Challenge vs. story

24Jan09

The tail end of this interview with Jonathan Blow captures a split in the classroom as well as on the screen. There is the challenge, with bits of story stuck in it. But do the challenge and the story generate each other, or is the challenge just there to space out the story? And is the story just there to give a cognitive shell around the game?

Imagine a unit on the Civil War. For six weeks the students negotiate the steady stream of readings, responses in their notebook, lecture participation, probably a final essay or test. Does any of this feel like a Civil War to you? Of course not — it’s school. It would work the same way for a unit on robotics, or Catcher in the Rye, or what have you. The students are supposed to walk through the steps and pick up bits of Civil War story as they go.

Of course it is more active than that. The students write; the writing forms something in their minds. The same happens with reading, looking at maps, etc. The form of the classroom, if it’s good, is adequate for forming ideas in the students’ heads. Similarly, a good, innovative game can deliver a story as it goes along.

But there isn’t that unity among form and content that would make it profoundly meaningful. Silly though it may be, I recall very vividly a Constitutional Convention we held for a week in my U.S. History class in high school. As 16- and 17-year-olds, we were very attuned to acting, participating, playing a social role, making a claim and defending it. Those actions tied in so deeply with the issues of the Constitution that they got deeply into our bones — we acted out the dynamics of the situation.

How could the structure of a class be shaped by its subject? How about a biology class? A math class?

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