(This is cross-posted, with some modifications for a different audience, from my philosophy blog Speculum Criticum Traditionis.)
The last Clearwater Blog post featured a new short (13 minutes) film recently produced by Sudbury Valley School. You can view it here.
About two and a half minutes into the film, SVS graduate Ben mentions that many parents ask, when they are first exposed to the Sudbury model of education, "But--what if my kid just plays video games all day?!" (Ben notes that this is more or less what he did during the first of his four years at the school.) This issue also comes up in the other piece I want to mention. The Brooklyn Free School was recently featured in an episode of N.P.R.'s This American Life. The segment (Act 3 in the show) addresses the school's commitment to empowering students with all the decisions involved in running their school, which includes the degree of use to which computers will be put.
There's a great deal more to both SVS's film and This American Life's radio segment than computer games and movies. But for the rest of this post I want to focus on this issue, because in my experience, Ben is right. This question comes up again and again, and as the Brooklyn Free School learned, it may need to be asked over and over again by the students themselves.
I volunteer at Clearwater, but I make my moderate living working for an after-school program at a public elementary school. My program allows me to give my students a good deal of autonomy, but the notion of letting them just "do what they want" brings reactions from my co-workers that range from blank stares to deep you're-joking-right? discomfort. Surely, it is assumed, it's my job to give them "projects"-- mini-lessons in science, art projects in clay or wooden craft sticks, songs we all learn together. Won't they just waste their time if I don't? And when it comes to computers (I am able to make the computers in the school library available for not quite an hour and a half every week) well, maybe they could be using the computer to, you know, research something or finish their homework, but you wouldn't let them just play games? or watch videos?
I'm going to mainly talk about games here, though a lot of my considerations apply to videos (and I mean either mass-media or homemade) as well.
The concerns that arise seem to me to be motivated either by concerns about content (potentially violent or disturbing images, actions or plots), or about the medium itself (computer games being a “waste of time,” “addictive,” and so on).
My thoughts on this are in process and revisable, but they are also the fruit of long reflection and practice. I should first say that I have a threshold for what I consider “appropriate” content at my work. This standard is far stricter than what would be countenanced at Clearwater (anything less than AO, the resident student tells me), or than I would eagerly welcome in my own home, for instance. The reason for this is simple: job security. One or two angry parents are all I have needed to encounter before I decided to err on the side of over-compensating caution. In general I am prepared to trust the school district’s internet filtering program, but I keep a close eye on the browsing and playing that students do. So far I've never felt the need to tell a child they couldn't watch what they were watching, but I've had plenty of discussions about online content with kids. What I've found is that kids (1) can take in a tremendous amount of variation in even a short while online, (2) are capable of thinking critically and creatively about it and will do so aloud with you if they trust you and feel the need, and (3) are very good at enforcing their own “screening.” Whether its a game that's too violent, or a Wikipedia article with too-much-information about sex, material that triggers kids' own internal repulsion does not stay on their monitors.
Computer games were in their infancy during my formative years and so I spent little time engaged in them as a child. (Arcade games held some appeal but were too noisy, cost more quarters than I wanted to spend, and I was rarely very good at them.) Consequently, I could not at first empathize with the unabashed enthusiasm for these games which I meet in kids. It took me a conscious and intentional effort to familiarize myself with them. I played alongside students and I played with my stepson. I have acquired a significant respect for the art and imagination of both the design and the play of computer games, which I almost entirely lacked when I first started working with students over a decade ago. Far from being a single monotonous activity (as the dismissal “just playing video games” might imply), such games are complex discrete units designed to build competencies in attainable steps. The advanced dexterity and the strategizing required will often hamstring anyone who tries to navigate one of the higher levels of a game before mastering the basics. This was borne home to me over and over, and it alone ought to have persuaded me that the notion that no learning was happening in these games was naïve.
It took me longer to come 'round than it might have; not because the games weren’t really learning tools, but because I actively resisted seeing them that way. It took me a long while to get over what I eventually conceded was a prejudice against the form of the game: I just didn’t like video games! I was reacting against the form; I found them strange and hard to understand, “cartoony,” and trite. My reasons weren’t all compatible (“too difficult” and “too simple,” for instance); but so long as I was content not to examine my motives, they tended to reinforce each other anyway.
My reticence was finally overcome when I asked myself: what's the salient difference between a computer game and any other game? Say, a computer version of Monopoly. I am not a fan of Monopoly--like most grown-ups I know, I find it tedious and frustrating--but I am at a loss to say why a board game that (despite my personal distaste) would never be banned from my classroom, should be any different from a version played on a screen. And once I have conceded this, I fail to see why games that more fully exploit the medium they employ are any less appropriate; indeed, they are arguably much more so, since they actually do familiarize players with the technology which is indisputably going to be no trivial part of our culture for the rest of our lives.
When I watch kids in my room play these games, I am struck by how social they are. They are not staring at a screen doing nothing; they are vocal, mobile, often jumping up to see what someone else is doing. They are excited, engaged, and interactive, not just with the game but with each other; far more so than they would be if, say, they were reading a book. Whatever is going on with the game, the kids are also navigating the always-more-complex-than-you-think terrain of peer society, not the least considerations of which are fairness and turn-taking, but also learning how to teach and learn from each other.
I regard the students in my class as capable of making responsible decisions for how they conduct themselves and I have found time and time again over ten years that they fulfill those expectations, and follow their passion if I get out of the way. But of course, students have more than one passion; the artist and the runner are often the same kid. A child has limits just as I do, and boredom sets in sometimes. In my experience, a child will indeed get bored with running, or drawing, or a computer game, in his or her own good time (and, chances are, not on my schedule), when they have stopped learning what they are interested in.
This is why, beyond all of the considerations I mention above, salient and even vital as they are, there is one concern which grounds my whole approach, and which would obtain even if I agreed (as I don’t) that computer games, or any other activities the kids pursued, wasted their time. It is often noted at my work that my classroom style is somewhat “free.” This is a word I like and that I take very seriously. One of the most central values I have is respect for the autonomy of your children. Because my primary motivation is always to cultivate a respectful and honest relationship with each child, I want to give them exactly the same respect that I want for myself. It is true that sometimes I myself waste my time--by my friends’ standards, my family’s standards, even my own. I might fritter it away on television, or oversleep, or read a comic book, instead of working in the garden or writing my next essay. I might be decompressing after a hard day, getting valuable and much-needed down time; but let us assume I really am, even by my own standards, “wasting time.” Even assuming that this could be evident to the outside, I would still not want my wife or my best friend to tell me that I had to stop what I was doing, to impose a rule on my behavior that told me I had to do something more “worthwhile.” My wife might remind me that I have promised to wash the dishes; my friend might suggest that we have a jam session or even that I might find it rewarding to read this book he’s been recommending. But these suggestions are made in a very different spirit than laying down a rule or a demand. Would anyone say that the way to address this would be to invoke authority?
This is what it comes down to for me: respecting the right of a child to decide what to do with his or her time. And I have found that if I cultivate respect for the children I work with, I can have far more fruitful engagements with them about things that matter, including the things they will, sooner or later, wind up being "exposed" to--"adult content" included.