The Day I Got Pearson Du Bois

from David Warlick’s upcoming book, The Days & Nights of My Dazzling Education

In my article in last month's issue of Tech & Learning, First Encounter, I learned about the personal computer, a machine that could be operated by communicating with it. As a teacher, it disturbed me that my students seemed to read only for facts. We expected them to read only to find the answers. They were not learning to think about what they were reading.

I began coding a computer game called Stock Baron. Players started with 100,000 make-believe dollars and the first issue of The Baron’s Review, an online stock market newsletter. Each monthly issue included three stories, each designed to have a reasonably positive or negative effect on the worth of one of the 10 companies available for stock purchases. Players would infer the stories’ effects, investing and divesting their money accordingly. Then the game would progress to the next month, reporting the rise or fall of their stocks’ value and delivering the next issue of The Baron’s Review, on which they would base their next stock transactions. The students loved it.

All 11 of the school’s Radio Shack (TRS-80) computers rested on a long table in my classroom. Students would arrive from study hall to work at the computers while I taught my classes.

You might guess at a certain type of students who were regularly dispatched from study hall to work on computers. Yes, the hyperactive and disruptive ones. But when involved in playing with make-believe money, they became focused, alert, and engaged. These students never disrupted my classes.

There was a particular group of boys who were especially enthralled by the game. They called themselves The Stock Barons. Various groups of The Stock Barons arrived every morning just after the first period bell.

Eventually, The Stock Barons achieved a breakthrough. They were suddenly making millions of dollars during a single six-month play of the game. What puzzled me was that I could generate only about $500,000—and I wrote the stories. I knew the codes, and I should have been getting a perfect score. Yet, these boys were tripling and quadrupling my investments.

When I asked, they would reply, “Oh, it’s our shrewd financial prowess and money instincts, Mr. Warlick. You can’t expect to [earn as much as we do.] You’re a school teacher. ” I continued to search for their trick, but to no avail.

A few weeks later, one of the boys stayed behind after school. After the halls had cleared, he walked up to me and said, “I’ll tell you how we’re making all that money.” The boy looked over his shoulder again and then said, “We discovered a bug in the game.” I had taught them about computer bugs. He continued, “We’ve learned that under these (described) conditions, we can sell more stock than we own.”

I sat at one of the machines, tried it, and sure enough, there was a unique situation where the program was not testing their stock inventory before transacting a sale.

I drove home that night with one of the computers in the back seat of my car. After supper, I set out to correct some of the code of the Stock Baron game—and enhance its error-checking features.

The next day, I brought the computer back, loaded the new version of the game on the other computers, and waited for first period. About five minutes after the bell rang, in walked The Stock Barons, and to my delight, among them was Pearson Du Bois, the self-proclaimed prince of The Stock Barons. Pearson swaggered over to his favorite computer and started playing, with that perpetual smirk on his face. I didn’t like Pearson Du Bois.

As the period progressed, I kept an eye on the prince, and after a short while that practiced cockiness turned to a look of concern, then to brow-furrowing distress. Pearson finally raised his hand and hesitantly asked, “Mr. Warlick, what does ‘securities fraud’ mean? And why did I get fined $2,000,000?” I will never forget the day that I got Pearson Du Bois by using computer code to trick the arrogant pre-teen into a humbling learning experience.

I later came to understand that what I gained from this experience was a revelation. The singular significance of the personal computer was not that it was a machine that you operated by communicating with it. What was going to change the game was a machine that would affect how we communicated with each other in profoundly new ways. The computer was set to revolutionize how learners connected to learning— and it would go on to change the world.