I’ve been thinking both in a professional and personal context about the importance of middle school education lately. Some of those thoughts went into this piece for the Savannah Morning News (Feb. 16, 2014). More broadly, and along the same lines as “early diversification” described in the article, I’ve been thinking about what kinds of skills students need for the 21st century and the way that middle school is key to preparing college students.
At a basic level this means things like typing, using software tools (and in particular knowing when to use them), and enhancing a variety of often neglected skills from classical ones like drawing and oratory to more contemporary ones like portfolio building or information visualization. I’m actually quite surprised this is not already happening. In an era when costs seem to matter above all else, portfolio building is essentially free and well supported with various applications. These kinds of skills are low hanging fruit, especially if one treats them as experimental possibilities. You don’t need to sketch like Leonardo, just be able to get your idea on the napkin in the diner.
The other direction this has been going is in terms of interdisciplinary skills and knowledge. The boardgame is designed in part to do this. It teaches a particular artifact, Ming and Qing history more generally, East Asian geography, a little bit of the Chinese language and one of the classics (the Yijing), and then gets people thinking about the relationship between politics and economics. There is a mathematics curriculum in the works as well (alas not to be funded by the NSF), that encourages kids to engage in game design and work with discreet mathematics.
We did a couple of public playtests at the Pulse Festival in our little nook–one with several 11 and 12 year olds. What I love about teaching the game to strangers is that moment where something that at first glance is both compelling and complex becomes playable. I usually say a couple of things about the rhythm of the game as a whole–merchant map of ports, gathering silver to achieve influence in the Ming Empire, having all that influence washed away by the Manchu invasion. As the group of players look at all the names on the ports and Ming provinces (which make the Risk board look really straightforward) there is a brief moment where they think this might be to hard to learn, and then they start playing and soon enough are struggling over influence in Quang Nam or Liaodong. It keeps me thinking about the map too. Boardgames are about both socialization and the practice of cognition over time–repetitive, meditative, recitative. What exciting times these are for education when all of this is at our fingertips.
Robert Batchelor, February 16, 2014