Science and Teaching for Field Instructors

Tales from the Field: Using Games

The following is an exchange between two program leaders currently using BEETLES Professional Learning Sessions and the BEETLES team. The most effective use of games is a topic that regularly comes up at BEETLES institutes and workshops, and that we hear in many other science education settings. Read on to hear some of our thoughts and contribute your own in the comments below!

Message from a Program Leader: One question that has emerged is regarding the role of games in the Learning Cycle. At least one (and probably more) of our instructors strongly believe that games are a great way to solidify things in the Concept Invention stage of the Learning Cycle. I explained that my personal preference is that we emphasize direct observation and connection with the natural world and that often games do not take advantage of being outside or really observing and discussing what students see and think about. But her point is that some things are not easily observed — take for example the relationship between algae and fungus. Hard to actually see, right? So, a game could help to bring this relationship to life. What do you all think?

Another program leader: Great question!  Our staff is asking similar questions. Right now, we have games as an addition to every concept lesson (a game related to that concept). We’ve taken classic team building or critical thinking games and tried to have them be assistants to the lessons. More than replacing a stage of the learning cycle, we have it as an addendum to have “themed fun.”  We’ve added a couple games to the concept invention part of the lesson when we couldn’t find anything else, though.

Response from Craig Strang, BEETLES:

About games, hmm… of course, there is no right answer. And the famously frustrating BEETLES refrain applies here… “It depends!” It depends on what type of game, when it’s used/played, what came before and what will come after. We have no objections to a well-placed and well-played game. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking that because students can recount that Alice and Freddy took a likin’ to each other that that means they actually understand anything conceptual about lichens. I still don’t really understand that relationship myself (don’t algae live in water? why can’t I see the fungus and the algae differentiated from one another? how do they find each other? is it one organism or two?).

Of course, games are fun! They can be a great way to release energy or bring the energy in a group back up. Games like Camouflage can inspire kids who would otherwise never sit on the ground to dive behind a bush full of spiders, beetles, and other “scary” critters. And like your instructors have mentioned, games can help you remember and recall words, phrases, even the labels for concepts. But they are unlikely to help students achieve a deep memorable (“sticky”) understanding of complex ideas. That’s where the real trouble comes in: instructors playing a game and believing that deep learning is taking place.

You’re right, it’s hard to learn about the relationship between algae and fungus (as one example) through direct observation. Sometimes that means it’s less important to teach that concept in the outdoors-some things are easier taught in classrooms. If you have extended experiences with students outdoors, though, I think it can be valuable to dig into some of those concepts. The key is that any concept you teach outdoors should increase students’ understanding of the natural world and they should immediately get a chance to apply that concept directly to the natural world. It is also key that games have a great introduction and especially debrief/reflection in which the kids make connections between the game, the concept and their direct experiences.

When thinking about how to teach complex ideas, remember you can combine direct observation with: looking at field guides, doing your own drawings, talking about the ideas that are so abstract, letting kids talk about their ideas with each other, making comparisons, etc. Sadly, there is no substitute for grappling with hard ideas, but happily, it can be (for those twisted people like us) just as fun in the end, as playing that game.

Just to be furtherly redundantly, repetitively saying things over again, I want to make it perfectly clear that neither BEETLES, nor any member of the BEETLES team, nor any family member or close associate of a BEETLES team member is against playing games! We love games. Some of our best friends are games.

Love that you and your instructors are being so thoughtful about this. And thanks for sharing. It’s inspiring.

Response from Kevin Beals, BEETLES:

I agree with Craig that games are fun. Sometimes a little recess and running around are needed. And I think a lot of instructors do overestimate the educational value of games and think their kids are learning much more than they actually are. I heard John Muir Laws once say, “The instructor thinks their students are learning about predator-prey relationships, but the students are thinking, ‘I’m playing tag!’”

I also agree that the bulk of a student’s outdoor science experience should be directly engaging with nature, and games during learning times tend to take away from that. But occasionally there are some abstract concepts that can help move students understanding and learning along. They can give students a different perspective to use when they are directly engaging with nature. For example, let’s say you have a fairly experienced group, and you’ve been teaching them about adaptations, and they’ve been applying that concept to organisms they encounter, and you feel like they’re ready to grapple with the mechanisms for how adaptations came to be. But you can’t observe a process like evolution in the field, only the results. So you might want to do a game like Adapt or Die (a soon-to-be published BEETLES activity) which showcases natural selection as a mechanism for causing the adaptations we see in organisms. Students playing the game may mostly be having fun running around, which is why a really solid and interesting student-centered wrap-up discussion is crucial for learning about the process the game is meant to illuminate. It’s very unlikely that much concept invention is going on during a game, but it can happen during an interesting discussion afterward. At it’s best, though keep in mind that the game is a metaphor for reality, not reality. And students can often understand a metaphor on its own, but then not be able to apply it to the real world, which is not very useful. That’s why afterward, the instructor needs to prompt students to apply what was featured in the game to observations and interactions in nature. Then, it can be a solid contributor to concept invention, and then is it a real part of the outdoor learning experience.

Oh yeah and I think a game could be at different phases of the learning cycle. For example, the Whacky Adapty BEETLES name game also functions as a “light” introduction to the concept of adaptation during the Invitation phase of the Learning Cycle. But I’d agree that mainly I’d use them (very occasionally) during a concept invention part of a hike, or as a run-around non-learning break to pick up the energy of a group during any phase of an experience.

Message from Emilie Lygren, BEETLES:

When I was a beginning instructor, I felt pressure to make everything I did during a field experience relate to my theme of the day. When I played games, I would have a discussion or debrief about how the game connected to the theme of the day. For some games the connections to the theme were clear, but some games were poor models for the concept we were working with, and the debrief discussion felt stretched and contrived. I noticed I didn’t like the experience of trying to make connections that weren’t really there.

So after a few months as an instructor, my relationship to playing games shifted- when I chose to play a game with my students, it was usually to give them a break, or get their energy up, or to help them develop their ability to work together, or to set a tone of engagement with one another at the beginning of the day. Games became one of the many tools I used to manage a group’s energy throughout the day and to build a culture of lightheartedness and fun- they weren’t usually where I turned to reinforce concepts. If a game did connect to my theme (and there are a few, like Kevin and Craig mentioned, that illustrate abstract, unobservable concepts very well), great- but if it the connection wasn’t clear, I stopped trying to shoehorn the game into my theme. I gave myself and my group permission to take a break now and then, just for fun, without the game needing to mean anything (which is, in fact, a lesson in and of itself).

How is your program using games? Has your thinking changed on the subject of games? When are you most likely and least likely to use games with students, and how do you decide? Let us know in the comments below!

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