One of the simplest games to organise (if not play) is one taught to me by David Jaques, a man of great experience (and greater nerves). It just involves clearing the teaching room – pushing chairs and tables to one side – then sitting yourself in a corner and waiting for the students to arrive. And then… well, that’s pretty much it. Once the students arrive, you do not talk, move or engage with them at all. You just leave them to their own devices: whatever happens, happens.
Why would you want to do this? The game is an excellent opportunity to drive reflection on the role of power in its various forms. Typically, the students don’t know what’s going on: they look for purpose and structure and generate it (arguably akin to Engelbart’s Mother of All Demos). I find it a very useful corrective to the usual problematisation of power that we find in political science and IR – too often we focus on what happens when there is too much power, rather than talking about the necessity of at least some.
This shouldn’t distract you from the difficulty of playing this: it took me three years to dare to try it, for the simple reason that it is so unbounded. Indeed, the first time, I felt it necessary to pre-warn the students it would last for 30 minutes, for fear that they would just head to the nearest bar. They didn’t, but instead set out the tables and chairs again, then tried to get me to engage with them and riffled through my paperwork. They also started to have discussions about why they might be doing this and what they could learn from it.
In the end, this is a game that leads where it leads and everyone explore a very novel environment. So try doing nothing sometime.
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).
I recently stumbled upon a classroom exercise called the 50 Word Sentence Assignment used by UW-Madison history professor Charles L. Cohen, described at the Madison Writing Across the Curriculum site. Professor Cohen also provides additional explanation and graded examples.
For several years I’ve been assigning questions on reading assignments (more on that in another post). The questions are argumentative and require that students state a position and then defend it. In class I split students into small groups to discuss their answers; each group then reports whatever consensus it has achieved to the rest of the class. Often students descend into ill-formed verbiage when reporting their groups’ answers. In large classes, groups often repeat the general ideas of other groups – not very interesting to students, despite the peer-to-peer reinforcement of concepts.
Telling each group to create a grammatically-correct, one-sentence answer of fifty words or less generated a lot of activity – students’ heightened interest in collaborating on a piece of writing was an unexpected bonus. Even though all groups were working on their sentences for the same amount of time (typically groups can finish within five minutes), students viewed the task as a challenge and groups quickly turned the exercise into a competition to produce the sentence with the fewest words.
In the first few trial runs, students had no problem writing sentences that presented a claim supported by evidence in less than fifty words, so I cut the limit down to forty-five and then forty words. This increases the challenge to students and demonstrates how they can be very concise in their writing.
One caveat: having students come to the computer station to type in their group’s sentences for a class vote and a discussion on each sentence’s merits takes much too much time.