Thursday, 3 October 2013

Teaching: The RPG

Teaching is basically a "Role Playing Game" (RPG). But it's perceived and evaluated by the public as if it were a "Video Game".

I probably need to explain myself.

Note that this post is a metaphor, it's not about how you can implement an RPG in your classroom. Though I've heard of RPGs as a teaching tool, so if you've got a related link, toss it in the comments!


The teacher is the Dungeon Master (DM) aka Game Master (GM). They know about the world (subject) where they're instructing - the pitfalls, the various twists and turns of the curriculum, and the enemies that the roleplay party is likely to encounter. "The roleplay party" being the students. They don't create a character, they ARE the characters. They're exploring the world, mining it for whatever they think will be useful later on, meeting other characters, and possibly getting involved in party infighting. I say that because:
-Some students will be lawful. Others chaotic.
-Some students are wizards, others are fighters, still others are bards.
-They all have different skill sets, and opinions about the skill sets of others.

"Sorry, were you talking to us?"
It is thus the job of the DM/Teacher to ensure that the party not only stays together (no child left behind), but that they learn to work together as a team, and explore enough of the world around them to be prepared for whatever is liable to happen to them in the years to come. No matter how unwilling they may be. In other words, you do not throw a lich at them in Grade 5, even if they're being jerks. You allow them to level up, so that they are prepared for the lich when they reach Grade 12.

This job is harder than it sounds, because inevitably, the party's inertia will cause them to sit around all day in the inn, drinking.

But then, you can't really blame them for that. After all, nothing bad can happen while you're at the inn, right? The bad stuff happens while you're exploring or training. Unfortunately kids, if you don't find the lich, the lich WILL eventually find you. You need to train. Seriously. Also, how are you paying for those drinks?

What really makes the metaphor work here is the idea that it's the PLAYERS who control the setting, the same way the STUDENTS control the learning. The GM has the world map, sure, but when the inn closes, if the party wants to go explore the mines, THAT'S where they'll go. Unless you have one of those DMs who insists, "Sorry, the mines are closed, BUT THE TEMPLE IS OPEN. COUGH COUGH."

Better plan: The priests are visiting the mines that day.

Of course, as with real RPGs, the education system isn't without problems - some members of the party are (mentally) absent for some sessions. This causes gaps in Experience Allocation (XP). Some party members may also stay on the periphery, letting other members do most of the work - possibly because they're more invested in their morning RPG environment, as compared to their afternoon one. But then, some of that's due to society, forcing the bard to learn a bunch of magic spells because "Everyone needs to know spells!!". There may even be some truth to that. I'm not here to argue it.

Here's what I want to talk about. With the metaphor laid out for you now, here's two questions:
1) Do you think that participating in an RPG gives you the authority to tell the next DM how to run their game? Because that's what's happening. Everyone, from millionaires to movie directors, has an opinion about education. They're effectively saying, "I was in an RPG once! I've watched some too! Here's how you're supposed to run it!"

2) How do you evaluate a DM? Is it on their ability to use the rulebook, and get the entire party from Dungeon Level 2 to Dungeon Level 3 without dying? Because I dare say that's the way society wants us to evaluate teachers.


I said at the beginning that the public evaluates teaching as if it were a Video Game. Now, the problem isn't video games themselves, in fact there's a bunch of other potentially relevant analogies out there (by educators like Dan Meyer, among others). What I DO want is to highlight here is a few things that set video games apart from an RPG:
-All the data is pre-loaded. It's like a Khan Academy video series. Sure, you can bypass the temple and go to the mines... but unless the programmers anticipated that, you'll never see the priests there. (Unless you install the "priests" patch, only $6.99, operators standing by!) Similarly, you can't spontaneously create a robot shapeshifter travel companion, because what? That's not in the code.
-Walkthroughs exist. If you're really having trouble with some part of the game, you can look online, to see how others solved it. Which is fine if I need to repair my kitchen sink, or defeat this floating eye, but what if I'm faced with a more unique problem? Like buying the best brand of cereal, or handling priests doing Pythagorean Rites... at the mines?
-Dumb luck is less of a factor. In a video game, you have to reason things through and hone your skills in order to defeat the Big Bad. If you fail, go back and do it again. It's just like real life, where you're NEVER going to find the right answer by just randomly firing arrows, hoping that you hit the magical... huh.

Inspiration has to count for SOMETHING!

Again, nothing against video games, they have their place, they're also metaphors, it's nice that you can pause, rewind, etc. But I claim we're playing an RPG! So why are we EVALUATING it based on video games??

-All the curriculum is pre-loaded. This is what you teach, because this is what we're testing. Robot shapeshifters are not on the test, don't teach that. Don't teach finance either, it's not important.
-Units exist. Teach trigonometry, then teach polynomials, then teach geometry. You didn't have time for geometry?! Then you're a terrible teacher. You should have planned better, since it's not like you could have taught those concepts in any of the other units.
-If the class passes, YOU pass. It doesn't matter who was in the class, what their mood was that day, or whether they were able to eat breakfast that morning. There's no way you (or they) were simply lucky or unlucky.

Hm. Actually, I'll answer my own question. We do it that way because it gives us hard numbers to stare at.

Quartic: "Please don't hurt me."
Except a good DM is not defined by the numbers. Rather, they're defined by how they make the players feel. By how the universe is crafted around them. By how an enemy of just the right difficulty level is included, to allow the party to band together, push through, and level up. (No, players, it's NOT by how much gold you get off the corpses, and you will learn this in time. Granted, defeating a polynomial of degree 4 or more is worth a bunch of XP...)

All of those things are hard to measure - and a good DM for one group doesn't necessarily make them any good with another group! (Picture Severus Snape teaching a bunch of Hobbits. On second thought, don't.)


In the end, teaching is all about the students. As it should be. Diversify, to take advantage of their strengths, to challenge their weaknesses, to give them the tools they need to survive in the world. It's not always possible, but we try, doing our very best, using our own set of unique skills. Let them make mistakes! Let them learn from those mistakes! And then...

Teacher evaluation, based on a single model. One size fits all.

It's sort of maddening. I imagine we even do it to ourselves, to a certain extent, when mentoring others in our profession. I say "I imagine", because I haven't had a student teacher before. One of my fears is that I'm far too controlling to do it properly... I'm still adjusting my balances for "letting them screw up" and "saving them". Perhaps this is also why I've never tried my hand at running an RPG. Perhaps I should try that first.

Except now it feels a bit too much like my day job.


  1. Seeing the classroom as an RPG is becoming very popular. I had a friend in Edmonton who ran her university classes that way. She had a method for assigning 'experience' rather than marks, and allowed her students to pick their adventures (assignments) rather than forcing them all down the exact same path.

    1. Interesting... and it seems to be happening at all levels. I did a cursory search before this post, and already knew personally of one teacher who had been considering the idea. Just did a slightly more in depth look and came up with:
      -"ClassRealm", a teacher who used it in a sixth grade class (from 2012)
      -"World of Classcraft", by a Grade 11 physics teacher. It was an unsuccessful kickstarter in May 2013 but there's a lot on the site already.

      This post has also gained over 200 views in less than a week, which is sort of unheard of for my blog - there must be something to this!