Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Creative Problem Solving - A Map for Learning

I've been exploring the idea of creative problem solving as the big picture for all of education.  It can be considered the why behind everything we have to teach in schools.

To approach learning this way, step one would be to develop a language that consistently refers to the need for creative problem solving.  As individuals, members of society or inhabitants of planet Earth, we will always be faced with problems.  Personal success will depend on our ability to contribute to the process of problem solving.  It is as relevant to us in the large and small scale of our existence as much as anything.

Step two would be to identify where, in this problem solving process, any current learning falls.

Whether it's a topic in a content area or a skill for communication or technology, it can fit somewhere in the map.  Most likely a specific topic or skill could fit in many places.  The map provides a consistent picture that we can return to between subjects or grade levels and extend into the world beyond the school.

So besides just pointing out where the skill learned in today's Algebra class might be useful, we can also indicate where occupations lie.  If we are talking about how to creatively solve problems, we are always talking about "real life".  

I made the picture below as a draft for a visual display, but the essential flow is as follows:

Finding Resources
  1. Better define the Problem
  2. Gather tools or resources for continuing the process
Develop Solutions
  1. Incorporate existing knowledge, skills and tools
  2. Form new ideas - This is the heart of the process, where connections are formed.
  3. Evaluate options
Present Solutions
  1. Who needs to know?
  2. How can we best tell them?
I plan to elaborate on this a lot in the weeks ahead, but here are three things worth noting now:
  • There is a circular flow in the map between the main areas.  Notice that most solutions are going to end up as tools available to us for further problem solving.
  • There are countless problems to solve throughout the problem solving process.  In one degree or another, every step of a significant problem will likely contain smaller versions of finding, developing and presenting solutions.
  • It could be argued that creativity and problem solving are the same thing.  Then creative problem solving is nearly redundant.  I prefer to use the term to emphasize the importance of creativity throughout every stage of this process.  It's the oil of the machine and we can see the whole system grind to a halt in formal learning structures when it is absent.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Advice to a new teacher...if I had a time machine

I really enjoyed Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon.  In it he gives advice about creativity by thinking about what he would tell his younger self.

That prompted me to consider what advice I would share with myself when I just started teaching.  Now, after 18 years in public education, what would be the most important tips I'd pass along?  I boiled it down to the list of six things below.  They're personal, but I think they have some application beyond my own life.

To set the scene I have to admit that the first half of my teaching experience was rough for me.  I did not enjoy much about teaching high school math.  There was plenty to be thankful for, no doubt, and a lot of students liked my classes.  I learned a ton about myself and I have some great relationships that came out of that time.  But dealing with difficult students and seeing my inability to reach all of them was tough.

I never could distance myself and simply say, "Well, I tried."  I felt like a failure many days.  

So here's a short list of what I wish I could have told myself when I was 25 years old, starting out in my career.

1)  Be realistic about what you're getting into.  The students you will be asked to teach are coming in with poor math skills and a poor attitude toward the subject.  Very few of them will see math class as the positive experience that you did.  Be prepared for this!  Set realistic goals of what you can accomplish in those first years as you are learning to be a good teacher.

2)  Take the work seriously, but don't forget about the relationships you are building everyday with your students.  You tend to get focused on the job and forget about people, but they are most important.  Even the difficult ones will respect you for your hard work if they also know you care about them.

Years after the class is over you'll see some of them.  They'll remember that you cared and worked hard more than they ever will the details of lessons, rough days, all those assignments or the grades they got.

3)  Start a game club right away.  That love you always had for games will be a highlight of your time working with students.  A lot of them won't fit in anywhere else, but they'll hang out with you at lunch.  Buy a few more of those games no one else has heard of and use them to connect with the students as much as you can.  Meet every couple weeks or so after school for gaming.  You'll like that extra-curricular work a lot more than organizing the prom.  (For the good of all, tell them you don't want to be a class sponsor!)

4)  Keep up on the technology.  You're kind of a traditionalist and in the debate of calculators versus no calculators you'll be tempted to keep it old school.  Instead, remember that many kids can learn the concept better if they come at it differently than you did.  It doesn't have to be all pencil and paper and a ton of steps.

Keep an open mind on that and use technology to give them a conceptual understanding useful for problem solving. When the principal asks you to try more with technology, do it.  Doors will open for you and you'll enjoy the change as the best years of your career.

5)  Assign creative projects, even in math.  Your department will focus almost exclusively on the state MEAP test, but don't let that drain your classroom of creativity.  You'll be busy and it will be easier to just keep it simple and routine, but things like the video assignment, personalized story problems and the artistic projects are vital.  Keep developing those assignments.  Add a new one every semester so that when students think back to your class, they remember those things they made.  You'll like it best when students say you're not like the other math teachers.

6)  Remember that you felt called to teach.  In frustrating times you'll think you should have gone into programming instead of working with kids who don't want to be there.

All those visions of being an amazing teacher will be shattered by reality and you'll think you misunderstood what you were supposed to do with your life.  But just like you did that day when you got the unexpected call and they offered you the job, trust that God knows what he's doing.  You are supposed to be there.

You won't reach everyone personally or with the math, but you'll connect with many students.  You'll remind them that life is exciting when chasing a dream.  They'll take notes when you talk about what true success looks like and many will thank you.  Among other things, you were called to pass on those messages.  Let them flow through all aspects of your work.

Here's the key to success you'll eventually share with them:
Always do your best
At what's most important
Whether you feel like it or not

You and many others will be thankful for the lesson.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Note about my interactive games on Promethean Planet

I submitted a request this week to remove most of my game flipcharts from Promethean Planet.  There was a problem with the terms of use and it was my fault for not looking into it fully before posting them.  The folks at Promethean Planet were helpful, so I appreciate that.

I will continue to use their site to host my own flipchart games (those not based on games from other publishers) and to announce any new flipcharts.

For now, most of my flipcharts can be found on the new Games page I added to this blog.

I will be updating links throughout this blog so that they direct to the correct locations, but for now most links in other posts will be broken.

At the moment it looks like they actually removed all my resources from Promethean Planet.  That complicates things further, but I'm hoping they restore the other ones soon.  I don't know how long it will take them to clear that up, but if at any point you can't find a resource you are looking for, just contact me at mpetty39@gmail.com.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Three P's of Success - What makes a full life?


When I taught high school seniors in a class about life goals they would often talk about wanting to "live life to the full".  The phrase turned up on mission statements and final presentations but it was rarely defined.  

What does it mean to live a full life?  

Certainly a full life would be defined differently in specifics by each of us, but I didn't like that being an excuse to get away with a throwaway line.  

Wasn't there something we could agree on as a basis for discussion or written reflection?

I knew from their conversations that their vision of a full life looked like crazy vacations with friends over spring break and having a nice house and car.  I hoped to get them beyond superficial dreams that would cost more than they realized (almost all of them lived with parents).  I wanted to get them thinking about responsibility too.

After weeks of reading and hearing their thoughts, I put together a few activities and presentations that I called the 3 P's of Success.  I could tell from engagement and comments that it connected with many of them.  I'm not teaching that class any longer, but the themes still are apparent in my work.

Here are three P's with a little elaboration.
Passion - A student can spend a lot of time in school without experiencing much passion.  It's a shame that I was discovering this while working with seniors, kids that had been in the system for almost 13 years.  For this "P", it was an exploration of figuring out what good things they liked to do.  I developed a few questions to let them write about that.

Purpose - If passion is what they liked to do, purpose is what they should do.  While our passions almost certainly come into play, purpose is what we're meant to do even if we don't really feel like it in moment.  It's the piece I think students were forgetting when they envisioned lives of fun and material possessions.  

It's also a realm that can touch on matters of faith.  A lot of teachers won't go there, but I refused to back away from this vital concept that I know is an important component in the lives of many successful adults.

This was my approach.  Using thought provoking questions I encouraged the students to consider their purpose in writing.  I told the classes that for some questions, this topic will bring up matters of faith, religion or spirituality for some people.  I made it clear that they were in no way required to include those elements in answers.  At the same time, however, they should feel completely comfortable expressing those thoughts on the assignment.

For writings like this, I never cared if my students expressed very different religious beliefs or if they had no beliefs at all.  I just wanted them to consider the basis of their worldviews and how they affected their purpose.  Many of the comments I read from students as they expressed this important part of their lives surprised me in a good way.  I concluded that they needed to consider their lives in this way.  I decided I would never rob students of the chance to express their personal beliefs, but that I would encourage it in non-threatening ways.

Potential - Passion fuels us and purpose sets the direction, but potential is the final measure.  Did we achieve as much as we should?  Of course, potential is impossible to define in detail because our skills will always improve and often we'll be surprised by what we can do.  I just encouraged students to dream about what they could accomplish.  I hoped it would be the exciting start to a never ending process of discovery.

Here are two resources related to these ideas.  I discovered them long after teaching the class, but they provided some thoughts as I continue to develop my work:

  • This is a great blog post about finding one's passion in three steps.  It combines the three elements together in different ways than I do, but it's well worth the read if this sounds useful to your work in teaching.  I particularly like the Three Movie Exercise for use with teens.
  • And check out Seth Godin's book Poke the Box.  It is a quick read.  He has a few paragraphs on p. 64 about why he believes it is our moral obligation to seize an opportunity.  It's a great thought for discussion and it fits well with the three P's.

I'll be glad to hear other thoughts you might have on this or activities you use with students.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Goals for Summer - Professional Development Meme 2012

I came across a great idea from a blog post last week and it inspired me to get focused on some goals.  The original plan started here, but I found it on Dr. Z's blog and will link to that one.  

Here's the plan, copied from that website:

NOTE: You do NOT have to wait to be tagged to participate in this meme.
  1. Pick 1-3 professional development goals and commit to achieving them this summer.
  2. For the purposes of this activity the end of summer will be Labor Day (09/03/2012).
  3. Post the above directions and these guidelines along with your 1-3 goals on your blog or preferred social media platform (Facebook, Google+, Posterous, etc.).
  4. Link back/trackback to http://tinyurl.com/pdmeme
  5. Use the following tag/ keyword/ category on your post: pdmeme2012.
  6. Twitter about your progress using the #pdmeme2012 hashtag.
  7. Tag 5 or more educators to participate in the meme.
  8. Achieve your goals and “develop professionally.”
  9. Commit to sharing your results on your blog during early or mid-September.
I'm going to deviate slightly and not tag anyone.  Since one of my goals is to encourage other teachers to stretch, I will target some specific teachers.  I just won't do that publicly.  

My Goals 
  • Create at least one game using Stencyl and make it available on my blog - I tried this last year for a graduate course, but wasn't successful.  
  • Continue to develop my blog as a source of innovative thoughts and resources for creativity and problem solving - Starting the blog was a successful part of my graduate course last summer.  I hope I can bring it to the next level in the upcoming month.
  • Inspire all teachers in my district to try something new related to technology integration, creativity or problem solving in the first three weeks of school

Friday, July 13, 2012

Music Creation for the Classroom

Update 4/3/2013:  Since writing this, I compiled several music resources on a new post at the blog.  I also have two more examples of videos I made using a process similar to the one below:
In most tech projects I see, the teacher encourages students to find background music online.  I can understand this, since it lets students use their favorite songs and it is a quick solution.  There are so many great tools available for creating music easily, though, I hope we can find more ways to let the students create their music.  I experimented (with my wife's help) to make a sample song to see how easily students could write an original song and incorporate it in a video.  The results are in the clip below.

Here's the process I used:
I've been playing around with VoiceBand and GarageBand on the iPad.  I love GarageBand as a songwriting tool and it could definitely be useful in the classroom for recording audio.  Since it requires some understanding of music theory, though, it's going to take some time for a student to make a song.

VoiceBand (only $1.99) is a fun option, though I haven't had much luck in recording a full arrangement on it yet.  Instead, I use it to improvise vocal tracks and melodies.  The pitch correction feature works well for someone like me who doesn't have the best ear.

From there, I email myself the vocal and bring it into UJAM on the computer.  UJAM is a lot of fun.  It automatically chooses the chords to fit the melody and then you can pick from a variety of styles.  There are limitations (like only one chord per measure), but I haven't found anything else that so quickly turns a melody into a fully arranged song.

(You can record directly into UJAM with your computer and it has pitch correction as well.  But I like the idea of recording with the iPad when inspiration strikes.)

The chords can be tweaked if you don't like what UJAM picked automatically.  You also have some flexibility for which instruments are included.  The only drawback I see for the classroom is some students could play with this thing for hours!  I suggest firm guidelines on options for styles and a tight schedule.

For a sample, I wrote four lines about imagining more creativity in class.  I showed them to my wife and let her play around with them for about five minutes.  I also let her hear a sample melody I was thinking of, but I wanted her to improvise her own.

We did two takes (probably about a minute total on this) as she improvised a melody for those lyrics.  I was happy with what we recorded.  She wanted to do another take, but for the purpose of the experiment I wanted to see how quickly I could get this done.

I emailed it to my desktop computer and played around with it in UJAM for about 15 minutes.  I'm familiar with most options there, so it didn't take long to pick a style, tweak one chord and add a couple instruments.

I then downloaded the resulting file and copied it to the iPad again.  I pulled it into iMovie and added some pictures I had taken of tech projects in the last months of school.  It actually took me about as long to dig through all my pictures and make the video as it did to record the song.

Here's the final result.  The song is not going to win awards for originality, but hopefully you can see how easy it is to use these inspiring tools.  (You can hear the metronome in the measure before the vocals come in and I wanted to add some echoes on a couple phrases.  If I had taken 15 more minutes with Audacity it would have been easy to accomplish that.)

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Fun Family Games with Potential for Learning

As the title of my blog indicates, I normally focus on game based learning in the classroom. Two things happened recently, however, that made me think a quick turn to traditional gaming with the family would be appropriate.

I have a list below of some of our favorite board or card games that could be used for home school families or just as a good mental workout during summer vacation.

I first felt the need for this when I stopped in a Toys R Us a couple weeks ago to see what they have for games. I couldn’t believe the mass market has still not been impacted by the wealth of amazing new games coming from Europe and through other hobby channels here in the U.S.

An example of how much reading is involved on the cards
And then this past weekend my son wanted to play War of the Ring. I would never suggest this title to a family that is just learning about new games. It is a long, hard battle based in the world of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books. It has a ton of pieces, cards with paragraphs of text and 21 pages of rules, so we only tackle this in the summer. I was impressed that my son (12 years old) can handle the patience and thinking required. He was raised playing games with the family, so even though he loves computer games, he is able to appreciate a slower, thoughtful exchange with plastic and cardboard as well.

I’m not an expert on related research, but I have played enough games with other children in the neighborhood or relatives when they visit. Though they are comparable in age to my own kids, there’s a considerable difference in what they will sit through. Of course there is much that they will not learn just from playing games like those below. But waiting one’s turn, winning or losing gracefully, remembering rules and working toward a goal are skills that have value well beyond the game table.

So here is a list some of the games we have enjoyed over the years. In gamer circles, my collection is quite dated and others would suggest more newer titles.  In researching any of these, though, it will be easy to find recommendations for other great games that might better suit your interests. If nothing else, the Boardgame Geek website will be of great interest to any would be gamer who has not yet discovered it. I will link to the entry for each game I mention below.

Settlers of Catan - This is the one that started it all for many of us in the hobby. If you haven’t heard of it, I’ll bet all these other games will be new to you as well.
Lost Cities Board Game - My son loves this one and usually wins. It plays quickly, it’s simple and provides many fun options each turn.
For Sale - I love auction games and when the kids were younger this was the first they could learn and enjoy.
Ricochet Robot - This is an odd one because people either love it or hate it. Those who like it can play for hours on end if the group is fairly matched.
Through the Desert - Much more fun than you’d expect from a game about putting camels in hexes. Simple rules make room for a lot of strategy.
Say Anything - This has been my family’s favorite party game for the past year or so. You might have seen this one since it does show up in some of the larger toy or book stores.
King for a Day - You won’t find this one in a store. I made this one and you can read more about it in this review.  (It's also worth mentioning that my family helps me playtest all the new games I make.)
Zendo - This is actually just one of many games you can play with Icehouse pyramids. It is a great game based on inductive reasoning.
Hey, That’s My Fish - Another simple game on a hex board, but this time the hexes vanish as the ice floe shrinks.
Forbidden Island - This is a cooperative game, so everyone wins or loses together. It’s a quick ride that generates a lot of excitement.

Contact me if you have questions about these or other games that are great for family fun and learning.  Also, I always recommend you check out Fair Play Games first if you are considering buying games.  The owner is a good friend of mine and I know they'll treat you right.

Friday, July 6, 2012

What Matters Most? - Activities for critical thinking about values and opinions (Part 3 of 3)

This is the third post in a series of articles about my game What's It To Ya?.  The other two articles are:
Update 8/7/2013:  My friends at Fair Play Games have one edition of this game on sale for $7.99 for four copies.  That's enough for the whole class to play!  Check this post out for more information.

What I learned from playing What’s It to Ya?

There is a passage in Garry Kasparov’s How Life Imitates Chess that touches wonderfully on the intersection of human potential, teaching and our ability take even things like games very seriously. It’s a place I love to reside. But besides just making me feel better about my fascination with games, the story provides a great thought to sum up this series.

Kasparov recalls learning under the Soviet champion Mikhail Botvinnik. The trainer relentlessly studied and worked to control any factor that might enhance or detract from the challenge at hand. He would prepare for his own tournaments by blaring distracting background music during practice games. He asked his trainer to blow smoke in his face while he studied the board to make a move.

Botvinnik pushed young Kasparov to similar extremes. A strict routine of all necessary aspects of life and the game formed a schedule that the student used throughout his career. He learned that if the game mattered, everything else needed to be adjusted accordingly. To be too tired was never a good excuse, as even sleep and rest were tightly scheduled. The teacher summed up his philosophy to his pupil:

“The difference between man and animal is that man is capable of establishing priorities!”

That’s worth reading twice. Is it true our ability to prioritize is what makes us human?

If you’ve read the previous posts in this series or much of my blog, you know (long before I found that quote) that I made a party game about priorities. It asks the seemingly simple question What matters most? From what I’ve observed and heard from others for more than a decade, and if emotion is any indicator, our ability to consider the question does in fact lie close to the heart of our humanity.

Some fun we had on one campus
When I first started playing What’s It To Ya? it amazed me that this question, directly addressing the most weighty things of life, also can make people laugh. The seriousness and silliness might not seem to fit at first, but experience shows there is something very novel about digging deep to explore our values and the values of the people we love.

Seeing ourselves and each other in new ways can be hilarious. Some laugh until they cry. On the other extreme I’ve been told that some argue to the point where they won’t speak for a while! When I use the game in lessons or when I play it with young people they always tell me how much fun it is.

But playing and working with this game for years has helped me to get beneath the surface and see more than just fun. I’m convinced the game can open to the door to discussion and meet a need found at all levels of our society. (I wrote about that at length in the first post in this series.)

But I have also taken away a few other insights or interesting thoughts from What’s It To Ya? that might be of value in any learning environment. They could be explored in discussion or possibly just pointed out for the individuals to consider on their own. I have almost no formal training in philosophy, so maybe they won’t withstand much analysis. I have recorded no data, so I can’t claim any thoughts stand up to research. Even if this serves only as a series of thoughts to poke holes in, though, that alone would be a discussion be worth the time.

Six things I learned from What's It To Ya?

Our values often lie unnoticed beneath the surface, but they are the source of our actions. Left unexplored, we act on our values by feel and deal with the consequences. Playing this game and thinking about how I value things has been a great exercise that helps me put thoughts and feelings into words instead of only acting emotionally. It doesn’t solve all problems or resolve all differences of opinions, but it gives me resources for rational conversation rather than emotionally charged exchanges..

Less important does not mean unimportant. Even the last item on a list of rankings is not necessarily unimportant. It is simply less important that the other things. What’s It To Ya? was born out of a quote by Einstein about relativity. If nothing else, I have come to acknowledge my most dearly held values do not exist in isolation from other matters in life. I must consider them in relation to many other factors.

In instances where opinions differ it is essential to understand this and identify other factors. Possibly we can find something that agree on to be more important. Maybe peace and unity are more important than the issues that divide us. Again, the less important issues are not unimportant. If we can’t see this larger picture behind the emotion we will forever be frustrated by one another only at the level of where we differ.

Often people will claim there is no way to know the relative importance of a list of five random items. But I would argue there always is a correct order...from a particular vantage point. Identifying that vantage point and the logic that supports it is worth the effort.

In church groups I’ve argued the relative order of some things can be based on the character of God. (That thought has been my favorite gifts from the game.)  In other settings or with other lists it might be as subjective as an individual’s dislike of vegetables. A hundred people might come up with a hundred different rankings, but that’s no reason to dodge the question. Let’s consider it enough to get as close as possible to the bottom of our values.

Slightly more serious thoughts from
our What's It To Ya? project
Without much consideration, some people think “importance” is synonymous with “preference”. That in itself is intriguing to me and it’s something I never anticipated. (Side note: Some people say the game is too similar to other existing party games about preference because they only see that question!) But with some prompting most people will eventually see the distinction. Or for some maybe importance will always translate to preference for them. It probably depends on the words that come up was well.

Along with that, I find it interesting that there is often a line (not a sharp one) drawn between things of utmost importance and matters of personal preference. Most would rank Truth and Family above things like Football and Fashion, for example. It can make for fascinating discussions or reflections to compare our rankings within those general spheres (important to all and important to me) or with how we define those two spheres. Are we consistent in this and should we be?

And all this thinking of values along with countless interactions with all ages has opened my eyes to what I call the head/heart discrepancy. There is a value system that we speak of and one that we live out.  They differ in varying degrees, but the discrepancy has enormous consequences. If Botvinnik’s quote is anywhere near correct I think we could take it a step further and say most if not all of humankind’s problems are rooted in this decrepancy. From overweight health professionals to miserable counselors, why do we so often act counter to what we know matters most?  There's a question that could be explored in almost every content area at one point or another.

That’s my list for now, but I will likely change it over time. If you have some thoughts or interesting experiences with the activities from this series, please contact me or comment below.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

What matters most? - Activities for critical thinking about values and opinions (Part 2 of 3)

Pretty heavy for a party game.

Fun, free and flexible ways to get kids thinking

This post is the second of a series about fun critical thinking activities and class presentation games based on my game What's It To Ya?.  In the first article I address the value of the game as a tool for encouraging important discussion.  The final article focuses on the key lessons I have learned from playing the game over the years.

Update 8/7/2013:  My friends at Fair Play Games have one edition of this game on sale for $7.99 for four copies.  That's enough for the whole class to play if you're using the physical party game!  Check this post out for more information.  See below for activities using this version of the game in class.

Update 3/17/2013:  I just uploaded this randomizer which draws five item cards.  A teacher or students can use the randomizer in conjunction with any of the activities below.  See the randomizer page for a few more details.

For this post I'll list several practical tips and activities that will make the game useful in a variety learning of environments.

Most of these activities are completely free, assuming you have access to some technology.  I believe in the value of this learning activity so much that I'm still giving away copies of the early edition game, so see this post if you want one.  In other cases you might have to buy notecards or some sheets of cardstock.  

Speaking of editions of the game, for purposes of these activities the games What’s It To Ya? and Oh, Really! are identical and will be referred to interchangeably depending on the resource or activity being addressed. 

Since this is a lengthy post compared to most on my blog, here's a summary of the contents:
  • Some objectives for the learning activities
  • Examples of how the game has been used
  • An overview of the game
  • How to make or find resources for the activities
  • Selecting the items
  • The critical thinking activities

Some objectives for the learning activities

  • Practice thinking about one’s own values
  • Practice expressing one’s values and justifications for them
  • Listening to and respecting the values of others
  • Considering and discussing differing opinions and the importance of such exchanges

Examples of how the game has been used

  • I use the game frequently as a fun intro to lessons. In a class for career planning and life goals it provided a great introduction to examining one’s priorities.
  • One teacher in a church setting created his own cards based on occupations. The children discussed the relative importance of the jobs and the teacher made the point that “what’s more important to society?” was a different question than “which occupation would I like to have?”
  • A friend’s wife used the game to kick off her presentation during a business meeting. It went over so well that she bought copies as Christmas gifts for the managers.
  • A college professor used the game in class in ways like the examples below, but he also would leave five random item cards on his desk. Students and faculty members would rank them as an exercise for discussion.
  • A camp counselor made a pack of homemade cards as an emergency filler activity to provide a quick distraction for campers who were not getting along. The cards are now a regular tool in her arsenal of camp activities.
  • A seminary student told me he that in educational and social settings he uses the game to open the door to discussion of topics that otherwise bring up walls. He finds people are more willing to talk about political or social issues when they come up in a game rather than just in conversation.

An overview of the game

The basic idea of What’s It To Ya? is that five items are presented and participants will rank them in order from most important to least important. Different ways of playing or using this central ranking activity will require the participants to consider this question of importance from their point of view or some other individual’s perspective. Sometimes the goal will be to match the majority opinion of the group.

Watch this video to see the recommended way to play the game using cards. Other ways to use the cards are detailed below.

How to make or find resources for the activities

You can make a deck of cards to use for this game and the activities below. Just write appropriate words on a notecard. If you want nicer cards or if you just need some examples to see what’s on the actual cards, here’s a Google Drawing with 12 sample cards. You can edit the words on those cards if you have a Google Account. Print the file on a sheet of cardstock and cut the cards out to make your own deck.

Some people have said they play using cards from Apples to Apples.

And I recently created this randomizer which draws five item cards.  A teacher or students can use the randomizer in conjunction with any of the activities on this page.  

If you want an inexpensive copy of the game, you can still get it for under $3 plus shipping from Fair Play Games.

If you’re running the activity with a group consider how you’ll present the items to the participants. When I was a teacher in the classroom I would just draw the cards randomly from the deck and write the words on a whiteboard.

But if you have access to more technology, consider using some of the virtual presentation tools that I've created. You can use the generic Oh, Really! flipchart made for ActivInspire software (and you can download a free version of that software here) or you can use this template made from a Google Presentation.

Selecting the items

As explained in the next section, there are several ways to use the cards for the activity. No matter which way you use them, you or the participants will select five of them. Here are some options that should provide the focus or fun that you're looking for in any activity.

If you are looking for a specific discussion or point to come out of the activity you can can simply create the lists of five items ahead of time. Read the other resources on this blog or watch the video on how to play. You’ll see most of my classroom activities at Promethean Planet are done this way.

Alternatively, you can have a semi-random selection process. This is how I would do it in my lessons.  I pulled out about 30 cards that would relate to life goals to make a smaller deck for class. Or you could make a small deck of cards yourself that will best encourage the discussion you want. The participants randomly draw five items from that limited pool.

One last thought worth mentioning is that you can frame the What matters most? question in context. I never do this when playing as a party game because half the fun is finding out how people naturally frame it. In a lesson, though, it can sharpen the focus. For example, in the U.S. Government activity I add the additional criteria of “Traits of a Citizen”. It gives a background to the ranking process and it can sharpen the possible discussion or debate that will follow.

One word of caution on using limited sets of cards or in providing a context for the rankings: Discussion will not result if it feels like there's just one right answer in the rankings.  Leave room for personal opinion.

The critical thinking activities

These fun but deep activities can easily be adapted for the classroom, youth groups, business meetings or homeschool lessons. Maybe they can just provide a fun thinking game for the kids during summer vacation.

Just play the game as written in the rules.
The partnership game is usually the best out of the box. Discussion or activities like the additional ones below can take place before or after everyone plays the regular game.

Keep in mind if you get either edition of the packaged game it has enough cards for eight players. If you make your own ranking cards you can stretch this number.

Again, you can use this video to learn how to play or to teach it to the group.

Use five item cards for group discussion.
For this activity list the items that are selected (or pre-selected) so everyone can see them. Have all participants write down the way they'd rank the items in order of importance. When they’re done, they share their rankings with the group and trends or interesting rankings (Coffee more important than Family?) that stand out from the rest can be discussed as necessary for the lesson.

With large groups it is best to use some sort of response system such as ActivExpression, ActiVotes or an online tool like Socrative.

See my Oh, Really! activities at Promethean Planet for examples of how this might look.

Predict the rankings of one person.
Like the What's It to ____? variation printed in the original game rules, have one person draw five items and rank them how he or she wants. At the same time the other participants try to guess how that person will rank them. When everyone is done, have the person reveal his or her rankings and the rationale behind them. This is not necessarily for points or competition, but it is a fun way to get to know a group and have some discussion.

Explain personal rankings.
Each person writes down how they would rank five given items. They then take turns explaining the order they chose and why. If it would take too long to explain all rankings, they at least have to explain their choices for the first and last items on the list. An interesting question in this case would be whether anyone wanted to change their rankings after hearing someone else’s explanation.

Here’s a video I made a few years ago that shows how we did this with random people. You can see the range of serious and silly reactions that come out depending on the items and social setting that we chose.

Make a prompt for a critical thinking writing activity.
First (without discussion), all participants must rank the given items and explain their decisions in writing. This could be a warm-up or lesson closer. It also would work well as an online discussion in Blackboard or sme other discussion forum.

The goal is to develop clear writing based on clear thinking, but if you want continued discussion you might have them share interesting thoughts or tricky rankings that they encountered while working through this.

Update 8/13/2012:  I also created a computer version of the game and wrote a lesson plan for it. Information on that activity can be found at this site:  http://bit.ly/whatsittoyagame

So there you have them.  Try some or several of these out with your group and I'm sure you'll see they are well received and thought provoking.  If you do find them useful or if you think of other interesting changes I would love to hear from you!  Please comment below or contact me by email.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

What matters most? - Activities for critical thinking about values and opinions (Part 1 of 3)

Here I am, as always, taking these games so seriously!
Back in March I compiled some resources for game that can be used as an activity for critical thinking. Now that I have had more experience with the game in the classroom and I have mined some other examples of its use, I am doing a three part segment on its potential for education in a variety of settings.

One article will list the fun, free activities based on the game.  The final segment highlights the most important lessons I have gleaned from playing it over the past decade.

Update 8/7/2013:  My friends at Fair Play Games have one edition of this game on sale for $7.99 for four copies.  That's enough for the whole class to play!  Check this post out for more information.

But first I want to emphasize the value of this type of activity in school.

Thinking critically and continuing the conversation

When I first created What’s It To Ya? I was teaching math and it didn’t cross my mind to use the game in the classroom. Game design was my hobby and I often immersed myself in it as a break from education.

But one year I found myself teaching a course about life goals and success to high school seniors. I realized then that What’s It To Ya? made a great activity to kick off lessons about priorities. Since that time I have created many interactive classroom activities based on the game. I also have gathered feedback from others who have used its primary activity and the cards for more than just a party game. It has a unique potential to create meaningful discussion and reflection in a fun way.

In fact, the game meets a pressing need in education it has become a mission for me to bring it to others. At a time when groups across society are at all extremes on questions of values and social policies, conversation is vital. In the classroom, though, I found my attempts to encourage any discussion (or even personal reflection) about important topics with many viewpoints would end almost immediately. I had a similar experience in my graduate courses as a student myself.

There was a resistance to open discussion on topics of religion, religious people, politics or morality even if the point of the discussion was merely to uncover facts (as opposed to changing anyone’s mind). The sense that it would be fruitless, too personal or too volatile a subject won out. Most would say something along the lines of, “Everyone sees it differently,” and be done with it. If we are to get along as a society as a whole and if we value diversity as we say we do, I think we must do better at discussing our differences. When important questions are merely ignored and convictions cannot be articulated, emotional outbursts will win out over rational debate and we will only find ourselves more divided.

From personal experience and feedback from others, I am convinced this game and the activities based on it can provide useful skills and a common language for meaningful discussion between people who disagree strongly on important matters. This opens the door to an environment were vital problem solving can take place.

Please see the next posts in this series for a complete picture of how this game can be useful in education.