Student teacher intern David Lacalamita reflects on his five weeks spent at Compass by exploring his own relationship with gaming and questions both the impact of too much adult control over youth and what skills are most important to foster in a changing technological landscape.

I don’t know what generation I’m supposed to be a part of – Generation X, Y, or Z – but I’ve been using computers since I can remember. When I was 8 years old, the Sony Playstation came out, and Netscape Navigator was released, one of the world’s first web browsers. I remember going to my friend’s house and “surfing the web,” which entailed watching images load line by line; and I remember being amazed by Lara Croft (from the Tomb Raider series) being able to do a running dive and roll in a 3D environment with two pistols in hand. I have vivid memories of booting up a PC, and typing in a series of words and symbols to launch my favourite video games, including the Kyrandia quest series by Westwood Studios (a game I watched my Dad load from eight 3.5” floppy disks), Commander Keen, and Duke Nukem 3D. I remember that most of these games had to be booted from MS-DOS mode, the blinking line after the C:> prompt beckoning me to type in the code to unlock the virtual universe.

As I grew up, so did the Internet and computer technology. I had an ICQ account, played Star Wars: Jedi Knights over the Internet with my friends, and Beta tested a Massively Multiplayer Online game (MMORPG) for the entire summer of my 14th year. Throughout my teenage years, video games played an important role in my life. I would frequently go over to friends’ houses and we would stay up playing first-person shooters till my curfew forced me to go home. I used to get upset that my parents would force me to come home early. I used to think of all the things I could have been doing that were much worse than playing video games, and resented what I saw as a lack of trust and a restriction on my autonomy.

***

Today I finished the last day of a five-week internship at Compass, the last requirement in a Bachelor of Education program at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at UofT. This morning, I arrived early to find two teens waiting outside, as usual. One, as usual, was squatting against the wall playing video games on his laptop; the other waited until (co-director) André Morson arrived to open the door before cracking open his laptop to do the same. Half an hour later, two more teens joined the group. Coming through the door behind them were several others, who – like at a publicly-funded school – dropped off their bags and socialized before classes started. Classes today were:

9:30 – Visual Art

11:00 – Animal Behaviour

1:30 – A Short History of Progress

2:30 – Philosophy

A handful of students attended each class today. Compass styles itself as a “centre for self-directed learning,” so students are allowed to attend whatever classes they feel like attending that day. As a result, some students attended no classes, and chose instead to do an activity of their choosing. One person today sketched the entire day, another spent the whole day making animations on their computer, another browsed the Internet and read online comics. And some of them played video games.

There are three things I have come to believe from having spent time here at Compass:

  1. Human beings do not need to be forced to learn. It is something we do naturally. Adult conceptions of “productivity” destroy our innate curiosity with the world.
  2. It is at least as important to teach children soft skills like self-reflection and cooperation as it is to teach them hard skills like math and science.
  3. Public schools emphasize performance (getting good grades) over knowledge mastery (fully understanding the subject matter) to the detriment of motivation and self-esteem, creating anxious children whose sense of self-worth and self-identity is diffuse and based on extrinsic factors that prove unhelpful over time.

As adults, we don’t want to see students “wasting time” or being “inefficient.” We have this fear that given the chance, children will do absolutely nothing for the rest of their lives. We have nightmares of video game trolls living in parental basements eating dry Mr. Noodles and Pepsi, of wo/man-teens that waste away the days in perpetuity, of our children moving to Tofino to surf their lives away. But these fears tell us more about our own personal fears than they tell us about what we should be teaching children, and they overlook the fact that learning is a lifelong process. Adults value productivity because they have come to a point in their lives where that is what is valued. The question is whether it is also the thing we should be prioritizing for our children.

This brings us back to video games. The way most adults view video games and video gamers provides an interesting example of how adult conceptions of efficiency and productivity affect children. Few would describe the gaming as educational, and some would go so far as to lump it in with hard drugs and other addictive substances. However, while there are certainly examples of video game addiction and of people for whom playing video games is a destructive activity, I would argue that the childhood/adolescent video gamer is an entirely logical phenomenon, one that was at least amplified by, and at most created by increased adult management of childhood time, and limited physical spaces for play. These two conditions decrease the amount of control children have over their own lives, something that adolescents need more of as they get older.

Video games provide independence and personal control in spades: their environments are vast and often entirely customizable (with games like Minecraft), the consequences of user decisions are their own – their mistakes as well as their achievements – and the virtual characters and scenarios in which they are immersed are environments which are static enough that a concerted effort will typically result in a successful result (not to mention the ability to cheat when you’re thoroughly stuck). Virtual avatars in video games progress, gaining new items and attributes that increase the character’s abilities, reflecting the increased ability of their human counterparts to navigate the video game environment. And despite their outward appearance, video games are a medium for socialization, a way of connecting with existing friends and meeting new ones, a way of learning how to collaborate, an experience that can be very personal but is just as often shared with others. In many ways it resembles the experience of learning to play a musical instrument: you practice on your own, and experiment and learn, and the deeper you get, the more you move away from reproducing other people’s work, towards examining the inner-workings and creating on your own.

Who’s to say that these things aren’t an efficient use of time?

I believe I could argue fairly convincingly that video games do have educational value, since they involve a way of thinking that is fundamental to many logical processes like programming and mathematics. What’s more important to understand, however, is that while adults pass judgment on the usefulness of spending countless hours “mindlessly” playing video games, gaming is a symptom of the conditions which adults they have created for children. Sadly, the common solution to this perceived problem – to force children to stop playing video games – is precisely the opposite of what’s required: to give students more opportunity to take control over their own lives.

Gaming, then, is just one possible result of the adult tendency to micro-manage children, to undermine their ability to develop their own goals and figure out the steps required to achieve them. Spaces like Compass, however, put teens back in the driver’s seat of their own education, they gradually diversify their experiences, choosing to engage in more challenging endeavours because they feel supported, and because they recognize the benefits that this will have on their future choices and abilities. By allowing gamers to choose to do whatever they want, Compass actually incentivizes not playing video games, since it provides the conditions of control in the real world that drives their desire to play video games. At the same time, the space frees these teens from the anxiety of not being able to perform, of consistently being compared against their peers, and of not feeling like they have little influence over the circumstances of their lives. As a result, the allure of video games wanes and (although they still enjoy the activity), the teens feel empowered to diversify their experiences.

The current system of public education treats children with a level of mistrust that matches adult mistrust of video gamers. The premise is that by exposing children to a wide variety of subjects, they will have a better idea about what kinds of things are out there, and this, in turn, will give them a better idea of how they might want to contribute to society as they grow older. It presumes that there are necessary concepts that all children must learn in order to understand how to function in society. In effect, however, the presumption is that young people are not able to make sound decisions about their own lives, that their interests will not naturally lead them to meaningful experiences and give them all the knowledge required to be successful in life.

What I came to love about Compass was the implicit understanding that young people are indeed capable of making their own decisions about what’s good for them. When immersed in an environment that supports discovery and self-reflection, and provides stable adult mentoring, young people will engage in learning about subjects that interest them. In the process, they will gain the skills needed to continue to learn for the rest of their lives. Abby and André have told me that some teens who come to Compass do initially spend almost all of their time playing video games, but they invariably come to a point, through the careful mentorship that Abby and André provide, where they recognize that playing video games all day long will only provide them with a limited skill set.

Perhaps it’s time to re-examine the tools we use to navigate our adult lives and reflect on how we came to acquire those skills. Are these part of the school curriculum? In our own education, was it the content of the classes we took that propelled us towards a successful future? Or was it the transferrable skills we acquired in order to get through it all that proved most useful as we entered the working world.

For myself, the things I experienced outside of the classroom have had a much more direct impact on my life than the content of the courses I took. The sports teams I played on, the summer camps I attended, the rock band I started, the play I put on with my friends, the road trips we took, the times we spent chatting late into the night…these are the things that formed me into who I am today. And it is this realization that makes me question whether it’s wise to design a curriculum so strongly focused on getting specific pieces of information into the brains of our young people. On top of this, I question how we can remain so confident that the role of the teacher is the transmission of knowledge when knowledge is so readily accessible to people through the Internet. Has this technological innovation had no impact on how and what we teach children?

More to the point, it seems like a losing battle to try to keep pace with information in an age where it is exchanged at near-instantaneous speeds. It takes years to update curriculum documents, let alone develop the teaching materials needed to deliver it. What would the implications be if our curriculum included things we sometimes refer to as “soft skills”? That is, if teachers explicitly taught autonomy, self-regulation, self-reflection, self-care, discipline, communication with others, ability to recognize strengths and weaknesses, and the executive functioning skills required to make changes that will help develop and remediate these things. The context for teaching these things could indeed be a science lesson, but who would it harm to let students decide what they need to learn that day, week, year? Teachers would need to spend more time with individual goal-setting and self-reflection, but in the end, the student would be accountable for their own learning and their own progress, something it’s never too early to learn.

Students need to be good at more than school, good at more than learning enough to get the grade; they need to be good at finding a place for themselves in society, at understanding how to summon the courage and motivation to acquire the knowledge they need to get there. In an age where more information is at our fingertips than that of all of our teachers’ brains combined, what rush is there to impart knowledge about this or that subject, knowledge that is often entirely out of context? And further, what is the best use of the adult mentors we hire as teachers? Is it to design complex attempts to contextualize information for 25 unique students with vastly different interests and learning styles? Or would their time be better spent as mentors, trustworthy adults that can help students grapple with life’s challenging aspects, that can point them in the direction of experiences that will help round out their skills, that can help them better understand who they are and how to get where they want to go?

At a recent talk given by two Compass teens at HUB Ottawa, an audience member asked, “How do you find out about things that you’re not already interested in if there is no curriculum to follow?” The two Compass members deftly noted the variety of courses offered at Compass in which they are free to participate. However, my response would have been, “How do you find out about them as an adult?” Do we stop learning after school ends, after the curriculum stops telling us what we have to learn? Are we not constantly discovering new things that interest us? We read the paper, we talk to friends, we meet new people, we browse topics on Reddit – the possibilities are greater now than ever to be exposed to new things on our own time. And how many of us have “learned” something in class simply because we had to make the grade, only to have to re-learn it later when we are really ready to learn it?

***

The other day, I played a video game for the first time in years. I sat with a Compass teen as he went on a quest to gain experience points that he could put towards various character attributes. I helped him read the quest instructions, investigate various levels, and solve puzzles. At times I wonder whether an intensive reading program wouldn’t be more helpful for this particular teen. But André has told me that he wants to focus on other things for now. So for now, he’ll play video games with his friends. And tomorrow Compass will still be there offering support should he change his mind. And although this teen will not hold an Ontario Secondary School Diploma when he moves on from Compass, he will understand himself better, know his strengths and weaknesses, and be prepared with the self-confidence, and reflective practice required to find a place for himself, to be a happy, healthy, life-long learner and productive member of society.