Memo to Mayor Bloomberg: Let Them Make Games!

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to make sure that NYC's high-school graduates can go to work for Google, or Apple, or HuffPost, or Yelp, or Zynga, or General Assembly, or at a modern hospital, or run a more innovative city government and the like. He believes these are the kind of well-paying, soul-enriching jobs that will actually move NYC youth right into the middle class. Only these high-school graduates would have six years of high school under their belts and an associate's degree in IT or computer science or biotech, not just a high school graduation certificate.

It is just one part of our Mayor's forward-looking, forward-thinking plan for education reform in New York City, as articulated in his 2012 State of the City Address. "Today," said Bloomberg, "far too many of our graduates are leaving without the skills they need to succeed beyond high school. Not every student wants to go to college, nor is college right for everyone. But all students should leave prepared to succeed in the next phase of their lives."

Bloomberg's education initiative comes not a moment too soon. Time and again, today's captains of industry and small business owners everywhere complain that they have millions of jobs open right now -- but that the people applying for the jobs simply lack the requisite skills. What are those skills? Certainly, students must know some basics of mathematics and science, need computational and technological skills, and should possess capabilities for critical thinking, research, problem-solving, analysis, and collaboration with others in person and via global networking.

These are today's entry-level basics for employment -- and certainly they are tomorrow's requirements; they are equally essential to ensuring that students can realize their individual potential and participate fully as citizens in increasingly digital communities.

How can the young gain such skills and capabilities to turn NYC into a global tech hub?

My friend Fred Wilson started a great project, a new high school, Software Engineering Academy in downtown Manhattan.

But starting a new school in NYC is quite hard, as Fred himself recently told me, "It has been an incredible challenge to get this school work. We don't yet have a principal and we can't select the kids," he claimed. While it's a fantastic contribution, one school at a time may take too long to transform a city.

So here is a related proposal for Mayor Bloomberg who wants to engage youth with computer science and engineering education: Let them make videogames!

Sound weird. But it works. And it can spread rather fast in NYC schools in all 5 boroughs. My proposal is based on many years of using games and social media to transform students' learning and reform education systems.

It's based on the do-it-yourself model of learning we named GLOBALORIA. It's inspired by the cognitive research performed throughout the 1980s and 90s at the Harvard Graduate School of Education's Technology Center (ETC), led by David Perkins and Howard Gardner, and by the Epistemology-and-Learning Research Team (E&L) formed by Seymour Papert at Nicholas Negroponte's MIT Media Lab. It is derived from the core Constructivist and Constructionist concepts that hold that whatever the subject matter assigned for instruction, whatever the thinking task is, and however hard it is, children learn best when they are the designers, builders, navigators, engineering and key operators of their own learning. For a number of reasons, the concept works with particular effectiveness when computational digital media are the expressive and simulative materials of the construction kits the children use to do their thinking and doodling and reflection -- the equivalent of pencils, crayons, paints, clay, blocks, even Lego bricks.

First, digital media and programmable computing technology are by definition avenues of integration (as well of course as being tools of personal construction). Just about all the tasks and activities students do on a computer connect to one another and to larger tasks and activities outside the digital realm. This endows even the most abstract or esoteric learning students are assigned to undertake with practical usefulness. Once students can save these learning materials and activities, and can see how they pertain to other materials and activities that are part of their lives, their minds are ignited, and they want to learn more.

Second, the technology enables each student to match the task at hand to his or her own passions, interests, and cognitive abilities; that makes the learning more personalized and valuable. Moreover, it allows time and space for reflecting on the content of what has been learned and on the process of learning itself, thereby providing further exercise of cognitive ability.

Third, through socializing and social networking, students can be exposed to different projects and contexts and can brainstorm, question, communicate, and test their ideas against the ideas and thinking of others, thus improving key reflective, cognitive, and meta-cognitive processes. The process is exponential; more connections in digital spaces with digital tools lead to still more connections, and the resulting ferment among knowledge domains, people, and their ideas and digital artifacts spurs further reflection, cognition, and meta-cognitive processes.

Globaloria students take this powerful learning process still further. In creating, not just consuming, what is increasingly their generation's idiom -- videogames -- they add mastery of the language and grammar of what has become one of this generation's most potent forms of literary expression and language arts.

Eighth-grade students in I.S.364, a middle school in Brooklyn, learn to design and program games about STEM topics (Photo by Yasmin Safdie, World Wide Workshop).

Early research on the Globaloria model shows that its DIY-learning through game-making improves students' cognitive skills, computational and critical thinking, grasp of the subject matter, proficiency in mathematics and science, computer programming skills, and problem-solving. Moreover, teachers claim that for some students, these effects prove viral -- that is, they spill over into other classes in other subjects.

This is a long and necessary process. It requires time. It is a desired cognitive change that can only happen through systemic educational transformation -- the kind of overall reform that can ready students for the learning and thinking challenges and the economic realities they will face in their lives. Like Bloomberg, I believe that NYC students need and deserve the kind of cognitive change that can equip them with the ability to be active, productive, and engaged citizens in social communities -- both personal and professional -- that, as never before in history, blend atoms and bits in every aspect of life. And they certainly need such cognitive change to get the kind of job that can step our city's high school graduates right into the middle class.