Can Ivanhoe facilitate playful learning both in and out of the classroom?

You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation –Plato

From the beginning of the year, the Praxis cohort recognized ‘play’ as one of the key aspects of the Ivanhoe experience. Yet, how does play shape Ivanhoe? What are the effects of this play? In previous years, the focus has been on the role of play in the classroom, but we considered from the beginning, as expressed in our Praxis Charter, that Ivanhoe might be useful, fun, and even educational for other communities as well. Is Ivanhoe relevant–educationally or otherwise–for established, self-motivated textual play, like fan fiction and collaborative creative writing? Is the original educational conception and identity of Ivanhoe lost if such communities do use it? Or does ‘education’ expand to include informal opportunities to learn and grow outside of the classroom?  As we still struggle with the identity of our players, it is important to consider what exactly Ivanhoe does, how it does it, and for whom it is relevant. In this blog, I will start at the beginning: What is play? Can it be educational? How is it educational? Is it something that we can foster or produce within a formal setting? And finally, how does Ivanhoe provide a unique experience that incorporates aspects of both play and education?

“Play” is a term that seems relatively straightforward; it is something we have all done and something that we all believe that we can recognize. But, what does it really mean? In its most casual definition, play is defined by Webster Dictionary as a “recreational activity.” This definition implies that these are activities done for fun, for enjoyment–activities that are not work. This dichotomy between work and play, however, is ambiguous at best and misleading at worst. First, this opposition no longer reflects the realities of many people’s livelihoods, as the formal line between work and play is blurring  increasingly in our age of ubiquitous connectivity, flex time schedules, and home-based employment. Second, by setting work and play in opposition, we imply that play is the antithesis of work and potentially classifiable as superficial, unproductive, and without purpose.

The concept of play, however, has been the subject of much scholarly discussion, especially within studies on childhood development. While scholars admit that play is a difficult concept to pin down in a concise definition, most acknowledge that it is often easily recognizable by those experiencing it. Yet, play should not be conflated with ‘fun’ and ‘enjoyment.’ Researchers have argued that play can, in fact, be a way for people to explore not only happy things, but also things that cause insecurity, fear, and anxiety. Rather, it seems that play–whether scary or fun–is something that needs to be self-motivated, something that provides a sense of control through the choice to participate. In Play, Creativity and Digital Cultures, Jackie Marsh cites S. Millar in order to argue that play is not actually a thing, not a noun. Rather, “play is best used as an adverb; not as a name of a class of activities, nor as distinguished by the accompanying mood, but to describe how and under what considerations an action is performed”(211). Sometimes the choice to engage in play is determined by social protocol or relationship expectations, but it is, regardless, something that lets the player select his or her own level of engagement and participation.

Scholars who study children’s play focus largely on self-motivation as a way for children to explore places, activities, relationships, and physical phenomena within a safe, low-risk environment. In other words, play is a self-initiated, low-stakes opportunity to work through new information, recognize patterns, establish networks, and otherwise learn about issues and processes that concern the player. While it can manifest in many forms, play not only can be educational, it is educational;  this form of education, however, is typically subconscious and based on experience, practice, adjustment, and even failure rather than memorization and formal instruction. Since players (rather than instructors) are in control of these experiences, it allows them to be spontaneous, flexible, and adaptable in order to account for new players or their own shifting interests and questions. That is, one advantage of play over formal instruction is that students can intuitively adjust the form of their play to account for what they have already learned and to explore new areas of inquiry.

With this in mind, it is easy to see how established, self-motivated textual play–such as fan fiction and other forms of creative writing–can offer important educational opportunities. Reading and writing encourage skill practice and familiarity with different ways to communicate and create meaning. Collaborative writing, moreover, requires writers to negotiate relationships, provide and implement feedback, and integrate critically new information into contexts provided by other contributors. Similarly, fan fiction requires critical analysis of a text and the self-conscious creativity to work within or push the boundaries of a provided context. Players can experience a broad range of awareness during these activities and many might not recognize that they are performing and practising such skills. Yet, the flexible time commitment, pursuit of a topic of interest, opportunity to experiment and create without potentially lasting consequences (like grades), freedom to change directions when needed, and choice to include (or exclude) other participants means that players maintain control of their own engagement throughout the process.

When Jerome McGann theorized the educational value of Ivanhoe with Johanna Drucker and Bethany Nowviskie in “IVANHOE: Education in a New Key,” he argued that Ivanhoe works “to promote rigorous as well as imaginative thinking; to develop habits of thoroughness and flexibility when we investigate our cultural inheritance and try to exploit its sources and resources; and to expose and promote the collaborative dynamics of all humane studies.” These are similarly the skills already being honed by those engaged in self-motivated textual play. The necessary component of Ivanhoe, however, is the active and self conscious role-play, for it not only requires students to interpret or reinterpret a cultural text, it requires them to embody it. This must be done self-consciously as players both internalize and synthesize (rather than summarize or describe) aspects of a text and as they negotiate and respond to the moves of their collaborators. While this performance can complement and even enhance established, social, and self-motivated textual play, our inclusion of a private ‘role journal’ in Ivanhoe to record motivations and justifications for moves challenges even causal writers to be more self-conscious and self-reflexive. As Sandra Wills, et. al., notes in her discussion of classroom role-play, such reflection is a key component to foster a deeper learning opportunity, not only to consider and recognize why and how a player does something, but also to practice communicating it.

It is clear, then, that play does provide advantages for learner-controlled education. Similar skills can, of course, be taught in a formal setting in a more straightforward manner so that the participants are fully aware of their status as ‘student’ or ‘learner.’ The question now is if such playful activity (and its self-motivating benefits) can be replicated in a classroom. Over the past few decades, a large corpus of scholarship and guides have been produced to tap into the educational opportunities of play for more formal educational experiences. Yet, if students are forced to participate in play or lack the control to alter the play to meet their own interests, does play loose its very essence and efficacy? In other words, does a playful game-like activity transform back into work when the student looses control? When it is required, formal, and potentially high-stakes in terms of grading? In a previous blog post, Andrew expressed this very skepticism of ‘gamification’ in the classroom.

According to Alexandra Ludewig and Iris Ludewig-Rohwer at the University of Western Australia, required and graded game play might, in fact, be limited in its efficacy. In “Does web-based role-play establish a high quality learning environment? Design versus evaluation,” Ludewig and Ludewig-Rohwer test the educational results of an established role-playing experience designed for language students. Using Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, the role-play experience was designed to “encourage students to engage in self-directed and peer-assisted learning, involve experiential and real-world learning, incorporate resource-based and problem-based learning, include reflective practice and critical self-awareness, utilize open learning and alternative delivery mechanisms and also allow for freedom of choice and individual learning style preferences” (165). Yet, when the students were surveyed and tested following their experience, Ludewig and Ludewig-Rohwer discovered a great disjunction between what the role-play should  have done and what it actually did (or at least what it did according to students’ expectations). While some students enjoyed the experience, many reported anxiety about the unfamiliar assignment format, uncertainty about grading, and no increase in language abilities.

While such an example seems to indicate that Ivanhoe might not be the playful pedagogical tool that we assumed, all is not lost!  I suspect that the high-stake consequences of grading in the example above increased the students’ anxiety, while the discrepancies between the flexible application of skill and the more formal testing format made evaluation difficult. The sense of play was not absent in the experience itself, but rather in the uncertainty as to if and how it would be evaluated, especially for students so accustomed to an established format of graded assignments. We, as the designers of Ivanhoe, cannot control how players and instructors experience and use the game; however, we continue to emphasize performance in order to encourage playful, experimental encounters and reflection in order to facilitate self-aware educational opportunities.

In itself, the activity of role-play does allow students to control their level of participation and interaction in a low-stakes setting (that is, students cannot ‘fail’ at the game; moves build upon each other to form the burgeoning interpretation). Even if students are required to participate for a grade, they do control their role, analysis, engagement, and response to their fellow collaborators. Again, a student’s experience is dependent upon their own expectations and how an instructor introduces, structures, and evaluates a classroom game. The role journal will encourage students to make moves critically, justify their choices, and reflect upon their development. It, moreover, can help to initiate classroom discussion and to encourage evaluation on students’ insights, connections, and applications, rather than innate creativity. If this is done successfully, the students may not have ‘fun’ with an assignment, but will still be able to apply playfully the same skills as self-motivated players and better communicate the process of their own learning.

For more detailed examples of on-line role-play assignments and tips for evaluation, see Sandra Wills, et. al., The Power of Role-Based E-Learning.

 

Consulted Sources:

McGann, Jerome, with Johanna Drucker and Bethany Nowviskie. “IVANHOE: Education in a New Key.” Romantic Circles (Dec. 2014).

Ludewig, Alexandra, and Iris Ludewig-Rohwer. “Does web-based role-play establish a high quality learning environment? Design versus evaluation.” Issues in Educational Research 23, no. 2 (2013): 164-179.

Smidt, Sandra. Playing to Learn: The Role of Play in the Early Years. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Willett, Rebekah, Muriel Robinson, and Jackie March, eds. Play, Creativity and Digital Cultures. New York: Routledge, 2009.

Wills, Sandra, Elyssebeth Leigh, and Albert Ip. The Power of Role-Based E-Learning. New York: Routledge, 2011. (includes detailed example of online role-playing assignments and ideas for evaluations)

Jennifer is a 2015-2016 Makerspace Consultant and a 2014-2015 Praxis Fellow. She is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History of Art and Architecture and her research focuses on medieval architecture in Norse territories of NW Europe.

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