Disrupting Class and Playing Games

I’ve started reading Disrupting Class, a book by Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, and Curtis Johnson. It’s a look at what’s wrong with the education system in this country and what we can do about it

I’ve just started the book but was quite interested by the assertion the authors make in the introduction that a big part of the problem is the motivation (or lack thereof) of the students.

Here’s a quote from the book that makes an interesting point:

When Japanese companies were developing their world-class manufacturing clout and passing American companies in the 1970s and 1980s, a common explanation was that four times as many Japanese college students were studying math, science, and engineering than were US students – despite the fact that Japan had only 40 percent of the population of the US. ….

As Japan reached prosperity, an interesting thing happened, however. The percentage of students who graduated with science and engineering students declined. Why did this happen? … Prosperity was the culprit. ….

The same downward trend is now beginning in Singapore and Korea.

The basic point the authors are making is that students will only tackle difficult subjects when they are motivated by economic reasons (upward mobility) or by a passion for the topic.

That makes sense to me. But what doesn’t make sense to me is that parts of our country are in serious economic decline and I am not aware of an uptick in engineering and science students in those regions. It may exist and if it does, I would love to know about it

But in any case, we can also work on developing the passion for science and engineering in children at an early age. We’ve been doing that with our son by supplementing his schoolwork with afterschool work on programming videogames which is his passion (and the passion of most 12 year old boys that I know).

I blogged earlier this year that 39 out of 40 kids in a college comp sci class said they developed their passion for programming playing video games.

That’s what I am talking about. We could use a similar dynamic in bioengineering, energy technology, and other important new technologies.

Infecting our kids with passion for learning is key and we must do a better job of it.

#VC & Technology

Comments (Archived):

  1. Chris Dodge

    This is the one that started it out for me (back in the 70’s): http://www.atariarchives.or…. I remember spending a whole summer break pouring over ever page and detail. However, I had to quickly switch over to Z80 assembly because basic on my TRS-80 was too slow.I wrote an essay in Sherry Turkle’s new book that recounts my days with the TRS-80 writing games: http://www.amazon.com/Falli…Funny thing now is that games currently have such high expectations and complexity that I wonder if kids would be interested in programming games as an entry into comp sci. What types of games does your son develop?

    1. fredwilson

      simple ones, web based games built in php, css, and html

      1. Chris Dodge

        That’s terrific. When he feels comfortable enough, I’d strongly recommend that he tries out a more structured web language such as ASP.NET or JSP which will introduce him to a wider set of object-oriented design principals.

  2. jamtoday

    “Infecting our kids with passion for learning is key and we must do a better job of it.”Three ideas:- It’s not just about the schools, anymore. Sure, video games are a great way to learn – something like http://playauditorium.com/ could be modified to teach about everything from physics to programming – , but it’s simply not enough. Businesses and families must begin to take more responsibility for sponsoring academic achievement. Last week i connected this embrace of responsibility to the example set by Obama. http://bit.ly/10yxZ- Where’s the simple API for educational networking? We’ll need one if schools are going to get the kind of efficiency they’ll need to survive. Data portability for education is something that is completely off the radar for now, but it will be taken for granted a decade for now, just like Facebook is today.- Consider the benefits of deregulating academic accreditation, particularly how it may ease the snowballing cost of learning. For instance, I shared an office with Disqus last summer so I’d always get to see those real-time traffic charts on their hanging monitors, and I’d always think about all the learning that was happening in those discussions. Unfortunately, both schools and regional accreditation bodies are still living in a 20th century world either you are an accredited institution with a library and professors, or you have no legitimate place in the educational ecosystem. But as the real cost of learning plummets, thanks to the video lectures and wikis and blogs, we’re going to need to start thinking differently about what accreditation should mean. Because Disqus does discussion more effectively and efficiently than anyone else. And while deregulation doesn’t come without its own issues, a deregulated market for education – a cloud-based educational process – would almost certainly be more fun, more motivational, less expensive, and have a better user experience. Considering the status quo, it’s a slam dunk just waiting to happen.I hope to see more VCs talking about hacking education, Fred. It’s a good sign.

    1. fredwilson

      i wish i had one of those disqus charts on a monitor in my office

      1. tweetip

        ‘chart in my office’ — that’s easier than you think – make it mandatory of your portfolio companies.

  3. Graham Lawlor

    Immigration is a substitute for local education. As long as the U.S. economy continues to be freest and most dynamic in the world – the place where exceptional people can best capitalize on their skills – then the U.S. will draw the most skilled immigrants from around the world and benefit from these skills. The impact on the economy does not depend on where people are educated it depends on where the skills are applied.

  4. nick

    I used to be a credentialed science teacher in California before I became a software engineer. I’ve seen this educational crisis coming for many years. I believe in the old adage “you reap what you sow.” America has yet to see the full effect of it’s poor attitude towards education and may not fully comprehend how hungry, smart and motivated people in other countries are. I think we should just continue doing what we are doing and when America finally hits a bottom, we’ll change.

  5. Emil Sotirov

    There is a very strong nexus of ideas dominating the American psyche working against the prestige and desirability of professional paths requiring taste and ability to work “with” … not “against”… to “share” instead of “sell.”War + competition/game + market = killing/surviving + winners/losers + selling/buyingScience simply doesn’t fit in any of the dominant paradigms of American life.Science “heroes” anyone?Science “leaders” anyone?Science “elite”…?Science “winners”…?Science “celebrities”…?The “rich and famous” scientists…?”Powerful” scientists…?Science “Hall of Fame”… ?Anyway, who are those (so many in fact) American Nobel Laureates? Yes, laureates… not “winners of the Nobel Prize.” Ask your children to name one?Let’s see – these people (the Nobel Laureates) worked their asses off for decades of their life… for what… for the “big prize”… or for the paltry 1 mln bucks – that’s what American children probably think in the rare occasions they hear about the Nobel thing. They must be stupid those people – real smart Americans win the “big prizes” and make their millions (billions is a 1,000 times better) in their 20s and early 30s… right?Unfortunately, I tend to agree with Nick about the need to hit a bottom. We are talking a change of culture here.A small idea – let’s start by putting students in schools and universities on two-person desks (as in most other countries).

    1. Jon Bischke

      Emil has interesting point in that we tend to get more of what we focus on a society. Shows like LA Law are popular…boom, explosion in the # of people who want to be lawyers. Media focuses on hollywood celebs and athletes, that’s what all the young people want to be. This trend isn’t new but it has intensified a lot in recent years and I think it’s really important to understand how impactful that is. I think there are some cool counter-balancing forces (stuff like TED, the XPrize, etc.) but for the most part I don’t see that changing soon.I also think that for a number of reasons we’ve shifted a society to rewarding people who are further removed from actually producing things. Rare is the engineer who makes more than $200K a year, regardless of how kick-ass the product he built is. Rare is the hedge fund guy or stock analyst who makes *less* than $200K a year, regardless of how miserably he performed.Our society needs to shift our attention back in the direction of people who actually build stuff and those who directly empower them (by teaching and mentoring them, investing in them, etc.). With that sort of renewed focus amazing things will happen.As for what can be done specifically in education, here’s my suggestion: Provide a tax incentive for edu-related venture capital funds to start where gains from these funds are not taxed. Raise a few hundred million dollars to invest in a whole range of education-related companies ranging from new-gen textbooks (like Neeru Khosla’s project) and educational marketplaces (like eduFire or Myngle) to gaming applications focused on learning (Grockit) and social learning/networking communities (LiveMocha, LearnHub, TeachStreet, iTalki, etc.). Do some YCombinator for edu models and see how they fly.Invest a relatively small amount in the space through the proven venture model and see the innovation flourish.That’s my wish for the coming year and the coming administration.

  6. vruz

    in relation to learning and videogames, a recently published paper by Dr Thomas M. Malaby of University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.Anthropology and Play: The Contours of Playful Experiencehttp://papers.ssrn.com/sol3…The Abstract:In what follows I outline the tendencies of twentieth-century anthropological work on play and argue that anthropology, despite its ostensible neglect of the matter, nonetheless has much to offer the current aim of rethinking play. I begin by suggesting that, while the ingredients of a more useful conception of play as a disposition (as opposed to an activity) were always present, and even found expression on occasion, the field as a whole stressed only two viable possibilities: play as non-work, and play as representation. Departing from this pattern prepares us to recognize a better model for thinking about play, one that draws ultimately on the pragmatist philosophers’ portrayal of the world as irreducibly contingent. On this view, play becomes an attitude characterized by a readiness to improvise in the face of an ever-changing world that admits of no transcendently ordered account.

  7. vruz

    and by the way, just like your son I started at age 12, programming videogames.it does work. .

    1. fredwilson

      What got you through the teenage years? Did you stick with it?

      1. vruz

        I did stick with programming for the rest of my life.all videogame programming was very indie back then, so it was a very multidisciplinary thing to do.for example, if I wanted background music there wasn’t mp3 to help, you would have to code the frequencies for every note and duration yourself, so you would have to learn music to make the computer play music.if you wanted to have photorealistic graphics, you would have to somehow paint them.even better if you have a childhood best friends to share your interests, so you learn to manage and work in teams splitting responsibilities and delegating early on.increasing and neverending dimensions of difficulty were a bigger challenge than playing the games themselves.that, paired with the obvious scientific/technical side of programming makes for a very rich educative process.the inquisitive mind will try to see what’s behind every opened door.

  8. jeffbaker

    HI Fred. Long time listener, first time caller, er, commenter.Can you publicly or privately give any more details on how you are helping your son and the tools started with?My son just turned 11 and he and I are just starting with Microsoft’s new Small Basic environment but it’s pretty rudimentary. His current passion is the Spore video game so there’s a potential spark there that I’d like to help him with. Twenty years ago when I had Basic on my Atari 400 just doing readln and writeln to get text in and out seemed amazing but with the web and games these days, doing just for loops and console write makes it hard to keep their interest.I know this isn’t a typical topic for your blog but would love any more details on what you and your son are doing…

    1. fredwilson

      We’ve been fortunate to have a NYU ITP grad ‘tutor’ our son. Its not an available solution for everyone but its great for him. He’s learning html, css, and php and also bonding with a young man who is a role model for him

  9. joel_liu

    “That’s what I am talking about. We could use a similar dynamic in bioengineering, energy technology, and other important new technologies.”How about developing some simple hacking video courses for kids? Children can learn the knowledge ,more importantly how to use the knowledge in this way. However, many teachers and parents don’t have such skills. Does a hackertube for kids site work?

    1. fredwilson

      Maybe but I think gettting their hands on something works even better

      1. joel_liu

        Y, I agree. The hacker tube can be the first step.Scenario: 1. Upload a tutorial video on how to develop an interesting circuit2. Sell component suit. 3. A kid who wants to build the circuit can buy those components.

  10. Brian

    Fred,I think most of this conversation has been focused on getting kids involved in hi-tech learning. There are other things that they could get excited about. I see no reason why we shouldn’t get them excited about writing, film-making, building, painting, etc. These disciplines are all worthwhile and can all help children learn new ways of looking at the world and approaching problems. (*ahem Paul Graham *ahem)Science isn’t boring. Books aren’t boring. Films aren’t boring. School is boring.Also, I assume you’re talking Rust Belt about the economic decline, and that is an area that has historically been relatively high on engineers for the automakers so science fields may already be saturated in that area. The economic opportunity might not be obvious/possible without a move across the country which may be a very large barrier.-B

  11. Brian

    My parents gave me a passion for learning by grounding my butt if I had more than a 1 B on my report card and making me work for my spending money. All trips, car insurance, gas, etc. had to be paid by me.It is pretty amazing how cleaning the toilets at the local McDonald’s has a way of focusing the mind on hitting the books. My parents gave me my work ethic which carried me through high school. I did not develop my passion for learning until college.If more kids had to pay their way through college via cash/scholarships, I think enrollment in the sciences, engineering, and medicine would increase. Student loans allow kids to enroll in subjects of little value where they wind up getting administrative assistant jobs right after they finish their undergrad. There is nothing wrong with being an admin, but you do not need to spend $100k in tuition to be one.

  12. Ed Kohler

    Upward mobility is recent years had less to do with building things and more to do with moving money around. The best and brightest were going to Wall Street rather than into engineering.

    1. fredwilson

      That’s the point that the authors are making. Same dynamic happened in japan and now south korea and singapore

  13. fredwilson

    That’s a good ideaAnd its what we have in mind for Bug once the hardware gets less expensive. Its a great platform for kids who want to hack hardware

  14. fredwilson

    That randy pausch lecture is amazing on many levels. If anyone hasn’t seen it, they should watch it asap

  15. tanomsak

    Agreed with the “programming playing video games” line. That’s how I developed my interesting in programming.And that ‘s what Randy Pausch called “head fake” in his Last Lecture (http://www.youtube.com/watc

  16. fredwilson

    Arduino is another interesting platform for hacking that it would be greatto see kids working on

  17. haynes_dave

    Totally agree with you here. My son is only just one month old but I’ve already been thinking about this subject. I think part of the answer is for like minded parents to build some fun local / after school classes.Run a term on programming simple games, a term on building stuff with Arduino boards, a term on fun craft activities etc.Start with very fun activities for the kids and build complexity ad they get older. I’m not sure how well it scales but if education like this isn’t there for our kids then I think we have a duty as parents to provide it wherever possible.

  18. BillSeitz

    For biotech, maybe some of those home genome kits will help…I just finished the book recently. I found it a fascinating projection based on his disruptive technology model.But I think his vision of the future isn’t revolutionary enough, or he’s ignoring the more revolutionary potential of it. His vision has schools mostly looking the same, with separate courses having similar curriculum, just having more student-centered software. I think much more is needed/possible. My notes are at:http://webseitz.fluxent.com

  19. fredwilson

    Great question tami. My girls don’t love video games the way my son does so we’ve had to take a different tack with them. Both are great math students and like calculus. In science they like chemistry but not biology. You are right that its harder to get girls into science and engineering. I think many of the issues are cultural

  20. Tami Forman

    I hate to sound like a feminazi, but what about your girls? Are you doing anything to nurture their interests in math and science? As a mom who was “never good at math” I’m really thinking about how I can make sure she doesn’t suffer the same fate of low expectations that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. (She’s only a year, so I have time to figure it out … )Not to answer my own question, but Danica McKellar (formerly of the Wonder Years) has done a great job here with books aimed at girls called Math Doesn’t Suck and Kiss My Math. She has all kinds of thoughts on why girls drop out of math and her books fight the social aspects of that (i.e., it’s not “cool” to be smart about numbers) alongside helping girls understand the subject in a way that makes it accessible.

    1. BillSeitz

      I think 2 possible approaches (to be used together) are:1. teach math in the context of a Project that the kid can get involved withhttp://webseitz.fluxent.com…2. Allow math to be learned in a social process.

      1. Brian

        I agree with Bill.I hated math until I went to college and needed to understand math for my economics classes. Relate math to something they really like.That is what I am trying to do with both my kids to avoid the mistakes I made as a high school student.I also think teaching kids about money helps to teach them about math. It amazes me how few people really understand money basics like compound interest.

        1. fredwilson

          That is good advice BrianI¹ve tried to do the same with statisticsAgain, I find it easier with my son. His love of sports feeds the statisticsnerve perfectly

  21. Aaron@iPadApp

    Hi FredGreat post.I worked in an office that looks after digital media development for Singapore. Part of our efforts look into how to use technologies to change the way we educate.To that end, we have invested in 6 Future Schools, where each school is partnering with a consortium of companies to explore the different pedagogy models needed for a new form of education. We hope to use what we have from the Future Schools and spread to the rest of the schools in the country.I hope to share what we have learned as we embarked on this journey. You can learn about it here:http://www3.moe.edu.sg/futu…Btw, still waiting for your post on hacking finance : )

  22. Michael B. Horn

    Good question about our work in regards to the areas being hurt right now by the economic crisis. And there are some great comments and ideas your readers have posted as well. It’d be interesting to dig into this some more, and I’ll give it some more thought as the full picture and sources are a bit fuzzy for me off the top of my head, but one of the implications is that “science and engineering” aren’t even the tickets out of poverty anymore in the U.S. for when you are in it (of course there are exceptions, but for the most part this is true — and I think the science and engineering taught in schools doesn’t even hint at designing video games for the most part either). The market here just doesn’t value that in the same way it does in India right now for example.Entrepreneurs of course are trying to change this. In the book we talk at length about some companies doing it. Some groups are starting to eye the math and science tutoring markets as well, which we didn’t talk about as much in the book. Guaranteach is one example of this, just to give readers something else to look into.

    1. fredwilson

      Michael ­ I am delighted that you made the time to stop by and leave acomment in this discussion. Thanks for the book. I am really enjoying it.

    2. joel_liu

      I hope to read the book one day, but I am not sure whether it’s a good thing to motivate kids to learn science and engineering for economic reasons like in India and China. As far as I know, many kids in China flock to some hot subjects for economic reasons, EE&CS for example. However, when they are in college, many of them find those subjects are not what they like and don’t know what their passions are. It will waste a lot of time for these kids.How to help kids find their passions may be more important than how to motivate them through economic reasons in both developed and developing countries. My two cents.

  23. tywhite

    The issue isn’t quite as simple as being motivated to study tougher subjects for economic reasons: the kids need to see an actual connection between the things they study and their applications in the real world. My biggest issue with the academic system presently is the disconnect between what’s being taught and the real world (perhaps because too few teachers come from other careers before teaching?).If you haven’t seen it, David Wiley did a nice presentation on why higher education stands to be disrupted by openness: http://www.slideshare.net/o

    1. fredwilson

      I love the david wiley presentationIt¹s great

    2. Brian

      Great comment!

    3. joel_liu

      “the kids need to see an actual connection between the things they study and their applications in the real world”I second it.

  24. fredwilson

    I wish I knew the answer to this tom

    1. FarazQ

      He may be a bit young for this, but you might want to give Alice.org a try. It teaches kids programming concepts in a fun visual 3D environment. I believe its aimed towards high school/early college kids…and was the brainchild of Randy Pausch (CMU professor, last lecture). I just checked the site…it looks like they have a product aimed towards middle school girls (what a great idea!)On another note, in addition to economic another important reason Asian cultures have pushed science/engineering is culture/status. Engineers are highly respected (sometimes more than doctors). Unfortunately, culture is going to be the toughest to change. As an optimist, I say yes we can…but we can’t afford to wait till we hit bottom.

      1. fredwilson

        My kids look up to zuckerberg and jobs as much as any movie star or model. I think that bodes well for their generation

        1. FarazQ

          That’s fantastic. Good for them and their generation.I’m looking forward to reading Disrupting Class.

      2. Tom Royce

        FarazQThanks for the recommendation. He is a typically bored underachieving young boy who tends to rise to any challenge that he is interested in. This seems like just the place! Thanks for the help. — Tom

  25. Tom Royce

    Here is a question that I would love an answer to.Is there a site, template, program that I can use to help my son learn to program in? I have some skills but less time to sit with him, and having a 3rd party between a son and father during learning time keeps the testosterone down for both of us. I can be the adjunct but not the primary instructor with him.He is 12 also and interested in computers. I love the angle of him developing a computer game on his own.

    1. BillSeitz

      Scratch has some pretty nice intro materials that help you start doing some really simple stuff.http://info.scratch.mit.edu

      1. Tom Royce

        Thanks Bill, I will look into it.I had a talk with my son yesterday about learning to program. He gave the typical non-committal, Dad get lost answer. Then I steered it to learning to make video games and his interest perked up.What a nice carrot to lead the boy to a learning opportunity. Thanks Fred for the idea!

    2. BillSeitz

      I just found this article about Kongregate Labs setting up tutorials for building Flash games.http://arstechnica.com/news

  26. Bill

    Having taught high school and some college for 39 years, I’ve seen a lot of change in students and their attitudes. In short, I’ve seen a school system based on the industrial model of the early to mid 20th century that assumed that the teacher was the transmitter of culture/information. Contrast that with the fact that students today have all of the information necessary for any subject and that calls into question what is the role of the teacher in the 21st century? There has been a disconnect. In order to get our kids back into a learning mode, we must tap their passion and guide them along their path. I could go on and on but this in a nut shell is the educational problem.

  27. Keenan

    I am reading “Outliers” by Malcom Gladwell. He discusses this topic in the book. One of his premises is the rice growing cultures have a greater understanding and commitment of “hardwork” than those that don’t. This culture of hardwork manifests itself in school work. The book provides unique data that suggests performance in school is influenced by a things such as environment, timing, when you were born, all of which may have little or nothing to do with the student. The KIPP Academy is used to illistrate his point.A good read, I recommend it in conjunction with the book you’re reading now. I’d be interested in your thoughts and comparisons of both.

  28. Harry Hirschman

    Fred, There are more fundamental problems with our educational system, of which what you identified is a symptom. Many future engineers and scientists are weeded out (somewhat arbitrarily) VERY early in their school years because they do not bloom early enough to be selected for gifted or advanced programs. Some of this is as arbitrary as having a birthday late in the academic year which results in the older students in a classroom appearing to be smarter when all they really are is older. This creates a cycle where some students get more and higher quality instruction, further magnifying the gap. The effect is enduring.If you believe Malcolm Gladwell’s new book “Outliers”, and I do, then we are limiting our country’s success by preventing the talent of many, many school children from being realized. http://www.amazon.com/Outli…Harry

  29. Neil

    One of the themes in the comments here that how kids learn is as important as what kids learn. The industrial-era, top-down approach to knowledge dissemination should be replaced by an environment of knowledge co-creation. Kids need to work together to learn, since that’s how they will be working. Integrated product development teams rely on cooperation, flexibility, and sharing to get things done. Teams can include specialists, but generalists with diverse talents and skills are fantastic inventors. Educational environments that include project-based learning, open platforms for collaboration with learners inside and outside the school should be encouraged, but administration is terrified of ending up on some CNN fear-mongering report.

  30. Michael_Josefowicz

    Haven’t read the book yet, but my 2 cents.. . .One problem is that few of our teachers have the passion for science and engineering. Since education is primarily the human version of “monkey see, monkey do” it shouldn’t be surprising that the kids can’t connect with their passion.it would be interesting to sample the attitude of the “formal education” system about video games. In NYC the kids have to leave their cell phones at the door, upon pain of going to the principal’s office. And of course, unrestricted, un password protected access to the internet is strictly verbotin!It seems like a big problem, but IMHO, it’s merely getting obstacles out of the way. Instead of doing the same thing again and again and blaming the kids.

  31. Michael_Josefowicz

    I apologize for not reading the comments before I posted. Very nice discussion. Most especially if the VC take a look at education through some different lenses.Anyway I have three more cents:1. The efficiencies of online learning are already close to tipping. The trick is that the educational institutions don’t want to share the added value created with faculty, students and parents. The price of higher ed is unsustainable. Congress and the market are both going to go after it.2, The issue is not “the kids need to see an actual connection between the things they study and their applications in the real world”. Kids live in a very real world today. It’s about learning, fun, adventure or a million other things. They are naturally learning machines. It’s “a get out of the way, nurture what is already there” problem. A lot less will produce a lot more.3. The textbook industry is a very ripe low hanging fruit that may be attacked by the remnants of the newspaper industry or more likely the Crowd in the Cloud. Consider using the long tail of newspaper content in customized readers to be sold in place of textbooks. The print tech is in place. The Cloud is in place. The newspapers are looking for a life line. Imagine the NYTimes taking on the big three textbook publishers.