Friday, May 8, 2015

The Play's (Not the Only) Thing: Taking Your Students to "Why"

"It is not just about playing, it is about asking why things happen. Design your lessons around questions to be explored and analyzed."

If the above line sounds like something you heard at an instructional design training, you are not alone. But it certainly is more difficult to implement such a concept on a day-to-day basis than it first appears.

This is what we know: 

The "play" engages and hooks the students. The experimentation and trial runs are much of what they experience in the world of computer gaming consoles and tablet apps. Failure, to those in this realm, is of no major concern because they just try again and again until the elusive prize or final level is attained.

This is where it perhaps gets a little fuzzy: Why the struggle and why the joy therein?

Discussions of why certain aspects of games result in (most often) failure and (ultimately) success are the bedrock of learning. Think about it: within each video game exists rich academic content including physics, algorithms, patterns, and more. Those, combined with authentic problem solving and critical thinking opportunities, make game play in classrooms an almost too-good-to-be-true learning environment.

Photo courtesy of
Obviously, there is an extensive amount of research out there about the positives of game play, simulation activities, and the like. It is engaging for students, and for the most part, they like it. It represents an escape from the typical lecture-style classroom and it brings authentic activities to the forefront of learning. I mean, who does not want to show up and play games in class?

However, if game play ends there, keeping the kiddos engaged and busy, yet only assuming they are learning something, we are doing our students a monumental disservice. And too often, any planned discussion that accompanies game play is either irrelevant or entirely superficial in nature.

As far as CCSS and best practice are concerned, here is the charge: Instead of just assuming gamification will lead to deep student investment and academic discovery, educators must ensure students have an opportunity to discuss/analyze/determine why things worked as they did.
We should be careful not to view learning technologies as a replacement for deep teacher and student interactions. We see effective technology supports as enabling the opposite,” said Stacey Childressdeputy director of education at the Gates Foundation.
The idea is to lead students in identifying, defining, and clarifying the processes that are naturally occurring in their minds as they navigate their way through games or simulations. With concrete terms and concepts out in the "cognitive wide open," it becomes easier for teachers and students together to hone the skills necessary to analyze and critique situations and become better problem solvers in all walks of life.

Topics to cover when working towards true classroom gamification:

After beating your high score
The psychology of gaming - or why certain computer-generated conundrums elicit specific and real human responses and actions. Examination of these responses would lay a foundation for meaningful classroom discussion in science and psychology courses about the power of brainwork.

Game Mechanics - there is more to playing a video game than just mindless shooting or searching for lost treasure. Indeed an entire battery of psychological, physiological, and social factors come into play as students become involved with a game. Discussing what make a gamer tick could result in some interesting theories to explore.

Determination and Grit - two qualities that are highly sought after in both the academic and business world. For sure, teachers and employers alike demand that students/workers exhibit strong work ethic and "stick-to-it-ivness" and repeatedly say that those two characteristics are at least as important, if not more important than, previous learning and experience.

Decision Making and Morals - researchers suggest that playing certain video games can in fact increase a person's capacity to make better moral decisions as he or she encounters "real world" situations. The jury is still out on the overall mental and spiritual gains to be made with gaming, but the fact that the topic is out on the table suggests that more and more people are recognizing that game play is not all bad.

Of course, the major miracle that is the human brain always has been and will continue to be a focus of study. For every child who increases cognitive capacity in part due to game play, there will be another whose failures are attributed to too much wasted time with a gaming console. The debate will rage on and on.

But here and now, this is what I content: No amount of meaningful and deliberate discussion about what is occurring in students' minds and why it affects thoughts and behavior will ever be wasted.

Simon Sinek so adeptly described this idea in his TED Talk "Start with Why."

As students are led through opportunities to determine not only WHAT is happening in and around them but also WHY, they will be building and honing the skills necessary to tackle whatever life throws at them.

So go ahead and game on!

My thoughts exactly.

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