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.

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