computers, classroom, climbing, etc.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Playing games

I used to be a middle school teacher (8-10) and I was known for using games a lot in class. For some reason, the games didn’t accompany me on my switch to senior secondary school (year 12). Maybe I’m afraid that it will be harder to get older kids to play. Maybe I’ve become less playful myself.

Last week, I pulled myself together and played one of my favorites. The Market. Manipulative, lots of fun. Goes like this:

Pupils are told that they are going to play at ‘a market’. They are divided into 3 groups and everyone is given trading cards. There are three types, e.g. red, white and green. The most scarce (I used green) are also the goal of the game. Everyone tries to accumulate green cards. The groups are unequal and the largest group is given primarily the most common ‘base’ type – red. This group should actually be a majority. The next largest group gets more cards per player. They get reds too, and more whites, but still few greens. The smallest group gets a few reds, some whites and also the most green. Ideally, the teacher glosses over the inequality of the groups as much as possible by dealing out quickly and putting emphasis on the rules of play. No attention is given to the fact that the players are not given equal cards. (Put the red cards on top of the pile for each player).

Play occurs in rounds of about 5 minutes. Everyone trades individually. The ideal is to gather ‘sets’ of one red, one white and one green card. At the end of each round, each set ‘generates’ a new green card. During the round, the players trade with each other. At the end of each round, the group that has the highest combined score gets to agree on a new rule for the game. The teacher (the ‘referee’ ) can also come with new rules, usually rules that are only valid for one round. For instance, to stimulate activity in the first round, 3 reds can also ‘generate’ a green. To dampen ‘inflation’, the referee can create tax rules to siphon off green cards. Tax rules can also help level the playing field by being weighted instead of flat, but be warned that this can stimulate solidarity amongst the ‘rich’ group. If play goes on for a while, a rule will be needed for the conversion of green cards into white.


The idea is that the different colour cards represent different types of resources, say red for labour, white for knowledge or human capital and green for material capital. Profit requires combining different types of resources and profit can then itself be re-invested and form the basis of more growth.

The point of the game is what happens. These kinds of things tend to happen:

  • Most players increase their holdings.
  • The rich group wins.
  • Group solidarity forms, especially amongst the ‘poor’, and slowest for the ‘middle class’. In my class last week, pupils quickly got into their roles and began throwing out unfavorable characterizations of the other groups.
  • The ‘poor’ or ‘working class’ tend to gravitate towards group play, but this requires internal leadership (or heavy hinting from the teacher).
  • Pupils quickly get into the game and get surprisingly emotionally involved. All manner of underhanded tricks appear, cheating, intimidation, brinksmanship, etc.

The game is intended as a quick ‘Marxism light’ – demonstrating the functioning of class in industrial society, but my pupils pointed out that it could be any market system – modern world trade, for example. If people play rationally, then everyone tends to get richer, but while the poor get a bit richer, the rich get much richer, so it’s a good point.

It’s also interesting from a psychological point of view: how quickly groups form and how they relate to competing groups. My pupils last week from the winning group had a typical reaction: they were disappointed when they learned that I knew in advance that they would win. Even when it became clear that they had started with an advantage, they still liked to think that they somehow ‘deserved’ their position.

Endless fuel for classroom discussion here.

Picture credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/artemuestra/ / CC BY-SA 2.0'>Reuters / Micheal Caronna

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Mistaking access to information for learning

OK – the party line goes something like this:

‘Before’, information was scarce, so it made sense to crowd people into rooms where they all faced the front so that one expert could enlighten them.


‘Now’, information is readily available, so that this structure is obsolete.

The trouble with this analysis is that it starts with a false picture of the past. Most of what has ever been taught in schools has not been information that is particularly hard to come by.

Nothing I teach has ever been a secret. Most of what I teach is fairly simple, conceptually, and very easy to look up.

So, why do they pay me?

Because learning new stuff is difficult.

Skinner’s famous axiom was that (since we can’t see inside people’s heads) the only way to tell if someone has learned something is that they show new behaviour. Unfortunately, getting humans to act in new ways is difficult. Very difficult.

I feel left out of the party. The information revolution is supposed to be transforming schooling. “Pupils now have all the information in the world in their pockets and can find the answer to any question in seconds.” True, but irrelevant. This does not transform school, because school has never been about digging around for scarce information. This does not transform the role of the teacher, because the role of the teacher never has been the sole point of access to important but inaccessible information.

Information has become much easier to access in the last few years, but that ease of access has meant nothing for my teaching because scarcity of information has never been the issue. The difficulty of learning is the issue and sometimes I feel that all the digital revolution has given me are a bunch of shiny new toys that don’t even work half the time and distract my pupils when they do.

(Part 4 in the series Sick of Gurus)