In October, author and educator Ali Carr-Chellman gave a talk about boys, gaming, and education at the Penn State TEDx conference, in which she highlighted the educational potential of video games.
In her talk, Carr-Chellman, who teaches instructional design at Penn State, points out the difficulties boys and young men are having in school when compared to girls, and suggests that video games might be part of the solution. Her most recent project, “Bringing Back the Boys,” investigates the ways video games can be harnessed in order to engage boys’ minds and help improve their school performance—and keep them interested in academic pursuits.
First, let’s look at what Carr-Chellman says about boys’ school troubles and how they’ve developed:
Boys are significantly more likely than girls to be expelled or suspended, to be placed in special-education classes, and to be diagnosed with learning and other disorders, including ADHD. When it comes to higher education, this gender gap persists. Sixty-seven percent of all Baccalaureate degrees are earned by women.
Many believe the poor performance of men in college (compared to women) is partially due to an unhealthy obsession with video games, distracting them from their academic duties.
Carr-Chellman disagrees. “Video games are not the cause,” she said. “Video games are a symptom. [Boys] were turned off a long time before they got here.”
I think she’s right: the culture of the classroom in elementary and middle schools is causing boys to tune out and lose interest in writing and academics.
One of the main reasons for this is the zero-tolerance policy many schools have in place regarding violence and weapons in school—they often apply the ban equally to toy guns and creative writing. Teachers get nervous when they see a boy writing about video games, war, or any kind of fighting. But often, that’s all boys want to write about.
As a writing tutor at 826 Boston, a nonprofit writing center in Roxbury, Massachusetts, I help young students with their writing and editing skills. Students at 826 Boston respond to weekly creative writing prompts, which are then worked into short stories. Periodically, student writing is published in chapbooks. Recently, while helping a 10-year-old boy write a short story, I found myself wondering about the appropriateness of violent writing in schools.
The boy had written a brilliant and imaginative story about an epic battle between gigantic animals. A tiger, a snake, and a lion invade an trash a school classroom. The whole thing is told from the point of view of the boy, who jumps into the battle to help banish the oversize predators to 100 years in an underground ice cave.
I thought the story was awesome. A little kid trying to save the world from supernatural creatures—what’s not to like? But I also wondered, is this OK for a kid to write? The story was literally about violence and destruction in school.
I didn’t really see anything wrong with this fantasy, even if it was set in a classroom. I wrote about the same things as a kid. Besides, what could be worse than telling this kid his writing is inappropriate and wrong, when it didn’t hurt anybody? That would make him feel useless and stupid. He would never want to write again. Boys have enough of a hard time when it comes to writing; we shouldn’t exacerbate the problem.
By shunning any kind of violent writing, even when it’s about video games or made-up creatures, we are denying some students an important creative outlet and access to an essential aspect of education—good writing skills.
Which brings us back to video games. According to Carr-Chellman, if we re-examine the culture of gaming, we will discover a powerful way to help boys in school.
Boys are obsessed with games, she says, so why not “meet them where they are?” Educational games can be powerful learning tools if only they were designed better, with the “depth and rich narrative” of big-budget games. If there were educational games as engaging and entertaining as Mario Kart or World of Warcraft, we would not only see the gender gap close, but overall academic performance would improve as well.
Some schools are already embracing the usefulness of video games. Quest to Learn is a school built entirely around the idea that video games can revolutionize education. (Here’s a fascinating New York Times piece about it.)
But Quest to Learn is just one small school. There needs to be a broader kind of change.
This refocus on gaming and education can only take place in schools across the country if there is a significant shift in attitudes toward video games, a reconsideration of what “zero tolerance” means, and what is acceptable in the classroom. Gamer kids are written off as geeky and socially awkward, often by their peers. For Carr-Chellman, this causes a sharp divide for kids between education and identity—leading young boys to feel like school isn’t for them, or that they aren’t smart enough.
But “if we change these things,” she says, “if we pay attention to these things and we re-engage boys in their learning, they will leave elementary school saying ‘I’m smart.'”
When kids think they’re smart, they stay in school. When school validates their interests, they feel like they belong. Video games just might be the key to making that happen—and to bringing education into the 21st century.