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Social and Observational Learning: The Clean Toothbrush

December 17, 2014 2 comments

I went to wash my hands the other day, and saw that my husband, Pete, had left something soaking in the sink. OK, I’ll use another sink…. But wait! What is that soaking? It was the charger for his electric toothbrush (unplugged, of course). You know how those get kinda gross, covered in white gunk? I try to clean mine now and then–usually with a bleach wipe. It helps, but it never gets it really clean. Later that day, I saw Pete’s toothbrush and charger positively gleaming. Wow! It wouldn’t have occurred to me to soak something electrical, but I guess you can do it. I was inspired, and soaked mine. It worked like a charm.

Let’s look at this as an episode of learning. Pete and I haven’t exchanged a word about the toothbrush–this post will come as a surprise to him. But through observation, I both developed motivation to do something positive, and learned a new method for approaching it!

Of course you know this post isn’t about toothbrushes. My question is: In what ways do students in face-to-face classes have opportunities for this kind of learning? I don’t take it for granted that this happens a lot–I think sometimes we romanticize the traditional classroom. I’m always surprised at the end of the term when I’m teaching a small class and know everyone’s names, and realize they don’t know one another’s names. They often just know the name of one or two classmates. Though sometimes the support from those one or two friends is critical.

If we could understand more about social and observational learning in the traditional classroom, then we could try to recreate the positive aspects in the online classroom. Or better yet, to go beyond being there (thank you, Jim Hollan), and invent even better mechanisms. This is what my PhD student Joe Gonzales and I are trying to do.

How would you approach it? Leave me a comment, and tell me about your cool work!

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Where to Draw the Line on Violence in Video Games: A Letter

December 10, 2014 Leave a comment

Dear Son,

We’ve had a lot of long discussions lately about which video games you are allowed to play and why. It’s a tough issue. When I tell you “Fasten your seatbelt,” I can say it with certainty. If you don’t, your risk of getting seriously injured goes up dramatically. There is a cause and effect relationship.

When I say, “I don’t want you to play Call of Duty,” can I say it’s important with the same certainty? I really can’t. I have absolutely no fear that you will become a violent person. You have solid values. You have heard your father and I talk about how we feel about weapons your whole life, and you understand the issues.

But just because I don’t think it is going to cause you to be violent, does that mean I believe it has no effect on you? I think often about G, the kid who shot you in the leg with his airsoft rifle last summer. He’s surrounded by the most violent video games, and real weapons. Do I think those things caused him to be a miscreant? Well, he couldn’t have shot you if he didn’t have that airsoft rifle. Did the video games cause him to be more likely to shoot at you? I can’t prove that they did. Lousy parenting is probably the main cause. But the hours G spent playing Call of Duty starting at age 6 certainly didn’t help.

You bring up B as a counter example, and you’re right. He has played all the same games as G and he is beyond a shadow of a doubt the nicest kid in your grade. A gentleman and a great guy. B also owns weapons, which are carefully put away and used in a supervised fashion. So you’re right–having those things doesn’t cause you to turn out like G. But do they contribute? I believe the totality of things that surround you influence you.

The other thing that makes this conversation so difficult is the fact that it’s unclear where to draw the line. Some parents don’t let their kids play games with any violence whatsoever, and I guess that makes the conversation easier. But I love games and I appreciate that playing and discussing video games is central to kid culture for boys your age. I wouldn’t want you to miss out on things like Pokémon. OK, I don’t buy it for a second that the pokémon just “faint”–it sure looks like someone really got hurt to me. But how could I ask you to miss the fun of your magikarp evolving into a gyrados? And then a game like Skylanders is just a tiny bit more violent than Pokémon. And Castle Crashers is just a tiny bit more violent than that. And on and on, one tiny step at a time from Pokémon up. Ultimately where to draw the line is arbitrary. You’re right that Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is only a tiny bit more violent than Destiny. But for now, that’s the arbitrary point where we’ve drawn the line. The line will move as you get older, I promise.

The last reason this conversation is hard is because I’m not sure. I have not seen any empirical evidence that I find convincing about the impact of violent video games on kids. And there are moments when I think, “oh good grief–why can’t he play that game?” I have doubts. But in the end, your father and I decided to be moderately permissive, but pick a spot to draw the line.

Love,

Mom

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