Learning to match a world of beauty

27th April 2012 at 01:00
21st-century education must be 'beautiful' and have the qualities associated with successful modern products, argues technologist and games designer Jesse Schell

At the start of the 21st century there was a lot of doom and gloom - all the fussing about the millennium bug and people worrying that things would get worse and worse. Yet now we are 12 years in, one of the things I cannot help but notice is how beautiful everything is becoming; even something as simple as a toothbrush.

In the 1970s, if you wanted to buy a toothbrush you had the choice of one shape and three colours. Now you go to buy a toothbrush and it is like a tropical fish aquarium. There are shapes and colours and sizes and textures and patterns; some of them light up and play music and have characters on them. They are getting more interesting, and more and more beautiful.

And it is not just toothbrushes. This is happening with everything in society. Look at the iPhone. Do people get the iPhone because "Wow! It has the best reception of any phone I've ever had"? No. In fact, that is irrelevant. People get it because it is so beautiful to use and they love how it feels. In the 21st century, we make things beautiful.

There are other trends, too. I cannot help but notice how customised everything is becoming. We certainly see it in the world of video games: it used to be that if, say, Mario was in a game, you would play just as that character. But children now expect to be able to create their own characters and are disappointed if they cannot.

This is not just the case in video games. Coke Freestyle is a soda machine now found in fast- food restaurants in the US that has more than 100 flavours you can mix and match. If you want grape root beer with lemon, you can have that. And people love it. It is also true of MMs. They all used to have just an "M" on them (you could hold one upside down and get a "W", but that was it). Now you can go online and put any message you want on them, or even a picture of yourself. You could be eating your own face, right now.

Another wonderful 21st-century trend is sharing. People love to share. One of the hits in the video-game industry is LittleBigPlanet, a game in which players can make their own levels, put them online and share them with each other. They have made millions of these levels.

Similarly, I remember when I first heard of Wikipedia. I thought: "An encyclopedia everyone can edit? That is the worst idea ever. It is going to be a mess, it is going to fall apart, it is never going to be authoritative." Instead, it may be humanity's greatest achievement.

A fourth trend for the 21st century is that people want things to be real. I was woken up to this by the book Authenticity: what consumers really want by James H. Gilmore and B. Joseph Pine II, in which they discuss how the most important cultural factor for any new product or service is how authentic people perceive it to be.

With television, for example, it was once all about fiction and fantasy; now people want "reality TV". It used to be that people would buy groceries; now it is organic groceries. What the authors posit is that our disconnect from nature caused by all this technology has given us a hunger to connect to things that are real. While the disconnect is lamentable, the hunger for reality, and the fact that people are valuing things they see as authentic, is an exciting trend.

In the classroom

If the 21st century is all about making things beautiful, customised, shared and real, we are in pretty good shape, right? But then we look at the classroom.

Is it beautiful? No. The classroom is ugly. Ugly desks, ugly decorations, ugly books, ugly lighting. Is it customised? No, of course not. Customisation is the enemy; the classroom is standardised. We have standardised testing, so we can have standardised schools, giving us standardised students with standardised thinking.

Shared? No. "Eyes on your own paper, please. No sharing in this classroom."

And is it real? What does it even mean for a classroom to be real? I believe a real teacher is someone who is an expert in what they are talking about; someone who knows how to prepare students for the real world because they are connected with exactly how this knowledge will be used in the real world. If you are not doing those things, you are a fake teacher and you are only pretending to prepare students for the real world.

A real student is someone who wants the knowledge so they can use it to accomplish something. A fake student is one who pretends to care only because they will suffer if they do not. Unfortunately, we have a lot of fake teachers and fake students. That is not good.

Why is it that the classroom seems somewhat immune from these trends? It is partly because education tends to be slow to adopt new things. Large-scale manufacture of televisions began in the 1940s, but they did not really start appearing in the classroom until the 1980s, and I am still not sure we are using them well in there now.

It takes a while to get schools to change, so we could wait for the 22nd century. But I think we can hasten the arrival of these positive 21st-century concepts in the classroom.


Things do not just become beautiful if you wait around. Things become beautiful through design.

One small example is a colleague of mine, Lee Sheldon, a games designer turned educator. He was shocked when he went into schools and began looking at the reward systems. He felt they were broken - "If I was making a game, I'd never reward people in this way."

In US schools you have grade-point averages, which means that if you get an A on the first test but a C on the next test, you go down to a B. But if you were playing World of Warcraft and reached level 10, you would not drop to level 5 if you were killed by a dragon. Game designers would never do that because people hate it.

So Lee changed the rewards system. On his students' first day, he says: "Welcome to class. You all have an F, and you have an F because you are at level 1." When you do work in class you get experience points, and when you get enough you work your way up to level 2, which is a D-minus. Gradually you work your way up to higher grades.

He has made many other changes in his class, but this was one of the most notable and it has made a big difference to the engagement of his students. They have latched on to this notion of being able to make steady, tangible progress. Lee wrote a book about this and many of the concepts he introduced, called The Multiplayer Classroom.

I am not saying that game dynamics are the way to make your education beautiful, but if you want it to be beautiful you have to design it, and you have to bring something new.


One interesting concept in recent years was the counter-intuitive idea of the "long tail". Consider Amazon's book sales: you would think that it would probably make most of its money selling the best-sellers that everyone buys, the Twilights and Harry Potters, and it would probably make some money from all the other weird, fringy things. But it turns out that is not true. More than half of the money Amazon makes from books comes from those that are not available in any retail establishment. This little tail of unpopular things is so long that it makes a huge difference in terms of its sales.

The same is true of education: people want to learn about so many different things; they want to customise. And customising education is an act of respect.

At the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, we were given the challenge of working with the MacArthur Foundation to build a place called YOUmedia in Chicago. We wanted to solve two problems at once: the first, that schools are failing at arts education, especially digital arts education; the second, that libraries are becoming irrelevant because of the internet. So the thought was, "What if libraries could have a new job and could take on informal digital arts education?"

We looked at a book co-authored by Mizuko Ito, Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out. It is based on the concept that teenagers have three modes of learning: "hanging out", which is very informal, barely getting in touch with the material; "messing around", which is when they start to explore it in a casual way; and "geeking out", when they are really intense.

We designed the space to physically represent that. So teenagers show up at YOUmedia - it is a casual place - and if they want to hang out, listen to music, play computer games or grab a laptop and surf the web, they can do all those things right there in the library.

However, mentors are hanging around. They observe for a while and when they see that someone is interested in something, they approach them and say: "I see you're really into music. Would you like to make your own music? We have everything here." They set up systems where, casually, teenagers can start playing around with something - and then go deeper. We have little labs where they can really get into it. It works.

When you customise education, you reward curiosity (see panel, page 6); when you standardise education, you punish curiosity.


Sharing does not just happen, either. You cannot just give the same old assignments in the same way and hope that sharing will work. You must design it. You have to create situations that demand sharing.

One of the ways we do this at the Entertainment Technology Center is to try to teach students of different disciplines to come together and innovate. We give them some crazy technologies that barely work and people barely understand. Then we put them in situations where they must - in a very short time - build functioning, coherent, interesting, entertaining virtual worlds.

We put together teams with a programmer, a 3D modeller, a painter and a sound designer, and say: "You have two weeks - build an amazing virtual world." None of them can do it alone. With team projects, often one person leads and everyone follows, but we put them in a situation where if one of them fails, they all fail, because the whole thing will fall apart. They learn quickly that they must work together to survive.


One of my favourite examples of how to make school more real is Animation Mentor, an online programme that has become known as one of the best ways to teach animation. It is not some fancy arts school that you attend, but a programme that you follow at home.

It is quite hard to get in to because it is very selective, but it pairs real teachers with real students. The teachers have been 3D computer animators in Hollywood and elsewhere, and teach remotely, often from their homes. Their students are dying to get into this industry and appreciate the opportunity to get a lot of one- to-one critique.

Another way to get more reality into the classroom is through simulations. We started doing more work with the New York fire department, creating simulations to help firefighters to better prepare for terrorist attacks.

At first, the instructors were sceptical: "You're going to replace me with this? You academic guys don't know anything about fighting fires." However, we were not thinking of how to replace the instructor, which is what so many educational software designers think about. We were thinking of how to empower them.

The good firefighter instructors paint pictures of scenarios: "OK, there's a three-storey warehouse and we've had a report on this side. What are you going to do?" The students then start talking about how they would respond.

The trainers were effectively Dungeon Masters (as in Dungeons and Dragons) - people who create and control a scenario for the players. We thought we should provide the tools to be better Dungeon Masters, so we built an interactive simulation called HazMat: Hotzone, a kind of first- person shooter game where players run around a building, but the instructors have a special console to design the scenario and cause events to happen. If you put a group in a simulation where they do something wrong and one of the team dies, they will say, "Wait, what did we do?" The instructor can pause the simulation and say, "This is why we use these methods. Let's talk about them and do the simulation again."

If people are not ready for advice, it will not stick. What every good instructor looks for is a teachable moment like that one, when their students will be receptive.

If you can make education beautiful, customised, shared and real, everybody wins.

This article is based on a speech given at Learning Without Frontiers 2012. Watch the video at www.learningwithoutfrontiers.com

On curiosity

Curiosity is not something we talk about in schools: there are no tests for it. But curiosity is more important now than it has been in the whole of human history.

It used to be that a curious child would learn something. Now all of human knowledge is available at the touch of a button, which gives curious children a serious advantage.

Anything they would like to learn about or do, they can find out about in an instant. So what does that mean for children who are not curious? They are going to be left far behind, creating what is known as the "curiosity gap".

I am not sure that we really know if children are born more curious or less curious, or whether there are things we can do to encourage and enhance their curiosity. Perhaps the most important thing we can do in the field of education is figure out whether we can make children more curious.

The expert

Jesse Schell runs the video-games studio Schell Games in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and teaches at the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University, which is beginning to work with the University of Salford. He is former creative director of the Disney Virtual Reality Studio and author of The Art of Game Design. www.jesseschell.com

Further reading

The Multiplayer Classroom: designing coursework as a game, Lee Sheldon, Course Technology PTR, 2011

Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out: kids living and learning with new media, Mizuko Ito et al, MIT Press, 2009

Authenticity: what consumers really want, James H. Gilmore and B. Joseph Pine II, Harvard Business School Press, 2007

The Long Tail: why the future of business is selling less of more, Chris Anderson, Hyperion Books, 2006.

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