Teacher as Designer

I’ve just finished reading Reality is Broken: Why Games Matter and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal. I was inspired to read it to further my thinking on gamification in teaching. It’s not about gamification in education specifically – although there is a bit on it in the book – but rather what games get right that hook people, bring them together as a community, and get them to work on problems that range from the simple to the complex. McGonigal examines how we can harness the characteristics found in games and use them in our lives.

At one point, McGonigal discusses how video games often have stories. While we don’t need stories to enjoy video games, those that have them can help us experience a sense of power. She goes on to explain:

It’s the power to act with meaning: to do something that matters in a bigger picture. The story is the bigger picture; the player’s actions are what matters. As Polack explains, “Story sets the stage for meaning. It frames the player’s actions. We, as designers, are not telling, we’re not showing, we’re informing the doing – the actions the players engage in and the feats they undergo.”

Immediately I found myself thinking that as teachers we are also designers. We set up and design the experiences students can go through. What we choose for our course to look like – through readings, assignments, and in-class activities – provides a frame for the students’ actions. We definitely inform the doing or the potential for doing. I say potential because students can opt out of anything or minimize their actions. Students always have a say in how they will respond within the framework of the design we created.

The quote also reminded me about the role story can play in our courses. I talked awhile ago about creating a story line for my syllabus. Granted my story doesn’t have any exciting plot twists, but it does move my students through big ideas in the course. My courses always had bid ideas in them. Each week there would be a big idea, usually with a question we would focus on within that idea, that would set the tone for the week. But I have found that writing out my ideas in a story format forces me to think about their interconnectedness. I can’t just dash off a list of big ideas, order them, and go from there. Writing out the story forces me to look deeper into what I really want students to experience.

Once the story has been created, I then have to think how I want my students to move through it. What opportunities do I want to offer them that allow them to deepen their understandings or question pre-existing beliefs? To me, this is very different from planning. This is designing, and there is a distinct different.

Planning vs. Designing

Traditionally, planning (either a syllabus or a lesson) is centered around a set of learning objectives. Games certainly have objectives too. There could be one grand objective – which, when you finish it, means the game is over – and many smaller objectives that help you to achieve the grand one. But these objectives are problems that must be solved. Learning objectives presented in classroom instruction are given as what you can expect to learn when you have completed the course or a given aspect of it. They are typically not presented as a set of complex challenges and problems that you must solve.

So when we plan in the traditional sense we back up to what we want students to learn and go out from there. Telling a story, creating complex problems, etc…are not even necessarily part of the picture. As the instructor, all I have to do is think about what I want you to learn and what tasks should help get you there. And while I have technically designed something for you to experience, I don’t see designing the same way I see planning.

Planning, to me, follows a rigid formula with objectives and outcomes. I see designing as setting the stage for students to engage in challenges intended to solve a complex problem – or at least getting them closer to solving it.

What if we stopped asking ourselves, and each other, what our objectives were for a course or given time frame? Instead, what if we started asking what the complex problem was we hoped students would solve or contribute to as a result of the course? How might our instruction, our design of a class, and students’ experiences look? I think it’s worth exploring.

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