What Portal can teach us about teaching
Madeline is currently a history and library science student at the University of Maryland, College Park; was formerly a sixth-grade teacher in California, and has always been a proud and nerdy Seattleite/Oregonian.
Portal, the popular FPS/puzzle game that has been the source of too many meme phrases since 2007, has a more serious side than we knew. For teacher-librarians, or anyone else who has ever had to teach anyone anything, Portal is an excellent example of good instruction methods. Nicholas Schiller made this argument in a 2008 Reference Services Review article called “A Portal to Student Learning”, and it’s a very interesting argument for anyone interested in gaming or teaching.
Librarians (especially academic librarians) are teachers, but we are often not trained as teachers. Therefore, when we must design lesson plans and work on lesson goals, it is often hard to get a handle on some of the trickier teaching concepts. Fortunately, Portal is an excellent teacher and can help teacher-librarians understand tricky concepts in a concrete way.
(I’m not going to describe how Portal works because if you haven’t played it, you really should. It costs $10 on Steam, goes on sale twice a year, and might change your life. Also, if you are interested in the whole idea of video games as teachers, please read James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. It’s fantastic.)
Portal is a good example of two specific teaching practices: scaffolding and assessment.
Scaffolding instruction means to provide plenty of support as students are learning and then remove the support as they begin to master concepts and skills. The first room in Portal is empty except for a cube, a button, and a door, so it’s not too tricky to put those things together and beat the puzzle. Each new room you enter adds a new element- the portals, the portal gun, the sad turrets, the toxic slime. You learn about each element in a structured way and then have to apply in more complicated puzzles. A simple technique you learn for passing from portal to portal gets more complex when you have to chain portals or open new ones while soaring through the air.
Assessment means to test how well students have learned a concept. In Portal, game developers paired assessment with a concept they called “gating”; the doors on the rooms of the puzzles were gates that players could not pass beyond if they had not mastered the concepts of the last puzzle. For me, these two examples from Portal explain the concepts of scaffolding and assessment far more clearly than a technical definition in a teaching textbook. Because I have played Portal, I know how the scaffolding and gating feel.
So how could we apply scaffolding and gating to teaching?
In an information literacy instruction session it can be tempting to try and teach multiple skills at once. For example, we might try and teach advanced research skills using Boolean logic at the same time as we teach the basic interface of the discovery layer. This is probably not a well-scaffolded lesson; it’s not something that Portal would do.
In Portal we would first learn the basics with lots of support and then learn how to apply them.
In an information literacy session we would first learn how to use the interface, then learn how to use it to do serious research.
The same idea works for assessment and gating. The gating concept essentially says that there should be a check after every new lesson is taught. The game assesses how well you know the important skills by not letting you move on until you’ve mastered them. In the previous example, the teacher-librarian could make everyone find a simple item in the discovery layer to prove that they knew how to use the interface before moving on to new skills. This would be Portal-like “gating” in action.
Portal is a popular game partly because it is very good at teaching people how to play it. If you were thrown into the final levels without all the build-up and scaffolding, the game would be confusing, frustrating, and probably only really popular among a niche group of masochists. But because the game slowly introduces each new concept and makes sure you understand it before moving on, you feel successful at each step and more enthusiastic about learning what’s next. As teachers, we should try to give the same experience to our students.
When planning lessons we should always ask “what would Portal do?”
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