Several years ago, I made one of those foolish Dad choices. Despite my wife’s better judgment, I let my six- and seven-year-old sons watch Men in Black. What I thought would be a cool evening of fighting aliens turned into one of those nights ending with two kids afraid of going to sleep under a wife’s “I told you so” glare.
Miraculously, I stumbled onto a solution when my elder son came into our bedroom around midnight saying he kept waking up scared because he was afraid a giant bugman would get him. In the moment, a solution arose. I told my son that I kept special, super strong anti-bugman powder in the bathroom, so strong it could only be used in emergencies, but that it could keep bug monsters out of the house. With that, I went into the bathroom, filled a small plastic bag with talcum powder, and spent the next thirty minutes walking around the house throwing the powder about the place while chanting “Go away bugmen!” with my son. He slept the rest of the night.
The point of the story is not about showing myself to be a good parent (I abandoned any pretense to that title when I said to my wife, “The boys might be scared at first, but by the end they’ll be laughing”). What this incident demonstrates is a kind of teaching technique that too often is underutilized or even forgotten.
Consider when my son came into my room, professing his fear of bugmen. I could have lectured him that, in fact, there were no bugmen, and that his view did not comport with reality. This “cold water in the face” approach would have done little to alleviate my son’s latent fears while demanding that he take a hard U-turn into reality while in the midst of dealing with those fears. On the other hand, denying that there might be bugs in the house at all would create an unrealistic virtual world that might have placated my son for the moment, but then be shattered by the next day’s discovery of some critter.
The answer, as my half-awake mind stumbled into, was to take reality (there are bugs), take my son’s perception of that reality (bugs can lead to bugmen) and move forward on that premise by adding another layer on top (there is a solution: anti-bugmen powder). Having been empowered to defeat the challenge, and having fun doing it, my son was ready later to then learn more about bugs, bugmen, and aliens as we sat together at the computer looking up such things during the next few weeks.
“Too much of our education system is structured like virtual reality. We create an artificial world where subjects like history, science, and physical education are separated into distinct, and unreal, classes without reference to each other.”
This approach has a name, at least in the computer gaming world: Augmented Reality, or AR. In AR, extra information is digitally overlaid onto the real world to enhance the experience either for information or entertainment purposes. If you have ever been to a museum and listened to a “virtual tour” on a headset while you look at the very real exhibit or pieces in front of you, then you have experienced AR. That these tours are misnamed “virtual” demonstrates the somewhat confusing, but important, distinction between “Augmented Reality” and “Virtual Reality” (VR). In a nutshell, VR creates an entirely made up world that can be as divorced from reality and its rules (like gravity) as the designer wants, while AR takes what is real and enhances or overlays information to get more out of exploring our world.
This distinction is even more pronounced and important in education. Unfortunately, too much of our education system is structured like VR. We create an artificial world where subjects like history, science, and physical education are separated into distinct, and unreal, classes without reference to each other. So too, the student’s day is blocked out into delineated (and often arbitrary) chunks of time. Students are asked to read about things and solve problems that have no connection to their immediate world, such as a math/economics problem about securing a mortgage, but are expected to embrace such things because “it will be their reality in the future.” Unfortunately, learning things because they will be important in the future is a poor motivator and weak sales pitch, as nearly every twenty-something who has to listen to retirement investment options will tell you.
AR, on the other hand, is an approach that has endless possibilities for enhancing the motivation and actual learning for students. Starting with the world as students know or perceive it, such an approach presents the world in a way that engages students. Once engaged, or having “bought into it” as teachers like to say, the students are much more receptive to the follow-up learning that the teacher can then add on top.
A good example of AR teaching is the game, now a few years old, called GeoGuessr. We wrote about this as an educational tool back in 2013, when it was just catching on. With GeoGuessr, a player is placed, via their phone, tablet or computer, in some random place in the world via Google Maps. Looking around and wandering by using the arrow keys to navigate, the player looks for clues (climate, vegetation, road sign language, geographic and man-made features) to guess where they are. Points are awarded for how close the guess is to the actual spot. The game was a hit generally, but clever educators found it a boon to their classrooms. Kids vied for the highest score, all the while learning how to look at and process information (palm trees) for application (where do palm trees grow?). Turning human and physical geography into a fun game allowed teachers to impart significant information and processing experience for students. As Mary Poppins might say, that spoonful of AR helped the learning go down.