How is teaching like a role-play game?
The students are the characters, the teacher is the GM (game master)… and everyone who’s ever participated in a session thinks they’re justified in telling a GM how to do their job. Whether you agree with that sentiment or not, let’s at least explore the analogy a little more.
First, put yourself in the role of a teacher/GM. (I choose GM rather than “Dungeon Master” for obvious reasons.) Your classroom is a gaming session, your term a full campaign. You’ll have up to 30 participants at once (because supposedly class size doesn’t matter), several times over a day. Some of them mages, some bards, some fighters - some chaotic, some lawful - some elves, some dwarves - all different skill sets, but regardless, ALL of them will be exploring a world (subject) where you are the expert. Together. No party member left behind. Then again, a few party members may be absent today, but they’ll catch up by tomorrow, right? Right.
Now, after everyone’s met each other, your first job as GM is to make sure the party overcomes inertia, so they’re not sitting around in the Inn all day. Experiencing things is key. You need to provide a hook to explore the world. Or ideally, the students/players will provide the hook, and you can craft the adventure around their interests! Then, despite all your careful plans, the majority of people will be keen on investigating the forest, rather than going to the temple. So you’ll have to adapt. Or split the party - no problem doing that, right? You then present the class with your first challenge. Take care that it isn’t too formidable, at least not too soon, because throwing a lich (eg. complex numbers) at the party before they’re ready for one is liable to result in a TPK (total party kill). That would turn every member off of that subject/setting for the foreseeable future. You don’t want that!
Got that? Great, just continue, day in and day out, making sure everyone in the campaign has a chance to be successful. (I’ve actually blogged about this before over on my personal blog.) Now, here’s where the analogy gets painful for me.
Almost everyone has been in a classroom. Yet I claim you can’t know what it’s like to be a teacher by being a student, any more than you can know what it’s like to be the Game Master by participating in a bunch of gaming sessions. Even adults who do later research into teaching, and then observe a number of classes to move beyond their own childhood experience, may not be able to prevent their own biases from creeping in.
EdGuru: “Mr. GM, I notice your wizards aren’t being successful. I believe it’s because they’re not casting any ‘Ray of Frost’. That’s an easy cantrip which they should all know by now.”
GM: “Actually, that ray is now a fully ranked spell, so what we do to —”
EdGuru: “The heck?! That makes NO sense! We must change the system back!”
(Teaching translation: EdGuru says “I notice your math students aren’t being successful because they haven’t memorized their times tables. Like I did. We must change the system back to memorization of times tables!”)
Now, I can deal with people thinking they know my job. Sort of. Not really. Anyway, what’s actually painful for me is the shift people are now making. Moving away from looking at the role-play (classroom) itself, and onto the underlying systems. Consider, if you want to play D&D Next instead of first edition - or even just play Shadowrun - surely we can still get along? We can acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of the various RPG systems without trying to change each other’s opinions? Yet as soon as I say “common core”, people are eagerly awaiting my stance, so that I can be properly classified as one of THOSE teachers. (Thus I’m not taking a stance in this post, so there.)
The fact is, education (and role-play) should be about learning in a caring environment. Instead, it’s becoming about structure. And politics. If you’re not teaching under the rules of classic D&D, you’re a bad teacher! Or maybe a good one! How do we know? System testing! To finish the analogy, I now want you to picture a role-play system that gets evaluated by giving every player a standardized test after a campaign. That test is then used to classify the player, and evaluate the effectiveness of each GM. (Your mage can’t shoot a bow? Science fail! What have you been teaching these people?!) I ask you, is this what we want?
Okay, maybe that’s not how we’re currently evaluating education - though I worry it is a possibility. I do think that people need to take a step back. Start asking questions of themselves, rather than making demands of others. (Remember, there are are no dumb questions!) Rifts are forming, even within the education community itself, and the media certainly isn’t helping. We’ve moved from demonizing D&D for it's influence on our youth (a couple decades back) to demonizing the education systems. And while everyone is (presumably) trying to do what’s right, I wonder - is it instead that people are trying to BE right?
I’ll end with full disclosure: I’ve done a lot of gaming, but I’ve never run my own campaign. I think it would be really hard.
For further viewing:
1. Teaching Isn’t Rocket Science. It’s Harder.
2. 12 Nutty Dungeons & Dragons Media Mentions from the 1980s
3. John Hunter uses an RPG to teach World Issues (TED video)
Got an idea or a question for a future TANDQ column? Let me know in the comments, or through email!