One of the biggest criticisms levelled against school systems is their rigidity. Not only do we have problems with sociocultural diversity, we also struggle to support different kinds of learning. The best way to get through school still seems to be memorising the right answers. How could we support different temperaments, different ways of working, the differences between subjects and still construct a comprehensive grading system that promotes a growth mindset?
One answer could be found in the very thing many kids prefer over school. Modern games are becoming increasingly more adept at accommodating diversity.
It used to be that to win a game you had to click your way to that one correct solution. Nowadays it is much cooler if a game gives players an open-ended problem and the tools to solve it creatively. Allowing for creative solutions fascinates people endlessly. A good example is Besiege, that has gained a cult-like following. Examples of it can be seen on the left.
So: if games can build win-conditions that encourage free-play and creativity, how could we apply those same mechanics in schools? Games are a gold mine for education inspiration. Extra Credits’ series on Gamifying Education is a good crash course for those interested.
I’m starting with a very basic thought experiment by combining the Three Class System (Warrior, Mage, Rogue) from classic Role-Playing Games (or RPGs) to Robert J. Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence. I will then continue to make some preliminary suggestions for classroom implementation based on this comparison.
The Triarchic Theory of Intelligence
This classic intelligence theory by Robert J. Sternberg (Beyond IQ: A Triarchic Theory of Intelligence, 1985) combats the narrow everyday perception of intelligence as something quantifiable as a number. The three subtheories of intelligence according to this taxonomy are 1) analytical 2) creative 3) practical. Sternberg illustrates the differences between with example students called Alice, Barbara and Celia.
Analytical intelligence is easily measured with standardised texts and deals with a person’s ability to affect their internal world. Alice is good at finding, analysing, understanding and memorising information and therefore gets high grades and IQ scores. However, she has trouble creating unique ideas of her own, which stumps her once she graduates and is asked to produce original work.
Creative or experiential intelligence specialises in handling novelty and automising what is learnt i.e. a persons ability to use experience. Novelty refers to the ability to deal with unexpected situations and automatisation is an essential cognitive process that allows the brain to perform several familiar tasks at the same time. Barbara is good at drawing on previous experiences to solve new ones.
Sternberg also relates this to synthetic intelligence that excels in creating new ways of handling situations that most people couldn’t come up with. Because of this, Barbara was accepted into university based on good recommendations instead of grades and became highly valued for her ability to intuit new ideas for research.
Practical intelligence refers to the person’s ability to manipulate their environment. Cecilia is good at both adapting to the physical and social environment and changing her surroundings to better suit herself. As a team player, she is capable of directing others to perform more efficiently. While her grades are between Alice’s and Barbara’s, Cecilia excels in applying her skills to impress others and succeed in life. If necessary, practically intelligent people change environments to find a more suitable context for themselves.
Remember, this theory is not universally accepted. It is a useful tool for understanding diversity in ourselves and others, not as a way to label others. We all use these three types of intelligence everyday depending on the problem and situation. You can think of Alice, Barbara and Celia as imaginary people living inside your head representing different facets of yourself. While one of the three might be stronger in one person, all of these facets can be reinforced with practice.
The Three Class System in RPGs
A classic example of how game systems let people skin a cat in several ways is the Three Class system. The simple old-school classes are Mage, Rogue and Warrior, hailing back from tabletop RPGS and seen recently in Trine, Kingdoms of Amalur and countless other games. Practically all fantasy RPGs base their class systems on this triad, including Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, the grand old man of the genre.
Because there has been so many different incarnations of this classification, it is impossible to produce a universally applicable definition of the three. The following is a theoretical interpretation suiting my own metaphorical purposes.
Mage — Controlling what you know
The mage class relies on skills instead of equipment and attributes. Their high-damage spells allow them to stay out of harm’s way, but if those spells fail the results are catastrophic. Once control is lost there is very little to be done. But when a mage is prepared and fully-stocked they can dominate the battle very precisely.
It is easy to say the mage represents analytical intelligence.
Warrior — Controlling what you do
Warriors are the all-rounders. They can take hits and do a respectable amount of physical damage. What they may lack in sophistication, they make up with brute force and determination.
Warriors represent experiential and synthetic intelligence, because their armour allows them to roll into battle and figure things out on the fly. They can strategise based on the situation, without much need for preparation.
Rogue — Controlling where you are
Rogues are more vulnerable than the previous classes and depend on speed and wits over strength. To protect themselves, rogues try to control and adapt to different situations with various tools and attributes such as long-range weapons, poison, agility and stealth. Information-gathering and strategising are key skills for their success.
Rogues fit practical intelligence well because of their ability to make each hit count.
It is important that we don’t ask people to fulfil all of the three types intelligences. I often feel like I’m supposed to know everything, work hard and be quick about it at uni. When I come up short, it feels like a failure and glosses over the fact that each and every one of us has our own strengths. We have to find a way to nurture and showcase everyone’s strengths.
First and foremost, problems have to be defined clearly. The problem can be a tough one, but once a player understands it, they can figure out their own solution. If a problem is ill-defined, the only way to figure it out is to cheat or copy someone else. Teachers are sure to recognise the problem of poor instructions. When kids don’t understand instructions, the results are unpredictable to say the least.
Clear definitions are especially important for rogues, because they need to know the lay of the land. If they feel insecure, they will retreat.
In games, the same boss can be defeated by any one of the three classes. A mage will overpower the boss, while a warrior will puzzle their way through and a rogue will scout ahead to find the weak spots. As the previous example of Besiege shows, the best type of challenges are those that are open-ended and can be approached from different directions.
It is important to create problems that provide each class the chance to excel. At the same this creates challenges for other classes that forces them to be creative and broaden their skill set. In schools there should be various types of assessment instead of just exams. Exams favour mages and at the same time leave them unprepared for real life struggles.
Another option is giving players the opportunity to choose between problems. This ensures that everyone has their chance to shine and also promotes the metacognitive skill of knowing your strengths and weaknesses.
Problem solving is supported by allowing for trial and error. Games don’t punish you too severely for failing or dying, so a player can take their time to find a solution that suits their class. Creating assessments that need to be passed in one go and at a certain time are a poor way to support diversity. In games these are known as one hit K.O.’s. These only occur when the match-up is extremely advantageous towards one party and requires either luck or careful preparation. So, once again this is a feature that favours mages over the other two classes.
Support diversity, promote teamwork
Three classes hasn’t been enough for most games for a long while. We now have Paladins, Priests, Necromancers and Hunters just to name a few. Dividing people into three categories is too limited when we know the endless diversity of humanity. But if we can make a system that allows for all three archetypes, combinations will find ways to fit in as well. The brain is malleable, so a warrior can learn tricks from both a mage and a rogue. Flexibility should be encouraged. It allows people to handle whatever life throws at them.
But one person can never be the best at everything. That’s why we have more people. Teamwork allows us to concentrate on what we do best. Games have embraced the opportunities the internet creates for human interaction. Guilds, parties and events gather all kinds of gamers together to tackle quests and bosses.
Group works in which students combine forces to create something greater than they could have accomplished by themselves are irreplaceable experiences. They provide people undeniable proof that we all have something unique and invaluable to give and that other people are important. Systems that support diversity and promote teamwork give people the skills to tackle the problems life throws at us.