Context-Embedded Learning Part V: Microworlds

This is part of the Context-Embedded Learning section of my dissertation lit review. This segment is a bit longer, but I didn’t see a natural place to break it up.


In order to support student’s early efforts, the learning context can be a microworld, or simplified version, of the real-world context in which similar skills might be used – and to which students’ new skills will eventually be expected to transfer. Microworlds model only the elements of the experience that are important to a student’s developmental level, while limiting other distractions.

Papert (1980) originated the concept of microworlds as incubators for knowledge (p. 120). This concept of microworlds stems from Papert’s belief “that learning physics consists of bringing physics knowledge into contact with very diverse personal knowledge, [and that] to do this we should allow the learner to construct and work with transitional systems that the physicist may refuse to recognize as physics” (p 122). Microworlds, then, can be considered simply “transitional systems.” Papert explores a set of criteria for creating microworlds. The first of these is that the design should be very simple and accessible (p. 126). It must also offer the “possibility of activities, games, art, and so on… to make the activity in microworlds matter” (p. 126). Finally, microworlds should be designed such that “all needed concepts can be defined within the experience of that world” (p. 126). Later, Papert (1993) explained a Microworlds as “simple, restricted worlds” (p. 56) that are “limited enough to be thoroughly explored and completely understood” (p. 59). “In an analogy between ideas and people,” he explained that “microworlds are the worlds of people we know intimately and well” (p. 59).

Jonassen (2000) described microworlds as “primarily exploratory environments, discovery spaces, and constrained simulations of real-world phenomena in which learners can navigate, manipulate or create objects, and test their effects on one another” (p. 157). He also made the observation that “video-based adventure games are microworlds that require players to master each environment before moving onto more complex environments” (p. 157). In Jonassen’s description, a well-designed microworld is one in which “instruction proceeds from simple to complex skills” (p. 159), and the environment exploits “the interest and curiosity of the learner” (p. 159). Microworlds should also be “simple, so they can be understood, general, so they apply to many areas of life, useful, so the ideas are important to learners in the world, and syntonic (resonant with one’s experience), so learners can relate them to prior experience” (p. 159). These elements may be what some games lack, and making these judgments will be one of the challenges of creating good educational games or simulations to serve as microworlds.

The goal of a microworld, according to Papert (1980), is to help students “get a feel for why the world works as it does” rather than “to establish a given truth” as the goal would be in traditional pedagogy (p. 129). Papert points out that “we learned how to build and use theories only because we were allowed to hold ‘deviant’ views… for many years” (p. 132). In microworlds, unlike in most schools, false theories are tolerated (p. 132). Learning in microworlds is also product-oriented, such that the child is learning new concepts “as a means to get to a creative and personally defined end” (p. 134). Perhaps most importantly, children are able to practice bricolage, or tinkering, and to become bricoleurs, or tinkerers (p. 173, 175, 223), when learning in a microworld.

The advantages of microworlds are many, and their disadvantages few. Jonassen (2000) considers microworlds to be environments that “encourage active participation” (p. 168), “provide instruction that is situated in rich, meaningful settings” (p. 169), and “support self-regulated learning” (p. 169). However, “their openness can be frustrating at first” (p. 169), and overcoming this may require students to acquire skills they do not posses.

Microworlds can be an example of what Prensky (2006) calls a complex game (p. 58). In his discussion of Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants, Prensky (2006) describes Digital Immigrant’s games as trivial pursuits (or mini-games), except for a few exceptions, such as “chess, go, strategy games, and Dungeons and Dragons” (p. 55). Complex games:

• “Can take from 8 to over 100 hours to complete.
• Require players to learn a wide variety of often new and difficult skills and strategies, and to master these skills and strategies by advancing through dozens of ever-harder levels.
• May require both outside research and collaboration with others while playing.
• Often require players to assume alternate identities.
• Frequently present players with ethical dilemmas or life-and-death decisions.
• Often take from 20-60 hours to master.
• Include just about very electronic game that comes in a box, either for a PC or a console (PlayStation, Game Cube, or XBox), a well as many that are made for handheld devices such as GameBoys. Most simulation games (Sim City, Airport Tycoon, etc.), history strategy games (Civilization III and Rise of Nations), military strategy games, and sports games are complex games.” (Prensky, 2006, p. 58)

However, just as not all video games are microworlds, Prensky (2006) cautions that not all video games are complex; “One-on-one arcade-type fighting games such as Virtua Fighter and other similar ones are just glorified mini-games” (Prensky, 2006, p. 59). It is the adaptability, worthwhile goals, and meaningful decision making that keeps kids playing complex games despite their relative difficulty (p. 60-63), and Prensky believes that “complex games, already educating our kids after school, also have the potential to be a huge boon to formal education” (p. 63).

If one of the benefits of games is that they can provide an authentic context for student tasks, they can also provide support within this context, such that “learning even at its start takes place in a (simplified) subset of the real domain” (Gee, 2003, p. 137). This Gee (2003) called the Subset Principle (p. 137), and later “fish tanks” (2004, p. 61 and 2005a, p. 27), “supervised fish tanks” (2004, p. 65), “supervised sandboxes” (p. 66), “unsupervised sandboxes” (p. 70), and simply “sandboxes” (2005a, p. 27), but this might have been called a microworld by Papert and others. In a well-designed microworld, learners will see, “especially early on, many more instances of fundamental signs and actions than would be the case in a less controlled [context]” (Gee, 2003, p. 137).

In the tradition of Papert’s microworlds, Aldrich (2004), too, is interested in the way “simulations describe small worlds” (p. 152) as a context for learning. The simulation he designed, Virtual Leader, provides a microworld in which players learn about leadership, a skill that is typically difficult to teach (and assess) in a traditional classroom environment.

Shaffer offered several other examples of video games providing a microworld (or part of a microworld) in which students can learn and pursue meaningful goals. He was explicitly interested in “computational microworlds, which Hoyles, Noss, and Adamson (2002) define as ‘environments where people can explore and learn from what they receive back from the computer in return for their exploration’ (p. 30)” (Shaffer, 2005, p. 18). Shaffer (2006) later noted that “Every computer program creates a world: what Seymour Papert and others have called a Microworld” (p. 67). One example was an epistemic game called Escher’s World, in which students take on the role of a designer in training and in which a computer program called Geometer’s Sketchpad creates a mathematical microworld in which students can complete their designs (p. 84). In another epistemic game called, students “write using a journalism microworld whose features push back on specific elemsnts of writing to formula and writing as a watchdog” (p. 152). Each of the other epistemic games Shaffer discussed, including The Debating Game, Digital Zoo, The Pandora Project, and Urban Science also provide students with a microworld in which to learn by doing and thus practice thinking, acting, and innovating like a professional. Like Prensky, Shaffer believed that the “video games… of children’s culture today demand strategic thinking, technical language, and sophisticated problem-solving skills” (p. 6). And, in the tradition of Dewey, he believed that video games can provide a “simulated ‘world of hard conditions’” (p. 127).

Another example similar to Shaffer’s epistemic games, is Supercharged!, a game discussed by Holland, Jenkins, and Squire (2003). They explain that “games present players microworlds; games offer players (students) contexts for thinking through problems, making their own actions part of the solution, building on their intuitive sense of their role in the game-world” (p. 28). The game was based on the concept that:

“students have difficulty grasping core concepts of elctromagnatism because they run counter to their own real world experiences, yet playing a game that requires mastery of those principles in order to win may give them an intuitive grasp of how they work that can be more fully developed in the classroom” (Holland, Jenkins, and Squire, 2003, p. 35).

Even so, they “do not believe that Supercharged! will ever replace Physics teachers, textbooks, or other educational materials. Rather, Supercharged! can be used as an instructional tool or resource within a broader pedagogical framework” (Holland, Jenkins, and Squire, 2003, p. 36).

There are many ways in which even commercial off the shelf video games can serve as valuable microworlds for learning. Shaffer, Squire, and Gee (2005) explained that “video games are important because they let people participate in new worlds” (p. 105). Also, as Jenkins, Klopfer, Squire, and Tan (2003) explained, games can be “motivating and authentic” without being “dangerous and expensive” (p. 7). Furthermore, video games allow learners to “manipulate otherwise unalterable variables… [and] view phenomena from new perspectives” (Squire, 2003, p. 6). Ideally, a game used as an educational microworld will be similar to MIT’s Revolution, in which “the game world is big enough so that each student can play an important part, [and yet] small enough that their actions matter in shaping what happens” (Squire & Jenkins, 2003, p. 16). While it seems that role playing games, and in particular multiplayer games, can fit this bill, it is debatable whether or not MMORPGs are appropriate in this respect. Still, MMORPGs may be some of the best commercial examples of microworlds. As Steinkuehler (2005b) pointed out, “MMOGaming is participation in a multimodal, and digital textual place” (p. 98). She also explained that “within video games… the reader becomes or inhabits a symbol, enabling him or her to interact with signs as if they are the very things they represent” (p. 99), a property of video games that supports learners in transferring new skills to other environments.

I’m seeking feedback on this writing, so please let me know what you think in the comments.