A New Age of Learning

Feature Project ImageIn her informative book Now You See It, Cathy Davidson puts the entire infrastructure of modern education on trial. She points out the ineffectiveness in the way tests are conducting and the way that they force you to selectively concentrate your attention, and encourages  a practice that will effectively teach students to multitask, and limit their “blind spots” when it comes to learning.

Davidson makes fascinating points about the brain itself, and the way that society has come to view the process of thinking; a way that Davidson suggests may actually be erroneous. She makes the comparison between the iPhone and the brain itself, focusing on how the brain has an “app for everything,” and it is us who chooses which app we turn on, so to speak, when focusing our attention on any given subject. It is not a strictly linear process, as would be suggested by the weight given to standardized testing in current schools.

I tend to agree with Davidson on these points and have found myself similarly frustrated while embarking on my own education. It was a structure I dealt with in high school and found that the problem had not righted itself in my college classrooms, much to my chagrin.

It was not until I took a class with Anthony Rotolo halfway through my

Anthony Rotolo stands with two of his students from #ElectionClass, an innovative class that studies the 2012 election through social media analytics

sophomore year that I felt this structure challenged in a way that, I felt, could have positive connotations for the future. His class was difficult to get used to at first. The syllabus did not have a strict structure and there was not a single test administered throughout the semester. I felt that during the class, however, I was more engaged and intellectually stimulated than I normally was in a classroom setting.

There was one particular quote of Davidson’s that struck me both as a student frustrated with the education structure and someone studying the effectiveness of Rotolo’s classes: “When you think of learning as something external to yourself, learning becomes a levy- an assessment, not an asset. The assessment no longer matters after the schooling stops. The asset is a resource one draws on for a lifetime” (86).

This quote served as a precursor of sorts to the study Davidson discussed in detail starting on page 87, about the Dark Knights of Godzilla, a group of six graders in a public middle school in Manhatten who are learning to build elaborate systems together through a curriculum based around the video game LittleBigPlanet, or LBP. The students spend time playing and studying the game, but then must apply the gamer concepts to real life and design and construct actual functioning contraptions that they will demo for their classmates.

The result of the class, according to Davidson, is that the students learn not only the basic principles of things such as math, but learn how to “act like mathematicians, both  the video games they play and customize and create, and in the real world outside the game. They use math principles to create a gizmo that will open a book. Or they learn the mathematics of a Mobius strip that they will then shape into fashion, such as the adjustable shoulder strap of a purse they design and make.”

While the classes I have taken with professor Rotolo have not yet had me build Rube Goldberg like machines based off of functions I first saw in video games, they have offered some hands-on assignments that have challenged me and forced me to learn in ways that have felt more effective in measuring success than standardized tests.

In #RotoloClass, while learning about the metrics of social media and what attributes of online content make certain things popular, professor Rotolo doesn’t just show the class videos and test students on them later; he has the students break into groups and write and direct their own video. Last semester one of the videos did go viral and was featured nationally.

In #TrekClass, students are given “missions” throughout the semester, instead of the standard exam format. These missions involve creative projects that display how the students are learning to connect the ideals talked about in Star Trek to the modern Information Age. For each different mission, students are encouraged to choose a creative forum of their own volition that piques their interest, carrying on the mission through their own design. For example, I am studying journalism, so for the last mission, I designed a paper called the “Trek Times” and released a mock statement from one of the character’s of the show, analyzing the role of tech in modern society, as a front page story.

While Rotolo’s examples differ from Davidson’s, the underlying theme is the same: getting students involved in a hands on fashion, with more of an opportunity to apply things they actually enjoy to the assignment, can result in an increase in productivity and a higher rate of information attainment.

Bob O’Brien debates in #ElectionClass

The other parallel I found within Davidson and Rotolo philosophies was, ironically, not within one of her more tech-based case studies. Instead I found a common denominator between the story about the teacher from Alberta, Canada who encouraged her students to engage in educational competitions every week and Rotolo’s #ElectionClass.

In the story Davidson sited, Inez Davidson, a school teacher in Alberta, Canada and the mother-in-law of the author, recognized the differences in learning styles between students, largely as a result of her son, who was a gifted athlete who struggled with his academic endeavors. She was inherently more open to the idea of progressive and innovative teaching styles as a result of this, understanding that students with limited cognitive ability, and also students with particularly advanced cognitive ability, often would not get their best results unless prompted in a different teaching style than was the norm.

It was with this concept in mind that Davidson devised a system where students constructed and competed in games with one another every week, testing one another on what they’d learned and having a declared winning team at the end of each week. Davidson would be the referee to the games.

This reminded me of what is happening currently in #ElectionClass, with students being divided into several different campaign teams, rallying behind nominated student candidates. The students devise their own campaign strategies and slogans and prep their candidates for a series of mock debates. The debates are held in front of the entire class, much like Davidson’s competitions, and at the end, polling results (fed from Twitter) declare a winner. The students then must rally as teams behind their campaigns to prepare for the next debate and, eventually, for the election. The competition has a very clear positive effect.

This acknowledgement of competition, of the value of game like mentality, is something Rotolo and Davidson both understand, much like they both understand the vitality in student participation. The assessment is not done through a questionnaire but instead through analysis of actual performance.


“Hashtag” by clasesdeperiodismo, Creative Commons 2.0, retrieved from http://www.flickr.com/photos/esthervargasc/7921794996/

Murphy, Lauren. “Bob O’Brien at Podium” photo, courtesy of The Daily Orange, 2012.

Gaewski, Chase. “O’Brien, Rotolo, Kraham” photo, courtesy of The Daily Orange, 2012.

About Chelsea DeBaise

I'm a 22-year-old college senior who loves writing, reading and laughing until I feel physically uncomfortable. I believe in the power of literature, science, and always tipping your servers well.

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