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Pointless Fun

July 23rd , 2016

The recent launch of Pokemon Go has spawned the inevitable rash of articles about how how we can harness the game’s popularity for all sorts of alternative outcomes, but most irritating of all perhaps is the way the formal education community has sought to use it as a way of (and there’s no nicer way I can think of putting this) tricking kids into paying attention to far less interesting things.

The implication from educators is that things like Pokemon Go are ultimately pointless: children might enjoy them—maybe even get a little addicted—but they’re the activity equivalent of empty calories. From this view comes an assumption that educators have some kind of duty to turn this pointless fun into something meaningful.

To me this perspective is fascinating, firstly because of the way it reinforces educators as the arbiters of what has value, but also in the way it places abstract knowledge at the heart of education; in other words, doing things is only really a way of learning things.

When we treat children’s passions as incidental to the real focus of learning—or worse, when we exploit them for our own purposes—we make a clear statement about what’s important. In formal education that inevitably means abstract knowledge or, to be more specific, knowledge that can be tested.

But imagine for a moment that instead of showing children how a game could help them learn maths we showed them how an understanding of maths made them better at a game. What do we need to win at Pokemon Go: statistics, calculus, game theory?

This shift of focus would be interesting, but it’s still an attempt to add unnecessary structure to something: it’s still an adult trying to rethink the relationship between learning and playing when, in reality, the whole thing is far more fluid. Children naturally seek out the knowledge they need to do what they want, and this “pull” approach to learning is at the heart of unschooling.

In contrast, formal education frames living as a way of gaining knowledge, rather than knowledge becoming a way to live better. But as long as we make knowledge the overall aim, and living just a means to an end, we continue to devalue childhood, and perhaps everything that comes after.

All we can say about Pokemon Go is that it is what it is: if children enjoy it then it serves its purpose. They will learn from it, yes, but any attempt by adults to rationalise that learning is almost certainly doomed to failure.

Learning is a far deeper and more personal thing than we can truly understand, and at the same time inextricable from living. Whether we’re attempting to harness someone’s interest to make them learn what we think is important, or trying to rationalise the interest itself, we’re imposing the observer’s own world view.

Real learning is a way for the learner to make sense of the world and develop their own way of relating to it. All of us need to allow, support and encourage that very personal drive, however it happens.