Teaching in the 21st Century

Traci GardnerTraci Gardner, known as "tengrrl" on most networks, writes lesson plans, classroom resources, and professional development materials for English language arts and college composition teachers. She is the author of Designing Writing Assignments, a contributing editor to the NCTE INBOX Blog, and the editor of Engaging Media-Savvy Students Topical Resource Kit.

Gaming the Writing Process

posted: 5.15.12 by Traci Gardner

What would happen if we rethought the ways that we think and talk about writing and the writing process to use the kind of language and thinking that people use when they play games? That’s the question I’ve been pondering during the several weeks since Katie Salen’s webinar, Making Learning Irresistible: 6 Principles of Game-like Learning. (Please watch Salen’s webinar for a complete explanation of her ideas, which I’ll refer to and summarize in this post.)

Last week I talked about how to make a curriculum relevant by thinking like a game designer when you structure your curriculum. This week I want to take that idea a little further by considering how a game designer might teach writing. How would my teaching change if I reconceptualized writing to apply the same strategies used during game play?

First, I’d have to place more of a focus on risk and experimentation. If I were playing Angry Birds, I’d try different tensions on the slingshot, and I’d aim the bird I was launching in various places. I’d experiment until I found the best combination. In the same way, Salen’s game-like approach to learning focuses on encouraging students to try out ideas. When something doesn’t work, the student hasn’t failed. Instead, the student takes the part that works, moves forward, and tries again (just as I do with Angry Birds). The key issue is the take-away from a particular iteration. The writing classroom would become a place where students try as many approaches as they like with no negative repercussions.

Second, I’d rethink some of the language I use when I talk about writing. In the schools that Salen works with, the writing process is discussed in terms of prototype and iteration. I think the language of lab reports might ultimately come in handy. As I encourage students to try different approaches, they can share a hypothesis on what they expect their approach to accomplish, talk about the procedure they will follow, report the data on their iteration, and arrive at questions and conclusions about a particular iteration. For example, a student might hypothesize that changing the style of a process paper could make it friendlier. She could then create a new iteration of her piece that tests that hypothesis, with no adverse consequence if it doesn’t work.

Third, I’d have to change the way I approach grading and coursework. Salen explains that the game designer’s job is to design a place where players can be successful. Unfortunately, many classrooms are not designed with that assumption in mind. She’s right, of course. The college composition classes I’ve taught were typically expected to result in a course average of a C. I wasn’t supposed to teach every student to be a great writer. I was supposed to teach students in a way that resulted in an appropriate average. If that meant failure for some, so be it.

What if that weren’t the case? As I was following up on Salen’s talk, I found a link (from Joe Dillon’s blog) to Paul Andersen’s TEDxBozeman presentation on classroom game design. Andersen talks about how we think of failure in education and in gaming:

If it takes you 80 times to clear the third elevator stage in Donkey Kong, that’s okay. Failure is simply part of the learning process. However, in schools we tend to stigmatize failure. You don’t get to take a quiz over and over and over again until you finally pass it.

What if students could write their texts over and over and over again until they passed? In a gaming approach to composition, students could have as many attempts to write their essays as they’d like. If it takes a dozen tries to finish a text, that’s okay. This approach falls in line with a basic behavioral grading system, which I’ll write more about in the future.

I still have a lot of questions as I consider talking about writing in the same ways that I talk about gaming:

  • How will students’ experiences with games affect the success of my approach?
  • How can I design the curriculum to mirror the challenges and rewards of game play?
  • What is the typical process of game play for the typical student in my classroom?
  • What language choices should I make to match the writing process to game play?
  • What is the parallel for game cheats and hacks in the writing classroom?
  • How can I incorporate the ideas of mastery and leveling up within the constraints of a college classroom?
  • What role do time constraints play when there are an infinite number of tries in an academic setting?

It’s going to take some time to find all the answers, but the possibilities excite me. The quotation from Nolan Bushnell in the image included with this post states, “Video games foster the mindset that allows creativity to grow.” Will rethinking the writing classroom to build similarities to video games foster that same creative mindset? Do you think this approach has possibilities? I’d love to hear from you. Join me at the next Connected Learning Webinar session, leave me a comment below, or drop by my page on Facebook or Google+.

[Photo: The Art of Video Games 2012 by blakespot, on Flickr]

Categories: Teaching with Technology
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