#gamestorming and @DaveGray

On Wednesday I went to the BostonPHP meeting, starring Dave Gray talking about his book Gamestorming.

It had been a long day.  I’ve been coming down with a cold for a while, and I knew that being up until all hours several nights in a row would probably push me over the edge into genuinely being ill.  I was right, but damnit, this was going to be important.  And that was also right.

There were some introductions of movers and shakers in the Boston PHP circuit, and some chat about what to do.  Then Dave got up. And he explored some of the concepts in his book.

Here’s where stuff got really cool.

Dave said in one of his Tweets today that we, as teachers, can really only lecture about things that we know; but that students need knowledge and skills for tomorrow (the future!) that are currently unknown.  So it’s more important to teach general problem-solving skills and research skills and how to be a data-shark than it is to teach specific content.

One of my students asked me a few days ago, “What year was the constitution ratified?”  The kid was sitting right next to our classroom reference shelf.  He was sitting at an Internet-enabled computer.  And he was already Googling something else. Of course I didn’t answer his question.  I told him how to answer it for himself.  Then I made him double-check his answer against three websites.

Dave described this as “fuzzy goals.”  The sixteenth and seventeenth century European explorers were dangerous villains, but they knew how to get things done: try often, try hard, be bold.  It’s a lie that Europeans thought the world was flat; they knew it was round, and about how big it was — they just didn’t have proof.  Columbus sailed off into the sunset believing that he could sail to Japan… he couldn’t have done so with his technology, but there were intermediate discoveries to be made that were far more successful for his investors than getting to China ever would have been.  The discoveries along the way may be as valuable, or as interesting, or as useful, as the goals you find on the way.

So then Dave set us to work doing some of the exercises — the games — from his book.  One we did alone, and that was useful.  But Solitaire and similar games you play on your own are really only about your own satisfaction and sense of play.  The game we played with four others, and against all the other teams in the room, was far more satisfying.

Our goal was to make a poster, answering the question, “What can Boston PHP do to become a more successful organization?” We could update or revise that question, but that was the main idea we had to try to answer.

The team that I was in (including a guy from this group) — and all of the teams that wound up winning books, including mine — produced multiple drawings and diagrams and designs.  We had a fuzzy goal in mind, but made discoveries about ourselves and our group and Boston PHP in general, by taking multiple turns at playing the game.

At being problem solvers.

This is at the core of what I’m thinking about as a teacher these days.  Rather than give students lectures, and direct them to take notes, I want to move toward problem-solving and fuzzy goal-seeking activities.  I want to teach my students to be voracious data-sharks, but also humanists, who recognize that problems need to have human-sized solutions.

This isn’t easy.  I’m a voracious data-shark, and I love knowing the answer.  I like that kids ask me questions, and alumni at school gatherings try to stump me, and I can puzzle out the solution.

But that’s the skill I want my students to graduate with.  Which means I have to let my kids practice it, rather than just give them a demonstration of it.

And that means giving them the chance to DO, and not merely see-and-hear it being done.  And that’s as much about surrender, as it is about control.

I’ve said before about Dave Gray’s work that Drawing is Mission-Critical.  So is game-playing and problem-solving, though.  And you can’t do problem-solving in 50 seconds a question on a standardized test.

4 comments

  1. Andrew,
    I so agree with your last statement.
    In times of rapid change, it is vital to have skills for adapting and resolving situations.
    Gamestorming, seems to me, to be the ideal resource to keep at hand for doing just that.
    The potential for creativity is there, front and centre!

  2. I have also been inspired by Dave’s work, and I am fortunate to live in Portland, where I am able to regularly see the practice in action via XPLANE’s Visual Thinking School. I have also introduced several exercises based on Gamestorming in my classroom, and I think that they have been effective, and the students much prefer them to conventional lectures.

    But there are two issues for which I cannot really claim to know the answer, but which I think are crucial to the use of these techniques to achieve higher education goals, rather than business goals.

    The first: Dave and his colleagues are mostly oriented around finding concrete solutions to problems in communication in business settings, much like your PHP exercise. That is what their clients pay them to do. Meanwhile, I am attempting to solve a whole different kind of problem. My challenge is to motivate students to look at the world differently, and perhaps to undermine the whole concept of solutions. I don’t think that my goals and the techniques of Gamestorming are necessarily incommensurable. But I do think we begin from very different places, and seek very different outcomes, and sometimes I think it takes different kinds of games to reconcile those oppositions, a different kind of worldview.

    The second: I haven’t really figured out how to assess the results of Gamestorming in a way that would satisfy an institutional observer, at least in the way that I use the games. My subjective observation is that it works, and that at least a few of the students give me reports that show that they get it. But I’m skeptical about testing for the kinds of learning I expect them to get from these exercises, as you are. And I think that the whole package of instruction that I give is somewhat effective in introducing my students to ideological critique, for example, but I don’t have a good sense of how much Gamestorming is contributing to that success.

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