“Meaningful Choice” and Persistence in Teaching

Yesterday, I attended a workshop led by Michael Angst from E-Line Media on game creation in the classroom and its potential to help students engage with learning in various content areas and develop core skills at the same time. Mike talked a lot about flow and echoed James Paul Gee in describing what we can learn from students’ participation in video games and the features of what Gee calls “good learning.” He also introduced us to Gamestar Mechanic, an online space where students can make, play, and share video games. By helping kids shift from a player perspective—something they already understand and love—to a designer perspective, students are required to be creative, collaborate, and do some heavy-duty systems thinking, all of which are a pretty big deal in 21st-century learning.

Mike also explained that at least in part, MMPORGs (i.e., massively multiplayer online role-playing games like Worlds of Warcraft) owe their popularity to one of the key elements of good design: meaningful choice.

Games that embody meaningful choice:

  • are easy to learn but difficult to master,
  • allow players to have agency by driving the narrative, and
  • provide a balance of challenge and rewards that aren’t necessarily extrinsic.

On this last point, the reward of the game often derives from the simple pleasure of playing it for an extended period of time and getting good at it, usually in the presence of others who accord players status in recognition of their mastery.

As Mike talked about these qualities, I couldn’t help writing in the margins of notes, “This is actually true of teaching, too,” and it probably explains the persistence of those who defy the alarming attrition rate and stay in the profession in spite of everything. At its best, teaching feels more like a medium than a skill to me that is “easy to learn, but difficult to master.” (Well, maybe it’s not so easy to learn, but at least initially, the basics of it feel that way if you like kids and are passionate about what you’re teaching.) The rewards definitely aren’t extrinsic, but the potential for “driving the narrative” that unfolds in the classroom, or co-constructing it with the kids, does allow for agency if teachers are subversive enough to claim it.

Because subversion is what it takes to teach in ways that you know are best for kids in a day where the medium is increasingly dictated (read, “You will follow this script to teach this text/skill/concept.”). Still, against our better judgment sometimes, we play on.

And we do it because like Pip in Great Expectations, we have higher expectations of ourselves than does most anyone else around us who depends on the rhetoric that “schools are broken” to a) get re-elected, b) keep the presses running, or c) avoid paying higher taxes in the name of the public good.

In my next post, though, I want to take a closer look at something that can be an even more insidious threat to maintaining high expectations—the culture of school itself—and think about how National Writing Project is a different kind of MMPORG that helps teachers persist.

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One thought on ““Meaningful Choice” and Persistence in Teaching

  1. KevinHodgson says:

    I hope to read your second post (interesting concept of NWP as MMPORG).
    This sentence caught my eye:
    “The rewards definitely aren’t extrinsic, but the potential for “driving the narrative” that unfolds in the classroom, or co-constructing it with the kids, does allow for agency if teachers are subversive enough to claim it.”
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
    Kevin Hodgson
    Western Mass WP

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