I don’t think there is anyone out there that would not agree that society needs some changing.
As an educator, I have a tendency to think that those changes need to start in the school. From 4-5 years old until you are 18 to 23, depending on college, you are influenced by your education. So, we have to take some accountability into the state of society.
The problem with putting the need for change onto the lap of teachers is that we are already burdened with so many other demands that influencing societal change is just another hat we must wear. Sadly, with so much demand, none of it gets done well. Educators need to find ways to streamline the process so that everything can get done in an acceptable fashion.
One way to do this was presented to me in New York City by a non-profit organization called Games for Change. They have created a challenge/curriculum activity that gets more learning done in one activity than I have seen in some semester classes. The activity is for students to create a video game. Simple, right? But how much can a student learn from creating a video game other than computer stuff. We know they will obviously have to learn some coding, some elements of gaming, some graphics design. But really it is all computer stuff. No hard academic content and certainly nothing that would invoke societal change. Not true.
I had an opportunity to visit a New York Inner City School where they are making video games in their classrooms and making a stand on societal change at the same time. The school was the Hudson High School of Learning Technologies, a public school in New York City. Melissa Tortorua was the teacher and the class was remarkable. They were creating video games, yes, learning everything we already mentioned, yes. But they were learning so much more. The game themes had to be in one of four categories: youth justice, animal welfare, smart city, civic journalism. The students had to research the theme of their choice, meet with experts in the field of their choice and then create a game concept that would teach the player of the game about that theme. Now that is smart teaching! Just look at the skills they will learn to do that. Research the topic, communicate with experts, collaborate with colleagues, think critically and problem solve to create a meaningful and challenging game. Sounds like 21st century skills to me.
Ms. Tortorua mentioned to me that she is so excited about what the kids are learning that she never expected, such as the importance of proofreading. As an English teacher she finds proofreading to be so critical. In writing code, one character out of place, one comma, one colon, one mark of any type out of place and the entire program will fail. She has used this coding experience to remind students of the importance of proof reading their work, be it their code or their essay. Now that is a teachable moment at its finest.
I spoke with several of the students in this class. I wanted to know what they thought of this assignment. I wanted to know if they found this worth the time. I want to know what they thought they were learning. The answers were fantastic. They spoke about their social theme as the resident expert and their passion to invoke reform through their game was palpable. They loved the assignment and more than being excited about making a video game they spoke to me as if this is the type of activity they expect to be doing. This is their world and they knew it.
The making of the video game was interesting to them and they felt they were learning a lot about coding, a skill that will be common place for most any job in the future. They understood all the side elements they were learning as well such as collaborating with partners and communicating their ideas. The need to think critically and problem solve to create a game that makes sense both in terms of the mechanics of a game but also the learning aspect of the game was not lost on them at all. But more than that, they wanted to create a new learning experience for anyone who plays their game. They wanted to be a part of changing society. Can a video game change the world? Yes!