Greg Toppo's The Game Believes in You Can Give Us Faith in Schools

09/04/2015 09:59 am ET Updated Sep 04, 2016

I've never played a video game and I've always shunned competition. So, my only preconceived opinion in reading Greg Toppo's The Game Believes in You was that, sooner or later, game-building would play a large, constructive role in building better public schools.

Toppo not only taught me a lot, but he did so in a balanced way - combining cognitive science research with prudent appraisals of the potential benefits and dangers of emerging digital technologies. And, I like the way he quoted Paul Tillich when describing the #1 challenge faced by teachers. When our teens experience boredom, it should be seen as "rage spread thin."

Similarly, my natural response to the digital breakthroughs of the last few decades was to admire them. Bill Gates sure didn't seem like a Robber Baron, he sought make the world better by giving away billions of dollars to improve health and education at home and abroad. I assumed that he and the rest of the Billionaires Boys Club would seek to offer the same holistic opportunities to poor children of color as they did to their own children.

To borrow James Paul Gee's term, it was predictable that some of billionaires would see themselves as "tech priests." Some would succumb to the thrill of victory and to imposing the agony of defeat on others, perhaps buying an island in order assert complete control over a kingdom. Others would turn their employees' workplaces into an imitation of the survival of the fittest struggle in the real (not just the corporate) Amazon jungle where, literally, only the strong survive. It never occurred to me that they would impose a brutal culture of incentives and disincentives on school children!

All I know for sure is that schools must navigate between both sides of the digital dynamics in an age of output-driven, market-driven reform. This dichotomy became most clear in Toppo's chapter on Amplify. One of Ruppert Murdoch's company's systems designers says, "If you want your school to work, don't bribe and threaten people. ... let them make mistakes." A game design researcher for Amplify warns that "point" systems for behavioral control (i.e. No Excuses schools?) could unleash a dystopia.

At the same time, it was their boss, Joel Klein, who unleashed such a destructive culture on schools serving the poorest children of color in New York City. Apparently, the logic of Klein and other reformers is that the way to promote winners and defeat losers is by offering a small school shelter for the chosen few to fail safely as they create, while imposing cutthroat competition for the poorest children of color. Once the current system, the "status quo," is destroyed, once unions are defeated, and after educators' power is decimated, then the humane side of digital technology could possibly be offered to all.

Toppo briefly alludes to the best way to maximize the benefits and minimize the harm done by digital technologies. Adults must do what we should have done when television was ascendant; just as we should have been "co-viewing" television, and mentoring children on media literacy and ethics, we need a cross-generational effort to build on the strengths of gaming.

And, that raises two sets of questions about why elites did not fund more traditional methods of school improvement where teachers and students could have been helped to devise classroom games. Toppo's narrative is consistent with the observation of James Paul Gee that digital innovators are smart people who attended great schools, but they failed to respect academia as a flawed but essential institution where "the DNA of human innovation [is] stored, recombined, mutated, and set loose to give new birth, new ideas, new worlds, and new sorts of human beings."

Even sadder, digital entrepreneurs (like all business pioneers?) live and die by making bets on the market. Why did they bet against, not on the better angels of children, as well as educators? Toppo closes his book with Gee's wisdom, "'nobody has successfully underestimated a child."

So, why did corporate feel the need for win-lose, as opposed to a win-win approach to schooling? Why could elites have not funded a Computer Game-Builders for America? Why did they reject the low-stakes trial and error model of innovation? Why ignore the opportunity to fund game-building and other hands-on activities in poor schools, so that all of us - not just the top winners in the fight for 21st-century survival - could better share in the fun of learning?