Playing with Blocks

I love games.  Card games, role playing games, board games, video games, computer games, online games, etc.  When I first started teaching, it was only natural to start scheming on how to bring games into the classroom and share them with my students.  What originally started as simply a way to enliven the classroom has developed into a scholarly interest in the role of games in the classroom.  Now every time I sit down to play a game I find myself considering the possible classroom applications.  I will be sharing my discoveries in this blog.

My current favorite is a game called Zendo by Looney Labs.  In this game, a designated ‘Master’ chooses a rule of some kind and then creates two arrangements of plastic pyramid shaped pieces (called Icehouse pieces) that come in four colors and three sizes.  One arrangement, or ‘koan’, follows the rule, and is marked with a white stone by the Master.  The second koan violates the rule, and is marked with a black stone.  Play proceeds with each player (fittingly referred to as ‘Students’) building a koan in an attempt to figure out the Master’s unspoken rule.  After building a koan, the Master will judge the koan (marking it with a white or black stone to indicate if the arrangement follows or violates the rule) .  Students can earn ‘guessing stones’ in the judging process, and can spend the stones on their turn to guess the rule.  An incorrect rule is countered with a new koan from the Master, and play proceeds until a student correctly guesses the rule.

The game has a host of applications for the classroom.  It can be used to develop critical thinking skills (as students must puzzle out what the rule is) in any class.  Students must also develop their ability to reason inductively and use evidence to support their claims (as they must analyze the existing koans to determine what rules are possible).  The game can also teach the importance of understanding culture: one student may look at a series of koans and suspect the rule has something to do with color; another student may not notice color differences but instead focuses on how many pieces are touching the table in the koan.  Finally, the crucial role played by the types of koans the master builds can illustrate the importance of experimental design.  The same rule can be guessed in one turn or ten, depending on the way the Master presents and builds the koans.

The game is therefore abstract enough to work in a variety of classes but still teaches a number of important skills.  It scales well in terms of number of players and difficulty, and the Icehouse pieces are easily acquired in bulk for larger classes.  I plan to use it in my Research Methods course next spring. While students eventually can take over the Master role, I highly recommend that any Master play through the game a couple of times first as a student.  I can tell you from personal experience that it is rather humiliating to have your rule guessed on the very first student’s turn.

Zendo is currently out of print, but you can easily make your own set, as I did.  Looneylabs.com as well as many retail game stores sell the Icehouse Pyramids/Icedice, and you can purchase stones at a craft store (or just use poker chips or some other two color marking device). 

5 thoughts on “Playing with Blocks

  1. Theoretically you could play it with a group as small as two or as large as 500. The ideal size I would say is a group of 4-6 so that students can huddle around a table/desk and see the koans clearly. But if you had a large lecture hall, you could still make it work: use a web cam or other camera to project the original koans onto the screen, and then call up students at random to take guesses and add koans, while other students try to figure out the rule (and raise their hands when they have a guess).

    I played once with a group of 25 in a small space by setting out 5 stations, all with the same original koan arrangement. Members in each group worked together to try to solve the rule, and I would stop by and judge and build new koans. Once each group had solved the rule, one person in each group was dubbed the new ‘master’ and created a new rule for their group. This worked out very well, particularly as in the first round they all cooperated with each other (in a students v. instructor kind of way) and in the second round it became competitive within the group.

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