Dr. Katherine McMillan Culp, Director of Research at EDC|CCT and co-PI of the Possible Worlds project, presented a video describing our theory of conceptual analogies and our research, and demonstrating the Possible Worlds modules we’ve developed, at a meeting of IES project directors in Washington, DC, on September 5. We’re pleased to present the video here:
I enjoyed the two days on Bainbridge Island, but I left a little frustrated, feeling like we’d just started a good conversation and then cut it short. As I understood it, our collective charge was to begin building a way for educators and designers to talk with each other so that they can each communicate their respective needs and … praxes, for lack of a better way of expressing it at the moment. We didn’t get there in the history group, though by the second day we did begin talking in much more specific terms, which was a start.
Here’s what I’ve been chewing on since those conversations:
- Game designers, at least in that setting, were more at ease talking about specific activities, which stands to reason given that motivating activity is their bread and butter—it seemed they were more comfortable talking about procedures.
- In history education, there’s often more focus on concepts, which are abstractions by definition and aren’t easily expressed in terms of activities.
- K–12 educators have a voracious appetite for “stuff” that can accommodate multiple needs (theirs and students’) and objectives, which include concepts AND procedures.
This is a gross oversimplification, but my sense is that many history educators are more comfortable talking about concepts than they are procedures, whereas many game designers are more comfortable talking about procedures than they are concepts. This leads to a few challenges:
- A pragmatic approach to developing educational games suggests that we focus on practices, because that’s what games are inherently better at—that is, practices logically tied to the learning objectives.
- Concepts, at least in history, somehow seem more narrative—that is, I’m having a hard time thinking about concepts in terms of activity, whereas I can think about them in more narrative terms by connecting events, people, or processes over time (or maybe it’s better expressed in terms of gestalt? This is murky…). While games often do include narrative, it’s always secondary to process.
- BUT: There is a relationship between procedures and concepts in any given domain, and conceptual understanding is more likely to lead to transfer.
So, perhaps history educators and game designers can begin by talking about what “conceptual understanding looks like in practice.” That is, rather than think about concepts inertly, in the abstract, or as finished products, how do educators (or more likely, content experts) envision conceptual understanding as tied to activity? That activity gives game designers a process-based framework for thinking about how to design games that promote processes associated with the concept. “Situated cognition” seems to be the right theoretical framework.
One way for both sides to develop a common language is to think about this through the lens of “experience design”: Teachers and game designers (ideally) both construct problem spaces that promote problem-solving and practicing skills that contribute to problem solving. Among the things that good teachers do, two are helping students make connections across a wide range of topics and working through their folk theories (or misunderstandings) to achieve deeper conceptual understanding. These changes occur through practice and activity. Games can do the same, though the size and complex logic of the games is the subject of a different post. But just for starters, if teachers and designers can think about what objectives look like in terms of activity, they can work backwards to design the problem spaces that will promote their achievement.
After much tweaking, piloting, and re-tweaking, our Module 1 Classroom Game is ready for action! Our goals were ambitious: We were determined to create a low-tech, collaborative classroom-based game that would prompt students to use higher-order thinking skills (argumentation and reasoning) in order to evaluate claims and evidence about photosynthesis. And just as importantly, the game had to be fun!
The result of our efforts is No Way!. Students play the role of science fact-checkers working for a fictional website, NoWay.com. They must figure out whether three incredible-sounding stories that report on natural phenomena are actually true. Each story involves photosynthesis, but the claims made in two of them are based on common misconceptions about the process, specifically having to do with the role of soil. Two of the stories, therefore, can be definitively refuted if students draw upon the necessary knowledge of photosynthesis. Students are asked to review a range of available evidence, evaluate how evidence serves to support or refute story claims, and construct an argument for or against the story’s validity based on that evaluation.
Our development process brought the word “iterative” to a whole new level. At this point, we’ve piloted the game in more than 10 classrooms. Through each round of testing, we learned more about how difficult it is for kids to engage in the types of argumentation and reasoning that the game requires. Our new understandings had implications for how to design our materials more effectively to scaffold students as they played the game. For example, until the most recent round of testing, we provided students with “Claim Sheets” on which they were prompted to (1) determine if particular evidence was relevant to one of the story’s claims, and (2) decide if the evidence supported or refuted that claim. During our field tests, this process proved to be overwhelming for many students because we were asking them to go back and forth repeatedly between two very different types of thinking. The current version of the “Claim Sheets” have been duly pared down and now include prompts to first help students make decisions regarding relevance, and then consider whether it can be used to support or refute a claim. We also created “Tim’s Guide,” a PowerPoint that explicitly models the process that students will go through during the activity.
We piloted these new materials during our most recent field test, and observed a much more streamlined and manageable classroom experience in which students engaged with the materials, had on-task group discussions, and eagerly defended their positions.