Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Books that influenced my teaching

A colleague is undertaking a sabbatical project that involves collecting books related to teaching in higher education. I was honored to be asked to provide some for his list, and in the spirit of last week's post, I figured I would share them here as well. He was asking specifically for books about teaching in higher education, which I'll start with; he also clarified with me over email that particularly inspirational disciplinary books may also be of use to him, so I'll share some of those as well.

General Teaching Books

Without going back through my old notebooks, here are the books that I remember reading and enjoying. I've provided Amazon links mostly to remove any ambiguity, not because I have any particular need for people to shop there.
  • How People Learn is an excellent overview of what is known about learning, and I remember that reading this helped me build a better understanding of some core educational concepts. Like most professors, I had practically no formal education in how to teach, and I had picked up a lot of folk wisdom; this book was useful for turning this ad hoc understanding into something more rigorous.
  • How Learning Works, I read this about the same time as the previous one, and I remember it covering similar ground but with more emphasis on higher education. Since I read these at the same time, and many years ago, I may have muddled some of their influences, but to me that's okay: I believe I have internalized most of the main premises into my action, and that was the goal.
  • Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. This book was recommended to me by a colleague, and it was fundamental in helping me shape my current understanding of learning as a social process. I have directly drawn on the ideas of this book in designing my game production studio courses. If anything, I wish I could use more of the ideas in this book: my main annoyances in higher education are precisely those conventions and structures that make it hard to follow the patterns of LPP described here.
  • Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn provides another overview of the science of teaching and learning, framed and supported by the Visible Learning meta-studies. This is a fascinating piece, and in some ways it is a quantitative counterpoint to Situated Learning's qualitative perspectives. It's fascinating and well-supported, and yet the authors' apparent disdain for non-quantitative work left me feeling uneasy. (For what it's worth, I came across this book by reading Grant Wiggins' blog, where he points out one of the most important contributions of Hattie's work: that there are many easy classroom practices that have a higher effect size than students' socio-economic status. Also, in digging up that link, I just found out that Wiggins died in May 2015, over a year ago, and now I am kind of bummed. I knew I had missed his writing; I didn't know he had passed away.)
  • Speaking of Wiggins, Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding focuses on what I consider the most fascinating aspect of Understanding by Design: framing inquiry through essential questions. Longtime readers will know that I have been tinkering with EQs as a method to frame my courses for a few years, and now I feel like they are a critical tool to my course design and evaluation process. In fact, now I often prefer to describe courses in terms of their questions rather than their content.
  • Although I have not read their entire book, I will point out Papert and Harel's chapter "Situating Constructionism" from Constructionism. I think I may have read this more times than any other article. I find it fascinating, and when I am pushed to state what educational philosophical camp I belong to, I would have to say constructionism. (Of course, then I usually have to explain that I didn't just say "constructivism," and people give me blank stares. Hence, I include this chapter here, because anybody interested in effective higher education philosophy should read it.)

Other Inspirational Books

There are several books I have read that are not about education in particular, but that reading them greatly informed and influenced my teaching practice. Here are some:
  • Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate and Scholarship Assessed, which I read in my third year as an assistant professor, gave me a much broader view of what it meant to be a scholar and a professor. Relevant to this post, it helped me to see how my teaching was scholarship, not just something that produced scholarship. This fundamental observation from Boyer's classic work is still something I find broadly misunderstood in academia. The counterpart by Glassick et al. provides a well-known six-stage framework for assessing scholarship—a framework I use not only in my own work, but which I worked to incorporate into my department's promotion and tenure documents.
  • A Theory of Fun for Game Design. For those who are not familiar with Koster's amazing treatise, this is not a book about how to design games but rather about why we design games. The fundamental thesis presented here is that learning is fun, or put another way, fun arises from learning. I read the first edition of this book shortly after becoming an assistant professor, and the ideas of game design here strongly influenced my course design.
  • Agile Software Development: The Cooperative Game. The title of this book hints at its thesis: that software development is a cooperative game—not engineering, not modeling, but a game. Internalizing this principle has allowed me to apply my research on game design directly into my teaching work. 
I hope you find this list useful. Please feel free to share your feedback or your own favorites in the comments!

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Dr. G's Tips for Playtesting with Kids

My game design students are preparing to do some authentic playtesting with upper-elementary students, which is an audience I have worked with before. I told them I would share a few short tips, so I figured I may as well put them up here on the blog as well.

Internal testing first

Make sure you have run the game yourself several times with the materials you intend to bring. This will help you ensure that you have all of the physical pieces you need. 

Check your vocabulary

It can be challenging as an adult to remember what you didn't know when you were ten years old. Don't trust your memory: go carefully over all of your key terms, perhaps with kids, teachers, or online aids, to ensure the vocabulary is age-appropriate. As a counterexample, in our Morgan's Raid game, we used the words "chaos" and "reputation," but it wasn't until playtesting that we found that kids' understanding of these terms was much different from our own—so much so that it affected the learning outcomes!

Dry run rules explanations

It's one thing for you to know the systems of the game; it's yet another one for you to be able to explain it to someone else. Dry run complete rules explanations, possibly with a friend, possibly with a rubber duck—surprisingly, it may not matter which you choose. Don't just practice what words you will say, but also consider how you will use the materials to demonstrate gameplay. Will you show a sample turn? Will everyone participate in a sample turn? Is the game itself easy enough to get into that you can explain as you go and maintain a sense of fairness?

Take notes

If you don't have a helper or producer over your shoulder to collect playtesting data, you may be stuck both explaining the game and evaluating the session. Make sure to take notes as you go, and write yourself an analytic memo immediately after the session. Don't trust memory: write it down. If you do have someone else who can observe and take notes too, all the better for triangulation!

Watch body language

If the kids are leaning in, they are engaged. If they back off, they are losing interest. This makes sense, right? What's fascinating about it is that the players themselves probably don't know they are doing it, and if you ask them to explain it, the rationalization part of the brain will kick in and make something up. Keep an eye open for body language: it tells you what's really going on in the players' minds.

Plan post-play questions

Open-ended questions like, "What did you think?" are often unproductive. Think about the design goals of your game and the design questions you still have in mind, and plan questions that will help you get at them. If you're making an educational game, use this opportunity to practice a debriefing, seeing if the players can connect their gameplay experience to the learning outcomes. Drawing again from Morgan's Raid, we used the question, "Do you think General Morgan was a good guy or a bad guy?" We had some amazing responses as different players voiced their opinions, and they then realized that there wasn't one objective answer, and they had to start thinking about perspective and context.

That being said, there are two great general-purpose questions that I often use. The first is, "What would you change about this game?" The trick here, as is often the case with playtesting, is that you are not really looking for design advice: you are looking for the areas the players are point to as weaknesses. That is, their responses may be signals to areas that need revision. The second is, "Do you have any questions for me?" This is a great closer that I use in playtesting and in interview protocols, as it empowers the players to voice their own thoughts and concerns.

Thank the players

Don't forget to thank the players. Let them know that by playtesting the game, they have contributed significantly to your work and your studies. 

Anything I missed? Please feel free to add more tips in the comments!