As part of the Cognitive Education programme at Roedean School, I was given a slot in the time-table at the end of last year to run an alternate reality game which would help us consolidate our Habits Of Mind programme, and highlight Thinking Skills within the school. The game itself was designed to foreground the importance of cognitive education, and hopefully to give students a chance to use thinking skills and strategies they have been learning within an open-ended, extra-curricular context.
The game I designed was set up to work largely without a puppet-master (in alternate reality game parlance the pm is the games master, controlling what happens next). It consisted of a series of clues, puzzles to be solved, leading to a solution which would save the planet. At each stage solving one puzzle led on to a new challenge, taking the player deeper into the game and towards a solution.
In the framing story we gathered all our grade 8 students together in The Realm, a multi-media room able to accommodate an entire grade, and told them that we would be engaging in a morning’s collaborative exchange with a school in England around Habits Of Mind. When we logged on to the computers, however, and accessed the website of the school we were collaborating with it became clear that there was something wrong. The (hoax) website of this fictitious school had a scrolling message on it and a computerised voice suggesting that the school had been taken over by aliens and urging us to “join the resistance”. By cracking a code, students were able to access a hidden page which contained a diarised narrative of a series of events detailing the crashing of a meteor on the school property, the strange behaviour of a number of staff and students, the discovery that aliens had landed and were controlling the others as zombies, that some (the Habits Of Mind class) appeared mentally resilient enough to resist. By accessing links to the Habits of Mind Blog of the teacher leading the resistance, more clues emerged – an easter egg needed to be found on the school website, another code cracked and eventually, following clues the trail led to a letter purportedly written in 1908 which was on display in the Realm as part of a school history presentation. This letter fleshed out details of an earlier, and similar attempt by aliens to take over the world, and gave vital clues as to how to combat the present attack.
All the characters and places were fictitious and involved a fake website, fake class blog and Facebook page. Staff helping run the session had been deliberately left in the dark so that they did not inadvertently give students clues. My own role was to look puzzled – something I think I managed quite well.
Feedback from students revealed that some were demotivated by the withheld scaffolding. they were not sure what they had to do, and did not enjoy this feeling. the task simply became too much.
“Our group found this task horrible. It had no excitement, it did not make sense, it was pointless and we did not learn anything from it. The teachers did not help us and we felt as though they just threw us in the deep and just wanted something to fill the day. The task dragged and we had no motivation to continue. It was too complicated to understand and unrealistic.”
This reaction was quite natural given normal schooling practice, and was expected. What I had not expected, I suppose naively, was the reaction of some staff, who felt the whole thing had been an unmitigated disaster. I heard the next day that they had gone running to the headmistress to complain that it had been too unstructured, too difficult, and without educational value. Luckily I was backed up by my Head Of Department, and luckily the headmistress had paid us a visit and been able to see the levels of engagement in the room.
While some girls were undoubtedly demotivated, others were thoroughly engaged and relished the difference between this and normal structured school activities.
“We found this task hard at first as we were confused about what was expected of us and where to find all the sites and information, but we enjoyed it more as we went along and all pitched in and tried to come up with solutions together. We also enjoyed cracking the codes as it was very fun, and we worked together well.“
The majority seemed to find the task engaging, but also difficult and therefore frustrating.
“We really enjoyed decoding the message as we had to think and plan well, although this was tiring, it did give us a sense of achievement. We found this task hard at times as we thought we would need more clues and it was frustrating at times.”
This, to my mind, indicates that the exercise was a success – that it was pitched at just about the right level. A critical thinking task which did not challenge and frustrate was the worst case scenario for me. I wanted the girls too grapple with the task, to get frustrated, and to feel the elation of solving genuinely hard problems.
In the room, girls were animated and engaged for most of a morning session between 7:30 and 1pm: few were off task, there were simply too many clues to puzzle out. They tended to form naturally into groups, but slipped into competitive modes, often sitting on portions of the challenge they had solved. They used a variety of technological solutions, cell-phones, iPads and the computers in the centre to crack the codes.
One unforeseen boon was the wealth of associations thrown up by the clues as red-herrings. I had planned a few red-herrings to use if students were solving the tasks too quickly, but as it turned out there were so many unintended cross-references between the clues that students added to their own bafflement quite successfully! We ended the session with a presentation by each group on what habits of mind they had used to solve the mystery, and some feedback. This provided a sense of closure and an opportunity to situate the game back into the classroom environment.
This was my first attempt at creating an Alternate Reality Game in the classroom and, although I have a great deal of experience using Role Play Games, it was different. Many things happened serendipitously that had not occurred to me, and I suppose my main advice for anyone else wishing to try something similar would be to make sure that the clues are rich in cultural associations as this throws up its own richness. the way things worked out made the whole thing seem far more planned than it actually was, simply because I had not over-thought it too much. In many ways you have to trust more, and not be afraid just to jump into it.