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In the recent series of Across the Red Line on Radio 4, I introduced a” game” to the participants of a political debate.  The defining factor of the game was changing the rules by which the “players” to the debate generally operate, and specifically changing the “rules” associated with normal debates.  In normal debates, the aim is to win the argument.  In this game, the emphasis was to listen deeply and ask open questions.  So, the rules of the game became to listen to hear rather than to respond and, crucially, win.  The game was framed principally as a learning exercise that allowed the participants to explore different ways of listening and questioning.

The increased introduction of dynamic methods of teaching and learning as well as online training has allowed us to explore the effects and impact of non-conventional learning.  The mere introduction of the idea of a game into learning requires the learner to engage with that learning experience differently.  Predominantly this is because the gamification of learning introduces, by its very nature, an element of play.  It creates opportunities to enjoy and feel happy in learning and an environment in which mistakes and even losing are celebrated as inevitable.  This combination allows an environment to exist in which norms can be disrupted.  It also enables change to happen in a way that is welcomed and embraced as opposed to resisted and feared.

The power of “Play”
Any game requires us to consider the idea of “playing”.  As adults, we can find this idea tricky or simply trivial in a work setting.  However, play can be key to embedding skills into our psyche in a way that normal auditory or even visual learning does not.

It has long been acknowledged that play is an important part of a child’s learning.  Play England puts it to us in an interesting way in their Charter for Children’s Play which describes play as “what children and young people do when they follow their own ideas and interests, in their own way and for their own reasons” or “what children and young people do when they are not being told what to do by adults”

If we are honest, as adults, we do not always respond well to being told what to do.  As Winston Churchill put it: “Personally I’m always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught”.  As adults we do not differ greatly from our younger selves in that we also want the opportunity to be stimulated to follow our “own ideas and interests, in our own way and for our own reasons”.  In other words, learning through an element of play allows us take ownership of new ideas and ways of working or behaving and ignites our curiosity.  The power of this is that it takes away the parent-child dynamic described by Eric Berne in The Games People Play and that can surface in classroom learning.  We cease to feel patronised or even stupid which in turn dissolves any resistance in the trainer / trainee dynamic.  Instead the learner feels valued for their own experience which they bring to the table.  So, the learning experience feels much more dynamic and is significantly more empowering.

When we feel better, we learn better
In the Neuroscience of Joyful Education, Judy Willis explains that “many education theorists (Dulay & Burt, 1977; Krashen, 1982) have proposed that students retain what they learn when the learning is associated with strong positive emotion”.  This is key when it comes to training skills to engender behavioural change so that what is learned in the classroom is referred to and implemented in the workplace as opposed to forgotten as a nice day out of the office.

Research by Dorothy Lucardie identifies that there are a number of elements that contribute to the fun and enjoyment experienced in adult learning.,  They include, the process the teacher establishes, the interaction with others, humour, achievement, how they felt and significantly the impact of fun and enjoyment which both served to motivate and to concentrate which has an enormous impact on engagement and retention of concepts and ideas.  She also identified that having fun and enjoying the process had an impact on the learning community.  This is again particularly significant in terms of embedding skills.  The idea that by adopting a certain mindset or using a common set of skills brings individuals in community with others is particularly compelling in terms of employee engagement.

Celebrating the mistakes
Most of us accept that in a game such as tennis, golf or even monopoly, we are likely to win or lose.  This does not stop us playing the game but can instead increase the motivation to compete and do our best.  We are often happy to chuckle at ourselves in the process and less inclined to take ourselves too seriously. 

In a work environment, we are often less willing to lose or be seen to be making mistakes as it can make us look weak or vulnerable.  However, when we can combine learning with the mindset of playing a game, we can explore and practice new ideas and methods more freely.  This openness to play, try and explore will, in turn, be the key factor in mastering those skills and turns our perceived vulnerability into perceived strength.

The Growth Mindset developed by Carol Dweck is that adopted by individuals who believe their talents can be developed.  She distinguishes it from a Fixed Mindset adopted by those who believe their talents are innate gifts.  If you don’t have the gift or you think someone else is more gifted, you are likely to quickly convince yourself to give up or not to try.  Those with a growth mindset worry less about looking clever and they put more energy into learning.  When combining the idea of playing games in learning and development with a Growth Mindset, the capacity to learn something new and work in an environment that requires change and/or innovation can grow exponentially.   

Changing the rules at work
Once we have accepted the concept of Play, we open the opportunity to create and work through change much more easily and effectively than is often experienced.

Modern workplaces are built upon tens and even hundreds of rules.  Not only do we work with grievance and disciplinary processes, data protection and other legal requirements which require compliance on various levels.  We also, both knowingly and unknowingly, enter into explicit and implicit contracts between each other as employees, colleagues and co-workers.  Within the maze of the implicit contracts are behaviours and actions that may or may not be agreed and are often assumed.  It is these non-verbal and non-agreed or implicit contracts that can often be the undoing of many workplaces.

Training in and of itself offers an opportunity to clarify, re-define, challenge and change the rules.  It provides an opportunity to consider what explicit and implicit rules we have in place and, crucially, whether they are useful.  It also provides an opportunity to openly say:

>“We used to do things like this, we are planning to do them differently,

>Here is how we see things working

>What do you think?”. 

By doing this, we work through the misunderstandings and have an opportunity to shine a light on dysfunctional thinking, behaviour or practices.  These often are things that served a purpose in the past but are no longer useful, relevant or healthy.  The lightness of touch that games provide means that there is no need to blame or resent the implementation of old rules and also allow room for new ones.

Which games to play
Understanding audience drivers as well as the outputs required is obviously key to the type of games that are chosen.  The most important element is that players want to engage in the game.  This requires the game to play to the learners’ motivations as well as the learning objectives.  Varying the methods used can help engage audiences with slightly different drivers.  Introducing Progress Mechanics (points/badges/leaderboards) can work with a competitive group but encourages the win/lose or right/wrong linear dynamic.  Player control, particularly in a group training can encourage engagement with and ownership of new methods by putting the player at the centre of the game.  Opportunities for collaborative problem solving can build shared experience and the learning community.  Equally, scaffolded learning with increasing challenges encourages ongoing learning and feeds the aspiration to progress.

The possibilities created by games
The opportunities for learning and development and research available particularly in the field of neuroscience makes the potential to create impactful learning limitless.  Using this knowledge, gamification of training can engage the learner both in the training materials but also the development of those materials and concepts.  This increases the relevance of learning and development provided and enables it to be extremely dynamic.  It also creates ownership of concepts and practices learnt by the learner in quite a fundamental way.  This has an enormous potential impact on developing creativity, engagement and resilience in organisations.  However, it is rooted in long standing truths best summarised by Benjamin Franklin

“Tell me and I forget, Teach me and I remember, Involve me and I learn.”

Louisa Weinstein –
Author of The 7 Principles of Conflict Resolution & Mediator & Trainer at The Conflict Resolution Centre

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