Loud Gleeful Learning

Caro Williams-Pierce - November 5, 2021

Supporting and provoking adult play in formal contexts.

The best learning — or maybe just my favorite type of learning — is often messy, full of happy cross-talk, and with lots of friendly disagreements. I’ve had the luxury of facilitating a number of these types of learning experiences in the past decade, both at academic conferences and in formal classrooms at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and I wanted to share my template for planning these chatter-filled, activity-centered, delightfully unpredictable sessions!

Figure out your goal (not a learning objective!) and craft a ‘provocative argument’ that you can introduce to your participants. A good provocative argument pushes everyone to discuss and disagree, which can then be extended directly into a hands-on activity. Discussing that hands-on activity and how it relates to your provocative argument leads in turn to preparing the participants for the next learning session.

This post assumes about an hour of learning time — add more (and different types) of activities and discussions if you have more time! If you have a three-hour class block, for example, I recommend three hands-on activities, and at least one should get everyone out of their chairs and moving around.

First, what is your goal?

If you are or have been a teacher at any level, your first instinct will probably be to reach for a learning objective. If this happens, smack your hand and tell yourself NO! The messiness of loud gleeful learning means that you are opening up a possibility space, not defining a specific target to which you want the participants to travel directly towards and meet. Instead, pick a topic you want everyone to (loudly, gleefully) argue around. For example, in my Games as Emergent Experiences class, we have a week in which my goal is to have the students argue about how paired failure and feedback contribute to the experience of flow. As another example, in my Mathematical Play Working Group at PME-NA, we often find ourselves arguing around the tension between the content objective and the play objective — which should we forefront? Can we forefront both? Or is this a continuum, where we have to pick which end we want to be closest to (and which we want to be furthest from)?

Both of these arguments are unanswerable — or rather, there are multiple answers to each — because the experience of failure, of learning, of mathematical play, is inherently based upon the unique nature of the human being doing the experiencing. Which means these are perfect topics for people to argue around!

Second, use your goal to build a provocative argument.

A provocative argument isn’t about telling, but describing the complex and often conflicting landscape of the goal. Sharing three very different definitions of mathematical play is a good way to get folks at PME-NA arguing, because everyone that attends our working group already has opinions about mathematics content, classrooms, and play. And those opinions are often implicit and quite different, so sharing the three different definitions forces the attendees to figure out why and how they disagree with some definitions and not with others. (Plus, we are fortunate enough to have facilitators that range in expertise from early childhood mathematics play to undergraduate+ mathematical play — so the content differences always provoke delightful conversations!)

As a classroom example, one week in my course involves examining and experiencing failure, feedback, and flow. I build the provocative argument by assigning readings, a video, and a game that together create a partial and sometimes conflicting account of the relationship between these three. This semester, as they had already gained a strong grounding in feedback and failure in previous weeks, we focused on introducing flow into that familiar landscape. So, I had them read about flow and immersion, watch a talk by Csikszentmihalyi, and play Flower (with the back-up of Fishdom if tech issues prevents them from playing Flower; but see Footnote 1 about the drawbacks of using Fishdom). This Read-Watch-Play approach sets the provocative landscape for their loud gleeful classroom learning — they then bring conflicting understandings and experiences directly into our shared space. So a couple little questions about Flower usually turns on the loud gleefulness — did you experience flow? What failure and feedback did you see? Did you like or dislike the game, or were you just bored and didn’t care at all?

There are many other ways to set the provocative argument beyond sharing three conflicting definitions of mathematical play or using a Read-Watch-Play system — check out Footnote 2 for some suggestions!

Third, let ’er rip!

A powerful provocative argument means that people will want to start discussing right away. So I usually start by giving folks some time to argue about the landscape, which has several additional bonuses:

  1. They can tentatively start using the language that you have introduced in a low-stakes environment, by asking each other questions;
  2. They can, as a group, begin working towards a shared understanding of any new language;
  3. They tend to be surprised (and excited) to find that others have wildly different ideas and opinions; and
  4. They get the chance to blurt out any burning thoughts that would otherwise have to wait until the ‘right’ time in the discussion.

In my course, students get the first 10 minutes of class to gabble about whatever they want — usually telling stories about that week’s game, and the horrible way their character died, or the time they just barely beat another player. Since the students come in with the shared experiences of Read-Watch-Play, they have an advantage that other formal environments often don’t offer.

For example, the first day of the PME-NA Working Group is more difficult to design for: anyone attending the conference can wander in, with more or less knowledge about mathematical play (although it’s safe to assume that everyone there knows and enjoys a variety of mathematics, so that’s a design leg up). Consequently, the attendees are often learning your provocative argument at the same time that they are learning what type of space your Working Group is. Is it all about lecturing and slides, like most academic contexts, or really discussion-based? Are their disagreements welcomed, or uncomfortably ignored? (Or worse, actively pooh-pooh’d!) Are they expected to ‘consume’ knowledge, or actively invited to co-create the learning community alongside the formal facilitators?

In these contexts, the provocative argument must be followed immediately by time for people to learn that the goal is to have everyone good-naturedly argue, no matter how much they know or don’t know about the topic at hand. You can either go the discussion route — although it’ll take longer than the 10 minutes I usually allot in class, so budget 20–30 minutes — or go straight into the next step so that folks can get an activity under their belt to keep their later discussions grounded in a shared experience.

Fourth, extend the provocative argument with an activity.

This can be a small group discussion that focuses on particular questions around the provocative argument — at PME-NA, the participants could be broken up into content area interests (early childhood math, linear functions, undergraduate calculus, what-have-you), and asked to think about how to implement one of the definitions of mathematical play into those learning contexts.

This could also be a physical or digital game experience. In my course one year, I had the students read about The Untitled Goose Game, then play a multiplayer analog versiontogether in class, followed by a discussion about the mechanics — the similarities and differences — between the two versions. I have also had students demo games in my course (such as Mario Kart) while other students looked on, and had a vibrant discussion afterwards about the indicators of learning, failing, and feedback in the game and between the competing players. I have also seen students play summary videos about games that have delightfully unusual design approaches that radically challenges what we had discussed previously (e.g., Hades, where the player’s death is only sorta-kinda punishment instead of solely an indicator of failure); or play a video of themselves learning a new game and doing a live commentary over the video about their learning.

Frankly, the sky is the limit here — new and old games, design activities, scavenger hunts, discussions about (figurative) giants in the field of focus, debates about big conflicts in the field, and so on. But remember that you are aiming for loud, gleeful learning — so bring in some silliness! Funny hats, self-deprecating humor, videos of your own huge failures in math, games, or whatever your topic is, and a very light guiding touch — aim only for questions that amplify and extend your participants’ ideas rather than restrict them. Remember, you don’t have a learning goal — just an a provocative argument space!

Fifth, discussing and concluding.

If there were small groups, then bring them back together and have them share with each other. If there were demos and videos, then discuss how everyone saw different things and made different connections between what they saw and the overall topic. Whatever you do, make sure you have sufficient time for folks to share all of their ideas, discuss different angles on the provocative argument, and figure out how today’s topic builds upon their previous knowledge from the class or the field. Two quick tips to help you guide — instead of dominate — the discussion:

First, it is often easier to talk than to facilitate — fight against the urge to say something substantive after each comment from a participant, and let them respond directly to each other’s ideas. I use a lot of noises and physical gestures to facilitate and encourage, like “Ooooooh” when someone asks an interesting question, or an inviting gesture towards someone who looks like they want to respond but are waiting to see if you want to respond first. Sometimes, though, you’ll need to use tip #2, wait time, to foster a good discussion environment.

Wait time is an important idea for facilitating, whether classes, working groups, or even committee meetings! At the front of the room, you’ll feel awkward when you ask a question and no-one answers right away — don’t let it make you keep talking! Instead, try to give a solid 30 seconds before you say anything else — people will desperately want that uncomfortable silence to end, and may break it for you, and/or the person who likes to think things through before speaking will actually have the space to contribute. So embrace the awkward!

Okay, back to the concluding discussion. Say that I’m wrapping up class by having my students discuss their experience of flow playing Flower. There is always someone who just can’t handle the fundamental different-ness of the game, and this invariably emerges at some point during class when that person shares their crankiness and explains how they tried their usual min/max approach but the sluggish controllers made it impossible, argh argh argh! And other students chime in, saying “Well, yeah, the controllers were a little difficult, but — ” and then they share with their more flow-like experiences, and what supported that feeling (the bell-like tones with every new blossoming flower, the susurration that pushes you back when you haven’t finished a level yet, the beautiful greening as you revitalize each landscape). And we discuss the personal uniqueness of the flow experience — how some people can find flow in Flower, while others just cannot. But the latter folks may find their flow in notoriously difficult games with precise controllers and useful min/maxing, like the Dark Souls series.

So then a natural next step is wondering how those games are different — which leads students right back to the role of feedback and failure in flow (the provocative argument), as Flower and a Dark Souls game manifests failure and feedback in very different ways. And, as the students have been thinking about failure and feedback for a few weeks already, their discussion usually brings them right to this topic! Particularly as games from the Dark Souls series require failure to learn — how to fight, how to beat a particular boss, how to train your fingers to do certain really difficult combos — while a game like Flower has such tiny failures that they are barely experienced. And those tiny failures can be directly attributed to the sluggish controls — so the player doesn’t feel like they’ve failed — while at the same time, those sluggish controls are fundamentally preventing any player that comes in with a min/max attitude from actually engaging in the game that way! In other words, the controls being sluggish fit perfectly with the designed game experience of flow (and the narrative because the player is being a gust of wind picking up flower petals, and I’m pretty sure that gusts of wind, shouldn’t be able to corner very precisely!).

An important note for doing this in a formal classroom setting: at some point, a student will ask a hard question, and everyone will swivel around to look at you for the answer. A good response to that is “Why are you all looking at me? Somebody has to have an opinion about this!”

Build directly upon that conclusion by waiting until someone asks a question or makes a point that relates directly to next week’s theme — then say, “That is an awesome and difficult question, but we don’t have enough time! Let’s try to make sure we bring that back up in the next class!” In other words, you want a cliffhanger — so they walk out wanting the answer (and may try to puzzle it out themselves). The bonus is that they will be grateful when the next week’s Read-Watch-Play starts helping them answer the question!

This is dedicated to all my future students who will be worried about how to facilitate class, and to all my future colleagues who are planning to facilitate a working group. I hope this helps as you design, and lessens your worries!