“Our message is that games are similar to literature, and that they are not only tools to teach. Good games enrich people’s lives, and complete Wagner’s dream of ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ – an art form that involves all the other art, and some more.” – Øystein Imsen and Bjørn Erga, Norway

Norwegian educators Øystein Imsen and his good friend, colleague and co-conspirator Bjørn Erga first came to our attention recently as participants in the Windows 8 App-a-thon in London. Imsen, who was named Creative ICT Educator for 2012, and Erga co-founded the think tank and collective blog PedSmia. Both work as lecturers at Ringstabekk school in Bærum Municipality. The two are active members of the Partners in Learning network, and are working to disseminate knowledge about the use of games in education. They strongly believe that play and creativity are important for learning, and that computer games and programming combine the best of both worlds.

Working with Microsoft Kodu, the duo has also participated in the KoduCup and they are constantly pushing the boundaries of conventional thinking about games and programming. “Our message is that games are similar to literature, and that they are not only tools to teach,” Imsen says. “Good games enrich people’s lives, and complete Wagner’s dream of ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ – an  art form that involves all the other art, and some more. By spreading this message, we have changed a lot already.”

Today, we hear from both Erga and Imsen on their views about education, society and what it takes to develop critical thinking in young people.

What drew you to the field of education? Why is it important to you?

(OI) My father is professor of history, my mother professor of pedagogics, my brother a violinist. I am a mix of all of them, unable to specialize. Therefore, teaching allows me to mix all of these professions – which suits me just fine.

(BE) Training, inspiring and drilling the minds of the future is a real challenge and a huge responsibility.

I love stories (narratives) and how we can use stories as a guide for knowledge, ethics and experience – the classroom is our modern bonfire. I want to teach children to become critical thinkers, first and foremost: free their minds! This builds around my understanding of teaching as a subversive activity, where critical thinking is the dynamo which propels the project of enlightenment. I want kids to dispel the illusions of power and rhetoric, and in the process develop their own opinions based on facts, research, freedom of speech and the laws of science. Also, I want to do better, always, since our most important resource for the future is our kids, our youth; and we need them as skilled, engaged and educated participants in our society. Freedom is never given, it is taken. Education is the key to society and civilization. This is how we evolve as a whole, and it’s our most important arena for building a non-violent future, together.

Can you tell us about a favorite teacher, or someone who made a difference in your education?

(OI) No. All my teachers were terrible. But I guess that has made me a much more independent learner.

(BE) Jens Bjørneboe, Tor Åge Bringsværd and Bill Hicks are my favorite teachers – this is because they taught me that the mind is free, our reality is just a game of illusions, and that we – humans – all are of equal value and have the same rights. Freedom and responsibility are forever entwined and in everlasting interaction, just as order and chaos.

Please describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education.  What has changed as a result of your work?

(OI) First of all, I was very early in experimenting with games in education – possibly the first in Norway. Back then, people were just shaking heads. Now, I feel that I get a lot of attention – and what we do in PedSmia is all over social media and in the news. I have also played around with known methods, like projects and storyline – and come up with some versions of my own, mostly reenactments and gaming-inspired solutions. I share my work and ideas through social media and other forums, like the Partners in Learning Network, letting others borrow my ideas. Innovation in education depends a lot on teachers’ attitudes towards technology, that aren’t always sound. Instead of arguing and pushing colleagues around, just doing a good job and getting results is a good way to make them curious and interested.

(BE) The understanding of ludology (game studies) and the use of computer games in school for training 21st century skills has changed, or at least, it’s in the process of changing due to our and other’s work. Programming is the language of the future and we need to understand the basics of our most consumed language – digital media and games. It’s just like literature; you must understand the components to de-code the meaning as a whole, much like the hermeneutic circle.

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

(OI) I experiment a lot with technology, because I hate to see unused resources lying around, unused. I flip the classroom, use production programs, blogs, social media, different apps, smartboard, mobile units – I have tried everything that I can think of, except iPads ;). I am also taking up programming, so I can make apps of my own. When I was little, I programmed a lot in GWbasic, and I hope to get back to the old days when I really felt I could control my computer. I have also done many games in my classrooms through my career. I started out with Civilization 3, followed up with FIFA, then a self- produced pen and paper RPG called “Trollskogen.” One year ago I started doing Kodu, which put me in contact with Microsoft – and before Christmas I did a very nice Minecraft project with my class.

(BE) I teach by using Xbox-controllers for playing and programming with Kodu – a 3D game builder developed by Microsoft Research lab, which is rather fun and inspiring. The kids love a day of school where we create our own games instead of consuming others. It’s a way of training critical thinking in relation to gaming as a phenomenon, and not just as mind boring edutainment and gamification. This is a new path – the students are no longer pure consumers, they are digital creators.  From slaves to gods by training and guidance in the use of KoduGameLab.

In your view, what is the most exciting innovation happening in education today?

(OI) The most exciting innovation these days is the implementation of games in learning. However, this must be done right. Games as a tool for learning traditional subjects is a blind path – the kids see straight through it and prefer “real games” anyway. Good games are complete learning environments themselves, and we must start out with them, and teach the kids to improve their learning while playing the games they love.

(BE) Cross-curriculum storyline based teaching, entwined with the full potential of modern hardware and software. We are training for real life and how to survive and excel in our modern, competitive society, hence the need for multi-tasking and cross curriculum teaching. The world is a complex game, and rarely do we get a defined schedule for when to use which skills. Today’s society is “always” on, and we need to develop skills to manage and navigate this social structure.

Is there a 21st century skill (critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, or creativity and innovation) that you are most passionate about? Why?

(OI) I am actually very passionate about a mix between 18th century skills and 21st century skills. The ability to rise up against oppression and ignorance is more important today than ever before, and technology grants us this ability. All the skills mentioned there are equally important, but maybe I am more the creative type myself. I just love to bring life to my seemingly crazy plans, just to discover it wasn’t that crazy after all.

(BE) Critical thinking is the key to our educational system and goals. It is the basic skill, the rest is just fodder and ornamentation.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

(OI) Since not every child in the world has access to power, pure water, clothing or food, I think handing out chess sets would be a good idea. Chess is the king of games, and trains a lot of important skills: creativity, mathematics, collaboration, problem solving, and much more.

(BE) Food, peace, freedom and pure water – the most important “tools” of the educational world. Food and shelter beats an iPad everyday, in my book.

What is your country doing well currently to support education?

(OI) Norway is the richest country in the world, and is mostly untouched by the financial crisis in Europe. There is a lot of money being invested in different projects to help schools and teachers improve their learning in the fields of reading, arithmetic and writing. However, there is a huge lack of vision and responsibility – and I think the money could have been spent much better in other ways. What is important is not what the society needs, but what the pupils need – because the pupils are tomorrow’s society.

(BE) We have the world’s most expensive school system – but we lack standards and ambition. So, the investment is good, but the use and implementation of our investment as a collective is, as of now, wasted, or at least not close to its full potential.

How must education change in your country to ensure that students are equipped to thrive in the 21st century?

(OI) The government should take back control of the schools from the local authorities, invest oil money in technology and competence – stop thinking about results in international tests and think ahead. Also, one should listen to visionary school researchers, not economists looking for numbers to put into models unfit for education, as OECD and other organizations preach. The future of the many does not concern them, just financial growth for the few.

(BE) Self-discipline – standards/ambitions– training and motivation. We must make the school real for our students, because now it’s mainly a playpen for kids.

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

(OI) The biggest obstacle was in fact myself, and how I defined my role as a teacher. When you start out as a teacher, you try to find role models to help you along – but many find that they quickly turn into their own high school teachers. It took me a long time to realize that I could just be myself. When I did, I also found out that I had the space and resources to create the school that I wanted for myself – which I strongly believe that my pupils need.

(BE) The main obstacle is laziness, apathy and the lack of self-discipline. We need to gain focus and become more present in our own educational project, this goes for the whole trio of educators, students and parents.

How can teachers or school leaders facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?

(OI) Innovation happens from the bottom, not above. Therefore, the word “implementation” is useless in this context. School leaders must support, understand and protect their teachers from incompetent politicians who want the school to be a mayonnaise factory. When the teachers feel appreciated, safe and needed, they will start to develop – if they aren’t completely lost.

(BE) Follow my motto: “Once you’ve got a task to do, it’s better to do it than live with the fear of it.”

About Øystein Imsen

  • Birthplace: Trondheim, Norway
  • Current residence: Oslo, Norway
  • Education: Hovedfag in history, Norwegian and music (instrumental education, violin).
  • Website I check every day: radikalportal.no
  • Person who inspires me most: Neil Young
  • Favorite childhood memory: Finding treasure inside a tree trunk in the game “King’s Quest 1”.
  • Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Valdres, to teach Irish folk music.
  • When was the last time you laughed? Why?: When I opened Salcito’s interview questionnaire.
  • Favorite book: Lord of the Rings.
  • Favorite music: French baroque music or Violent Femmes? Can’t decide…
  • What is the best advice you have ever received? Don’t listen to other people trying to give you advice.
  • Your favorite quote or motto: “To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.” – Leonard Bernstein

About Bjørn Erga 

  • Birthplace: Stavanger, Norway
  • Current residence: Oslo, Norway
  • Education: Master in literature – Theme: Science fiction, Fantasy and cognitive estrangement, Bachelor’s degree -International Relations and Affairs and Candidate Magister II in literature and religion.
  • Person(s) who inspires me most: Bill Hicks, Jim Morrison and the Norwegian author Jens Bjørneboe
  • Favorite childhood memory: My father reading and telling stories – and all the time we spent playing out and drawing our made up stories, characters, plots and worlds.
  • Website I check every day: www.the-reincarnation.com
  • Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Amsterdam – work and pleasure – creative writing and research.
  • When was the last time you laughed? Why? When I read the final chapters of Joe Abercrombie’s “Heroes”. The book is a dark, punk fantasy novel, and my favorite character, Bremer dan Gorst, disgraced master swordsman, is a monstrous, sword wielding, shamed, high pitch talking anti-hero, and his take, or view, on life cracks me up, every time.
  • Favorite book:  “Ker Shus” by Norwegian author Tor Åge Bringsværd – A dystopian/utopian sci-fi novel.
  • Favorite graphic novels: “V for Vendetta” by Alan Moore, “The Dark Knight Returns” by Frank Miller
  • Favorite music: Rage Against The Machine (1992)
  • What is the best advice you have ever received? “Free your mind” by Morpheus (Fictional character in the movie Matrix)
  • Your favorite quote or motto: “Once you’ve got a task to do, it’s better to do it than live with the fear of it.” — Logen

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