Teaching as Improvisational Game

One of the best parts of #clmooc is how the sharing of resources and discussion broadens and deepens everything. For the third cycle the topic is games and I started thinking of board games, video games, and sports. But in the prompt the other important and significant bit of context and fuel for thought was the idea of play and that’s when I started to think about how much fun it can be to teach and explore in an improvisational way.

Over the past few years I’ve been participating in an unconference in Halifax, Nova Scotia called Podcamp where people assemble in a semi-structured fashion to learn and share how to create social media and I’ve facilitated a number of sessions there. But this past year I wanted to try something a bit different and entered the BattleDecks contest. It’s a variation of PechaKucha where you have a series of slides that advance on their own during your presentation. With BattleDecks the rules are that you don’t know the topic or the slides and it is revealed just before you present. So you need to weave together the topic and slides as you stand in front of a few hundred people. It was exhilarating and I was very happy to win this year. Teaching in an improvisational style probably helped a lot to prepare me for BattleDecks.

While I don’t think of myself as a gamer (which is a self-defined community of interest), there are games that I really enjoy and some that have made me think a lot about teaching and how it can be a model for teaching. The games from Nintendo have a great structure and many are based on a design philosophy that Shigeru Miyamoto took from the way that he drew comics when he was younger. According to Super Mario Galaxy 2 Director Koichi Hayashida the structure is Kishōtenketsu, and in Japanese manga over four panels, you introduce a concept, and then in the next panel you develop the idea a little bit more; in the third panel there’s something of a change-up, and then in the fourth panel you have your conclusion.”

With a game you need to learn how to play it and master it, and what fascinates me is how it works in games that don’t have explicit tutorials. You are doing things and in the doing, you are learning. Hayashida describes how it works in Super Mario Galaxy 2:

First, you have to learn how to use that gameplay mechanic, and then the stage will offer you a slightly more complicated scenario in which you have to use it. And then the next step is something crazy happens that makes you think about it in a way you weren’t expecting. And then you get to demonstrate, finally, what sort of mastery you’ve gained over it. Gamasutra - The Secret to Mario Level Design

I love the idea of starting learning casually and then moving into more advanced concepts. One of the proudest times teaching that I had was when facilitating a video production workshop and things were rolling along with us having fun and one of the learners asked, have you started teaching?” It’s great to be in the moment and exploring and bouncing around ideas without thinking of a formal, traditional teaching structure. What is important is the learning and establishing the right structure to allow play to allow learners to build on their knowledge and contribute.

Luckily, I’m able to teach something that I have a deep and abiding love for, which are films. It’s a creative area where you need to collaborate and work within constraints, so in many ways it’s always a game. The structure that I love to follow in class is to start by talking about films at the beginning of class. Ideally filmmakers should watch a lot of films as you should love what you do. There are many films and styles of filmmaking and if you assemble a group of people who love films together and allow them to discuss, it will be fun. The challenge for me is to start off by allowing some learners to share what they’ve seen and then integrate those examples into what the topic for the day is.

For example, in Producing class if we are talking about budgeting and funding the films that we’re talking about can be the examples. It’s easier than ever to find out information about the production of films and the production companies, so even if most people haven’t heard of the film, within a few minutes we can figure out a lot about it and how it relates to making out own films.

For me the most exciting part is the improvisatory nature of teaching this way. Having a large unknown factor and needing to respond and change as it goes is a lot of fun and it keeps me on my toes. Knowing where we need to end up, but not knowing the way there makes each day new and even with the same topic in the same class it never ends up being the same. That’s a lot of fun.

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