The Origins of This Work
During the late 1960s, I was in an unusual network of people working to reform higher education and to find new approaches to learning. We were the national infrastructure of a movement hardly recognized then and less remembered since – the movement for student-initiated change in higher education in the U.S. This awkward name was precise: the initiatives for change came from students, rather than administrators or faculty; and the changes sought were all of sorts which put students at the center of the action, as key participants in determining curricula, educational and evaluative processes, resources, administrative and governmental procedures, and so on. (A more precise name would replace “student” by “learner” in this description; the philosophical and practical differences are significant.) Our movement was little-known as such, among others of the time – anti-war, countercultural, affirmative action, feminist, racial/ethnic and sexual liberation – because its actions and confrontations were rarely as dramatic or dramatically-punished. Even so, at its height it involved about one-tenth of the student population on American campuses, and made major contributions to many of the better kinds of change that came about in higher education during and following that era.
This movement’s network of leadership involved perhaps a hundred of us, almost all in our twenties, scattered around America. For five years we published in ad-hoc journals, exchanged unpublished manuscripts, and came together on campuses and at conferences to lead seminars, workshops, and more varied learning experiences. We formed a kind of floating college, a small, autonomous school of education which functioned as an experimental laboratory, testing our understandings and inventions on ourselves first and then in public.
Sometimes we were concerned with specific subjects of learning, such as ecology or suicide-prevention. More often, we were trying to help people learn how to change their educational institutions, create new ones, or pursue other kinds of social change. Always, we focused as much on the learners themselves as on their subject. Slowly we developed a common body of skills, tools, and lore which could be broadly applied.
One set of our tools we called “learning-games.” We picked them up from people working in theater and in humanistic psychology (where they were usually referred to as “activities” or “exercises”); or adapted them from books; or, increasingly, invented them ourselves. These learning-games gave us new ways to learn about old problems and to deal with ongoing and new problems. They were fun and they were useful, they generated energy and new insights. Some of us thought they were more, thought that learning-games together with our other lore amounted to the core of a new pedagogy, more integral and powerful and flexible than the pedagogy of lecture, discussion and reading with which we had grown up. It may be so; but the shifts of American political climate and student-derived funding disabled our floating college in 1970, and we lost the chance to find out, save in scattered personal exploration thereafter. Perhaps some bits and pieces of our work were reincarnated in what came to be called, very loosely, “experiential learning.”
This small book tries to salvage and pass on some of what we learned about these games. Even as a scrapbook of specific tools, it should be of interest to teachers and students at any level of schooling, and indeed to anyone concerned with bringing groups of people together to learn outside of schools – for many of the tools are useful for any type of group that tries to study and improve its own functioning. But though we assembled these games piecemeal and used them that way at first, for us they were more than just a bag of tricks. With practice, we began to understand their principles well enough to create new games to apply to new situations. We learned how to combine them in sequences, and how to orchestrate them together with more orthodox educational forms in extended, well-integrated learning experiences that ran for days or weeks.
How much of this can be passed on through a book? As for the individual games, we began playing them with much less knowledge than is offered here. Perhaps that was a blessing, for it left us mainly with a spirit of experiment and play to go on. Without using it in that spirit, this book is a set of dead recipes. But assuming this, I will try to describe the games we played, the contexts and ways in which we found them useful, some of the experiences they generated, and what we learned about how to run them. To this I will add some speculation about why they work, some examples of how we went about inventing them and combining them into sequences, and some notes on the overall design and orchestration of group learning experiences.
This is very much a working notebook, by turns chatty and dryly technical – not a formal treatise but a mild kind of legacy, from a group of people who enjoyed playing these games and enjoyed learning from them. I hope it will find other groups already involved with such tools, or able to take what we did as their own and extend it. Though you can easily learn to lead many of these games alone, for us it was always more fun and more effective to work with others in designing and running them, and it is hard to study their powers alone. I hope you will find these games, as we did, to be not authoritative recipes but open forms for experiment. Our customary forms of education are so constipated that a little play can scarcely fail to be useful.