I love the new focus in education on the skills and dispositions needed for our students to succeed in the years to come. It feels like a return to many of the fundamentals that have been passed over since the inception of NCLB which spawned a concentrated refocusing on test scores. While teachers do need to be accountable, it is not simply for student achievement on test scores but for how well the students are prepared to take on the challenges that the world presents.

The question then follows, how do we teach many of these skills? How does one teach a student to think critically or be empathetic? Looking at empathy, the most valuable way I have seen comes from experiences; from the participation in and exploration of the student’s own ideas and feelings in the context of real and meaningful experiences. While literature and media may provide opportunities for examining motives and emotions, these are one-way interchanges with fictional characters. We need to also focus on building the ability for students to relate to and understand their peers.

Group work can provide opportunities, but can often be contrived experiences that lack any genuine connections. Writing exercises can be powerful but lack a face-to-face quality that lessens the social literacy growth of students. Games can provide a good blend of authentic prompts and social lubrication which help students connect with and understand their peers on a more personal level. This is not a novel idea, school psychologists and social workers have been using games for years.

So let’s talk games! The first thing I would like to talk about is not a game but a genre of games that has become increasingly more popular, cooperative games. In these games, students are not competing against each other to win, but are instead working together to defeat the challenges of the game. These games often require a good deal of communication and trust on the part of the players. They help students understand not only the strengths and weaknesses of themselves but those of their peers as well. Leadership skills are developed and team synergy is refined as the students play to succeed.

At a younger level there are a great number of games that begin to familiarize students with these concepts. Family Pastime’s Max is a game where students are working together to move a group of neighborhood wild animals home to their tree before Max the cat catches them and makes them dinner. Here, students can’t play as anyone particular animal or Max is sure to catch up with them all. Conversations and strategies begin to emerge as students discuss which animals would be best to move each turn or if a turn should be given up to call Max back to the porch with a treat.

Herkules Ameise is a HABA game in which the players are working together to extend a trail of ants to find sticks to help them construct their anthill before the anteater arrives. Full of fantastic bits in typical HABA style, the kids actually construct an anthill up off the board, this game isn’t just gloss but fosters teamwork and tough decisions. Each turn, students roll the die and can either place/move ants at the end of the trail or flip an un-investigated tile in search of more resources. Again students are having to work collectively; discussing & sharing ideas and opinions on what is the best move each turn. These communication skills are fundamental for building towards empathy as understanding comes through listening to and respecting the ideas of others.

There are a host of other fantastic cooperative games that span the ages. Shadows Over Camelot has proven itself time and again to work well in middle school, getting students to interact and work together despite any clique barriers that may normally keep them apart. A more intense experience is available with Battlestar Galactica for the high school crowd. These games are good at helping build teamwork and getting kids to listen to and respect the opinions of their peers, but I want to focus on building and developing empathy in middle and high school students. Games provide the opportunity to create meaningful experiences that prompt reflection and consideration of the views and vantage points of their peers.

The first game that really works well at doing this is Say Anything by Northstar Games. Here, students take turns asking an opinionated question to the rest of the players (i.e. Who would you love to have dinner with?”). The other players answer with what they think is a good answer, writing it down on a dry erase board and placing it out for everyone to see. The student who asked the question then secretly selects which answer they like best. When they have selected, all of the other players place the two tokens they have on the answer they think was chosen. They can put both tokens on one answer hoping to score two points or split them between two answers if they are not as sure. The heart of the game lies in looking at the answers on the table and trying to work out which answer the student selected based on what the rest of the players know of the student. They have to put themselves in the student’s perspective, think about who they are and apply that to the choices on the table. While the questions are light and full of opportunities for fun, the potential for understanding and growth are strong.

The last game I want to talk about is Dixit, a visually stunning game that rewards creativity, imagination and empathy. In Dixit, each player has a hand of beautifully illustrated cards that are evocative of fairy tales, surrealistic painting and dream imagery. Players take turns selecting a card from their hand and creating a “little story” that describes it fairly well. Each other player then selects a card from their hand that best matches what was said and slides it face down to the storyteller. All the cards are mixed up and then laid out face up for everyone to see. The rest of the players, besides the story teller, pick one of the cards which they think was the one played by the storyteller, but because each of the other players put down cards that they thought captured the same sentiment, it is not that easy nor does the storyteller want it to be. The storyteller scores points if some of the other players guess his card, not all nor none but just some. The players score by correctly guessing the storyteller’s card as well as bonus points if other players picked their card instead of the storyteller’s. So players have to reflect on the people they are playing with and select ideas, experiences and knowledge to tell their “little stories” that is shared by some of the players. On the other side, the other players have two opportunities for empathetic interchanges. The first is by choosing a card that they think with lure others into selecting it and the second is by trying to take into consideration what they know of the storyteller to find their card from the ones displayed on the table.

While there are many more games that feed interpersonal reflection and growth, these two are by far the standouts from my experience. They provide ample opportunity for students to better understand and appreciate their peers, a skill that is becoming increasingly endangered in this digital age.

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