Archive for October 29, 2009

Guitar Hero as a Form of Scaffolding

My daughter turned 12 on Tuesday, and unfortunately, she was ill.  Dad hung out with her, and played whatever video games she wanted.  One of those she picked was Guitar Hero, so I finally got time to play it repeatedly.  Y’know — it was kind of fun!

Back in December, when I first got Guitar Hero, I wrote a blog post where I agreed with Alan that Guitar Hero is not nearly as good as learning a real musical instrument.  At that time, I wrote:

Guitar Hero might still be fun.  But it’s just fun.  I might learn to do well with it.  But it would be learning that I don’t particularly value, that makes me better.

Now I’m thinking that I might want to eat those words.  I found Guitar Hero hard.  I own a guitar and have taken guitar lessons for two semesters.  (Even putting it in terms of “semesters” suggests how long ago it was.)  Some of my challenges in learning to play a guitar included doing two different things with my hands, and switching chords and strumming to keep the rhythm.  I noticed that that’s exactly what I was having a hard time doing with Guitar Hero.  I also noticed the guitar parts of rock songs — songs that I had heard a million times before but never had noticed all the guitar parts previously. I noticed because I missed my cues, and so those guitar parts were missing.  While I have known Foghat and Pat Benatar for literally decades, Guitar Hero had me listening in a different way.

It occurred to me that Guitar Hero could be a form of scaffolding, a reduction in cognitive load that allows one to focus on one set of skills before dealing with all the skills at once.  Cognitive scaffolding is much like the physical scaffolding, “a temporary support system used until the task is complete and the building stands without support.”  Now, Guitar Hero would only be successful as a form of scaffolding if it actually leads to the full task, that it doesn’t supplant it.  In education terms, if Guitar Hero could fade and if it doesn’t lead to negative transfer, e.g., “I’m great at Guitar Hero, but a real guitar is completely different.”

I did some hunting for studies that have explored the use of Guitar Hero to scaffold real music education.  I could not find any educational psychology or music education studies that have explored Guitar Hero as a form of scaffolding or as a tutor to reduce cognitive load.  I did find papers in music technology that hold up Guitar Hero as a model for future educational music technology! My favorite of these is a paper by Percival, Wang, and Tzanetakis that provides an overview of how multimedia technolgoies are being used to assist in music education.  They point out additional lessons that students are learning with tools like Guitar Hero that I hadn’t noticed.  For example, the physical effort of playing an instrument is more significant than non-players realize, and Guitar Hero (and similar tools) build up the right muscles in the right ways (or so they theorize — no direct studies of Guitar Hero are cited).  The paper also argues that getting students to do something daily has a huge impact on music learning and performance, even if it’s a tutorial activity.

Now here’s the critical question: Does Guitar Hero lead to real music playing, or is it a stopping point?  Nobody is arguing that playing Guitar Hero is making music, that I can see.  Does it work as scaffolding?

I don’t know, but I’m now wondering: Does it matter?  If Guitar Hero stops some people from becoming musicians, then it is a problem.  If some people, who might have pushed themselves to become musicians, decide that Guitar Hero is hard enough, then Guitar Hero is doing a disservice.  But if that’s not true, and people who never would become musicians, have a better appreciation for the music and a better understanding of the athleticism of musicians because of Guitar Hero, then Guitar Hero is providing a benefit.

These are computing education questions.  You have all heard faculty who insist on using Eclipse in their introductory classes, because that’s what real software engineers use.  We have recently read in comments on this blog that students should use “standard tools” and “learn science the way scientists understand it.”  We also know from educational psychology that engaging introductory students in the same activity as experts only works for the best students.  The bottom half of the students get frustrated and fail.

We need Guitar Hero for computer science.  We need more activities that are not what the experts do, that are fun and get students to practice more often, that are scaffolding, and that reduce cognitive load.  We have some, like Scratch and eToys.  We need more. Insisting on the experts’ tools for all students leads to the 30-50% failure rates that we’re seeing today.  We have to be doing more for the rest of the students.

October 29, 2009 at 9:52 am 13 comments


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