This morning at Starbucks, I overheard a guy sitting next to me painfully attempting to explain the rules of a card game to his poor confused girlfriend. His questionable word choice, misguided order of explanation, and long-winded detail were almost too hard to listen to. I jokingly thought to myself: How could society let such inefficient people grow up like this? We should have lessons in school where we are trained on how to explain complex games in the simplest way possible.
Then it dawned on me. Explaining the rules of complex games is uncannily similar to the types of executive mental functions used every day by the world’s most successful people. We really should be teaching these skills in school, and games may be a great way to do it.
Game-rule explanations involve such high-level executive functions as summarising, simplifying, choosing appropriate communication tools (verbal vs. visual vs. simulation), determining how to involve the audience in the learning process, and conveying information incrementally (simple stuff first) in a pace carefully tailored to the audience’s comprehension feedback. These are the same skills involved in the following adult activities:
- Writing an effective, concise corporate memo or email
- Making a 30-second TV commercial
- Leading a product design meeting
- Teaching a 60-minute class about photosynthesis
- Pitching your company to investors in an elevator
- Writing clean software code to be used by other developers
- And the list could go on . . . .
I’ll bet that long-winded guy I overheard at Starbucks would probably suck at all of the above activities! Yet what if, when he was in 3rd grade, he’d had a teacher who made a point of having half of her students learn a new card game every week, and then explain it to one of their peers in the other half of the class? With a little guidance and a few dozen rounds of practice teaching people how to play games, he likely would have become a very talented condenser of information. And he would have continued to refine those skills in everything he did over the rest of his educational and professional career.
Conclusion for educators: Although games can sometimes be inefficient for learning, we can make them exponentially more effective for students’ mental development, by simply devising lessons that encourage students to explain the games to each other.