Reading a text book is a terrible way to learn about a subject. You’re looking at a linear block of facts and trying to reconstruct in your own mind the complex set of connections that, in the case of the original author, comprises real understanding.
Nobody learns only from textbooks, okay, but traditional teaching methods are not a big improvement. At college I went to lectures, made notes, was asked to write essays on magnetism and neutrinos and discuss them. I learnt very little from that part of the course, which as far as I could see was really English, not Physics.
Solving problems, that was how I learned. “What is the field gradient above an infinite charged plain?” Do all the calculus and then kick yourself when you realize the field is constant (the clue is in “infinite”) but, having found that out for yourself, you won’t forget it.
Leo Hartas and I took this idea to Dorling Kindersley ten years back with a proposal we called the Inspiration Engine. These would be a series of books tied in with games. Take a staple subject for popular kids’ nonfiction: the solar system. We outlined a tactics and management game in which the player was setting up colonies on other planets. In building habitats and craft you’d be finding out about the gravity, atmospheric density, composition, etc, of different planets. The accompanying book would act as a manual for the hands-on experience of the game. A goal (winning the game) drives the human mind like nothing else. This wasn’t just reading about the solar system, it was getting out there and (virtually) exploring it.
Dorling Kindersley turned it down. We got in front of the board and said we’d start by showing them some games on the Playstation. “I’m not watching you all play games,” snorted the DK chairman. “You can just call me when you’re ready to talk about books.” Naturally his board members all just shrank in their seats at that. Afterwards, one came up and said, “I think you can see that half of us are with you on this project. If you want to continue championing it, we’ll back you up.” I was very glad to get offered a job by Demis Hassabis a month later so I didn’t have to keep banging my head against the brick wall of nonfiction publishing.
You can’t keep a good concept down. This week comes news that Ian Livingstone has applied to start a school using interactivity and problem-solving as its primary teaching methods. It’s not just a gimmick. Students taught in that way will learn differently and more deeply than they would by traditional methods. As Thoreau said, "Knowledge is real knowledge only when it is acquired by the efforts of your intellect, not by memory."
Let me give you an example. I’ve never had much of a flair for electronics, but my practical partner at college was one of those fellows who were playing with crystal radio sets before they could talk. We’d be building a circuit and he’d say, “Looks like we need a 2 ohm resistor there.” I’d work it all out using the equations, and a couple of minutes later I’d find the theoretical value was 2.12 ohms. But my partner had got there right away. When it came to electrical circuits, I had only knowledge; he had real understanding.
Computer simulations give us the means now to allow students to develop hands-on understanding of subjects. The biggest threat will be if the old ways of assessing progress are applied to this new way of learning. It’s like asking a karateka to perform a kata when the real test is: can he break a brick or lay the other guy out flat? I’m reminded of Peter Ustinov, asked by his schoolmaster to name a great composer. “Beethoven,” said the young Ustinov. “No,” replied the master, “the correct answer is Mozart.”
And by the way it doesn't have to be a computer simulation. Boardgames are pretty effective teaching simulations too. Playing a game of the Cuban revolution in Command magazine - or maybe it was Strategy & Tactics - I had the problem of government forces facing a guerrilla war. Since I didn't know where the next bomb would go off, I had to massively increase military patrols. But since in nine cases out of ten my troops had nothing to do but inconvenience locals by asking for their papers, that only had the effect of driving the populace over to Castro's side. If I pulled the troops back to barracks, on the other hand, that gave me no chance of interdicting the rebels when they struck. A book could state that fact, but it wouldn't give you a fee for how it actually plays out in reality, just as any ancient history professor can tell you that iron weapons are superior to bronze, but it takes a simulations wargamer to say by how much.
I’m sure plenty of education’s old guard will have their knives out for Mr Livingstone’s proposals, in just the same way as that DK chairman was disgruntled at the very idea of including games in a discussion about learning. But it’s a new world coming, and the men and women who go out there to explore the solar system for real won’t have got their expertise out of a picture book. They’ll have acquired it by playing games
Image of Pandora shepherding Saturn's rings courtesy of NASA.