Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 35 seconds

Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Gaming, parenting, and the myth of best practice

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Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 35 seconds

Reading Time: 5 minutes

I promise there’s a relationship between all three of the things in my title, so let me just go ahead and make it explicit before I babble on:
I think “best practice” is a myth in social sciences (can’t speak for the natural sciences, have not thought it thru yet) that are too complex and contextual to have any “one” set of best practices. As someone recently said somewhere (can’t remember who, where.): you can be the same teacher in the same institution teaching the same subject during the same semester, but you’d have one group of students who love an activity you do, and another group who just hate it. My friend Joyce had that exact experience last year and wrote about it here. I believe instead of best practice, we can share things honestly as, “there’s this thing that worked well for me a few times” and even better as, “but it might not work if…” (And recognize we may not have the complete picture).

Now parenting, that’s the epitome of where best practice makes NO sense. Not only are best practices conflicting to the point of insanity, but they are also cultural, gendered, etc., and yet almost always fail to capture the situation I personally find myself in as a parent given my toddler’s personality. Forgive my frustration with the potty training and the grandmas and the teachers and the other moms, but none of THAT is working for “us” and yet I have complete faith that “we” will get there some day! It’s one of those situations where if I as a parent cannot do it, or don’t want to, or if it does not work for my child, it really does not matter if it worked perfectly for hundreds of others. I am only speaking for myself. Others may feel differently πŸ™‚

Now gaming. That’s what we’re doing this make cycle in clmooc. I have this thing: I love playing with my students, always have. Turns out most of them love the ice-breakers I do almost every class. My secret original reason for doing these is to ease into class and in case someone is 5-10 mins late… I also have fun and like to have some laughter in my classes. Only recently did I teach a module where my freshman students (already trained in creativity and creative problem solving) would design an educational game. I loved doing this, and the students did a great job. We played lots of games and talked a lot about what we liked about games and what made them work well or not. I also recently played the twitter game twitter vs. Zombies (#tvsz) and it made me think of turning potty training into a game.

Now here is the thing. I like play and games. I do not like “gamification” of the type that consists of badges and extrinsic rewards. But here is the catch: I know that extrinsic rewards work well in some circumstances. I refused to use extrinsic rewards to wean my daughter because it did not feel right. I refuse to use extrinsic rewards for potty training because, first, my kid does not like sweets or such (unhealthy) things that can be easily given as rewards, and second, because she needs to want to do it for itself, not for some reward.

Other things i don’t like about gamification aside from the notion of extrinsic reward is the notion of competition (not applicable to potty training but applicable to classroom gamification). I like play or games that are enjoyable in and of themselves, not for some reward, and not because of the adrenaline rush of winning. Life does have win/lose situations, but why should they be like that? Why do we have to design education (which should be some sort of ideal of real life) that way? I mean, we already do usually educate and assess in competitive ways: norm-references grades depends on a curve; you compete against your cohort; standard-referenced grades makes learners compete against some external irrelevant standards that becomes totally ridiculous across cultures and contexts because everyone’s starting point, circumstances, resources, and pathways are remarkably different. I know, I know, there needs to be a way to differentiate students because there are limited spaces in the “next” level of whatever it is they are applying for next (college, work), and so they can know there is room for improvement or whatever, but that’s “feedback”, it does not need to be in the summative form of their “assessment”. I am not expressing myself well here, I think, on a complex issue, and i need to get back to it later (Shyam would advise me to sleep on it, but I’ll just come back to it later).

So… Back to games. One of the games I played with my students last semester was a trick role play game in which the ones who move least ahead are the winners (based on some roles and questions). They do not know this in advance, and I reveal at the end that the game is by a charity organization that is deciding whom among them is the “poorest” in order to give them a donation (in that case, I gave them dates to eat). It was not the best designed game, but the cool thing was that some of the students designed a game called “poor and proud” that was complex and deep in the most beautiful ways. It was like unMonopoly (am sure this exists, too lazy to google it now, anti-monopoly, maybe?) but more than just winning by losing, a lot of the activities they had people do when they picked up “chance” cards in the game were within the same spirit: people had to “sing” for kids in hospital; people had to watch others eat candy while they themselves could not; people got to switch places with someone beside them and “absorb” their circumstances; people had to clean the room, etc.

Another thing I am thinking about is the twitter vs zombies game. There is no explicit way to win that game. I guess you win either by staying human til the end or by being a zombie and converting most others into zombies or some such thing. For me the “win” was the “playing” and so it is not the end result.

Which reminds me of a a couple of things: watching a toddler, you realize that the less structured the “play” the more the potential learning. How and why is it, then, that our schools structure curricula so rigidly and think this is going to reach most students faster and better? We do this throughout education so thoroughly that people resent it when they’re asked to learn on their own in less direct ways that offer more opportunities for discovery and definitely for retention of what matters to them personally. The video/vialogue of this week by Gray I think also talks about the value of ill-structured play. Because games usually contain play but are not always emphasizing that important aspect. I mean, professional sports can’t be that much ‘fun’ for the ‘players’…

The other thing, slightly related to this, is the power involved in setting the rules of play and what that entails. With twitter vs zombies, the community could set some of the changing rules; the whole fact of changing rules was the most engaging part of the game! Otherwise i could not see it taking up two days of my life, you know?

The last thing that both Tanya Lau and Michael Weller brought to my attention via their comments on previous posts is: who decides what counts as a game? What kinds of characteristics do we expect a game to have and are those universal or culturally-specific (i am assuming i’ll hear some in-depth reflection about this from Shyam soon – oh he already has)point and not just the means to some other end.
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5 Comments

  1. Thanks for the excellent post, Maha. I was particularly struck when you wrote, “watching a toddler, you realize that the less structured the “play” the more the potential learning.” Like you, I don’t know why this is such a difficult concept for educators to grasp. Anyway, it fits nicely into a post I’m framing, so thanks for the inspiration.

  2. Maha, I wrote a rather weak (in the sense of being abstract) blog post for the gaming week of #clmooc, here.

    I take a kind of philosophical take on the idea tendency we sometimes have to forget the less “advanced” games in favor of what is techy, latest, etc. My thinking could be essentially a “sour grapes” complaint, but to explain/extend my arguments inspired by some of yours here, I am serious about several things: 1) simpler games can engage more people (due to access, culture/context, and perhaps universality), 2) not everyone is able to be techy, so if we acknowledge/define game/play as playful/creative and interactive modes of engaging and learning, then the possibilities for more people, 3) broadening the understanding and practice of game/play could also allow us to introduce more of gaming/play as creative modes of learning/teaching (or less “structured” as you call it) into the academic context.

    I plan to do some research and share how some of the creative games I played in South Asia relate to similar games in other parts of the world.

    I loooved your idea of Humpty-Dumpty comic variation a lot, btw–commenting in the wrong post (life’s crazy to find much time).

  3. I see ‘best practices’ as a post-positivist influence on education. But I also see the parallel in cancer treatment. The statistics provided (the best practices) are only useful as guidelines. They cannot tell me, as an individual, how I will react. I read up and listen to others experiences with chemo, so that I can be prepared – but I know that my experience will be a unique one. So, the ‘best practice’ goes to help guide, but it is not an absolute. The same goes for teaching. A ‘best practice’ helps me choose what might work, or helps me plan my lesson, knowing full well that my students may very well not respond to the best practice and I will then need to adapt. It is still useful to know what the best practices are, just not to expect that they are ‘rules’ to be followed, or even predictors of future success.

    • Hey Rebecca, that’s a great connection you make there. But aren’t medical “best practices” usually contextualized, e.g. Such chemo treatment works better for ppl with a certain gene, while this option might help ppl who care about x and y. I get this sense from your blog, not from what i know of medical practice, but I assume what you’re writing draws upon that? It makes sense to think of best practice discourse as post-positivist tho, so it explains why my postmodernist sensibilities are uncomfortable with it!

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