprinklers went on and off, all at different times, spouting a foot-high drizzle while kids hopped around, getting wet.

What I found interesting was the sort of attention everyone — children playing and adults watching — paid to the play. After a moment of watching, it was obvious that the sprinklers were not going off entirely randomly. A few of them, three in a row, went on together most of the time. That group of three seemed to follow a different sprinkler, one with a single long stream. But this sequence — long spout, then group of three — seemed itself to cycle in and out. This was one pattern; there seemed to be others.

It reminded me of growing up in a house with many working antique clocks. I used to pick out the sound of two clocks, which went in and out of cycle, and predict the peaks of both perfect alternation and perfect unison. Then I would center myself among three clocks, which had longer cycles and more variations. I felt satisfied and absorbed, trying to figure out the timing.

I know that listening to out-of-cycle clocks was not a game in strict terms, and neither is playing on the sprinkler mat. But each gives a kind of pleasure that shares in a deep way with the kind of pleasure games give: Figuring out the mechanics, seeing the pattern, testing a prediction against the pattern. It may be the raw stuff, the purely hypnotic part that waits to be given form by more explicit rules and incentives.

And games did break out on the mat. Some kids figured out how to stay just ahead of the sprinklers. Some seemed to want to run through them as they went on, like a driver running green light after green light. The mechanisms of the water going on and off seemed to generate not just play but play against a structure.

Around the same time I played one of Elliott’s favorite “games,” which he calls “zookeeper.” There is no ruleset. We just define the shape of the zoo and keep dividing it into different zones for different animals until the zoo is full. Then we appoint a zookeeper and someone to visit. The actual finish is an anticlimax; neither of us has figured out an interesting event. But the setup is absorbing for Elliott.

Here was the zoo that day:


Simple enough, but there’s a visual pattern there. As I drew this zoo, Elliott marked each with animal space with a different splotch of color and called for different features in each: ponds, plants, troughs.

I remember drawing a ball in front of the pig and saying “Here’s a ball for the pig to play with.” Elliott asked me to draw: “And here are two balls for two zebras, the mama and the baby.” It’s a tiny point, but see: He was spinning variations. I could feel him looking for a pattern to play on. I think the drawing had set the structure, and little pattern-play pieces broke out. This is what I think of as the game space, same as the sprinkler mat or the room of clocks: A structured space which invites variation and extension.

How often does education have this kind of pattern play? Good teachers design for continuity among the elements of the classroom, and an intruiging patterning to the handouts, the seating, the arrangement of the day. I think the wrong sort of structure enervates the room; the right kind, perhaps, creates possibilities.