Basketball, Broken Hearts and Video Games

It’s 10PM on a Saturday night.  Griffin was invited to play in a 3 on 3 tournament and we  just had a very profound discussion on our drive home.  His team made it to the championship but lost 8 to 10.  He feels tired and hungry  after running sprints for most of the day.  Griffin couldn’t see any of the success in what he and his team had accomplished.  All he is feeling now is the sting of losing something that he wanted more than anything else at the moment.  This is what I love about games.  They allow us to look at our lives and think differently about us, our ambitions and the people around us.

First, let’s talk some psychology.  I study cognitive psychology.  This involves not just thinking, but how thinking affects the emotions.  The philosopher Epictetus pointed out that it isn’t necessarily the events that affect us, it is how we relate to them.  Griffin and I went through the plays, the players, the scores, and every aspect of the tournament that we could remember.  Things began to change.  In fact, he and his team mates had won a large majority of the battles today.  Griffin was tough to score on.  He hit some key free throws.  The team outscored every team but one.  Griffin and his team mates dominated the boards.  They fought back in the championship game and put themselves in an opportunity to win.  By empirically validating his beliefs, e.g., “I suck”, we were able to  find out that he was inaccurate.  Being inaccurate was causing the pain, not just the defeat.  I won’t recount the entire episode, but I will say that if you try this with your kids, use what is called a “Socratic dialogue”.   In other words, ask questions and listen.  Lead your child to challenge his or her own beliefs and assumptions.  If I were to say, “well you won 7 games and lost two, it would have little effect.  Instead, I would ask, “how many points were scored on you”, or “who beat you on the boards?”  He would reply, “nobody.”  So, we vivify the experience and deepen it.  We relive it, in a way.  He will discover that he was mostly winning in any given moment. Or, at least he wasn’t losing continuously like he felt he had.

These conversations  are important tools that allow us to accessing our child’s  emotions and learn about how they see the world.  When Griffin uses his imagination to relive the experience, some of the emotions and images return. He gains entry into the event when I ask him a specific question.  He has to concentrate, and place himself in the moment.  This deepens the experience and prepares him for learning.  We had some other more personal discussions on that car ride and I cannot share them.  When we arrived at our driveway, I felt a sense of peace and acceptance.  The pain had begun to melt away.That is only a small window into what kids learn playing games, especially with the help of  a more capable adult or peer just being with them and exploring with them.

I couldn’t help but to think about video gaming during the tournament.   I have often thought about how many times basketball players sprint down the floor.  What would it be like to sprint that long if there was no game to offer purpose and meaning to the task?  What would it be like to do this alone, without four other guys involved?  I can tell you with certainty, it wouldn’t be very much of an experience and we would probably have to force ourselves to do it with any fidelity.  Yet, we will join a game of hoops with no reluctance.  Our culture is wise to it.  We have had embedding instruction in our songs and games for many, many generations.  We pass these games on to our offspring and they pass them on and the culture benefits through the years.  There is real folk wisdom in our culture.  We know that games and songs have survival value and we know that they are effective at passing on learning.

I remember on special babysitter we had solely because she taught us that game.  It is simple.  I and my sisters stood down the hall.  Barbara would hold a pillow up to her face and say, “Red Light”.  Well, we stop on red.  Suddenly she would drop the pillow and shout, “Green Light!”  We would then run toward her until, “Red Light” was announced and we would stop again.  The first one to reach Barb wins.  What do children learn here?  Well, attention, for one thing.  Attention involves inhibiting impulsive responses.  Children with ADHD  have special difficulty with behavioral regulation.  It develops slowly and  measures below his peers.  A game like Red Light Green Light helps all children inhibit the excited urge to run when anything is said.  “Red Light/Red Light” will find some impulsive children lunging forward.  The child gets to practice holding back and improves.  The game makes the child happy, and people perform best when they are happy.  The emotions are critical to learning and doing good work, especially creative work.

So, games keep us alert by captivating our attention.  Games reduce anxiety, usually, and this is a good quality of mind for learning.  Games give a sense of purpose and meaning for doing sometimes mundane boring tasks like running back and forth on a basketball court.  They motivate us to try hard. Games can teach resiliency.  You have to lose sometimes in a game.  Yet, you play the game again.  You know you will win again.  Kids really need to know that part.

Video games can do all of these things, if they are designed for it.  They give the real-time feedback of an official or completed pass, they create immersion, they captivate the emotions, they lead to intensity of thought.  They are social experiences.  We used to have friends over to play video games.  Now we can find friends online to play with.   That means that friends share the experience and learning from one another.  When academic tasks, like literacy instruction, becomes integrated  in a video game, all of those factors are alive and at work.

Griffin is on his second hamburger and is laying on the floor.   I’m writing this post wondering if he is feeling like the real winner that I know that he is.

How to Get A’s on Tests

I have mentioned before that learning came suddenly to me at about age 18.  Prior to that, I struggled to stay awake in class, never mind getting A’s on tests.  Contrast that with my experience in college, where I couldn’t wait until the professor posted the scores so I could see if I finished #1, #2, or #3 in the class.  The way I did it will definitely help you out.

First, you have to prepare yourself for some effort.  People sometimes imagine that the brain is like a video camera.  If we expose ourselves to information, we think, our brains will capture it.  We sometimes hear people refer to children as “sponges” because they seem to soak up information.  It doesn’t work like that, I’m afraid.  It seems better to think about recoding and retrieving information.  In other words, we need to actively work with information and make a strategy for accessing it.  We will  talk about how to do it, but first let’s look at a couple of assumptions about learning and test taking.

Assumption #1:  We don’t necessarily get to keep what we learn.  I found this post on a message board:

“I’m 4 1/2 years out from medical school, 1 1/2 from residency.

I doubt I’ve retained 10% of what I learned in medical school. It’s probably nowhere near that much. Hell, I doubt I have a quarter of the information in my head that I needed to pass the medical boards in August of 2005. I don’t think I’m that unusual.”

So, an A grade on a test may, sometimes, tell us how well a student prepared to take the test and that the student put in that effort .  If the information is not used or reviewed periodically, it will be lost.  I had a friend in grad school who was an ER physician.  He told me that the doctors he knew had forgotten their chemistry knowledge.  Use it or lose it is the idea here, just like muscle strength and size.  That is why many professions have continuing education requirements.

Assumption #2:  Tests tell us who is “smartest” in the class.  This is a philosophical/value oriented issue.  I’m thinking of the quote attributed to Einstein, “Know where to find the information and how to use it–that is the secret to success.”  Our education system places a high value on test scores and ranks students based on those data.  I have spent most of my career doing evaluation and assessment, so I’m certainly not against it.  I wouldn’t want to have a major surgery scheduled with a surgeon who never took a test in his training.  But, people need to apply knowledge and multiple choice tests do not necessarily prove that the test taker can solve problems creatively or use what he/she knows.
So, we have scratched the surface a bit on the complexity surrounding testing.  What you probably want to know is, “How can I help my child get A’s.”  Let’s get into that a bit.
Remember, I said that we have to “work” with the information, or “recode/encode” it.  Maybe I should say we have to “play around” with the information. First, let’s get the right attitude.  Go ahead and make it a game.  I tell my 11-year old that the school game is, in fact, a game.  But, it is an important game.  There are “trick questions” on most tests.  I learned to watch for them.  What is the purpose of a trick question?  To test knowledge?  To help make a normal curve?  To test logic, not information?  It doesn’t matter, for our purposes.  You will see them.

How to beat a trick question: There is no formula for it.  But, we can increase our chances of scoring a correct answer by a) being ready for the trap and evaluating the logic of the question.  For example, the famous “Some months have 30 days and some have 31 days.  How many months have 28 days?”  Well, forget the set up.  Just look at the last part of the question, “How many months have 28 days?”  Now it is simple.  All of them.  b) watch the language with a skeptical eye.  If the question begins with, “A rooster laid an egg on a roof pitched at a 45 degree angle…” then you know it is a trick question.  Roosters don’t lay eggs.  So, a major technique in trick question design is distraction.  The aim is to distract the test taker with some “important” sounding facts so to promote a basic thought error.
Study your teacher/professor: I learned early on that if the teacher talks about it in class and I see it in the text-book, I was pretty sure that it would be on a test or quiz.  This means that you have to go to class.  Go to class.  Figure out what your teacher wants you to know.
Read the answers first: Having the answer fresh in your mind before reading the question is a tried and true technique.  It can help you rule out the nonsense options and also prime your memory to recognize the correct question stem.  This works great on multiple choice tests.  Reading the last part of the question, again, helps a lot, too.
Write: Yeah, I know it will take time, but you do want that A, don’t you?  Anything that might be on the test, from notes to text books, write (preferably in your own words) and study.  I did this religiously and expected to get 100% on most of the tests I used it on.
Reduce the information: There are plenty of resources on the web or at your library that talk about mnemonic strategies (memory strategies).  Most of them involve taking a lot of information and reducing and conceptualizing it.  Memory is associative.  That means that concepts lead to concepts.  Songs are usually easier to memorize than poems.  That is because the rhythm and melody jogs our memories.  Consider spelling the word “rhythm”.  I read about one guy who learned to spell it by memorizing the phrase “Red Hot You Two Headed Monster”.  The sillier the association, the more likely you are to recall it.
Do the easy ones first: This is a time management strategy.  You can come back to the ones you are uncertain of later.
I call it playing the academic game not to belittle it.  What I mean is, beating a test can be a fun game.  People do better when they are having fun.  So, be as creative as you can in developing learning habits.  Griffin and I have had a lot of fun coming up with ways to memorize information for a test.  You can, too.

Should I Let Griffin Have A Facebook Account?

If you’ve spent any time around tweens or teens, it might seem that they have disappeared into the on-line world – iPods, mobile devices and lap tops are status quo. Many parents of younger children I’ve spoken with have concerns that on-line activity like social media and gaming will create introverted loners.

Griffin, our 11-year-old, keeps bugging me for a Facebook account.  My first my response was no.  Gosh, just writing that makes me feel stale.  Am I only saying no because of an irrational fear of what might happen?  Well, I think I owe him better than that, so I looked into it.
A Pew Study found that “people who regularly use digital technologies are more social than the average American and more likely to visit parks and cafes, or volunteer for local organizations”.  That doesn’t sound bad.

As I dig into it, I find more and more reasons to reconsider.  I keep finding professors who study the topic endorsing social relations on the internet.  At worst, the good outweighs the bad.

So, here are my primary remaining concerns:

1.  Marketing.  I know, I have a product for kids.  But mine promotes literacy, so that makes me O.K., right?  I don’t want junk food and bad pop music being pushed on Griffin.

2. Bullying.  Well, he hasn’t really had much of that in his life, but I can monitor that even better than what happens outside our home.

3. Kathy.  She is against it for now.  That is a for sure deal breaker.

4. Griffin is not 13 years old.  We would be breaking a rule.  I don’t think we would be breaking the law, though.  Like, if I let him watch a PG13 movie, would I go to jail?  I’m thinking no, but still it is a white lie.

5.  I don’t want him to grow up.  The psychology behind that could take up a book.

What do you think?  Would you do it?  He keeps dropping names of kids that have accounts.  I even had him show me some profiles to prove it.  I’m still not sure.  But according to recent research and expert opinions, the question is now becoming “Am I holding Griffin back if I don’t let him have a Facebook account.”

The Bart Simpson Myth

In a National Geographic Magazine study, over 80% of kids ages 6 – 14 think that learning is:

A.    A drag
B.     A waste of time
D.     Fun!

Believe it or not, the answer is “D”. Kids think learning is fun – this is encouraging news for parents and educators.

More good news includes the people kids describe as their top role models – the list includes mom and dad, teachers, Bill Gates and J.K. Rowling. Gates and Rowling are actual people – not experts in the usual sense of the word. They produced something meaningful and fun that’s inspiring to children.

I think that we get further faster if we anticipate the tastes of and consider children’s development. Demanding that children adapt to our sensibilities is not going to work and could create a backlash.  I can’t think of any subject that cannot be made interesting. Inspired teaching is really about honoring the tastes of children. I don’t want people to think that I advocate a free-for-all or am against standards.  I want to make the point that we can make math, history, or any subject matter interesting if we care to do so.  That is what “honoring the tastes” means to me.

Children consume the education products, yet we too infrequently ask for, or even care about the child’s input.  I’ve been guilty of it myself ( see“torture” blog post below).

When we created, our development team worked alongside the children, interviewing and observing them in play. We made adjustments based our own observations and, more importantly, feedback from the child. This was critical in creating an experience that ensures plenty of time on task and enthusiastic engagement with the product.

To this day, children send suggestions, fan mail, complaints, and comments to help guide us in building the very best software.

I’m a strong supporter of teaching a variety of subjects (not only reading and not just the three Rs) history, mathematics, art, technology, social sciences, languages and the like are vital to a child’s complete education. Yet, I also know that reading other literature can be a springboard to a vast array of subjects. Here are a few things I believe that can help you to foster a love of literature in kids:

Life is Interesting – and nearly everything can be made interesting, including knowledge and skills taught in academic settings.

Respect the tastes of children – especially early in education. This gives the best chance of showing the value of reading and demonstrating that reading is an enjoyable and enriching activity. Even poor readers will read for pleasure if given access to interesting content. A football fan could immerse himself in a biography of a favorite player that also might include information on geography, statistics and  psychology.

Inspire continued curiosity – Perhaps the greatest aim of education is to inspire children to seek out activities and subject matter that they love. This is so important, I’ve written a post on it – check it out to learn how my wife and I strive to inspire curiosity in our four kids.

Children seek out the printed word all of the time outside of school and you should encourage this every day. Another important statistic in the National Geographic study is that 93% of students reported learning from experiences outside the classroom. Kids apply what they know about literacy to billboards, magazines, department store signs, video games, and other community areas where reading material is encountered.

Links used in post:

Fat and Stupid is No Way to Go Through Life

Okay, I paraphrased a quote from animal house for the title of this blog. But Dean Wormer had a point.  I think we need to ask, ” Are video games harmful to kids?”  If our kids play them, will they become addicted, obese, violent, and grow old in seclusion?  While I’m hearing less and less of it,  some people are still unsure about video games.  Personally, I happen to find a lot of value in gaming.

I play video games with my kids. While the American Psychological Association focuses on obsession and addiction, I’m less concerned about those things for most kids.  This is fun time for us.

Griffin, my first-born, blew me away by  mousing when he was 2.5 years old.  This is not uncommon.  Many three-year olds are using computers.  Griffin and I played a game called “Pajama Sam.” This was around 2002/2003 when CD Roms were still around.  We both look back at our time w/ Pajama Sam with fond recollections.

I think children who play Skatekids, for example,  are at no greater risk of becoming couch potatoes than those who curl up on the couch with a good book.

In a report issued by the Federation of American Scientists (2006) the panel concluded the following:

There are several attributes of games that would be useful for application in learning. These include

• Closing the gap between what is learned in theory and its use (i.e., contextual bridging)

• high time-on-task

• motivation and goal orientation, even after failure

• providing learners with cues, hints, and partial solutions to keep them progressing through learning

• personalization of learning

• infinite patience. (p.5)

The problem seems to be “either/or” thinking.  Either you are exercising or you are not.  Griffin plays baseball, basketball, and football.  Georgia does ballet.  Carter and Brady (twins) play t-ball, jump on their trampoline, play in-door soccer.  They also have non-exercise time in their lives.  They color, read, and–yes, play video games.  When they exercise, they develop their bodies.  When they play video games, they develop their minds.   We need to take care in all the activities we select for our kids.  This includes video games.

In fact, some video games lead to better athletic performance, even in youngsters.  While coaching baseball, I would sometimes see a youngster with a very nice looking swing.  I would ask who taught them and often hear, “I learned it from Playstation.”  How cool!  If you are still unsure about video games, check out Wii Fit and Wii Sports.  Anyone can work up a sweat playing those games.

A Graduation

In my very first blog post, I mentioned the kid who told me that I was “torturing” another kid by badgering him to “sound out” words.  I have a follow up on this story.  Last week I got a graduation invite that read:

“Marty & Kathy,

Not sure you remember Dean from ____________ Elementary, but Marty you made an impact on us & we often think of you.  Hope you can stop by and see us.”

So, Kathy and I did stop by.  Dean is bigger than I am now.  I can no longer remember him as that little 2nd grader.  He likes to hunt and fish.  His grades were not great, but he graduated with his class.  He wants to become a DNR Officer.  When I knew him best, he wanted to be a veterinarian.

In all of these years, that family thought that I had helped them.  In reality, we helped each other.  I could finally tell Dean and his mom how much Dean had helped me.  You can see the original post here:

If Dean had not made that sincere remark to me, I would not have been so determined to read the literature on dyslexia and cognitive science.  I would not have worked so hard at finding ways to treat learning problems in fun and engaging ways.

As I drove off after the party, I was asking myself who helped whom?

Reading Leads to Thinking Skills and Thinking Skills Lead to Reading

I have never met a child who did not want to learn to read and write.   I remember being about 4 years old and trying to draw my mother’s cursive writing.  I drew what looked a child’s drawing of the ocean–pointy triangular waves connected across the page.  Georgia, Carter, and Brady have favorite books that we read together over and over.   Griffin, my 11-year-old, reads each night before bed.  Sadly, many children abandon this type of playful enthusiasm following a series of confusing and confidence crushing experiences. The good news is that psychology can lay claim to a real success story: we know how to ensure that nearly everyone learns how to read. We just need to develop the experiences that create the desire to learn.

Siblings Picking on Siblings

I can’t stand it when my kids fight with one another.   This is the one thing that really gets to me.  I want to have a “Waltons” kind of family, right?

Some days the house seems more like “Married With Children”.  Incessant bickering and put downs.

I remember one day my oldest, Griffin, did something that really bothered me. He was being so mean to one of the little ones. I wanted to do more than simply tell him to knock it off.  I explained to him how I lost my sister, how I missed her and wish I had her back, etc., etc. Then I remembered “The Scarlet Ibis”.

The Scarlet Ibis remains an important short story for me. First, it was the first story I read that made me cry. Mr. Andrews, my 9th grade literature teacher, selected it for the class. I won’t give you the details of the story, because I want you to read it. You can find it here:

Second, it allowed me to show Griffin that there is wisdom in literature, and we can seek stories out to learn about ourselves. We can reflect on the author’s ideas and language and apply the ideas to our own lives.

I read the story to Griffin, and I saw tears well up in his eyes.

I’d like to say that there has been no quarreling in the house ever since, but you wouldn’t believe it. It isn’t true, anyhow. But, I did expose Griffin to a great piece of literature and perhaps planted a seed that may bear more compassion in the future.

I found an excellent commentary on the story that you might like. It may help you to talk about the imagery and symbolism with more depth. You can find it here:

The Waltons is a fiction. We are not perfect and my kids are not angels all the time. It’s just weird when they fight, because I feel the same protective feelings when any of my kids get picked on, even when one of my other kids is doing the “picking on”. I’ll leave you with a photo of the “Fletchers”. I like this photo. The kids look happy. Not quite the Waltons, but as close as I can get today.

Helping Troubled Kids In Schools Pt. 1

I once had a kid accuse me of torturing another kid.  Today, I am here to renounce torture.

This is my experience with two little boys that set me on a journey to explore every angle of literacy and learning.

“Mr. Fletcher, you’re torturing him.”

Here’s how it all went down. A few years ago, I was working with children who had been defined as emotionally impaired at an Elementary school in Michigan.

All boys.

A typical day in that classroom looked like this:

Kid gets in trouble.

Kid gets sent to my room.

I had to figure out and find something “meaningful” for him to do.

Not a problem, really. I always got along well with these boys because I enjoyed them and felt true sympathy for the variety of unfair situations that had placed them in this group.

At this time, I knew nothing about how to teach reading, but I knew that literacy was a big issue at this school.

That day, I had two students at once. Red-headed Blake’s mother had left the family and now his single dad was raising him and his brother alone.

Second grader Dean was sent to me for pushing in line and was struggling through his own emotional issues.

Neither were emotionally impaired–quite the contrary. They were having a natural human reaction to stress and loss. However, this wasn’t the ideal situation to try and share my enthusiasm for reading.

I was trying to get Blake to sound out words in a book but he was having no part of it. The more he resisted, the more I pushed, until Dean turned to me and said, “Mr. Fletcher, you’re torturing him.”


I vividly remember stuttering and stammering a bit in my own defense, but I was caught.  The feeling of shame and disappointment in myself was pretty harsh.

I had to admit that I knew nothing about the psychology of reading.  Sure, I knew how to read. But I had no idea how to teach it to Blake.

That night I went to the store, bought a few books and started my journey.  Later I’ll tell you how  I discovered a way to introduce children to reading and how you, as parents, grandparents, teachers and friends, can do it too.  Best of all, it won’t cost you a dime!

Links used in story: