"Games making should appeal to children as much as games playing"
Ian Livingstone on how to make sure education is serving the industry and getting away from "academic snobbery"
Few people have spent as much time on the front lines of industry and education than Ian Livingstone. Having spent years lobbying the UK Government to improve the curriculum dictating computer sciences, and succeeding, Livingstone is founding his own school, taking the task of educating even more personally. At that school, Livingstone hopes to integrate arts into the traditional STEM subjects and teach children how, but not what, to think.
We caught up with Ian to get his perspective on what still needs to change on the UK's education system.
Q: Are you confident that the UK's education system is in a fit state to provide employees for the next generation of tech companies?
Ian Livingstone: Well I'm delighted that Michael Gove has taken on the recommendations of Next-Gen in short order, to replace the old ICT curriculum with a new computing one, which could be transformational for this country. I believe that will help us to create technology, rather than just consume it. That has to be a great thing, and could obviously be of great benefit to the games industry.
But it's not just about coding; computational science is a broad mix of computational thinking, logic and problem solving. You also need to have STEAM, not just STEM - you need art in there, to join up the left and right side of the brain. You have to create the wonder of which games are just one manifestation.
So I think the curriculum is fine; it's what's done in schools that sometimes worries me. Education has, in part, retained this Victorian broadcast model, the talk and chalk, where children sit still and learn a lot of stuff they don't need to by rote, then regurgitate it in some sort of random access memory test. It's more about league tables than learning, which is a worry. I'd like to see the classroom brought closer to the workplace, allowing children to collaborate on their own projects at their own pace. Peer to peer learning in their own language and time, working with people they enjoy working with. Let's celebrate their differences - there's no point in testing everyone against the same metrics.
Games making should appeal to children as much as games playing.
"I think the curriculum is fine; it's what's done in schools that sometimes worries me"
Q: That sounds a lot like Steiner or Montessori schools...
Ian Livingstone: It seems to me that Steiner methods are more like human nature. As babies we learn through trial and error, our curiosity - we're very playful in our learning. That's part of primary education, so it's no surprise that 95 per cent of children at primary school love the experience, but that by the time you get to secondary school only 35 per cent of kids do. Suddenly the learning experience changes from this collaborative, playful environment to this rote learning method, more about conformity than diversity. I don't know why you'd want to introduce more testing to schools.
We punish our kids for making mistakes rather than saying that failure is just a successful work in progress, to make mistakes and learn from them. Children have to fall over a lot when they're learning to walk; we don't start hitting them because they can't walk from day one. Education isn't learning facts, it's training to think. That's often forgotten.
In my school we're going to be focused on the meta-skills of problem solving and communication. Problem solving can be applied to anything and if you can communicate those solutions, that's a huge advantage. Underpinning that will be coding, creativity and collaboration. We want to encourage enterprise, innovation and curiosity - all the things we've seen work in game development over the years.
I think there's a lot of academic snobbery in education - there must be a better way for children to learn collaboratively and a better way for them to be assessed - it can't just be about everyone being tested against the same metrics.
We've got to work more on children's terms - we're limiting what they can learn to what the teacher already knows. We've got to go way beyond the classroom; there are all these resources just a click away.
"We've got to work more on children's terms - we're limiting what they can learn to what the teacher already knows"
Q: How does education keep up with such a rapidly changing industry?
Ian Livingstone: Well that's why I suggest you have to give all children good problem solving skills, good analytical skills, the ability to work collaboratively. If you have those, you can adapt yourself into someone who understands and can operate in the world. You have to focus on these meta-skills rather than immersing yourself in factual detail.
Q: Is there a risk of over specialisation with game-specific qualifications?
Ian Livingstone: Learning a specific skill is obviously going to stand you in good stead - it's good to specialise. I wish I was able to code.
People assume that if you've got good exam results then you're going to be a good employee. There are a lot of people with A*s who have learned how to pass exams but might not necessarily be the best employees. I tend to look for the disaffected ones who might not have done so brilliantly in their exams, but can show me a portfolio of their work. If you can do that, say 'here, I've done this', I can probably give you a job. If you show me a CV with a string of qualifications, that doesn't necessarily prove anything.
Q: What are the biggest remaining challenges facing education?
Ian Livingstone: One of the things I'm asked most about implementing all these changes to the curriculum is 'where are you going to find the teachers to do it?' Clearly a lot of the old ICT teachers who were boring kids to death by teaching them how to use Word, Powerpoint and Excel are not able to cater to the new needs. If you can move away from talk and chalk and accept a role as facilitator, say to the class, 'who's the best able to take charge with knowledge?' Then they can all work together, hacking together their knowledge and all of the great resources which are available for free online. Working collaboratively.
"The teacher has to work alongside the child. I don't see anything wrong with that"
The teacher has to work alongside the child. I don't see anything wrong with that. If they're happily engaged and getting along with it, you can get away from this hierarchical approach, which I think would be a good thing.
Q: How do we get the right people into education careers, rather than better paid industry work?
Ian Livingstone: Well, it's not easy! However, there are more and more opportunities to become STEM ambassadors or to volunteer to talk in schools and universities, for studios to form links with local education to demonstrate what goes on inside. There are ways to help!
Q: One of the key issues which education is expected to address is the industry's gender gap. How do you approach that?
Ian Livingstone: I think you have to start young, you have to get to girls pre-puberty. More importantly I think you have to have some fantastic role models out there that these girls can aspire to. There's lots of women doing great things in games: Roberta from Bossa, Jude from PlayMob, Alice from MakieLab - there are loads of examples, which is great to see. This is a relatively young industry, though, one which has traditionally catered to boys - guys making games for guys.
Now we have a lot more diversity, in content and in content creation, but we should all do whatever we can to accelerate that process and point out to parents and children themselves that this is a great career opportunity for everybody, not just for boys.