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Role-playing games teach students critical skills

By Nicole Krueger
June 19, 2018
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Pen, paper, dice – the tools for playing Dungeons & Dragons are as old-school as they come. But the skills players develop are the same ones they need most in today’s technology-saturated world.

That’s why a growing number of educators, many of whom grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons themselves, have begun using the fantasy role-playing framework in their classrooms.

“It hits all the things we’re trying to do in education,” says Christopher Bugaj, a founding member the assistive technology team for Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia. “We’re helping kids communicate and collaborate.”

From fifth grade math class to after-school clubs to speech therapy for students with disabilities, role-playing games spark creativity while giving students a chance to practice a wide range of skills, from cooperation and team-building to empathy and communication. The games are particularly effective in therapy classes for students with disabilities, where kids typically work on their social skills in group settings.

“It’s a fun way to practice those social skills, with the therapist acting as dungeon master,” Bugaj says. “You’re constantly putting challenges in front of your students. If you know a student has a particular issue, you can set them up with a scenario where they can practice their goal.”

Since the basic tools for the game are freely available online, anyone can play. Digital character sheets allow students with dyslexia to use text-to-speech tools, for example, while random number generators allow players with physical limitations to use digital dice rolls.

Why does it work?

IT’S INFINITELY FLEXIBLE. Teachers can adapt the basic Dungeons & Dragons framework for any grade, subject or ability level. Its cross-disciplinary nature incorporates both storytelling and math, while creative teachers in other subject areas can easily tie in the topic of the day. In science class, for example, players can come across a strange creature or plant life and use their scientific observation skills to investigate it. In math, students can decipher a hidden code, calculate spell-casting ranges, estimate distances and rate of travel to a destination, budget and shop for gear, add up the worth of a pile of treasure or even plot out the dimensions of a dungeon.

IT INCORPORATES THE FOUR C’S. Role-playing games require participants to work together to overcome obstacles — and in some classrooms, students even collaborate in groups to manage a single character. As they think critically about their fictional situation, devise creative solutions and communicate their choices to the teacher, they’re practicing crucial digital age skills. “There’s a problem they need to solve,” Bugaj says. “It might not be an authentic problem out in the world, but it’s still problem-solving with the
resources you have.”

IT ENGAGES STUDENTS IN THEIR LEARNING. When students are invested in the characters they create, they become eager to “level up” by completing assignments or conquering learning objectives. Tying learning activities to a role-playing game helps motivate them to learn what they need to propel their characters forward. “They love their characters, and they love playing,” Bugaj says.
Teachers don’t need experience with Dungeons & Dragons to incorporate role-playing games in the classroom, he adds.

“You don’t have to know all the rules. You don’t have to get bogged down in that. One of the principal rules is that you make the rules. Just play and make sure it’s a fun experience.”

District pays teachers to tackle real-world problems. While most students spent the year completing worksheets and solving hypothetical problems, students in Laguna Beach, California, have been busy saving the world.

Over the past two years, they’ve explored solar power as a means for powering their laptops, created an art exhibit from recycled plastic to raise awareness of sea pollution, reduced food waste in their school cafeteria, and interviewed people with bipolar disease to build empathy through a school play about mental illness. 
So what’s driving this wave of real-world, project-based learning?

“We’re paying teachers to solve real-world problems with their kids,” admits Michael Morrison, chief technology officer for Laguna Beach Unified School District.

In an effort to expand teachers’ technology capacity while encouraging deeper learning in the classroom, the district’s leaders have devised a new type of professional learning that doesn’t just deliver information – it also asks teachers to show what they do with it.

Through its unique Rocket Ready training program, the district engages teachers in project-based learning through a series of micro-credentials designed to foster the tech skills, professional networks and moonshot thinking needed to help students change the world.

The program goes beyond the typical “one-day mountaintop” training experience by giving teachers access to coaches who can meet with them virtually to provide assistance throughout the year as they work on their projects, Morrison says. To get paid for the training, teachers must create a video showcasing the real-world work their students did.

“When you ask teachers if they’re doing real-world problems, everybody says yes. But if you ask a few more questions you’ll find out it’s all simulation,” he says. “That doesn’t prepare them very well for the real world.”
So far, 20 percent of the district’s teachers have taken advantage of the optional training program, putting in about 60 hours a year to develop new skills and bring what they learned back to the classroom.

Why does it work?

IT FUELS TEACHERS’ PASSION. Part of the impetus for the training program was to counteract the sobering Gallup Poll results showing nearly 70 percent of teachers don’t feel engaged in their jobs. Those who participate in Rocket Ready get excited about the projects their students are working on. “It wouldn’t be interesting or powerful if it didn’t have this ‘I’m changing the world’ feeling,” Morrison says. “That’s what drives it. That’s the heart of teaching.”

IT’S ALIGNED TO STANDARDS. While teachers get to choose what types of projects they tackle, the program has been carefully tailored to meet both state standards and district learning goals. The micro-credentials align with California’s technology standards, which are similar to the ISTE Standards, as well as the Universal Design for Learning framework and the Buck Institute’s project-based learning methodology.

IT DIRECTLY IMPACTS STUDENTS. With most professional learning, it’s a toss-up whether teachers will actually implement what they learn. But with Rocket Ready, the outcome is the whole point — and the training is just a tool to help them get there.

Rocket Ready’s success has prompted other districts to implement their own versions of the program, and Laguna Beach USD is in the process of creating a nonprofit to help educators replicate the model in their own schools, says education consultant Michael Lawrence.