This Week's Message
Homo Luddens: The Serious Work of Play in Liberal Learning
For the Friday Conversation of Week 5, David Ellis will discuss his use of a pedagogy known as "Reacting to the Past." In Reacting classes, students are assigned to play, over several class periods, the roles of specific characters associated with contested historical events, such as the French Revolution or the end of apartheid in South Africa, all with an eye toward getting students to engage with central problems of the human condition. Rather than receiving a script, students are given detailed character descriptions, a set of secret goals, and the encouragement to devise a creative, flexible strategy to achieve them. As a central part of that strategy, students pursue the traditional study of primary sources from and scholarly evaluations of the events in question, but usually with significantly heightened motivation. Students strive to achieve their goals by giving formal speeches, publishing written position papers, and engaging in spontaneous interaction -- all in character. In some cases, students may achieve results that differ from the actual historical outcomes, highlighting the role and problem of human agency. In short, students in Reacting classes pursue study, writing, and public speaking practices analogous to those in more traditional classes, but the structure of Reacting games usually boosts motivation, harnesses friendly competition, and leads to a restoration of an invigoratingly liminal learning experience in the classroom for both students and instructors.
How effective is this pedagogy? Both instructors and students report that Reacting significantly contributes to key goals of liberal learning and general education. The authors of a Teagle White Paper endorsed
"the emerging consensus as to what constitutes the foundation of effective general education as propounded by the American Association of College and Universities' Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP): engaging "big questions," teamwork, oral and written communications skills, development of critical thinking and the art of inquiry, ethical learning and empathy, fostering civic knowledge and global engagement, and introducing students to global citizenship. The Report further demonstrates how Reacting addresses these learning outcomes, and, through its key element of "liminality," does so in a remarkably effective way."
Overwhelming majorities of instructors who used Reacting and surveyed in 2009 reported that Reacting was "effective" or "very effective" in promoting student learning of content or skills in terms of Inquiry and Analysis (96.2%), Critical Thinking (96.1%), Oral Communication (96.1%), Integrative Learning (92.4%), Teamwork (90.6%), Knowledge of Human Cultures (88.7%), Written Communication (86.7%), Civic Knowledge or Knowledge of Democracy (86.5%), and Ethical Reasoning (75%).
Here at Augustana, Ellis has seen similar results. Last year, students in his LSFY 102 were surveyed just before and just after playing a Reacting game that lasted less than three weeks. The results indicated students had grown more confident in their speaking skills (with Likert scale scores rising from 3.46 to 4.06, where 5.0 would have represented the highest score), more confident that they could critically analyze a written text (3.36 to 4.06) or a speech (3.5 to 4.25), more confident that they could identify unstated assumptions in a written text (3.33 to 3.81) or a speech (3.26 to 4.5), and more confident they could use evidence to persuade others (3.56 to 4.25). Such gains in skills were matched by gains in content, with results indicating, to take but a few examples, that students had improved their understanding of the French Revolution (3.2 to 4.37) as well as of selected works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (3.26 to 4.18) and Edmund Burke (3.36 to 4.0).
For the Friday discussion, Ellis will discuss how he has implemented Reacting to the Past in LSFY and its potential for other kinds of courses, including Learning Communities. Much of the session will be devoted to answering questions posed by faculty in attendance. In addition, faculty who are interested in learning about this pedagogy by "doing" Reacting will be invited to participate in a 2-day workshop, tentatively scheduled for Feb. 22 and 23. At the workshop, faculty will be assigned to play a specific character in a condensed version of the French Revolution game, gaining experience about what Reacting is like from the perspective of students.
Those who wish to read more about Reacting to the Past before the Friday Conversation are encouraged to peruse the website of Barnard (http://www.barnard.edu/reacting/), where the pedagogy originated, and to consider the Teagle White Paper on Reacting (http://www.barnard.edu/reacting/about/initiatives_gened.html). A list of other accounts of Reacting, including peer-reviewed assessments, can be found here (http://www.barnard.edu/reacting/newsmedia/list.html).
 Richard Gid Powers, John M. Burney, and Mark C. Carnes, White Paper Report for the Teagle Foundation, "Reacting to the Past: A New Approach to Student Engagement and to Enhancing General Education," 2, via http://www.barnard.edu/reacting/about/initiatives_gened.html, accessed Sept. 10, 2010.