Hacking the Curriculum: Creative Computing and the Power of Play

By Ian Livingstone & Shahneola Saeed

John Catt Educational Limited, 2017. ISBN 9781909717824

Given the massive impact of the videogames industry on the UK economy, computing in schools is still catching up to a large extent. Prior to 2014 the ICT curriculum in schools focused on the use of Microsoft Office software and little else; the creative programming skill required to grow a huge games industry was developed by individual hobbyists in their bedrooms rather than through the school system. Acknowledging that our children need to be ready for a digital future, recent curriculum changes have attempted to address this, with coding being described as ‘the new Latin’ by many reformers since 2010 . However, this in turn has landed a mass of new curriculum initiatives on the plates of teachers, many of whom only studied the old ICT curriculum if they studied ICT at all.

It is in this context that Ian Livingstone (an original ‘bedroom pioneer’, as one of the creative minds behind the Fighting Fantasy books and co-founder of the Games Workshop and Eidos Interactive) presents Hacking the Curriculum: Creative Computing and the Power of Play. The book is effectively a manifesto on how creative computing, information technology and digital literacy should be taught in British schools given the demands of the twenty-first century, and Livingstone brings his decades of experience in the games industry to influence the field of education. Though Livingstone is billed as the ‘big name’ in this context, his co-author Shahneila Saeed (a former teacher now working as Head of Education at UK Interactive Entertainment) provides much of the educational expertise to the book. Working together, the two authors attempt to ground established educational practice in a wider economic context in which computing is central, and will become even more important in our children’s futures.

There are a number of similar books on the market; many of the ideas here are familiar, and even some of the structures (this is the third consecutive book I’ve read that begins a chapter with a reference to the ancient Egyptian board game senet as proof of gaming’s timelessness). However, they are presented clearly and simply, and importantly the authors do not skimp on practical application. The first chapter, written by Livingstone, lays out the core themes of the book; play, creativity and the new context in which students find themselves. Saeed then contributes most of the following chapters, examining topics such as computing, creativity, play-based learning and game-based learning. Each chapter is full of examples of the ways in which these concepts are already being used in schools, often with ready-made lesson plans attached.

Hacking the Curriculum is a provocative title, evoking chaos and subversion, but in reality the book is far more moderate in its approach. Although actively involved in the construction of the new computing curriculum, both authors write with a teacher’s frustration on the limitations that it places on practice, and offer useful advice on how ‘hacking’ might occur through small acts of creativity on the part of teachers; schools are unable to change the curriculum imposed on them, so instead they should look at how to make a fairly prescriptive curriculum fun, engaging and relevant to students. The authors are aware of the difficult implications of even small change, and challenge the orthodoxy of the now-standard three-part lesson in an attempt to get teachers to think differently about the delivery of both familiar and unfamiliar topics. Many of their examples remove the computer from the equation; creative ‘analogue’ group tasks providing a hook for students before they even go near a keyboard.

The book is at its best when it offers these simple, applicable ideas to teachers. One particular surprise was the chapter on interactive fiction by Livingstone and fellow Fighting Fantasy author Jonathan Green. Whilst this initially appeared as self-indulgent (especially given that Livingstone’s other works are mentioned throughout too) Livingstone and Green make a good attempt at demonstrating how works of interactive fiction such as The Forest of Doom (1983) might be used in a classroom setting to link literacy with the new computing curriculum.

The book is less convincing on theoretical aspects, but this is largely because it is not intended as an academic text. Theories are drawn upon as and when required, and are not necessarily read critically. The book also jumps between concepts like game-based learning, play-based learning and gamification to some extent, although Chapter 5 eventually makes some attempt to draw clearer distinctions between these. References are confined to footnotes rather than a complete bibliography. They are fairly eclectic, and they range from the ‘classics’ of education like Piaget, to recent TED talks. Indeed, the TED talk is a useful metaphor to use to describe the book; each individual chapter moves at a good pace, and what they lack in theoretical rigour, they make up in passion, style and vision.

Other, better primers on the theory behind games in learning are available, in particular James Gee’s What Videogames Have To Teach Us About Learning And Literacy (2007), which is referenced in Hacking the Curriculum. Having said this, this is first book of its kind that explicitly refers to the UK National Curriculum (which is summarised in an appendix) rather than the American Common Core or broader educational goals. For this reason alone it should be recommended to UK teachers who need a quick, practical read between planning and marking.

Ultimately Hacking the Curriculum is a useful primer on a topic which will be relatively new to many UK teaching practitioners. For those who are already fully convinced of the power of play and games in education it probably does not go far enough in its critique of government policy, but Livingstone and Saeed cleverly position themselves in a stance of ‘creative compliance’ with regard to the opportunities and limitations of the new National Curriculum. Given that Livingstone plans to open new schools which will put this vision into practice, perhaps there will soon be a sequel with even more practical tips.

Review by John Lean

References

Gee, J. P. (2007) What Videogames have to teach us about learning and literacy. London: Palgrave Macmillan

Piaget, J. (1936). Origins of intelligence in the child. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.