Playing LBP with my 3rd Grader

December 22, 2009

One day last week my third grader got out of school early due to winter weather. I brought her into work with me, and down to Ruby’s office where she got to play LittleBigPlanet (LBP) on the HASTAC research PlayStation3. She’d never played on a PlayStation before–her only gaming experience was with the Wii and some American Girl and PopTropica games on the internet. It was interesting for me to watch her learn and play. It was fun for her to play a game she’d heard about from a bunch of her (boy) friends. (In fact, she only has one girl friend who she knows plays on a PS–and she has an older brother.)

We talked together about the experience, below. I’m “M” (me) and she’s “D” (daughter).

M: So, what did you think of LBP?
D: I thought it was really fun and cool. It was a whole new experience.

M: Your Sackgirl was pretty adventurous looking. Did you think of her as a character acting in the game or was she you?
D: I just put together crazy things. I thought of her as me, sort of. But sometimes she was someone else.

M: How about when you got stuck and got frustrated? You killed yourself so you could continue with the game.
D: I thought it got pretty frustrating, but once I got to this thing where you have to grab and that was pretty hard. So I killed myself then and went back to my pod.

[As her mother, this concerned me, I have to say. I think it would be good for there to be an eject button or something like that so that she didn’t have to kill her Sackgirl to start over. I don’t really like that message. In fact, it made me very uncomfortable. This is exactly the sort of gaming aspect that many parents don’t like and won’t buy into. It’s not super violent, but she’s 8 years old. There’s no violence that’s good violence at that age (at any age?).]

M: What was your favorite part about LBP?
D: I liked where you could get points, and talk to people and do cool things when you got the points. But I also liked when the people talked to you and told you clues so you could put the clues together like a puzzle.

M: Do you think you would’ve been able to figure out the things they told you on your own?
D: Maybe. When I had to dress Charlie, one of the guys told me I had to dress him. So I had some sneakers and a torso, so I put those on Charlie then the bridge fell down. So I sorta had to figure out some stuff on my own. It was like puzzle pieces.

M: What did you think of earning prizes and stickers and stuff?
D: My favorite part was when you earn stickers, cuz you had a long line of bubbles that you bang into.

M: Do you think you learned anything?
D: Not really. It was fun and I sorta learned how to grab things, but that’s not exactly educational.

M: Would you like to play games like this even if there were some educational parts to it?
D: Yeah. It would be still fun. It wouldn’t be as fun, but it would still be pretty fun. So I take that as a yes.

D: I thought LBP was really fun. It was cool how you could stick things almost everywhere and how you had a poppit that could pop out. At first it got really frustrating but then it got really easy. Once it got easy I moved on to the next level but that level was HARD.

M: I’m sure that playing LBP would be even more fun for D if she were playing with her friends. And I can see how that might bring interaction and collaboration into the game in ways that were nonexistent as she played by herself. I hope that we can bring a friend or two in to play with her sometime soon, and if so, we’ll write about that.

I also think it’s telling that when I asked her about whether she thought she’d learned anything, she had already positioned “learning,” “not learning” and “things educational” in a very specific category, and “fun” wasn’t in that category. Meeting challenges doesn’t count as learning in her current paradigm. This is exactly the problem that our competition addresses: How can we make it so that learning is not segregated to specific subjects and situations, but is more integral to everyday life? And maybe even fun.

2010 competition kicks off, featuring The White House, Sony, EA, and YOU

December 16, 2009

Today HASTAC re-launched the website for the Digital Media and Learning Competition ( with the long-awaited details of the 2010 Competition! This competition builds on two successful years of supporting projects that advance and DO participatory learning.

Each year, the competition addresses different themes. In 2008, 17 projects won Innovation or Knowledge-Networking Awards. In 2009, 19 projects won Innovation or Young Innovators awards. This year’s theme is Reimagining Learning and has brought some exciting new players to the table. We have been given the opportunity to participate in National Lab Day – part of the White House’s Educate to Innovate Initiative – on our Learning Lab Designers awards. And we’re also collaborating with videogame makers Sony and EA on the Game Changers awards.

Another new element of this year’s competition is you, dear reader. We will host public comments on the applications as soon as people begin submitting them in January, and in May we will invite you to vote on your favorites to select the winners of the People’s Choice Awards. (See our timeline for more details about this process.)

We’ll be writing more on this blog about learning labs, game changers, and participatory learning. So keep reading, and visit the re-launched, to learn more about this year’s competition. Put on your thinking caps and start developing ideas now. The initial application period will be open from January 7th to 15th. We can’t wait to see what you will do!

Making as learning

December 14, 2009

Originally posted on Cathy N. Davidson’s Cat in the Stack blog on

I’ve been thinking about the ways we learn when we make things and how differerent that experience is from learning in order to answer exam questions (especially multiple choice) about things, subjects, or ideas that other people have made.   What is most different is that, when you make something you learn about failure and from failure.   When you “get the answer wrong,” you fail.   Therein lies all the difference.

Whether you are making a robot, a sweater, a poem, a research paper, a mod of a video game, or a donut,  the first time you do it you draw from and build upon a range of similar experiences, some of them successful, some of them not.  Trial-and-error is part of the process but so is your own, personal toolkit.   Some of those tools might be actual, physical, material tools.  Others are bodily repertoires of gestures or words or sounds or experiences.  And still others are histories of past successes and failures, some of which have direct relevance to what you are making, some of which are important simply because they remind you that you survive and even thrive after failure–and success does not stop the process of learning. In all of these settings, actually doing the process becomes a learning lab, a place of experimentation and process and exploration and (dare I say it?) fun.

I’m especially taken with futurist Alvin Toffler’s idea that the literacy of the 21st century is not just reading, writing, and arithmetic  but the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn.   Unlearning doesn’t thrill everyone.  Some find it profoundly disorienting to realize that what they know doesn’t serve them in the present and they have to not just learn something new but get rid of a lot of baggage and start again.  But the more you spend your life making things, the more you realize that unlearning is a skill too.  It is the novice who thinks every word that issues from the pen of the expert is perfect and that as they write their first major independent project (right, dissertation students?) they have to get it perfect the first time around.   Part of great writing is being willing to chuck a lot.  Whole chapters.  Whole books.  And to realize that it is the process, the confidence that comes from both learning and unlearning (together) that allows one to relearn and achieve.

In his marvelous book Shop Class as Soulcraft, political philosopher and motorcycle mechanic Matthew B. Crawford argues that in the 1990s shop classes were abandoned all over America in favor of computer classes, training students for the technologies of the future.   Quite frankly, I don’t see that many computer labs–and the idea that you would substitute one for the other is tragic.  I can’t think of anything that more prepares one for the process-oriented aspects of computer programming and remixing and Do-It-Yourself video and music mashups and all of the other exciting participatory aspects of learning online together than building something and shop class is a sanctioned place, within education, for doing just that. 

But here’s where I depart from Crawford’s diagnosis.  It wasn’t just the shop class that ended in the 1990s, it was so many hands’ on classes where students made things.  Excellence more and more was determined by those standardized tests, whether ACT and SAT’s (as if every brilliant student had to go to college and was a failure if she did not) or, later, the “standards based education” of No Child Left Behind.   Not only did we lose shop classes but we also lost computer labs in most schools along with art classes, music classes, band, languages, and even gym.  

I personally believe that losing those classes where kids actually move around, where they don’t have to sit in one place all day, looking forward at a teacher who teaches them how to give answers, may well be the biggest contributor we have not only to the high drop-out rate but to such attention diseases of our decade as ADD and ADHD.  Coupled with no longer walking to school, with the extreme limitations parents and teachers today put on kids’ physical experience of play,  we have created home and school environments for the sedentary.  I mean the intellectually sedentary too.  Lack of movement, lack of process, lack of trial and error, lack of participation and getting your hands dirty, lacking of making things, making ideas, making art and music:   we’ve substituted a very ends-oriented idea of knowledge when digital culture should be all about how we get there, with an understanding that “there” is never finished.  It always needs updating.  Like that project in the basement that never is perfect enough,  life online is a constant, a process.

Where in schools today do we teach kids not only how you draw upon everything you know–and that which your friends know–to make something but, once made, you then use that knowledge to move on to the next thing?  The end product is not the point.  It is the struggle and the joy of getting there.

Tests Hamper Teaching Students to Think Like Einstein

December 11, 2009

by Cathy N. Davidson, Duke University

Reblogged from the Durham Herald Sun, December 11, 2009

I often lecture or blog about grading, arguing that the way we now assign grades is an antiquated system that may have worked well for the Industrial Age but that undercuts what is valuable, exciting, or potentially useful for interactive thinking in the Digital Age. I’m often critical of so called “standards-based education” such as No Child Left Behind, with its reduction of evaluation and assessment to standardized testing.

But I’m actually criticizing here a much broader way of thinking that reduces the process of thinking to “a result,” even to “the best result chosen from among a select number of choices” (i.e., multiple choice exams).

That concept of grading seems the exact opposite of critical and daring thinking, and inconducive to the kind of integrative, creative, innovative thinking our era demands, in all fields from the arts to the theoretical sciences and engineering.

Whenever I talk about new ways of evaluating, someone in the audience inevitably retorts, “Well, that’s subjective. It may be fine for humanists — but it would never work for science. We need rigorous, standardized testing to produce the highly specialized scientists necessary for our world.”


But within a minute, I can get this same person pontificating in a different direction simply by switching the topic a little, lamenting, “and isn’t it terrible that America today undervalues science and produces so few scientists?” No argument there!

But now let’s put those two arguments together. What if it turned out that our “rigorous” standardized, multiple choice form of testing — in all fields, including science and math — selected out those who do well on standardized tests but who lack precisely the forms of inquisitive, inductive, hypothetical reasoning and willingness to tirelessly test out a hypothesis that is the basis of the experimental method and exactly what science demands?

Our entire practice of testing is based on a theory of knowledge that is out of date. It used to be thought that brains and neural connectors grew in the same way feet do, tiny at birth, growing until maturity.

We now know that infants have an overabundance of neurons and that, if neural development proceeds on course, they will shear off about 40 percent of their neurons on their way to an adult understanding of the world, working on streamlining neural pathways by repetition and experience, using the scaffolding of one experience (and that of their culture) on which to build ever-more reflexive ways of reacting on which to then build more nuanced, interactive, reflective ways of thinking later.

Much of our standardized testing is still based on an outmoded filling-station view of neural development and of knowledge. Heads don’t fill up with knowledge. New kinds of knowledge build upon older knowledge and often replace that knowledge. Everything works in that process of selection, adaptation, revision, selection.

Memorizing correct answers to questions has some function, but it is not at all clear to anyone what that function is or how useful it is in an era of search and browse.

Socrates had it right. If you want to model higher level thinking, you don’t lecture about your insights achieved as the result (“the answers”) of such thinking. You certainly don’t have students take a multiple choice test to ensure that they remember your conclusions. If you want to encourage the love of thinking and the skill of critical thinking, you question them, you hear their ideas, you debate them, you give them feedback, you lead and mislead them, you intellectually thrust and parry, you joust, and you have them reach conclusions by learning which intellectual moves are fruitful and which lead to dead ends.

That Socratic method is used in law schools today, but I’m suggesting should be true for all fields — including the sciences.

It is a profoundly humanistic method and, to make great scientists, it is that profoundly humanistic method that is required, the ability to think through an idea, to revise an idea in light of other ideas, to test and question, to think critically, to analyze data, to respond to the arguments or hypotheses of others, and on and on.

It may not yield the highest test scores on SAT’s, but it may well be what sorts out the kind of process-oriented mental habits of those who are most likely, someday, to think like Einstein.

Einstein, of course, grew up loving to make little mechanical devices. And he had, as a very young man, two favorite books: Euclid’s “Elements” and Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason.”

He was one of the world’s most famous dyslexics, but he was also someone who, throughout his life, understood the contuities between mechanism, geometry, number theory, a priori concepts and experience.

How do you answer a multiple choice test for pure reason? I fear that some of the standardized assessment aspects of No Child Left Behind may well be constructed to leave behind exactly those non-linear, inductive, intuitive, critical, curious, humanistic, and scientific thinkers who, if nurtured, might well grow up wanting to Be Like Einstein.

HASTAC Network Joins White House Campaign

December 9, 2009

This piece was reblogged from The Herald Sun,

A network of educators and digital innovators is playing a role in the White House campaign to encourage students to pursue science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

The HASTAC network will administer the third-annual Digital Media and Learning Competition.

The competition will award $2 million in support of participatory learning experiences that incorporate STEM principles.

The competition launches Monday and winners will be announced in spring 2010.

HASTAC (an acronym for Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory) was founded and is primarily operated at the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke and the University of California Humanities Research Institute at the University of California, Irvine.

Duke’s Cathy N. Davidson, who co-founded HASTAC with David Theo Goldberg of the University of California Humanities Research Institute, said, “We are proud that an interdisciplinary humanities-inspired network like HASTAC has a leadership role in administering the Digital Media and Learning Competition. We are honored to be so central to President Obama’s vision for education in the 21st century.”

Awards will be given in two categories:

– 21st Century Learning Lab Designers will receive awards for learning environments and digital media-based experiences that allow young people to grapple with social challenges through STEM-based activities.

– Game Changers awards recognize creative new games or additions to Sony’s LittleBigPlanet(TM). These games and game expansions should offer young people engaging game play experiences that incorporate principles of science, technology, engineering and math.

The HASTAC competition is supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to the University of California, in collaboration with Duke University.

On the Web: For more information about the competition, visit

Digital media = engaged, civic minded kids

December 4, 2009

Just one reason we are so proud of our Digital Media and Learning Competition winners and their participatory learning projects?  Engagement with digital media makes kids productive offline citizens!

We can’t wait to see what the next round of the Competition brings. In the meantime, check out the great Digital Media and Learning Competition projects that are doing their part to encourage engaged, excited and civic-minded students!

Research by education professor Joe Kahne shows online experiences—such as participation on fan sites—can help make kids more active offline citizens.
Joe Kahne, professor of education at Mills College and director of the school’s Civic Engagement Research Group, has studied the connection between students’ participation with digital media and their level of civic engagement. He finds that kids who participate in community activities online are more likely to later get involved with civic actions offline, even if their online activities appear to be only social or for fun.
Kahne notes that young people who use digital media are picking up skills on how to find, assess and share information. New media provides opportunities for young people to be active participants—as opposed to old media, such as newspapers, which provide learning opportunities but no way to immediately share or add input.
More good news: Kahne also found that participation in online communities doesn’t isolate or distract young people from other forms of social life.

Joe Kahne on Civic Participation Online and Off from Spotlight on Vimeo.

21st Century Literacies by Cathy N. Davidson, reblogged from

December 1, 2009

I’ve spent the morning rereading some of Howard Rheingold’s ideas on 21st century literacies, the skills required to navigate the digital age. Attention, participation, collaboration, network awareness, and critical consumption of information are the key skills he discusses. Where do we teach those skills? How do we learn them? For starters, we learn them from reading Rheingold. I highly recommend his blogs for the San Francisco Chronicle Check out Twitter Literacies and Attention Literacies

Besides being the author of the classic Smart Mobs, Howard was a winner of our 2008 Digital Media and Learning Competition. He’s a master at participatory learning and he built a Social Media Classroom for his project. You can check that out here:

Exploring this new Planet

November 30, 2009

I spent some of the wee hours of the Thanksgiving break actually playing LittleBigPlanet for the first time.  (I have a son who is too young for TV, so gaming was restricted to after his bedtime.)  I definitely get what all the fuss is about!  The beautiful graphics have a depth my partner described as “the opposite of the Wii.” The personalization was reminiscent of Second Life, without being nearly as flexible of course.  And the game play was not unlike the Atari video games of my youth, with a lot of jumping around, picking up glowing prizes, and avoiding dangerous pits.

The game does a nice job of walking the newbie through the basic skills and concepts, gradually ramping up the challenges to dexterity and problem-solving.  After completing the first three story levels a whole new world of user-created community levels opened up before me, as well as an area of blank canvas for me to create my own levels!

…And that’s as far as I’ve gotten, but I will continue to report back here as I learn this game.  If you are a Playstation gamer, and especially if you are interested in “serious games” or real-world applications of video games, drop me a line.  Rubyji is my Playstation network ID, feel free to friend me there.

[PSN badge]

Press releases

November 30, 2009

I thought folks might be interested to see the official press releases from the White House and the MacArthur Foundation about last week’s launch of National Lab Day and the Educate to Innovate program, of which the Digital Media and Learning Competition is a part.

They are excerpted below. Click the links in the previous paragraph to read the full document.

Speaking to key leaders of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) community and local students, President Obama announced a series of high-powered partnerships involving leading companies, foundations, non-profits, and science and engineering societies dedicated to motivating and inspiring young people across America to excel in science and math.

Today at the White House, President Obama launched the “Educate to Innovate” campaign, a nationwide effort to help reach the administration’s goal of moving American students from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math achievement over the next decade. President Obama announced a series of partnerships involving leading companies, universities, foundations, non-profits, and organizations representing millions of scientists, engineers and teachers that will motivate and inspire young people across the country to excel in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

National STEM Game Design Competitions: The MacArthur Foundation, Sony Computer Entertainment America, the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) and its partners (the Information Technology Industry Council, the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, and Microsoft) are launching a nationwide set of competitions that include the design of the most compelling, freely-available STEM-related videogames for children and youth. The competitions will include the 2010 Digital Media and Learning Competition, a $2 million yearly effort supported by the MacArthur Foundation that advances the most innovative approaches to learning through games, social networks and mobile devices. One of the competitions will be open only to children, to help them develop 21st century knowledge and skills through the challenge of game design.  This year Sony will participate in one segment of the competition and encourage the development of new games that build on the existing popular video game Little Big Planet.

– President Obama Launches “Educate to Innovate” Campaign for Excellence in Science, Technology, Engineering & Math (Stem) Education, 11/23/09

As President Obama called for new efforts to reimagine and improve education in science and math, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced a $2 million open competition for ideas to transform learning using digital media. The competition seeks designers, inventors, entrepreneurs, researchers, and others to build digital media experiences – the learning labs of the 21st Century – that help young people interact, share, build, tinker, and explore in new and innovative ways. Supported by a grant to the University of California at Irvine, the competition was planned and announced in partnership with National Lab Day, a movement to revitalize science, technology, engineering and math in schools that was highlighted at a White House event today.

Sony Computer Entertainment America (SCEA), in cooperation with the Entertainment Software Association and the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, will team with MacArthur to support Game Changers, a new component of the competition. Game Changers will provide awards for the creation of new game experiences using PlayStation’s popular video game, LittleBigPlanet™. […]

The competition is designed to promote “participatory learning,” the notion that young people often learn best through sharing and involvement. Participatory learning, as defined by the competition, is a form of learning connected to individual interests and passions, inherently social in nature, and occurring during hands-on, creative activities. Successful learning labs and games will exploit all of these elements. Awards will be made in two categories: 21st Century Learning Lab Designers and Game Changers.

The competition includes three rounds of submissions, with public comment at each stage. The public will also be invited to judge the final candidates, including the selection of People’s Choice awards in each category.

“Learning labs are digital media projects that promote hands-on participatory learning,” said Cathy Davidson, Duke University Professor and David Theo Goldberg, Director of the University of California Humanities Research Institute, HASTAC co-founders. “They promote learning together with others, by interactively doing, trying, sometimes failing. When we think of laboratories, the image of beakers and microscopes come to mind, but learning labs help us reimagine and expand our understanding of learning across all domains of knowledge.”

Competition winners will join an existing community of 36 awardees from 2007 and 2008, including a video blogging project for young women in Mumbai, India; a cutting-edge mobile phone application that lets children conduct digital wildlife spotting and share that information with friends; a project that leverages low-cost laptops to help indigenous children in Chiapas, Mexico learn by producing and sharing their own media creations; and an online platform for 200 classrooms around the world that allows young people to monitor, analyze, and share information about the declining global fish population.

– $2 Million Competition Seeks Ideas to Transform Learning, 11/23/09

You have lots of questions and we’ll have lots of answers!

November 24, 2009

We are thrilled that yesterday’s announcement has generated so much excitement and that word is traveling fast through the blogosphere (you can keep track of our coverage by monitoring our Delicious account).

We know that many of you have questions. Here at headquarters we are putting the final touches on this year’s shiny new (and President Obama endorsed!) Competition.  Details and more information will be forthcoming December 14th, including information about when the Competition will actually open, the application structure, materials, deadlines, FAQs, etc.

Stay tuned to this blog, follow us on Twitter, or join the Competition list-serv for all the latest details!