Education as Serious Play

“For serious things cannot be understood without laughable things, nor opposites at all without opposites, if a man is really to have intelligence of either; but he can not carry out both in action, if he is to have any degree of virtue. And for this very reason he should learn them both” Book VII, The Laws – Plato


One of my favorite authors posited that, contrary to cursory observations, comedy and tragedy differ by only the smallest of degrees. They both rely on competing frames of references, but one presents the action as immediately threatening while the other projects the action in quite the opposite direction. However, the serious and the laughable both compel us to pay attention to the human condition, to learn what it means to be human.

The seriousness of tragedy helps us focus our attention on the shortcomings of what it means to be human. Tragedy is serious because it exposes our limitations. We become serious students when we focus on those part of “the whole” that are immutable and refuse to bend to our will. Via “the serious” we see our position as pliant things in a world that is anything but pliant.

The lightheartedness of comedy tends to reveal the role chance plays in our lives as well. It, too, reveals our flaws and limitations, but in a nonthreatening way that promises a new beginning or a “redo” or, better yet, a balance. With playfulness and comedy the numbing effects of tragedy disappear and allow us to act in the face of chaos. With playfulness as comedy, the universe becomes malleable as we stand above it.

Serious Play At Work

We would be wrong to think that playfulness is simply goofiness. Play is a sort of pre-seriousness (if I may coin a word) or the foundation of seriousness.

The tax assessor in the above video is comedic because he does not have the power to force us to take him seriously. We can learn, though, about serious things like human nature by temporarily not taking them seriously. For example, in our academic sandbox, we can pretend like this politician might one day have access to an army. In that manner, constructive play leads to a serious resolution to not vote for this guy. We can investigate his rhetoric, cadence, claims, and so on and, writ large, explore what makes a tyrant a tyrant. Playing (pre-seriousness) helps evaluate the serious.

As Plato wrote above, “serious things cannot be understood without laughable things” and a virtuous person should be well read in both.

Too often we teacher forget that our students are not academics in pursuit of evasive, but sometimes important minutia like we are. We take our discipline seriously and assume our students do too or, at least, should too. They are strangers, usually, to our slice of the universe and don’t know why each slice of “the whole” is an important one. Unfortunately, instead of blunting the edges of our subject and letting the kids play with the subject matter we introduce it in some sort of threatening manner like “You won’t graduate if…” or “You need to know this for the test…”. The hierarchy that we see, that ivory tower, is hidden by a fog of ignorance from our students. Play helps to clear that fog enough for students to become familiar with the lower reaches of our monolithic discipline.

The City and Man

In a previous post I mentioned one of my favorite lessons (a ‘discovery’ discussion) called “Society vs. the Individual” where my students and I explore the tension between our surroundings and our selves as it related to self identity in a democracy. It opens their eyes to so many important facets of government yet it is fun. In that lesson we delineate the “me” and the “them” of government and society. I introduce the topic by claiming “By the end of this class I will prove that you really don’t exist.” They doubt and I smile. I argue and they listen. They reply and I listen. I ask and they write. At the end, I ask them not to come to a conclusion. I ask them to play with the possibilities without allowing them to crystallize. The flux of possibility without a conclusion is where the most serious play happens.

There are other lessons where I’ve applied what I’ve learned from my students and from Plato about “play”. I have a lesson entitled “The State of Nature Game” (which is kind of like the prisoner’s dilemma game) where students see that human beings and uncertainty do not mix well. Students are engaged in a game where most rules are determined by the group. Here, there is a play between chaos and order and the kids LOVE it. In yet another game, called “Checks and Balances Cranium”, students explore or live out the checks and balances of each of the three branches via a board game. Each country can “impeach” their officials, check each other’s moves and answers, declare war on other countries, etc. They live out the action of government (without actually destroying lives). They play to win, but it is still play. Finally, I have a really involved redistricting/Gerrymandering game where students actually Gerrymander a city to get political power. The class has to both cooperate to draw district boundaries and undermine each other’s authority as they vote on the final version of those boundaries.

The tension as my students play with “possibilities” instead of final conclusions is a playground of possibilities. It’s an uncertain, but fun, area where we “experts” sometimes come to be uncomfortable because we’ve learned the “right answers”.

Therese Huston in her book, Teaching What You Don’t Know, says as much. Mrs. Huston comments on page 42 of her book that “Students learn more when they actively engage with the material, when they need to do something more with the information than simply listening to it and writing some of it down when it reaches their threshold of necessity.” She has an entire chapter dedicated to “thinking in class”, but its really a list of thinking games use to synthesize content and engagement at the college level.

The government games I mentioned above are not just fun. They engage the newcomer to political philosophy and political science in a way that makes the discipline nonthreatening.

Hand any toddler an iPhone and they’ll begin pushing things and prodding other things. The uninitiated play to find purpose. This is what Plato and Mrs. Huston suggest. Don’t just have a serious purpose in class. Soften the edges of that purpose with a playfully serious activity, discussion, or project.

What if the American Founders watched infomercial concerning the U.S. Constitution? What if you had to compile a list of songs that represented federalism? What if you sent your students around your school building to take pictures of anything that related to the 27 amendments? These are all lessons students helped me build because I recognized the magnitude of my seriousness and how it was overshadowing the student’s need for guided, constructive play time.

Two Hats...the foundation of every fun lesson

A quick solution: have two hats or containers. The first will be filled with slips of paper labelled with your objectives. The second will have random verbs or actions or projects. Have students choose a slip of paper from each hat and see what happens. You may have one student doing a watercolor representation of a soliloquy. You may have another students making a video representation of the Pythagorean theorem. You may have yet another students putting together “news bulletin” set in the bronze age or explaining the Nitrogen Cycle via interpretive dance.

As we near the end of the year, find some time after state mandated tests to implement the two hat approach. Let the kids pick from each hat. If they don’t like what they picked, have them pick again. Have fun with it.

In the end, the lesson we might learn is that, in the classroom (and lesson planning), we should approach seriousness with a touch of ridicule just as we should take play more seriously.

About Thrasymachus

2013 Northwest ISD teacher of the year, Humanities Texas 2012 Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award, and 2011 Outstanding Educator of North Texas Award (North Central Texas College). I'm currently a Regional Digital Learning Consultant with the Education Service Center Region 11 in Ft. Worth, Texas and a college government educator who incorporates philosophy, technology & humor. A student through and through, I walk with my students in their learning. Most importantly, I'm blessed with the 3 most perfect kids eva! I love on them ery day!!!
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2 Responses to Education as Serious Play

  1. Pingback: Comedy Crashers: Humor As An Assessment Tool | Thrasymakos

  2. Pingback: Humor As An Assessment Tool | Thrasymakos

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