If Teaching was a Game
Friday, April 11, 2008 at 9:27AM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid)

No I'm not talking about Professor Layton. I'm talking about the thing that most people think is going on inside the walls of public schools and even Universities. A semi old issue of Time magazine contains an article entitled "How To Make Better Teachers." The article addresses several angles on the issue including paying teacher more for better performance and how to go about evaluating performance in the first place. It's true. Teachers don't get paid enough for the work they do, and they're not valued enough for the impact they have on the future of our nation.

My mother is a teacher. She has been all of my life not only to her elementary students, but to my family as well. She, along with several other select few, has impacted my life in an enormous way. If you sit down and think about it, teaching is very similar to parenting. Rules are set. Structures are created. Boundaries are exercised. Consequences and punishments are issued. Results are measured. Goals are reached. And if you think even further, both teaching and parenting sound like a game. I have met many that still think of teaching as if it were as simple as some kind of authority standing before a group of individuals spewing out information that the students would then be responsible for come test time. And what may be worse, some still think learning exists in an abstract, uncontrollable, and independent space that can only be entered by each individual because each person is unique and learns differently.

It is difficult to approach analyzing teaching because the teaching spectrum is scattered and is only becoming less controlled as the universe moves towards chaos. Teachers often assume that their students have internalized certain fundamental mechanics and proceed accordingly. Were we ever taught how to memorize information, or did we just starting doing it and we were either good or bad at it? Teachers have to assume a lot of their students. So instead of writing about one teacher, I'm starting a small series writing about several experiences with teachers good and bad that highlight aspects of game design we should all be familiar with by now.

Dr. Deforest, my piano teacher for about 3 years, had a very unobtrusive style of teaching that put the focus squarely on me. Just assume that as some point in my adolescence, I was bitter about taking piano lessons even though I've always loved the piano. Dr. Deforest knew that without my corporation and without a correct attitude on my part, there would be no teaching or learning to happen between us. I remember that first bitter day of our lessons. Dr. Deforest had given me a song to practice which I did so diligently. But upon playing it for him at my lesson, Dr. Deforest said something along the lines of "you didn't practice it did you?" So instead of answering my teacher, I stop playing and sat there. And he sat there as well. For nearly an hour, we just sat there not saying or doing anything until the lesson was over. And when time was up, he cheerfully told me to continue working on the piece and that he'll see me next week.

At the time, I was more than familiar with the radical teaching styles of many of great teachers who are often depicted on television. I've seen the episodes where teachers patiently wait on their stubborn students. Needless to say, it's always different and more interesting in real life. So, from that fateful first lesson, I had a clear understanding of my new teacher, and from then onward, I worked hard at the piano. Dr. Deforest challenged me with difficult musical selections always taking great care to find songs that match my personal styles. He was always encouraging and straight with me. Even after recital performances he let me know what he thought of my playing: "What happened to the first song?" He's is the kind of teacher who knows that learning only goes as far as the student is willing to go on any particular day. Finding the right pacing and rhythm is worth sacrificing a few lessons here or there.

Games have wonderful ways of setting the pace. Between tutorials, practice modes, free roaming modes, difficulty settings, and sections without any major consequences, games can supply tools and create scenarios that the player can access in order to match their playing to their internal pace. We don't normally think of goofing off in Vice city, or running our characters in circles for small periods of time as productive. However, our brains are constantly adjusting our attitudes and actions based on how much stress it can handle at any given time. The best games are structured so cleanly and communicate the game system so well, that the player always feels like it was their fault they lost.

Is anyone surprised that games have secretly been teaching us all along?

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (http://critical-gaming.com/).
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