The Problem With Tangential Learning

Last Thursday, my roommate turned 21. For her birthday, I baked her a batch of brownies. As college students, we don’t have the world’s greatest kitchen for baking (she told me she had everything! Steph, if you’re reading this, your lies haunt my soul), so I had to make do with a less-than-ideal dish. It was too small in surface area, so the brownies ended up nice and thick. Which would totally be cool, if it didn’t make baking them such a challenge. I was kept on my toes trying to keep the outer edges from burning while cooking the entire middle so we didn’t end up with spots of raw brownies. In the end, it was a middling success (but, fortunately, it being her 21st birthday, I think she was too drunk to care).

This is a horribly transparent metaphor for the topic I want to discuss. Thanks in no small part to my business partner (if we’re going to be entirely accurate, it’s all his fault), I’ve become more or less addicted to Extra Credits, a video series on The Escapist. Extra Credits is what I would call an English major’s take on video games, but I’m really giving too much credit to English majors with that. It’s actually just video games and the video game industry being examined with critical thinking skills and the built-in assumption that video games are an art-form that are deserving of deep thought—an assumption I don’t disagree with.

In one episode, however, I must disagree with them. Sort of. In their “Tangential Learning” episode, they tout the virtues of (spoilers) tangential learning and espouse the belief that this is the best way for video games to become educational without becoming boring. I think this is folly.

Don’t get me wrong, I think tangential learning is great. It takes a proposition that I hold most dear (that students learn best when they’re interested) and puts it into practice. It shows educators that the trick is not getting students interested in what you want to teach them, the trick is helping them learn what they’re interested in. And that’s wonderful. Great. Leaps and bounds above the current “I will force-feed you information and hope you remember it” model.

But we’re only fooling ourselves if we think it’s a silver bullet or even a bronze bullet. The vast majority of our learning cannot be done this way. If every game implemented this, or even most games, it would enrich our educational experience from video games, yes. But that is a far cry from saying it would make video games educational.

In the video, they mention the sephiroth and how Final Fantasy introduced that concept to thousands of people by naming a character after it. At the end, they said that if you didn’t know what a sephiroth was and were going to go look it up, you knew that tangential learning worked. And I didn’t know what it was, and I did go look it up. But that didn’t prove to me that tangential learning worked. That proved to me that tangential learning gave us trivia. I knew what a sephiroth was, but I had no context for that information. My context was the game. In literary theory, we talk about how the original context a fact is learned in shapes the fact—I will always associate the Treachery of Images with Foucault and semiotics, because that’s how I learned about it. I never learned about it as a visual art piece; I learned about it as a literary concept. Likewise, I’ll never associate a sephiroth with its cultural and religious context, but instead with its gaming context.

The problem is, there is a lot to learn, a lot to be known. Kind of like those brownies I baked: the topic matter is deep, in that you can follow a single idea or topic for quite some time and discover a lot about it; broad, in that there are a lot of topics you can pursue; and (this is the important one) inter-connected, in that ideas give context to each other. Much like the heat had to penetrate from the outside edges of my brownies all the way in or there’d be raw areas, our education needs to cover a certain amount of broad topics, cover them deeply enough to make sure we grasp the nuances, and cover them in such a cross-disciplinary way that we can put them in the appropriate context in our mental picture of the world. Tangential learning doesn’t give us that. Tangential learning is much like a scavenger hunt; you’re given an interesting item, you go and retrieve it, but it isn’t the item that’s important—the retrieval is the important part.

I humbly submit that we need more than that in education. We need to have context and meaning for the trivia we’re learning, or all we’re really doing is making ourselves better Jeopardy players, not more rounded and educated individuals. Tangential learning is great in theory, but it falls short in practice. It’s not, to use the educational theory background I paid so much for, theoretically sound. It ignores the instructional scaffolding theory set forth by Bruner, a theory that is generally accepted by the educational community. Knowledge is like a building; you lay the foundations, set up a scaffolding (I bet you see where the name comes from!), and build a lasting structure bit by bit, one piece on top of another. This is not what tangential learning is doing; tangential learning is throwing a shack up rather quickly. Yes, it will keep you dry in the short run, but it’s not going to last long. And it’s certainly not something you boast about, something that makes you a better person. The results are quick, but fragile and ultimately useless.

So, if tangential learning is right in theory but wrong in practice, how do we fix that? Much like Extra Credits, I believe games are one of the best positioned mediums for learning. Games are an inherently interactive medium, and (as tangential learning proponents have noticed) learning is (or at least, has become) an interactive process. There’s a lot of talk that in our parents’ generation, we learned through broadcast. Someone would tell us something, and we’d know it, and that was learning. I find that hard to believe. I find it hard to believe that being told something can ever constitute learning it—I think the correct word is believing it, which is a very different thing. Just look at the war between science and religion, and you’ll see the gulf between belief and knowledge. They’re antithetical. But I digress. Whether our parents’ generation was interactively learning or not, our generation is. And our children’s generation will almost certainly continue the trend. The fact that games have that interactivity in their DNA already puts them in a far better position than, say, television. Or books.

The trick is going to be using that interactivity to kickstart a learning process, not simply giving us allusions. Allusions are helpful, yes. They help to expose us to new areas we may not have explored before. But we cannot have an education based solely on allusion; we need structural support, a contextual mindmap to assimilate those allusions into. Rather than simply suggesting the player look up a sephiroth for a bit of trivia, the game should reward the player for understanding the sephiroth. Things should be easier. Or there should be more depth to the game for that player, more things to do. I agree with Extra Credits, however; the player should not need to understand a sephiroth to move forward in a game. One of the things that tangential learning gets right (and one of the things that terrifies traditional educators) is the surrender of this absurd notion of “curriculum”—the idea that there is a prescribed set of things that students should learn. Interest drives learning, and not everyone is interested in the same things. That’s why the interactivity of games is an important feature; players shape the game just as much as games shape the players. It’s a two-way relationship, instead of a broadcast. And in that two-way relationship, there’s no room for one party to have control. One party can’t be dictating to the other party; the relationship (like all relationships) will only work with communication and cooperation. Games need to offer their players this deeper meaning, need to offer a richer experience for those who are interested in learning about the topic, but not require that richer experience in case the player isn’t interested. Because as soon as you start requiring players to do things they aren’t interested in, things they don’t care about, you start losing those players.

I can’t see tangential learning or this interactive, cooperative educational system catching on anytime soon. Our education system is too mired in the idea that there needs to be a “standardised student” and that education needs to be heavily controlled and regulated. I hope, one day, our government and our educators will see that the more room you give a student to maneuver, the more room you’re giving them to grow. I hope one day we’ll see games replace textbooks, rewarding us for learning what we’re interested in but not punishing us for having no interest in a topic.