The Glass Bead Game- A Multimedia Concept for Education

Chris N. Severud

This article was published in the April 1992 issue of The Computing Teacher.

Anyone interested in setting up and promoting the concept embodied in this article, please contact me via email at

I am currently developing ideas for implementing the "Glass Bead Game" as a web page off the Bourbaki Inc web page.

Copyright 1991-95 - Chris N. Severud / Bourbaki, Inc.

As a parent of a second and a fourth grader, I am very interested in education. Fortunately, at the moment, so are they. They both love school. However, the first day of each new school year is one of high anxiety for me, wondering whether this will be the year that they begin to fall behind, or worse, they will be turned off to school. Wearing a different hat, as president of a software company, I am attuned to and immersed in the latest razzle dazzle technology. While some of it strikes me as nonsense, other developments appear to have revolutionary potential, particularly in education. First and foremost on the list is multimedia, which involves the computer based marriage of text, sound, graphics, and video.

There are essentially two directions multimedia can go, which by the way are not mutually exclusive. The first takes the form of engaging "information delivery" systems. The second, and in my mind where the revolutionary potential lies, involves multimedia "authoring." The information delivery products, which include CD ROM based interactive encyclopedias, science and nature programs, and a growing list of others, fit into a new category referred to as "edutainment" products. Never having been one to subscribe to the philosophy that everything needs to be, or should be, fun, I have continued my search for an application of this technology that stimulates creativity, promotes communication, and provides students with a sense of self gratification and accomplishment. The answer is "multimedia authoring by kids, for kids."

Idit Harel, of the Center for Learning and Epistemology at MIT's Media Lab, agrees. In an article entitled, Finally, An A+ for Computers in Class?, published in Business Week (11/11/91), she says:

She goes on to say that she envisions a point in the future when:

Teams of student authors can be assembled and given responsibility for developing presentations on an infinite variety of subjects and topics. Appropriate projects can be undertaken at any grade level. Used in this way, multimedia promotes skills in ideational and organizational thinking, writing, research, interpersonal communication, management and team building, art and graphics, music, presentation communication, and general computer literacy.

Another leading proponent of this use of multimedia is Fred D'Ignazio, president of Multi-Media Classrooms. As Fred has talked about it, the value of multimedia is not inherent in the use of computers and high tech gadgets. It is in the process of creation and presentation itself. This can be accomplished with printed images and a tape recorder. Given our seemingly boundless love of electronic gadgets, it is important to keep in mind, the only thing computers add is an enhanced power of engagement. There is little question in my mind that a creative and stimulating teacher is the most important ingredient.

This brings me to a model that I've been developing for awhile that addresses both the delivery and authoring potential of multimedia. It is far from complete, but given its nature, it is not really designed to be "completed." It is a take off on The Glass Bead Game, as presented in Herman Hesse's Nobel prize winning book, The Magister Ludi. The "game," involves the composition and presentation of a connected system of diverse facts, concepts and ideas. "Games" are designed specifically to synthesize the relationships between different disciplines, with the main focus on depicting the "threads" that connect them. Some of the more significant disciplines include music, mathematics, language, and the Glass Bead Game itself, which involves a fusion of all the other disciplines.

Taking a step back to set the stage, we, as human beings, are driven by curiosity. We satisfy it through "observation," asking questions and getting answers. We recognize and create patterns from our experience. Simple patterns are connected to form increasingly sophisticated and complex patterns. Perceiving, creating and making these patterns "our own" provides the basis for our individual epistemologies, or "how we know anything." Learning and the creation of knowledge follow this "building block" process.

Gregory Bateson, in his book Mind and Nature, says, "Break the pattern which connects the items of learning and you necessarily destroy all quality." Talking about pattern recognition, Aldous Huxley said, "What emerges most strikingly from recent scientific developments is that perception is not a passive reception of material from the outside world; it is an active process of selection and imposing of patterns."

Education involves more than simply mastering the content of a collection of isolated disciplines. Integration and divergent thinking play key roles in creating, acquiring and applying knowledge. Awareness of this fact is supported by the increasing popularity and implementation of "whole curricula." With all this in mind, the Glass Bead Game concept provides a perfect metaphor and environment for presenting, exploring and creating connections between the diverse and often voluminous information we have available to us and are exposed to. In actual use, although the Glass Bead Game could be played with various printed materials and slides, computer based multimedia may provide its most dynamic and engaging platform.

The "system" I envision would include multimedia authoring software and an open ended database of "images" and text. The purpose of "playing the game" is to make kids THINK, increase their powers of "observation," enhance their pattern recognition and creation skills, and communicate all this with others. The system would include a wide variety of pre-established links between images and text, as well as provide the ability to create new links between images, and enter associated descriptive text. Players could explore the built-in game branch structures, add to them, or create their own totally new ones. Student authored games could be presented to the class, the same way the Magister Ludi presented his.

Take for example, as a starting point, an image of a beautiful waterfall cutting through a deep rock chasm, lush with plants and trees. After the waterfall is displayed for some length of time (e.g. 10-20 seconds) a second image is displayed - a light bulb for example. What is the connection between the waterfall and the light bulb? Following a detailed thread of the connections, (which could be presented individually), we can get from the waterfall to the basic physics formula "F=ma" (Force = mass x acceleration), to harnessing the kinetic energy of the waterfall to produce hydroelectric power to light the light bulb. Continuing on the "branch" from the light bulb, a linked series of images might include the sun (an alternative light source or energy source), to plants, to photosynthesis, to the food chain... Taking a step back to the sun, the next image might be of photoelectric cells, which in turn might loop back to the light bulb, or windmill generators. Other possibilities, from the waterfall, might be snow capped mountains, a glacier, fossils, fish, a desert...

Another thread might start with an image of a dinosaur, change to an oil derrick, to an automobile, to a horse, to a river, to an old water-wheel driven mill, to a grandfather clock... The connections here are - dinosaurs, etc. are the source of oil, which in turn is used to make gasoline which powers cars, which is a mode of transportation, like a horse, which is like a river in that it too provided a mode of transportation, which in turn led to the establishment of mill towns along rivers which were used as a source of power, which is in turn connected to the clock by virtue of their use of gears to transform and transmit energy.

A third example thread, which focuses on mathematics, might start with a child walking along a street (on the way to school), which would change to some kind of X-Y grid criss-crossed with lines dividing the boxes into triangles, then change to a local city street map... This example could be used to demonstrate the path to school involves some number of steps, then a right or left turn (angle), some number of steps, another turn, etc... Getting to the grid, we can analyze the difference in distances associated with following the map (with right and left turns) versus the hypotenuse(s) of the triangle(s) associated with "how a bird flies." The curriculum possibilities for branching and looping structures are infinite, for students of all ages.

We all know that different kids learn differently, having different strengths and weaknesses. In this direction, playing "the game," (which is devoid of Right vs. Wrong answers), also provides valuable insight into these differences based on the nature of the perceptions and observations students have and make. This in turn promotes the exchange of ideas, and demonstrates, first hand, how it is possible to see things differently.

Another interesting variation of the idea that further promotes communication and the exchange of ideas - Internet and FAX based games. Different classes in different schools, perhaps in different countries, could exchange images via the Internet or FAX. (Bulletin boards could also be used as a medium of exchange.) Upon "receipt," students would have to make the "connection" between the last image they sent with the one they receive in response. In turn, they would have to email or FAX their "response image" back, etc... Games could revolve around current events, school subjects, the environment, or again, virtually anything. An added bonus would be that the kids would have something to look forward to each day - their "opponent's move." Little things like this can stimulate mental energy. Reflecting on this, I began thinking of analogies of the mind and how ideas and thoughts provide positive energy to get going. In this case, one that came to mind was a "potter's kick wheel," where new ideas, or old ones revisited, are a "kick to the wheel," providing new energy, without which the mind or wheel would slow down and stop.

A "system" such as I've described, whether on a computer, with faxes, or using printed materials, also helps in the process of altering the high pressure role of teachers as the "fountains of knowledge," to that of the "guiding lights." The teacher can query students along the lines of, "What about this...?," "What if you think about it this way...?," "What if this happened...?," What do you see, or what does "it" make you think of, Johnny?" The transition to this type of interaction is beneficial to all parties because it creates and facilitates an environment where everyone can learn from everyone. In today's world, where the flow of information is increasing exponentially, and information becomes obsolete all too quickly, we need to focus on process oriented skills, our right brain powers of observation and visualization, and communication. If we don't, today's students / tomorrow's adults truly run the risk of not being able to see the forest through the trees.

With regard to my own children, I am committed to maintaining their interest in education and their motivation to learn, whatever it takes. From my experience, this involves giving them my time, reading and discussing things with them. Also, with a tool in the form of a computer at home, they are able to play in an electronic sandbox, which has a power of engagement rivaled only by television. However, unlike TV, which is a one-way "authoritarian" form of media, the computer is empowering, providing multiple worlds for them to control and explore. Multimedia authoring affords us new horizons in this rEvolution.

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HipBone Games rules, boards, sample games and other materials are copyright (c) Charles Cameron 1995, 96. See Concerning Copyright for full copyright details.