Tuesday, 19 February 2013

MIT Course: Learning Creative Learning - Reflections on a childhood toy

On of my first assignments for the course was to reflect on a childhood toy in a similar vein to this essay on Seymore Papert's early experiences playing with gears and how it helped him with his algebra in later life. My choice:

Hero Quest, for those of you who have never played it, is a board game; kind of a dumbed-down version of Dungeons and Dragons. I used to play it with my two brothers, my dad and my uncle (when he was visiting). Me and my brothers would play the heros: Barbarian, Wizard, Dwarf, etc. My dad would usually be the dungeon master. It was his job to tell the story, outline the mission, set up the board (where the rooms/doors/traps/etc are) and control all the monsters we encountered.
As if you didn't already know how much of a geeky child I was!

I loved that game; the team-work, the story element, the strategic play all made me feel like the powerful hero I was playing. In the spirit of 'Gears of my Childhood', I wanted to talk about some of the transferable skills I learned from this excellent game. To do that, I need to talk a little about how Hero Quest works.

The board of Hero Quest had set paths and rooms, but was otherwise blank, the abilities the heros and the enemies had never changed, traps, treasure and all the other rules all worked in the same way every time you played. Two things changed: The location of objects/enemies and the story/mission. By changing the objects' locations and, particularly, by adding rubble to block off certain paths, the dungeon-master changed the difficulty and length of the mission and the strategies you needed to use to be successful. Changing the story affected the mood and the motivation of the mission, but also gave you clues as to how best to prepare your character.

As I got older, my dad encouraged me to play as the dungeon-master. At first I didn't find it nearly as fun to be the bad guys; a lot of the dungeon-master role was setting up a pre-given map as the players explore the board, and reading the story given. Eventually, though, I realised that these were really just a starting point. With the rules already in place, you could create whatever story you want over the top and make it play out however you wanted by arranging the objects' in different ways. Pretty soon I was hooked in to creating exciting and challenging missions for my brothers to try their skills on.

When I came to do maths (again maths?), I didn't have a problem with the way that you have to bring previously learned rules in with you when you learn a new technique and I didn't have a problem with generalising rules and strategies. When I came across a worded, contextual question or a complicated, multi-step problem, I understood how the context was layered on top of simpler mathematical topics and was just a different flavour of questions that I'd already seen. I could cut straight to what aspects of the problem were important, problem-changing details and what aspects were just setting the scene. All those things are exactly what I'd been doing for hours on end in front of a Hero Quest board.