Art educators living, working or interested in Asia
The other day there was an unexpected benefit to my inexperience with teaching my high school ceramics class. Since I am not really a ceramics artist there is a lot of experimentation and trial and error in the learning process for both my students and for me. Frankly, most of them are better problem solvers when it comes to clay than I am. As I watched them work I made an interesting connection.
A few weeks ago the coordinator of our Mentoring program sent out a link to a TED talk by Gabe Zicherman on “gamification” titled “How games make kids smarter.” Zicherman defines gamification as using video game thinking and mechanics to engage people and solve problems. Zicherman cited the “Flynn effect” which shows that intelligence increases over time. Fluid IQ in the U.S. has been increasing at about .36% of an IQ point per year since the 1990s – the period when video games became popular. Fluid intelligence is what we use to solve problems as opposed to crystalline intelligence, our general level of knowledge. His main point was that video games require the same behaviors that Andrea Kuszewski, a behavior therapist and researcher, has identified as behaviors that increase fluid intelligence. These are “Seek Novelty,” “Challenge Yourself,” “Think Creatively,” “Do Things the Hard Way” and “Network.”
Most of the behaviors on this list were also happening in my class. They were trying to solve the studio problem of creating an abstract figurative sculpture that expressed some human emotion. They were free to approach the problem any way they chose. It was clear that because no two sculptures looked alike that they were purposely seeking novelty. Both the technical process and the aesthetic problem challenged them. There was creative thinking happening – not just because it was art class and that’s where the “creative” stuff is supposed to happen – but because they had a specific yet open-ended problem to solve with a multitude of solutions. For this group of private international school students, who come from a socio-economic background where building things with your hands out of the cool junk you find in the neighborhood is not the norm, fashioning something out of a lump of clay was “doing it the hard way.” And finally there was lots of social interaction as they discussed ways of solving the various problems and received feedback from their peers on their efforts.
In the past few years I have been trying to give my students more and more choice in the projects I design. Tom Chatfield, a games theorist, describes the allure of successful video games as “wanting + liking = engagement.” In his TED talk “7 ways games reward the brain” he identifies ways in which video games hold our interest, one of which is stimulating the release of dopamine in the brain, a natural reinforcer for sustaining effort. These “7 ways” primarily involve building into each phase of the game a challenging yet achievable effort-reward ratio with frequent feedback and an element of uncertainty in the outcome. If the game is multi-player the engagement is more satisfying due to the social component.
Given just enough direction and a lot of latitude my students were self-regulating their level of challenge and reward. They received immediate feedback from the work in front of them, as well as occasional feedback from their peers and me. For the most part the outcome was of an uncertain nature. Because the knowledge they had gained was of their own making it was enough of a reward for them to remain engaged and begin again even when they went down a dead end.
Zicherman, Kruszewski and Chatfield all see potential for this ‘gamification’ thinking in education. This is not so new perhaps. But what is becoming clear is that the development of fluid intelligence will be critical for the futures of our students. Art courses, by their nature, are well positioned to build this kind of “fluid intelligence development” into their structure.