should kids play games in class?

So, it's the second day of our one-to-one pencil to student unit.  I'm teaching a financial planning / economics unit and incorporating all of the subjects into it.  I expected the "honeymoon" period to last longer, but pencils have no become normal.  On some level, I suppose that's what it's all about.  It's about getting beyond the hype and simply using pencils and papers as tools for learning.

Don't get me wrong, I see a need to teach students to criticize all tools, whether they are designed for print culture or oral culture, agrarian or rural culture, local or global.  However, we also need to get to a place where we say, "Pencils are shiny and new, but the real excitement is what students are learning right now."

So, I spend some time developing a program for learning about economics.  It's a market simulation game, where students graph their own investments and interact with one another.  Throughout this process, they write reflections, send messages and join a discussion zone.

Gertrude steps into my room and asks, "Why are they playing a game instead of learning?"

"It's not a game. It's a research-based, student-centered, interactive learning activity constructed to integrate pencils into a core knowledge environment."  I can play the buzzword game, too.

A student walks up to us, "Mr. Johnson, I love this game.  Why can't we play games more often? This is fun!"

Gertrude gives me the death stare.

I explain to her that the students use math, reading and writing.  I hand her a short example of this and say, "They are actually spending more time using their core curriculum skills than they would be if I stood here and lectured them on economic theory."

"You can't be playing games," she reminds me. "School has always been about work, not play. The bottom line isn't fun."

"The purpose of this game is to learn.  If it's fun, so be it. Trust me, I'm not trying to turn this class into a game. It just happens to be what we are doing in the moment."

She settles down after walking around and asking economic questions to students.  "They seem to know what they are learning," she says with a slight smile.
For millennia, it was a cultural universal that games existed for learning.  True, children had fun, but the games were designed to teach both social and physical skills.  Children learned to be warriors, how to govern, how to access cultural narratives all through the act of play.  In fact, Plato theorized that one could learn more about a person through an hour of play than a lifetime of conversation.

Even in America, where we have shifted toward a sit-in-your-desk-and-shut-up-and-learn model, our games become methods of accessing these cultural skill sets.  Thus, Simon Says teaches social conformity and prepares small kids for the prison-like environment of factory schools.  Dodge Ball teaches Social Darwinism and Capitalism.  Hide and Go Seek teaches children that transparency is overrated.  Best run and hide from others.  After all, this is the building block of most grown-up relationships.

On the flip side, our games teach the best of American values.  Hide and Go Seek helps teach autonomy and creativity.  Simon Says teaches listening skills and proves to kids that language can be powerful.  Dodge Ball helps with team work and allows kids to see the value of throwing things at people.

People assume that we play games in the class as a review.  It's true that most classroom games tend to be trivial.  That's why we call them trivia.  For what it's worth, I don't want my students learning anything trivial. Having a contest to see who has memorized the most state capitals doesn't exactly inspire deep thinking.

People consider games to be superficial fluff designed as a cognitive escape.  However, a well-constructed interactive game can reveal the opposite.  Games can be authentic and powerful and vital to students developing a deeper understanding of concepts.
When the game ends, students debrief the information in their plogs.  After words, we set our pencils down and talk.  On some level, it feels like waking up for a daze.  Students debate the pros and cons of a market system, talk about the risks of speculation and relate this to the economic crash of last year.

The pencil smudge girl from yesterday raises her hand, "I think there is a danger in playing this game, but I'm glad we played it."

"Can you elaborate on that?" I ask.

"I think the people in Wall Street got suckered into the same vortex that we were just in.  They got selfish.  The market is supposed to curb selfishness, but we found out how quickly it was to form oligopolies and attack people.  It became a game to win.  I think that's how it is for some of the people who run Wall Street."

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