My take on Prensky

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There are some great conversations going on right now about Marc Prensky’s article, Engage Me or Enrage Me. One is at Dennis Fermoyle’s blog; the other is at Chris Lehmann’s blog. I love these types of conversations because they force us to examine what we really believe about motivation, learning, and good instruction.

I just started reading Everything Bad is Good for You, by Steven Johnson. One of the first points the author makes is that most good video games are HARD. They’re frustrating. They cause players to think and stew about them even when they’re not playing the game. It’s not that the gaming activity is easy. On the contrary, like a good hobby, it’s that the activity is challenging AND considered worth the work by the player.

We shouldn’t be making our schools fun at the expense of solid intellectual engagement. But making students’ classroom time more fun (or engaging, or whatever you want to call it) will help them learn more. Teachers who say it’s not their job to keep their kids’ attention during class time should, in my opinion, immediately be placed into a remediation program to improve their instruction. It’s not the kids’ fault if their teachers are boring or haven’t put together lessons that interest students (e.g., I just did a study of some high schools in which 68% of over 1,000 students said ‘Most of our work is busy work’). Or, as Seth Godin puts it…


Too often we educators (both K-12 and higher ed) say that ‘We’ve put together a good lesson, now it’s the students’ responsibility to meet us halfway.’ But Godin’s quote puts that belief to the test because it doesn’t hold up very well in the real world. In our own lives we don’t waste our valuable and limited attention span on stuff that doesn’t interest or engage us. To say that kids should because it’s in their best interests is disingenuous and morally dishonest. We have to make the case. Otherwise we deserve the consequences. Alfie Kohn has a wonderful quote in The Schools Our Children Deserve: "Might we have spent a good chunk of our childhoods doing stuff that was exactly as pointless as we suspected at the time? (p. 1)" [For those of you who might bring up the fact that work isn’t always interesting but we have to slog through anyway, I’ll point out that 1) no one made you work in that job and/or for that employer, 2) job mobility is way up (people are trading autonomy for job security), and 3) we make students go to school through mandatory attendance laws – they have no choice but to be there.]

Right now I think students go home and are immersed in learning environments (i.e., video games) where the end product is considered to be worth the hard work. Then they go to school and too often don’t feel that way about what they do in their school environment, either because of lack of engagement or lack of perceived relevance. That is the challenge, and that is how I read Prensky.

Side note: Chris used the word gumption in his blog post. The third definition for gumption at is ‘common sense.’ Using that definition, I’d argue that students that are tuning out of irrelevant or uninteresting lessons are showing a lot of gumption. Unless the teacher or school organization had successfully made the case for why it was worth my time to slog through anyway, I know that’s what I’d do and I strongly suspect that most others would too.

12 Responses to “My take on Prensky”

  1. Scott, my post on this generated a much better conversation than I ever would have imagined. I think you and the other commentators who saw the article differently than me have raised some great points. But I still don’t like it! As I’ve already said, I think it strongly implies that teachers aren’t making much of an effort to engage their students now, and I strongly disagree with that. It also bothers me that the article seems to let kids off the hook for not performing. I think one of the biggest problems we have today in public education is that we do a poor job of holding kids accountable for their own performance and behavior, and the Prentsky article adds to that problem.

    Thanks for doing YOUR post!

  2. Hi Dennis,

    I don’t know if we can blame the kids for this. Is it their fault that they’re being exposed to technology-driven learning environments that better engage them than many adult teachers can? We can’t put the video game genie back in the bottle…

    I don’t blame teachers either (well, at least not the ones that are trying to provide engaging learning environments for kids but still are struggling against what kids expect due to their continual media immersion). It’s the worksheet teachers and/or the teachers that are just ‘doing the time.’ Granted, these are relatively few in number (although still far, far too many), but I believe that they’re the ones far more likely to complain about kids not being engaged. Kids credit teachers that are trying.

    I tend to be wary of holding kids ‘accountable’ for their performance and/or behavior, just as I generally tend to be wary of holding teachers accountable for the same. I think the lesson from Edward Deming is that blaming individuals for their poor performance doesn’t make much sense most of the time because something like 90% of student / employee problems can be traced to dysfunction in the larger system. In other words, if the system’s broken, don’t blame the people who work / learn in it.

    Ultimately this is a leadership issue. The responsibility lies on the leaders for ensuring that all teachers are doing their utmost to engage kids and for ensuring that modern pedagogical techniques and technologies are being employed to maintain student interest and success.

    There’s no one to blame here (as long as everyone is trying). Rather than pointing fingers at teachers or students, I’d like to see us focus on looking forward and devising solutions. If we employ that lens, the question is not “Who’s responsible for ensuring student engagement: students or teachers?” but rather “How can students and educators work together to create engaging and energizing learning environments?”

  3. One follow-up thought…

    Are we asking too much of teachers when we expect them to grab student attention like mass media and/or video games? In other words, is it an impossible task? And, if so, what does that mean for the future of K-12 instruction? And, if not, what does that mean too for how we do things in schools?

  4. I agree with your thoughts on the current status of our classrooms. I just went back to teaching this fall after being out of the classroom for four years. It was a rough fall trying to engage my third grade students. I tried to use a lot of the traditional instructional strategies, Listen to the teacher read and lecture and copy from the board. I was facing students that were uninterested. Within the last month I have been able to find a new level where I am presenting the content in different ways that challenge the students and allow for differences in learning styles. I am off to a great rest of the year!

  5. Scott, Last time I checked the lecture and note method was out of style like polyester suits. Teachers have been using a whole array of different strategies for some time – or most that I know have been using different strategies. The “sit and git” method didn’t work, ever. Now teachers are doing a whole pile of different things, from jigsaws to cooperative learning groups to various types of reader responses and some use various technologies and some still use pens, paper and those things called crayons. Boy do kids love to paint and colour and draw and do drama and make up songs and …. until about 14 and then trying to get them to respond in any media is darn near impossible. Prensky is yet another adult who is making money off this and wants to convince us that he’s right so he can make more money. His arguements or writing are biased. What I don’t get is how this has taken such a hold. Just out of curiosity, what was one thing, besides reading, writing and doing math, that you have used in life outside school? What is the purpose of the school curriculum? I guess I’m worried that our fascination with the technology will so overshadow so many of the other life skills that schools teach – democracy, responsibility for actions, personal interactions, doing what you are asked when you are asked, etc. that we will have a generation unable to deal with many of life’s mundane and boring actions – mowing grass, fixing the drain, paying bills, etc. We have Soaps where life is one crisis after another for people. Now we’re creating escapes for kids so they aren’t bored while learning. And, to be honest, the only reason we have schools is because it became illegal to make them work in the mines and factories so we had to do something with them. Now, their fed up with going to school so, let’s put them back to work. Or maybe just let them play until they’re 21 and then we’ll see what happens. Sorry, but on this one I don’t agree with you.

  6. I would encourage all of those interested in this discussion to read an article called simply, “Serious Play” written by Dr. Dale Mann in 1996 (yes, over 10 years ago!) that I think helps frame this discussion a bit. I’ve posted the article here:
    (sorry for the funny URL; it’s the best I could do at this time on a Sunday)

    The article is mostly built on Dewey’s notion that “to be playful and serious at the same time is possible, and it defines the ideal mental condition.” Also, Mann writes that play and entertainment are not the same thing. “Play is active, entertainment is passive…” So, to those who say that it is not part of the job description of teachers to be entertainers, I would completely agree. But, it is in the job description to make sure they are engaged in active learning.

  7. Thanks, Jon. Dewey also said, “The difference between play and what is regarded as serious employment should be not a difference between the presence and absence of imagination, but a difference in the materials with which imagination is occupied.”

    I might like Alfie Kohn even better: “I’ll tell you something I’ve noticed from visiting a lot of American schools: the more traditional the teacher, the grimmer the mood. These classrooms don’t always resemble Dickensian factories, mind you, but if you watch the kids’ faces (or the teachers’), the phrase ‘joy of discovery’ probably won’t leap to mind. And here’s the interesting part: the people who defend the Old School usually don’t deny that this is true, and they don’t even seem to mind. Sometimes they actually take a perverse pride in presiding over (or sending their kids to) this bleak house because for them that constitutes proof that real education is happening. No pain, no gain.”

  8. “Marc Prensky is the author of Digital Game-Based Learning and the founder and CEO of Games2train, a game-based learning company whose clients include IBM, Bank of America, Nokia, and the Department of Defense. He is also the founder of The Digital Multiplier, an organization dedicated to eliminating the digital divide in learning worldwide.”

    Am I the only one noticing that this is a person who writes and sells game based learning for a living? Of course he is sounding the alarm, it helps move his product.

    This is NOT a new problem, it’s just that we could “afford” to have 50% of our students drop out of high school before WWII. I have no problem with perfecting my craft and making it more engaging to students, but excuse me if I question this particular messengers motives/objectivity.

  9. Alice, thanks for reminding us that Prensky has a financial stake in this.

    Can Prensky’s message be valid even though he also works in the area of gaming? Can we only talk credibly about areas in which we don’t stand to financially benefit? If I quit being a professor and become a full-time consultant because I thought I could better help schools with technology leadership issues that way, would that ruin my credibility and/or impair my knowledge base?

    Does the fact that Prensky’s message about the value of educational gaming is reinforced by numerous other credible individuals and organizations, including professors and scientific organizations, support the validity of his facts (if not some of his rhetoric)? Do we have to cite all these folks every time or can we just mention Prensky?

  10. This is not a reason to dismiss the message entirely. I made the effort to say I that I do want to perfect my craft to show I wasn’t dismissing the argument out of hand. I’ve got to think that EVERYONE who has commented on this article (whether pro or con) wants to engage their students or they wouldn’t be reading your blog, or the other blogs/sites that featured this article. As a teacher in a PI school, I’ve seen many “consultants” offer help, and little of it seems to be free (I still have gas pains from the $15,000 that went to one person for 8 days of training this fall at my school). Even money (e.g. small schools grants from Gates) seems to have strings, so I’m a little jaundiced about lots of new paradigm thinking. I wanted to add some context to things. Kids have been failing for years, but it was never as painful for the kids (really, what options does a high school drop out have in today’s economy), the teachers (don’t get me started on NCLB), and our society. Thank you, and all of my fellow education professionals, for this discussion.

  11. As I was reading this discussion, it reminded me of an article I blogged about recently, “Digital Natives Invade the Workplace” that I read on the Pew Internet Study. One of the things I was reminded of from that study was the finding of how video game use had affected employees.

    The study found that employees tend to prefer to be able to complete a task and move on to the “next level” at their own pace, and in the amount of time it takes them to correctly complete the task.

    That further reminded me of a podcast I heard from Business Week about how Best Buy is changing their corporate workplace to allow their employees to work from home or in the office as long as they complete the tasks. It is working for them because they have a set of metrics that were already established for being sure that business got accomplished, and workers are actually more productive because they can “move on to the next level” so to speak when they complete something.

    (And interestingly the change came from the grassroots, and the CEO was told after it was already in place.)

    So maybe there are lessons to be learned from students’ use of video games that are not just about the entertainment part, but the parts about rewards for succeeding, motivation to move ahead to the next level, and allowing for students who complete tasks to move on instead of sitting and waiting for the rest of the class.

    Rather than go into the whole recap of the Pew study, which was fascinating in its’ implications for schools, here’s what I gleaned from it if you are interested.

    And Scott, I really liked your question:
    “How can students and educators work together to create engaging and energizing learning environments?” Seems that is the real question at hand.

  12. As a student myself, this article really hits home. I cannot even being to think about all the crosswords and word searches I’ve done over the past tweleve years as a student. While I agree with the quote from Seth Godin, I also think that no matter how compelling and interesting the presenter is, some types of people will always ignore or not pay attention to what is being presented.

    Other than this, I do believe it is the instructor’s responsibility to have the class mantain attention. I’ve had classes where teachers or professors stand at the front of the class and lecture for a hour and a half. Classes like this never seem to end. On the other hand, if the teacher presents the information in an approach where the students are involved in the learning actively, the classes are much more enjoyable. For example, I took a psychology class and the teacher had the students try out different pairs of goggles and do puzzles to demonstrate to us the different ideas of perception. In turn, it makes it easier to learn, and then associate the terms with what they are come testing time.

    Overall, as a student to a educator, just be alive. Be funny! Be active!

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