Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy


"Everyday learning deserves attention in its own right, regardless of how it relates to school."

— Reed Stevens

Kids Playing Video Games

In his field research professor Reed Stevens, who seeks to understand learning, video records how children play video games and what they learn. He found that children develop inventive arrangements for learning video games.


By Marilyn Sherman
Two Kids Playing Video Games
Two nine-year-olds wave their video game controllers wildly as they simulate swordplay. The more experienced player pauses the game and steps in front of his friend to show him how to manipulate the controls. "Watch me … you want to do it this way," he says, and his friend learns a new move.

Video games are pervasive, controversial and largely ignored in learning research — and that's why professor Reed Stevens chooses to study them, along with other outside-of-school activities like TV watching, texting and how families handle money. His overriding goal is to understand how people learn.

As an eminent scholar in the field of learning sciences, he contends that only by studying out-of-school learning can we see the full picture. "Research needs to be based on diverse situations, populations and age groups. Only then will we be in a position to say how people learn," he says.

In fact, a surprisingly small portion of people's lives is spent in formal learning environments such as schools, seminars and classes. Even during the years from first grade through high school, only approximately 19 percent of a young person's time is spent in academic school subjects, he estimates. And at other times of life the percentage is much lower, such as 8 percent in college and only occasionally during adulthood.

However, most educational research in the past has focused on the small slice of learning that occurs in the classroom. "What are we missing?" Stevens asks. "We don't have a good enough understanding of most of the learning in the world."


In his academic career he has set out to investigate how school subjects relate, or don't, to what goes on before and after the school bell rings. "The relationship between school and the rest of everyday life is complicated, and that is what interests me, but at the same time, everyday learning deserves attention in its own right, regardless of how it relates to school," Stevens notes.

Stevens has developed a lot of techniques for capturing what goes on in everyday life, including videorecording people's ordinary activities. For example, he has examined how professionals use quantitative ideas in science labs, architecture firms and engineering operations. "We do find a lot of math, but it doesn't really look like school math," he says.

Using similar video-recording techniques, he has conducted ethnographic fieldwork in family homes. He has researched how families handle money and how parents teach their children about finances. For example, he recorded and analyzed families deciding on cell phone plans, setting up budgets and making big financial decisions. Is school math a resource? "Largely the answer is no," he says. "If you're not seeing school math being used in decisions as consequential as buying a home or saving money to send your kids to college, then where will you see it?"

His research has led him to advocate a more networked view of school, which he considers "one node in a kid's life" out of many. "I'd like to find productive ways to build more connections between school and the world so school doesn't seem so encapsulated," he says. "I'd like to create smarter ways to soften the membrane between schools and other settings, whether they're museums or homes or workplaces to which kids might aspire."

Fittingly, Stevens's major project over the last seven years at the University of Washington has been co-leading the Learning in Formal and Informal Environments (LIFE) Center, with major funding from the National Science Foundation. The goal of LIFE, which he continues to co-lead from SESP, is to bridge the gap between learning outside schools and inside schools.


With a strong interest in learning in everyday life, Stevens has worked on a series of studies he calls "learning and media controversies," so far focusing on video games and TV. Video games sparked his interest because of their popularity with kids, even though they are also criticized for making children inert, violent and antisocial. "Although kids spend an enormous amount of time playing videogames — as much or more time as they spend in any particular school subject — when we began there was almost no research on how they actually play video games and what they learn doing that."

"It is a common assumption that learning happens through teaching in a formal way, but kids learn to play without formal instruction. Their teachers are their peers or their siblings or themselves, who if they teach, do so while they play," he explains. One of the things he found most striking was the many inventive ways kids figure out how to play video games, such as by modeling or by setting up a sort of apprenticeship. He calls these "learning arrangements." He maintains, "If you look outside of school, kids are very capable of inventing and recycling learning arrangements themselves. If kids want to learn something, they'll find a way to learn it, and I'm interested in understanding how they do that."

In his studies of TV watching, another popular but controversial pastime, a significant finding was that the presence of other people in the room changes the experience of viewing and creates a context for conversations that might not be held otherwise. Stevens's research team came up with a nice technique for collecting data in the video game study, and they reused it in this study. "It involves capturing a video record of what people are watching on the screen and a video record of what is going on in the room. And then we synchronize those. What that allows us to do is understand in detail what people are responding to and what they are talking about," he notes.

His next project in this series may be on texting, another new media engagement that is controversial. Because field research on the subject is thin, Stevens has impetus to go out and do his own special brand of ethnographic fieldwork. "As long as society keeps generating new media and new technologies, there will be new things for me to study," Stevens says. "People's attitudes get formed way before there's evidence."


Stevens also makes his mark as a designer of learning tools, with his main design effort being an innovative software medium for "connecting settings" called Video Traces. Using a natural way of teaching that includes talking, pointing and looking, Video Traces allows a user to superimpose narration, pointing and even drawing onto a video. So, for example, a dance teacher can annotate a student's video with instruction on improving an arabesque, or a family cook can narrate a video to show how to make gravy.

Video Traces grew out of Stevens's experiences in a science museum, watching people learn from exhibits. He noticed "chains of connection" as visitors in line picked up things from watching the people ahead of them, and he wanted to help people use and build on what others do. "The biggest resource in learning is other people," he says.

In his studies of museum learning he also discovered the importance of "serendipitous" learning. "People do things differently than intended," he found, as with a group of boys who turned museum science exhibits, one after the other, into competitive games. "People are more serendipitous, more ad hoc, and make use of what's there. Those are aspects of learning we don't understand well enough," he says.


As Stevens strikes out in new directions to learn more about learning, he is paying increasing attention to how learning happens across time and place. "Some of the most important questions about learning involve trying to figure out how learning adds up over time and between places," he says, pointing out how long it takes to acquire capacities such as cooking, writing or architecture. In a current research study of early childhood, he is following young children's learning both at home and preschool, trying to understand how children's language skills are built from experiences in both settings. In this study, he's also looking at a neglected question, young children's early math and science learning.

Neglected questions seem to be Stevens's favorite kind. He says, "A famous sociologist, Anselm Strauss, once shared some advice with me, which was 'study the unstudied.' That advice has always stuck with me. I've adapted that a bit to 'study the unstudied or at least study the heavily studied in a new way.'"

Now at SESP, after 11 years at the University of Washington, he looks forward to collaborations with SESP's interdisciplinary faculty. "Learning is a very multidimensional phenomenon; it should be studied that way," he says. Whatever path Stevens takes, it's a good bet that his approach will focus outside of school to fill in more pieces in the puzzle of learning.