Friday, February 4, 2011

Plato & Games

There was a public debate between two of my professors in college regarding whether or not movies were the fulfillment of Plato’s “cave.” We sit in the dark, watching images on the screen, one argued, and all of our conversations revolve around those images, waiting eagerly for the next shape to appear.

The professor who argued against movies profoundly misunderstood the ancient philosopher, I audaciously believe. Plato was complaining about fiction, about “making up” things that are not true and are thus far removed from the Form—the essence of Truth. He illustrated his objection…with a story, a fiction about people living in a cave.

Plato liked to trap his interlocutor with false dilemmas and misleading assumptions, and if we fall for those traps, we too will be left laughing at the mindless crowds who pack themselves into movie theaters with overpriced popcorn.

Instead, I think Plato wanted us to see the value of story. He uses these fictions to convey his ideas about Truth. Nathan the prophet did the same thing when approaching King David about his sin with Bathsheba. And when God became Incarnate, He spent the precious time He had with His disciples…telling stories. Parables.

I learned about the Russian Revolution as a high school English teacher teaching Animal Farm. I have never since been able to look at communism without hearing the echo of the horse’s insistent voice, “I must work harder.”

History texts are written about kings and conquerors. Stories give voice to the unnamed peasants who suffered the change…or lack of change that came with a new regime, a natural disaster, a plague.

I’m an English teacher—of course I believe that stories are important and powerful. Recently, though, I have come to see stories woven into games. As my husband and I play with our children and each other, I have noticed that we are weaving a narrative. We know from years of playing Risk, for example, that Madagascar is a fierce island off the coast of Africa that absolutely cannot be defeated, even if one brings all the power of Rome against the tiny island.

We understand from Axis and Allies the geographical reasons that America had great resources but a difficult time applying them to the problem. There is a force at work, invisible, beneath the board of Gobblet, spinning pieces round like a spider’s web trapping its prey.

There’s a living memory in shared games. We know that the yellow pieces in Risk cannot win—they are cowards and klutzes and fall on their own weapons. We know that gold fever can wreck a sailor’s ships in Seafarers.

When I was a child, I could not add 75 and 75 very quickly, but I knew six quarters were a dollar fifty. I am terrible with geography, but I know Madagascar is off the eastern coast of Africa and Irkutsk is in Russia. I can only spell ‘Mississippi’ when I let the jump rope chant run through my head.

Most of us can put information on a short term go-cart ride from the text to the test, but I believe stories help us move information from the short term go-cart track to long-term neural pathways we’ll keep with us. Historical fiction and playground rhymes are great ways to build these neural highways.

Telling the stories ourselves, though, has an even greater impact on long-term learning, understanding, and making cross-curricular connections. Games allow us to tell the stories ourselves, to interact with the decisions and disasters that faced our predecessors, whether that be a world war or making change from $500.

If Plato had lived in this century, I think he would have argued against movies….and I think he would have made his point via film.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Should School be Fun?

Some homeschooling friends are debating this question right now, vacillating between guilt that their kids aren’t having enough “fun” homeschooling and conviction that too much fun in the early years will lead to an inability to concentrate and work hard later on.

I did what any responsible educator would do: I asked my kids.

Should school be fun? “Of course,” they agreed. “Why wouldn’t it be?” So I told them that some teachers thought that might not be a good idea, and their jaws dropped.

First, they think fun is good. They suggested that school is often as fun as playing. I think the key here, though, is not necessarily offering chocolate chips for every worksheet completed, as my nine-year-old suggested, but in teaching kids to enjoy learning. Instead of making up games to make reading seem fun and broccoli taste good, we should be finding good books and great recipes.

Of course, I try to keep the competition at a minimum, too: television and sugar can stunt perfectly good taste buds.
Second, my kids pointed out that even if you enjoy school, there will still be other things in life that you have to do that aren’t fun, like chores, which are mostly not fun.  Of course, if you’ve been taught to enjoy things, sometimes even chores can be a little fun.  Sometimes, you actually get more chores done by racing Mama or playing soldier, with the mess being enemy combatants.  Learning to make unpleasant tasks more palatable might just be an important life skill, a first step on the path to self-discipline.
Finally, my kids think that they’ve retained more information because they enjoyed the process of learning it.  When education is fun, you find yourself thinking about wars and grammar rules even when no one’s making you do it.  The information sticks better when it becomes part of your private thought-world.
Education that makes you think, makes you interact with ideas and information, can’t help but be fun.  I’d be willing to guess that most of the time, if learning is not fun, it’s because the student is not being challenged.  This does not necessarily mean he needs harder work–sometimes it could be quite the opposite.  Building a skyscraper would not challenge me; it would be too far over my head to even begin!
On the contrary, challenging kids assumes working within their range of ability with a little stretching.  Instead of more math problems or harder ones, then, a kid is challenged, I believe, when he is invested in his work.  Counting money for Monopoly is a lot more fun than counting black and white money printed on a worksheet.  Counting money from a jar of coins in order to buy something yourself is even better because it’s relevant.  One allows you to play a game; the other allows you to buy a game.
Right now, my kids are in the other room arguing over rules to a game that they’re designing themselves based on the sea battles of World War I.  My eyes glaze over when people start talking about battle ships versus cruisers, different kinds of ammunition, and various war planes, but suddenly, for the sake of designing a strategy game, I’m fascinated by the details and capabilities of each.  As we work together to balance simplicity and complexity, we see the problem of supplying troops.  The battle ships that the books said were big, are Really Big.  They fit in our hands, but they can cross several tiles of water and take out every cruiser in their way in one turn.  That’s relevant.  That gets our attention.
We will go back and read again about the Bismarck when we’re done, and instead of another battle, another general, another page, my kids will see a brilliant military strategist.  Then they’ll probably try to copy the strategy and beat me at my own game.
I think that asking if school should be fun might be the wrong question.  One of us hears “fun” and thinks “entertainment” while another one thinks “engaging.”  One of us hears more work for the teacher while another imagines more responsibility for the student.  I think with different phrasing, we’d probably agree on the latter.
There’s also the concern that if kids don’t learn to do things they don’t enjoy now, then they won’t have the responsibility to do them later.  I’ve been thinking about this argument especially.  I imagine Office Space.  My kids under fluorescent lights, carrying cups of burned coffee to their cubicles, swiping time cards for lunch breaks.
That happens to some of us.  Sometimes life puts us in places where we have to do things we don’t want to do, but it’s necessity that enables us to do them, not discipline.  Those with a good education and strong self-discipline end up in jobs they love more often than the rest of the world.  If you want to do more of what you love, if you want your job to be “as fun as playing,” as my kids described school, then you have to learn how to enjoy things that others see as hard work.  You have to learn to care about what you do, so that it will be relevant.  Then, if you do somehow end up on Office Space, at least you won’t be the guy hiding out in the break room protecting his red stapler.  Maybe instead, you’ll look around the office, chuckle, and write a great movie.