Light Sculpture at the Skysong Campus, ASU

When Worlds Collide: Play and Conformity in Education

Tom Haymes

— Apr 04, 2023

At the ShapingEDU GSCC summit in February, I led a group of participants in a discussion of the future of learning environments. However, as it turned out, we spent very little time talking about actual physical or online learning spaces.

Instead, we ended up talking about the worlds that our students choose to inhabit and why so few of them are what we would call learning environments. What makes these worlds so special when compared to the wonder of learning?

Our ability to get students to engage in an environment of teaching and learning is a constant challenge. Web 2.0 and smartphones didn’t invent distraction. Daydreaming did. Students daydreaming, doodling, or TikTokking instead of learning are engaging in rebellions against the conformity of educational environments.

Over the last century, higher education systems focused on teaching the Western canon. Students were expected to conform to this curriculum to be successful. Many of them, however, seemed uninterested in the nuts and bolts of accepted academic tradition.

The academic world that we constructed in the 19th and 20th centuries is alien and remote to them. Nineteenth century universities were constructed by elites for elites. When the system expanded to the masses after World War II, this legacy was emulated, not questioned.

This construct bears little resemblance to the worlds our students live in or imagine. It should come as no surprise that many of them reject its central premises and refuse to conform to dominant narratives in academia. By doubling down on conformity, we further reinforce this rejection.

If we focus on preaching conformist content over creative skills, we expose a conundrum in our approaches to teaching and learning. Is education’s purpose to nurture the individual and create a basis for growth, creativity, and innovation? Or is education’s purpose to get students to accept the elite canon and conform to the dominant norms of society? Play and world building nurture the former and threaten the latter.

TikTok weaponizes individuality. This is one reason our students prefer it over our learning environments that compete with it for attention. Tiktok’s algorithm learns from its users and their friends’ and tailors its feed for each person. Its secret sauce is its algorithm, which feeds the users exactly the videos that they want to see based on who they are. It is a human individualism accelerator.

When we demonize distractions, we don’t analyze why they are distractions. I challenged the group at ShapingEDU to figure out how we could make education as addictive as TikTok.

One approach suggested was to stress individualized learning and agency. Believe it or not, our students care about the world that they are growing into. Some of them are cynical because of the actions of their elders in creating a divided, polluted world. But most I know are eager to get on with fixing things.

The way most of us approach teaching and learning does not take this into account. Instead of offering incentives for our students to dive into learning like they dive into social media, we argue it is a lack of discipline (another word for conformity) that is holding them back from learning. But stressing the “work” aspect of learning is bound to be counterproductive unless we can individualize and socialize it like TikTok does.

Higher education systems do not treat students as people. TikTok does. Or at least it appears to. The difference is that TikTok allows its users to create worlds of their own choosing rather than being forced to accept a world designed by those responsible for the mess our planet and polities are in these days.

We need to get as good as weaponizing discovery as TikTok is. It is far more powerful for students to stumble onto the foundations of learning through a quest of self-discovery than through a teacher insisting that they are important. Discovery and exploration turn learning into play.

Work itself has the potential to be play. We put an incredible amount of work into our play. The time and effort humans spend flipping through Tiktok videos, spinning Tetris blocks, or building in Minecraft dwarfs the productivity of most nations.

We just don’t call it “work” because we choose to do it. Industrial thinking has trained us that work is no fun. “In the early days of the twentieth century, industries didn’t want workers who could think. They wanted people who could be relied on to repeat the same assembly-line motions efficiently.” (Stuart Brown, Play, 2010)

Any job can be fun with the right attitude, but that’s not really the point here. Or maybe it is.

We have trained our students to equate education with industrial work rather than play. For far too many of them, it’s a meaningless job with arbitrary rules designed to enforce a level of conformity. I know. I do it in my class. But to what purpose?

As I have written about before, the digital age has given us the power to create worlds. We are co-creators in the TikTok world. Its algorithm feeds off our inputs and those of our friends. All too often, in the world of education, we insist our students adapt to our worlds rather than create their own.

The problem with this approach is obvious. Educators may try to create worlds that can compete with the world of play. However, this is not a winning strategy in a world filled with games created by well-paid people whose sole task is to addict people for profit (See Addiction by Design by Natasha Dow Schüll for one of the best accounts of how the gaming industry does this). It is also not a good way to think about learning.

All human learning is self-constructed. We build models of the world and seek meaning in patterns. It’s programmed into our brains. Our efforts at play must nurture this need for building models we can control. If games don’t do this, they become traps and are not fun. Most educational games don’t do this (see our discussion of this on the T is Training Podcast last year.)

Most of our students don’t even realize when they are “playing.” Part of our job as teachers is to surface that play, teach them how to channel it, and recognize when others are trying to manipulate it (as TikTok and most games do).

Finally, Tiktok is a world constructing application, but also one that is intensely social. It should stimulate us to ask how we can leverage social approaches to get them to construct worlds focused on our learning goals.

If we understand Tiktok’s (or any other successful application of play’s) purpose, we can learn how to use play and world building to achieve the same effect. We may think TikTok is meaningless and empty but if it conveys meaning, it’s never empty.

Achievement is in the eyes of the beholder. Gamers get excited about unlocking higher levels or badges in what many perceive to be silly games. It’s not silly and meaningless to them.

We must reinvent education so that it is not silly and meaningless to our students. Our goal should be to create communities of explorers, builders, and, most of all, adventurers. Learning must mean something, or it will mean nothing.

Right now, all too often, education leaves our students with little or no meaning. In a world that tries to rob people of meaning and identity, this reduces learning to something to be avoided at all costs. Play is an opportunity for us to teach our students to create their own meaning and fulfillment in life, while making the world a better place.

Tom Haymes

ASU ShapingEDU Storyteller In Residence + Mayor of Humanizing Learning