Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Minecraft, Art, and ADHD

I was recently asked about my experience with students with ADHD. I am always careful talking about disorders. Most of the time such discussions are framed generally but the person asking has a real person in mind, an individual I have not personally met. I find myself asking more questions than providing answers keenly aware of the great variations that are typical in attention-disorders.

As a teacher, researcher, and later as an academic I have worked with students with disabilities and attention disorders for about twenty years. In fact in many ways I myself function often in ways that are similar to those with ADHD- patterns that I seem to have picked up from my students.

When I answer questions about attention disorders we invariably end up discussing the intersection of my two worlds of expertise: education and  technology. Sometimes instead of technology it is art. It almost always goes like this. I am not sure s/he has an attention disorder because when s/he are creating art or interacting with a device, they are entirely focused for extended periods of time. With that focus, they are able to handle frustrations a bit better and persist in their chosen task.

It is not, of course, a sign that the attention deficit (with or without hyperactivity) is gone. Instead, it is the nature of the task itself. Playing Minecraft or drawing supply a rich set of feedback cues that keep attention. Trying to create while regulating the result and making the small adjustments needed to improve seems to draw those with attention problems in and flood them with enough overlapping input that satisfies the need for stimulation. It may very well be that the rich activity helps block irrelevant information that student with attention problems find hard to block when their senses are just marginally engaged (for example during lecture).

If that is true, what is our next step? Gamification may offer part of the answer, art the other. Can we engage all learners and especially those with attention problems with rich, focused overlapping inputs? I believe that rich applications like Minecraft can do it, so can pottery or playing an instrument. These environments have to be carefully thought out, though. For example teaching geometry through painting is the wrong approach because we are trying to achieve a secondary goal through a primary activity. The power of the activity is the overlapping foci. As we disperse the focus, the impact will be significantly reduced.

For such experiences to be effective we need to design immersive experiences carefully, so the focus remains, and we achieve the goals we set for ourselves.
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