Like most people I know, I loved playing games when I was a child: in my case these included board games, indoor and outdoor sports, word games, card games, puns, and puzzles. And as someone who enjoyed the thrill of winning no less than the satisfaction of competing, I learned early on the importance of following the rules. The lesson here was simple: If you followed the rules, you stood a better chance of winning.
During a career in which I have held positions of widely varying responsibility with children, I’ve noticed that they manifest an almost universal game-playing instinct. In fact, I can’t think easily of a setting in which selective game-playing has not proven both to enhance relationships and to cement learning. I would even go so far as to say that all successful teaching derives from this fundamental rule.
This last point has led me to a truly astonishing realization: if teachers want to increase their chances of winning--that is to say, being successful in promoting greater learning of the part of their students, they are then obliged to follow the rules of the broader educational game. Thanks to a seemingly universal need, these rules stipulate that effective learning can neither be divorced from selective game-playing nor from trusting relationships.
If learning outcomes are indeed enhanced by trusting relationships and selective game-playing, teachers who follow the rules are therefore likely to enjoy greater success. Research makes clear that students need to feel genuinely supported by their teachers; not only do they pay closer attention when they feel a connection, they work harder and assume a greater responsibility over their own learning. But no less important is the power of play.
This is where the skill of the expert teacher can be best illustrated. Games are not much fun when they feel overly artificial, nor does learning benefit when games are offered as rewards or time-fillers. It should come as little surprise that children have very exacting standards about the quality of so-called educational games. After all, the driving force of childhood learning may be its uncompromising devotion to selective game-playing.
I don’t know what the research says about a human game-playing gene, but I suspect that there are both cognitive and social advantages to play. In learning the rules of someone else’s games, whether in the classroom or on the playground, we codify expectations and routines at the same time that we practice behaviors and potential solutions. Similarly, in making up our own games, we have ample opportunity to consider the needs and perspectives of others.
I am humbled by the fact that the lesson I thought I had learned in childhood is only partially correct. Though it is true that one stands a better chance of winning if one follows the rules, I also recognize that not everyone is equally interested in winning. Some people enjoy games for the sake of structure or connection; others, no doubt, for the simple pleasure of participation. In all of these instances I would argue that we are always calculating our next move.
I have the pleasure of sponsoring a once-a-week chess club for our upper schoolers, and I imagine that chess is the prime example for a game defined by calculated moves. We have some decidedly competitive chess players in the club, to be sure, but we also have plenty of mere enthusiasts. In observing the natural respect that each group has for each other, I have learned a delightful and rather inarguable lesson: If you calculate your moves in such a way that you stay true to your own interests, you stand a better chance of benefitting from the experience.