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Adaptive Learning: How Story Games Teach Teachers

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about how designing games and running them offer a unique approach to designing and running courses for students. I was working on game design, and it helped me think of a way to explain how story-telling games do a very critical service for teachers, helping them become fellow learners alongside students, focus on and listen to their students’ needs, and adapt their approach.

It also got me thinking about what you can and can’t plan for, both in the rules of games and the writing of curriculum - and even what you SHOULDN’T try to structure or design.

Let me explain.

I was working on a little resolution system for my game - a list of “Triumphs and Troubles” or “Successes and Setbacks” that tie to a character’s Drive or Downfall. These would be mirrored by lists attached to a scene’s “Drama” - situational wins and losses that are more external than internal.

Say your character has the “Hard-Headed” Downfall - here’s a quick list of good and bad outcomes from rolls in-game that might help students learn to use their character’s personality to develop story (a critical element in writing many early writers struggle with!):

They’re fun! They’re descriptive. They ask follow-up questions to help players build emotionally engaging stories. In a lot of ways, lists like this might help students keep a character’s emotions and development first and foremost in their story-telling: something key to great writing. They offer guidance, shape the experience, potentially even encourage writing and creativity.

… or they might restrict it.

Suddenly, instead of thinking about what might happen at that moment, the player is looking down at their list, trying to decide which prompt to pick. Whatever their initial idea, now they're pushed to pick one of mine - and they've lost their agency. This tension - between adding more guidance and structure and restricting creativity - affects both game and curriculum design.

I’ll give another example. A lot of students have a tendency to write what I call “lore dumps” - descriptive pieces detailing a location, a creature, a planet, a people. These are usually written with no sense of speaker’s voice, and very often have elements of the author’s voice that haven’t been considered from the standpoint of the reader (who’s writing this - why are they writing it?).

I could create a tick-box scale for points - some sort of list of writing targets like: tells a story from a character’s perspective, details an event or scene, includes dialogue. But here’s the thing - creating that list focuses students, laser-like, on those goals. Instead of freeing their minds to think “who do I want to write about” or “what might be cool to describe,” they start worrying “am I meeting the criteria?” or just tuning out (“this is all too much - whatever!”).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, teachers are no different. If a curriculum is too detailed, too specific, too structured, the burden of figuring out how to use it - which parts are crucial, which don’t matter, what to do if it doesn’t seem to work - becomes too great. The core of being a great teacher is - though complex in action! - pretty simple: focus on helping your students. If you’re so caught up in worrying about whether you’re missing anything in the 40 page lesson plan, if you crammed every last bit into the time you have, whether you got everyone to complete the exit ticket, you’re going to fail to do the real job and connect with your students, hear what they need.

So here we come to the crux of instruction and game design: let’s call it adaptive play.

Any game requires some core set of rules, rituals, procedures - some way to structure the experience. With little kids playing make-believe, this is often generated organically, and most expert story-tellers can do the same - much like expert teachers can run nearly any lesson on the fly, while those early in the career struggle with the details (as one of my mentee teachers and I used to joke: "using your insula instead of your prefrontal cortex!").

Curriculum design is similar. Any teacher who tries to mechanize or systematize their entire approach is doomed not only to fail, but to do their students a disservice - they’ll fail to see individual needs and adapt to them. Of course, a class requires some guiding principles, learning and cultural aspirations, and curricular approaches, but the more detailed the document becomes, the likelier it is that something is lost along the way.

I could write my complete curriculum down for someone else, but it would likely end up hugely overbuilt. The reason? I’d have to explain and enumerate the ways in which I look for and adapt to student needs. If a kid says X, I’ll try Y and then maybe Z. Even with that sort of approach, I couldn’t possibly account for every situation, student, or solution - and if I did, the curriculum would be unreadable.

So here’s the amazing thing about story games - they, like any good teaching tool, are inspiring and adaptable. In fact, they prepare the INSTRUCTOR to play with kids, be flexible, adapt, be creative, listen, and learn and generate alongside their students as fellow learners. In effect, collaborating on stories forces teachers to model being engaged and enthusiastic learners, patient and invested collaborators, and to differentiate their curriculum as they work with students on the emotional roller-coaster of a great tale.

And if I put too many rules in the way of that, I might prevent teachers and students from creating their own experience, together.

A story game can't be predicted - by just sitting down at the table, a teacher is accepting that everyone at the table has agency: that everyone can shape outcomes with their actions, and that the story they're telling is shared. Players will always come up with surprising ideas, weird hooks, exceptional characters - and as long as they're up to the task, a teacher gets the chance to model for their students being flexible, creative, making mistakes, asking for help: all the things you hope any learner will develop.

So I'm starting to think about not just educational role-playing game design, but how to help welcome and encourage teachers to try the strategy out in their own rooms. How to give them experiences that prepare them to take the plunge, finding a new way to be flexible, learn with their students, create, and adapt. I've made some tools to help people learn to run story games, but it's often easiest to learn at the table - by playing!



Want to sign a student up? Check for open classes, or reach out to find your own time!

If you'd like to check out some of the tools I use with students, take a look at my games.

If you'd like to hear a bit more about my approach, here's a video where I explain a bit more!

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