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Play, Challenge, Work – A Simple Formula for Creating a Culture that Supports PBL - Part I: PLAY

Students come to class the first few days with boatloads of anxieties. Depending on their age, these stressors could be caused by being apart from the their parents, reforming social groups after a summer apart, still being stuck with their parents, or just the fear of not yet knowing what their year will be like. Knowing this, it always surprises me when teachers immediately launch into academics the first day or assign homework the first night.

Taking a group of students and building them into a classroom of learners with a culture that supports PBL doesn’t just happen when they sit in their seats. Like constructing anything, you must first set a firm foundation and create a well-supported and stress-tested structure before you can start putting up walls or shingling the roofs. No builder in their right mind would skip these any of these steps or switch up the order, so why when forming our own academic structures do teachers skip a step or two?

Step 1: Laying the Foundation - PLAY

When my students arrive in class the first day of school I don’t know them and they don’t really know me. Yes, there are always anecdotes from colleagues or perhaps I’ve had one of their siblings in my class, but I no little of their leadership skills, ability to work together, or their grit when it comes to pushing through difficult or lengthy tasks.

Just as you’d never buy a car and immediately take it on a long road trip without first test-driving it at the dealership, you don’t want to leap into any academic task or assessed assignment without getting to know your students, and more importantly, without letting them get to know each other.

So after they walk in the door and find their seats, I introduce myself, thank them for coming in, and then ask them to send one person from their group to come up and see me so they can get a copy of the game that they’ll be playing today. My favorite part of the first day is when one student inevitably raises their hand and asks, “Is this some kind of trick?”

No before you start dusting off that old Monopoly board or grab your chess set that is totally complete except for the white pawn and the black rook, the game that I give them is one of my own design because I wanted certain things in a game that I just couldn’t find from something I pulled off the shelf. However, I don’t expect everyone to start designing their own game, so instead, just find something that meets these general requirements;

  • It had to have simple rules that could be picked up in about 5 minutes to maximize game play and insure all students had a chance at success.

  • It had to be playable by groups of three or four.

  • It had to require all players to engage, not just take their turn and then tune out.

  • It had to require them to communicate and interact with all players.

  • It had to help them gain some content knowledge (trivia, theme, or gameplay mirrored class processes)

Some of you might be skeptical about just “playing a game” the first day or may have other things that are a part of your schools culture that you are required to do, but of all the steps in this culture-building process, this is the most formative and is even backed up by recent scholarly studies and experts.

Dr. Stuart Brown at the National Institute for Play points out that play is essential for growth because it provides opportunities for social exploration. So even thought students think all they’re doing is playing a board game, they are actually building their repertoire of collaborative techniques by using the game to try new was of communicating, problem solving, and resolving conflicts that will serve them well throughout the rest of the year.

Another recent study by McGill University suggest that by spending only 15 minutes of time engaged in some sort of play, groups of total strangers can develop empathy for each other. What this suggests is that until your students spend time with each other doing some sort of group activity, they don’t care if their peers succeed, fail, get stressed, or need help. Most teachers would say that until students feel empathy towards each other, they can’t successfully work together. And this begs the question; how do you create a culture that supports PBL without play?

In my next post, we'll examine the second part of this process, Challenge.

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