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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Dwarves, Zombies, and Play Doh Caterpillars: Some Thoughts on Playful Learning

Friday, July 19, 2019

It's a week since I returned from the fun-filled but pedagogically insightful Playful Learning Conference 2019. It's a conference like no other. I'm not sure where else you'd find delegates assembled in running gear at 8.00 in the morning ready to track down the well-dispersed postboxes of Leicester or trying to unlock an escape room while being assaulted by balloons.

We grown-ups tend to treat the word 'play' as something for kids, and antithetical to such maturities as 'work' or 'learning'. And certainly I found myself suffering a mild existential breakdown: work should not be this fun! But I did learn a lot. For example, I discovered my true character:

I realised through Adam Boal that it's very hard to find ways to get double-glazing salesmen to share their expertise with computer scientists while visiting an aquarium. And if you're organising a biological zombie apocalypse in a major city, you might want to warn the relevant authorities first.

I learned that I cannot make Play Doh ducklings, but can make a good caterpillar (even if I can't spell the word).

These three activities probably seem flippant to the outside observer, but all three speak to the enablements of play. In the first, I was helped to reflect on career pathways and professional attributes; in the second to take some extreme public engagement scenarios and use them to conceptualise how we connect experts with the public in the mainstream; in the third to think with the hands as well as the mind.

In all of them, gaming with other people, having a laugh, or fiddling creatively while sat round a table can stimulate conversation and breakdown the intimidating barriers of networking. Conferences matter not just for the content but for the serendipitous encounters they allow for; play is a way to create community.

I've come away with lots of great ideas for gaming and play in education, and won't go into other specifics. Other stuff happened too, but...fishing trip


More generally, one wider theme I'm reflecting on is the importance of failure in play, but also the need to position 'failure' carefully. Several times I heard delegates celebrate that failure has to be embraced. Play removes us from real-world consequences, and allows us to fail with fun. My colleage Malcolm Murray came up with probably the gold-winning tweet of the conference:

He's right, but we need to nuance where that failure takes place. In the moment of playing a game, for example, having a student or staff participant fail or encounter a difficulty can certainly be productive: an opportunity for reflection on why something didn't work, discussion, and meaningful development.

However, if we simply announce that to design a playful learning activity you have to be prepared to fail as a teacher, this is not a message that will translate well to staff. In an era of NSS, promotion criteria predicated on student satisfaction, and the pervasive pressure of the student-consumer who wants an experience that simply works, academics will naturally be wary of testing new methodologies in teaching, especially those that admittedly may not work. We need to build in systems of reassurance - like play testing groups - that demonstrate that.

We must distinguish between allowing failure in a learning game, while protecting against failure of a learning game where possible.

Another key reflection was the way in which play is a truly interdisciplinary opportunity - but one that also extends beyond our conventional sense of what a 'discipline' is within a university context. Although there were some delegates (like myself) from a particular academic department and subject, there seemed to be many more learning technologists, librarians, those with training and staff development responsibilities, and people who work in outreach and public engagement. There was also a memorable keynote from James Charnock, events manager at Manchester Metropolitan University and rather fetching duck:

His work supporting the Playful Learning conference in its first iterations at MMU had led him and his team to introduce the playful ethos throughout what they do and offer to other conferences, with meaningful results. Why not get your catering team to dress as pirates, for example? Conference organisers are (or should be) increasingly alert to diversity and inclusivity issues. How often does this extend to bringing the professional services teams that usually support behind the scenes into the workings of a conference itself?

So on the back of Playful Learning, what will I do next in the classroom?

  1. Design an escape room for the widening participation summer schools I'll be teaching to sixth-formers in a few weeks. These will be based around detective fiction, an ideal topic to integrate with puzzles and decoding. Previously, I have tried to use some playful activities - for example, I strung up a washing line of narrative events in 'Murders in the Rue Morgue' (the victim is a washerwoman) and got students to rearrange them in chronological sequence. This didn't work as well as I'd envisaged, I think in part because it was so unexpected. Ironically, for first-generation students with little prior experience of university, their perception of a university as somewhere remote and elevated may have led them to anticipate something more 'intellectual', and they were discomfited when given permission to have fun. They didn't really know what to do with that permission, what the 'rules' of the higher education game at large include. I'll need to frame the escape room carefully to make this work. I'll also be reflecting carefully on how to make the game inclusive and accessible, thanks to ideas I picked up at Playful Learning.
  2. I played Cheryl Reynolds's clever and informative Bourdieu game, where we drew on our social and cultural credit cards and saw how they might have different value in various fields.

    In teaching theory we're always coming back to issues of symbolic value and the cultural capital that we bring to our views of the canon and what it should or could be. I have in mind a deck of 'canonical text' cards which students can have at the start of the year, and then play with repeatedly and differently as they encounter new theoretical ideas.
  3. I desperately want to figure a way to make online forums more playful. I'm moderating a few induction and bridging forums at the OU over the summer, each with several thousand potential participants. As with any forum, generating sustained engagement is difficult. Notably, there was nothing at the conference on inculcating play in VLEs, but it would be hugely beneficial if we could do this in distance learning. Again, no specific ideas as yet - and I'll be liaising further with my OU colleagues who were at Playful Learning.
If you have any game-winning ideas on any of the above, drop me a line!

Finally, a huge thanks to the organising team. Conference organising is a tough gig at the best of times, but battling to put a conference programme through the photocopier is nothing compared to the hard task of producing vegetable-based portraits of your keynote speaker. See you next year!

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Posted by Alistair at 10:31 am


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