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Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson

Published in November of 2016.

My list of the best nonfiction books since 2000 would include a number of titles from Steven Johnson.  Wonderland, Johnson’s latest, will definitely find a place on this list.

In Wonderland, Johnson makes the historical case that the social, political, and scientific progress depends mightily on play.  Having fun, in Johnson’s eyes, should be seen less as a benefit of progress - but as its motivator.

The definition of play that Johnson employs in Wonderland is broad.  Basically, play is anything that we don’t consider work.  

This definition is broad enough to encompass any effort that we make to experience novelty.  New and novel experiences can be found everywhere, from the historical search for spices and colorful clothing, to our modern day fascination with computer games.

Johnson is particularly strong when making the argument for the importance of play in technological progress.  Much of the modern day programming that powers the digital economy was invented first to make computer games possible.  IBM’s Watson was initially built to compete in Jeopardy, and is now evolving into a tool that oncologists can use to refine cancer treatment plans.  

There seems to be a growing awareness amongst postsecondary educators about the educational value of play.  This awareness goes beyond programs that put the creation of enjoyment at the heart of their curriculum - such as programs focus on digital game creation - to attempts to combine play with the teaching of traditional academic subjects.  

Efforts to invest in the gamification of learning are taken seriously, as the ability of games to capture attention and direct focus are impossible to ignore.  

At the intersection of education and technology, progress in leveraging gaming to improve learning seems to be more advanced in K-12 world than in higher ed.  

When I was 8 my parents got me a Little Professor calculator (remember those?) - a device that I remember as being great fun.  (Was there ever any research on the how well The Little Professor actually taught math?).   

Is Duolingo our best example of an effective game-based digital learning tool?  (And how much is Duolingo used - if at all - in higher ed as a language teaching tool?).

Would progress move faster in bringing the game-based thinking to educational technology if we took more seriously the importance of play?

Would we explicitly build in the goal of play into our courses if we felt more confident about the links between play, learning, and progress?

Passing around Wonderland on campus may be a good strategy to push for more game-based learning, and more programs that prioritize play in the curriculum.  

Sometimes, the key to pushing change in higher ed is to nudge people’s thinking about around big ideas - and this wonderfully erudite and enjoyable book may provide just the conversational push that we need.

Do you have a favorite Steven Johnson book?

What are you reading?

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