George Lucas Educational Foundation

Constance Steinkuehler on Interest-Driven Learning (Big Thinkers Series)

University of Wisconsin game-based learning scholar Constance Steinkuehler talks about her research on online video games and literacy, and how learning skyrockets when students are passionate about the subject matter. Steinkuehler is currently serving as a White House policy analyst, shaping the Obama administration's efforts to encourage development of games that improve health and education.
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Constance Steinkuehler on Interest-Driven Learning (Transcript)

Constance Steinkuehler: So, here I thought I was studying videogames, and I still am, but it turns out video games are just a Trojan horse for studying interest-driven learning. So, in fact, is it about the games? I don't think so. I don't think it's about the games at all except that games are very good, they're very well-designed, both for learning, but also to capture interest, to be captivating, motivating. And in schools, for example, we have the luxury of ignoring interest because we simply say, "Well you must," rather than, "Here's why it's inherently compelling." So, is it about games? I don't think so. It's really funny to me that I'm still a game scholar. I run a games conference, I do everything around video games, but really games are just an easy context to look at what it means when kids actually are engaged and care about the subject matter.

I study thinking and learning in the form of online games. So, it's an interesting intersection between video games, and online cultures, and social networks like Facebook. It kind of has ramifications for both, but I do large empirical studies of what kids are doing and what's the nature of the intellectual side of online play of all forms, how do games matter, what matters about them, and how do we save the world.

So, we ran a two-year afterschool program. And before we even had to recruit kids, we had a waiting list of parents who had heard about it, heard we were interested in doing it, and were sending us their kids. It turned into being all teenage boys and now that's become a real interest focus of mine. My PhD is literacy studies, and yet until I had two boys of my own I had never even paid attention to the literacy crisis with boys. And it's been around for the last 30 years, but no one's really ever called it out. And the more you investigate it, the more troubling it is.

Teenage guys in America are really suffering. And they're definitely falling out of school and disaffiliating with school at a rate that's really alarming. So, I've become really interested in that, mostly because if you study video games a large swath of your population is teenage guys. So, for me, when I started doing studies around science, and literacy, and civic engagement, around online games, when the biggest population of those games is teenage guys and they're not faring well in school, it begs a real question, what's happening in this space between kids and their school world, and their school identities instead of their game identities and their work they're doing around games.

So, when we first started I had this great idea. I wanted to create what I was calling a bridging third place between school and games. I thought maybe we can create a world in which kids will play games, they'll do intellectual practices around games, but I can play kind of a translator and help them understand how that relates to school and sort of trying to buoy up that connection between reading around games and reading in school. So, I had this fabulous idea. It was so naïve and so hilarious. First semester we were going to build a guild website and we were going to learn digital media design, we were going to write, we were going to read, we were going to do all this complicated, multimodal website stuff. Had this great idea, kids came in, it took a whole one month until I realized this was the dumbest approach in the entire universe.

The first big meeting we had I start rolling out, like, "We're going to build a game website." And I talking about all the structured curricular kind of stuff. And these were not heavy-handed, lame activities, I thought these would be really cool. And literally the guys, I called it the "let me know when she stops" talking problem, because literally they went from totally engaged, leaning forward, to the moment I started talking they leaned back and they pulled their hoodies up over their head and they sat like this, like, let me know when she stops talking. And then when I stopped talking and we got to game, hoodies came back and they totally plugged back into playing WoW (World of Warcraft), right. And I thought this isn't going to work. If they don't care about any of the stuff I'm yacking at them with, this entire lab is going to fall apart.

So, I took all of our plans, I threw them out the window and I said, okay, structured stuff not going to work. If it smells like school, they're not going to touch it. If I talk at them, they are not going to listen to me. So, we're just going to do this weird, radical thing. We're going to sit back, we're just going to resource them, meaning that we're going to play next to them. When an interest comes up we'll be like, "Hey, well, you know, the place to read more about that would be X." So, when kids got interested in the WoW graphic novels, low and behold we ran out to Borders, bought a whole bunch of them, brought them back and we're like, oh, look at that. It turns out we have WoW graphic novels here. You could read that, right. And once we turned it around to resources, and much more of a follow their interest kind of model, everything shifted and it worked.

For example, we had a reader that was in tenth grade who read at the sixth grade level, was not faring well in school. I handed him a fifteenth grade level text from the game and he's reading it with absolutely fine comprehension, 94- 96 percent accuracy. So, we had this massive disparity, why suddenly are they reading. If you let them choose the text, why are they reading at this incredibly much higher level of comprehension performance. What it came down to was something called self-correction, right. When they choose the text, when they care about it, they actually fix their own comprehension problems more than two times as often as when they don't care about the text.

It's kind of stating the obvious, but we forget it in schools all the time that if you care about understanding the topic, you will sit and work through, you will persist in the face of challenge in a way that you won't do if you don't care about the topic.

What I'm trying to say is rather than treating kids interests as a means toward your educational goals, trying to treat your educational materials as a means towards their goals. So, the model of pedagogy behind it is really radical. It's to say that teaching would look a lot more like community organizing where the first question is, "What do you as a community want to accomplish?" And then your job is to figure out, how do I marshal resources to help you accomplish that and along the way to tool you up with practices, knowledge, dispositions, that you keep for a lifetime.

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This video was originally produced by Mobile Digital Arts for the New Learning Institute, from the Pearson Foundation.

Big Thinkers Video Series

Some of the most compelling visionaries in the world -- from Sir Ken Robinson to Jane Goodall to Martin Scorsese -- are focusing their attention on how to improve education. From innovative classroom concepts to suggestions on how to foster creativity and collaboration, they share their valuable insights for teaching and learning and illuminate new solutions to old problems.

Get inspired by their big ideas.

More Edutopia Coverage on Gaming, Literacy, and Passion-Based Learning:

Find more information on Constance Steinkuehler's blog, or follow Constance Steinkuehler on Twitter. Steinkuehler is currently on leave from her research at the University of Wisconsin, where she is co-director of Games + Learning + Society, for 18 months to be a policy analyst for the White House.

Visit the Big Thinkers series page to see more videos.

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Diane's picture
Special Education Teacher in CT

I'm all for changing what education looks like for boys especially... I wish things could have been different for my son... I wish I could present things differently than the expctations in my school... Boys do better with a project based experience, much like the apprenticeships of times past... with a balance of classical learning fit in...

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