Jon Cassie is an educator, writer, podcaster and game designer based in Southern California. See his work at Game Level LearnIlinx and SchoolNEXT.

Teaching in a Gamified Classroom Level 3: Theorycrafting Knowledge

Level 3? We got this...now wait a minute...this doesn't make sense...what are we doing here? How're we ever going to get to that boss if we can't figure out what's at the heart of this level? What is this designer trying to do anyway? 

I just finished reading Bonnie A. Nardi's My Life As a Night Elf Priest, a sophisticated piece of ethnography in the emerging literature on cultures formed and sustained primarily in digital spaces, in this case, by players and guilds within the game World of Warcraft. In this book, she has a chapter on a practice within the game that players call "theorycrafting." She defines theorycrafting in World of Warcraft as "the discovery of rules that cannot be determined by play." (175)

For the purposes of creating a gamified classroom, it is clear that what both teachers and students need to do is to think like theorycrafters. This might sound straightforward. It isn't. It does speak to the fundamental questions that confront us as educators trying to make sense of 21st century change, 21st century curricula, 21st century skills and the Dan Pink / Ken Robinson challenge. Both Pink and Robinson speak about the need to infuse creativity into learning and I don't disagree. But at the heart of my teaching practice isn't creativity the way that Pink and Robinson might define it (though maybe I'm wrong here?), but rather the creativity that lies at the heart of sophisticated thinking. 

In an earlier post, I alluded to the practice, as I understood it at the time, of constructing a system of levels which my students would use to learn in a 21st century, gamified classroom. I was teaching a course called America 3.0, which attempted to confront students with critical questions about the history of this country in the last 20-40 years. I was partially successful, though not completely so. As the creator of the system of knowledge that I wanted students to explore, I was attempting to create precisely that - a system that built layer by layer, like an onion, to expand students' capacity not to know these levels (because that was only part of the story, and not the most important part - after all, students didn't earn any points for knowing things), but to use that knowledge to answer critical questions (in game terms - to slay bosses).

I was not, am not and won't be interested in the knowledge that students acquire for its own sake. Society has moved on. This isn't something I want to measure. Rather, what can students do with knowledge that they have or that they find? This is where the theorycrafting comes in. What lies unstated in the knowledge? What does the network emphasize or obscure? What's buried in there that needs teasing out? This is the work of theorycrafters in the game, and the work of theorycrafting within a gamified classroom.

As a teacher planning a course, I committed myself in the planning stage to not give students only one approach through the knowledge of America's history since 1970. This is an example of a "rule that cannot be determined by play." I was imparting to my students an experience that reinforces my belief that knowledge is systematic, interdisciplinary and networked. Moreover, by not giving students the currency of the realm, points, for doing work in the knowledge trees, I was emphasizing this quality.

The level 100 boss in the Culture Knowledge Tree read: In the transition from America 1.0 to America 2.0, major disruptions in social relations and "social truth" led to the widespread adoption and embrace of fringe cultural practices. In many cases, these fringe practices died out (Fourierism), but in other cases, they survived into our own age (Christian Science). Trace the phenomenon of cultural resistance to the mainstream and/or the emergence of cultural anxiety in the transition from America 2.0 to America 3.0, and speculate based on reason and sound evidence about the likely survivability of at least three cultural expressions in 2100. Embedded within this question are notions of the mainstream and notions of the fringe, the Braudelian sense that history is conducted over larger temporal frameworks than students conventionally study in high school history, that social truth might be mutable and that culture has a social dimension. None of these ideas are expressed in the knowledge tree itself.

As a teacher, I tried to construct a learning experience that embedded unstated questions within the questions themselves. My students were therefore confronted with subtleties of criticality that they wouldn't have been had I centered myself at the nexus of learning. I was to the side - my students were at the center, with the KTs that formed the core of their experience. Sophisticated students seemed to get this almost at once and then it became, for them, a part of the game and part of the learning. The less sophisticated students realized that there was something more going on, and if they were partnered with their classmates effectively, they got something from that team. All students were given the opportunity to explore knowledge in different modalities, which was one of the goals of the course development process.

As a teacher thinking about gamifying curriculum, think of these things:

  • What's The Network?: What will your knowledge trees look like and what is embedded within them? What rules of your discipline will inform knowledge? How will your students make sense of what you've constructed?
  • Who's the Boss?: Central to the theorycrafter's task is trying to find the rules that are not explicitly stated. What is the knowledge that isn't explicitly stated? How can you point students to that knowledge in your boss questions?
  • Where's The Truth?:  Theorycrafters are keen to unpack assumptions and test them. Can you think of ways to structure questions to specifically validate the theorycrafting impulse and, as an added benefit, reveal the perspectives hidden within your questions?
  • Why Should I Care?: Well constructed levels should give students the ability to see connections between discrete fields of knowledge. How you encourage them to build this network of understanding speaks to the fundamental task of 21st century learning.

Teaching in a Gamified Classroom Level 4: Theorycrafting Doing

Teaching in a Gamified Classroom Level 2: Students and Self-Direction