Friday, July 2, 2010

Part 8 -- What Else Did You Learn? (Teaching Strategic Intel Through Games)

Idro wargame mapboard detailImage via Wikipedia
Part 7 -- What Did The Students Think About It?

Many students have provided excellent feedback for improving the course.  The single most requested ‘tweak’ was, surprisingly, to include more games like Defiant Russia.  The old-school boardgame with its dice, hex maps and counters seemed to encourage a thoughtful, collaborative (at least among the players on each team) learning experience. 

In addition, the idea of replaying history was clearly appealing to many of the students.  Only one of the students had played anything similar prior to this class and it was unclear if any would voluntarily play something like Defiant Russia again but the overwhelmingly positive response to the game in the feedback suggests that there is still a place for these types of games in educational environments.

The main problem with a game like Defiant Russia and using it in an educational setting is the amount of time it takes to play.  For two experienced players, the game can move very quickly.  However, when playing it as I did, with two teams of inexperienced players, the first turn can last the better part of an hour.  The popularity of this experience demands, however, that I take an additional look at how I might be able to carve out time for another game like it.

Several other comments surfaced routinely.  First, there was a fairly common request to cut back on the number of games or to cut back on the games as the end of the course approached.  This request seemed to be driven by two separate reasons.  The first was that the lessons learned lost some of their potency, as students had to rapidly drop one game only to pick up and analyze another.  The second was that, for people who did not routinely play games, learning the rules to new games – even casual games -- every couple of days and in addition to the other work the course required  was difficult. 

On the one hand, “more time on fewer subjects” is classic pedagogical advice; on the other, “practice makes perfect” is also sound.  One of my goals was to encourage the students to not only be better but also quicker thinkers; to identify the patterns in complex, confusing issues rapidly and flexibly.  The incessant drumbeat of games over the course of the term seemed to accomplish this. 

Another goal, however, was to lock in knowledge important to the practice of strategic intelligence.  This kind of learning requires reflection and reflection takes time.  Clearly, the right answer lies in properly balancing these competing goals.  How to do that in the context of a specific syllabus is the real question and one that I will spend the next several months pondering.

Another suggestion that seemed to make sense was to do a better job of explaining how games-based learning worked.  I provided students with some explanation and resources early on in the course but decided not to spend much time discussing this unique pedagogical approach.  Given the feedback and the results of this study, it probably makes some sense to discuss this approach more fully with the students.  In fact, it is my intent to give them a copy of the paper on which these posts are based when classes begin in the fall.

Finally, there is one recommendation that I am considering with some hesitation:  Make the connections between the games and the topics covered in the course “more clear”.  My instincts say that this would be a mistake; that the purpose of the course is to challenge students deeply, to make them travel unlit paths in darkened forests, to attempt to climb insurmountable mountains.  I would rather have them try and fail for, the way I have constructed the course, there is no penalty in failing, only in not trying. 

Clearly, here, too, the question is one of balance.  At some point, the connection between the game and the topic can be so abstruse as to be impossible to find except through dumb luck.  Likewise, simple connections do little to foster the sense of exploration and discovery I think is critical to this approach. 

Beyond these more or less common themes, I have received a wide variety of other suggestions (including some game recommendations) that I intend to examine in detail before the next time I teach the class.  Regardless of what changes, additions or deletions I make, the conclusion seems inescapable:  Games-based learning, while not a perfect pedagogical approach, has merit worth exploring when teaching strategic intelligence.

Wrapping it up
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