In the early 1980s, my parents bought my sister and me a big Christmas present – a Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48K with a portable black-and-white television to connect it to. From the outset, I made more use of it than my sister and it spent much of its time connected to the colour television in our lounge. It was a colour computer, after all: the successor to the black-and-white Sinclair ZX81.
I did two things with it. I tried playing games. This was the early 80s computer game boom and lots of little shops had appeared to take advantage of this. There was a dingy place under the council offices in Dudley where I bought Manic Miner and Atic Atac on cassette tape. I rapidly decided that there was nothing more pointless and frustrating than Atic Atac but Manic Miner had a certain surreal charm. I enjoyed progressing past the first few levels but then I ground to a rapid halt at Eugene’s Lair. This was a level where Eugene – a kind of humpty-dumpty character – went slowly up and down as toilets with flapping lids chased Miner Willy. I just couldn’t do it. It was too hard.
My mum had a good friend who had a son my age. We would meet up a few times a year. He also had a Spectrum and told me that he had completed Manic Miner ages ago. He took charge of my machine and flew past Eugene and his toilets as easily as I might smash a watermelon with a mallet, which was something that I now felt like doing. I had already become aware that I was not ‘sporty’ because I was never picked first when we were choosing teams in the playground for football. I carved out a role as a brick-wall of a defender but I saw this as consistent with my general lack of hand-eye coordination, a factor which also explained my computer gaming failure.
So I focused on programming. I didn’t know anyone else who program computers. My Dad bought a few books and ‘INPUT’ magazine and I copied out the programs. It was largely discovery learning with the aid of a little instruction from ‘INPUT’. I would change a line in a program to see what happened. Usually the program stopped working but sometimes I figured out something useful. Programming gives you this kind of instant feedback and so makes for a relatively good discovery learning environment. You can write a story full of errors and nonsensical sentences and be completely unaware of this unless someone read it and gave you detailed advice. But if you write a dodgy program it just won’t work.
I look back and I reflect that I improved at programming because I spent a lot of time doing it. I realise now that my friend probably spent a great deal of time playing Manic Miner or similar platform games, even if he wasn’t letting on. He also seemed to be quite eloquent with his tips and dodges whenever I asked him about the games and I therefore suspect that he was supplementing his discovery learning with a little instruction from his friends and from magazines. The fact that I had poor hand-eye coordination was my reality in the 1980s and, in truth, I’m probably not optimised as a human being for playing computer games but this seems like less of a factor now than perhaps it once was.
There are two messages that I would draw from this and that seem quite consistent with the research. Firstly, we can convince ourselves that we are not an X person, whatever X might be. This could well be based upon some underlying genetic propensity but it is far from the destiny that it might seem. This is the fixed mindset that we might bring to a particular subject or area of learning and I think it has been underappreciated just how much this can vary within one individual: I had a fixed mindset about computer games but a growth mindset about computer programming.
Secondly, we need to be careful about frustration because it can kill learning. I became so frustrated with Eugene’s lair that I declared a plague not only on Manic Miner but on computer games in general. When we introduce students to complex areas we need to be careful to strategically sequence wins. Students need to have some success in order to believe that success is possible. We can fetishise being stuck and preach about how marvelous this is but it is only those students who already back themselves – like I did with programming – who will readily persist. Those who have little affinity for the subject are just as likely to declare it stupid, pointless and not something that they will need in their future lives.
I still hate Eugene and his stupid toilets and I don’t play computer games.