Leave the gun, take the cannoli. Or rather, leave the Martin workshop, take the Zweibel.

Like Zach, I attended last week’s workshop on game-based pedagogy. I must have misunderstood the description, for the majority of the presentation focused on decades-old theories including Bloom’s Taxonomy from the 1950s (revised in 2001) and Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory from the 1980s. I had expected far more modern thinking and at least some nod to digital games. I left disappointed.

Mid-way through, I shifted gears as a participant, deciding to glean what I could by listening for what I hadn’t heard before. I appreciated Khadeidra Martin’s reminder that there’s a difference between “gamifying” the classroom and using games to help students learn. In the former, teachers simply include game elements, such as competition and point accumulation, in more traditional activities. So, for example, a teacher might “gamify” a class discussion by splitting the students into teams and awarding points for participation or source references. In the latter, teachers use games as the activity or the actual vehicle for learning, which is much more up my pedagogical alley.

I also appreciated her reminder of James Paul Gee’s earlyish work in the field. While the kids I currently teach were born after his famed Good Video Games and Good Learning came out in 2007, his articulation of the many reasons games can be compelling learning tools gave me a quick rubric from which to judge my current use of digital and homemade games in the classroom. For example, I use the brilliant suite of games at iCivics—especially Do I Have a Right?—to have the students learn about the Constitution before we tackle it. The experience is not only great fun for my kids, but it gives every student what Gee calls “performance before competence”—tapping her natural desire to jump right in before really knowing what she is doing. That fun gives the kids exactly the background they need to avoid being daunted by the challenging language of the document itself.

Of course, I might be spoiled. Jeff Allred’s Doing Things with Novels class offered last fall introduced me to Twine and Ivanhoe*—two really exciting, completely open-ended game platforms. Jeff had us experience Ivanhoe as players, and I’ve never been so excited about archival research. I spent countless hours (those fantastically absorbed hours when you forget to eat) digging at the Schomburg Center and in digital troves so I could make good moves.

In fact, I realize now that I was spoiled even before last fall. Until 2009, I worked with a dynamite pedagogical gamer, Jeremiah McCall, who really broke ground both in creating historical simulations and in using video games such as Rome Total War as ways to turn students on to the living reality that primary sources represent.

So, while I wouldn’t recommend this workshop unless you are new to teaching, I would recommend Steve Zweibel’s “Research for Master’s Students” which I took earlier this fall. In addition to sharing some helpful library resources, he reminded me of some research basics and tossed in some real gems such as an iterative process for refining research questions. I think he offers the talk each term.

Here are a few things I needed to hear Zweibel say:

  • When it comes to finding a research topic, don’t be afraid to start with what you’ve done before. The point of grad-level research is to push beyond familiarity into original discovery, so you’ve got a head start researching what you think you know.
  • Pursue debates and uncertainties. That’s fertile soil.
  • Research is iterative. Get your topic, find a question, learn some, refine your topic, find new questions, learn some more. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
  • Make sure your research is meaningful. A helpful exercise he offered is to fill in the following blanks: “I am studying ___________, because I want to find out what/why/how _______________ in order to help my reader understand ____________, which matters because __________________.
  • Take notes proactively. Include a summary of each source and thoughts on how you might use the information you took notes on so that you don’t have reread the whole source to remember how it might be valuable.
  • Finally, remember that citations are a big part of scholarly work. In addition to proving that your argument is evidence-based, citations position your ideas in a scholarly and collegial conversation.

*Yes, yes. That’s Drucker’s name on that linked Ivanhoe article!