James Shelton, US Department of Education:

Education is probably the area where we have failed to innovate the most. This morning we talked about creating clusters of innovation, bringing in various communities, etc. But before we got there, we talked abit about the problem. I want to frame first the opportunity: we often talk about the competitiveness frame in education, that the US used to be number one, and now we are “falling behind.” The trust is that other countries are passing us by.

The good news is that the myth that you can’t make systemic change quickly is just that, a myth. We are seeing the proof in other countries. The countries who are out performing us now are doing what we did before, but better. They do school, the way we do school; they just do it better. People haven’t reinvented school yet. The reality is that it is going to happen, because it has to happen. It has to happen outside this country because so many countries realized that education is the way to economic prosperity. They can’t build the schools and they can’t train the teachers fast enough to replicate our model. They are going to look for innovation solutions.

Here in the US we have had the luxuary of assuming education spending would go up every year, until we hit our limits. And we’ve realized we have to find new and better ways of doing things. And we don’t need to do it for some of our children, but for all of them. Individuals needs to have real opportunity. Our competitiveness as a nation allows us to bring in people to the knowledge economy.

We have to reinvet what we have been doing because we have to do more with at least the same resources if not less. So how do you do that?

You are in the business every day of figuring out how to have people engage, have fun, and build skills – change their behaviors through games. That’s teaching. Fundamentally that’s what teaching should be. Young people should enjoy the educational process. They should want to achieve not just to get a good grade but because they feel the gut feeling of winning.

We have to figure out how we build things that are dramatically better than the status quo and how we take them to scale. That’s innovation.


What do you mean about innovation and improvement with education?

I think about innovation and the work about innovation in education in two ways: first, if you have something that is significantly better than the status quo and you are doing it with a few kids, that’s an invention. If you have something that everyone is doing but it isn’t really working, that isn’t great either. It’s where they come together.

What inititiaves are availabiel for funding?

There’s the Dept of Ed and the programs we run, but we are working to align resources across the administration from us to NASA and the Dept of Defense. For example, we just closed an RFP to solicit proposals to build a game for kids k-3 to better understand STEM.

The fact that many people do not understand basic science harms public discourse and makes them rely on ideologies. Helping people understand science will help us as a country. We want to stop wasting the great talent we have and keep people’s interest in science and math going.

What evidence do we need to influence politicians that games can help extend learning of science beyond schools?

There used to be a focus on setting high levels for evidence in evidenced based policy making. But we are seeing that we need to move more things into the category of moderate to strong, not just very strong, evidence. The reality is, though, that it isn’t how decisions are often made. People and policy is often first influenced by compelling stories.

Some have said that coming decades will bring a game layer to the internet. What are your thoughts?

I think that we have a lot to learn about where gamifying is most helpful, but we are so far from the saturation point that we should push ahead with full speed so we can evaluate what works and what doesn’t and make adjustments. I have no future in being a futurist, but I will say that genie is out of the bottle for people being able to be developers. The long tail is very real. I think the cross section of everyone getting into the development and gaming means we will need to evaluate what is quality and what isn’t.

How do you evaluate organizations that you invest in that develop games to support learning?

We currently don’t have any programs that are games focused. We have games that make it into a search for something that helps a kind of learning, etc. I’m now in the process of trying to build requirements that let many different people apply to participate. Scaleability, cost-effectiveness, capacity, etc. So you can judge any kind of organization and the gaming piece is just how well it fits in.

Big initiatives to big corporations – what can small groups do?

Ready to learn, prior to this year, had 3 or 4 applicants. This year, it had 30. Many of them are small development shops in partnership with small public media stations, etc. Among the top winners there were a couple that were not big players. With that program, the goal is to get syndicated but the opportunity is there for anyone.

For I3, you do have to be in partnership with a school, etc. but anyone can be that other partner. And we do see independent and small groups winning those funds.

What do you think of the 20 Under 20 Fellowship?

I think it’s cool but I don’t know what it proves. You read the bios and you see this really incredible people, but you’ve taken them out of college track and give them resources to see if they can still succeed. I’m not sure that proves a point. The more interesting thing for me is if he was to take a set of folks who had just gotten into community college and see what kind of opportunities it could create for them.

Innovation requires risk and failure, how might we address the bifurcation with that and politic’s focus on safety?

When I leave I will write a book that is called the 100 Things We Do to Make Government Worse. We create systems to mitigate all risk. But what that means is that you’ve created a space where you’re unlikely to fail and you’ve also capped the upside opportunity for dramatic improvement, but youv’e also taken the system and created something that doesn’t let professionals exercise judgement.  When you systematize these things they become formulaic. That said, there are structures within government that can handle risk. And it’s in that context that the expenditures are justified with the upsides. We need more of that so we can attract the kinds of people and resources we need for education that we have for war (ie DARPA).

How can you pursue innovation with games when teachers have the kinds of tests and classroom requirements now?

There’s a myth that the best way to get higher test scores is to do more standard practice on those subjects. Spending more time on the same old thing hasn’t shown to make that impact. When have you ever gone to a great school, not a good school, that wasn’t engaging kids in the school in interesting and well-rounded ways? If in fact we are striving for greatness, we need to get passed that myth and that opens up the door for gaming and more. The current environment is ripe for this to happen. There’s still going to be assessments but hopefully better models. And we can broaden the conversation to talk about having lots of tools to get there. And with limited resources, we will have to find ways to keep kids engaged in school when they aren’t there. Things that can connect home and school with the learning objects are really needed.

Turns out that people on disability insurance who go to college and get degrees, half of them don’t go to work – largely because of expectations. Have you considered using games to change expectations?

The reality is, as a Dept, we have an underdeveloped focus on motivation, confidence, expectation, etc. We don’t spend a lot of resource or research on. Therefore, a sub-portion of the nalsted is a smaller portion of nothing. Where we see the opportunity is to leverage games as a way to reach a broader spectrum of things beyond just the education. I think we will see a lot more of it.

Learning outside the classroom, what’s your opinion of games that support tangential learning?

I can’t give you an answer in my job, but I can as a dad: I love it. I had one of the best educational moments with my son after watching Fight Science this passed weekend when they talked about the blow dart. I think we need to be smart about wrapping things around the things they really want to learn about, and then bridge that to where they can apply it. The broadest challenge we face is that we ask teachers to do something incredible every day and we give them very little to do it – we need to provide teachers the tools they need so that all of them are as great as the greatest teacher and games can play an incredible part in that.

Games for Change Keynote: James Shelton, US Department of Education
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