Paul Howard-Jones thinks he knows the answer to a question that has long both parents and professors: Why is it that the same teenagers who turn and despondent when faced with a half hour of learning French verbs or organic compounds are happy to spend hours mastering the computer game Minecraft's physics engine or the counterfactual history in Call of Duty?
A neuroscientist at Bristol University, Howard-Jones says that "computer games are very, very . And just as nuclear fission can be used to make bombs or generate electricity, games also have a light side and a dark side."
Speaking at the Learning Without Frontiers conference in London last week, he said that computer games stimulate the to produce dopamine, a chemical "which helps orient our attention and enhances the making of connections between neurons, which is the physical basis for learning."
Howard-Jones said that research has shown that the introduction of a or game element into any reward system increases dopamine production. "For generations, we educators have done everything we can to maintain a consistent relationship between reward and , but the neuroscience is telling us something different," he said in an interview.
According to Howard-Jones, students learn more, and are happier to continue learning, when they are offered the chance of a reward rather than a guaranteed reward. Instead of trying toportable phones or portable computers from the classroom, teachers should be trying to the power of games in their lessons. "We call it TWIG - teaching with immersive gaming," he said, explaining that "I teach several of my postgraduate courses in educational neuroscience using this medium."
The call to bring not just the computer, but computer games, into the lecture room was one of the few areas of agreement in a conference that featured speakers whose political views ranged from Noam Chomsky, the linguist and leftist political activist, to Ed Vaizey, a Conservative cabinet minister, and whose career paths included a round-the-world sailor, Ellen MacArthur, the inventor Ray Kurzweil, the businessman Conrad Wolfram and the virtual reality pioneer (and cyberdissident) Jaron Lanier.
Installed in a small fraction of London's cavernous Olympia convention hall - whose other temporary were an exhibition on learning technologies and the 2012 London Toy Fair - the 650 delegates to Learning Without Frontiers found themselves in an event that felt like a of a music festival, a political convention, and freshman orientation at a college campus on a slightly more advanced planet. Instead of mundane exhibitors' stands, delegates made their way through a forest of bright white inflatable - including one devoted entirely to the of Lego. Just to complete the picture of , on entry each delegate was given a new iPad - included as part of the two-day conference's £995 registration fee.
These were people who could feel Ray Kurzweil's pain when he said, referring to Wikipedia's recent 24-hour blackout to protest pending U.S. anti-piracy legislation: "When Wikipedia went down I felt like a part of my brain went ." And when he told the group "the era when we could just facts to kids is over," and exhorted the teachers and parents in the room to "let your children take their iPads into school," they looked up from their own iPads to (or Tweet) their approval.
Kurzweil, a polymath who in 1976 invented the Kuzweil Reading Machine, which allowed computers to to blind people, and also worked with one of his early customers, the musician Stevie Wonder, to develop the Kurzweil K250 music synthesizer, is well-known for his predictions. In his presentation he recent advances in 3-D printing technology, which uses digital files to create three dimensional objects and then said "in 10 years we'll be able to a 3-D printer to Nigeria, which they can use to print out another one. Then they can use those two to print out two more, and then eight and so on. And they can then use those machines to print out most of the things you need for modern life, from housing to solar panels to for carrying clean water."
Why Nigeria in particular should be in need of such a Kurzweil did not say. But he did say that Western societies needed to do far more to enterprise and creativity in young people. " shouldn't just be an after-school club," he said in an interview after his . "I always learned much more doing my own projects than from doing in class. When I was 8 years old, I created a theater which let me move scenery and control a whole world, and I've been inventing things ever since."
"We need to give young people more freedom - and we should continue to play as we get older," Kurzweil said.
The theme of learning as play was also taken up by Conrad Wolfram. A crusader for changing the way mathematics is taught in schools, Wolfram is the strategic director of Wolfram Research, the company behind Mathematica software and Wolfram Alpha, a search engine developed by his older brother, Stephen Wolfram, which among its other uses helps Apple's Siri personal assistant answer factual questions. current , in which students spend much of their time duplicating work that could be more easily done by computer, as "the history of hand calculating," Wolfram applauded a recent British government announcement that students would be encouraged to learn programming in schools. "Programming is to mathematics what composition is to English," he said. "It's how you express your creativity."
But the most eloquent proponent of learning through play - especially for adults - was Jaron Lanier. The author of the best-selling book "You Are Not a ," Lanier's involvement in the digital world includes helping to develop the first virtual reality , writing video games for Atari, advising the creators of the online virtual world Second Life and the director of "Minority Report." More recently he's been a "partner architect" at Microsoft involved in developing the Kinect motion-capture system. Lanier, whose cascade of blond fall to his , is also an musician. He began his talk by playing a short piece on the sheng, an ancient Chinese instrument that looks like a of pipes.
Lanier said that people can learn things through their bodies that they can't learn by reading or thinking, like improvisation on the piano or catching a baseball. Soon, thanks to advances in games technology, students would be able "to the things they are studying. You'll be able to turn a into a molecule - either a little alcohol molecule or a great big protein. And if you are the molecule that molecule is interesting, because it's you."
But unlike most of the other speakers, and delegates, at the conference, Lanier was also strongly critical of the effect technology is already having on society. "It's very easy to design a computer that makes it easy to forget it's just a simulation," he said, explaining that he doesn't use Facebook because he doesn't like the way it distorts social life. Speaking to reporters after his , he also the "excessive celebration of the present" so common among technophiles. "You can't learn the kind of stuff you learn from people from machines," he said, worrying that in fetishizing novelty and invention, humanity was losing "a of transmission through generations."
"We're turning students into customers, when what we - and they - need is to be the proprietors of knowledge."*