pedagogy of play
Select an item by clicking its checkbox
The Grace of Playing: Pedagogies for Leaning into God's New Creation
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
In The Grace of Playing, Courtney Goto offers a project in practical theology for Christian religious education that uses the notion of playing to better understand teaching and learning. Goto distinguishes her project from a formal practical theology of play, where play could be explored as a universal category of human existence. Instead, she works in the line of Paulo Freire’s search to move beyond a traditional schooling model of education towards learning that is more integrated, experiential, and creative. Specifically, Goto reflects critically on the notion of revelatory experiencing through the language and pedagogies of playing. Her focus is on playing as it relates to adult learning, and her investigation demonstrates – both conceptually and through case studies – how playing cultivates faith formation.
Goto is an Assistant Professor of Religious Education at the Boston University School of Theology and a co-Director of the Center for Practical Theology. She writes as a third generation Japanese American United Methodist primarily for an audience of theorists, students, and practitioners who are liberal mainline Protestants. She invites Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Charismatic Christians into the conversation as well, but notes that her advocacy of revelatory experiencing is to be understood in terms of the contextualized perspectives encountered in mainline Protestant churches. This is an important caveat. Theologically conservative readers will take issue with her concept of revelatory experiencing, whereby revelation happens in between persons as they relate to one another (as opposed to approaching Christian revelation as a totalizing meta-narrative). That Goto makes her theological liberalism so clear and defined, particularly in terms of her understanding of revelation, is a great service to readers.
The Grace of Playing investigates playing from social scientific, theological, and historical perspectives and offers two case studies for application. After a preface and introduction, Chapter 2 explores psychoanalytical and psychological concepts of playing, relying particularly on D. W. Winnicott to articulate sociologically what occurs in revelatory experiencing. In Chapter 3, Goto turns to theology to build a theory and constructive proposal of play by appropriating insights from Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology of Play. Chapter 4 is a historical accounting of medieval practices of play, including the use of devotional dolls by fourteenth century nuns in the Rheinland, Germany and the practice of holy foolery by those in both Western and Eastern Church traditions. The final two chapters contain case studies of grace-filled play. The first describes the creation of a pretend garden at a Japanese American church for the purpose of congregational reconciliation, and the second briefly recounts a practice of playing with inmates in a juvenile detention center.To conclude, Goto demonstrates that the grace of playing leads a world in need towards God’s new creation.
The Grace of Playing skillfully navigates insights from sociology, theology, and history to make a compelling case for the theological practice of play as a mediating, revelatory experience within Christian religious education. The book is readily accessible for students and practitioners, without neglecting the more technical needs of theorists. For the case studies, Goto deliberately refrains from providing much, if any, direct data; this effectively condenses the reading, but also leaves a sense of wanting to know more about how the grace of playing works itself into and through these unique settings. Overall, the book is a warm invitation for all to play in the fullness of God’s grace.
Open Space Learning: A Study in Transdisciplinary Pedagogy
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
Open-Space Learning (OSL), a “transdisciplinary pedagogy” as practiced at the University of Warwick, challenges assumptions about the boundaries of disciplinary knowledge, the organization of teaching spaces and resources, and the power arrangements that order the roles of teachers and students. This book bears witness to the efficacy of learning in spaces that assume students are engaged in embodied risk-taking, problem-based play, personal responsibility, group collaboration, and open-ended exploration within boundaries and expectations that yield demonstrated competence. The essential prefix for this learning space is “trans-”; it is asserted to be transgressive, transcendent, transitional, trans-rational, transactional, transdisciplinary, and transcultural. OSL draws from the learning theories of Boal, Freire, Vygotsky, Gardner, and Kolb and from the work of Clark and Damasio in neuroscience.
In 2005 the University of Warwick received a grant from the Higher Education Funding Counsel of England to create its center for Creativity and Performance in Teaching and Learning (CAPITAL) in partnership with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Principles of theater pedagogy and performance studies opened new learning possibilities for disciplines not normally associated with embodied performance. The OSL website at the university notes collaborations between CAPITAL and students in business, chemistry, cultural studies, theater studies, philosophy, math, and psychiatry programs. The authors indicate that hundreds of students have been exposed to their learning pedagogies between 2007 and 2011.
Four case studies create the backbone for the book. (1) An undergraduate module “without chairs” for literature majors brought twelve of Shakespeare’s plays to life and assessed student learning in comparison with students in the “with chairs” version of the module. (2) Law students argued cases found in four plays and analyzed their legal implications. (3) The learning gained by participants in the Certificate in Teaching Shakespeare program and the Postgraduate Award in Teaching Shakespeare for Actors is assessed using several measures. (4) Three “practice as research” projects focused on theatrical productions, practical workshops, and performance process for undergraduate students or post-graduates who were teaching Shakespeare. These studies provide descriptions and interpretations of the projects, but they do not offer much detail about the pedagogy’s methods for those without a theater background.
The book publisher provides videos and outlines for specific OSL activities on its website. (I was not successful in getting a number of the links to work.) The OSL site at the University of Warwick provides similar links as well as some others. (This website has not been updated since fall 2013, which also raises questions about the current state of OSL at Warwick.) This book was published as a paperback in 2015. Open Space Learning reads like a report for university or funding organization officials. The authors give significant attention to student assessment of their learning and their performance on various required assignments.
Classroom lectures and seminars, characterized negatively as contexts of “knowledge download,” were the dominant forms of teaching when CAPITAL began. OSL intentionally changes, at least in theory, the relationship between teachers and students, “dethroning” or “uncrowning” the power of the teacher that is reinforced by physical classroom spaces and presentation formats.
I am not satisfied that the authors grappled with the power dynamics that remain present in OSL environments. While a teacher’s authority and expertise are expressed differently in the OSL context, teachers are still structuring the environment in which learning occurs. They are evaluating student work. They determine who passes or fails the modules. While teachers may have been “dethroned” from the traditionally hierarchical ways of exercising authority, they still have power, and perhaps disguised power, in the exploratory OSL context.
The expressions of open space learning reported in this book depend heavily on the plays of Shakespeare. These applications of OSL for religious or theological educators are not immediately obvious, but imaginative teachers, especially those with a performing arts background, will draw inspiration from Open Space Learning and develop possibilities for performing the narrative-based texts from their disciplines in their teaching.
Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College
Date Reviewed: June 16, 2015
Mark C. Carnes’s Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College is the work of a true believer seeking the conversion of others to the path of right pedagogical practice. Fortunately, the approach he advocates, teaching history through month-long, immersive, student-led role-play, seems a worthy recipient of his impassioned testimony. I came to this book curious about contextualizing knowledge in the theological classroom, given the prohibitive expense and time commitment of many of the strategies currently used in theological education to achieve this goal (such as travel seminars, immersion, and community-engaged learning). As someone who has been frustrated by the inability of my school’s curriculum to excite students and engage them in the history of the development of religious traditions, I wondered if role-immersion games would be a useful tool in my setting.
Reflecting on the use of published games from the Reacting to the Past consortium, a group of which Carnes is the founder, Carnes describes in glowing terms the work that these role-plays can achieve in classrooms full of disengaged, unmotivated college students and instructors. He makes sweeping claims, such as: “Role-immersion games in higher education today hold the promise of restoring the churning passions and subversive impulses that have always invigorated the life of the mind” (297). Using interviews and other outcomes data with former participants and instructors to weave compelling narrative descriptions of the method in action, he makes a strong case for why immersive play increases critical thinking, community, empathy, leadership, and other qualities that most schools have in their mission statements but are often unclear about how they actually teach them. He also addresses critics who worry about letting amateur historians imagine their way into historical periods, explicitly tackling concerns about the probability of “getting it wrong” and why this is educative.
I appreciated Carnes’s depth analysis of two motivational vehicles for engaging historical material with critical passion: imagination and subversive play. While Carnes dismisses the luminaries of educational philosophy who would argue against role-play as a part of education, in one place lumping together “Plato, Freud, Dewey, Piaget, and Erikson” (295) as people who would hate this method, he unfortunately ignores the fine work of educational philosophers such as Elliott Eisner and Kieran Egan who have argued passionately for the role of imagination in education, and who would strengthen his argument tremendously.
As someone who teaches primarily adult students (average age 41) rather than traditional college-age undergraduates in private liberal arts institutions (the primary subjects in this text), I was less enthusiastic about Carnes’s reflection on how taking on roles in the first person led to training in leadership, imaginative empathy, and other skills often already present in adult students. Descriptions of class starting before the assigned time and running late in the evenings and on weekends in residential dorms was also troubling, as the heavily scheduled lives of nonresidential adult students who also have jobs, families, and caregiving responsibilities would not lend themselves to this sort of educational strategy. The amount of time and intellectual commitment necessary to succeed in the games also causes Carnes to admit the inability of the Reacting teaching mode to become the single mode of instruction in an institution, “if only because no student wants to play more than one Reacting game at a time” (291). Additionally, Carnes’s detailed reporting of making African-American students argue for slavery in their roles without addressing the ethical implications of such imaginative ventures seemed inappropriate.
I was intrigued by Carnes’s very exciting hint at transforming this mode of pedagogical instruction through collaboration with the world of immersive video gaming, and would welcome this innovation as a strategy in online teaching and learning. If you are interested in this topic, initially explore www.barnard.edu/reacting and the role-plays and teaching resources available through W.W. Norton and The Reacting Consortium Press. If you are intrigued but wary, Carnes’s book may be the motivation you need to invest in learning more about the method and trying it on for size in your setting.
Using Games to Enhance Learning and Teaching: A Beginner's Guide
Date Reviewed: December 23, 2014
In her Teaching Theology & Religion review of Nicola Whitton’s Learning with Digital Games: A Practical Guide to Engaging Students in Higher Education, Rachel Wagner observed that the book “offers general advice for those brave enough to write their own games for educational use, but the book is not, nor does it claim to be, a handbook on how to produce video games” (Teaching Theology & Religion 15, no. 1: 91). Whitton’s newer co-edited collection with Alex Moseley, presumably, is intended to be that handbook, though many of its initial chapters seem to replicate Witton’s original call for more educators to take an interest in game pedagogy and put some investment in games for the secondary and post-secondary classroom. From there, the book offers the fundamentals, from the rudimentary to the quite advanced, but breaks it into such discrete units that a certain degree of disconnect forms between the separately useful entries.
Whereas an entire chapter, co-written by Whitton and Dave White, did not need to be dedicated to “Narrative” (such as explaining what conflict or plot is), other sections, like “Mapping Games to Curricula” by Moseley and Rosie Jones, could have been given more page space to explore their complexities. In fact, the collection does offer real-life case studies of games developed for and attempted in the classroom, but their lack of variety in terms of academic disciplines disappoints; [in]visible Belfast and ViolaQuest are marvelous examples of games-based education promoting the literary exploration of a city and the social orientation of students to the wider campus community, respectively, but, in as much as they document successes in this form, they do not suggest how to replicate it in other fields.
Perhaps the most useful portions of the collection for instructors of religion or theology come from two altogether different approaches within its covers. The chapter with the clearest ready-made step-by-step process or blueprint for game development is Simon Brookes and Moseley’s primer on constructing authentic learning activities (ALA) across what they term “the reality gap” of the game and the classroom (94, 96). Though editors Whitton and Moseley have their own chapter on design considerations, Brookes and Moseley’s discussion includes and exceeds the editors’ clear preference for Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) where a blend of real-world technologies lead students through a semi-fictional narrative toward the game’s learning objectives. While the thrill of an ARG can be contagious, chapters like Brookes and Moseley’s will still benefit the instructor-reader who is not yet ready to take such an intensive, immersive plunge.
Sarah Smith-Robbins delivers the other superlative chapter, a highly theoretical but ultimately rewarding consideration of virtual worlds’ utility for learning. True to Whitton’s early warnings to “scaffold” games so that they move from easy to harder to then still-harder tasks, Smith-Robbin’s chapter is reserved until close to the end, a quantum leap into Activity Theory and Game Ecology Models from the rudimentary material on quantified competition (such as “pointsification”) or multimedia options that form the initial foundation of the book. It seems highly unlikely, however, that the reader who began with those would “level up” to Smith Robbins’s discourse.
Using Games to Enhance Learning and Teaching is an impassioned, valuable book, entirely worthy of educators’ consideration, as are games for educational purposes overall. The collection can easily be likened to some of the most popular games available, with many playing them simply to complete them and not to uncover their every secret. Likewise, most educators will find the book more valuable for its constituent pieces rather than its entire whole.