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Today’s post is about curiosity. It’s a word I’ve been thinking about a lot as it keeps coming up in books and podcasts.

First, Elizabeth Gilbert writes about curiosity in her book Big Magic. I read that book awhile ago, but I keep coming back to her explanation that curiosity is more important to follow than “passion.” Curiosity is questioning. It can be a niggling to know more about something, or a real search for a Big Answer to a Big Question. I am curious about so many things, something I think I inherited from my Also-An-Aquarius Dad (thanks, Dad!).

Right now, I am curious about two interrelated things: how student athletes learn best, and more specifically what it is about the combination of Reacting to the Past role-playing games and D3 football players that gets so much engagement in the classroom. I use Reacting games, as I’ve posted here many times, but I’ve noticed increasing engagement over the past two years from the football players that take my classes (many of them enroll because I am the academic mentor to the D3 McDaniel College football team – go Green Terror!). And because so many of them enroll (fourteen players were in my 24-person Roman art and architecture class), I get a front-row seat to observe what inspires them, moves them to do more and better work academically, and gets them excited in the classroom. And it has led me to want to research more deeply to find out what is going on, rather than simply watching it and taking anecdotal notes. So, that is where curiosity is leading me right now.

I am also thinking about curiosity from the student side.

When students sign up for an elective course, there must be some element of interest there, some amount of curiosity about the topic to make them choose that course over another that fulfills the same general education requirement. Even if the course is a required course for the major, and the students “must” take it, their choice of that major was likely sparked by some element of curiosity about that discipline or the career to which they hope it will lead.

This leads me to the question for faculty: how can you keep that curiosity going?

I really believe that keeping students actively engaged in the classroom can keep that initial curiosity alive, or rekindle it in the case of a required class in a major. I firmly believe that we must allow students to actively engage in the material of the major, or the course, or the topic, for them to really feel an affinity with the subject and learn it deeply and well. Of course, they might not be able to do everything an accomplished art historian, biologist, sociologist, or poet does when taking such a class. Some of them may never have the zeal to stay with that discipline, let alone profession. Truly: how many of our college students are really going to major and go on for an advanced degree in our disciplines? How many should?

Continuing on for an advanced degree should not be the main or only metric of success for all students. When they signed up for a class, there was something, some amount of curiosity, that led them to that course or that major. How can we keep it going?

I would argue that it’s engagement that will keep the curiosity going, that kindle of interest burning. This reminds me of my blog post from November of 2015  in which I pondered, “What is a faculty member’s role in student engagement?” That post garnered a lot of comments, some of them from students themselves who were in my Roman Art and Architecture class in the fall of 2015.

I am still committed to reaching every student, because I believe that finding a way to keep that curiosity kindled is the way to keep students engaged and ultimately learn skills and content to be successful in the world, regardless of major. That is what general education requirements are all about at a liberal arts college.

In my teaching, blog and workshops, I am committed to helping others to find ways to engage students to continue to keep the curiosity alive and help them succeed in their chosen classes and majors.

How do you keep students' curiosity kindled as a faculty member in the classroom?

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In September I will be delivering a plenary address at the American College of Greece in Athens about active learning and gamification in higher education. I'm immersing myself in as much on this topic as possible and would love to hear others' thoughts on the issue.

I have been "gaming" since 2007, when I first started using the pedagogy Reacting to the Past. Just about anyone who knows me also knows that I am committed to the Reacting pedagogy. Reacting consists of highly immersive role-playing games, set in a historical period. Each student has his or her own role that comes with a  character sheet with victory objectives, strategy, and key ideas. Students must read primary texts from the time period (for instance Plato's Republic for Athens game set in 403 BCE and Rosseau's Social Contract for the French Revolution game) and use references from those works in speeches to persuade people to their side of the issues in order to WIN. And students really do want to win; their competitive natures come out. Because reading and writing can help you to win, students realize that doing "work" can lead to something worthwhile - and even fun.

This is what the gamification movement seems to promise, but it appears to be mostly tied to the realm of video games. Reacting seems to be on the fringe or the edge of this movement, because it's not a video game. Although Reacting games can be played online, and have been used that way successfully by some of my colleagues, the pedagogy essentially is a face-to-face active learning technique and is one of my favorite options when I incorporate the flipped classroom paradigm.

I need to learn more about gamification in other arenas beyond Reacting. From what I have learned so far, it seems to me that students will see right through the idea of "levels" and "badges." I am concerned that adding those particular elements as part of a course won't really make it any more "fun." I was watching a video of Gabe Zichermann talking about gamification (October 26, 2010), and the speaker had this image up:

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He was suggesting that the bottom words are not associated very much with fun - but the words above in color are associated more often with fun. It seems that the move towards gamification in higher education is an effort to make school more fun.

This gets to the heart of what I think about day in and day out: I teach because I want my students to learn. But I also want my classes to be engaging places where students are active. I wish I had more evidence to back this up (does anyone out there have such studies?), but I do think that students who are engaged in classes also learn more. I think the flipped classroom has allowed my students to be more engaged, and yes, have more fun. I know that I have a lot of fun right alongside them when they are involved in the class. And I am learning from them, too.

I know I need to do more research, reading and study to better understand this arena of gamification in higher education. I am hoping that some wise sages out there can point me in some directions about what to read, and tell me whether or not the levels and badges really lead to deeper learning. Maybe I am just cynical, but if I were to call "learning about the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial" a "Quest" I would get some eye-rolls. And this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by (October 29, 2015) seems to suggest that we should not give in to where students are. But I wonder, is the alternative to leave them behind if they don't ever learn like they are "supposed" to?

I am planning to incorporate some "leveled" quizzes and will incorporate the idea of adaptive release in my hybrid class History of Western Art this coming fall semester. Students will have a randomly selected set of images that are fairly easy to identify for art history survey in each module. After that, a second quiz will include more difficult images. Is that gamification? Somehow I think the Reacting games, case studies and peer review sessions that I am planning for the face-to-face portions of that class are going to make more of an impact, but I am set to give it a try.

Readers: what else should I read and learn about as I work through this new area of teaching?

 

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In 2006 I attended my first Reacting to the Past annual Institute at Barnard College in New York City. I went with the worst attitude imaginable. And it was August and sweltering in New York. And I had to stay in a residence hall. Games for teaching sounded juvenile (oh, can you hear the whining?). I was as skeptical as they come.

But I was transfixed by the students who were there to help faculty members, who, like me, had not prepared an iota of material for the games we were to play in condensed form over the four-day conference. Those students made me realize that Reacting was a powerful pedagogy that could change my own students' learning in profound ways.

I took a leap of faith and first used Reacting to the Past in my First Year Seminar in the fall of 2007. I will admit it: it was hard. Reacting requires you to trust the students, and to put the material and the topics in their hands and see what they do with it.  But it was also the most transformative experience as a teacher I have ever had. I saw my students explore, engage, research, write and speak in ways I had not before.

Flash ahead to me a semester or two later, walking across campus one day. I realized that there was a game I could use in every art history class that I teach at my liberal arts college, with the exception of my nineteenth-century art class. And, as the saying goes about necessity being the mother of invention, my next thought was, "Well, I guess I will just have to write a game."

And so I did.

With the help of game designer extraordinaire, Nicolas W. Proctor, Professor of History at Simpson College and Editorial Board chair for the Reacting Consortium, and Michael A. Marlais, now-retired Endowed Professor of Art History from Colby College and a specialist in late nineteenth-century French art criticism, we went about crafting a game that I would use in my nineteenth-century art class. The result was Modernism versus Traditionalism: Art in Paris, 1888-89. I chose the dates of 1888-89 for a specific reason: I am bothered by the scholarly narrative that indicates that Van Gogh and Gauguin somehow had actual authoritative power in the art world at that time. Reality was starkly different.

The game includes artists from the Academy who follow a more traditional approach to what art should be about. Think Bouguereau, Meissonier.  The Impressionists are included, among them Monet, Renoir, and Degas as well as a few American artists including Cassatt and Whistler. The Avant-garde is there, too, with Van Gogh and Gauguin making their calls for the modern in art.  Several critics are in the game, and they function to help the artists who adhere to certain aesthetic considerations. To help students understand the beginnings of the commodification of art, I added two dealers who compete with each other for sales of art.

The game begins in the 1888 Salon, when the characters defend or decry the selection of Detaille's painting The Dream as the recipient of the Medal of Honor in the Salon. That day, and the subsequent days, students in character debate the current state of art (as indicated by the art in the 1888 Salon) and the future of art that they all have a hand in shaping. The last day of the game is a recreation of the 1889 World Exposition in Paris, for which the Eiffel Tower was built. All of the artists are required to "show art" that they hope will sell. However, only "secret buyers," who are recruited by me in a large crowd that I invite to the Exposition, can actually buy anything with a special "certificate of sale." The buyers must remain secret to try to achieve some sense of how art buying works: no one knows who in a large crowd might actually buy a painting. Students playing artists, critics, and dealers must try to steer all of the visitors to the art for which they advocate, in hopes of making a sale.

I first ran the game in 2009. In addition to Admissions staff and other administrators and faculty colleagues, I invited several individuals from our Communications and Marketing division to come to the 1889 World Exposition. That led to this story about the first run of the Art in Paris game. I still keep in touch with the "first Bouguereau," (seen in pictures that accompany this story with the bow tie and pink shirt). He was the most bohemian student I have ever had the privilege to teach and he still remembers the game after graduating . He was happy to play an artist against his "type;" he told me he felt he learned more by doing so.

Modernism vs. Traditionalism: Art in Paris, 1888-89 has been used at well over thirty different institutions, including different countries. Others have written about their experiences with it on the Art History Teaching Resources site, such as this post by Keri Watson. The creation of this game has been one of the most satisfying scholarly projects of my career. The publication process for writing a Reacting game is extensive and includes two levels: play-tests at conferences and peer-review by those in the field and by those with game design experience. Art in Paris debuted at Reacting's annual Institute in 2010, and will be played again at this year's annual Institute as well (June 9-12, 2016).

A number of other art history games are being created in the wake of Art in Paris, by my colleagues Mary Beth Looney (The American Artists' Congress: 1935-1939), Marie Gasper-Helvat (1863 Salon des refusés and Guerrilla Girls in our Midst: 1984-1987), Paula Lazrus (Il Duomo di Santa Maria del Fiori: Florence, 1418), Carol Brash (Photography: Art, Science, Document?), as well as Rebecca Livingstone, Kelly McFall, and Abby Perkiss, who have together created Memory and Monument Building: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 1980-1982.

For those who have not heard of Reacting to the Past, I urge you to go to a conference or the annual Institute. It will change the way you think about engaging students in the material.

And you might even have a lot of fun doing it.

 

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