By: Noah Schwartz
Children learn through play. As we grow into adulthood and are socialized through the school system, however, play becomes a smaller and smaller part of our educational training regime. In recent years, scholarship has continued to demonstrate that traditional styles of teaching, which emphasize lecturing and see students as passive vessels to be filled with knowledge, are ineffective and outmoded (Tagg & Barr, 1995; Folley, 2010). As I can attest to through personal experience, students with learning difficulties are especially affected by such approaches. Despite this, the use of alternative methods like Live Action Role-Play (LARP) in the classroom is rare. This short article will argue that LARP is an effective teaching method because it creates a more inclusive learning environment by accommodating different learning styles as well as students with learning disabilities and social difficulties.
But what is LARP, and what does it have to do with education? LARP emerged in the 1970s as a cross between an improvisational drama and a tabletop role-playing game, such as Dungeons and Dragons. During a LARP, players take on the role of a character in a scenario that is either real/historical or fictional (Stark, 2012). While older LARPs were mostly fantasy based, the hobby has grown exponentially since then, with LARPs taking place all over the planet and covering innumerable genres and periods. The passion that LARP inspires in its participants has triggered a movement in education. In recent years, teachers and scholars in Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, and the United States have begun experimenting with incorporating Educational LARP (edu-LARP) into the classroom with promising results (Peterson & Vanek, 2016).
The Østerskov Efterskole in Denmark was the first role-playing-based school in the world, and has been at the forefront of this movement. Founded in 2006 by Mads Lunau and Malik Hyltloft, the school organizes its curriculum around “narrative units” or themes (Hyltoft, 2008). Each week follows a different theme (e.g., a murder mystery or World War II), and the lessons are then integrated around it. For example, during the murder mystery week, students played the role of detectives solving a case. The body of the victim was dissolved in acid, so they learned about acids and bases from their chemistry teacher, who played the role of a CSI scientist. Other lessons were integrated into this theme: “the physics teacher was a ballistics expert and the history teacher lent insight into the symbols left by the killer at the scene of the crime” (Peterson & Vanek, 2016). The written component of the course, which was ultimately assessed, was the case file that students put together.
While this methodology may seem strange, it generally produces highly positive results. The headmasters of the school found that students were more motivated, engaged, and excited about the learning process. Equally importantly, their test scores were the same as pupils at others schools. While it may seem disencouraging to some that this methodology does not foster higher test scores, Peterson and Vanek acknowledge that LARP is ill suited for preparing students for standardized tests. That being said, evidence does suggest that using edu-LARP greatly increases students’ engagement with the material, their passion for learning, and their ability to discuss and present complex materials to their peers, all of which are important for long-term academic success (Peterson & Vanek, 2016; Mochocki, 2013; Bowman & Standiford, 2015).
The results were especially positive for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and for students with social difficulties, mental disabilities, and learning disabilities (such students make up 30% of students at Østerskov Efterskole, higher than the Danish national average [Hyltoft, 2008]). These results demonstrate the power of edu-LARP to foster inclusion in the classroom.
These findings are consistent with research on more similar, well-established techniques, like edu-drama, which has been shown to help students to learn more effectively, to increase their intellectual curiosity and self-image, and to improve their view of schooling (Mochocki, 2013).
While the majority of studies on the effectiveness of edu-LARP are qualitative, Bowman and Standiford present one of the few quantitative analyses. They studied economically disadvantaged students at a charter school in Los Angeles and found that introducing edu-LARP into their science class increased their “overall intrinsic motivation,” their “interest/enjoyment in science,” and their “perceived competence in science” (Bowman & Standiford, 2015). During the project’s debrief, students “discussed how acting out the concepts in science worked to increase their comprehension of material” (Bowman & Standiford, 2015).
The effectiveness of edu-LARP is also consistent with some of the most cutting-edge educational theory, like Kolb’s theory of experiential learning. Positing that the rise of rationalism and behaviorism have divorced students from the holistic experiential elements of learning, Kolb argues that students learn best when they have the chance to attain their knowledge through experience, and then reflect and theorize based on that experience. Learning is thus an active process rather than a passive one (Kolb, 2014). Edu-LARP is an exemplary form of experiential learning, since it allows students to experience the subject that they are studying in a way that is relevant and engaging to them.
While this research is promising, the overwhelming majority of it concerns students from elementary to high school. The challenge for TAs is to apply these techniques to the university setting, given our limited time with the students, lack of resources, and requirements imposed by the course curriculum. Educators who have used the technique have noted that it is quite demanding to implement, and that it can be challenging to integrate into traditional curricula that focus more on reading, writing, and the acquisition of “encyclopedic knowledge” (Mochocki, 2013, p. 59).
That being said, with the community of edu-LARP instructors growing, more and more organizations are emerging to support those who are interested (e.g., Educade, Nordiclarp, Seekers Unlimited, Solmukohta, and others). The literature on the topics also full of useful tips and tricks for educators. These scholars stress the importance of having a clear learning plan that sets out specific knowledge or skills that students will learn and measures outcomes (Mochocki, 2013). To be successful, edu-LARPs must be designed rigorously. Instructors need a clear learning plan, with the knowledge they want their students to learn defined from the beginning. While much of LARP is improvisational, a central narrative designed by the instructor is also crucial. Briefing and debriefing participants is also key in order to reinforce the learning goals and provide context for the exercise (Peterson & Vanek, 2016; Bowman & Standiford, 2015).
While the research on the use of LARP in education is still emerging, initial results are positive. While replacing traditional curriculums at universities with edu-LARP-based approaches might be too difficult, the approach can nevertheless provide TAs with a powerful educational tool to help students better grasp material, think critically, and engage positively with what they are learning. Most of all, edu-LARP can help engage students from a variety of learning styles and so address the needs of the increasingly diverse student body that we teach today.
As someone who takes parts in LARPs recreationally, I have seen firsthand the passion and devotion that the medium can inspire in people, and the level of dedication and hard work that people will put into something that they enjoy doing. Why should we not strive to create the same passion and dedication in our students?
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