The Nature of Learning

Most of what goes under the name “edutainment” reminds me of George Bernard Shaw’s response to a famous beauty who speculated on the marvelous child they could have together: “With your brains and my looks…” He retorted, “But what if the child had my looks and your brains?”

Shavian reversals—offspring that keep the bad features of each parent and lose the good ones—are visible in most software products that claim to come from a mating of education and entertainment…

The kind of product I shall pick on here has the form of a game: the player gets into situations that require an appropriate action in order to get on to the next situation along the road to the final goal. So far, this sounds like “tainment.” The “edu” part comes from the fact that the actions are schoolish exercises such as those little addition or multiplication sums that schools are so fond of boring kids with. It is clear enough why people do this. Many who want to control children (for example, the less imaginative members of the teaching profession or parents obsessed with kids’ grades) become green with envy when they see the energy children pour into computer games. So they say to themselves, “The kids like to play games, we want them to learn multiplication tables, so everyone will be happy if we make games that teach multiplication.” The result is shown in a rash of ads that go like this: “Our Software Is So Much Fun That The Kids Don’t Even Know That They Are Learning” or “Our Games Make Math Easy.”

The language of these ads betrays the way in which this software throws away what is best about the contribution of game designers to the learning environment and replaces it with what is worst about the contribution of school curriculum designers. What is best about the best games is that they draw kids into some very hard learning. Did you ever hear a game advertised as being easy? What is worst about school curriculum is the fragmentation of knowledge into little pieces. This is supposed to make learning easy, but often ends up depriving knowledge of personal meaning and making it boring. Ask a few kids: the reason most don’t like school is not that the work is too hard, but that it is utterly boring.

— Seymour Papert continues in Does Easy Do It? Children, Games, and Learning