Tuesday, November 8, 2011

How Curiosity Led Me To Game Theory

 We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we're curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” ~Walt Disney
In terms of the game theory, we might say the universe is so constituted as to maximize play. The best games are not those in which all goes smoothly and steadily toward a certain conclusion, but those in which the outcome is always in doubt.” ~George B. Leonard (1923)

 When a teacher is no longer curious, he or she has brought stagnancy and complacency into the classroom, and I find the idea of those entities being present in our children’s lives unacceptable.  And so every once in a while I do a quick self-check.  Am I still curious?  Do I still have wonder at how the human brain learns?  Do I still want to know more about my subject? Do I still want to know more about my students?  I feel like as soon as I fail that assessment, it is time to leave the classroom.
This year, however, the answer remains yes.  And my curiosity has led me down an unexpected path:  one that involves technology, game theory, and a flipped classroom approach.  Anybody who knows me well and has spent time in my classroom knows that those kinds of things make me extremely uncomfortable and certainly don’t define my teaching style.  But I’ve been watching other teachers make an incredible impact on their students and deliver difficult material in a way that caters to a variety of learners—both in ability and style—and I’ve started rethinking some of my practices.

Start small.

In rethinking my approaches to subject matter, I decided to do a trial run of game theory in my typical 8th grade grammar unit.  When teaching grammar, I often feel as though I am leaving behind a group of students who don’t get it—yet I have to move on.  I feel as though there’s another group of students whose needs I am directly meeting, and then there is another group who is bored because they got it the first time, and now they are waiting while everybody else catches up. 
The Great Grammar God Game will be an 8 week unit.  Each student has created an avatar and username and as they earn points during the unit they climb the board.  This past week I would have simply covered nouns, but “Koogle” and “Yolanda” have each mastered nouns and pronouns, and are well on their way to covering the adjective material.  Meanwhile, most of the class is undertaking pronouns, and then a couple of students are still working through the noun material with me, getting some reinforcement.  I am running the program through Edmodo—kind of a cross between Moodle and Facebook—and on this program, kids access all of my video podcasts (also on Vimeo), all of their written practices, and all of the directions for other activities they must do.  They work with one another and help each other master the practice work; they meet with me about questions or struggles they might have; and when ready, they sit down and take a quiz independently.  They get four lives—and so if a student does not get an 80 or higher, he or she must retake the quiz.  It is my job, after all, to teach for mastery.  Today, a boy who failed his first and second quiz sat with me and we found a different approach for him to show me his knowledge.  Granted the time to sit with him because of the independent learning taking place in the rest of the classroom, I was able to find out that he does in fact have mastery over nouns.  He got a 95.
For each part of speech, the practice work is worth 50 points and the quiz is worth 200.  As the kids gain points they climb the board—they start out as a Nothing, move to a Mere Mortal, on to a Monster, Satyr, Centaur, Sprite, Hero, Demi-God, and finally a Grammar God.  It is also possible to become a Titan with extra points earned throughout the game.  One student came to see me after taking his quiz.  I told him he got a 96.  He didn’t blink.  “But how many points do I have?”
The idea of a student-centered classroom where students are working independently and all of their needs are being met is not a new idea—but some days it feels like an elusive one.  And I’m not sure how I could apply this kind of classroom to my subject matter entirely, but I’m working on melding my reading workshop philosophy with game theory; I think it will work. 

My nightstand is stacked with a new collection of books about educational gaming, 21st century learning, and technology for the sake of advancing learning.  It’s a place I never thought I’d find myself—but when you’re curious, you never know where you’ll end up.

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