The Danger in False Transparency. . .

The last week of May is always a big time for sixth graders over at Salem Middle School because many of the fall season sport coaches hold interest meetings for sixth graders who want to learn more about playing on school teams.

And my kids are always completely jazzed!  One of the hardest parts of being a sixth grader is that you can't play school sports for the entire year.  Becoming a seventh grader means getting the shot to try out…to earn a jersey….to be a part of a group…to do something that you love every day after school. 

For middle schoolers, it doesn't get any better than that! 

Last year, I was surprised when two of my nonathletic boys stopped by after class to pick my brains about tryouts.   Both were super students with incredible charisma and I know that they're going to be remarkably successful in our world, but neither played on teams outside of school and neither had the kind of physical size or coordination that characterizes the best athletes in our building. 

While I was pretty sure that neither would earn a spot on one of our teams, I had no intention of discouraging them from pursuing their dream of playing for our school.  Having coached for 16 years, I knew that tryouts would be a good experience for both—-taking risks, trying new things, and dealing with failure is a characteristic of the top-achievers in any field. 

Then they told me they wanted to try out for our school's football team. 


Football is probably the one sport in middle school that small, nonathletic boys trying to make their first team should completely avoid!  

Practices are tough, as coaches mentally prepare boys in full pads to
take a hit.  Working in 90 degree heat, tackling drills happen dozens
of times each week pairing hulking eighth graders who've played for
three or four years against peers that haven't hit their growth spurt
yet!  Grueling conditioning runs—essential for ensuring that players
can physically protect themselves late in a game when they are
exhausted—close every practice.  

During my time as an assistant coach on a middle school football team, I'd seen dozens of kids who regretted their decision to try out.  They'd hide under their helmets in the practice line with tears in their eyes, afraid of being hit, but even more afraid of being embarrassed in front of 80 peers.  Over time, they'd surrender and turn in their gear—but the damage was always done. 

So I immediately tried to counsel my students to safety.  "Are you sure you want to try out for football?  It's a pretty tough sport, you know.  Why not wait for the basketball, baseball or soccer season?"

Their reply blew me away:  "We're going to be great at football, Mr. Ferriter.  We completely dominate in Madden 2008 on our PlayStations.  No one can beat us!"

These two boys who had never played an organized sport in their life—-let alone an organized sport where physicality is essential for success and where brutal hits are commonplace—-had convinced themselves that football was the right sport for them because of their video game prowess.  In their minds, mastering skills with digital players on an electronic field in their living rooms translated somehow into an belief that they would excel on a real field wearing real pads trying to tackle 200-pound kids without breaking their necks!

Wild, huh? 

But not uncommon at all for today's kids.  I've had students tell me how good they are at playing the guitar, only to find out that they're referring to the plastic video game versions that come with Guitar Hero.  Others have told me how much they want to be a soldier because "war seems fun" on Call of Duty or that they're "new favorite sport is tennis," even though the only racket they've ever held is a Wii remote.  

Somewhere along the line, I started blaming these kinds of mistaken beliefs on the "false transparency" that video games breed.  Becoming more "realistic" by the year, new digital toys seem to provide the "complete experience" for users who walk away believing that they "know" just what it means to be a rock star, battlefield general, or super-jock. 

I was first introduced to the idea of false transparency in the writing of researcher Dan Lortie, who writes about the damage done in education by parents and policymakers laying claim to a sophisticated level of understanding about the work of teachers based on the 12 years they've spent sitting behind desks as public school students.  Everyone thinks that they know what it means to be a teacher (see here and here), but their perceptions are flawed–based on nothing more than superficial observations made as students or as parents. 

But now I'm starting to wonder whether a similar false transparency is hurting our kids?  There are so many opportunities to "experience" the world through digital media—-virtual field trips, online dissections, electronic simulations—that you could literally make it through life without leaving your living room.

Now, anyone who reads the Radical regularly knows that I'm a huge believer in digital learning experiences—especially in times when budgets are tight and the potential for real-life, hands-on learning grows less and less likely every day.

I'm just starting to wonder whether one of the unintended consequences of easy access to electronic experience is that we're raising a generation of children who have a flawed sense of their personal strengths and weaknesses?  Are middle schoolers—-who love fantasy and imagination to begin with—confused, failing to find the line between fiction and reality when determining what they "know" and "can do?"

Interesting questions, huh?

27 comments

  1. Football prediction game

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  2. Round and Brown

    While I don’t think he will be off enlisting in the army to fight future Aliens, I do think that gaming has had an impact on his education in a negative way

  3. Jeff Milliron

    Bill,
    Interesting and insightful. I had a student take a bunch of pills this past year when his parents pulled the plug on his World of Warcraft time each night. He was up to 8 hours gaming. His school work suffered, grades, and of course a real social life. His art projects in my class became a reflection of the game.
    While I don’t think he will be off enlisting in the army to fight future Aliens, I do think that gaming has had an impact on his education in a negative way. As a football coach, I would let those kids try out. There is no hitting the first five days and they will probably get a clue by then. It may just adjust how they perceive the gaming world versus real life. Another way to look at it is it may spark a real interest in contact sports!
    Mills

  4. ziboo

    There are likely a percentage of students that do fall into your “… we’re raising a generation of children who have a flawed sense of their personal strengths and weaknesses?” belief, from video games, but in all honesty I see that problem MORE with the educational system that thinks kids shouldn’t ever lose and everyone’s a winner attitude that is prevalent in todays schools.
    I’m not against building confidence but when we degrade the students that are truly exceling in school so all the kids are special, what does that make children think? It use to be the student of the year, now its of the month or week, or ‘my child is special at school’ and we all need bumper stickers to prove it.
    It’s in discussion in California to end dodge ball and tag as they make kids feel bad? Excuse me? How does that give anyone a sense of reality?
    If kids think they can play football from playing a video game, let them try out. I’ve yet to hear a student/youth tell me the military is where they want to go because of a game. Maybe grade school as they change their ‘careers’ daily.

  5. Carl

    As K. Borden points out, we should be encouraging them to “try out”. It’s frightening to hear that these middle schoolers are so misled, but it seems to me the best way to unmislead them is by encouraging them to DO.
    This has two corollaries, though:
    1) If DOing means getting in a situation from which they can’t extricate themselves, that’s too much. Bill’s example about war games leading to stints in the army scares the heck out of me. Football, even though it’s violent, can be quit, and with a good coach the kids are unlikely to get serious injuries.
    2) High schools, for sure (and middle schools, probably, although I am going to limit my comments to the former because that’s where my own teaching experience is based), have to stay focused on challenging mythologies while still being supportive. I have often had the joint sadness and honor of teaching the class that is the first non-A for a kid who has always done extremely well on the report card…despite mediocre or even weak skills. There can be no joy in bursting someone’s bubble, least of all a young person’s, but it seems to me that challenge and authenticity and especially honesty are the sine qua non of valuable educational experience. Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman never learned, with tragic consequences; it was painful for his son Biff, but the end of “Death of a Salesman” suggests that Biff’s future can be healthy now that he knows what it’s like to tell the truth.
    I hope schools don’t resort to enabling as a misguided implementation of (our much-needed but not to be overdone sense of)compassion.

  6. TOM ANSELM

    Bill, I predict that in the future, due to natural adaptation of the human species, we will see progeny with excessively large thumbs, hunched over backs, smallish ears, extended wrists, large googly eyes, translucent skin, and the inablity to carry on normal voice discourse, all due to the near-pandemic influence of texting, IM, Ipods,facebook, bebo,myspace, video games and lack of exercise and sunlight.
    Gonna be some crazy lookin’ grandkids out there!
    Tom Anselm, teacher/author
    YOU’RE NEVER TOO OLD FOR SPACE CAMP

  7. Bob Heiny

    You offer a reasonable point, David. I agree with you that non-teachers (however defined) do not know everything about teaching, if you also accept that teachers do not know everything about instruction and learning. No one knows everything about anything, even with personal experience. Yes?

  8. David Cohen

    Bill,
    The point about non-teachers thinking they know all about school is nothing new, of course, but the rest of it is something we’re all adapting to. More information, more experiences (not better, maybe not as good, but more), and more voice. Mostly, it’s a good thing. I don’t think 20 years ago that guys like you and me would be doing what we’re doing. As students of the education game, we have access to incredible amounts of information and perspectives, and we can develop our expertise and our voice, and reach beyond the classroom. We don’t have to be principals or superintendents or researchers to start tapping into what they have, what they know, what they do, what they deal with. Now, can we use School Tycoon and say we “know” how to build and run a school by virtue of virtual success? No more than your students can deliver a tight spiral pass and hit a speedy receiver in stride sixty yards away. But then again your students might have a leg up by knowing terms and schemes that do translate: zone vs. man, fly vs. post, the difference between a slot and a wide out, or a 4-3 vs. a 3-4. Likewise, average folks may not really know what it’s like to teach, but if they want to get into discussion or debate, they are more likely than ever to have done some homework that’s relevant. They may not understand from the insider point of view, but they can bring some research, articles, and examples that are going to bolster their position. I’m rambling here, but I guess I’d say those kids are not entirely off base. They don’t know enough, but they know more than their counterparts of the past. I guess we all need to recognize the vast resources out there, and use them wisely, modestly.

  9. Bill Ferriter

    K. wrote:
    Yesterday driving my daughter to her dance recital she noticed I was lost in thought. She asked what was on my mind, and I tried to share the online conversation we have been having about your quest for leadership opportunities as a teacher. Her first response was “Mom, why doesn’t he become a principal?”
    That’s what they all say, K!
    It’s equal parts funny and frightening how even kids know that being a principal is the way to have power in a school—and that they’re always more important than teachers. Doesn’t leave me much hope for seeing empowered teachers rising up around the nation to be influential, that’s for sure!
    And I, too, have had our conversation on my mind the last several days….that’s the good thing about blogs and comment sections. The mental challenge is unparalleled.
    Rock on,
    Bill

  10. Bill Ferriter

    Whew….Sorry I’ve been missing this conversation! I spent almost 40 hours in the last three days putting the finishing revisions on my book manuscript, so I’ve been way, way out of touch.
    For now, one comment:
    Andrew wrote:
    The thought occurs to me, though… GUITAR HERO and similar games are always improving. Is there going to come a time when the student fantasy, “I am a great guitar player” is going to collide with the technological marvel of a GUITAR HERO guitar that will mimic the ability to play guitar more closely?
    This is a fun line of thinking, Andrew, and one that I don’t think is too far out of the line of reason at all.
    Then, the natural question becomes do you defend “real” guitar players as the only “true” music, or do the Guitar Hero guys playing buttons on plastic banjos earn “real” status?!
    I’m always torn when talking about digital music because I think that the interest generated by digital music programs and tools is great—many kids may never think of “composing” or “playing” if it weren’t for those opportunities.
    But my music teacher friend Nancy Flanagan worries whether or not digital music is cheapening the music experience for kids—and I think she’s got some great points.
    In the end, there’s probably not a right answer, but I sure wish there was! It would make my life so, so much easier.
    Bill

  11. Bob Heiny

    Bingo, K. Borden. You ask a question teachers can answer with a measurable level of confidence, thus avoiding Types I and II errors so common online.
    Hmm, sounds like a good project for a homeschooled learner of any age. 🙂

  12. K. Borden

    “Are middle schoolers—-who love fantasy and imagination to begin with—confused, failing to find the line between fiction and reality when determining what they “know” and “can do?””
    See also: Andrew’s comment that he sees more ability to distinguish between, what he termed, video fiction and reality in the 9th graders than in the younger middle schoolers.
    Wouldn’t you expect sixth graders to be less aware and self regulating of their real life strengths and weaknesses generally speaking than ninth graders? As they grow, they change. The vessels they experience the world with change. The information they engage the world with changes, and with it all the perceptions of themselves and the world change. Isn’t it the experimentation they are doing constantly just being developing bodies, minds and souls that is part of formation leading to application of experience to decision making?
    Before the boys in your blog entry play football, they will tryout. Isn’t middle school a great time to try out all sorts of things and find what fits and what doesn’t? Why not tryout for football? Maybe they don’t get on the team, maybe they do and along the way they learn via experience their strengths and weaknesses.
    I guess what I am challenging is lumping the expectation of what a student in their first year of middle school might discern as possible with what a student three or four years later might discern. Do 8th graders generally “love fantasy and imagination” to the same extent 6th graders generally do?
    Andrew, the armed forces and astronauts use gaming and simulation to train and have for a while now. My daughter sings and recently began using a program that reads pitch and inflection and giving her feedback. Wii Fit is used in senior centers to encourage activity. Your question of “what will school look like when it happens?” I would suggest should ask “Do schools today realize what is happening already?”

  13. Andrew B. Watt

    It is an interesting question. Today was graduation at my school, and we said farewell to our ninth graders — our top grade. The students who have just left are not so confused about the line between video fiction and reality. But the grades after them seem to be much more fluid.
    The thought occurs to me, though… GUITAR HERO and similar games are always improving. Is there going to come a time when the student fantasy, “I am a great guitar player” is going to collide with the technological marvel of a GUITAR HERO guitar that will mimic the ability to play guitar more closely?
    Will our fantasist simulations ever be indistinguishable from reality? What will school look like when that happens? Is it going to occur in my professional lifetime, or in some Tomorrrowland I may never see?
    Increasingly, I think it will be in my professional life — medical advances and life expectancy changes mean that I may easily work another forty years before retiring. In now’s climate of Future Shock, 40 years is an eternity — 80 machine generations, 50 medical generations, 100 biotech generations. The horse may even learn to talk.

  14. Ginny P

    Fascinating, Bill. My daughter, now 24, spent many hours playing sim hospital games, watching ER on tv and was convinced she wanted to be a doctor. Once she got to the CNA class in h.s., though, she froze up at the thought of being responsible for another human being’s health and welfare and realized that good intentions aren’t enough. (She starts a doctoral program in cancer research next month). I think the same goes for so many kids who want to “do forensics” due to CSI. While these games and shows expose them to careers and hobbies they may otherwise no know about, their middle school thinking doesn’t quite understand the word “virtual.”

  15. K. Borden

    A couple of months ago I gave my daughter “School Tycoon”. She couldn’t wait dig in, create and run her own virtual school. After a diligent effort at juggling the various simulations she said to me something like, “Mom it is a good thing that when I turn this off everything pauses so that I can think about what to do to solve problems, you know real schools can’t do that and it really must be hard.” She saw through the false transparency of the game.
    She still plays it at times but has let me know running a school is not what she wants to do when she grows up. She does however wish people really could have Pokemon (and there are certainly times I wish I could cast “frost nova” to hold her in place.) Is it the games or the guidance they are played under and the life experience brought to them?
    Mr. Ferriter:
    Yesterday driving my daughter to her dance recital she noticed I was lost in thought. She asked what was on my mind, and I tried to share the online conversation we have been having about your quest for leadership opportunities as a teacher. Her first response was “Mom, why doesn’t he become a principal?” I explained that you would prefer to continue teaching and impact rules, policies and decisions at the same time. She responded, “He needs to make lots of posters and get other teachers to form a club to work together.” Her desire to contribute suggestions ended there because she wanted to talk about what to name the new parakeet joining our family.

  16. Matt Townsley

    Well-said here, Bill. I wonder if some in the education world might be fostering this type of false transparency in our “digital natives” rhetoric. Those with this mindset assume (falsely, in my opinion) that because students can text, IM, use Facebook, that they, too, can choose and use technology tools appropriately. Like you, I’m guessing, I have found that students who can use Facebook still need guidance on how/when/why to use technology tools for educational use. On a similar note, technology use != learning, so we, as the trained educational professionals, must take the time to create learning environments with and without technology that will encourage students to use any and all resources to maximize learning.

  17. Jenny Luca

    That is an interesting thought Bill. I suppose I’ve always thought that kids are able to discern the difference between a real life experience and an artificial one, but you’ve got me thinking. Especially when you made reference to online dissections and the like. By removing the real life component do we give kids a false sense of their ability to handle the real life experience? Will this lead to situations where students pursue careers that really are not for them. I suppose that’s always been something that has occured, but maybe these kind of experiences now will lead to it happening more frequently. Very interesting -thanks for making me think.

  18. Paul C

    Bill,
    Interesting bit, that really made me think. I wonder whether the gap between the perceived reality of virtual experiences and the real world will be closed in our lifetimes. And as it closes will it be the video games that close the gap, or will real-world experiences simply become more like the digital world? What if art exhibits in museums became more like Voicethreads, or climbing Mount Everest was as easy as strapping on a pair of VR goggles? The world of Disney/Pixar’s “WALL-e” might not be too far away.