I ran some volleyball tournaments this week for my other job as a college coach.  While at it, I had a conversation with a parent from one of the high school teams involved and it was a bit disturbing–because the comment was made that school shouldn’t be fun…it needed to be more serious.

Now, the goals of school–a foundation of knowledge and skills, creative thinking ability–are, without question, serious and in many instances, seriously lacking in American schools.  The thing is–having a teacher stand at the front of a class and lecturing or asking students to do 1,000 problems to learn by rote aren’t the most efficient ways of learning or having it stick.  If you want it stick, you need to consider other solutions and issues.

As a coach, I try and spend at least 50% of a practice on fun stuff–competition and team vs. team stuff.  Not only do the athletes like this, but it focuses on whole skill development.  They HAVE to incorporate multiple skills in ever-changing ways.  For volleyball, that’s important.  When we only practice a single skill (hitting, for instance), we get better, but as the repetition continues, familiarity sets in, mistakes increase (as does the risk of overuse injury), and the rate of improvement decreases.  If we accept that a gymnasium is the equivalent of a classroom, but is simply missing a blackboard, then this is a problem.

Let’s think about a regular class then.  It can be difficult to conceptualize math when it starts involving letters or long equations with the goal of finding the textbook answer.  But if we put it in a different form–something that may be of interest to students–you get farther: “You have $100 million dollars to sign NBA players.  You have their points scored, minutes played, and how much you will need to pay each player per season (presuming they will play 2,500 minutes).  Which seven players do you choose and why?”   That’s going to force some math calculations, evaluation of who is better–because other things such as defense aren’t mention…am I as a student permitted to address this issue???…and thus brings in critical thinking skills.  Go back to being 14-15 years old–would you rather do 20-30 math problems or work an extended math problem like the NBA example?  Exactly.

Games in the classroom are the exact same sort of thing.  They provide an alternate means of exploring issues.  They do not produce guaranteed results.  An exploration of 1900-1914 may see Germany and Russia remaining allied or England staying free from continental affairs; a role-play of the medieval church could see Luther’s issues resolved peacefully so there’s never a Reformation.  The beautiful thing is these a-historical results can lead to great discussions and debates, force kids to consider possibilities.  Will their knowledge of the fall of Rome matter much in their career in I.T.?  Nope–but the critical thinking skills, the ability to discuss differences reasonably, to consider evidence and multiple possibilities–those things DO stick.  And that’s important.

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