Archive for October, 2016

Well I’m at a crisis point – probably the same one every PhD student gets to – is there any point in what I am doing?  I’m interested in why so many secondary school students in England are disengaged from learning in their classrooms yet are not disengaged from learning.  How do I know that?  Because I’ve watched children learning out of the classroom in a myriad of ways – from their peers, their parents, on their own – and using different means to do this.

As a Digital Education researcher I am particularly interested in the part that digital means such as games, social media and the internet can play in the so-called ‘informal’ learning context.  I have placed quotation marks around ‘informal’ because I don’t actually see a distinction between formal and informal ‘learning’ but certainly it is the context which tends to change the nature of the learning.  Institutional learning, such as that which is supposed to be happening in schools, is a very different experience for the learner, than that which takes place outside of institutions.  More than anything I think, I am interested in the learning experience rather than the structures or mechanisms which surround it.  However, structures and mechanisms have a profound influence on learning experience.

Why is the learning experience in schools so disengaging for so many students?  Conversely, what is so engaging about the learning experiences available whilst playing games and sharing that experience with others who share your interest?  Perhaps the key lies in that phrase ‘sharing the experience with others who share your interest’.  I haven’t met many school children who are eager to share their school learning experiences with others on YouTube or via social media!  Yet vast numbers of children share what they have learnt and can do in Minecraft on Youtube.  Many children watch other players play their favourite game in order to learn to progress further.  They discuss their strategies when engaged in multiplayer games and allocate roles, defer to expertise in their team or group and spend hours thinking about how to implement ideas.

Minecraft Halloween Castle

Minecraft Halloween Castle

I spent several days playing Minecraft with my two nephews – not only was it a social experience – we constantly chatted as we built together – but I was accepted as an equal once I had established some credentials.  Information was exchanged – my nephews told me about new blocks that were available and what you could use them for, demonstrated complex machines they had built and what their purpose was and I talked about using Minecraft with the adults on the Masters course I tutor on.  What was noticeable was that these children were still willing to accept my greater knowledge in some areas, particularly if it was still in the context of the game but mainly because it was part of the ‘flow’ of narrative we were creating around our activity in Minecraft.  Learning had a context which fitted into their world view or culture.

So what is so different in a classroom environment?  Children are automatically assumed to have nothing to offer in the situation until the teacher has ‘shared’ their knowledge with them.  Children are at an immediate disadvantage in their learning, reliant on the teacher for information and restricted to activity prescribed by the teacher.  They are rewarded if they can memorise this information and produce it during the activity prescribed for this purpose. They don’t get to see the teacher learning alongside them, modelling the approach they would like students to emulate. Students frequently have no opportunity to offer their perspective, wisdom or prior knowledge, either to the teacher or to each other.

This is not the teachers’ fault.  Education in classrooms has become about ‘teaching to the test’.  Curriculum is led by assessment.  Structures and mechanisms in schools are regressing to Victorian times – Gradgrind would have been proud.


“…little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.”

The focus of my research then, was to be a narrative ethnography of disengaged learners who also happened to be game-players.  I hoped to interview learners about their learning experiences when in game-playing environments and compare this to their experiences in the classroom. From their narratives, I hoped to learn, from their perspective, where we might be going wrong in schools. So why the crisis with my research?

Having spent several weeks in June observing lessons, talking to teachers and beginning to talk to students I began to realise how the ‘testing culture’ in schools was going to provide not just a barrier to learning but a barrier to me talking to people about learning. Teachers were constrained by the system they were caught up in – their time was not their own, and in some schools, neither was their thinking.  In the rushed moments I was able to get with them they talked with despair about the demands of the assessment system, the monitoring systems in their schools and over and over, the sheer lack of time to do anything meaningful, either for themselves or for students. They talked about being deprived of their ‘creativity’ and their professional judgement. Students were similarly constrained – in initial discussions they found it very difficult to verbalise or even think about what was meant by ‘learning’, either in the classroom or in games.

So what is the point of my research?  Whatever I discover, can the formal education system ever learn from such research?  Numerous experts have called on the government to implement a more research-led approach to education policy – most of it has fallen on deaf ears.

Secondly, how original is this research?  There are scores of studies into engagement and disengagement in school environments and a myriad of suggested solutions.  There are also a rising number of studies into the value of game-playing social learning techniques and calls for bringing together what children do out-of-school into school.  Where is the gap I will fill with my research?

Thirdly, how can I create the environment or circumstances in which to discuss and immerse myself in young people’s learning experiences outside of school? I am a 56 year old, white middle class woman – as many educational researchers are.  I play games but not many of the popular, multiplayer games which my surveyed group of children play – ‘FIFA’, ‘Grand Theft Auto’ and ‘Call of Duty’.  I don’t have the time to visit individual children in their homes, get to know them and have a level of ease with them and their gameplay to initiate the sort of discussions and narrative I hoped to collect.  Focus group interviews have elicited little of value as children still see these as part of the school experience and myself as the ‘teacher’ despite reassurances to the contrary.

I did have the brilliant idea of setting up (in conjunction with teachers) game clubs in my target schools where children could discuss, share ideas and videos and write reviews and guides to videogames.  Both schools I approached gave me a positive initial response to this idea.  The first school contact is now not in the school and no-one else will respond to my emails.  The second school already had a game club and the teacher who runs it doesn’t want to work with me.

So here we are full circle – I’m having a crisis with my research!

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