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.
Just after Scot Osterweil offered me an extra sweater (Thanks, Scot!), and just before arriving at the after-dinner bonfire, I tripped. Due to the ensuing hospital visit, I missed out on the s’mores at the bonfire and I also did not get the benefit of the second day of the workshop. But I participated in enough of the discussion on the first day to be excited about what the group was beginning to do together, and to be deeply appreciative of the openness and flexibility that our colleagues brought to the process.
Since the workshop, I have been thinking a lot about a fundamental tension that arose multiple times in our discussions. Educators, on the one hand, have a foundational commitment to privileging accurate knowledge, right answers, and clarity of understanding. Game designers, on the other, have a deep commitment to the players’ right to failure, exploration, and subversion. Educators do know that students need time to play and explore as they learn, but we envision their exploration as being surrounded by scaffolds—that great visual metaphor that Vygotsky gave us. But how strong, how evident, and how flexible should that scaffold be in a good educational game? In several of our conversations, game designers challenged an over-reliance on narrative as a way to insert directive scaffolding into the play experience within a game. At the same time, educators sometimes advocated for extensive narration as one way to provide guidance to ensure that students eventually move forward in the “right” way. In the science group, Scot Osterweil told us compelling stories about how the narrative of Vanished drove kids toward extensive, meaningful offline scientific inquiry. In that game, the narrative was central to students’ motivation to engage and to learn, but it did not try to encompass or subsume students’ actual investigations within the boundaries of that narrative.
So, the issue is not “narrative context, good or bad for learning,” but how might the students’ active engagement in conceptual learning best intersect with a games’ narrative structure? Is the narrative there to constrain choices? To provide motivation for learning? To deliver important context clues for learning? This is one of those challenges that feels very familiar, but also very under-explored.