The reason for the weird title is that I’m not really sure what to call these, so I think a better way to convey what I mean would be: remember Junior Achievement®, where you would repeatedly “learn” about the assembly line by lining up with the rest of your classmates to glue pieces of paper together?
Okay, so that may be putting J.A.(fun fact – technically still ®) in a bad light, so I’ll admit that I liked it because it was a part of the school day where I could just put my brain on autopilot. Also, that’s not the only thing that I’m going to talk about in this one. And, to be fair, my last rando post was about how great gamification could be for education, so their attempts to make learning about the “real world” (as opposed to the “fake world” that students apparently live in until they graduate from college) interactive and fun are commendable. But, as with this toast, I’m done buttering it up.
There are a few examples of what I’m going to be talking about here (you may have encountered other events like these, but sometimes different school systems use different names, or there may be multiple of the same kind of event from different creators:
- Junior Achievement® – organization for teaching kids about entrepreneurship and the like.
- Reality Store(maybe ®?) – probably has a different name in every town: simplified simulation of the “real world.”
- H&R Block® Budget Challenge® – the worst. Just the worst.
You may notice two things about the sorting of this list: from top to bottom is both when one would first encounter them (Kindergarten, 6th grade, High school), and how poorly they do their job. First up is J.A.® (Actually, the official abbreviation is just JA®, but WordPress says it’s spelled wrong.) I probably don’t need to take too much time to describe it. It’s when a volunteer comes into your classroom for an hour a day for a week, and teaches you about personal responsibilities, money, assembly lines, money, wants and needs, and money, among other things (and money). They do this in an interactive and relatively fun way (that is, objectively, it’s probably not really that fun, but it sure beats regular school work). And this is something that is worth teaching. As cartoonist (the most reliable source of information, of course) Zach Weinersmith pointed out in this comic strip, this kind of information is likely the most generally relevant that anyone is likely to learn in school
The only thing is, it either did an incredibly good job of teaching me, or a terrible one, because all of the material seemed so obvious to begin with, or at least in retrospective. Only one or two topics would get covered in the time spent in the classroom. This is one of the downsides of gamification – it just takes more time. Secondly, most of this information can be gathered by students just by observing how society works, and paying attention in history.social-studies class. Actually, history class is an excellent way to learn how these kinds of things work, from modern Capitalism to the aforementioned assembly line (the only instance where this wasn’t true in my experience is the Spinning Jenny; years ago, I learned that it was a great technological advancement during the Industrial Revolution that made way for Great Britain and the U.S.’s burgeoning textile industries, but I still have no idea what it is.)
Now, you probably haven’t heard of the next one; this is only the name of this event in my home town, as far as i know, so I will have to describe this one more thoroughly. Before the main event, each 6th grade student would choose a career (supposedly their ideal future career, but I’m not sure that any 6th grader has a finalized idea of what they will want to do in ten years. I chose automotive mechanic.), and find out what the average yearly income is for that career. Then, on the day of the event, the class goes to wherever it’s held (in my town, it was the fairgrounds; though the local middle school gym would work too for this). First, lunch is served, then the main event begins. Around the perimeter of the room, tables are set up with various purposes – one is the “car dealer,” one is a “real estate office,” one is where you get “insurance,” etc. You start out with however much money your annual income is, and… buy stuff, I guess. Looking back on it, the only goal seemed to be “don’t go broke.” The idea was to show what it was like to make ends meet on whatever budget you had from your job.
It wasn’t a very accurate representation, however. Renting the cheapest space was still several thousand dollars, but the most expensive car at the dealer was a new Ford Mustang at about five grand. But that’s not the best part. There is one table called “Life’s Unexpected” that each student had to visit at least once, where a random event would happen (I don’t know for sure, but knowing these “Game of Life” things, and how “good luck” means “the least bad luck,” they probably all involve losing some amount of money). Here comes one of the only situations where having an element specifically computerized would be beneficial to it. When I got to that table, my random event was “You blew a tire, and it cost $50 to repair.” I hadn’t bought a car yet, so I had to go to the car dealer to buy a car so I could have its tire blown, so I could pay $50 to fix it. The way that a computer could have done this better is by keeping track of all of the student’s current holdings to weed out impossible random events.
Still, while Reality Store’s issues weren’t completely forgivable, they are at least understandable. Up next is the prime example of doing it all completely wrong. Remember how my brief description of the H&R Block® one was “just the worst?” Well here’s why. It’s basically like the first one, except it’s on-line, you have to pay bills, and you get virtual paychecks. It also has a point system, which can go negative for some reason (and usually does). So far this sounds like just a more refined version of the Reality Store, so what’s the problem?
I’ll save the best for last. First of all, this is the kind of program that isn’t really designed as a learning experience. It’s designed entirely to give its contestants (also, it’s a contest) an over-blown sense of how haaaard the “real world” is. To that end, it cheats. My class was required to participate in this for personal finance class (which I never elected for, and is absolutely the reason I had to coerce my way into one semester of programming class – I blame my high school for most of my problems), and out of the whole class, only one had positive points, and I think someone else had under negative one thousand. One of the tricks it pulled was one of the water bills randomly costing six times more than normal. But the worst is one random event that upsets the entire point of the program – “You went on a shopping spree, and purchased $150 worth of clothes.” Did you catch that? If you’re not sure what’s wrong with this, consider that this is a program “designed” to test ones skills at budgeting. To that end, the player must have complete control over his/her purchases. Blowing a tire is okay; that is a real problem that can be costly that you can’t avoid, no matter how financially savvy you are. However, shopping is not. This is like if you were playing a shooter game where your gun just randomly decides to empty a clip on its own, or a chess game where your opponent gets to move one of your pieces at random intervals. This random event breaks a vital rule for this game to work. For the blown tire, you could have the choice to take the bus to work until you can fix it. This is no exception. If you need clothes, you should be able to buy them or not depending on whether you can afford it.
So, the main point of all this is that while gamifying education is great, especially with these important topics, it has to be done right. Even these have to be crafted with the same care as any other game to make them balanced and fair, as well as realistic. With gamification becoming more generally accepted, I think that the problems with these will probably be fixed over time. Furthermore, it’s tiring to see how educators, especially H&R Block® in this case, like to talk about how terribly difficult “real life” is. Life may not be fair, but it’s not the absolute insanity that they tend to make it out to be. Good things still happen to people, and I want to see that reflected in these programs.
Okay, I have to cool it for now. Next week, we will have the follow-up post for the education series, and the announcement for the next series topic.