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By Anne Collier

“School,” said University of Maryland student and game designer Erik Martin in a TEDx talk last fall, “operates counter to the interests of children. In school, we’re not really taught to overcome a challenge; we’re taught to fear the prospect of failure…. How on earth can you innovate in a system that fears failure so much?… Our education method … doesn’t create resilient, inspired students.”

A comment from education professor Christopher Tienken at Seton Hall University resonates with that: “We really need to step back and see what we’re doing to children,” he said. “We need to focus more on skills like resilience, persistence, empathy, collaboration, communication, compassion, critical problem-solving, strategizing – those are skills that transcend time. They transcend subject matter. But those are the skills that are necessary in a 21st-century economy.”

A national task force saying the same

There are actually many educators who agree with Erik, including author and education professor Yong Zhao at the University of Oregon, who says there’s “an urgent need for a paradigm shift in education.” The ranks of students and educators calling for learning that is more student-centered and supportive of student literacy, creativity and agency are growing. For examples, see the report of the Aspen Task Force on Learning & the Internet being released this week and video interviews with leading innovators in education in the Brainwaves Anthology by educator Bob Greenberg. Erik, the University of Maryland student, has teamed up with other students and adult allies to create and promote a Student Bill of Rights.

But I’m getting ahead of the story: To explain how Erik became an education activist, he said that he had been hospitalized for anorexia nervosa when, a few years ago, he was a high school student. He dreaded going back to school after spending a month in the hospital. Part of what helped him heal from (and talk publicly about) the eating disorder and associated fear, shame and depression, he relates in his talk, was joining and then leading a guild in the online game World of Warcraft. Another experience that helped him heal and grow his confidence, he says, was blogging and joining his biology teacher, Stacy Baker, in becoming an activist for changing science education. He made some media appearances and helped Baker develop the ScienceOnline Teen unconference for students to have “an equal voice among scientists and educators about changing the future of science education.”

How play & activism helped

“I did not intentionally play World of Warcraft to get over anorexia, it just happened to be the right space,” Erik told Amy Jussel of in an interview. “The absolute most important part of gaming to get better for me was not the game itself nearly as much as the space it provided to gain social confidence without fearing undue judgment. My guild is why I got better.” I just want to bookmark that: Unlike school, the game provided the community and the judgment-free space for Erik to customize his own healing. Another healing element Erik mentions elsewhere in his interview with Amy is agency. “Games give kids agency, if you take agency away, they will really want that game world even more to make them feel better.”

This, it seems, is what Erik the student-driven-education-reform activist and game designer is saying about education as well as gaming: provide space for students to customize their learning – to fail (free of fear and judgment), pick themselves up and try again, learning more each time. That’s what Dr. Zhao – author of 20 books, the latest of which is World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students – said in the YouTube interview, that we need to recreate education from preparing kids to be compliant, conscientious employees to encourage them to be creative, entrepreneurial and globally (and socially) competent.

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