A weak light filters in through frosted windows and splashes across a table-sized world map as a gallery of onlookers poke each other and whisper in hushed tones. Two figures stand over the map and point to borders and replicas of military units, vocally processing the pros and cons of allowing one nation water rights in exchange for economic and military support. As the two negotiators come closer to striking a deal, many in the gallery look visibly relieved while other become nervous and restless, turning toward their own compatriots to discuss behind a cupped hand how this new deal will impact their prosperity.

No, this is not a scene taken from a G18 summit or some high stakes tête-à-tête from a Tom Clancy novel, although as adults we are all a bit predisposed toward thinking this type of capability is something unique to our well-developed brains. This scene is just a regular Tuesday, or any other day of the week for that matter, in the 4th grade classroom of John Hunter as his students attempt to achieve the unachievable in the “World Peace Game.

As a result of the exemplary work by Mr. Hunter’s class and others like it, educators at all levels are beginning to challenge the major assumptions that have informed educational practice for the last several hundred years. But in an ecosystem where everything seems to be disrupted by technology and alternative pedagogies, it can be equally difficult to differentiate between hype and substance. To help cut through some of this noise, I’d like to build on a recent conversation published in Hybrid Pedagogy to similarly address the fundamental principles of how humans teach and learn.

To some degree, we are all familiar with the idea of ‘work,’ whether we do it ourselves, assign it to our students or teach other people how to function in this rapidly changing paradigm. While we can all admit that the idea of ‘work’ has served us well as a society, by putting a man on the moon, developing solar panels and inventing jeans that are also pajamas, most astute educators realize that traditional methods are no longer producing the same results, meaning the very dynamics of the game have changed. However, a less adopted concept is gaining traction in certain educational circles that possess the ability to engage students at a deep level and help them develop the skills they will need to tackle the myriad changes that will surely confront them as they inherit the world and our problems — a concept called ‘play.’

Level 1: What Is ‘Play’ and How Can It Help?

After spending the past summer as an administrator for a Talented and Gifted Program (grades 4-7) on my university’s campus, I started to compare the ways in which our (i.e., educators’) expectations of classroom learning and the learner evolve as students age. As a result of this experience, and hours of ensuing research, the idea of ‘play’ has become increasingly important to my own understanding of how people learn. Although we can ‘play’ in many ways, I am talking about a specific kind of play whose definition is important to understanding its value in educational processes. From my research, I have chosen to define or measure ‘play’ as an activity that contains, possesses or exhibits some, if not all, of the following qualifications, which include some aspect of fun or novelty, a system that provides immediate or timely feedback and rewards that are in unpredictable and at time not always tied to course objectives.

Play is Novel

For an activity to count as ‘play,’ at least some part of it must be novel, or in other words non-productive. There is no inherent quid pro quo relationship in ‘play,’ at least not in terms of traditional educational currency (e.g., grades or formal evaluations). Although novelty itself is difficult to measure, it can be identified by its own artificiality. All participants, or players, are acutely aware that their actions in this specific context have no real bearing on the outcome of actual events. The National Institute for Play (NIFP), one of the largest advocates for returning ‘play’ to the classroom, would connect this concept to imaginative/pretend play or transformative-integrative/creative play.

In this mode of ‘play,’ students are able to extend beyond themselves because they can disregard the traditional social rules that moderate an individual’s inhibitions. Players do things they normally wouldn’t do and adopt roles and attitudes that they wouldn’t typically adopt, all of which advance an understanding of content knowledge. One of the often cited examples used by ‘play’ advocates deals with one of the most influential, and unconventional, thinkers of our time, Albert Einstein. In an apocryphal story, Einstein conceived of his Theory of Special Relativity by imagining himself riding on a beam of light. Had Einstein followed the path of a traditional academician, his capacity to daydream and engage in this type of imaginative play would have likely been severely diminished. Instead, Einstein embraced the creative and imaginative aspect of his own intellect and produced some of the most groundbreaking discoveries about the physical world in the last centuries.

Players Receive Feedback

Within the context of ‘play,’ players commonly receive feedback, either from other players or from the game itself if it possesses sufficient mechanics. In many types of ‘play,’ the rules or dynamics of ‘play’ are entirely defined by the players themselves, and these rules provide a framework of expectations that players must operate within, but also allow players the freedom to exercise their creative muscle in defining them. Feedback is important to student learning, as many research studies demonstrate, but immediate feedback is not always built into academic exercises. In most educational scenarios, students receive feedback in the form of a grade on a particular assignment or paper. Typically, academic feedback is untimely and usually incomplete, meaning that it occurs a significant amount of time after the initial learning activity and does not always contain the information necessary for the students to respond to the feedback in a meaningful way. In ‘play,’ however, feedback is received and given constantly so that the players are able to respond to this feedback in real time.

This system of constant feedback is due in part to the interactive nature of ‘play’ and educational games. Although classroom technologies such as Audience Response Systems (clickers) and pedagogies like the flipped classroom model seek to accommodate more active and engaged learning, students are still in many ways passive receivers of content, and their actions in these environments do not necessarily exert a changing force on the experience as a whole. However, when examining ‘play’ in this context, we find that experiences are conditionally based on the decisions of an individual or group of individuals. Project-based and games-based learning methods can restore this agency to the person we actually want making decisions and receiving feedback, the student.

Rewards Are Not Predictable

In ‘play,’ as in other games, rewards are not always distributed on a quid pro quo basis, as they often are in educational contexts. Rather, rewards are distributed at uneven intervals, which facilitates two main reactions from players. First, it motivates participants to try new things since the relationship between rewards and actions is not clearly demarcated. Second, unexpected rewards are psychologically more motivating than expected rewards, which then urge players to play for a longer length of time. Recent research has suggested that unexpected rewards lead to an increase in dopamine levels, one of the chemicals in the brain responsible for happiness and pleasure. However, while unexpected rewards lead to an increase in dopamine, expected rewards and expected punishments lead to no significant difference in a subject’s neural response to an expected outcome. One of the possible explanations for an increased dopamine response to unexpected outcomes, which is soundly rooted in basic learning theory, posits that an increase in dopamine signifies that the brain has been forced to integrate new information into an already existing schema.

To illustrate this concept using an example from video games, think about a player working through an RPG (role-playing game) such as Final Fantasy, World of Warcraft or Diablo. Players in this genre regularly invest hundreds of hours in developing personas and materials, creating relationships with other characters (either human or computer) and exploring virtual worlds. Throughout these games, players are presented with clear objectives, such as defeating a baddie in the depths of a dungeon, which all players must achieve to advance the storyline. However, what makes these players unique is their desire to fully explore the virtual worlds they inhabit, so most astute RPG-er’s will canvas every nook and cranny of that dark dungeon after achieving the objective to find whatever treasure, information or experiences are to be had in these far flung corners of the virtual world. These rewards, however, are by no means transparent, and players often spend hours opening and closing the doors to empty rooms, but they nevertheless persevere for those unevenly distributed nuggets of gold or treasure.

When comparing this behavior to the way we dish out rewards in a traditional educational setting, we begin to see that there is large disconnect between the way we structure objectives and their corresponding rewards and the neural responses that we want our students to have. Of course, we want and need all of our students to defeat the dragon in the dungeon, partially because this objective forms the bedrock for other adventures to come. But so often, we focus so heavily on this clear-cut objective that we forget to encourage them to explore the dungeon, and as teachers and scholars, we all know that type of unguided exploration can lead to some of the most meaningful and engaging learning experiences.

When a student slays your paper, destroys your proposal or annihilates an oral presentation, rewards and feedback are expected, just like the treasure trove we receive for defeating that pesky dragon, but very little neural stimulation occurs when this expected result comes to fruition. Before your next class session or project, ask yourself the following question: “How are you encouraging your students to explore the dungeon?”

Learning = Application

As teachers, we know that the best way to learn or acquire a particular concept or skill is to apply it to our own unique situation. The last thing we want is for students to view their education as a collection of discrete facts, with no real connection to each other or the world outside the classroom. As dutiful pedagogues, it is also important that we do the same to integrate new strategies into our own teaching.

In an effort to summarize our discussions thus far, when we simplify or reverse engineer the valuable aspects of ‘play,’ we are left with a paradigm that promotes the following things:

  • an educational experience that is fun, engaging and relevant to the students, with opportunities for different types of interaction

  • projects where the goals, objectives and trajectory are student-centered, or, better yet, produced by students themselves

  • a system that involves ongoing and timely feedback, from teachers, students and the outside world

  • an environment that rewards students for going beyond the objectives to explore the peripheries of a field or the intersections between two fields

Now, take a moment and think back to a time when you’ve used these things successfully, seen a colleague implement these pedagogies effectively, or imagine how you might use these ideas in a future class or project.

Post these thoughts to the comment thread below before proceeding to Level 2!

Level 2: How Does ‘Play’ Impact Higher and K-12 Education?

When we are young, ‘play’ forms a large part of our social interaction with other people and becomes the basis for most social and emotional, linguistic and cognitive development from ages 1-5. We learn about object permanence through games of peek-a-boo and begin to explore shapes and colors with the plastic box toy that engulfs the red square and the purple triangle. However, as people age and their synapses become less elastic, the centrality of ‘play’ in everyday life begins to dissipate. By the time students reach institutions of higher education, learning no longer equates to ‘play,’ and instead learning equates to ‘work.’ As many recent studies on workplace productivity demonstrate, the industrial notion of work may be anything but that. Given the industrial model of education and employment, workers are painted as distracted, busy people who require the strong fist of management to keep them on track. In contrast, ‘play’ offers a level of engagement that other activities cannot match, where all people are asked to complete similar tasks and are subject to the same mechanics.

It is clear that there is much to be learned from ‘play,’ both in terms of actual skills acquired during the act and how people learn in a novel context. Whether or not the shift towards games/project-based learning methodologies is simply a function of ever-shifting attitudes in higher and K-12 education is still a matter of conjecture, but it is clear the ideas of ‘play’ and ‘work’ are fundamentally misaligned in educational contexts.

Instead of concluding with a call to action, demanding reform at all levels, I’d prefer to end with a subtle suggestion: stop by a playground, or watch your children. Seek out nieces and nephews, or grandchildren enthralled in a game of fantasy or make-believe. Collect your own data from observing child at play. You’d be surprised at how adult-like children can be when they think no one is watching. ‘Play’ can be a powerful force in molding our behaviors and habits if we are open to embracing its principles. Our students’ lives after they leave our classrooms are unlikely to be laid out in a clear series of challenges defined by a well worn path. Instead their journey will be marked by an ambiguity that will require a certain amount of creativity and self-direction to conquer. So, as you watch that group of preschoolers play hide and seek, or that group of undergrads enthralled in a game of Magic, ask yourself the following question: What are you doing to help your students explore the dungeon?