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Montana Educator Connects Gaming to Learning

On Wednesday, November 5, Visiting Innovator Paul Andersen shared his wisdom about learning through the lens of video games.
Visiting Innovator Paul Andersen, the 2011 Montana Teacher of the Year and a YouTube EDUGuru with 25 million views and 125 million subscribers, shared his wisdom about learning through the lens of video games with the Middle and Upper School students on Wednesday, November 5. He taught the audience a technique called Memory Palace to help them remember the “five Fs” of learning: fail, focus, flow, fight, and friends.

Mr. Andersen had everyone’s attention when he showed video footage of the first time he used gaming in the classroom. He set up a laptop with the game Angry Birds and a sign marked “play,” then he left the room. Using a webcam to watch the students who sat down at the computer, he became fascinated by the focus in the students’ eyes. “I don’t always see that intense focus in my classroom,” he said.

“Your generation tends to get a bad rap from my generation,” Mr. Andersen said about video gaming. While spending too much time on games is bad, there is something noble that comes from the skills used in gaming and that it offers important lessons about learning. The Memory Palace is a visualization technique used in the classroom to remember details. He connected five virtual rooms with the following guidance for learning.

  • Fail: “Failure is an incredibly good thing; you learn from your mistakes and get up and practice again,” Mr. Andersen said. This phenomenon happens constantly during video games, and players become conditioned to learning how to correct their mistakes.
  • Focus: To explain focus, Mr. Andersen used the Marshmallow Project, a study in which young children either gave in to the temptation of eating a marshmallow when left alone or earning a second marshmallow if they left the first one uneaten. The results were two distinct groups: those who ate right away and those who delayed gratification. The subjects were followed for years, and over time, those who had given in to temptation (i.e. eaten the marshmallow) during the study enjoyed better relationships, better school experiences, and generally better lives. Surmising that the absence of distraction allowed that “type” of learner to focus, Mr. Andersen applied this finding to learning by saying that students need to turn off all the “notifications” in their lives in order to concentrate.
  • Flow: Mr. Andersen said that game designers set games up to have a flow—if a game is too difficult at the beginning, players will quit; if it’s too easy, it becomes boring. If it’s “just right,” time disappears, and learning should be the same way. Students should set up the right conditions for themselves to fully absorb information.
  • Fight: Using the fight versus flight philosophy, Mr. Andersen said that some games require extended planning in the strategy. Some players are naturally “fighters,” and some hang back and tend toward “flight.” He likened this stance to school—“What do the cool kids do in class?” he asked. “They sit back, unengaged,” the equivalent of the “flight” approach. The kids who “fight,” i.e. who get engaged and pay attention, are the ones who take life by the sword.
  • Friends: Acknowledging that he is “old,” Mr. Andersen described his fascination with the earliest video game, “Pong.” The best part about it, he said, was that a person was on the other side playing with you. “Learning should include your friends,” he said, through study groups because talking about information makes it relevant.

Mr. Andersen closed his presentation with two thoughts. The first was that there are two reasons that students usually want to come to school: friends and learning. Involving friends in learning makes it all the more powerful. Secondly, he applied Mahatma Gandhi’s thoughts to his work: “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”

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