Middle School Energy

I’ve been working as an intern for the Language Hunters nonprofit organization, partnering with Corbett Middle School to teach the Language Hunting approach to language acquisition and accelerated learning. Which is a fancy way of saying I’ve been playing games in Irish with preteens for the last month. Four weeks into our nine-week program, we’ve learned a lot about middle schoolers, our approach, and about gameplay and learning in general. We’ve hit an exciting turning point where the students are starting to have “aha!” moments about how the game works, and really delve wholeheartedly into joyous play.

It wasn’t easy to get there, though, for us or them. In two class periods with about 50 students each, we found that managing the delicate flow of a Language Hunt game faced several severe obstacles. The number of players, the chaos of adolescent social dynamics, and of course the compulsory educational environment, even in so progressive a school as Corbett Middle School.

Before I go on, let me stress that Language Hunting is first and foremost a game. The purpose is to play the game and have fun; not “learn a language” in a traditional sense.  The idea is that by becoming masterful players of the game, skilled Language Hunters will develop the ability to absorb any language as they encounter it in real life. Part of the “aha!” moment above was the kids reaching the point in gameplay where this purpose reveals itself. Before that, the majority of students didn’t seem to get what they were doing or why.

In the course of experimenting and problem-solving I hit on an insight that fascinates me. I observed that, for the first couple of weeks especially, many students were both bored and overwhelmed at the same time. They’d complain that they were stuck saying the same thing over and over, but throw even the tiniest new piece into the mix and they were instantly confused.

This fits with the observation Willem Larsen makes in the Language Hunter’s Kit about the Fluent Edge: peak learning happens when the learning environment is just challenging enough. Too little challenge and players slip into boredom, too much challenge and they slip into overwhelm:

My insight from watching these kids play is: most people are adept at monitoring their own boredom or overwhelm states, but not both. The Corbett students were, for the most part, keenly aware of their boredom level, but weren’t able to spot their overwhelm threshold until they were in the thick of it. Some of them did seem aware of their danger of overwhelm, but weren’t well served by playing in the same game with the boredom-averse.

I’ve observed this in other game environments too. Some players are keenly aware of the minimum complexity to keep them engaged, and push early and often for more challenging play. Other players are all too painfully aware of the amount of information that will overwhelm them, and will get frustrated with the stream of complexity or just check out entirely.

The challenge of a skillful game facilitator is to hold these two concerns in balance for maximum engagement of all players. I confess that these days, I’m generally on the side of those who are overwhelmed, even as I realize that I’m one of the players who is often inclined to add too much complexity too fast. I’ve seen exclusionary gameplay scenarios develop far more often from bored players edging out overwhelmed players than the other way around.

With the Middle School program, we’ve adjusted the game environment by setting up a succession of tables running more and more complex Irish (called, in Language Hunters parlance, a “Bucket Brigade”) so that players can select themselves to the table with the complexity level they’re most comfortable with at the moment, and move up and down between tables as they become ready for a new piece or full of what they’ve got. And a lot of students have selected out of the class entirely, which is actually a good thing because the group size is more manageable and those who remain are more reliably engaged and eager to play the game on its own terms. The results have been palpable: far more engagement and comprehension and just sheer playfulness!

Ideally we’d love to continue playing  the game with every kid that shows up, but there are only so many of us game leaders, and the goal is not to teach a hundred kids some Irish; our goal is to create a Language Hunting community. As a core of excited students comes out of class continuing to play the game in the halls, at home, with friends, family and teachers, Language Hunting as a practice can spread and hopefully even the students that didn’t “get it” in our brief time together can be pulled back in and experience its joys.



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