I loved this week of getting to select from the readings, and what a great list of choices! I’m hoping to get to go back and read more than what I have so far. My first and biggest take-away from reading these articles was how important it is for educators to continue to engage in articles like this throughout their career, and to be continually in conversation with other educators about education research. That large take-away aside, I’ll focus my post on the Shaffer and Gee article and a discussion of gamification.
The Shaffer and Gee article really resonated with me. I think the authors do a great job summarizing concerns educators may have about both liberal and conservative education movements. They describe liberal movements as too student directed, and failing to reveal the “rules of the game” (9); thus, liberal education movements might advantage students who learn the rules of the “game” of success by virtue of their family’s socio-economic status (I’m thinking right now of a Montesori-based school a friend of mine teaches for; this assessment resonates exactly with her assessment). On the other hand, conservative education movements are too “standards” and testing driven, and don’t allow for creative problem solving; thus, they don’t ultimately lead to transfer of knowledge or innovation (9). I found both the problem, as they describe it, and the answer they propose – epistemic games – to be extremely compelling and my biggest question is, why it hasn’t caught on more?
I remember the days of Oregon Trail, a computer game we used to play at school—originally released in 1971—that taught us about the migration of settlers to the West Coast. If that dates all the way back to 1971, why aren’t there many more games like that now? (I’m interested to hear if others have played Oregon Train and what other similar games people have played in school.)
The principles of these games are so sound: having students engage with solving realistic problems and act as experts in a particular field, thus entering the community of those experts. This idea of the importance of entering the “community” of experts reminded me a lot of Frank Smith’s Joining the Literacy Club (1987) where he argues for the importance of literacy education highlighting students’ entry into a community of readers and writers. The idea of having students engage in challenging problems, what some teachers call “wicked” problems, reminds me a lot of what Ken Bain discusses in What the Best College Teachers Do (2004). (This is just two of the many authors whose work in ed theory explain why epistemic games have such excellent potential.)
Ok, so what might this look like in the composition classroom, and what do these games have to learn from composition pedagogy?
Last year, I had the opportunity to audit a course taught by a friend using Reacting to the Past games, which are intricately-designed multi-week role playing games where students are assigned roles that allow them to recreate historical events, though perhaps with new outcomes, depending on how the game goes. (If you’re interested in learning more, see the link above or this Inside Higher Ed article.) These games, I think, provide an excellent bridge between Shaffer and Gee’s idea of epistemic games and the composition classroom. The games invite students to read a variety of print text primary sources and then respond as their character, both through persuasive speeches and through writing.
Though I saw great potential for the games, my experience with them was that they fell short to some extent because I think that there was not enough composition (and general communication) pedagogy interwoven into the class: what better setting could there be to discuss audience and purpose? I also thought that the impact of the game would have been greatly increased by adding a reflective essay where students synthesized their experience and wrote about what it was like to speak and write as a historical figure. Without this reflection piece, I think it was difficult for students to synthesize their learning and figure out how they might transfer it to new contexts. Thus, I think the framework and structure created by Reacting to the Past could be greatly strengthened by the addition of techniques drawn from rhetoric, reflection, and transfer pedagogies. I think a course designed around Reacting to the Past games linked to a composition/research course could provide the perfect balance of composition studies and problem-solving application. I look forward to exploring this possibility with my colleague – perhaps one day we will teach these as linked classes!