Confused on a Higher Level

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At the close of our two days on Bainbridge Island, one of the participants repeated a favorite quote of his, saying that although we had not reached any grand conclusions, we were “confused on a higher level and about more important things.” I think this improvement in the quality of our confusion was a major accomplishment for our conference because it showed that we really had brought together a diverse range of opinions and expertise and engaged with difficult questions.

I was in the science group both days, and we had a challenging—and at times contentious—discussion about how best to match game affordances with difficulties in science pedagogy. We questioned everything, from the merit of teaching the scientific method to the need to design new educational games instead of developing scaffolds for existing commercial games.chart

In the end, we had not settled on one best way to use games: I don’t think there is a best way. Games are not a medium within which a message can be dissolved and easily transmitted. They are messy systems of obstacles that thwart a player’s attempts to reach a goal. While this complexity can make it challenging to easily and effectively use games to support the learning process, it also makes games exciting because they offer so many possibilities.

Commercial games can be scaffolded to help teach difficult concepts, and educational games designed from the ground up also can be very useful for various topics. Group, in-class, non-digital games can have a lot of value, as can single-player video games used at home. Even within game types and genres, decisions about narrative and core mechanic must be carefully made since no one game will appeal to all players and learners. At the conference’s conclusion we had not decided on an optimal way of matching game affordances to pedagogical challenges, but we had discovered a more useful range of questions to guide future design work.


Thinking About “Misconceptions” and Game Play

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A recent special issue of the journal Human Development explored how people go about maintaining and negotiating among multiple belief systems as to how the world works. The articles were directly relevant to an ongoing subject of discussion about Possible Worlds: What does it mean to “overcome” or “displace” a scientific misconception or naïve theory? What, exactly, do we want studens—and adults, for that matter—to achieve in this domain?

There are many ways to talk about this, because when we talk about “misconceptions” we have to tackle a complicated question. As educators, what connections do we want students to establish among what they understand, what they experience, and how they speak? Many science teachers have taken on the notion that students must not only “know about science” but be able to “think like” or “talk like” scientists. This, it would seem, has something to do with not only “knowing” something is true but being able to do something more holistic—to apprehend, to perceive the world from a scientific perspective, and to be able to use scientific language not only properly, but actively. This last point is certainly a critical one in the Common Core Standards for literacy, which explicitly describe the content areas as disciplines—not bodies of information, but perspectives on the world that shape knowledge through language.

We need to hold onto this perspective when we think about “correcting” or “displacing” students’ misconceptions or naïve theories. Maybe the classic scientific misconceptions—those topics that are so difficult for any of us to understand in a scientifically accurate way—give us, and our students, a special opportunity to see clearly that we are able to hold onto multiple ways of understanding a single phenomenon. Even as we work to help students build scientifically accurate conceptions of what clouds are, what electricity is, or how photosynthesis works, we may also need to remind ourselves that our other conceptions—our naïve theories—have their own value, too, and do not need to be extinguished, just put in their place.

The work at hand is about recognizing that we bring different lenses to the same phenomena at different times—and, critically, that those different lenses have different empirical claims to truth, but may all do useful work for us. We do need to be able to think like scientists, and to talk about scientific knowledge. But that doesn’t mean we have to abandon other ways of experiencing the world.


Video Games Reveal the Invisible World of Science

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In “Gaming Reveals the Invisible World of Science,” an article for the STEM Matters series on the Ashoka Foundation’s changemakers website, Dr. Katherine Culp was interviewed at length about Possible Worlds and our research into the ways that video games may be used to target common misconceptions of middle-school science students.

Click here to read the interview.


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