Learning CAN be a Contact Sport

Simon recently discussed the issue of contact hours with students in the classroom and how that is held up as a benchmark for particular institutions.  One critique he pointed out is that this allows little time for the self discovery students do outside the classroom; I wish to point out a second, which is how valuable co-curricular activities can be to the learning process.  This can include relevant talks, lectures, and conferences as well as experiential pieces like Heifer Ranch, but can also be something much more simple.

Like Paintball.

I am teaching a first year seminar this semester, a required general education course for all freshmen designed around skills rather than content.  The subject matter is at the discretion of the instructor and thus opens doors to courses on Harry Potter, zombies, baseball, tea, marriage, or, in my case, World of Warcraft.

The class has a lot of neat components–they play the game as part of the class; they do creative projects based on the game; and they earn experience points and levels instead of grades.  But the class faces the same problem that I mentioned last week in the Heifer class--that while to me, the class is innovative and intrinsically interesting, to them its just another class.  Escaping this attitude may not be necessary, but creating buy-in when you are trying to do something outside the norm very well might be.

With this class the biggest struggle has been generating a feeling of connection amongst the students and between them and myself.  Discussions dragged, even on a topic like a video game they all play.  Investment in the course seemed low.  My frustration was very high, as I usually have very little trouble engaging students in the material.  Secretly I worried whether my own flagging interest in the game was coming through despite my best efforts.

To shake things up, I scheduled three events: an in-game run of Warsong Gulch, a battleground where two teams try to capture each others’ flag; a ‘real life’ version of Capture the Flag (actually, capture the Build-a-Bear stuffed animal) on the quad; and paintball.  Each successive event has done wonders for generating the buy-in and camaraderie that I wanted to create in the class.  A class that used to be silent when I walked in is now talking and laughing, making plans outside of class and working together on projects.

The key, I think, is not simply having outside of class activities or events, but instead the focus on team sports.  In each of the three events, real and virtual, they had to work together and communicate as a team in order to play and be effective at their task.  Playing three different types of games also helped because they spoke to different skill sets–some of the best online gamers were useless at Capture the Flag, while some of the best runners had terrible aim in Paintball.  Each of them thus got a chance to excel and showcase their talents and feel like a valued part of the group.

I also think it helped that I always played with them (for the record, I’m okay at paintball, pretty good at Warsong Gulch, and awful at Capture the Flag).  For awhile they could forget that I was their teacher and see me as another teammate or competitor.  One of my quietest students and I got into a shootout at paintball this week.  Although I eventually won (ie, killed him) one of his teammates quickly avenged him and we were able to laugh and tell tales of our exploits to the rest of the group when the game was over.

While for this class it makes sense to play these kinds of wargames, as they led to conversations about comparing the virtual and real worlds (a major topic in the class), it may be worth thinking about how learning can be a contact sport and how we can translate out-of-class activities into making our classes run more smoothly.