Teaching with Tabletops

Book Keeper's Library Crew

In our last discussion we took a look at a radical new approach to education that treats it like a game. It embraces kids’ needs for engagement and success in a safe environment, where they can learn from failure instead of being punished for it. This is one of the reasons kids gravitate towards games. Often times, this need is met by video games. Believe me when I say that I am not one of these old-timers who i anti-technology. In fact, I am very much the opposite. But I do believe that the speed at which our involvement in the digital world is growing presents some problems that we haven’t caught up to solving yet. And I will make this short, clear point — we need to catch up.

One of the problems created by a digital world that innovators are trying to solve is “what happens to reading and writing when so much of our world can be shown and understood without those skills being necessary?”

There are those who have a cynical view of this, who say that true reading skills are becoming obsolete for today’s youth. Then there are those who believe that kids have just adapted to the fast paced, quick and dirty world of words around them. Short bursts of text are around every turn, and on every screen. Facebook statuses, Instagram captions, text in a SnapChat, even objectives in a video game are short and sweet. Traditional reading skills are being replaced with the skill of doing the most possible with the least amount of information. From my experience, I for one think we need to give today’s kids a little more credit than we do.

But the problem still exists, reading and writing has not been phased out. The need for these skills still exists, and many kids are falling short. The purpose of this discussion isn’t to go through the various causes of this. Rather, I once again want to discuss some solutions with you, and give you a few examples of how they work.

In a Dragon Talk podcast put out by Wizards of the Coast, the host interviewed a teacher from a Title-I, low-income public school in Houston, Texas named Cade Wells. Mr. Wells uses D&D in his classroom to help teach students reading and writing skills through playing the game — in class, every day — with measurable, positive results. From a teaching standpoint, playing a tabletop RPG already makes your mind work at a metacognitive level in most cases. Thinking about how your character, not necessarily you, would react or handle a situation is “thinking about your thinking.” According to Wells’ research, when infused with some very intentional, yet subtle educational content, the results can be amazing.

Let’s take informational text reading as our first example. Reading technical texts is something that most people will have to do in their lifetime, whether we like it or not. A Player’s Handbook for any RPG is a technical, informational text. To navigate it you have to know how to use headings, indexes, read graphs and charts, and refer to multiple sections of information to synthesize a single thing. It can also require knowing how to use context clues to pick up on jargon and vocabulary that might be unfamiliar to a reader. In Wells’ 9th grade English class, character creation is actually a lesson in how to read informational texts!

Another example of how D&D can be used to teach literacy in the classroom is through its storytelling aspect. The rules of D&D are merely guidelines for how to navigate actions inside of a created world. And in most cases, a campaign or adventure is a story that the characters play through within the boundaries of those rules, kind of like the physics of our real world. In these stories, be they written modules or homebrew, things like theme and mood can be communicated through how the DM chooses to describe the world around the players. If presented in a literary way, as in actually telling bits of the story in a “choose your own adventure” style, then lessons on how to identify mood, theme, and the like can easily be incorporated into the game.    

After he began incorporating D&D into his instruction, his student’s scores on standardized tests increased, and he also found that they were more confident in their own ideas and abilities as students. Many of the students from his classes and clubs were also very instrumental in helping other students succeed as well.

Wells’ thesis is that D&D can help break the stigma of reading with some of today’s youth, as well as provide opportunities to teach reading and writing skills to students who might not otherwise care about these things.

In an ever-changing world, we must also change and adapt the way we teach students. While there can be something to say about tried-and-true methods, we have to be creative and innovative in how we approach teaching necessary skills that might just not be relevant to a student yet. One of those ways, as seen in this discussion, is to make it relevant through tabletop gaming in his classroom. Doing so has allowed students to actually experience the value of reading and writing in a way that is meaningful to them.

It might not solve the problems brought about by a digital world, but innovative ways of education like the one discussed here can help provide students with the skills they need to better navigate it. We just can’t be scared to try new things. It might not always work, but in the case of Mr. Wells’ class, the risk was well worth the reward.

Until next time, my friend.