Emergent and Progressive Play in Music Education: Ideas into Practice

Some time ago, I completed an online course known as Understanding Video Games where I was acquainted with a Roger Caillois‘ definition of ‘play’ and ‘game.’ ‘Playing’ referred to activity that is unstructured, improvisatory and free. Conversely, ‘gaming’ referred to activity that was goal-orientated, containing rules and structured. Kicking a soccer ball around is an example of play, whilst playing a game of soccer with an umpire, teams, win-states and goals is an example of game. Caillious situates these two terms on a continuum, with playing at one end of the pole, and game being at the opposite end. He argues that all human activity exists somewhere on this continuum.

Play ——————————————————– Game

In the realm of video games, this continuum exists. On the one end of the continuum there is are ‘emergent games,’ sandbox games like Minecraft and The Sims are an example of games that sit closer to the ‘play’ or ‘emergent’ end of the continuum. On the other end of the continuum, there are ‘progressive’ games – games that have win-states, narratives and rules. Games belonging to the Adventure game genre, or even simple casual games such as Nancy Drew and Angry Birds are examples of games that lean more towards the ‘game’ or ‘progressive’ end of the continuum.

Emergent Play ————————————————— Progressive Play

They say that well designed video games give the player a good balance between choice (emergence) and structure (progression). Grand Theft Auto and Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) such as World of Warcraft sit somewhere in the middle of this continuum, and they have been highly praised for the fact that they give players a choice on how they might play the game. For example, in the game Grand Theft Auto, players may choose to complete the various quests, or they may choose to freely explore the town on their own.

Where am I going with this? I wondered where on earth piano lessons and the whole school education sit on this continuum.

Right now, I am enjoying my Masters experience. I must confess though, prior to this, in my school education (and even my undergraduate experience), I didn’t enjoy learning a great deal. Why? I was stressed out and there were always deadlines – things that I had to do out of compulsion. There was never enough choice. On average, I read something like 30-40 journal articles in a single year when I was completing my first degree. I simply just rocked up to satisfy the course requirements. The situation is very different now. This year, I have read 200 journal articles and book chapters, as well as 20 books. I have also participated in a high number of non-credited courses and I have lectures as well as symposiums/conferences.

I have done these things willingly, out of true desire and love.

When learning is too structured it is stressful. It is not that very different to being micro-managed. People should be allowed to ‘play.’ Students ought to be given opportunities to explore, to improvise and to do things freely without clearly defined ‘goals.’ Often, in these exploratory states, people become curious and creative. When we are bored, we want to challenge ourselves. The problem with school is we ram too many ‘challenges’ down students’ throats and expect them comply.

All my students are different. Some play other instruments, others like to compose, and some enjoy music theory. Rather than have all of them go through the stringent exam board system, why not set up quests for them? Allow the student to choose whatever activity that they want to do. Allow them to freely explore things, and support this exploration whilst setting up structure as needed. That way learning is not stressful and it is enjoyable.

My supervisor is a huge advocate for project-based learning, and I keep thinking that project-based learning, when used effectively, can be paired up very nicely with gamification – more on that in the next post!

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