Educational Games: How Market Forces and Purchaser Attitudes Drive Design

Paper presented at the Australian Computers in Education Conference – October 2006 by Sylvia Martinez

2017 Note: This is a paper I wrote in 2006 about educational games. I’m posting it here so it can be found online.. Although more than 10 years have gone by since I wrote it, most of it is still true. In fact, the rise of online games have further decreased prices for educational games and reinforced many of the points made in this paper. – SM

Introduction

When educators look at video and computer game players, they see young people suddenly transformed into attentive learners, willing to spend inordinate personal time learning to master complex situations. These same students, however, may not devote similar dedication to school-related activities. It is natural to wonder what we can transfer from popular mass-market games to games that serve a more educational purpose.

There is no doubt that video and computer games have positive educational outcomes for the users. In an in-depth literature review, Alice Mitchell and Carol Savill-Smith conclude that there is “…the use of such games can stimulate the enjoyment, motivation and engagement of users, aiding recall and information retrieval, and can also encourage the development of various social and cognitive skills.” (Mitchell & Savill-Smith 2004).

Many studies look at social and behavioural impacts found after video and computer game playing. Some investigate the relationship between academic performance and video game playing. Often, these studies conclude with predictions that such games could be designed to promote and nurture more academic interests.

In this article, “video games” are games designed for a specific hardware console such as Nintendo GameCube and GameBoy, Microsoft X-box, and Sony PlayStation. “Computer games” are designed for use on personal computers, either by running application software on the computer or playing a game online. As time goes on, these distinctions blur, but the markets are different enough to make this distinction in this article.

This article, written by an educator who also designed and published video games as well as computer software for the home and school markets, explores some of the consumer attitudes and current market forces that control the design of video games and educational software, and why these forces tend to undermine, rather than further the hope for designing educational games.

How And Why Video And Computer Games Get Made

It’s pretty simple — video and computer games get made because some of them make a lot of money. Predicting what will sell, however, is not that simple. Video and computer games are often created by devoted fans of games, who either work for large publishers or small development companies. These games are then “pitched,” much like Hollywood movies, to a publisher. If a publisher decides that a concept will make money, it is funded; then years of programming, marketing campaigns, and testing begin. These publishers spend millions of dollars so that these games have a chance of making millions more. In the consumer game industry, literally thousands of demos and concepts are pitched for every game that is funded, and there are hundreds of concepts that never make it out of pre-production and testing onto store shelves. Very much like Hollywood, it is a game of high stakes, big profits for a small few, and many good ideas ending up on the cutting room floor.

The two major markets for games created for children are the consumer (home) and institutional (mainly K-12 schools) markets. Each of these delivers its products in different ways to the purchaser, and finally, to the user (the child or student). These markets are controlled by the perceptions and needs of the primary purchaser of the product, and in both cases, these markets are not direct – meaning that the end user is different than the purchaser. This tends to push publishers to fund games where the primary purpose is to interest the purchaser rather than the user. Although this may seem short-sighted, these publishers are often in a race with their counterparts to rack up quick profits to impress stockholders and investors.

For educational games, looking at the purchasing decision factors for each of these markets gives insight into how these forces and attitudes impact game design.

Consumer Market – Why Parents Buy Educational Games

A primary concern for most parents is that their child does well in school; educational games are a means to that end. Whether the goal is to remediate a struggling student or give an advanced student an extra edge, success in school is at the core of most educational game purchase decisions. When parents look for educational games that match their child’s perceived need, they use the vocabulary of school to make that decision. A bad grade in spelling will mean a spelling game; a parent who wants their child taking algebra next year will look for a game that promises to teach algebra. It is the rare parent indeed who takes the logical leap from bad grade in math to purchasing a chess tutor.

Many parents however, are quite willing to purchase games that look fun, and acknowledge that their children learn a lot from games such as chess tutors, logic puzzles, or historical simulations. The contradiction comes, however, when these games are touted as educational. To parents, “educational” means school, and is not equivalent to “learning.” This dichotomy between schooling and learning is prevalent in parents and children of all ages.

In addition, parents make a subtle distinction between computer games and video games. Parents universally perceive video games as a recreational “break” for their children; they will not purchase video games labelled as educational. Parents have more variability when the computer is involved, as they see the computer as intrinsically educational. Most often, their purchase of computer software for their children is based on a perceived balance of fun and education. When parents asked about their reasons for a computer purchase, they will often put “education” at the top of their list. Purchasing educational software for the computer reinforces the wisdom of that investment.

Consumer Market – Parents and Students Decide What “Educational” Means

The perception of what is educational is a key factor in the decision to purchase an educational game. Parents are the primary purchaser; publishers know this and create the game to meet those expectations. Often, the purchase of such a game will be based on what the parent thinks education “looks like”. Even though parents are not bound by strict rules about standards and assessment, they are still bound by their own experience of schoolwork. If there are numbers, plus signs and such on the screen, it’s math. If there are questions about state capitols, it’s social studies. More subtle games that allow the player to explore more sophisticated mathematical, logic or problem-solving concepts, or allow long open-ended simulations will be overlooked because the screen images on the box do not “look like math.”

Students learn as well at an early age how to distinguish between games and schooling. As a director of a company that produced educational games, I regularly attended usability tests of games in production. Students would often comment that they felt that a game was not educational because it was “too fun”. They thought that an educational game needed to look like what they were seeing at school, and they had very strict rules about what that meant. School’s tendency to divide learning up into math, language arts, science and social studies resulted in these students quickly dismissing anything outside those boundaries as being educational. Students tend to learn the lesson of “school” very quickly and know that activities outside those boundaries are not rewarded. Integrated activities or games that teach skills outside these rigid divisions are not seen as educational, although students who have interests in that area are willing to play them. Since this is an indirect market, however, the question is not, “will children like the game,” but “will parents buy the game.” Both parents and schools are unwilling to purchase educational software that is not seen as supporting the goals of school as defined by these overwhelmingly common perceptions.

School Market – Why Educational Institutions Buy Educational Games

Schools are under extreme pressure to meet demands for increased accountability and test scores. The content of games is therefore tied to mandated curriculum standards, which list the things that students must know in a certain grade level. Most of these standards also envision a way to make sure that students know these things, and mandate the types of outcomes that will show that the students have mastered the content that matches these standards. The game therefore must correlate to these standards and provide assessment vehicles so the students’ progress through these standards can be measured. If this does not happen, the game will have a very limited market in schools.

School Market – Content And Assessment Focus Drives Out Fun

While making a game fun, educational game designers often find that the games do not fall into neat curriculum categories, teach mandated subject matter, or deliver as much content as the customer is demanding. This essential dilemma, with curriculum and assessment driving the design of educational software, means the fun will be sacrificed, player interest will ebb and ultimately, the educational game will have no impact on learning.

“What is best about the best games is that they draw kids into some very hard learning. Did you ever hear a game advertised as being easy? What is worst about school curriculum is the fragmentation of knowledge into little pieces. This is supposed to make learning easy, but often ends up depriving knowledge of personal meaning and making it boring. Ask a few kids: the reason most don’t like school is not that the work is too hard, but that it is utterly boring.” – Papert, Does Easy Do It?

Games may (or may not, depending on the research you read) increase standardized test scores, but they aren’t something that a student will devote time and energy to voluntarily as they do with a video game. Some educational games go to great efforts to substitute the made-up worlds of video games with realistic educational worlds built to reproduce curriculum content. However most educational games focus on low-level topics of simple literacy and arithmetic. The analytical rigor, ingenuity and passion reserved for the most popular video games are seldom invoked by educational computer games.

“The secret of a videogame as a teaching machine isn’t its immersive 3-D graphics, but its underlying architecture. Each level dances around the outer limits of the player’s abilities, seeking at every point to be hard enough to be just doable. In cognitive science, this is referred to as the regime of competence principle, which results in a feeling of simultaneous pleasure and frustration – a sensation as familiar to gamers as sore thumbs.”

James Paul Gee, a reading professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison ‘What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy’

Market Forces

Video and computer game designers face constraints placed on them by the market realties that exist in today’s retail world. When a company makes a decision to create a game, they want to put their money into games that will make them the most return on their investment. Game designers work hard to create a game that will look great, play well, be engaging, and offer the player an experience that surpasses anything else they have done before. If they are lucky, the market rewards their vision. However, for educational game designers, life is a lot more complicated.

Consumer Market Realities

The consumer market for video and computer games is undergoing extreme pricing pressure that makes it very risky for publishers to invest the large amounts of money it takes to produce, market, and sell these games. In the past ten years, the retail price of children’s computer games (games developed for a personal computer) has dropped from over $40 (US) to less than $10 (US). Although there are ways that an independent publisher can market and sell computer games over the Internet and avoid the pressures of the retail market, these channels are far less lucrative than retail stores.

The market for video games has remained slightly more stable with less price erosion. However, development costs have skyrocketed. For video games to be commercially viable, the development costs range from 5-60 million dollars (US). This does not include the costs associated with marketing and putting the product on retail shelves, which can often exceed the development budget. To make matters worse, games sales are tracked by major retailers weekly, and a game that does not sell well within a few weeks will be pulled off the shelves to make room for something that will make more money. This does not allow for a game to develop a word of mouth or build a reputation – the game must be promoted with expensive marketing to make sure that the early sales are high. If not, the game will be returned to the publisher or put in the bargain bin in a matter of weeks. For a company to invest tens of millions of dollars in a new game, they want to be assured of success.

The Consumer Market For Educational Games

Computer and video games for children, whether educational or not, are usually less expensive to produce than games for adults. However, they are under similar pressure from retailers to sell quickly. Retailers are often reluctant to put any box on the shelf that they do not instantly recognize as a potential “hit”, so they will tend to choose software for children, educational or not, based on licensed characters from popular television shows and movies. In addition, since computer and video games made for a youth audience sell many fewer units than those created for adults, profits margins tend to be very small. Any money spent on game development reduces that already slim chance for profit.

These two factors combine to force publishers to spend as little money as possible on educational game development. This is why computer games for youth tend to be retreads of older software, or simple game engines reused endlessly, yet updated with the latest popular cartoon character. There is just not enough money to be made if you have to develop new programming or richer experiences for the player. Adding expensive licensed characters adds to the problem. This is why most games come with the same set of dot-to-dot, jigsaw puzzle, word search, and matching activities, disguised with new character animation. No wonder consumers purchase fewer and fewer educational software products every year, even as prices continue to fall.

For video game systems, there are no educational games being developed. The hardware console manufacturers control this market. These manufacturers, Nintendo (Game Cube and Game Boy), Sony (PlayStation), and Microsoft (Xbox) control all games developed and produced for their platforms. Every game design must pass through their approval process. Their goal is to market their game systems to hard-core gamers because they are the ones who spend the most money. These manufacturers are in a high-stakes race to continually prove to these gamers that their console is the best choice. They cannot allow their systems to be perceived as being for children, because it “devalues” the brand. They therefore discourage video games for children because this contravenes their carefully crafted image and creates mixed marketing messages. The only ones that may pass the approval process have to have tie-ins with licensed characters currently starring in hit movies or TV shows. Without the approval of the game system manufacturer, there is no way to bring a game to market. These manufacturers also require a hefty royalty for every unit sold, further reducing any chance of profitability.

These market pressures combine with the hard fact that video games labelled as educational have sold dismally. Finally, proprietary consoles like the Leapfrog systems have replaced educational game purchasing for many parents. Unfortunately, these consoles do not allow for sophisticated game design.

The School Market For Educational Games

The school market for educational software provides some hope for educational game designers. Since schools will pay more than consumers for software, there should be more money to develop good educational games. However, the hard numbers behind a potential game for schools are just not enough to justify a software publisher to spend the tens of millions of dollars necessary to produce top quality games. A successful computer or video game has the potential to sell a hundred thousand or more units in a few weeks; a top selling computer game sold only in schools would be amazingly lucky to sell that many in four years. Traditional publishers, especially publicly traded ones, simply can’t tell their shareholders that they choose to spend their money on something with a low, slow return on their investment.

This is a reason that educational software companies have almost completely turned their backs on educational games. If they still choose to sell to schools, they are concentrating their development and sales efforts on large instructional learning systems that can cost schools tens of thousands of dollars, even up to a million dollars for large installations. It is more efficient to make one sale for a hundred thousand dollars than to sell a thousand units of an educational game for $100 each. Inherent in the sale of these large systems is the promise that they will cover massive amounts of content and provide assessment data for the school system. Schools look for comprehensive “solutions” that will give all students and teachers the same experience, reduce technical support headaches, and provide easy to read assessment reports.

To compound the extreme cost of these systems, standards and assessment criteria differ from state-to-state and between nations, making the individually customized development of these games more expensive, a cost that the publishers pass along to schools.

All these factors drive the design of educational software for schools towards the management of the content pool and delivery of assessment data and away from providing compelling experiences that energize, inspire, and engage.

Games Developed By Non-Traditional Publishers – Escaping The Market

There has been general recognition by many educational game designers that these market forces will not allow an educational game to be published by traditional methods. Having a non-profit completely fund the game development, for example, has worked for some games designed to help sick children come to terms with aspects of their disease and treatment. Some of these games have been distributed through hospitals and medical foundations, through which they reach their intended audience. Games designed by educational organizations have been created outside of the traditional publisher model, and more are in production now.

However, the market has two parts that work hand in hand. Design and dissemination work together to bring games to the market that are, in turn, bought by customers. This brings in the money to fund the next round of design and development. It works to reward the best-selling games in a very traditional capitalistic way. Both consumer and school markets work this way, and are being driven by the forces previously described. It is unlikely that games that do not fit into the current market expectations will be able to survive without a continual source of funding for both development and dissemination. And by the way, it’s not even enough to give it away for free. Schools especially are hard pressed for time, and bringing in new programs that do not meet promise to fully meet every goal of the set curriculum is just not worth it. There may be instances of individual teachers integrating the game into their classrooms, but this would be a very small drop in the bucket. Busy parents will not even bother taking a free game, especially if it does not fit into their perception of their needs. Their own time is more valuable than that.

For video games, a non-traditional publisher would still be required to go through the hardware manufacturers for approval. These manufacturers, as previously stated, are in a high-stakes competition with each other to show that they are the biggest, baddest, and most hard-core of all. It would take a sustained, high-level effort for a non-traditional publisher to have any console company take their effort seriously. In addition, since video game systems are used in the home, not at school, this puts the parent back into the role of purchaser, with the inherent consumer market forces at work once again.

On the consumer side, reaching the mass market of consumers is an expensive proposition. Advertising alone makes up at least half the budget of any consumer game, and the entrenched audience of hard-core gamers is an “easy to reach” audience in the view of the marketers. They tend to disseminate information very efficiently through their own fan discussion boards, read similar magazines, and pay a lot of attention to new game releases. The path to reaching the mass consumer audience of parents is much more difficult.

The promise of the Internet has been that any publisher could reach any consumer. The hope for this channel is that educational games could reach directly to children, without having to conform to the expectations of the parent or the school. However, we aren’t quite there yet. Even though the Internet has grown considerably into homes and schools, the expectation is that it should be “free.” Parents routinely equate their ISP bill with their purchase of cable TV or other entertainment options. There is no viable paid option at this point for children, although some of the biggest names in children’s entertainment have tried. Today, advertising typically pays for popular sites for children, with some toy manufacturers having some success promoting their own products (Neopets). This model, however, seems ripe for the kinds of regulation that changed the face of children’s television and brought us the likes of Sesame Street.

Given these facts, the difficulty of dissemination would most likely be pretty demoralizing to any institution that has devoted millions of dollars and years of effort in the hope that it would significantly impact education. That kind of investment would require at least some hope of reaching a wide audience for even the most benevolent non-profit to consider it a success.

Conclusion

Educationally meaningful game software requires substantial shifts in attitudes towards education both in the consumer, publisher, and designer community. It’s not as easy as plugging school content into a video game engine. In addition, success would require changes in the retail environment, a change in the current content-based assessment focus in schools, or need to rely on massive funding and patience from non-traditional sources of funding for game development and dissemination.

Does this mean that it is impossible? Of course not. These markets are changing rapidly and there is a high likelihood that channels that are small or even not invented yet will become mainstream. The key is to understand how current market forces work to impact game design, and decide how (or whether) a game design will conform to these expectations. The best news is that if we accept that non-traditional publishing is required for educational game design, designers do not have to feel constrained by current rules. Freeing educational game designers from mandated curriculum, outdated assessment practices, and mass-market cartoon characters may be the only way that educational games can make that paradigm shift — creating the marriage of fun, engagement and academic legitimacy that has so far been an elusive goal.

References

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. Harper & Row, Inc. New York, NY

Gee, P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy Palgrave MacMillan, New York, NY.

Hawkins, D. (2002), The informed vision; essays on learning and human nature. Algora Publishing, New York, NY.

Mitchell A. and Savill-Smith, C. (2004) The use of computer and video games for learning. A review of the literature. Learning Skills and Development Agency, Ultralab, London, UK Available online: www.lsda.org.uk/files/PDF/1529.pdf

Papert, S., Does Easy Do It? (1998). From the June 1998 issue of Game Developer magazine, “Soapbox” section, page 88. Also included is a letter in response to Papert’s article and Papert’s response to that letter, both of which appeared in the September 1998 issue of the magazine. www.papert.org/articles/Doeseasydoit.html

 

Is “making” in education a fad or a lasting change?

In part 1 of this two part series, I shared four attributes of ideas about education that successfully become common knowledge. In this post, part 2, the topic is whether making and makerspaces in education are here to stay or whether they will fade in popularity.

According to  From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse: How Scholarship becomes Common Knowledge in Education by Jack Schneider, there are four attributes that are key to educational ideas moving into the mainstream:

  1. Perceived significance
  2. Philosophical compatibility
  3. Occupational realism
  4. Transportability

Read more about these attributes in Part 1 – 4 keys that predict which education ideas will be more than just a fad. The examples used to illustrate these points are:

The current interest in schools in making and makerspaces has many parallels to these examples. Looking at each one of these attributes under a “maker” microscope is an interesting exercise!

Perceived significance

People have to hear about it and believe it’s important. It has to address a timely, significant issue on teacher’s minds. It also has to come from a place that inspires believability. (To be blunt on this last point, prestigious university credentials matter.)

  • The maker movement came at an opportune time for the resurgence of the idea that children learn through hands-on, minds-on experiences. Having popular media create a widespread acceptance that DIY and crafts are modern and futuristic helps with the adoption of this idea.
  • Having multiple, prestigious universities like Stanford, MIT, and Harvard doing research that supports making in education is important. The intellectual pedigree may be seen as elitist, but there is no doubt that it works as shorthand for establishing credibility.
  • It jigsaws with two contemporary concerns without really taking a side:
    1. The current interest in STEM/STEAM education driven by a perceived lack of preparation of today’s youth for jobs in important industries.
    2. The concern that young people do not see school as relevant to their real passions, including wanting to make the world a better place as opposed to making money.

Philosophical compatibility

Educators often complain that scholars don’t have any idea what happens in real classrooms. Scholars complain that educators rely on folk wisdom and tradition rather than research. But when scholarship validates what teachers feel, it has a special resonance.

  • Making is an obvious backlash to the standards and accountability movements of the last 30 years. It gives teachers a concrete way to put their beliefs–-or at least an answer to their nagging doubts–-into practice.
  • The maker movement can be seen through a number of lenses: personal accountability, a new economic engine, techno-centrism, globalism, practical skills, community involvement, ecology, etc. These attributes transfer to making in education, creating a chameleon that takes whatever shape educators and the community desire.
  • Like Bloom’s Taxonomy, the vagueness of “maker education” might be an asset in more widespread adoption.

Occupational realism

The idea has to be easily put into use. It must not require extensive training or major changes to existing structures and practices.

  • This is an ongoing issue for making in education. If it requires a wholesale shakeup in the way a school is run, the subjects that are taught, and the way teachers teach, that is a big lift. It may, like the project method, become an add-on practice.

Seymour Papert often compared the way school reacts to big ideas like the computer as an immune system response. School identifies a foreign idea, overwhelms it, and neutralizes it.

“Previously teachers with a few computers in the classroom were using them to move away from the separation of subject matters, and the breakup of the day. When the administration takes over they make a special room, and they put the computers in that room and they have a computer period with a computer teacher. Instead of becoming something that undermines all these antiquated teachings of school, computers became assimilated. It is inherent in school, not because teachers are bad or schools are bad, but in all organisms that have come to a stable equilibrium state in the world, that they have a tendency to preserve the inertia they have. So school turned what could be a revolutionary instrument into essentially a conservative one. School does not want to radically change itself. The power of computers is not to improve school but to replace it with a different kind of structure.” http://www.papert.org/articles/SchoolsOut.html

Re-read the paragraph above replacing “makerspace” for “computer lab” and “3D printer” (or your favorite maker technology) for “computer.” Has anything changed?

It was certainly a good thing that children got access to computers. But in many schools, students only learned to use computers to take notes, write reports, and look things up–-hardly new ways to learn. Computer labs and computer classes instead resulted in schools being satisfied that they were using modern technology without having to actually change the content or pedagogy of any “regular” class. The computer lab became a misdirection, an excuse for the status quo, rather than a driver of change.

How will it feel, if two years or twenty years from now we look back and say exactly the same thing about makerspaces? That we built them, we tried to integrate making into the curriculum, we thought it would change everything–but nothing happened.

When schools insist that making fit into existing curriculum and subjects, it’s reasonable to agree and to try to create materials that help teachers do that. The risk is twofold: 1. If this doesn’t happen and making is not in the curriculum, it will always be on the outside, not a core need or intent of school and not impacting most students. 2. If we do make it work in the curriculum, it will simply be muted, and gradually absorbed as the school creates a new stable equilibrium without really making any change to the lived experiences of the students.

Either of these choices ends up with nothing really changing.

The other option, as Papert points out, is to replace school with a “different kind of structure.” Is that giving up… or facing reality?

Can educators have their feet pointed in two directions at once–both working to drastically change the system and at the same time, assisting students in the current system to have a better experience? Is “occupational realism” a death sentence for ideas that are truly revolutionary?

Transportability

The research and terminology must be easily understood. It must have both a big idea that can be quickly expressed, and simple parts that support the whole.

  • The good thing about “making” is that it’s an easy word to understand. Students need to do things, and educators can visualize that happening at every grade level, and perhaps with a little help, in every subject area.
  • It embodies the commonly understood ideals of the project method, plus embraces more modern versions like PBL. To that it adds a bundle of futuristic and cool tools to work with.

A note about independent schools

Private independent schools have been early and enthusiastic adopters of making in education. While it is easy to point to these schools having the financial resources to purchase expensive technology, there are deeper reasons that making resonates with independent schools. This was also true of the theory of Multiple Intelligences. In his book, Schneider makes the case that independent schools, primarily elite, non-parochial schools were primary drivers for the popularity of MI.

  • Independent schools are typically more progressive than public schools. MI provided new support for these ideals and scientific language to communicate these progressive ideals to parents and staff.
  • Independent schools are typically freer than public schools to try new approaches and curriculum than public schools. Using MI to recalibrate activities in the classrooms was seen as part of the school mission, not as disruptive.
  • At a time where schools were being called failures and under duress to teach in a more rigorous, standardized way, MI gave independent schools a way to push back on this trend and claim that their progressive methods were scientifically based.
  • As a market-driven organization, independent schools constantly need new things to prove to parents that they are worth the money. MI was an understandable concept, and validated by the  Harvard pedigree, an easy sell to parents.
  • Independent schools have traditionally valued the arts, MI provided a way to say that the arts were not detracting from academics.
  • Independent schools catered to parental expectations that their child would be treated as an individual. MI provided clarity that personalization could be  scientifically based, not just left to chance.

There are certainly noteworthy parallels between MI and the adoption of making and makerspaces in independent schools. It is good to note that in many cases, the adoption of MI in independent schools created examples of practice that made their way into public schools. MI supporters were found in many communities, working to make all schools happier and more humane.

Is “Making” going to stick?

Will making in education have a lasting effect on education, or will it become just another “new new thing” that is overtaken by some newer new thing? It certainly has the perceived significance. Both academic credentials and cultural trends are working in its favor. It has philosophical compatibility with many teachers and parents too. They see children starving in a desert of worksheets and tests and know there must be a better way.

There may be more to worry about in other areas. In some cases it has transportability, especially when using simplified models like Design Thinking. The problem is that simplified models and canned lesson plans are a double-edged sword. As they helps teachers with operational realities, it removes agency from the teacher. Is it inevitable that creating a version of making in education that is widely acceptable will by its nature create unacceptable compromises?

It may be that countries other than the United States hold the answer. American teachers have the least amount of professional preparation time in the world. They participate in less professional development, have less time to plan lessons, and spend less time with colleagues. The US is a large country with a fractured educational governance and dissemination path for educational information. US teachers are underpaid, overworked, and given all these realities, may simply not be in a position to undertake changes.

While educational theorists often talk about wanting to scale good practice, there may be such a thing as “too big to scale,” especially when it comes to complex ideas.

For proponents of making in education, the longevity and widespread adoption of ideas like Multiple Intelligences offers hope that making will become a long-term trend in schools.

Part 1 – 4 Keys to Predicting Lasting Trends in Education

Part 2 – Is Making a Long-term Trend or Just a Fad?

4 keys that predict which education idea will be more than just a fad

Why do some ideas about education become common knowledge, while others don’t? According to  From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse: How Scholarship becomes Common Knowledge in Education by Jack Schneider, there are four key attributes:

  1. Perceived significance
  2. Philosophical compatibility
  3. Occupational realism
  4. Transportability

The book explores educational ideas that made the leap from academia to being something that “every” teacher knows about:

Tracking the history of these ideas as they journeyed from research to practice is a fascinating look not just at education, but also politics, culture, personalities, and pure luck. Contrasting each these ideas with four similar ones that did not receive the same attention makes the case even more compelling.

The 4 characteristics of sticky educational ideas

In part 1 of this blog post, I’ll summarize the four characteristics that are commonly found in ideas that become “sticky” and well known to educators. In part 2, I’ll compare those ideas and practices with the current trend of making and makerspaces in schools. Will “making” be a sticky idea?

1 – Perceived significance: People have to hear about the idea multiple  and believe it’s important. It has to address a timely, significant issue on teacher’s minds. It also has to come from a place that inspires believability. (To be blunt on this last point, prestigious university credentials matter.)

For example, Multiple Intelligence theory helped teachers explain that students who don’t do well in school aren’t simply unintelligent. At a time when school was becoming more standardized (1980s), it was a big picture explanation of how teachers could still meet student needs without really changing curriculum. Coming from Howard Gardner, a respected Harvard professor, meant that it would be listened to, talked about, and taken seriously.

2 – Philosophical compatibility: Educators often complain that scholars don’t have any idea what happens in real classrooms. Scholars complain that educators rely on folk wisdom and tradition rather than research. But when scholarship validates what teachers feel, it has a special resonance.

At the turn of the 20th century, rote learning and recitation were the primary modes of schooling. Many teachers felt that there was more to learning, but were powerless to change the system. William Kilpatrick, on the faculty of Columbia University’s Teachers College wrote about what he called “the project method.” It validated teachers’ feelings that something was wrong. It offered an explanation that made sense, and a way to operationalize that in a classroom.

3 – Occupational realism: The idea has to be easily put into use. It must not require extensive training or major changes to existing structures and practices.

Both Bloom’s taxonomy and MI had occupational realism in that teachers didn’t have to change very much to feel like they were using these scientific methods in their classroom.

In the book’s discussion of “the project method,” the practical application in the classroom was its weakest point. It wasn’t clear how to do it, and even if it was possible, seemed to call for a complete overhaul of chool structures and curriculum. Therefore it was mostly adopted as something that happened every once in a while as an add-on to the curriculum. As time went on, widespread adoption of formulaic projects subverted the power and promise of the idea. The book discusses the spread of the “California Mission Project” as an example. (For those of you not in California, every fourth grader in California builds a model of a Spanish mission, and has for decades.) The poor implementation of the project method on its way to occupational realism was the price paid for its widespread acceptance and endurance.

The review of why Direct Instruction became so widespread is especially interesting. It violates the second principle of “philosophical compatibility” because many teachers do not believe in scripted curriculum. However, at the time (late 1960s), political pressure for accountability and cost reductions required a curriculum that did not need a highly trained professional, yet produced increased standardized test scores. Despite complaints that students were being treated like trained animals, politics and budget cuts overwhelmed that objection.

DI solved multiple problems. It made it easier to spend less on teacher training and teacher salaries, increased test scores, allowed larger class sizes, and satisfied the “back to basics” movement all at the same time. The occupational realism of Direct Instruction was above all, institutional and political, rather than classroom centered.

4 – Transportability: The research and terminology must be easily understood. It must have both a big idea that can be quickly expressed, and simple parts that support the whole.

Bloom’s Taxonomy started off as an assessment scheme, a way to be more objective by defining different kinds of questions for students to answer. It quickly leaked out of assessment, as educators applied the structure to every part of the educational process from planning onwards, taking Bloom’s into a whole new area for which it had not been intended.

As time went on, the original complex definitions were simplified and recast as a pyramid that implied a progression from bottom to top. Teachers started seeing the drawing of the pyramid everywhere in their professional lives, and every instance reinforced the idea that it was reliable. This cycle of positive reinforcement-–of exposure validating reliability, and so in turn creating more exposure–-is typical of ideas that gain traction.

Original Bloom’s Taxonomy

Fifty years before Bloom, MI, and DI, “the project method” found its way to millions of teachers. It had a persuasive and tireless advocate in William Kilpatrick, from Columbia University’s Teachers College. He was an ambitious academic who wanted more than just scholarly fame. He convinced the publication Teachers College Record to publish his article, “The Project Method” and give it away for free to teachers. Sixty thousand copies were printed and distributed nationwide. Thousands of subsequent papers and articles were written about the project method and its application to all grade levels and subjects.

Although not a new idea, Kilpatrick wrote in a clear and less formal manner than many academics, including his teacher and mentor John Dewey. Kilpatrick was also genuinely interested in real classrooms. While some of his colleagues complained that he was a self-promoter tarnishing the reputation of academia, the results spoke for themselves.

The project method made such an inroad into teacher education in the first half of the 20th century that it became a part of every teacher’s classroom practice up to this day. The resurgence of various project methods in the 1960’s and 70’s (PBL, The Project Approach, etc) simply built on this collective consciousness of the idea from a half century earlier.

The project method became so popular that “project” became a term of art, not a specific method tied to one person. One can only assume that Professor Kilpatrick would be a bit miffed by this.

Ideas make their way into the world

The book creates a case that one of the reasons that most of these ideas took hold was that they were both specific and general at the same time. They also had a wide variety of interpreters and promoters who helped spread the message.

Bloom’s Taxonomy gave teachers a new way to look at classroom practice, yet didn’t require any particular belief or theory of pedagogy to implement. If you were progressive, it matched your understanding that growth is at least as important as learning specific facts. If you were more of a traditionalist, it provided a path from content to deeper understanding. The lack of opposition was an opportunity for it to spread widely. Everyone saw what they wanted reflected in an idea from a highly respected source. Schneider says the taxonomy was, “… an idea that somehow had the power to generate multiple constituencies without sparking opposition.”

Various providers of professional development created materials that further examined Bloom’s Taxonomy and provided specific curriculum and lesson planning advice. For the time, Bloom was remarkably open about supporting various groups, authors, and companies to interpret his work. These satellite disseminators made it easier to access the work, and even though some complained that it was misinterpreted or diluted, it was widely spread. These providers helped the idea gain the operational realism that it lacked in earliest incarnations. They answered the question — What would a teacher DO exactly, in a classroom where Bloom’s Taxonomy was a driving idea?

What does this mean for today’s ideas about making in education?

In part 2 of this post, I’ll take a look at how “making” in education aligns with these four traits.

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Taking maker education to scale – interesting findings from FabLearn Denmark schools

Next week I’ll be hosted by the FabLearn DK (also known as Fablab@schools DK) network, a group of 44 (and growing) schools in four municipalities in Denmark: Kolding, Vejle, Silkeborg and Aarhus. These schools share resources, professional development, and expertise in their quest to engage students in high quality fabrication, design, and engineering experiences within the context of existing schools.

I’ll be one of the keynotes at FabLearn DK (sold out!) — but more importantly, I’ll be meeting and working with educators and learning from them. I’m very excited and honored that I can spend a week with these schools.

This is potentially a model of the elusive “scale” that so many educators seek from “maker education.”

An integral part of this effort is that a team from the University of Aarhus, led by Ole Sejer Iversen, has been documenting and conducting research from the start of the project to study how digital fabrication could promote 21st century skills in educational contexts. Here are some preliminary (draft) results from one report to be released very soon.

Fablab@school.dk status 2017

  • Number of fablab@school.dk (schools): 44
  • Teachers engaged: 1,160
  • Students engaged: 12,000

Scaling the Fablab@school initiative towards 2019 (estimates)

  • Number of fablab@school.dk (schools): 61
  • Teachers engaged: 3,050
  • Students engaged: 19,100

In a 2016 survey study with 450 fablab@school.dk affiliated students (aged 11-15) and 15 in-depth interviews we found that:

  • FabLab students improved their understandings of digital fabrication technologies and design
  • FabLab students gained experience with a range of digital fabrication technologies
  • FabLab students found the work with digital fabrication technologies motivating, interesting, and useful for their futures. They “liked” FabLab, “loved projects with digital fabrication”, and “learned a lot.”
  • Learning outcomes and motivation were very dependent on schools and teachers*

Also quoting from the draft:

There were large variations within the FabLab group with regard to the number of technologies used, design process structuring, student motivation, and students’ self-perceived knowledge, as well as on self- perceived learning outcomes such as creativity with digital fabrication technologies, abilities to critically reflect on the use of digital technologies, and complex problem solving. The variations among groups of schools followed a pattern in which higher numbers of technologies, more knowledge of the design process model, higher motivation, and better learning outcomes appeared to be connected.

In schools in which students used a wide range of technologies, worked with own ideas with a diverse range of digital technologies, and had their work scaffolded and structured around the AU Design Process Model** to a high degree, students reported that they had on average become better at imagining change with technology, at working creatively with technology, at understanding how new technologies are created, and at understanding how technology is affecting our lives as well as at solving complex problems. Thus, the FabLab@School.dk project did initiate the development of Design literacy among some students. However, it was very much up to chance, what education in digital fabrication and design processes, the students received.

My notes:
* Shocking, eh? (NOT) The full report goes into more detail on these variations, but it’s no surprise that when you give people more agency, they tend to do unique things. Can we all strive for excellence? Sure – but that’s not the same as everyone doing the same thing. Scale does not have to mean replication. More on this later.

** The Aarhus University (AU) Design Process Model is a specific design process being developed for educational use. The schools were free to use (or not use) this model with students.

Podcast: Me and the EduTechGuys at FETC

While at FETC I had a pleasure of sitting down for a short interview with The EduTech Guys. Their motto is, “Come for the tech, stay for the talk.” The EduTechGuys are Jeff Madlock and David Henderson, who host an ongoing podcast plus go to conferences doing live coverage!

It was a ton of fun and I hope to join them for more episodes.

EduTechGuys YouTube Channel

edutech guys

Video: Girls (and boys) and STEM

Sylvia Martinez is the guest on this Jan 12, 2017 recording of an interactive webinar with Edtech Interactive dived into the subject of gender and STEM. Hosted by Mitch Weisburgh on a fun platform called Shindig, the session includes several audience members sharing how they encourage diversity and inclusion in their STEM programs.

January 12, Girls (and Boys) and STEM with Sylvia Martinez

Topics:

  • What assumptions are we all making that inhibit girls from pursuing and thriving in STEM careers?
  • How can we take advantage of the differences between male and female approaches, skills, and aptitudes in STEM?
  • How do we strengthen the STEM <–> Playfulness connection?
  • What gender-inclusive practices can we all embrace?

See other EdTech Interactive webinars

FETC session on Girls and STEM – Orlando, January 26, 2017

What is: makerspace, hackerspace, Fab Lab, FabLearn?

What’s in a name?

In the past decade, the terms makerspace, hackerspace, and fablab have come on the horizon. These are new names for what people have always done—come together to fix things, make new things, and learn from each other.

These spaces support learning and doing in a way that redefines both traditional schooling and traditional manufacturing. Smart tools, rapid prototyping, digital fabrication, and computational technology combine with the global reach of the internet to share ideas, solutions to problems, and best of all, the actual designs of things you can make yourself.  These spaces are launch pads for a future where people of all ages can be agents of change rather than objects of change.

[“The best place to learn about making in education” – Constructing Modern Knowledge Summer Institute]

In Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, we use the term “makerspace” generically to describe these kinds of spaces, and also explain some of the history behind makerspaces, fablabs, and hackerspaces.

Here are some Google search trends on these terms:

Google Trends - Makerspace, Hackerspace, Fablab
Google Trends – makerspace, hackerspace, fablab – Jan 2004 – Dec 2016
Makerspace, hackerspace, fablabs interest by region
Makerspace, hackerspace, fablab – interest by region

What is…

  • Hackerspace – “Hacking” is both the action and belief that systems should be open to all people to change and redistribute for the greater good and often done for fun and amazement. It’s unfortunately recently gained the connotation of illegal and invasive computer activity, which was not part of the original meaning. Hackerspaces are more prevalent in Europe than the US (and apparently Australia, see the map). A hackerspace is typically communally operated. There are many models and no common set of requirements. Hackerspaces.org has a wiki with over a thousand active spaces listed.
  • Makerspace – Since MAKE magazine debuted in 2005, the word “making” has been adopted as a softer, safer alternative to hacking. This is especially true in K-12 schools, libraries, museums, and youth centers where the subversive aspect of “hacking” might be seen as negative or even criminal. You can see on the Google trends graph (above), that searches for the term “makerspace” started gaining momentum around 2013 as “hackerspace” started trending downward. “Makerspace” is now catching up with “fablab” (especially in the US). There is no single organizational body or rules about what a makerspace should be.
  • Fablab – Short for “fabrication lab,” fablab is a generic term, a nod to Fab Labs (see next) without formally joining the network. Even though the “fab” refers to digital fabrication, the activities in fablabs aren’t restricted to 3D printing and laser cutting. They run the gamut of physical and digital construction, using tools, crafts, and modern technology.
  • Fab Lab –  The non-generic use of the term refers to spaces and organizations who participate in a network run by the Fab Foundation led by Neil Gershenfeld and Sherry Lassiter of the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms. Neil Gershenfeld is the author of the 2005 book “Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop–from Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication” that predicted much of the impact that personal fabrication tools would have on the world. As of October 2016, the Fab Lab network includes 713 Fab Labs worldwide. All Fab Labs have a common charter and specific requirements for space and tools including digital fabrication tools, milling machines, cutters, CNC machines, etc. Every Fab Lab is required to have free and open access to the public and participate in the network.
  • FabLearn Labs – Formerly known as Fablab@school, FabLearn is run out of the Transformative Learning Technologies Lab (TLTL), a research group led by Paulo Blikstein within Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education. These K-12 school-based labs, developed in collaboration with university partners internationally, put digital fabrication and other cutting-edge technology for design and construction into the hands of middle and high school students. The goal of FabLearn Labs is similar to the Fab Lab network, but with a focus on the special needs and practices that support K-12 education.

Other space names

  • Tool sharing co-operatives, clubs, and community workshops – The are an infinite variety of non-profit and commercial organizations offering community tool sharing, classes, or incubation space for all ages. They usually offer different kinds of fee-based membership packages, but even commercial spaces may offer some free access in the spirit of serving the local community. These spaces offer different configurations of equipment, some focusing on heavy power tools, some offering artistic tools and space, while others are more electronics and computer-oriented. They also organize around different principles including community support, job training, DIY workspace, after-school/summer youth activities, small business incubators, recycling, or art studio. Some are adult only, while others have activities for youth and families.
  • School – Don’t forget that there is a long tradition of hands-on learning spaces in schools variously called labs, studios, shops, libraries, and even classrooms! It doesn’t have to be a new space with a new name. Libraries don’t have to change their name to be a place where hands-on activities are as important as the books on the shelves. While a refresh is always good, a school makerspace should not mean throwing away books or closing the auto shop. There is incredible potential to be found in integrating these activities—and integrating the segregated populations they tend to serve.
  • Libraries, museums, community centers and other local organizations are embracing the makerspace concept, with modern technology updates to hands-on activities and discovery centers beloved by generations of young people.

What’s the difference? What’s best?

As you can see, the differences are mostly historical, with increasing overlap in the terms. There are so many different models, with different missions, organization structures, and audiences, that it’s difficult to pin it down.

When these spaces serve children, the term “makerspace” is more prevalent than “hackerspace” simply because it sounds safe and legal. A few years ago, “fablab” was slightly more widespread globally, but I believe that “makerspace” has overtaken it in popularity. In any case, there is little difference between the generic use of fablab and makerspace. Makerspaces are now found in many K-12 schools, colleges/universities, libraries, museums, and community organizations. There is no special list of required tools, nor do makerspaces have to belong to any organization.

This looseness has pros and cons, of course.

Flexibility sets a low bar to entry

The benefit of a looser definition of makerspace is that it can be more inclusive and flexible. You don’t have to spend a lot of money or even have a special space. Anyone can have a makerspace; any place can be a makerspace. And as we claim in our book, Invent to Learn, every classroom should be a makerspace, where children make meaning, not just ingest facts to prepare for tests.

But while one makerspace may be a fully stocked industrial warehouse of cutting edge digital fabrication equipment, another is a box of craft materials, and others are everything in between. How do we even talk about, much less come to consensus about what works? How do we communicate best practices or any practices, for that matter? If everything and anything can be a makerspace, what is the value?  What can we point to and say is special and different? We just don’t want to rename spaces and do nothing else. If “makerspace” comes to mean any space where kids touch something other than a pencil, then it means nothing.

Commonality provides context

One benefit of the formal Fab Lab model is that every space has similar tools. When they share information, plans, and processes, there is a better chance that it will make sense in other spaces. There is an expectation that every Fab Lab will participate in the network, learning and growing together while maintaining individual differences. This creates strong ties between spaces and a strong identity for the participants. There are events and opportunities for members like the Fab Lab conferences and Fab Lab Academy which offers credit and diplomas through nodes of the Fab Lab network worldwide. They can participate in global efforts like building sustainable wireless internet infrastructure, fabbing solar houses, and tracking global environmental data.

The FabLearn Labs have a similar model focused on K-12 makerspaces, with some requirements that create a cohesive network, but local flexibility for groups of schools such as the Denmark network.

Money required… for now

The downside of the Fab Lab requirements is that not every organization can afford the full list of tools. Since the Fab Lab charter requires open public access, they can’t charge membership fees. It’s a constant challenge to keep the doors open, the lights on, and to maintain staff and equipment. Some Fab Labs are associated with local universities, community organizations, or foundations that assist with the financial aspect, but others just get by. There is no doubt that money can be a limiting factor.

But this is just Fab Lab 1.0. The longer term vision, Fab Lab 2.0, is that a Fab Lab should be able to  make a Fab Lab—but that is still in the future.

Global Fab Lab network – there are lots of them.

As with most things, there is no one right answer. Or rather, the right answer is the one that works for you and your community.

Networks, nodes, and identity

All of these space names imply similar ideas, and in fact, many spaces identify with multiple missions. You will find makerspaces listed on the Hackerspaces.org website and many Fab Labs that have close partnerships with K-12 schools. There are many spaces that create their own name in the spirit of their unique mission.

The first Fab Lab established off the MIT campus was the South End Technology Center in Boston. The center serves the community with low cost technology training, but also has  innovative youth-led, youth-taught programs. The Youth Education Director at SETC  is Susan Klimczak, who is also a Senior FabLearn Fellow and shares her expertise with educators around the world. This is just one example of how spaces can embrace multiple identities and belong to  multiple networks to the benefit of all.

I don’t mind that there are many names for the spaces and experiences that people are having. It reflects the way people really learn, in unique and personal ways. There is no reason that every learning space, including the name, should not be unique and personal as well!

Learn more about making the most of your space – no matter the name in Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom.

[“The best place to learn about making in education” – Constructing Modern Knowledge Summer Institute]