Learning to match a world of beauty

4th May 2012 at 01:00
21st-century education must be `beautiful' and have the qualities associated with successful modern products, argues American 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.

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. People get it because it is so beautiful to use and they love how it feels.

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.

People also 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.

A fourth trend 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.

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. Customisation is the enemy; the classroom is standardised. 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?

Why is it that the classroom seems immune from these trends? It is partly because education tends to be slow to adopt new things. It takes a while for schools to change, so we could wait for the 22nd century. But I think we can hasten the arrival of these positive concepts in the classroom.


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

One example is a colleague of mine, Lee Sheldon, a games designer turned educator. He was shocked when he went into schools and looked at the reward systems: "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 Mr Sheldon 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.

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. Mr Sheldon wrote a book about this and many of the concepts he introduced, called The Multiplayer Classroom.


People want to learn about so many different things; they want to customise.

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: first, that schools are failing at digital arts education; 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 and if they want to hang out, listen to music, play computer games or grab a laptop and surf the web, they can.

However, mentors are hanging around. 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?" 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; when you standardise education, you punish curiosity.


Sharing does not just happen, either. 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. 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 students follow at home. It is very selective in its intake, but it pairs real teachers with real students. The teachers have been 3D computer animators in Hollywood and elsewhere, and teach remotely. Their students are dying to get into this industry and appreciate the opportunity to get one-to-one critique.

Another way to get more reality into the classroom is through simulations. We have been working with the New York fire department, creating simulations to help firefighters to prepare for terrorist attacks.

The 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.

To aid the instructors we built an interactive simulation called HazMat: Hotzone. If you put a group in a simulation and they do something wrong and one of the team dies, 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 you can make education beautiful, customised, shared and real, everybody wins.

Jesse Schell runs the video-games studio Schell Games in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and teaches at the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University. www.jesseschell.com

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


Curiosity is not something we talk about in schools, but it 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 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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