The Path of Least Resistance

October 8th, 2016

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It is as though we spend our whole life resisting, in search of the path of least resistance. Learning, though, requires that we abstain from the easy path and submit ourselves to struggle. One of the responsibilities of a teacher is to break through a student’s defences, find their way through to the dark recesses of their brain, and turn off the hidden switch labelled “resist”. Unfortunately this task is no easy feat and often requires the right mixture of good planning, good execution, and luck. When it does work, though, and students develop that hunger for challenge, well, that’s when the magic happens.

During a shift in semesters my favourite class had been reduced to two students, and one day only one of the two showed up. The 7-year-old girl in attendance was highly capable, but had a refusal complex where she would not participate in any of the classroom activities because they were “too simple”. The opposite was true. She was afraid of being challenged and would invariably give up every time the going got tough. Taking advantage of her role as the only student in the class, she refused to cooperate for the first half of the lesson.

In the second half, though, something clicked. I introduced my Bag, Beg, Big, Bog, Bug phonics game and ran her through variant one to eight. That is to say, she learnt how to transcribe three- and four-letter words in about 30 minutes—from nothing! The activity’s cyclic scaffolding gave her the confidence to power through to the more difficult challenges. The change in her behaviour was immediately apparent. She stopped giggling, stood upright, listened attentively, and did exactly as told. It was as though she was under hypnosis—which is, of course, true, as she was under the spell of a well-crafted mental challenge. She stayed focused for the remainder of the lesson until her parents arrived for the parent’s meeting, where she skipped out of the classroom as her usual self.

When I reflect on my own time at school and throughout life I regret that I didn’t give in to some things earlier. I guess it takes us all some time to accept the work involved in developing ourselves, and even then we’re not always accepting of it. When one puts down their sword and shield and stops fighting the squeeze of education, the results can be life-changing.

In early 2008 I stumbled across the Critical-Gaming blog. Reading the site used to give me headaches. I knew it was probably “good for me”, though, because the author Richard Terrell could articulate aspects of games that I didn’t even know existed before, and he supported his theories with a wealth of examples from popular games. After reading the site on and off for a few months I decided that I had to knuckle down and give his work the close reading it deserved. At the time I had just moved abroad to China to study and was lonely and isolated. Every couple of days I would walk down to the nearby, smoke-filled internet cafe and stash a handful articles onto a USB (enough to last me for the following few days) and then return home to read them alone. Richard’s articles were as eye-opening as they were challenging to read, but I persevered nonetheless.

In early 2009 I started talking with Richard over AOL Instant Messenger. I remember how we would get into these epic debates which I could never quite dig myself out of. At the time I was also somewhat in denial over which direction to take my writing. I knew in my gut that I had a lot to learn from this guy. Yet I also knew that he was alone on his crusade for better discussions around games and bringing my writing up to scratch would involve a tremendous amount of work (a goal which I am still pursuing today).

One day the two of us got into an argument which I could never hope to win, whether Smash Bros. is a fighting game or a party game. Richard whooped my butt and I was rightfully embarrassed. Soon after—and despite feeling bitter over the verbal bruising—I accepted the truth presented to me: if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. I studied up on Richard’s theories and began incorporating them into my writing. My initial efforts and the ongoing support from Richard led me to write my first book, Game Design Companion: A Critical Analysis of Wario Land 4, which was the biggest struggle of my life. It took me years of hesitation to accept the ideas of someone who clearly knew much more than me, but such is the nature of learning. As life continually reminds me, good learners accept their role as a relative amateur and rather than put their pride on the line, they put faith into the knowledgable other.

A good teacher can spend many years trying to win over a student. And a willing student can spend many years attempting to burn the bridges to the path of least resistance. Yet when players (students) and game designers (teachers) come together in a video game, the learning experience is relatively free of struggle. It is as though players come into the experience with their resist switch flicked to “submit”. And that is a tremendously powerful thing.

[Originally written in 2013]

Post-mortem: 2010-2013 Classroom Games Part #5

September 20th, 2016

[This piece was originally written for Adventures in Games Analysis: Volume I back in 2013. I now feel that it would be too indulgent to dedicate some 6,000 words on myself to paid copy. Plus, these activities—whilst good in their own right—are not an accurate reflection of my current teaching practice. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.]

Developing Presentation Skills

Aim: To prepare the students for giving speeches.

I like to run my teenage students through a series of debating classes. In terms of language teaching, debating is a wonderful alternative to the skill-and-drill death march of the Chinese education system as:

Although classroom debates take a few lessons to establish, once the students get a handle on the structure they practically run themselves. Before I cover debating I focus on public speaking because without good presentation skills, the students can’t have a debate. I mean—literally—if some kid mumbles through their argument, it’s hard for the others to form a rebuttal. I begin these lesson by giving a bad speech and having the students identify my weaknesses. From there we form a list of dos and don’ts. I then give the students a pre-prepared speech and a few minutes to practise before they speak in front of the class while their classmates evaluate them against the aforementioned student-developed criteria.

I like to model a bad speech as it provides a safe and accessible starting point. Having the students critique my delivery and develop the list of dos and don’ts gives them some buy-in (i.e. makes it harder for them to squirm out of the activity) and prepares them for the subsequent step (both in terms of critiquing their classmates and giving their own speech). The students are also encouraged to consider language as performance (contrary to the dominant language as a system view), which is a nice bonus.

In the second lesson I cover the criteria more thoroughly through short mini-games. Here are two examples:

Eyes Around the Room

I have a student stand in front of the class and talk about themselves. Meanwhile I’m at the back of the room holding up a brightly-coloured object and moving from left to right. The speaker must talk and look at the object at the same time. When I click my fingers they have to gaze into the eyes of someone in the audience. A second click returns them to me. The goal is to encourage students to make different types of eye contact. Keeping the speech going while following the brightly-coloured object, i.e. multi-tasking, is the core form of engagement. As with many of the games introduced so far, my role as the facilitator allows me to scale, balance, and add mix-ups to the game.

Eye Contact Face-Off

I split the class into pairs and have one of them stare into the other’s eyes while introducing themselves. The quiet student must call me as soon as the speaker looks away. The pair then switch roles. The student who can talk the longest without looking away is the winner. This game attempts to make the students less afraid of looking into someone’s eyes when speaking to them.

These two games exaggerate the significance of their respective speaking skills so that when the student speaks naturally they will still remember to incorporate these elements. It’s more a case of having students be more concious of the nature of speaking, than mastering these skills outright. The gimmicky nature of these games helps support this function. One of the reasons why I decided to create these game is because I found it hard to speak a second language whilst looking someone in the eye.

Debating Skills Practice

Aim: To improve the students’ rebuttal skills and the quality of their arguments.

I like to structure the debating classes so that one week we have a debate and the next we do debating skills. The following is an example of a debating skills lesson. You can read about how I conduct classroom debates here. Each step tests a different debating-related skill (see parentheses).

I present the class with a speech based on the previous week’s debate topic. As I read aloud, the students write down the weaknesses in my argument (listening and taking notes). After reading the speech a second time, I have them share their ideas with the class (akin to the open discussion of the floor). This gives the students a more complete picture of the potential for criticism. In pairs they must then write a rebuttal for each point (preparing counter arguments). Once they’ve finished, I give them a print-out of my original speech and ask them to rewrite it so as to counter all of their rebuttals while maintaining the original arguments (planning for potential rebuttals). With the speech rewritten, I then have one student from each group read their text to the class (presentation skills) while their classmates listen and note down any flaws in the argument, as they did with the original speech. The class then share their criticisms, which can sometimes lead into mini-debates as the group who spoke defend their rewrite (akin to the open discussion of the floor). By this point I’m usually out of time, but as you can imagine we could continue this cycle multiple times with the students digging ever deeper into the central argument on each rotation.

The student-centred, student-generated nature of this activity is its core strength. The students pick apart a speech, use their rebuttals to improve it, and then have their improvements dissected in the same way as the original speech. They bounce between different roles and different tasks, but remain anchored to the core argument. This allows me to test a variety of skills from the perspective of both the proposition and opposition, while reusing and building off of the students’ earlier efforts.

Conclusion

Over the past 3 years I’ve come up with more than a hundred classroom games, ranging from five-minute mini-games to projects that span over four 2-hour lessons. Some have been good; others have been awful. Regardless, the teaching context is constantly changing and there’s only so far you can get recycling the same old material, so it pays dividends to constantly be on the offensive planning new games and activities week in, week out. Video games and games analysis have helped guide my teaching practice and have sparked the light of inspiration in times of creative drought. By analysing a sample of my classroom games, we’ve been able to explore the relationship between the two disciplines of video game and classroom game design.

Post-mortem: 2010-2013 Classroom Games Part #4

September 13th, 2016

[This piece was originally written for Adventures in Games Analysis: Volume I back in 2013. I now feel that it would be too indulgent to dedicate some 6,000 words on myself to paid copy. Plus, these activities—whilst good in their own right—are not an accurate reflection of my current teaching practice. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.]

Slip Matching Game

Aim: To test the students’ understanding of vocabulary and grammar.

Slip matching games are common in ESL teaching. You write a few words on some pieces of paper and have the students match them up. Such activities may include:

There are various different dynamics going on in these games: the physical moving of slips, the team work and social dynamics, and the sharing of collective knowledge among students. Here are some of my own special variants:

Wrong Months

When teaching months I create two sets of words: one with the months spelt correctly and one with the months spelt incorrectly. I then mix them together and have the students find the months with the correct spelling and arrange them from the start of the year to the end. For the first step, the students recall the spelling of each month and compare it with the spelling on the paper. For the second, they recall the order of the months and arrange the slips of paper accordingly. Most students do both at the same time. I like this game because two sets of knowledge are tested for the price of one. By adding an extra layer of complexity (misspelt words), I was able to achieve much more depth out of this game (depth being  the higher-order task of managing two distinct processes simultaneously; spelling and month order).

The Never-ending Listening Task

I take a dialogue from the text book, remove a couple of words per sentence, and print each line out on a slip of paper. In class I set the dialogue’s audio track to repeat on a loop and have the students arrange the slips of paper in sequence and fill in the word gaps. As the students can’t complete the task on their first listen, their progress is suspended across multiple runnings of the dialogue. Therefore each time they listen they have to listen for different pieces of information—whether that be to identify the next part of the conversation, check an answer from the previous rotation, or listen for the missing word. Groups of students work together to complete the task and they all hear the dialogue at the same time, and so there’s a lot of potential for interplay between them (such as when one student hears an answer that another student was listening for). By making a few alterations to the formula, I was able to transform a simple slip sorting task into a “listening for specific information” task which shifts dynamically with the students’ progress.

Category Mix-up

I put together a group of words that can be sorted into multiple categories and have the students–you know–sort them into the those categories. For example, the students could sort food words by flavour, size, colour, food type, healthy/unhealthy, and the meal at which they’re eaten. Switching up the parameters forces the students to filter the content and tests adaptation skills.

Have/Don’t Have Game

Aim: To get young learners engaging in natural dialogues using “have” and “don’t have”.

I have the students sit in a circle and close their eyes. One by one each student opens their eyes, takes a picture card, and places it face side down on their lap. Once everyone has a card, they can open their eyes. I then ask each student, “Do you have a …?” and they answer, “Yes/no, I have/don’t have a …?”. For the second round (the main game), I have the students ask each other. The student who answers one question must then ask the next. When a student guesses correctly, the other student must forfeit from the game. The last remaining student wins.

It’s best to choose a group of words that the students know well, this way you can focus all your attention on the grammar.

From a teaching standpoint, what I like about this game is that it gives young students the opportunity to construct their own dialogue independently. From a game design standpoint, I love the deductive reasoning and decay dynamic (the more students sit out, the fewer answers remain) and how the two feed into each other. For the kids the social interaction is engaging in and of itself, but the option to scale the difficulty by listening carefully and thinking deductively adds a layer of higher-level play. From personal experience, the difficulty level is optimal for 6-year-old students as they’re just old enough that they can engage on a higher level, but doing so is still a challenge. The game also has a card-game-like quality where the students must hide their cards from their classmates.

In Part 5, we’ll explore a series of activities related to debating.