Several years ago my brother and I were back in the U.S. visiting our parents. They’d just moved to their new home in Tucson, Arizona. They took us to a get-together in the neighborhood. Neither my brother nor I knew anyone at the party. My mother walked us around the room introducing us to her new friends.
“This is my son, Craig,” my mother would say, “He’s the Superintendent of the American School of Bombay.” I’d smile, reach out, and shake somebody’s hand. She would then turn to my brother and say, “This is my son, Kirk. He’s a professor at the University of Guam.” And then, just as my brother began to extend his hand towards the person he’d been introduced to, my mother would add, “Kirk is the son that calls me once a week on ‘the Skype.'” Before my parents discovered “the Skype” I was their favorite son. But “the Skype” has evolved our familial relationships.
True, I’m not good with “the Skype,” I only have four friends on Facebook (my wife and three sons), and I don’t use WhatsApp. But that doesn’t mean I am not connected to my loved ones. I’m very connected. Technology has created all sorts of amazing ways for us to stay deeply connected with family and friends, and I have leveraged this in many wonderful ways.
For instance, one of my sons and I share a love of Scrabble. And thanks to technology, regardless of where we are in the world, he and I are always connected in a game of Scrabble through Words With Friends. He has a much stronger vocabulary than I do, he spells much better than I do, and his access to word-memory is faster than mine. Yet, when we play face-to-face, at home, sitting at the table, I usually win. However, when playing online he almost always wins. I find this fascinating. Or at least I did until a few weeks ago.
Recently, during an online game, he played “muzjiks” for 68 points, to which I played “friends” for 20. Within seconds he played “syzygy,” for 98 points (his letter-arrangement found a “triple letter” and a “triple word”). I thought to myself: He’s good, but not that good. So, I called him on “the Skype.”
“What the heck is syzygy?” I asked.
“The alignment of three celestial bodies,” he responded without hesitation.
“And a muzjiks, what’s a muzjiks?” I asked.
“It’s the plural form of the noun ‘muzjik’ which is a Russian peasant.”
I paused, “Are you cheating?” I asked.
It turns out my twenty-five year-old Millennial didn’t think he was cheating. He was using Wordbreaker, an app that in seconds spits out every word in the English language given a set of letters.
“I only use it when I’m stumped and can’t think of a good word,” he said.
“But,” I said, “That defeats the entire purpose of playing.”
“No, it doesn’t,” he said.
“Of course it does,” I said.
“Not really, Dad,” he said, “It depends on what you mean by cheating.”
“What do you think I mean?” I asked.
“Dad, we play for three reasons,” he said, and then he went on to list them. They were:
- To stay connected
- To keep our brains sharp
- To increase our vocabulary (which he argued doesn’t happen without something like Wordbreaker, because, he said, “Otherwise we aren’t learning new words we’re just recycling ones we already know.”)
Ten days ago, I started using Wordbreaker. And today, reflecting on my use of Wordbreaker, I decided to write this post. The facts are:
- I’m still just as connected, as ever, with my son.
- I’m learning new words (albeit, many useless ones. In fact, yesterday I learned that “zymurgy” is a stage of fermentation for beer.)
- And I assume I’m still “keeping my brain sharp”
BUT, something else has happened. There’s no doubt that Wordbreaker has altered my style of play, my approach to the game. I can’t think of a better way to say this, but basically, I’m losing my grit. I’ve always played Scrabble with a passionate perseverance to crack the wicked puzzle in front of me. The question, in my head, was always: Given the board in front of me, and the words that already exist how can I create the strongest and highest-scoring word with the letters I have?
It was not unusual for me to take an entire day to play my word back to my son on my phone. I’d look at my letters every couple of hours as a sort of “brain break,” processing the computations and arrangements in my head, and then play the best word.
This morning I went to Wordbreaker in less than 3 minutes. My letters were: T-T-E-S-H-N-E. Wordbreaker gave me “thebes” to play off the “b” in my son’s “bimah” (which, by the way, I have no idea what it means). And then, just as I hit “PLAY,” I had an epiphany-one that prompted this post. I suddenly realized that, if I had waited another five minutes, maybe even two, before checking with Wordbreaker, the word “thebes” would have come to me.
So, I guess my post is asking: If we consider my experience with Wordbreaker as a metaphor for the world we (and more particularly our students and children) live in, what are we gaining and what are we losing? What is worth ‘not losing’ and how do we keep it? What do we just have to let go of? What is cheating? What is creativity? What does it mean to stay connected? What’s the upside of things and what’s the downside? How is our “style” of work, and life, and love changing and what will it mean? And, finally, what is the role of schools and families in adjusting to the Wordbreaker-World?
One last thing: The story above is lightly based on the truth, in other words, I took liberty with some facts to make a point. For instance, I’m not completely sure I was ever the favorite child, and I do call my parents more often than this story above may lead the reader to think.