28th October 2013

Mrs K and teaching vs learning

The death of Marcia Wallace, the voice of Mrs Krabappel, means that Bart Simpson will presumably be getting a new teacher.  This got me thinking about the different classroom experiences, good and bad, that I have had, both as a learner and as a teacher.

Mrs Krabappel portrays that well known stereotype, the once idealistic and committed teacher who has had been worn down by bolshy kids and an uncaring system, until, ultimately, she no longer cares about any of it.   Often, her classroom interactions seem to be simply a case of keeping the kids occupied, so that they don’t bother her.  Popular distractions include ‘educational’ films (although Miss Hoover resorts to this more frequently than Mrs K, to be fair) or just setting them exercises to do from a book.  Mrs K, meantime can sit back, having successfully avoided having to do any ‘teaching’.

But is ‘teaching’ necessarily what we should want from teachers and trainers?  Can you measure the value of a training session by the quantity of content that is delivered by the facilitator?  I have certainly heard that argument put forward many times.  Working, as I do, in game based training, I have, for example, heard a facilitator say ‘there should be fewer rounds of the game, so that there can be more learning’.  I found this shocking, not least because what they were actually talking about was delivery of more content.

This is teaching, not learning, and any trainer or facilitator who does not realise that there is a difference between these two things should make it her business to find out what the difference is – quick smart.

So – are we doing a ‘Mrs K’ by using games in a training session?  Are we taking the easy route to keep participants busy and engaged, while we take a breather from talking and presenting?

The answer, I fear, is both, ‘yes’ and ‘no’, or possibly ‘it depends’.  The use of games and simulation provoke a whole continuum of reactions.  At the extreme negative end, there is the opinion that games are trivial and have no place in a ‘serious’ training intervention.  At the extreme positive end, there is a belief that games and simulations can solve any learning problem.  You will often hear comments such as ‘Games are engaging’ or ‘learning from simulations stick because people learn from doing’.

The truth is more complicated.  Games certainly can be engaging, and they can be extremely effective tools for facilitating learning, allowing learners to make autonomous and strategic decisions to reach a win state, and make meaningful parallels between the game world and the domain of learning they are exploring.

But like any lesson, training session or workshop, these games must be carefully designed on two levels, as learning interventions first, and then as games which allow that learning to occur while being compelling in their own right.

This requires a particular set of skills, and failure to appreciate the importance of any of these skills can ultimately lead to the failure of any particular learning game.  Instructional Design, the analysis and clear statement of the required learning outcomes is a starting point, but must be supported by  an understanding of how game mechanics and elements  work together to create meaningful play.  Subject matter expertise is obviously important but can be sourced from outside the design team(possibly from the client for whom the learning intervention is being created).

Many of us have suffered learning ‘games’ produced solely from the subject expertise viewpoint.  Much early e-learning fell into this camp –  little more than linear screens of information with the odd quiz or maybe a cartoonish talking head telling you ‘well done’ now and again.  More recently,  badges, levels and leaderboards have joined the arsenal, but these are not games – just subject matter with game mechanics attached.

Trained teachers and instructional designers will probably fare better, because the learning outcomes will be covered, but attempts to dress this as a game may also fail for similar reasons as above.  If play is imposed but the learners fail to find meaning or engagement in it, ultimately they will disengage from the learning also.

Game designers and players have an understanding of how to create playable experiences, but if this is not paired with the instructional design element, you cannot be sure that learning will take place.  It is possible to, for example, simulate the running of an car manufacture business and make an engaging game out of it, but if the learning outcome of, for example, ‘creating more efficient processes’ has not been embedded in the game play in some way, then as a game for learning, designed to cut waste in the business, it will have failed.  It should also be noted that game designers often neglect to consider other elements, such as differentiation of learning, which would be second nature to a trained teacher.

What should be clear from this is that, far from being trivial, the creation of successful games for learning is complex, potentially extremely time consuming and requires either multi-skilled individuals or a diverse team of people to execute.

But if well done, games can drastically reduce the need for ‘teaching’ , and while I would never wish to become as jaded and disengaged as Mrs Krabappel, I’m definitely all for the idea that a teacher or trainer should take a back seat in the classroom.  Teaching in itself has no value.  It is the learning which counts.

Goodbye Mrs K – you’ll be missed.


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