Applying radical new thinking to learning design
I have been working on a technique to bring about innovation in learning design. It's not entirely my own idea, and the most powerful influence probably comes from an article written by Seymour Papert in the 1998 June Edition of Game Developer magazine and titled, Does Easy Do It? Children, Games, and Learning.
Anyway, I have been experimenting with the idea of designing learning using the language of game designers. I base the idea on the premise that the language in which you say something shapes, or at least colours, the reality. For example: English people say, "Life is what you make it". For my Mancunian grandparents that meant walking to the cotton mill in the dark, clocking in, clocking out, staying sober, clothing and feeding the family, and once each year taking them on holiday to the seaside. Contrast this with the French expression, "La vie, c'est bricolage." Now this suggests to me that you can craft your life, that it's a creative process, that it's sensitive, and may even be fun.
The learning design I am working with is that of George Gagnon and Michelle Collay, described in their 2006 book Constructivist Learning Design. The language I am working with, which is not usually applied to learning design but to games design, is that of Ernest Adams and Joris Dormans as described in their 2012 book Game Mechanics: Advanced Game Design.
The Gagnon and Collay constructivist learning design performs equally well in the classroom or online. This makes it particularly useful for designers of blended learning, because the format works in both the real and virtual environments. It is defined by its structure:
- situate the student
- group the students and the materials
- bridge the learning
- set a task
- let the task result in an exhibit
- convene a final reflection
- and bind the whole thing together with well-crafted questions.
The Adams and Dormans language is a symbolic language, joined by connectors. A Source produces a smooth or intermittent flow of resources that flow into Pools or down Drains. Actions can be performed on the resources, which can also be Converted and Traded. It can be run in the Machinations simulator to test and tune a game design, and it can be used to observe the emergent complexity of negative and positive feedback loops. It also manifests itself as a pattern language, which becomes particularly useful when a group of designers get together to workshop a design.
Pulling the whole thing together into a lesson plan (be it offline, online, or blended) goes something like this:
- Get all the students together and situate them in the environment, in the procedures, and in the topic.
- Have the students self-assign into groups, or assign them to groups; switch on the beat, it might fire once a second, once a minute or once a day, until the game ends
- The Source now starts pouring resources into the Pools, one for each group, and one common Pool, available to all
- The members of each group confer and decide to Action, Convert, or Trade their resources
- At a point in time the lesson-game moves to the next phase as everyone comes together in the forum to answer the Big Question.
- With the Big Question answered the lesson-game moves into the Final Reflection.
- Game Over.
What I have just described is the basic structure. Woven into this drab backcloth are coloured threads of complexity that enrich the lesson-game. Positive feedback loops drive the lesson-game forward at an ever-increasing rate, and negative feedback loops hold it from running out of control. Stock solutions to design problems are drawn from the Pattern Library: Dynamic Engine, Stopping Mechanism, Attrition, and Escalating Challenge, to name a few. Sometimes, to tip a wink at games folklore I dub the Big Question the Boss Monster.
By the time you have real people divided into teams wearing modified 3D cinema glasses such that the blue team can only see the red and green resources, and the green team can only see the blue and red resources; by the time some lunatic is enacting the Source and helper-elves are carrying them to the Pools, and the Traders are trading and the Converters are converting, and the resources that have not been converted by the end of the beat are thrown into the Drain, you'll be having insane FUN!
That is the essence of games in learning: raise your heart rate, get a glow on, rush around laughing, and who knows? The probability of learning something is certainly no less than sitting in a row staring at a whiteboard.