Education Class of 2016 – What would Dr. Seuss Have said?


The Bellislilunnel–Completely Unaffordable

Every so often you will hear talk about a proposed under-sea tunnel across the Strait of Belle Isle connecting mainland Canada—Labrador or Quebec—with the Island of Newfoundland. The benefits to the province as a whole are often pointed out—things like the possibility of increased tourism, more reliable transportation schedules and the potential for construction-related jobs—however the costs associated with the project are generally not discussed. That’s too bad because they are exceedingly high.

A study commissioned in 2004 indicated that the tunnel could be built at a cost of $1.7 Billion, however, for the life of me I cannot understand where the numbers came from. As I see it they are underestimated by an amount that can only be termed laughable.

Let’s assume that the proposed project—and let’s term it the Bellislunnel—can be to some degree compared to its much more famous elder sibling, namely the Channel Tunnel or Chunnel.

The Chunnel cost $21 Billion dollars and is 50.5 km. Since the Chunnel was completed in 1994 you need to adjust for inflation. According to the Bank of Canada that would be $31 Billion today. Dividing that by the length gives a cost of $600 Million /km.

To get across the Strait, the Bellislunnel will need to be 18 km long. Simple math gives an overall estimate of $10.8 Billion, a figure nowhere near the amount from the 2004 study.

As I see it my figure is a low-ball estimate since the Chunnel was built under ideal conditions, specifically:

  • Between two countries that each had a healthy industrial base right next to the endpoints;
  • With guaranteed sustained, heavy use that would defray the costs;
  • Through a region whose geology was well known and well-suited to tunnelling;
  • Through a no-ice, no-iceberg zone—a place where no ice impact and scouring would be a factor;
  • In an area that does not experience harsh weather effects.

In light of this, it would be reasonable to mark up the estimated cost by at least 40% giving a more realistic figure of $15.1 Billion but let’s leave it as is, for now.

The $10.8 Billion price tag needs to be mortgaged. Let’s assume a 40-year term and a 3.8% interest rate, which is about the same as the terms for the Muskrat Falls project. That gives an annual finance cost of $525 Million, a figure that does not include maintenance. Let’s put it on perspective: the Bellislunnel will cost every person in the province over $1000/year, not counting usage fees and maintenance.

The only current fund available to offset this is the budget allocated to Marine Atlantic, which operates the ferries between NL and NS. That is currently only $19 Million but has been more typically in the $150 Million range, which though sizeable in its own right is paltry compared with the debt payment needed to service the construction loan.

Using Marine Atlantic’s budget as an offset complicates things even more. It’s been done before, yes—he PEI Confederation Bridge’s main source for revenue is the Federal Government grant taken from the monies that used to pay for the ferry the bridge replaced. This complicates things moreso than they did in PEI.

Marine Atlantic is, in effect, the highway linking Newfoundland to the mainland. If you use its budget then you also have to account for a proper highway connection to the mainland. As it currently exists the Trans Labrador highway could not provide the connection that’s currently needed. Not only could it not handle the traffic volumes but, more importantly, the conditions that exist on it in winter would mean delivery schedules subject to frequent shut-downs owing to winter storms, making for a situation that would in all likelihood be even less reliable than the current state. That’s not to mention the added fuel and maintenance costs owing to the much longer route.

A new highway linking Blanc Sablon to Kegashka along the south shore of Quebec would be equally unrealistic. Not counting the bridges the 400-450 km road alone would likely cost around $2.5 Billion. A quick glance at a map of the region also shows the terrain to be particularly watery, marked by numerous lakes and rivers so the many bridges required would increase this base cost by a considerable amount, perhaps even doubling it.

Some may object to the numbers I’ve provided, noting, for example that the Chunnel is in fact three tunnels, two train tunnels and one for maintenance. They may say they we only need one so the cost needs only be one third as large. That’s not accurate. Certainly two train tunnels are not needed given the anticipated traffic volumes but the maintenance tunnel is still required so the best reduction would be by one-third, not two-thirds, bringing it down to a still unaffordable $350 Million per year.

Admittedly this simplistic essay has limitations. First you can’t really model things using simple proportions as I have here. There are start-up costs such as environmental impact studies that do not scale; they are what they are so reductions downward as I have done here are likely going to result in under-estimates. Second, most projects like this one tend to go way over budget so any figures you have seen are really rock-bottom estimates with the real costs—assuming the go-ahead was ever given—being possibly as much as twice the suggested amounts. There’s also the issue of ongoing maintenance.

In either case the status of the Bellislunnel project should remain, for now, as unaffordable.


The Myth of the Good Old Days and the Lies it Perpetuates

Stories in the local media pertaining to k-12 education tend to generate a lot of audience feedback, especially of the negative variety. Just allude to student achievement and the barrage of emotion responses begins. The majority–or at least the most vocal–come from adults who have long since left the system, and the implication is always the same: EITHER schools are not doing nearly as good a job as they used to OR today’s young people just can’t cut it. The comments run a bit like this: (From those claiming to to be post-secondary instructors) students entering the institution are far weaker than they used to be and (From the general population) the schools obviously are offering a watered-down curriculum and students these days are awfully lazy and unprepared.

Know why brainstorming doesn’t work–doesn’t EVER produce the diversity it is supposed to? It’s because it’s human nature to try and find common ground. Ask for divergent opinions and people will timidly at first and then with increasing ferocity state that which they are sure the rest of the group will agree with. Everyone just wants to be the one saying that thing, the thing that everyone is thinking at the time, regardless of how accurate or helpful it may be. It’s like that with education too. Over time it’s become accepted in the popular press to bitch about the sorry state its. It’s now to the point that people just go along with it without even thinking it through.

Too bad it’s pretty much nonsense.

As an educator with over three decades of experience in the system at the classroom, government and university level I have had ample opportunity to observe it from a variety of perspectives. What’s more I’ve maintained decent records over the years and, based on what I have accumulated, those popular assertions can be challenged and possibly even exposed as unfounded myths.

There are two items that need to be addressed.

  1. The opinions you encounter in the media are just that: opinions. They are not based on fact, just impressions that are based on recalled events. Memory is a complex thing and, while it is without doubt vivid and useful, it’s overall accuracy is questionable. Many studies (like this one) have clearly demonstrated that the events, as remembered, change over time. Those who base an opinion on remembered details should be clearly aware of the limitations and resign themselves to the reality that the conclusions they reach are of questionable value at best. Simply put: your recollection of how school was is probably wildly inaccurate.
  2. You may be assuming that the situation is far simpler than it really is and, as such, are ignoring details that have a very real bearing on the situation. Things in education are not simple, physical things that can be easily described. Take the often-used term “success” as an example. On the surface it seems to indicate achievement–something that does not change over time. The reality could not be further from that! There are many ways of measuring this thing we call “success”: scores on provincial exams, scores on international assessments, graduation rates, percentage of students who enroll in particular programs (advanced vs. standard math, for example), how many actually finish, on and on. The list is virtually endless. Worse again, even if we stick with a particular measuring stick–and let’s take provincial exams for example–the situation is still quite undefined as (1) the exams may change from year to year and (2) the curriculum that they are based on also changes every few years. Things are always much more complicated than they seem.

Let’s just apply one bit of this thinking to the aforementioned rants. In particular let’s take a drive through this one thought: your memories of when you want to school were only based on a sub-set of the students. There’s a whole HUGE group of students you have forgotten about, as a result of the two items above.

Here it is: when you were a child a very large percentage of students never made it to high school. Only what might be (cautiously) regarded as the “top” students, or the “keeners”  remained to be your classmates. Whenever you take pot shots at the current system you are therefore guilty of comparing ALL of the current students to the TOP students from your day. It should go without saying that is profoundly inaccurate and unfair.

I can back this up. Based on previous experience with similar arguments its probably a waste of time because I’m using facts to fight an argument that is not based on them but, rather, on ill-informed emotion. Whatever. If you are interested in the truth read on.

Owing to various issues such as (1) students moving from province to province, (2) students repeating grades and (3) the lack of digital data prior to the late 1980s it is quite difficult to get a handle on just what fraction of students, historically, have left school before obtaining a graduation certificate. We won’t have to, though. We are looking instead at the people that self-appointed education critics feel were their classmates when they were in high school. They just assume it was “everyone I always went to school with, which is basically everyone from my generation.” Nope–it’s not. Let’s find out just who it really was for any given year.

Since most people are thinking of high school let’s focus on the grade eleven class. For older folks like me that would be the senior year. For those who would have started grade 1 1 1973 or later it would have been the second last year. Let’s compare the grade 1 enrollment for any given year to the grade 11 enrollment ten years later–in other words let’s track the students and see how many of them made it to grade 11. Acknowledged the results won’t be perfect. For the most part you will be looking at the same group of students. Yes, some students may have repeated a grade and now be recorded with the grade 10 group for that year but it’s safe bet that this would be more-or-less equal to the number of students from the grade ahead who repeated a grade and found themselves with this group.

Of course this analysis more-or-less assumes a closed system; that is that no students either left or entered the province. As you will see that is invalid and the data shows it.

The graph below shows the result of the analysis. The horizontal axis depicts the year that the students in question reached grade 11 and the vertical axis represents the percentage of students who started grade 1 ten years prior who now find themselves surviving to grade 11.

Before commenting on the graph several notes need to be made:

  • Grade 1 was used instead of Kindergarten because the data indicated that for many years not all of the grade ones did kindergarten.
  • Grade 11 was used throughout, instead of grade 12. This was done for two reasons. First, Grade 12 did not exist in this province prior to 1983 and second, it was felt that changing the period in mid-stream would result in not “comparing apples to apples.”

Percentage of students in grade 11 compared to the when they were in grade 1

Most importantly you will note an overall increasing trend over time. That is, overall, it’s clear that as time goes on, more students, survive to get to grade 11. The trend, however is far from linear.

Prior to the mid 1970’s: The fraction of students who survived to get to grade 11 was appallingly low thus indicating that anywhere from 35 to 40% of students who started school never made it to grade 11, let alone found themselves in a position to graduate. Fortunately, the graph also shows a marked improvement, over time, in that sorry state of affairs. This is the main point of this essay and we’ll come back to it shortly but before doing so it’s worthwhile examining two other portions of the graph.

Between the mid 1990s and 2005: The gains that were made in the decades leading up to this period began to dwindle. At first glance it looks as if something went terribly wrong and that, perhaps, maybe something was affecting the dropout rate. Upon closer analysis, however, you can see that something different is happening. In a previous post (on Duck Starfish 23, my other Blog) I charted NL’s population over time and noted a significant decline in population–out-migration–during that very same period. In all likelihood that dip in the graph is just a reflection of what was happening with the overall population. Many of the students were simply heading out of the province with their families and presumably completing grade 11 elsewhere.

The period from 2005 onward: Notice that the trend rises beyond 100%. I will admit this had me stumped fro a while, thinking I’d done an arithmetic error. Inspection of the data tables, however, showed no error. For any student cohort starting grade 1, by the time they reach grade 11, the cohort will have grown! This can be explained easily enough, though, when you take into account the reality that in recent years, some of the people who moved away in the 1990’s have returned along with families they started elsewhere. Likewise, the Oil and Gas industry has been attracting young families. This explains the trend, however, it also sheds light on the limitations that exists with making conclusions abour how many people are staying in school when analysed this way.

Nonetheless it’s safe to say that since the late 1960’s the fraction of students who stayed in school long enough to reach grade 11 has shown a remarkable increase. It’s up from an appalling figure below 60% to at least 95%.

Which brings me to the point. Let’s go back to the title. I alluded to Myths and Lies.

First the Myths: there’s a general “understanding” among our adult population that what happens in schools has gone significantly downhill; that schools have gotten worse, courses have been watered down needlessly and that students are far worse off as a result. I assert that this is a myth and the data supports it.

The adults who are perpetuating it are basing their opinions on what they remember about their own high school experiences and there are two problems with that. First, there’s no telling at all how accurate those memories are and second, and much more importantly, those recollections ignore the fact that the classmates from those days were only about 60% of the ones they started out with. Forty percent of the students never made it to be included in those memories. In all likelihood the ones that made it that far were the ones best suited to the “bookish” way of life that they now claim is diminished.

Those complainers are completely ignoring the HUGE fraction of students who, for whatever reason, simply dropped out; acting as if they did not count.

Today, most of the students who start survive to find themselves in high school and the entire school system has been re-imagined and redone to cause that and to nurture it–a fact conveniently overlooked by those who just wish to find fault.

And the lies that the myth creates:

Lie: Schools have dropped standards. No, they have not. We now have multiple paths for students and we acknowledge (well some of us do) that school doesn’t just exist to prepare students for universities. We’ve broadened the definition of success to include more than just readin’ and cyperin’. Sure, those things are important but so, too are other things–things like accepting responsibility, being able to use discrimination, the ability to do research, an acknowledgement that in this country multi-cultural is in our best interests… the list goes on.

Lie: Schools are failing students. We did once when we simply allowed–even encouraged–almost half of them to leave before it was completed. As for now–look around. We try and nurture all of our students, not jst the chosen few who seem suited to a life of academia. As a result, guess what, “She’s not falling apart.”

Lie: Students are ill-prepared. My response–for what? Perhaps they can’t rattle off, from memory, the list of mortal sins, the capitals of all of the countries, the dates when European conquerors did this or that, and, of course, the multiplication facts up to 20×20 (Mini-Rant: not that there’s any excuse for students not knowing at least up to 12×12, mind you, but that’s another story and another whole can of myths spread by adults who claim to have been forced to memorize them by rote in school when, in fact they did not since issues with math facts have, in fact, been in a horrible state since at least the 1960s). No, now they now have a much broader skill base. The evidence? Literacy rates are way up, the general tone of public discourse is greatly expanded especially for our young people and, of course, we continue to create (and, sadly export) highly skilled workers. As for being prepared for university there are 2 things to consider: (1) enrollments at University are generally rising and this means that students who at one time would not have considered university are now there. Once it was just the so-called top students and today the cross-section is wider and, of course, (2) the complaints about preparedness are  NOT NEW. The same complaints were occurring 10, 20 and even 50 years ago. Check the pass rates in first year courses–you won’t see the precipitous downward trend you’ve been led to believe exists.

But, of course, this bit of rationality will do nothing to appease the hoards of people who continue to complain about the schools based on their own inaccurate memories and based on only those who survived a different system, as those arguments are based on emotion, and not facts. Sadly, you can’t win an emotional argument with facts.

Still, facts are facts and the remembered state that our young people are being compared to is one that simply discounted as disposable the huge fraction of the population that today’s schools do not.

Small Schools Rank Higher: It’s Built-In; Do the Math (& a twist)

From time to time you will see institutions ranked according to various criteria. Generally this is done with the intention of demonstrating how well each is performing. It’s not unusual to see this done with schools and here’s a claim that is often made, and substantiated by the numbers:

Small Schools Tend to Lead the Ranks

This is consistent. For years I saw it in my own region, reflected in the annual report card issued by the Halifax-Based Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS). Year after year, small schools led the provincial rankings. As a professional whose entire career was devoted to the betterment of small rural schools I wanted to be able to brag about this, to puff out my chest and say, “look, I told you that small schools were better for our children. It’s obvious that the extra care and attention they get on an individual basis, as well as the better socialization caused by the fact that everyone knows everyone else, is making a positive difference.”

I never did that, of course. It’s not because I don’t believe in small schools–I truly do. My silence on the matter was, to some degree due to the fact that at the time the studies were published I was a non-executive member of the Department of Education. As such I was not authorized to speak on its behalf. That was not the real reason though.

No, I knew that a far more powerful force was afoot; something that affected the results much more than did either good teaching, a supportive (small) ecosystem and the presence of many brilliant bay woman and men.

Although all of those are positive factors.

No the most powerful effect was something else, something related to straightforward mathematical behaviour, and if you’ll spare a few minutes of your attention I will explain.

Simply Put: Small schools have an advantage in these rankings that is due only to the fact that they are small.

And there is an unexpected twist too, one not often mentioned in the discussion of the reports.

Here goes!

Let’s simplify the situation and assume that the rankings are based on the outcome of one test only. Furthermore, let’s say that the result of that test, for any given student, is completely random; that is, any student who writes it will get a random grade between 0 and 100. In other words let’s act like there’s really no difference between the students at all of the schools. The small ones will still come out on top.

Let’s see what this would mean for ten small schools (we’ll arbitrarily name them sml01 to sml10), each one having only fifteen students in grade twelve and writing the test on which our report is based. The results for all of the students are tabulated below. In reality the table was produced using a random number generator in Microsoft Excel. You don’t need to read the table in detail. It’s just here so you know I’m not making the whole thing up!

School sml01 sml02 sml03 sml04 sml05 sml06 sml07 sml08 sml09 sml10
Score 15.0 14.0 45.0 55.0 53.0 70.0 55.0 100.0 79.0 56.0
Score 6.0 34.0 94.0 75.0 64.0 75.0 59.0 75.0 73.0 52.0
Score 15.0 83.0 65.0 30.0 84.0 46.0 64.0 10.0 35.0 20.0
Score 64.0 16.0 80.0 77.0 10.0 55.0 85.0 32.0 91.0 97.0
Score 29.0 28.0 96.0 98.0 6.0 67.0 51.0 74.0 69.0 9.0
Score 43.0 29.0 49.0 79.0 17.0 64.0 54.0 11.0 32.0 91.0
Score 31.0 49.0 62.0 33.0 0.0 92.0 35.0 59.0 91.0 45.0
Score 51.0 21.0 98.0 75.0 47.0 57.0 32.0 32.0 25.0 58.0
Score 45.0 27.0 18.0 6.0 24.0 31.0 84.0 5.0 89.0 2.0
Score 62.0 62.0 38.0 84.0 16.0 23.0 39.0 84.0 36.0 17.0
Score 9.0 0.0 6.0 67.0 53.0 99.0 54.0 23.0 97.0 15.0
Score 38.0 34.0 21.0 70.0 58.0 40.0 37.0 21.0 56.0 50.0
Score 21.0 55.0 51.0 97.0 92.0 40.0 48.0 100.0 76.0 4.0
Score 17.0 50.0 43.0 38.0 6.0 1.0 72.0 77.0 16.0 25.0
Score 35.0 69.0 83.0 34.0 75.0 16.0 46.0 51.0 77.0 33.0
Average 32.1 38.1 56.6 61.2 40.3 51.7 54.3 50.3 62.8 38.3

Table 1: School results for ten small schools.

That’s a huge pile of numbers and we are only looking at the results for the schools so lets just redo that table showing only the schools and the averages.

School Average
sml01 32.1
sml02 38.1
sml03 56.6
sml04 61.2
sml05 40.3
sml06 51.7
sml07 54.3
sml08 50.3
sml09 62.8
sml10 38.3
Table 2: Small School Results

Notice that the results show a fair bit of variability. They cluster around an average of 50  but some schools had averages in the thirties while others were up around 60.

Now let’s do it all over again, but this time let’s see what would happen in larger schools (named big01 to big10). For the small schools we assumed there were only 15 students per grade level but for the larger ones let’s assume that there are in fact 120 students in grade 12 writing the test.

The rather long table is below just so you know I’m not pulling the numbers out of my head. As was the case with the small school simulation it was done using a random number generator in Microsoft Excel and just pasted directly into WordPress. Scroll to the bottom of the table 🙂

School big01 big02 big03 big04 big05 big06 big07 big08 big09 big10
Score 67.0 100.0 82.0 25.0 27.0 100.0 10.0 69.0 22.0 96.0
Score 42.0 92.0 63.0 16.0 42.0 12.0 69.0 94.0 66.0 60.0
Score 100.0 27.0 42.0 59.0 88.0 79.0 83.0 49.0 27.0 96.0
Score 44.0 29.0 46.0 63.0 28.0 69.0 31.0 19.0 18.0 59.0
Score 16.0 33.0 66.0 81.0 11.0 21.0 76.0 67.0 70.0 85.0
Score 95.0 31.0 11.0 2.0 80.0 15.0 21.0 78.0 91.0 33.0
Score 32.0 32.0 38.0 34.0 44.0 61.0 55.0 0.0 89.0 64.0
Score 82.0 6.0 96.0 57.0 8.0 52.0 64.0 55.0 62.0 72.0
Score 100.0 48.0 45.0 10.0 49.0 93.0 89.0 72.0 87.0 72.0
Score 88.0 91.0 33.0 0.0 36.0 11.0 76.0 10.0 78.0 55.0
Score 54.0 95.0 41.0 68.0 92.0 75.0 54.0 75.0 20.0 52.0
Score 44.0 79.0 88.0 69.0 82.0 9.0 31.0 74.0 1.0 78.0
Score 71.0 36.0 2.0 51.0 58.0 2.0 17.0 68.0 29.0 36.0
Score 93.0 47.0 89.0 91.0 25.0 47.0 85.0 96.0 63.0 23.0
Score 9.0 79.0 33.0 41.0 68.0 19.0 74.0 81.0 57.0 47.0
Score 77.0 84.0 28.0 44.0 2.0 54.0 37.0 48.0 25.0 54.0
Score 20.0 74.0 33.0 57.0 15.0 65.0 85.0 59.0 21.0 80.0
Score 56.0 98.0 27.0 68.0 45.0 75.0 58.0 71.0 92.0 58.0
Score 7.0 70.0 83.0 74.0 26.0 52.0 71.0 40.0 75.0 87.0
Score 80.0 32.0 65.0 7.0 54.0 62.0 68.0 7.0 87.0 88.0
Score 65.0 12.0 68.0 22.0 5.0 26.0 36.0 92.0 79.0 40.0
Score 87.0 89.0 51.0 70.0 96.0 98.0 56.0 13.0 10.0 51.0
Score 52.0 71.0 13.0 86.0 88.0 54.0 11.0 20.0 26.0 18.0
Score 69.0 57.0 11.0 36.0 39.0 5.0 38.0 56.0 82.0 40.0
Score 95.0 54.0 54.0 77.0 52.0 74.0 100.0 82.0 35.0 7.0
Score 49.0 80.0 24.0 42.0 11.0 82.0 70.0 18.0 30.0 19.0
Score 46.0 26.0 3.0 56.0 54.0 50.0 2.0 9.0 26.0 47.0
Score 58.0 57.0 98.0 62.0 65.0 50.0 7.0 94.0 9.0 43.0
Score 86.0 86.0 32.0 81.0 63.0 49.0 60.0 61.0 93.0 5.0
Score 9.0 54.0 74.0 65.0 27.0 38.0 42.0 30.0 42.0 99.0
Score 41.0 37.0 30.0 70.0 77.0 86.0 58.0 48.0 53.0 99.0
Score 23.0 82.0 9.0 73.0 9.0 9.0 86.0 27.0 57.0 50.0
Score 52.0 97.0 91.0 90.0 58.0 11.0 56.0 16.0 53.0 89.0
Score 54.0 84.0 46.0 0.0 26.0 55.0 36.0 94.0 89.0 46.0
Score 94.0 75.0 32.0 16.0 77.0 9.0 87.0 21.0 58.0 59.0
Score 77.0 27.0 93.0 65.0 61.0 23.0 53.0 60.0 29.0 23.0
Score 41.0 26.0 34.0 21.0 24.0 57.0 34.0 78.0 99.0 90.0
Score 73.0 67.0 83.0 54.0 99.0 63.0 24.0 65.0 75.0 37.0
Score 55.0 76.0 30.0 85.0 92.0 57.0 31.0 69.0 82.0 43.0
Score 12.0 38.0 53.0 56.0 40.0 67.0 3.0 50.0 86.0 90.0
Score 48.0 89.0 86.0 77.0 80.0 83.0 92.0 38.0 67.0 0.0
Score 59.0 81.0 65.0 0.0 47.0 24.0 57.0 18.0 27.0 90.0
Score 32.0 72.0 46.0 54.0 92.0 54.0 41.0 99.0 0.0 87.0
Score 5.0 55.0 0.0 78.0 13.0 83.0 60.0 68.0 68.0 86.0
Score 0.0 0.0 91.0 66.0 38.0 22.0 2.0 82.0 32.0 12.0
Score 19.0 74.0 40.0 54.0 93.0 37.0 68.0 75.0 57.0 35.0
Score 13.0 81.0 36.0 39.0 50.0 3.0 44.0 19.0 100.0 16.0
Score 36.0 95.0 4.0 100.0 60.0 89.0 47.0 99.0 70.0 43.0
Score 29.0 46.0 12.0 92.0 35.0 28.0 17.0 74.0 38.0 85.0
Score 49.0 84.0 35.0 70.0 36.0 12.0 32.0 43.0 81.0 39.0
Score 87.0 32.0 89.0 71.0 11.0 0.0 93.0 51.0 10.0 39.0
Score 43.0 27.0 12.0 9.0 81.0 78.0 52.0 99.0 82.0 86.0
Score 51.0 41.0 50.0 73.0 83.0 65.0 51.0 44.0 89.0 5.0
Score 21.0 56.0 89.0 6.0 47.0 41.0 57.0 17.0 72.0 53.0
Score 12.0 39.0 51.0 18.0 96.0 75.0 23.0 39.0 75.0 39.0
Score 0.0 48.0 11.0 51.0 61.0 22.0 39.0 35.0 88.0 75.0
Score 33.0 53.0 23.0 68.0 88.0 69.0 48.0 40.0 19.0 100.0
Score 31.0 30.0 82.0 31.0 13.0 55.0 89.0 94.0 40.0 60.0
Score 90.0 5.0 19.0 26.0 68.0 60.0 77.0 63.0 51.0 6.0
Score 41.0 65.0 72.0 76.0 91.0 11.0 71.0 37.0 68.0 53.0
Score 24.0 80.0 70.0 73.0 61.0 4.0 79.0 59.0 37.0 73.0
Score 11.0 24.0 72.0 48.0 64.0 28.0 38.0 79.0 66.0 22.0
Score 22.0 13.0 14.0 83.0 2.0 21.0 95.0 100.0 55.0 55.0
Score 50.0 97.0 59.0 85.0 15.0 82.0 77.0 31.0 21.0 92.0
Score 81.0 9.0 45.0 56.0 16.0 55.0 66.0 69.0 79.0 78.0
Score 36.0 74.0 68.0 7.0 36.0 42.0 5.0 76.0 41.0 76.0
Score 30.0 35.0 68.0 59.0 92.0 50.0 9.0 50.0 98.0 97.0
Score 30.0 31.0 2.0 1.0 62.0 64.0 82.0 88.0 84.0 53.0
Score 4.0 46.0 55.0 54.0 61.0 42.0 81.0 77.0 25.0 27.0
Score 32.0 51.0 79.0 58.0 2.0 33.0 66.0 92.0 20.0 68.0
Score 70.0 76.0 52.0 24.0 2.0 21.0 6.0 98.0 63.0 37.0
Score 54.0 68.0 91.0 56.0 58.0 32.0 41.0 74.0 64.0 45.0
Score 37.0 48.0 29.0 42.0 4.0 93.0 10.0 29.0 97.0 40.0
Score 14.0 47.0 46.0 83.0 80.0 52.0 42.0 54.0 33.0 29.0
Score 15.0 2.0 100.0 12.0 9.0 84.0 52.0 53.0 53.0 6.0
Score 8.0 23.0 35.0 63.0 78.0 34.0 30.0 75.0 14.0 54.0
Score 16.0 90.0 13.0 80.0 32.0 29.0 99.0 21.0 34.0 80.0
Score 99.0 48.0 47.0 5.0 71.0 88.0 77.0 68.0 50.0 2.0
Score 45.0 15.0 18.0 38.0 49.0 8.0 90.0 13.0 71.0 33.0
Score 42.0 50.0 86.0 80.0 79.0 53.0 21.0 81.0 53.0 36.0
Score 16.0 14.0 51.0 14.0 19.0 97.0 50.0 49.0 8.0 2.0
Score 34.0 85.0 55.0 54.0 49.0 63.0 1.0 58.0 73.0 13.0
Score 8.0 98.0 9.0 7.0 70.0 78.0 41.0 18.0 94.0 74.0
Score 59.0 43.0 31.0 30.0 97.0 85.0 64.0 94.0 3.0 91.0
Score 29.0 34.0 6.0 17.0 43.0 78.0 67.0 17.0 50.0 34.0
Score 80.0 12.0 98.0 24.0 84.0 25.0 96.0 76.0 16.0 67.0
Score 87.0 89.0 11.0 86.0 5.0 39.0 83.0 98.0 27.0 13.0
Score 62.0 73.0 69.0 91.0 47.0 52.0 91.0 57.0 87.0 39.0
Score 22.0 64.0 86.0 64.0 10.0 88.0 6.0 62.0 91.0 26.0
Score 28.0 74.0 88.0 19.0 45.0 97.0 94.0 3.0 75.0 30.0
Score 27.0 11.0 11.0 55.0 39.0 30.0 39.0 54.0 99.0 86.0
Score 94.0 85.0 60.0 1.0 42.0 23.0 57.0 97.0 58.0 24.0
Score 78.0 7.0 30.0 94.0 26.0 75.0 100.0 11.0 99.0 11.0
Score 94.0 12.0 81.0 50.0 49.0 36.0 68.0 95.0 67.0 33.0
Score 5.0 9.0 39.0 23.0 31.0 29.0 23.0 22.0 57.0 46.0
Score 67.0 55.0 98.0 81.0 80.0 72.0 31.0 53.0 80.0 95.0
Score 68.0 57.0 17.0 34.0 26.0 38.0 46.0 55.0 74.0 24.0
Score 8.0 39.0 82.0 34.0 65.0 74.0 34.0 39.0 62.0 19.0
Score 83.0 97.0 14.0 84.0 71.0 66.0 62.0 13.0 8.0 82.0
Score 83.0 78.0 39.0 45.0 15.0 70.0 63.0 65.0 75.0 68.0
Score 8.0 32.0 75.0 8.0 53.0 67.0 22.0 4.0 34.0 46.0
Score 91.0 38.0 48.0 85.0 11.0 93.0 96.0 17.0 80.0 13.0
Score 46.0 90.0 14.0 41.0 0.0 40.0 97.0 74.0 0.0 25.0
Score 26.0 14.0 85.0 92.0 29.0 63.0 77.0 94.0 80.0 8.0
Score 99.0 60.0 48.0 94.0 23.0 37.0 74.0 57.0 2.0 96.0
Score 51.0 99.0 89.0 67.0 69.0 5.0 91.0 6.0 97.0 97.0
Score 41.0 21.0 55.0 63.0 68.0 55.0 1.0 60.0 11.0 54.0
Score 35.0 18.0 65.0 78.0 96.0 79.0 3.0 22.0 80.0 44.0
Score 64.0 62.0 37.0 12.0 81.0 71.0 50.0 29.0 33.0 82.0
Score 27.0 24.0 4.0 29.0 86.0 36.0 11.0 47.0 77.0 5.0
Score 40.0 14.0 44.0 95.0 78.0 90.0 42.0 41.0 99.0 83.0
Score 10.0 93.0 37.0 48.0 87.0 27.0 79.0 15.0 94.0 57.0
Score 92.0 100.0 24.0 81.0 61.0 93.0 68.0 8.0 54.0 46.0
Score 55.0 79.0 17.0 88.0 96.0 83.0 88.0 99.0 49.0 21.0
Score 88.0 46.0 20.0 17.0 74.0 76.0 12.0 53.0 89.0 22.0
Score 85.0 42.0 26.0 26.0 87.0 69.0 49.0 68.0 57.0 49.0
Score 59.0 31.0 21.0 74.0 56.0 3.0 94.0 95.0 26.0 18.0
Score 100.0 75.0 59.0 39.0 64.0 54.0 7.0 30.0 34.0 38.0
Score 58.0 100.0 60.0 96.0 100.0 70.0 71.0 19.0 58.0 7.0
Score 13.0 66.0 94.0 82.0 92.0 87.0 51.0 51.0 80.0 13.0
Score 36.0 3.0 32.0 29.0 83.0 95.0 20.0 42.0 53.0 95.0
Average 48.7 53.9 48.2 51.7 52.1 51.8 52.8 53.9 56.0 50.4
Table 3: School results for ten big schools.

As before let’s just look at the averages for each school.

School Average
big01 48.7
big02 53.9
big03 48.2
big04 51.7
big05 52.1
big06 51.8
big07 52.8
big08 53.9
big09 56.0
big10 50.4
Table 4: Big School Results

Notice that, like table 2 the results are clustered about an average of around 50. Notice, though, that the numbers are not spread nearly as much.

Let’s put the two tables side-by-side for a better look

Scool Average School Average
sml01 32.1 big01 48.7
sml02 38.1 big02 53.9
sml03 56.6 big03 48.2
sml04 61.2 big04 51.7
sml05 40.3 big05 52.1
sml06 51.7 big06 51.8
sml07 54.3 big07 52.8
sml08 50.3 big08 53.9
sml09 62.8 big09 56.0
sml10 38.3 big10 50.4
Table 5: Averages for both small and big schools

The thing to notice is that the big schools show much less variability. In small schools, individual students who do very well or very poorly (we call them outliers) tend to have a large effect on the average. In larger schools, the increased number of results tends to “smooth out” the results; to make them less variable.

This is something that is well-known in mathematics. It  even has a name: The Law of Large Numbers. Simply put, in larger populations repeated experiments tend to cluster better about the expected result.

Now, this is where things get interesting. Recall that this is all about the fact that small schools get a built-in advantage due only to the fact that they are small. Let’s see what it looks like when all twenty schools are ranked from highest to lowest.

School Average
sml09 62.8
sml04 61.2
sml03 56.6
big09 56.0
sml07 54.3
big08 53.9
big02 53.9
big07 52.8
big05 52.1
big06 51.8
big04 51.7
sml06 51.7
big10 50.4
sml08 50.3
big01 48.7
big03 48.2
sml05 40.3
sml10 38.3
sml02 38.1
sml01 32.1
Table 6: All twenty schools ranked from highest to lowest.

Did you see what happened? The top schools were all small schools. They reached the top due to nothing other than the law of mall numbers working in their favour. Random variability–two or three bright students or an absence of  two or three weaker students had a profoundly positive effect on the school average.

Recall also I mentioned there would be a twist. Notice that while the highest ranking institutions were drawn from the pool of small schools, so, too were the lowest ranking ones, and for the same reason–namely the presence of a few weaker students or he absence of a few strong ones.

So, based on this little experiment it’s plain to see that when ranked this way, small schools will tend to come out on top simply because they are small and the fact that the law of large numbers is better able to work in their favour.

As for the small schools at the bottom, it happens too and it’s at best likely that these are rarely mentioned due to the presence of selection bias on behalf of whoever wishes to weave the numbers into a narrative that suits their own political ends. One wonders, though, how many small schools have been closed or otherwise penalized for nothing other than being the unfortunate victims of chance.

Closing Note: this is in no way intended to cast AIMS in any negative light. To the best of my knowledge neither they, nor the various Departments of Education nor the various school districts ever tried to spin the reports into any grandiose claims regarding big and small schools. The false claims I have heard have generally be made by private individuals, each with their own axes to grind.

As for my own conclusion: Ranking systems, regardless of the context, whether it be health care, law enforcement, customer care or, as is the case here, school-based student achievement, serve a useful purpose but be wary of the law of large numbers before making any sweeping generalizations.

Day 10,952: One Voyage Ended; A New Beginning

The way ahead seemed at once both clear yet so uncertain.
Never was there any doubt
about the voyage that was faced.
The only questions at the time were about the destination.
Futures always uncertain
as the course ahead was traced.

Just like it was for Father the rural life did beckon.
Returning home a teacher–
the thing that was wanted most.
Physics, Math and so much more, you don’t get to be choosy.
The students’ futures were all that mattered
in that small school by the coast.

Got married there, first son born and another would soon be coming.
Nine years had passed quickly.
Things had changed as all things do.
A new challenge presented–teaching physics at a distance.
Secondment meant to move away;
a career to start anew.

It was supposed to be for just two years but you know the way that life is.
You stand upon the next big rock
and your vantage point is changed.
And twenty-one years later reveal shores that look so foreign
from a vessel that over time
was refitted; rearranged.

And what a journey it has been! What friends I’ve met! What things I’ve seen!
What an honour to have been a part
of what’s kept rural places alive.
Throwing down the barriers, rendering distances transparent
meant a way of life we’ve fought to keep
could continue on and thrive.

The students: some struggled, some coasted and some soared on high,
each one with their way to find.
Some were mine to guide.
The colleagues: all so different; each with something to contribute.
The mentors; givers, best of all;
on whose guidance I’ve relied

Together we’ve navigated stormy seas and lands uncharted.
Tears and rents we fixed together.
Always hope for what’s yet to be.
But the journey will continue on, with one less hand on board her.
I’m looking to catch the next boat out.
A new voyage I just can’t wait to see!

ELTM5C: Games-Fixing Reality

In Part 3 of “Reality is Broken” Jane Mcgonigal describes games in which large groups of people are working collaboratively to solve some of the world’s largest problems. Another four fixes are outlined.

11. Build a sustainable engagement economy The ordinary work of getting on with society requires the existence of a large number of collaborative organizations, most of which rely on the services of volunteers. Competition for person hours is fierce. There are a lot of organizations chasing after volunteers. People are busy though and requests for assistance are not welcome. Playing the “guilt” or “duty” cards is ineffective. How, then, to get the work done?

Compensation? It’s just not effective for encouraging people to sustain work for which pay is not normally expected. Once pay is given that becomes the norm; it’s then expected as a matter of course, regardless of how appropriate this may be. The fact remains that there are many tasks in society for which pay is not normally given—and furthermore that’s probably the way it should be. The challenge, then, is to find ways to get people to participate anyway.

So, how about introducing elements of gaming into the picture?

Here’s an example: The Newspaper “The Guardian” obtained access to hundreds of thousands of filed expense claims and found itself unable to make sense of them in the time required. As a response it devised a gamified, crowd-sourced procedure in which citizens were able to assist in the required analysis. A significant number of irregularities were uncovered.

Consider Wikipedia as a participatory game: It is successful for several reasons: It has a Good (a) game world; Large and many sided (b) game mechanics system (c) Feedback and rewards (d) game community (e) Interaction and conflict resolution. Due, possibly, to all of this the Wikipedia project has been massively successful. It is enormous in size and, as time goes on, the credibility of its information is growing.

Now consider the online game World of Warcraft (WOW), an online game played—often obsessively—by millions of players. Potentially Wikipedia could have been built by the WOW community in 3-4 days if the players had been able to direct their energies to it.

After all, if gamers are so anxious to be engaged them why not channel their efforts to real-world projects?

There are already some examples of this, albeit at a smaller scale. For example, in the project Folding at Home, the participants share the effort required to investigate complex protein shapes.

One wonders though, about the validity of this line of reasoning. After all, much of the work that is required in this world does not lend itself to a gamified environment. Take the case of elected school (or health care) boards. To them is entrusted the proper governance of a whole school district. How acceptable would it be to add game elements to the processes of setting school priorities, deciding which schools to close and debating educational policy? Somehow the word ‘game’ just plain trivializes a deadly serious pursuit.

Additionally, it seems trite to say that WOW gamers could have built Wikipedia. Take a glance through several articles. It is not hard to see the care and dedication with which most of the articles were prepared. Contrary to what some think, the articles are of generally good quality—and getting better. I’d be lost without it. To just assume that a group of people, with nothing more in common than a love of online entertainment, would actively take an interest in this is to seriously misunderstand humanity. We all have our interests. For many, yes, it is in working at intellectual/professional pursuits for the betterment of society. For many, though, just everyday survival is about all that can be managed and a welcome, relaxing release of frustration might be all that separates them from despair.

I brought son#1 to work at 7am, after folding a load of laundry and washing a load of towels. Went to work where, in addition to working on numerical analysis of this year’s various performance indicators I helped untangle a developing HR situation, responded to several public requests for information, visited the Registrar’s office for forms for son#2, did a job for OH during lunch, met with several colleagues, picked up sons 1 and 2 after work, prepared supper and, of course, cleaned up afterwards then folded that load of wash from earlier this morning. I figure I’ve done my share. I have nothing to give now and am just writing a bit; my therapy. Heading out to pick up OH from work at 10. Save the world? Not today.

12. More epic wins. Our world is facing many large-scale issues including: hunger, climate change, economic crises. These require equally large scale action for which mission support is vital. Social participation games such as Groundcrew and Lost Joules are examples of how this can be done. Assuming that people are willing to put the time in, some of this just might work. But who does the work?

13. Ten Thousand Hours Collaborating Perhaps you’ve read “Outliers?”  In that bestselling work, author Malcolm Gladwell did a lot to make popular the idea, based in large part on work by Anders Ericsson, that mastery of skills generally comes after significant (ten-thousand hours is a popular way of saying it) practice. Young gamers spend huge periods of time; certainly enough to qualify most them as masters at…something besides twiddling thumbs and fingers on game controllers. Because modern games are collaborative it’s to be expected that today’s young people can be especially good collaborators, likely having spent those magical 10,000 hours at it by age 21.

Of course, the skeptic can’t help but present a few pertinent items:

  • Is it valid to state that “collaboration” is a skill in the same sense as is, say, playing a musical instrument or playing a particular position in hockey?
  • Data set of one: I suck at softball and I am pretty sure I have spent my 10,000 hours at it. At least it feels like it. Just kidding—sort of.

Besides the time spent by the participants, today’s games offer an excellent platform for collaboration. Consider Little Big Planet where players join with up to four others and get to explore the world, virtually, together.

Still, one wonders, if this will translate. Just because you play well with others in a gaming environment it’s not necessarily the case they you’ll play nicely elsewhere, is it?

“Emergensight” is the ability to thrive in a chaotic environment. Effective collaborators apparently have this in droves, adept, as they are, in complex fast-moving environments. That said, as far as I can see there’s no telling whether there is a causal connection and, if so, in which directions(s) the effect works.

Much of rationale behind what’s stated in the book is based on the findings of Positive Psychology.  Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson, for example, in “Character Strengths and Virtues” delineated 24 categories down into six categories:

  • Wisdom & knowledge
  • Courage
  • Humanity
  • Justice
  • Temperance
  • Transcendence

Several well-designed games including Lost Ring take advantage of this by building in characters that exemplify each of these categories.

I have to admit to having something of an overriding bias toward what I shall term “Classical Psychology”—you know, the one most people refer to when they drop the term “Psychology.” Think about it for a minute: classical psychology is somewhat “negative” in nature, tending to dwell on and study those traits that are generally unwanted or the absence of desired characteristics. By contrast, Positive Psychology strives to do more-or-less the opposite; to study strengths and desired characteristics.

It’s just…well…

At this stage the field of Positive Psychology is not developed well enough to satisfy the huge skeptic that lurks within me. Yes, it’s true that many bright, skilled people have devoted significant amounts of time researching the field; fleshing it out. Classical psychology, though, for all its flaws has at least a 100 year head start. As such it’s easier to find platforms on which people more-or-less agree, all wrapped up there in DSM4 and DSM5. Positive psychology is not there just yet.

Please do not misunderstand; this not, in any way, an attempt to slight that emerging field. It is, though, an effort to remind…myself, if nobody else…that positive psychology has a way to go before it can produce so trustworthy a document as the Diagnosis and Statistical Manual. Yes, THEY are pretty controversial documents; it’s been fun following the proceedings that led to DS5. Here’s a fascinating glimpse into that. It’s just that we know or at least can access the debate and data that left us with them. As for Positive Psychology—while there’s no doubt (at least in my mind) that it contains quite a large amount of value, I’m pretty much equally sure that it’s still in need of lot more refinement.

14. Massively Multiplayer foresight is something that happens when a sufficient number of good people turn their attention to a problem.

World Without Oil was a massive online thought experiment/game in which contributors supplied “what if’s” as they considered our future in the absence of easily available petro-energy. The game was played by around 9000 individuals over 32 days, representing 32 weeks of progress through that scenario. It was found that, at first, many of the contributions were rather dark in nature but as the game wore on, the players shifted and instead began supplying potential solutions to the problems that had been uncovered.

They became SEHI’s (Super Empowered Hopeful Individuals); players on a more global playing-out of gaming environments.

The term Superstruct was coined to represent the act of extending on existing structures, not to enlarge them, but instead to take them off in new directions. This requites individuals who are empowered to collaborate at more extreme scales. The Institute for the Future produces annual ten-year forecasts. The first superstruct was built to help produce one of its ten-year forecasts. Players were expected to move in new, novel directions while still having a clear goal in mind. Players were tasked with tackling these five “super threats;”

  • Disease and other threats to health
  • Hunger
  • Moving to sustainable energy
  • Security, both personal and organizational
  • The need for government dedicated to a sustainable way of life

Overall, approximately 9000 participants contributed ideas and information in an effort to “Vanquish” these threats for the year 2019.

From this, other superstructs have emerged including ones dedicated to:

  • Producing wearable energy producing devices.
  • Providing people with low cost access to seeds
  • Organizing humanitarian efforts in places difficult to service.

Evoke, a new game to assist young people in mobilizing to positively changing the world, was designed to be played on just about any type of electronic equipment, including low-powered, low-bandwidth devices that are often all that are available in third-world regions. Early results seem to be encouraging. Visit the site–it’s intriguing, to say the least.

I’m tired.

Reading “Reality is Broken” was a stimulating exploration of how the things that make games great could potentially also make our world a better place. It was not just thoughtful; it was well-written. The author is a gifted storyteller who skillfully weaves interesting, relevant exemplars all through the main ideas. What’s more the ideas and the terms are fresh—at least to me; a breath of clean air wafting through my poor dusty mind.

But, yes, I’m tired. After making my way through this worthwhile read I’m still left somewhat unmoved. Yes, games are fun, powerful and most importantly effective in getting people to act.

But they’re still games.

And life is not always a game.

Not to me, at least.

Think about it—there’s a line between “applying principles of psychology to influence others to perform necessary tasks efficiently and well” and “manipulating others so that they do what you want them to do.” The most important point of distinction between the two is the issue of deciding just what it is we want others to do. We don’t need to just get clever and sly at manipulating people.

In developed countries governments, of all types, rely on the messy process of advanced democracy to help with the decision making: committees, public debates, white papers—that sort of thing. Larger corporations utilize much of this but usually have to layer in an added focus on profits. Individuals and smaller enterprises? Well, they essentially follow their own rules. Sometimes the actions are informed by a well-developed structure of ethics and responsibility. Sometimes not.

The thing, then, is to keep a close eye on what we do. “Making a game out of it” can be a very positive thing for all who decide to participate but the experience must be appropriate. Care should be taken that choice is always available. Game dynamics are certainly powerful for many, but not all. They’re also insidious. It could easily become the case that the game becomes the thing and attention comes off that which the game was supposed to accomplish.

I’ll freely admit to perhaps being too old for much of this. Games don’t have the effect on me that they have on today’s typical electronic gamer (who’s more likely a 20 or 30 something. I’m nowhere there.) I’ll also admit to preferring other things (music, reading, writing, being a generally non-gaming geek yes that’s possible) to games—and that’s just a personal thing. But, I don’t dislike games. I play all types in moderation. I do other things too.

My teaching specialties are mathematics and physics. They’re generally hard to teach and hard to learn. Please don’t believe the total bullshit from those who would like you to believe they are easy. If, after all, they were easy then there’d be no need for people like me. Those who insist otherwise are either just “touching the tops of the trees” or are outright lying to you. Come on!

Hard yes, but I don’t HAVE to use game-based tools and strategies to build learning activities  to get them done. I don’t have to, but sometimes I will. Maybe even ‘frequently.’ Like all educators I have a full toolbox. Just as you don’t just use a hammer to build a house, you also don’t try to teach with just one method. You bring in the right tool to do the job. Sometimes you even get to choose between several.

And at those times, learning situations infused with game-based elements might be just the thing.

ELTM5B: Games-Applying the Principles; Alternate Realities

It’s possible—often desirable—to take that which makes games so much fun and apply those principles to real life. In so doing you offer the very real possibility of making lives so much more fulfilling; so much more worthwhile. As I drafted this post I was also struck by two nagging questions: “Is this for everyone?” and, more importantly “Are there any hidden dangers that we may wish to avoid?”

In part A (the previous post) it was described how the book “Reality is Broken” explains why games affect us in a positive way. Part 2 builds on this and explores how alternate reality games apply the related strategies to real life. Author Jane Mcgonigal lists and expands on three new fixes that game-related elements can bring to reality.

7. Wholehearted participation means that people (a) are involved voluntarily (b) are interested in the outcome and (c) actively participate. The chapter opens with a description of Chore Wars, a web-based application that allows groups (families, roommates, etc.) to compete for experience points obtained through completing common tasks. Being part of a household that also includes four young people between the ages of 16 and 22, as you expect, I often find myself at the centre of…creative tension…around the delegation of chores. It was therefore with great pleasure that I visited the site and created the structure for my household. I invited the five other members to the game and waited with eager anticipation. I also did my best to ‘market’ this to my fellow home dwellers.

It’s been a week now and, unfortunately, it does not seem to be working although I’m progressing fairly well and gaining lots of experience points.

I’m taking a break now to: sweep the floors, clean the bathroom, do some laundry, cook dinner and wash the dishes. Might even slip in mowing the lawn and watering the posies as there seem to be no takers from today’s list online. Pretty soon I should be ‘the boss.’ Yes, that’s irony.

Schools were next, noting that they are generally built around a series of necessary obstacles. These mandatory, standardized tasks produce negative stress and are increasingly disconnected from the virtual world inhabited by today’s young people. She does acknowledges the presence of educational games but states that these are more an add-on; not integrated and as such, are insufficient. One particular charter school has built its curriculum around gaming, much of which is collaborative. While most schools are organized around a series of necessary obstacles (tests, midterms, assignments, etc.) this one was designed to build in the unnecessary obstacles so vital in games. Students collect experience points by completing individual and cooperative tasks. Major milestones that would normally be achieved through major examinations and such are instead handled through a leveling up process. Students, of course, get ‘do overs’ when necessary and can take on optional quests (enrichment) for added value. As of the time of writing the school was enjoying great success and was expecting to expand in future years.

The veteran educator in me viewed this story with skepticism. At the risk of alienating some readers I admit to a deep suspicion around (a) schools outside the mainstream (many of them cater to only a sub-set of the population whereas as a public school educator my own passion is that ALL students avail of the same opportunities) and (b) wholesale and radically different approach to schooling (they generally centre on the efforts of one key individual who is more interested in THEIR view of the world rather than in the collected wisdom of all their colleagues; that is they are often ego-driven and unsustainable). I did, easily see how the techniques employed by that school could and should be expanded upon and put out there for all educators to use—powerful new tools to be added to the already-existing set; not replacements.

And for the sake of fairness I will emphasize that this is not the case for many, many alternative schools which have been set up with the earnest intention of bettering the lives of all the students where the existing public institutions could not. The school mentioned was also most definitely the work of a single individual. Clearly a large group of dedicated individuals had placed a huge stake in it.

Finally, “Super Better” was introduced; a game experience in which you complete five tasks:

  • Create a secret identity & storyline that’s meaningful to you.
  • Recruit allies who will help give and reward your achievements toward healing.
  • Find bad guys; activities & triggers that work against you. Prepare to vanquish them.
  • Identify power-ups; things that work for you.
  • Create to-do list and progress through it.

Looking through the above list you can see that the designer has very cleverly turned proven and effective approaches to wellness and has restructured them into a system that has powerful feedback and reward systems. Even the skeptic within me likes this one!

8. Meaningful Rewards when we need them most. Many modern-day game designers are followers of the “new games movement” which likely draws its roots from the 1970s when overall efforts were undertaken to make games increasingly: cooperative, social and inclusive. Whether the games are electronic, a hybrid mix of online and traditional activities, or, for that matter any type (and, hey, this includes ordinary sports such as Tchoukball) it is reemphasized that the ‘thing’ is in playing the games; not winning.   It is on increasing the overall quality of life. Even when gamers lose, much pleasure is still to be found. Good sports, for example, will have no problem in shaking hands or in typing “gg” (good game) after a game is over, regardless of the outcome. It’s about the competition, about giving your personal best within the boundaries of the rules, about finding and then extending your limits.

It’s especially nice when games can provide rewards when they are most needed. Two flight-related games are worth noting; games that could easily enhance the experiences of weary or fearful flyers. “Jetset” is a game that ‘knows’ which airport you are at encourages you to perform simulated  airport screening as accurately and quickly as you can. It rewards you for new locations and efficiency. In so-doing it may also make you more sympathetic to what’s behind the whole process, both good and bad. “Day in the Cloud,” sponsored by Virgin, empowers teams on different flights to compete based on puzzle-solving and general knowledge. The tasks require the cooperation of teams on each flight. This activity helps draw cohorts of flight mates together while actively engaging them during their time.

Nike+, is another example. Getting its data from chips implanted in the shoes it motivates and rewards runners for real achievements and then sets new challenges.

Foursquare, the online ‘check-in’ application that encourages participants to log their current location and then share it is also worth noting. One particular reward of note: the mayor. For any given location, the individual with the most check ins is regarded as the unofficial mayor of that location. This leaves open the possibility for friendly competitions on who can become the mayor of that place.

Throughout all of this, I have the most uncomfortable feeling right in the pit of my stomach, Perhaps I am getting too old and too jaded but frankly that stuff just throws me off. Why?

Mile One Centre is a stadium located a short distance from my home. It’s a well-designed and well-run place that does an excellent job of putting off sporting events, especially Ice Hockey (Mile One is home to the St. John’s Ice Caps) and concerts of every variety. It’s civilized, comfortable and the prices are not too bad. I enjoy attending events there. I’m seeing KISS there on Aug 4 :-)

Then there’s that damned score clock: right up there above centre ice. It’s a four-sided behemoth that provides you with game stats and instant replay among other things.

And from time to time it exhorts the crowd to cheer.

The damned electronic clock wants the crowd to cheer. “Get Loud!” it proclaims in 2 metre high letters.

My arse!

If I want to get loud I’ll damned well get loud. An electronic clock will not make me do it. In fact NOTHING at Mile One gets me as annoyed as seeing that message. When I see it I sulk—on principle.

That, more or less, explains what I dislike about this. But, nonetheless, here it is in bullet form:

  • Games like jetset also try and make me feel less annoyed with the airport security screening process. No, thanks. I shall choose to be annoyed with it no matter what you all do. No, don’t stop. I want to you keep the weapons and people who hold them off my flight. Just don’t expect me to smile my way through it and I’ll afford you the same courtesy.
  • Joining with the others on my flight playing trivia? Nope. I brought a book; several in fact, right here on my Nexus 7. Always do.
  • Foursquare and check ins? Lord save us! Where I am at any point during the day is none of your $@#!% business! Do you really think I’m stupid enough to think you’re not using my location/shopping information for your own purposes? Get real!
  • Oh, and Nike+, you just plain scare me. Until it says “We absolutely guarantee you that we are not selling your biometric data and here’s the form that says you can sue the pants off us if it’s ever found otherwise,” Just not doing it. 😉

9. More fun with strangers is another suggested benefit. While friendly introverts like me are generally inclined to leave strangers be, I read on with interest. The first example,  a game called “Ghosts of a Chance,” was designed to generate more real community involvement in part of the Smithsonian. The scenario involved a pair of ghosts who needed the museum to better reflect their own history so visitors to the museum’s website were challenged to contribute homemade ‘artifacts’ that would fulfill the need. A second example, “Bounce” endeavoured to get young people more interested and involved in the lives of those older than them. A “senior experience agent” (senior citizen) was paired with someone much younger and the challenge was to find as many points of connection between them in 10 minutes. The questions were chosen from a list by computer. Both projects were successful. By adding the elements of gaming to the overall interactions people were more inclined to perform them.

10. Happiness hacking refers to translating practical aspects from positive psychology into game mechanics. Three examples:

  • Kindness of strangers. The “jen ratio” refers to the ratio of positive human interactions to negative ones. Clearly it’s desirable to have as high a jen ratio as possible. One way of achieving this is a version of “Assassin” called “Cruel to be Kind.” or C2BK. In traditional assassin players are divided into two teams and attempt to ‘kill’ one another with harmless weapons such as water pistols. In C2BK the two teams can only use certain pre-chosen ‘kind’ phrases such as “What a nice shirt!” or “I hope you have a great day!” to ‘kill’ opponents. In assassin, when innocents are struck (by the water pistol) it’s not necessarily a pleasant occasion for anyone. In C2BK, by contrast, the collateral damage is just a misplaced kind phrase. Overall, the expectation is that, while having fun, the teams are helping to spread random acts of kindness.
  • Playing Respects. That’s not a typo. “Playing” is indeed the correct term. In this admittedly controversial game, intended to get more people out to visit cemeteries and, hopefully, discover and celebrate the lives of the departed, players use features of headstones to build poker hands. The game Tombstone Hold ‘Em is played by teams of pairs. The headstones can have one of four shapes (square, round, statue or pointy), each corresponding to a suit. There are additional simple rules that allow you to easily determine the value of the “card.” Pairs of player partners must be able to touch the two stones needed to make their hand. Highest “hand” wins. The intent is not to be disrespectful but, rather, to get people out to visit the graves and to discover the lives of those who were one among us.
  • Dance secret: Top Secret Dance Off is a game that encourages people to express themselves through dance. At each challenge you must video yourself (in disguise, of course, else it would not be top secret) and upload your video to the game website where other participants help you with the scoring/leveling up process.

So that’s the end of part B and once again I find myself conflicted. Clearly the games have a place. They’re popular—people all around the world play them. Once again, though, I often find myself saying, “It looks like a lot of fun for many people but it’s just not for me.”

But then again I’m older than most of the typical players described in the book. Maybe this is just a good example of how wide the generational divide can be.

Or maybe it’s just that there’s no one thing that works for everyone and this time I’m one of the members of the group for whom this is not well-suited.

Part C looks at how scaling this up and getting real can benefit the whole world.