“Why should children be the only ones who can have fun?” ask the creators of the Professors at Play project, Lisa Forbes and David Thomas, both teachers at the University of Colorado Denver in the United States. These two academics with atypical backgrounds realized that play and fun, despite their learning potential, are often underused in higher education. So in 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, when the transition to online education highlighted some of the limitations of traditional education, they decided to create a space for discussion, experience sharing and creativity to encourage the use of play and fun in higher education. This is how Professors at Play was born, a community that already has hundreds of members from around the world and will soon hold its second symposium in addition to publishing a first book, the PlayBook.
In an interview conducted by the TALON online teaching and learning network, Lisa Forbes and David Thomas discuss game pedagogy in higher education and online learning. Here is the gist of what they have to say!
“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
George Bernard Shaw
Let’s do the introductions
Lisa Forbes, the maverick teacher
Lisa K. Forbes, Ph.D., is a clinical assistant professor in the counselling program at the University of Colorado Denver. She is also a licensed counselling professional and is studying to practice play therapy. An anti-conformist at heart, she found early in her career that the higher education environment was often marked by an excess of seriousness, stress and formality. As a result, she quickly gave up trying to fit into the mould of the typical teacher, a role that clashed with her personality and drained her energy and passion for work.
In 2018, she met David Thomas, whose interest as a researcher and teacher has been focused on fun, fun objects — especially architectural ones — and the meaning of play for several years. This meeting gave her the impetus to approach teaching in her own way, gradually making room for fun in her classes, not only through activities but also as a way of being. Her goal is to see a sense of community develop in her classroom, hoping that students will feel more connected to each other. She believes that if students feel more comfortable in the group, they will be more likely vulnerable and therefore more open to taking risks and making mistakes… conditions that she believes will promote learning. Neuroscience has shown that our mistakes and our awareness of them are essential for learning (see Neuroscience: Learning in 4 steps). Forbes’ hypothesis is validated by her study*, from which she develops a theoretical model** of how fun and play promote learning. This study also allowed her to make the following five findings:
- is underused and devalued in higher education.
- cultivates relational security and a warm classroom environment.
- removes barriers to learning.
- awakens positive affect and motivation in students.
- triggers an open and engaged learning attitude to enhance learning.
*Study: Forbes Lisa K. The Process of Play in Learning in Higher Education: A Phenomenological Study. Journal of Teaching and LearningVol. 15, No. 1(2021),p.57-73.
**Her theoretical model, The Playful Learning Process Model, can be found on page 71 of this study.
David Thomas, the “Professor of Fun”
David Thomas, Ph.D., is Executive Director of Online Programs at the University of Denver and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Architecture at the University of Colorado, Denver. Before beginning his academic career, he spent nearly 20 years writing about video games for various publications. This experience led him, among other things, to an interest in understanding what makes one game better than another. As a researcher and teacher, he was interested in fun, fun objects —especially architectural ones — and play’s meaning. The man who calls himself “Professor of Fun” also gave hundreds of lectures on the subject and co-authored a book on the aesthetics of play entitled Fun, Taste and Games.
Having approached the subject of play intellectually all these years, meeting Lisa Forbes challenged him to take his knowledge from theory to practice. So, in creating Professors at Play, Forbes and Thomas set out to find ways to make learning more effective by making it more fun.
The different forms of play in higher education
Play is a multi-layered phenomenon, according to Lisa Forbes. When integrated into higher education, it can range from small to large initiatives and thus serve to teach a specific concept or even the entire content of a course, or it can be unrelated to the content and aim to lighten the atmosphere and foster interpersonal connections.
In either case, play can significantly impact the learning process, as Forbes found in her study (2021), where participants reported that the light-heartedness of the unrelated activities reduced their stress and helped them be more focused and better able to tackle complex material. The University of Colorado professor begins almost every class with such an activity — often called an “icebreaker,” but she prefers to call it a “connection builder” because that’s what these activities do. In the realm of great initiatives, Forbes gives the example of a law professor who, at the Professors at Play symposium, shared how he teaches his entire course as a game: students are asked to read Jurassic Park and then come up with laws and strategies to protect that kind of park.
If the teacher has developed a strong relationship with their students, the techniques and tools they use should be much more effective.
First and foremost, the attitude and the fun approach
Play transcends tools and technique and is embodied first and foremost in the attitude and approach of the teacher. One of its effects is to reduce the hierarchical distance between the teacher and the students. According to David Thomas, teachers who have a natural capacity for fun — which he sees as a form of play in itself — are more likely to engage students and are the ones with whom students connect the most.
Drawing a parallel with the field of counselling, Lisa Forbes points out that studies converge in saying that the determining factor in the effectiveness of therapy, regardless of the technique used, is the strength of the relationship. It is very likely, she says, that the same is true of the teacher relationship. In other words, if the teacher has developed a strong relationship with their students, the techniques and tools they use should be much more effective. In addition, students are also more willing to receive feedback from a teacher with whom they have a strong relationship, which is an essential factor in improving learning.
And be careful not to separate technique from attitude, Thomas warns, as fun can be perceived as “forced”; for example, offering students a game but teaching them the rest of the course in a stressful way. Without a consistent attitude on the part of the teacher, a game alone will not sustain the spirit of fun in a classroom.
More than a “drop of delight”: a fundamental human characteristic
Lisa Forbes has devised two models to explain how play enhances learning: an initial theoretical model preceding her research and a more complex model derived from her research findings that helps to understand how all these factors connect. What David Thomas particularly likes about these two models is that they move us away from the idea that play is just a little drop of delight that can be added to an otherwise painful process. Instead, these models highlight that play is a healing practice that does good, that it is how human beings connect with each other, bond, and that through these bonds of community, they are more likely to take risks, explore, reflect and engage. Play is a human characteristic, an intrinsic motivation, and Thomas points out that his colleague’s work has exposed this kind of psychological language.
Recent studies have concluded that lecturing, which has been practised for over 500 years, is not the most effective teaching approach available. Forbes says it is unwise to continue century-old practices just because that is the way it has always been done…
Overcoming resistance and prejudice to play
Being taken more seriously: this is undoubtedly the biggest challenge facing those in higher education who believe in the potential of play and want to do things differently. This is because the higher education sector is rooted in a tradition that is not very changeable, where hierarchy, seriousness and conformity still carry a lot of weight. Before creating Professors at Play and realizing that there are teachers everywhere who, like her, want to see a play-based pedagogy in universities, Lisa Forbes felt unsupported in her approach. The reason universities have difficulty adapting to more fun and engaging styles, she says, is that they have been entrenched for generations in one way of doing things —lecturing — and it’s simply easier to maintain the status quo than to break out of it.
Yet recent studies have concluded that lecturing, which has been practised for over 500 years, is not the most effective teaching approach. Forbes says it is unwise to continue century-old practices because that is the way it has always been done when things have changed, and students are even taught to adapt to change. Moreover, because creativity is not valued in the academic world, it takes a lot of energy to rethink teaching and courage to move beyond skepticism and criticism, as play is often seen as a waste of time or incompatible with the serious nature of the subjects on the curriculum. The prospect of play in a university course can also be unsettling for some students, which Forbes says could be because students have also long been conditioned to a particular way of doing things (listening to the teacher, having the concepts presented, and notes taken in such a way, etc.) or because some are only interested in taking their notes, doing their exams, and then leaving… but generally, according to her observations, this reluctance falls away when they get a taste of a course where play and fun have their place.
David Thomas admits that it was only recently, when he saw the work of his colleague and the members of Professors at Play and saw their students come alive through play, that he realized how much play matters — something he has thought about a lot in his career — and that it can have a significant impact on teaching and learning. Reading the positive feedback from his students after his first attempts at more playful pedagogy, Thomas also realized that he had not been “brave” enough to take this route in the past. In this sense, he is in a good position to say that those inhibitions that prevent many of us from taking ourselves less seriously are even more present among university professors. In addition to shyness, fear of ridicule or fear of not being good, there is the idea that they must project the image of “masters of their field,” a posture that leaves little room to breathe, according to Thomas.
In videoconferencing mode, you can no longer cultivate the impression of being a “good teacher” as easily as you can in the classroom, based on the fact that more than half the class is watching you. As some of the students close their cameras during the lesson, the teacher is confronted with seeing the “absence” that has always existed in the classroom.
COVID-19 pandemic: accelerating change
Professors at Play was born during the COVID-19 pandemic when teachers worldwide were forced to shift to online teaching. For many, this shift meant transferring their face-to-face lectures to video conferencing, which could only end up eating away at motivation and commitment. Of course, this does not include those who already had state-of-the-art online training in place before the pandemic. According to the founders of Professors at Play, who have seen their ranks grow, this is likely to increase interest in more fun teaching approaches and tools, including in higher education.
In the wake of this shift, several factors may have encouraged teachers to try new approaches. David Thomas mentions that in videoconferencing mode, one can no longer cultivate the impression of being a “good teacher” as easily as in face-to-face mode, based on the fact that more than half the class is watching. As some of the students close their cameras during the lesson, the teacher is confronted with seeing the ‘absence’ that has always existed in the classroom. Another factor that may have encouraged teachers to think outside the box was the feeling that they had nothing to lose by trying some playful ideas while “stuck” in that little Zoom box. Finally, to adapt their content to the synchronous and asynchronous online mode, several teachers had to redesign almost their entire course, which was an opportunity to do things differently.
Higher education at a crossroads?
Where is higher education going? Like most observers, the founders of Professors at Play agree that it will be more digital. For David Thomas, the era of the closed classroom and the professor in the role of the expert in front of their students is coming to an end. While students have, in a sense, been empowered during the digital shift accelerated by the pandemic, they need a teacher who helps them play with concepts and teaches them how to think. Lisa Forbes, a skeptic, believes that the world of higher education in ten years will be much the same as it is today in terms of hierarchy, status quo and what it means to be a member of a university department. While her colleague also doubts that higher education is ready to adapt to the significant changes, both technological and sociological, that are in the air at the moment, he is nevertheless hopeful that the necessary changes will occur and, who knows, perhaps in unexpected ways.
Specifically, Thomas believes that parts of the university will die fighting for the old way of doing things, but that since the pandemic, higher education is already different, although they don’t realize it yet. He cites as an example what has happened to the renowned School of Music at their university. Well, they found a way for their opera singers to practice online with opera singers from the MET in New York, who were free because of the lockdown. As Thomas points out, these music educators may be eager to get back into the studio and work with people in person, but they are also likely to be eager to repeat this kind of online experience. He welcomes such initiatives, which were unthinkable before the pandemic. For him, we have entered “the future,” and he maintains that play is an integral part of it.
The web now offers several tools that can be used for playful pedagogy, but the most important thing is not so much the range or sophistication of the tools available as the idea of using them creatively to enable meaningful interactions.
Playful teaching online: challenges and strengths
David Thomas and Lisa Forbes are far from claiming to be above the upheaval of the digital shift. On the contrary, they are aware that this new form of education is being “invented” and that they are simply among those who are committed to breaking new ground. Nevertheless, both academics strongly believe that a more playful pedagogy is needed in higher education, especially when it is online, where the computer screen makes interpersonal connections more difficult. Although Forbes is not sure that online interpersonal connections are as strongly stimulated by play as in face-to-face mode, as observed in her research, play is still a preferred means of both reducing the barrier of the computer screen to interaction and enhancing both the learning and teaching experiences.
Online learning has its challenges, but it also has the potential to make teaching more fun. Whereas face-to-face teaching confined her to the walls of her classroom and the university’s perimeter, Forbes notes that online teaching gives her access to the physical environment of each of her students, who can stand up, move around and fetch things for the course. In addition, in the face-to-face setting, she could not assume that all her students would have their laptops in class, which prevented her from planning activities on the web, whereas she can in the online mode. The web now offers many tools that can be used to benefit playful pedagogy, but what is most important is not so much the range or sophistication of the tools available as the idea of using them creatively to enable meaningful interactions.
For example, the University of Colorado professor uses the Zoom platform primarily for the quality of interaction it offers, including posting links in the chatbox that take participants to different cyberspaces, which prevents students from doing the same thing for too long. The platform also allows her to use Google Docs, Flipgrid and Google Forms, where she creates escape rooms in which her students are challenged in small groups. Forbes had no idea of these possibilities before the pandemic… And these are just a few examples; the most important is to try things and see what works.
For his part, David Thomas particularly likes the Zoom feature of creating breakout rooms, where he sends his students out in groups and gives them an unusual objective, such as finding something they agree they don’t like; one of his groups came back to him saying “None of us like tomatoes!” Unlike a discussion on an agreed theme — for example, favourite holiday spots — this game triggers, in Thomas’ experience, unusual conversations that humanize people. Finally, various well-known games can be integrated into the online mode, from icebreakers to quizzes to full class simulations.
The important thing, for Forbes, is to take small steps and respect your comfort level with the play because it’s true that it can become intimidating and oppressive if you set the bar too high.
Adopting the game in your own way
Before integrating play into teaching, Forbes recommends taking time to reflect on the “narratives” of higher education — deconstructing dominant narratives that have persisted for generations, looking at what it means to you to be a faculty member, identifying the status quo you maintain, how it works, and what you can change. It was through this exercise that Forbes realized that traditional teaching was not working for her, that she needed to create her own narrative and adopt an approach that was more aligned with who she is as a human being — one that was freer, more fun and in which she took herself less seriously.
Once you’ve done that analysis and decided where you want to go, Forbes advises defining what play in the classroom means to you. Then, she says, it’s essential to take small steps and respect your comfort level with play because it’s true that it can become intimidating and oppressive if you set the bar too high. Just because it’s about play doesn’t mean that introducing it into a classroom is necessarily easy or natural. She admits that she was very nervous when she first tried it and confirms that it always takes a certain amount of courage. For her, play in teaching is a continuum that goes “from not doing it at all to going too far”… You can start with an icebreaker activity and then see what it does before trying another initiative.
David Thomas recommends seeking out a colleague, whether or not from your discipline, who can support you in this. He also advises us to dare, to overcome our shyness, to get out of our comfort zone. In this regard, he points out that it can be double challenging to get out of this comfort zone since, in a sense, teachers have already become accustomed to it once they move to an online mode. To break out of his complacency, he gives this little exercise: every day, before you go to class, whether it’s video conferencing or face-to-face, pick a word at random out of the dictionary and find a way to incorporate it into your lesson. Do it for yourself! If you’re feeling a little braver, you can share the challenge you’ve set yourself with your students and ask them to find the word!
Since playing requires a certain amount of creativity, one might wonder where to find inspiration. While the founders of Professors at play read books and articles that can guide them, “the” book on integrating play into teaching does not yet exist, so they are trying to collect the big and small ideas of their members in a book to be published soon. For Lisa Forbes, her greatest inspiration is the Professors at Play community, which has made her realize that she and David Thomas are not alone, that there are pockets of teachers everywhere who have been integrating play into their practice for a long time, and that every encounter with them has fuelled her conviction in her approach.
Now it’s up to you, teachers, to play!