Sunday, June 29, 2008

Manipulating Cato: More on Games, Gods & Grades

Victor Hobson/ Cato June/ Fred Goodman

I recently posted on some ideas of Fred Goodman, Layman E. Allen, Sheldon Wolin, and the relationships among puzzles, games, democratic values and mathematics education. I've received some very interesting and encouraging replies, both on and off the comments section of this blog in response to that entry, but none more engaging and useful than the one Fred Goodman sent recounting an anecdote he'd told me once or twice before, the exact details of which had escaped me (though I knew that Vic Hobson was the central figure). With Fred's kind permission, I include it here in its full context:

At a very theoretical level, John Searle builds directly on games as the ideal illustration of the "construction of social reality" in his book by that name.

I distinguish between Layman's emphasis on "literal" games and my emphasis on "metaphorical" (although I strongly believe in and build both "literal" and "metaphorical" as well as "simulation" games). I felt the need for the term "metaphorical" after so many people complimented me on my knowledge of things I KNEW I DIDN'T KNOW when I thought I was building "simulation games." I had not built the relationships they said they saw into my "simulation model." In the early days I drew on
Max Black's "interaction theory" of metaphor (as contrasted to what he called the "substitution" theory) in his MODELS AND METAPHORS. Now I find myself referring to "cognitive metaphors" defined by Lakhoff and Nunez as "grounded, inference preserving, cross-domain mappings" (quoted from their WHERE MATHEMATICS COMES FROM).

I like to start with a few rules that players can't change and then encourage players to construct their own additional rules. That was the approach I used as early as 1968 in "They Shoot Marbles, Don't They?" when requested to design a game that taught about "police-community" relations for Detroit area kids. Then, honoring the notion of "metaphor," I always "debriefed" by talking about how what happened WAS NOT like police-community relations as well as how what happened WAS like police-community relations. Of course the real value of the exercise was that the participants could not agree as to what had happened IN the exercise despite the fact that they all had just experienced "it." What this really adds up to is analogous to a "chemistry set" ... I see a metaphorical game as a "kit" for performing experiments in rule-governed behavior.

As for my experience with Vic Hobson, I built directly on the four big, basic math metaphors in Lakhoff and Nunez's "Where Mathematics Comes From." I found that he responded to fairly complex NIM games as long as I used poker chips or any other PHYSICAL representations of ideas ... and as long as it was a COMPETITIVE exercise. One day I said "I guess these poker chips are what math educators call MANIPULATIVES." He said, sort of under his breath but politely, "I don't care what they're called as long as I can MANIPULATE Cato" ... Cato June being his roommate at the time. I REALLY sat up and took notice of that ... recognizing perhaps that this was the key to why Layman's games worked so well. When you manipulate and are manipulated by others, it makes the "social reality" that you are creating something that is felt in a different way than when you do problems (puzzles) in school. I recall so distinctly playfully criticizing Vic for "gloating" after a tremendous tackle that I saw him make on TV. I said "you know you shouldn't do that, but it FEELS SO GOOD you can't really help yourself can you?" He said, "Right." A week later he beat me at a 3-D color coded game of NIM played with poker chips and the look on his face led me to say, "You're GLOATING again, Vic. Cut that out. But it does feel so good to beat the professor, doesn't it?" A long dragged out "RRRIIIGHT" was his response.
While it may seem of only passing interest, one reason I find the above story so compelling is that Fred did a lot of work with University of Michigan athletes in his educational gaming classes, and has a host of stories from his experiences with them that indicate how much university professors tend to miss about the intellectual abilities of elite athletes. I have no idea what sort of student Vic Hobson was in mathematics class or any other academic area, but I am certain from conversations with Fred and my own experience with athletes at U of M and the University of Florida as a graduate teaching fellow in English in the 1970s that there are a wealth of readily-overlooked insights and abilities they bring to college classrooms. In that regard, I suspect that many universities fail to exploit (in the good sense of that word, "to make full use of and derive benefit from") the non-physical resources elite athletes often possess. The intellectual snobbery of academia is not infinite or all-pervasive, but it does tend to place blinders over the eyes of many.

From the perspective of K-12 mathematics education, I find the Hobson anecdote heuristic in a number of ways. First, there is a lot of conflict between more traditionalist/socially conservative educators and progressive educators over the appropriateness and usefulness of "competition" in the classroom. In general, I tend to side with Alfie Kohn and others in questioning the use of grades, praise, and other forms of extrinsic rewards in education. I personally blanch when my administrator sets up competitions amongst the staff in ways that strike me as potentially much more likely to promote divisiveness, resentment, and discontent than the goals I'm sure are intended.  I don't care for the idea of making education into a contest.

And yet, some people I respect in various educational venues see competition in a different light. Are we all talking about the same thing? Probably yes and no. There is the sort of economic Darwinism idea of survival of the fittest in the economic market place that I do not inherently trust. Markets are notoriously prone to manipulation by insider players who have access to both information and other tools that give them unfair advantage. The best product doesn't always win. Witness the fate of the Dvorak keyboard, the beta video format, the Tucker automobile, etc. Furthermore, if we're talking about education, do we want to view it in a primarily economic model as do so many anti-reformers and educational conservatives? I think not. As previously stated a few posts ago, I don't accept the idea that "schools should be judged by their contribution to the economic health of society." I don't think kids are commodities and I am very disturbed by some of the ways business models are routinely applied to public education as if our children were precisely products to be sold in some cut-throat marketplace. While no doubt that viewpoint is held without revulsion by some Americans, it's not one educators should unquestioningly accept, let alone swallow whole with some sense of guilt that they should have been asking business for advice in how to educate students from time immemorial. 

But there is another side to competition, and it is likely that side that Fred is tapping into in his story about Vic Hobson and his ideas about educational gaming. Putting aside the related issues of cooperative vs. competitive games, there is in many of us, perhaps nearly all of us, whether inherent or culturally derived, a desire to excel. And often that means putting ourselves, our ideas, our abilities, etc., in "conflict" and competition with others and theirs. Certainly there is no dearth of zero-sum games that allow us to (relatively) safely play out scenarios that pit us against the physical, intellectual, and strategic talents of others. And in Vic Hobson's remark there is both a very adult and very child-like sounding desire to win, regardless of what others might see as going on in a given situation. But perhaps it isn't even quite about "winning." After all, the word he chooses is "manipulate" rather than "beat" or "defeat." Perhaps there is a sort of competition here that doesn't depend on a final score so much as a feeling of mastery (in various senses). As Fred comments, it has something to do with how one feels about what one is doing, perhaps meaning that it puts a different sort of emotional tone on one's investment in an activity, including an educational one. 

How does that vague sense of things play into my usual concerns about mathematics education and my recent theme about democratic issues in pedagogy? I'm not entirely sure at this juncture, but I feel that it is significant. I know that there is a deep issue for the (mostly) at-risk students I teach that hinges on owning one's own education and taking responsibility for the choices one makes about spending time in and out of school. How much time per day is spent engaging in behavior that is utterly divorced from the ostensible goal of getting a high school degree or learning about mathematics or whatever the student is supposed to be pursuing, short- or long-term? How much energy is invested in just about anything but the subject matter? At times, it appears like students engage in arguments and even fights not because there are real conflicts but because to do so is to be able to avoid the schoolwork that sits there waiting to be done or, as the case too often is, avoided entirely.

I don't want to suggest that the schoolwork is all it should or could be. Much of it is deathly dull as presented and could easily be made far more relevant and engaging. But still, most of them choose to be in school when many of them could do otherwise yet also choose not to make productive use of the time given what their alleged reasons are for being there. 

Could a more game-based curriculum have an impact on this issue (as opposed to the one we are currently using, which is entirely grounded in puzzles)? Is the sort of "social investment" that appealed to Vic Hobson a key missing component for some/many/most of my charges?

Unfortunately, as things are currently structured at my school, there's been no real opportunity to find out. However, things are open to change starting with the new school year (which begins in two weeks). This is something I need to explore with my administrator and colleagues. Perhaps the set of Layman Allen games I have in my desk drawer will come in handy after all. 

More on this and a return to my friend Becca up in Saginaw and her alternative education students shortly. 

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