Role-Playing Teaching (Part 3: Being a teacher and being a Game Master)

THE NEW YOU

In my previous articles (Why people play games and What are RPGs) I briefly described a phenomenon of Role-Playing Games and shared the reasons for which people play games – and enjoy it. Today, I want to demonstrate similarities between teaching and playing RPGs which will help me prove why RPGs can be the ultimate answer to Game-Based Learning approach.

By the end of the article you will realise you not only already played a RPG, but you unknowingly took a role of a Game Master!

Game Master is the person who holds the strings, who’s behind the curtain, who’s – that’s my favourite comparison – a Merlin to the group of new knights of the Round Table… and that’s exactly who a teacher is, at least to my mind: a person who sets goals and makes students reach them, but only by encouragement, not by direct passing them the Holy Grail of knowledge.

I will try to show you seven aspects actually making teacher a Game Master:

Set-up

Just like a GM before a session (a meeting where people partake in an RPG adveture), you need to pick a set-up, a theme and general idea for a lesson. You choose the areas your students will roam in pursuit of their goal (e.g. understanding the beauty of Present Perfect), and you decide on the goal itself by determining a lesson aim.

Preparation

As Gail Godwin said, good teaching is one-fourth preparation and three-fourths pure theatre. It’s exactly the same with game-mastering. You need to prepare stages of the lesson/session along with some props, like music, handouts, multimedia tools etc. We want the participants, be they players or students, to have fun, enjoy and – yes, why not? – admire the adventure we’ve planned for them.

Yes, I know there are GMs who don’t use any props, but then there are teachers who love Dogme approach, so things even out.

Team building

One of the universal truths of the world is simple: you must gather your party before venturing forth. It’s important in RPGs where you usually create a team of heroes embarking on the same quest (and yes, there are games for one player only, just like 1-2-1 classes), but creating a relationship with fellow students is also vital in a classroom environment. And while not all teachers find team building as their responsibility, having a proper team to teach is way funnier and more pleasant – and RPGs may teach you how to make people cooperate.

Rules

Role-Playing Games are designed to have fun with friends, but since one of the main characteristics of games is a clearly stated set of rules understood and accepted by all participants, there must be someone to impose the rules, interpret them and make players act accordingly. Isn’t it just like a teacher in a classroom full of enthusiastic students who have fun until the first disagreement?

And believe me, naughty teenagers can be little angels compared to adult RPG players – I’ve seen friendships ruined over an unfortunate interpretation of rules.

Compromise

Both in a classroom environment and in an RPG session there are certain misunderstandings that are bound to happen sooner or later. An adult player may sulk after an unlucky dice-roll just like a little pupil who’s failed his first test. We have arguments between students, accusations of cheating, various moods affecting the whole lesson – and it’s surprisingly similar during an adventure. It’s a teacher, or a GM, who has to smooth things out and teach what the compromise is.

Help

I’ve already said that my favourite parallel of a teacher’s (or Game Master’s, to be honest) role is the one of Merlin. He is the one to set things in motion, picture the Holy Grail as the ultimate goal and suggest the idea of the Round Table Knighthood. But he doesn’t participate in the quests himself – he occasionally helps those in need, but mostly he’s behind the curtain, glad to observe the adventure unfold and only sometimes enjoying an episodic role.

I feel compelled to write a separate article on this simile as actually this is the concept that made me think of teaching as yet another RPG setting. But for now, let me clarify this: wise as we may be, we only show the goal, never lead the way.

Fun

Role-Playing Games are designed to have fun, and playing them should be fun not only for the players, but also for the Game Master. Just like teaching – although most students don’t find it overly exciting. As you see – there are so many things a teacher and a game master have in common that actual incorporating RPGs into our lessons will not change much in our approach to educational process itself, but it may be a huge change to our students, who will find it way easier to enjoy their lessons.

Sounds good? Great – because in my next article I’ll show you how to start!

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Get Ready For Academic IELTS in 120 hours (+free syllabus)

Happy Father's Day!

Two months ago I wrote about a crash course Preparing for Academic IELTS test. Today I want to share my reflections on a new book by Macmillan Education: Ready for IELTS 2nd edition by Sam McCarter and Louis Rogers.

Why IELTS?

I have been preparing my students for Academic IELTS for a while, and I must admit I find this test the most sensible assessment, compared to other tests and exams. In order to get a decent band, you need to prove not only your linguistic proficiency but also ability to think quickly and reasonably.

You’ll probably be surprised (my students usually are) but the latter skill is really difficult to master.

Components

The whole course contains: Student’s Book, Workbook and Teacher’s Resource Pack with Resource Centre. What’s interesting about the components is that there are no CDs or DVDs attached – all audio files are downloadable, and while some may find this annoying, I applaud this sensible and eco-friendly solution.
Teacher’s Online Resource Centre includes audio tracks (for both SB and WB), speaking videos, communication activities, tests, wordlists and exam tips. Moreover, there’s Presentation Kit, Digital SB and ebook with answers.
The online environment for Ready for IELTS is just brilliant. You can create your virtual classroom to follow your students’ progress and – this feature got me – it gives you the possibility of using the book on any IWB as it’s fully operating online. Naturally, you also have access to additional worksheets, test tips etc. which makes it the best online support for a course I have seen.

Skills

While the main focus of the course is on – surprise, surprise – IELTS test techniques, the skills covered by the book aren’t related only to the test. There are many exercises on functional language that will help to develop “real” (not test-oriented) language. Each unit contains vocabulary section, reading and listening parts, grammar exercises and writing composition (traditionally, the hardest part of IELTS prep). Moreover, there are communicative activities in Teacher’s Resources in case students are tired with test-only approach.

Compared to Direct to IELTS, Ready for IELTS is definitely more slow-paced and relaxed, leaving space for a teacher to bring in some fresh air – I really appreciate this. The description on the cover claims the course helps students advance from band 5.0 to 7.0 and while I can only smile at the statement (which is actually true, although it doesn’t really concern linguistic skills) – I must admit this course offers far greater general development. So, compared to Direct to IELTS, this book is definitely version 2.0: smarter, faster and funnier.

Recommendation

Now’s the time for my confession: I’ve decided to write this review simply because I am starting my own 120-hour course preparing for Academic IELTS soon. Having read Ready for IELTS, my choice is simple: I pick this book and I hope it’ll help me in making a great – and successful – course for both my students and me.

And if you want to see how I’ve organised the whole course, you’re more than welcome to download Ready for IELTS 2nd ed syllabus which is shared under Creative Commons Licence.

Enjoy!

I want to thank Macmillan Polska for their help in creating this review.

Ready for IELTS 2nd edition Student’s Book Pack by Sam McCarter – Macmillan Education, ISBN 978-0-230-49568-5 (with answers)
Ready for IELTS 2nd edition Teacher’s Book Premium Pack by Sam McCarter – Macmillan Education, ISBN 978-1-786-32867-0
Ready for IELTS 2nd edition Workbook by Louis Rogers – Macmillan Education, ISBN 978-1-786-32865-6 (with answers)

Role-Playing Teaching (Part 2: What are RPGs)

what are

I already wrote about games and some reasons people play them (used a lot of sophisticated vocabulary and impressive names, yeah), and, as promised, I want to elaborate the topic of Role Playing Games – as RPG, followed by other alternative materials, is something I want to focus in TEFL area.

This article is supposed to explain the phenomenon of RPG in general, so that in my future posts I am able to show you my idea of blending games into traditional lessons, creating an approach to TEFL where storytelling and adventure compensate for tedious grammar activities.

The Game

The funny thing about RPGs is that it’s way simpler to write what RPGs aren’t, but let’s give it a go.

Jerzy Szeja explains that narrative Role Playing Game in its canonical form requires a person leading the game (GM: Game Master) and at least one player who impersonates a character (PC: Player’s Character). The world in which sequences of events take place and are described by a GM is described in a particular system of a narrative RPG consisting of a main handbook detailing the rules and mechanics of the system and, optionally, supplements with additional information regarding the system.

RPG may be compared to children’s games where participants play different roles (e.g. thieves and police officers), but a GM is the person who makes all the difference with outlining the proper plot and acting out as fully interactive characters (NPC: Non-Player Character).

Since it’s an outlined plot that is so vital, RPG may be compared to dramas (since they both include playing a role) – however, the difference remains not only in the presence of a GM, but also in discrepancies within approach. Drama is supposed to teach life using simulated situations that may happen on different occasions. RPGs, on the other hand, are a simulation of life with the characters having history and plans for the future, facing various situations of a cause-and-effect nature.

Another comparison presents RPG as similar to literature – where a player can choose a favourite character from a favourite book and impersonate them during adventures outlined by a GM. A GM is a narrator: he introduces the world of the game, describes actions undertaken by all individuals in the imaginary world, acts out the NPCs and – probably the most important difference between RPG and drama/children’s “make-believe” game – describes the consequences of actions taken by the players.

The character

I already mentioned GM, PC and NPC, but narrative RPG is more than declaring “OK, I want to play Frodo in the Middle-earth”. A character picked by a player must have its representations, physical and mental, usually given in a form of statistics that are placed on character sheets, specially designed for individual game-systems. Usually the basic subsections are attributes (in-born characteristics, e.g. strength, wisdom etc.), skills (learnt capabilities e.g. spoken language, horse-riding, computer hacking etc.) and powers (extraordinary abilities if present, e.g. telepathy, flight etc.). I will definitely write a separate post on character creation as it’s an important part of any RPG system.

The rules

Each RPG has its own set of rules, usually dice-based, called mechanics. I will need to elaborate the idea of mechanics in a separate note as, after all, that’s something that brings the word “game” to RPG, bringing the element of chance – so it deserves a proper explanation.

The story

A story is simple the adventure in which both GM and PCs take part. Ron Edwards explains that in each story

…characters will have goals they want to attain, and obstacles to overcome. The story that the narrator (GM) creates will provide the setting and the plot. In that plot the characters might stumble into adventure accidentally, or become embroiled in international espionage, or choose to seek out fame and fortune as tomb-robbers or pirates. The important point is that the players author the tale through the actions of their characters.

I will write more about stories and settings in the next part of my series.

Communication

Jerzy Szeja provides three semiotic models of communication in RPG, but in reality it looks rather simple:

  1. GM describes the setting and NPCs actions.
  2. PCs declare actions (sometimes after discussion to decide the way of behaviour).
  3. GM describes the result of the actions (often based on mechanics).
  4. GM describes the result.

And the whole cycle repeats itself.

Conclusion

That’s it – the basics of RPGs and pretty much all you need to know before you embark on the adventure. I understand, however, that for those of you who have never played a RPG session the whole article may be still confusing – I will try to clarify everything in my further articles, but if you have any questions, I’ll be happy to answer.

If you want to read more on the topic:

Edwards, Ron (2003): Narrativism: Story Now (you may find it here)

Szeja, Jerzy Zygmunt (2004): Gry fabularne – nowe zjawisko kultury współczesnej, Kraków: Rabid