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Professors at Play with Lisa Forbes and David Thomas

Welcome to Episode 67 of the Think UDL podcast: Professors at Play with Lisa Forbes and David Thomas. Lisa Forbes is an Assistant Clinical Professor in the Counseling Program at the University of Colorado, Denver, and David Thomas is the Executive Director for Online Programs at the University of Denver. Together they are the Co-Founders of Professors at Play, a group of Higher Education instructors who incorporate play and playfulness into their teaching and their courses. In today’s episode, I talk with Lisa and David about how we as instructors can infuse play and playfulness into our college courses and what benefits this might bring. This leads us to discuss creating communities of trust and building relationships with students, what skills are learned through play, and how vulnerability, laughter, joy, novelty, anxiety, fear, stress, and feelings of belonging and connection all play out within a course and how these feelings can be mitigated through play. Thank you for playing along at home as you listen to this conversation about engaging students through play!


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Playful Teaching Removes Barriers to Learning


Lillian Nave  00:00

Welcome to think UDL, the universal design for learning podcast where we hear from the people who are designing and implementing strategies with learner variability in mind. I’m your host, Lillian Nave. And I’m interested in not just what you’re teaching, learning, guiding and facilitating, but how you design and implement it and why it even matters. Welcome to Episode 67 of the think UDL podcast, professors at play with Lisa Forbes and David Thomas. Lisa Forbes is an assistant clinical professor in the counseling program at the University of Colorado, Denver. And David Thomas is the executive director for online programs at the University of Denver. Together, they are the co founders of professors at play a group of higher education instructors who incorporate play and playfulness into their teaching and in their courses. In today’s episode, I talk with Lisa and David about how we, as instructors can infuse play and playfulness into our college courses, and what benefits this might bring. This leads us to discuss creating communities of trust, and building relationships with students. What skills are learned through play, and how vulnerability, laughter, joy, novelty, anxiety, fear, stress, and feelings of belonging and connection, all play out within a course, and how these feelings can be mitigated through play. Thank you for playing along at home, as you listen to this conversation about engaging students through play. So I wanted to welcome to the show both David Thomas and Lisa Forbes. And thank you so much for spending the time to talk to me about play, and professors at play and how it relates to Universal Design for Learning. So thank you both for being here today. Our pleasure. And, Lisa, I’m gonna start with you with the same question I asked all of my guests, and that is what makes you a different kind of learner.

Lisa Forbes  02:35

Sure. I’ve actually been thinking about this quite a bit lately. Because I think what makes me a different kinds of learners that I’m a disabled learner, I really struggled a lot to learn from five until Even now I still struggle sometimes. So I think learning never came easy to me. And so I think what makes me a disabled learner also makes me a more effective professor. Because the way that I know I have to learn, I kind of teach in that way. So I would say that makes me a different learners that I it’s just harder for me. So I think I can take my students perspective and make things more engaging and fun. Because in my experience of education, it was all, you know, only certain types of intelligences were considered smart and other types of intelligences are left out on the margins. And so I think I have that perspective and that experience. And so it makes me a different kind of educator as

Lillian Nave  03:40

well. So you’re trying to bring in all of those or at least more of those different kinds of intelligences and and value those in your teachings that where you’re saying,

Lisa Forbes  03:50

yeah, that and I think the approach I take I never learned well being lectured at. I never remembered content by reading textbooks. I never did well on tests. And so I don’t value those things as a professor. And so I think what we’re going to talk about today is play and I think that has been the key to me being an effective professor, because I think not just for disabled learners. I think play is great for anyone, but I think it includes more people than the traditional forms of education.

Lillian Nave  04:20

Yeah. Oh, great. Well, that’s what I love to talk about is learner variability and bringing that really to everyone’s attention that that is who we have in our classrooms are very different kinds of learners. So well, that is a fantastic start, and I’m not going to leave you out. David, what is your answer to that question of what makes you a different kind of learner?

David Thomas  04:42

Well, first of all, I love hearing Lisa’s story because it reminds me that I sometimes forget that I’m a learner. I’ve spent a long career learning the ways and means of higher ed and you know, feel comfortable in it. And when I reflect on what Lisa says, and I think back I think I’ve always been a hyperactive learner. You know, I mean, we love to call it attention deficit disorder. But it’s really been more a very voracious curiosity. So I have trouble sometimes with disciplinary structure. I also think that, you know, in terms of some of the UDL principles, I know that are behind some of these questions. If I don’t understand the how I’m not engaged, I don’t have any mastery of content. And a lot of the didactic approach to learning is, hey, let me get you all excited. And let me give you all this information. And eventually, it will make sense. And so I find, you know, much, much later in life things that at the time seemed irrelevant to me like math, I was only irrelevant to me, because no one told me what it was for. And you know, now that I see what it’s for, I kind of lament that, I don’t know, calculus that well. So I think that Lisa’s, you know, focus on being a disabled learners actually true for all of us. We all have been successful if we’ve reached this point, by overcoming what we were taught, and learning to learn in spite of how things work. It’s a great reminder. And I’ll echo too, I think that play has so much to do with people finding place in learning.

Lillian Nave  06:15

Yeah, well, and making him feel valued. I mean, it seems like in both of those stories, or ideas about you learn how you learn, you’re seeing how you as a person were not reached or valued or what you brought to the table, you had to overcome the fact that it was not valued or wasn’t brought in. And so I i growing up, there wasn’t a lot of play in in learning. And I was taught that that was not really educational, if I could use air quotes on a podcast, right. And that they were other forms or strictures about what really education was. And when I came across professors at play, which is recently because it’s only been formed recently, in the last year or so a little little over that, that, and I, I was just so excited about thinking about how to broaden how we can teach. And I do see a lot of overlap with universal design for learning. So one of the first things I wanted to ask you about is how do you see play in education as a way to motivate students and recruit their interests as they are getting the why of what they’re learning?

David Thomas  07:33

Well, I’d like to tackle part of that first. And then I know Lisa has a lot to say here. We don’t think that play is still got a very prominent role in education, we’re still stuck in the Mary Poppins spoonful of sugar, makes the medicine go down. And we’re like, well, we’re the doctors of knowledge, you know, we want you to just have the medicine and some of us are willing to put some sugar with it. And some of us are like, it’s good for you to suffer. And that’s absolutely not where we see the role of play in education. I mean, you know, sure, play can be an incentive do your work, and then you can play. But we see something really different, which is play introduces a very complex relationship between the student and the professor, and the student and the content and the student and the other students. And that puts everything into play in a way that we desire and learning. But oftentimes, we exclude, simply by saying, This is serious work, we can’t play. And I know that sounds really kind of very conceptual. But the act of playing itself is about negotiating with different circumstances with dealing with different people. It’s about like being your whole body involved in trying to accomplish something. And when you think about it like that, man, that sounds really exciting if you can just do that in education, and what we have discovered, and what others have discovered, and what we’re actually proselytizing for is that, yeah, let’s just do that. Let’s change education from an assembly line model to a play model.

Lisa Forbes  09:04

I think this is one of plays superpowers is getting people interested and motivated. So before becoming an educator I am in was a mental health therapist. And so I would say I’m probably better at that than I am teaching. And so I try and draw a lot of parallels between the two professions. And, you know, as a therapist, I can’t ever expect my clients to trust me right away, I can’t expect them or demand that they’re vulnerable right off the bat and open up to me, I have to earn that I have to develop the relationship. And so I think sometimes I see faculty members in higher education, demanding or expecting that students are interested and motivated and engaged, just coming into the class because they’re paying for this, you know, to take this course, which would be nice, but that’s not going to happen. And so I think we have to earn our students in interest in motivation and engagement in the learning process. And so I think play is the way to do that. I mean, play, if you think about playing any form in our lives, it gets us up and moving and excited and engaged. And so why can’t we do that in education to use the same idea of clay, and how we use it in leisure, and cross set over? And I think I’ve been doing some reading about brain science. And really, the brain is really poorly designed for formal instruction. And so we continue to lecture at students, we continue to, you know, lecture about the textbook reading that they were, they just did, yeah. And students don’t learn that way very well. So why would they be interested and engaged and motivated to learn when it’s boring? So I think about brain science a lot when I’m bringing play into the classroom, because there’s certain neurotransmitters that help the learning process that get keep people activated and engaged and motivated. So if we can create a certain learning experience, that increases those neurotransmitters that are involved in the learning process, people are going to want to learn they’re going to be engaged and excited. So and by the way, all of that environment that creates the best opportunity for those neurotransmitters is play novelty, excitement, joy. laughter. So, I mean, to me, it’s a very obvious thing, but um, for some reason, we shy away from it in higher education.

Lillian Nave  11:36

Yeah, we do. It’s, it is this understanding unspoken understanding that it has to be hard, in order to be worthwhile and hard. You know, this idea of rigor, we hear that a lot. And rigor I have found in my conversations with so many professors who are familiar with and use universal design for learning. Oftentimes, rigor is another word for a barrier, that just makes it hard for students to learn that students have to despite it, have to get over it. And we’ve turned that into how we think education is supposed to work. And somehow we continue to believe that in in many, many cases, and it’s not, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Lisa Forbes  12:28

Right. And I think that’s a misconception of play is that it’s not rigorous it is. And I know David, and I disagree on this a little bit, but I believe play sometimes isn’t fun. And learning, sometimes it’s hard. And sometimes it pushes my students outside their comfort zones, which is not easy, that’s rigorous. It’s just a different kind. I’m not lecturing at them, these difficult concepts that, you know, make their head spin, but it’s rigorous in a way that I’m pushing them beyond their boundaries currently to stretch them so they can learn and grow.

Lillian Nave  13:01

So David, what do you think about that?

David Thomas  13:05

I, first of all, I agree, it at least is right, we have a small disagreement, I think the mechanics of play the action of play, aspires to be fun, I think that, you know, it’s, it’s the distinction between, you know, us going out and kicking the ball around and playing soccer and have been doing that for fun. And then all of a sudden, we’re paid to do it on a field. You know, I think that mechanically, it’s the same, but the kind of play is very different. And I need the kind of play we’re talking about and higher ed is, is that, that, that that I’m just gonna think, again, it’s not an engagement, like like the way we talk about engagement, like getting students excited to learn. It’s the engagement in learning, it’s the engagement in the game. I mean, kids are wonderful, because they don’t have a filter, when you watch them play. They play fully, you know, they’re fully engaged, their anger is real anger, their happiness is real happiness. And there’s the system of play that keeps it all rolling forward. And and until it’s done until the sun goes down, and you have to go inside. And I think the human beings are all like that, I think adults do it. You know, they do it when they ride their mountain bike, or they play golf, or they collect stamps, or whatever. But it’s still every example that I can think of that says what real full throated joyful play looks like, eight in education, which is strange, because it ought to be you know, it ought to be like, I want my students to be that gripped by what they’re doing. And the thing is to and this is where we probably have to take the conversation at some point in time, that there’s not a right way to do it. There’s not a right way to play, play as diverse as there are types of people that play. And I think that that when we say they’re just that engaged, they’re engaged in the style of play, that makes the most sense for them. But but the outcome is always the same. It’s just this transformation of your insides you know, you become somebody, bigger, better, a different, I think

Lillian Nave  15:00

Okay, so I’m interested in this idea. And I agree that just because you’re playing doesn’t mean it’s not rigorous, right? You can take on a persona, you have to learn about the persona, you have to figure out what their wants and needs are and and maybe even have to have dialogue with somebody else and get something out in a role playing game. I’m just guessing, here’s one of the ways you can use play, right? So there can be a lot of rigor, it could be quite hard to get your objectives met in play. So my next question then is, how is it that you can use play to enhance or to help meet the goals or objectives of your course? So even some examples might be helpful as well?

David Thomas  15:48

Yes, sure. I think this is a great place for us to to talk about this sort of pyramid of techniques. But you know, one thing I would really point to with play is that an important aspect of plays is never compulsory. And I think that’s a mistake that education makes everyone is going to take this quiz, everyone’s going to do this assignment. Everybody’s papers do on Friday, and you can’t force people to play, you can force them to act at playing. But like, if I say, Hey, Lillian, do you want to play catch? If I make you do it, you’re not playing, you’re allowing me to play with you. And so I think that just out of the chute, we have to start thinking about Oh, shoot, we have to give students a variety of choices in how they engage, because if they don’t engage, they’re there. They’re there. They’re acting at learning, they’re acting at playing, they’re not learning, they’re not playing. So so with that kind of as a background, I’d say we have started to catalog inventory, all kinds of techniques. And so Lisa, maybe I think your pyramid is a wonderful way to start that conversation.

Lisa Forbes  16:51

Yeah, um, well, I think this had it, how does play help enhance or help students reach goals and classroom objectives kind of plays off the last question that we were answered about recruiting interest and motivation. Because I think the best way to get students to achieve the goals and objectives of the course is to get them interested and motivated in what they’re learning. And so I think it’s kind of a step process up to that. And so to me, vehicle is the way that leads students to become motivated and engaged, which leads them to be interested in the content, which then leads them to do all the things required of the course to meet the goals and objectives. So I think maybe it’s more of an indirect route with play in that sense, but I think it all stems around motivation and interest. And I think you could lecture at students, and you could have them do textbook reading and, you know, formal assessments, those could reach your goals and objectives of the course. But without joy, without without it being memorable and without it being personal. So I think a is a way that makes it an enjoyable process and experience.

Lillian Nave  18:17

Yeah. Wow. And are there? What is this pyramid of techniques? Or catalog? Are you are you amassing a bunch of these, for us to delve into?

Lisa Forbes  18:29

Yes, we’re working on a project with it. It’s kind of at the beginning stages. So I don’t know that we’ll share too much about what it is yet. But if you imagine a pyramid with the base level of it being playfulness, like people always say, Okay, I’m, I’m, you know, invested in this idea of play and learning. But what does that mean? What does that look like? And so we have this visual of this pyramid to help explain it. So that first that’s playfulness, like you have to be a playful person, in your own way, not everyone is going to look the same or act the same. But however you are playful, or bring that out into the classroom. That’s kind of what that is. And so maybe it’s little things like telling a joke or, you know, using different playful language in your syllabus or in your canvas modules or something. So that’s kind of something everybody can just figure out how that works for them. And then the next layer is we call them connection formers. They’re really icebreakers. And these are the things that I do that have no relation to the context of content of the class at all. Okay, like it can be a goofy, silly game that just gets people laughing. The whole point of that is to create connection. And I know we might talk about that here in a minute. But that’s another way to bring play in and then the third level is I play to teach content. And so there’s some different examples that we’ve found and have seen, and I’ve done ourselves that are like a game or a competition or a roleplay things that you can do each class that help you teach the students a certain thing within the content or skill. And then the last level at the top is something that I haven’t figured out how to do in my classes, we’ve seen only a few examples, but it’s we call it like, whole course design. And it’s using one play concept, and it encapsulates the entire course. So David, I think you do a better job of explaining the Jurassic Park example of this.

Lillian Nave  20:44

Oh, that’s intriguing.

David Thomas  20:45

Well, that’s our favorite example. I’m there’s a professor at University of Denver, Roberta kurata. He’s he teaches organizational law, administrative law. And it sounds really boring. I’m sure it probably is. But But he teaches it by having the students read the Michael Crichton book, Jurassic Park, and then they spend the entire semester writing legislation to regulate extinct animal parks. And so it touches on all the things you need to touch on for administrative law, you know, international contracts, and treaties, and, you know, codes and health and safety and, and it just sounds so delightful that all of a sudden, you go I want to take this class, it sounds like fun. Yeah. And so I mean, an absolute tribute to him for envisioning such a big intervention. And, you know, I think there’s, there’s, I mean, you know, probably, you know, examples that we have certainly seen, you know, a lot of times in elementary school or high school, or they’ll do a semester a term or they do long form Civil War, reenactments Revolutionary War, and you know, where they do units where they create their character, and they finally culminates and living in a village or fighting a war. I mean, you’ve seen the role play kind of stuff before. But I think that Roberto’s course is extraordinary in envisioning what play can do in terms of, you know, transforming the learning without trivializing the content?

Lillian Nave  22:10

Yeah, and I’ve, I’ve talked to the Kevin Kelly’s The one who has mentioned quests. So maybe each unit or module is a quest with lots of choices on what to do. And it’s sort of like, maybe a Dungeons and Dragons sort of a type of long story or, or having choices to complete the work. And sometimes I’ve looked into gamifying, you know, a course, and what you have to get power, you know, or life, you know, tokens, you know, or this sort of thing. And I’ve seen it done well, and I’ve seen it, where it’s just sort of a bunch of extra rules that make it even more cumbersome. So I know, there’s a lot of ways that you can apply games, but that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re really talking about that playfulness here. So gamification and games is, is a slightly different topic, right?

David Thomas  23:08

Yeah. But and I think the reason we have so much trouble finding really good examples of whole course playful designs is because what plays suggests to the academy into curriculum is really corrosive to the notion of establish canons, and hierarchies and control. And, and this, at the end of the day, we just have to recognize higher education has this legacy of an educational approach, which doesn’t like the idea of CO creation of meaning, which doesn’t like the idea of student independence or autonomy. And I know there are people working, you know, to change that. I don’t I don’t think it’s unknown. But I think that play is is like, it’s, it’s like a vine that’s trying to grow in through the cracks. And so anytime there’s a crack, the play can come up. But it generally does take a pretty courageous professor, to take on the mantle of a whole course design. That’s what we think of the pyramid is, why don’t you just start by being a little more fun in your class, you know, ever makes the most sense to you? Because maybe you shouldn’t try to turn organic chemistry into a quest to the Goblin King. Maybe that’s not.

Lillian Nave  24:22

Yeah, right.

Lisa Forbes  24:24

I think I just want to add there, as David is talking, I was thinking, play his games play is being silly and Goofy and playful. So that’s part of it. But I think the part that we often don’t talk about and that I think it is kind of holistically is. Play is rebellion, in a sense, and play is playing with the concepts playing with how you approach to teaching. And so its flexibility, its creativity. And so I think a lot of it is challenging the status quo of higher education, like the way that it’s been modeled to me And what I feel pressure to conform to his lecture at your students, make them take tests have these really high standards that you never are flexible on no matter what the student is going through. And so to me play is like, throw that all out the window and tinker with stuff, figure out what works for you figure out how your students are best engaged. So to me, it’s like a philosophical thing as well.

Lillian Nave  25:23

Yeah. And, and the throw into that the fact that at the end of the semester, there has to be some sort of grade associated with what happened in the semester. And we’re, I think, bucking another trend or going against the tide there. And my last conversation, or the one that’s coming out soon, that will be out before this is about upgrading. And, you know, how, how will we assess what the play has done? It’s just counter cultural at this point, isn’t it?

David Thomas  25:59

It absolutely is. And, you know, I, one thing we should kind of, like dress about play is that sometimes people think a play, particularly in games or gamification, that there’s winners and losers. But that is a style of play, right? By no means is the only style of play for some people. That is they love playing to win, right, that’s just that drives them and motivates them. But for a lot of people they want to play together, you know, and I think that’s why you have to be really careful about gamifying your class and saying, Team A will get an A Team B will get a B, team C will get a C. I mean, that might be a lot of fun for some people that might be horrifying to others. But But I think that when we say play, you know, we do tend to mean more playing with ideas, playing with structures, playing with mastery, and playing with others, you know, because at the end of the day, that’s what play is, whether you’re competitive or non competitive play, you’re always playing with something and playing with someone. And so that that does disrupt a lot of what we do in higher ed. And by the way, it’s not like an evil conspiracy. It’s just nobody gets fired for doing 15 weeks of lectures, midterm and final, right? Yeah, walk in the park, right? That’s easy. And so sometimes it’s easy to do easy, and even the students won’t complain, they’ll just be like, whatever. It’s hard to do different. And thus, we think that the professors of play concept doesn’t start with technique. It doesn’t start with what you do to students, it starts with yourself, because you got to be willing to take on the play in your own role. You got to be looking for those cracks and those opportunities and those chances to do things differently. Because if not, then really that’s that’s probably been the flaw in gamification is that it was implemented soullessly at times, it was implemented, that people that weren’t playful, you know, it was an attempt to get students to play when the professor didn’t want to get outside of their safety zone.

Lillian Nave  27:57

And this idea to that you bring up about winners and losers, has made me think about that idea of cooperative play. And this playfulness. And I think that’s really important for me to get is that we need to start with this bottom of the pyramid, playfulness and be open to it. And then think about what play could be in terms of a cooperative learning experience. And I learned about cooperative games because I have three children. And what we called Family Game Night always turned into family crying wine night, you know, I’m never playing sorry, ever again. You know, I hate parcheesi. Those are the old you know, games monopoly? Absolutely. No, if you see these people that you love, you know, my children, and they’re just sobbing and credo pounding up the stairs. This is no fun, you know, and I and I hated it. So we learned about something called cooperative games, things like race to the treasure is one of them. I’ve told lots of people about or forbidden Island. And the idea is all of you work together. And you either all succeed as a group, or you all fail as a group. So it just depends on you working together playing and you have the same goal. And oh, my goodness, what a big change that is between you get an A so that you have to get a C right or you win, and that makes you a loser. There are just a lot of ways we can think about cooperatively bring everybody along to have a positive outcome. And that’s what I think is really great about this idea.

Lisa Forbes  29:41

Yeah, I think I think that’s a good point. You made me think about I’m on a dissertation committee right now, with a student Shani O’Brian. She is doing her dissertation on Dungeons and Dragons, Dungeons and Dragons with students on the spectrum to Learn social skills. Okay? Well point is that it’s this cooperative game, they get to try and characters try out different social sales skills, get some feedback on that to learn social skills. So I think that is a great example of that. And it’s an amazing dissertation to be on. One thing I’ll add, though, is I do use competition in my classes. But it’s the silly goofy games at the beginning, like we play Flappy Birds to this computer game. And I say, Kay, pull up this website, and you have three minutes, the person who gets to the highest level wins, and turn on your mic so we can hear you. And they’re laughing and can’t get past level one and somebody gets to level 20. And then they win a sticker. And I’m teaching online right now, because a COVID. So I mailed them a sticker, and they’re really cool, like water bottle or computer stickers. And so there is a bit of competition that I use, but it’s just for fun. It’s friendly. There’s no big winner, loser. It’s like, I did a study of my own teaching last year. And one of the students said the games were fun. And if you lost, you didn’t lose a lot. You didn’t lose face. You didn’t you know, it wasn’t for a grade and affect your grade. Yeah. Right. So I think competition is okay. I think that can be fun and playful, but making sure that it’s not around a grade or around an assessment or, you know, outing anybody in a really negative way. Yeah.

David Thomas  31:24

Oh, great play needs to be safe for people quit, right? I mean, it’s again, I’d say, you have to opt in to play and you have to be able to opt out. And in a certain sense, you know, your kids stomping out of the game was telling you, I do not want to play like this. And that’s completely acceptable. In fact, um, you know, one thing I’ve always been fascinated with is how animals play because they play like people do. And if you look at say how dogs play, it’s really well established, the dogs that don’t play by the rules won’t get played with. And dogs that play too rough and don’t apologize, don’t get played with. And so I think as teachers, we’re in a position of authority, we need to make sure that students can opt into play, but they can also opt out of play. And again, this doesn’t sound like education to us, it’s like, you know, we own the, the you, you get to class on time, and you don’t leave until I tell you, and this is really a risky place to be as a faculty member. But it’s also very exciting. And I wanted to bring it back to a somebody that kind of screwed over at the beginning. And Lisa mentioned is to play is about meaning making, right? I mean, the whole point of play is that there’s meaning making, if you sit down to play a game of chess, and you know, you’re going to win, or you know, you’re going to lose because your competitor is either really good or really bad. It’s not really play, right? It’s, it’s what playing tic tac toe with a little kid really isn’t that much fun. It’s not much a play for the parent, maybe education and other things. It’s not play. So you have to be able to make meaning you have to be able to like, operate the thing in front of you and find out what happens. That’s great. That’s what we do for students, right. That’s why play is so powerful in education. But it also is a professor, you have to if you know what’s going to happen, when you try that new playful technique, then you probably should try something else, I think to be a playful professor is to actually feel like, Oh, my gosh, I might fail. I don’t have all of it’s risky, have some of the control. But like, I’m taking a shot here. I don’t I don’t I hope it goes through the hoop. You know. And, and I, you know, I let Lisa will tell me stories about trying something new, which is always preceded by I got all nervous and sweaty. And I think that’s great. I think that’s what makes it good, right? Is that you’re trying to get you out of your comfort zone, you have to remake meaning. And then you model that for the students. And boy, there’s so much willing to work with you I’m making meaning when you don’t say, here’s the 50 things you need to know. I’ll talk to you later.

Lisa Forbes  33:57

Right. And I think that’s such a big point about play too is, you know, we expect our students to be vulnerable, we expect our students to think outside the box and try new things and risk failure. Maybe looks stupid. But if we’re not willing to do those things ourselves, if we’re standing up there as a polished Professor reading off slides, or whatever it is, we’re not modeling that. And so we’re not creating a safe space where it’s okay to do those things. So I think that’s another huge part about play that I didn’t realize at first, but it is that modeling. I’m doing something that’s really scary for me, and I’m nervous and my hands are shaking, and I’m sweaty. But we’re gonna try it and see if it’s fun. Give me some feedback on it. I think it’s learn to trust you more and trust that this is a safe space for me to do that too.

Lillian Nave  34:45

Yeah, well, you’re already kind of answering one of my questions which is about that community that you’re creating. And that play fosters that sense of collaboration and community which is one of our universal design for learning. principles of how we get students engaged and learning. And it seems like it must start in that modeling. And then where do you go from there?

Lisa Forbes  35:10

Well, I think this is probably plays the biggest asset is community and trust and relationship forming. I mean, there’s so much to say about this. But I think, you know, I’ve had students, at the very first part of this started the course I have, I send them a video of me, and my, this is me video. And it’s not about who I am, as a faculty member, it’s who I am, as a person, you know, I show my family and show them my values. And one of my favorite songs is the video or the song that’s behind it. And then I have them, post something about them. So it can be a video, if they don’t want to spend that time, they can post pictures, and you know, some texts about who they are. But students will say, as they’re commenting on other students, Oh, my gosh, I learned so much more about who you are as a person than I’ve known about you in the last three classes we’ve had together. And that’s a does, it breaks down walls, it takes away those barriers, where people are engaging, authentically, and you know, more as a human than a student or trying to be a professional or trying to, you know, prove themselves. So a lot of students come in with imposter syndrome and feel like, you know, I don’t know how I got in, they’re gonna find out that I’m not, you know, a great master student, or I’m not can be a good counselor. And so play reduces that. And it just lets people show up authentically. And so there’s, I did my study last year, and I got that the article published from it this month. And the model that I have in there kind of outlines how this process works. So as I was listening to my students in that study, it was like, play creates laughter and joy, and novelty and excitement. And through that process, it takes down students walls and barriers. So it reduces their anxiety and fear and stress. At the same time, it’s connecting them to one another. And so there’s this sense of belonging with each other, there’s a sense of trust and comfort, and so they’re willing to be more vulnerable. And all of that leads to engagement in it leads to being open to feedback. And it leads to being interested in the content and excited to come to class. And they said, they’re more interested in the process than the grade like they usually are in class. So I think this sense of community is everything. And I think if we’re asking students to risk failure, and be vulnerable and be engaged, that starts with trust, and that starts with a sense of belonging and connection to others. So I think that’s plays superpower. Oh, yeah.

Lillian Nave  38:01

So yes, it’s quite amazing. That makes that learning experience. So memorable, too. As a course designer, one of the things we do is think about backwards design, what do you want your students to remember from your course when it’s over five years down the road? 10 1520 years down the road. And that time, what you’re just explaining, is something that the students will take far more than did they remember these five key bits about this theory or whatever? Right? Because learning Yeah, is so much about how you feel about yourself how you feel about learning this particular thing, how how you were in that moment as you were learning it? And were you afraid? Were you anxious? Were you happy? Were you joyful? How did it? How did it affect you as you were learning it?

Lisa Forbes  38:57

Yeah. And I think emotions have such a huge part in learning. Like you remember things more when you’re excited, and when you’re happy and when you know. So I think that’s a huge part of play, too, is it ties in the emotional aspect where students can then remember that years down the road? I remember actually, actually, my very first semester really trying to do a lot of this playful stuff. And it was very nice last night of class. And you know, we’re wrapping up, we did a closure activity. And I said, Well, okay, it was great working with you all, you know, we’re done. And it was like, nobody moved. There was this awkward silence. And then one student finally said, this is the status last goodbye class I’ve ever had. And that’s all community. They felt connected to their classmates in a way that maybe they hadn’t before. So I think that’s, I mean, I think that’s the biggest asset of play is just the connection.

David Thomas  39:55

And that community can exist with basically strangers, you know, I mean, I would go to a completely different context. But if you spend the day at Disneyland and the parks closing, and everyone’s leaving, it’s a sort of a shared relief and sadness with people you’re not even talking to. I mean, play binds us together. It’s, it’s why in a giant sports stadium, when your team gets a touchdown, everybody high fives, the person sitting next to them, you know, play has this immense power. And I would just add this, this is why play has been excluded. is because if you’re in control, play is very threatening, right? Yeah. It’s the play is threatening to hierarchies, because it constantly turns them upside down.

Lisa Forbes  40:46

And it takes away your control as a faculty member. Because part of play is not having everything planned out perfectly. Part of it is co constructing how the class is going to go. So that’s very scary for some people, I think, who need to know how the class is going to go when you know, this is going to end when that’s going to start, what we’re going to learn sometimes you just have to trust that together, you’ll find a meaningful place in the learning process.

Lillian Nave  41:12

Yeah. And they don’t teach you that in graduate school. Do they? Know? Yeah, that’s a lot. And so this, this takes a lot I think of Professor so you have to find that playfulness. And I think you It seems like you also have to have enough confidence that you can be wrong, right? So it may be may be really difficult for somebody just starting out who feels the app, they have that imposter syndrome, right? And they feel they need to make sure they can assert that they belong there in the academy and that sort of thing, I can see how that might be really difficult, early on, and how I felt as I first started teaching, but 25 years later, I can see how wonderful the experience can be when things do go wrong. And then we can learn from them. Right, we can model how to move forward that sort of thing.

David Thomas  42:10

But one thing I wanted to say is this, professors at play recognizes that it’s really difficult sometimes to just get started, you know, we talk about the revolution, but we realize that most people just need to get out their front door and try something new. So we spent a lot of time collecting techniques, sharing techniques, sharing other people’s stories, you know, giving people a chance to kind of look and say, Oh, hey, that’s something fun, I might try on my class to build some confidence or to see Oh, here’s a professor that teaches a subject like I teach and, and they didn’t get fired for being more playful. So we’re really approaching this from both sides. And we want people to try things. We want them to try little ideas, rather than to try big ideas. And then on the other hand, we want them to completely reform all of education for the better.

Lillian Nave  42:56

Wow. So so a little ask, that’s what you’re doing smaller. Yeah, I’m being sarcastic there. Yeah, I’m being playful you’re being. So this is really fantastic to think about. And I think I saw, I also am a playful person. And I’ve sent out videos where I’m pretending like I’m cave diving in and talking to students and hoping that they get my sense of humor. But I have not expanded. And it makes me think that even my course about intercultural competence is, is really ripe for playing and discovering kind of new situations. And one of the things that I think makes that collaboration and that trust is so important that you said is really what makes play so powerful, is in the feedback. So that’s my next question. One of the parts of universal design for learning is providing feedback for students. So in play, how do students receive multiple areas of feedback during play? Because, as we already talked about, it’s not just winning like you won. So there, there’s your feedback, you’re good, they’re bad. It’s it’s not about winning. It’s a lot about how you’re playing the game. So can you tell me about feedback.

Lisa Forbes  44:22

So my class probably is a little unique in that I teach counseling. And so a lot of the courses I teach are focused on skills, counseling skills, developing that in order to become a counselor. And so roleplay is really easy to do and is probably the best avenue to learn skills. So I think, you know, when we do silly, Goofy play at the start of class, there’s not much feedback needed there. Or if we do like a friendly competition to learn some concept, you don’t really have a ton of feedback, but where I find feedback is really valuable is within the role plays. And so have students practice being a counselor practice the skills with one of the other students who’s playing a client, they’re playing themselves, but they’re the client. And then the their peers will give them feedback on their skills. And then I will give them feedback on their skills, and they record their roleplay. So later, they watch it back and then do a self critique of their own skills. So it’s like these multi levels and layers of feedback. Which, by the way, is only possible and I think meaningful if you have that play first, to develop the community and bonding because giving feedback to a stranger or giving constructive feedback can feel personal sometimes, being a counselor often is a lot of who you are coming into the room. So when you get feedback on that it can feel pretty personal. So if we haven’t established that playful environment, the community, the trust, the connection, in order to be vulnerable, in order to be vulnerable enough to get that critical feedback, there is not going to work. So I think role plays are a way that I can do a lot of feedback within play. But also using play to create that environment where you can give that feedback and people are open to it, I think is important to

David Thomas  46:33

add on. You know, when you play with something you play with a pin me play pinball, the system itself gives you feedback. I mean, it may be revealed to you in layers and layers. At first, it’s just lights and noise. And then you start to realize this does that and this thing does that if you’re playing with someone the same thing, you figure out what they play how they play. So in a certain sense, play provides its own feedback. But I think the other piece here is that play doesn’t replace things. It’s supplements, when we have instructional design, because we know a lot about how people learn effectively, we’re talking about being playful professors not you know, we’re saying cleave this on to what you do. So they’re great techniques for giving feedback. I’m you know, I’m not even saying you should stop giving, you know, exams, I just, you know, there are appropriate levels of feedback you should provide after exams and make it effective. The good news is play has its feedback built in and a lot, a lot for the reasons that Lisa had already mentioned. I’m saying you should not give exams. You can you can give an effective exam. It’s possible.

Lillian Nave  47:42

Yeah, you can have play and exams if you if you want or feel you need to Okay, gotcha, multiple perspectives. And it seems you know, whenever I’m playing anything, so one of those cooperative games where there’s not family crying wine night, or watching my son play soccer, and they they went to the state championships, there’s so much feedback between players on your own team, you know, against the team, or when you’re playing cooperatively, like all five people sitting at the table, there’s, it seems like you’re getting more feedback from multiple areas than if you were to just wait for your professor to write on your paper. It seems that there’s just more avenues for it. Am I am I off base here?

Lisa Forbes  48:32

I think that’s right. I mean, I think in terms of the role plays that I was talking about, they, they have to do a lot of things at once they have to actively listen, they have to think about what skill to use, they have to remember what the client just said, they have to remember what they said the last session. And so they use a skill in the moment and they get some feedback even from the client, not like hey, like when you use that skill, but clients reactions, their nonverbals, I think gives the counselor an indication of how well that skill landed. So I think you’re exactly right, that you do get feedback even within the process.

Lillian Nave  49:07

Well, and this is building towards another question I have, which is essential to Universal Design for Learning to and that’s the self assessment and reflection part. And I can definitely see that as you’re saying with the role playing. But it can play also include that self assessment and reflection, and how can that be incorporated in play?

David Thomas  49:30

I think it’s just it naturally happens. Like I play a lot of board games with a friend and you always say my criteria of a really good game is it doesn’t matter whether I win or lose. But as soon as the game’s over, I’m thinking about how I could have done it differently. I’m interrogating my own play. Now, even if I won, I’m thinking how that happened or if I lost how I could win next time. And I think that that’s natural in play. And I point out I mean some of this ground has been tried before on The name of constructivist learning theory right? And so I think that constructivism is a big word to just basically say playful learning, right? Because you know it, hobbies are a form of play. And you know, they’re they’re largely or undirected, and you just you get better at it. Because you’re curious about it, you’re giving yourself feedback, you’re observing what other practitioners are doing. I mean, if you’re, if your son’s a soccer player, odds are he’s watching soccer on TV, he’s watching how his friends and competitors play, he’s thinking about his own play, doesn’t mean he’s not looking for coaching. It just means that without a coach, he still would be thinking about that. And that’s play that again, whoa, where’d the motivation come from? Where do engagement come from? Play kind of brings that with it. Because once you’ve locked it into play, you’re making meaning the fun comes from making meaning, figuring out how this thing works, or what else you can do with it, or what it might be good for what happens if I break this or turn this upside down? It’s not it’s not a mystery to me why Lego is the kind of the, the the de facto toy of learning. Because you know, it’s just a very good set of playful objects that asks you to interrogate to make meaning to evaluate, to reconstruct, I mean, jeez, it’s so obvious, but you don’t need Legos to do that, you just need play.

Lisa Forbes  51:25

And I think depending on the type of play that you’re using, and learning play gives you an opportunity to be someone else to try on a different persona to try skills. But it’s outside real life, it’s outside reality sometimes. And so I think that outside reality, helps take away some of the self consciousness that is there that I think stifles self reflection, because i a lot of students come in with this need to be perfect, and I can’t make a mistake. And so I’m not going to try. So I think when you use play it, it’s not real. It’s not real life. And so if I mess up, it’s not me, it’s this character. And so I think that allows for more openness to have a little more self reflection about the skills you’re learning as well.

Lillian Nave  52:14

And it’s just very active. There’s a lot of active learning, if you’re playing really different than taking notes, and you know, the proverbial lecture in exam, you’re not reflecting very much on did I listened during that lecture, or, you know, it really just comes at the end, well, I didn’t do well on that test. That’s about when the reflection comes.

Lisa Forbes  52:36

I saw a website lately, that was like 100 things to do during a boring lecture. That was like, I went to your checkbook, check your social media site, like all these random things that makes them not pay attention to what is being done in class, you get their attention. And so that’s like, blows my mind, like why we still lecture? A lot. Yeah,

Lillian Nave  53:01

yeah, there’s, I know, definitely ways that we can intervene in our lectures and make them far more intriguing and interesting and interactive. And sometimes lectures are good, but, but I definitely see how we can interject a lot more active learning. And as David, you brought up constructivist, that’s something I tell my students what we’re doing, and I never thought of it as play. But you’re, I think you’re so right, that that’s what we’re doing is we’re playing with these thoughts and trying them on and, and trying to understand how they might fit in our world. So my last question I have is about choices. And we’ve touched on this a little before, and I really appreciated that. David, you said you can’t make students you know, play that we need to have flexibility. And so how is it that you can give students choices when a professor incorporates play into a course how flexible is it?

Lisa Forbes  54:04

So some play that I bring in is 100%. Optional, like the silly goofy play. Sometimes students love it. Like if it’s a computer game, Video game type thing some students love that some students hate that. Some students really love wordplay. Some students hate that some like puzzles, some don’t I do this digital escape room, some love that some would rather not. think in that sense. I always give them options. And I say, here’s what we’re going to do. It’s going to take three minutes, five minutes. If you’re not into this totally cool, you can just watch or you can you know, get some water, check your email. So I’ve never forcing people to do that kind of stuff. I think there’s a lot of a lot of experts in the field of clay would say play is has to be optional. It has to be self selected for it to be play. And sometimes in higher education and bringing play in the learning. I sometimes don’t believe That fully, because like my example with the role plays that’s play, it’s serious play, but it’s play to learn skills. And if I gave my students a choice, do you want to do a role play or not, I guarantee you, a lot of them would choose not to, because it’s scary, because they don’t know what they’re doing sometimes, and they feel vulnerable and exposed. But the best learning comes when we’re at the edge of our comfort zone. And so that is not negotiable. We’re doing the role plays, because this is how we learn best to do counseling skills. But within that you have choice. And so I think, giving them flexibility within a structure of here’s what we’re doing, here’s some different avenues you can do. Here’s the, here’s two different role plays, you can choose from choose one. As the counselor, I tell them, you can pause the roleplay at any minute, if you need direction, or advice or just want to take a breather. As the client, you can choose what you talk about and how deep you allow it to be. So I think even within moments in the class, where it’s something designed for the learning that they really need to do for it to learn the skills, I’ll still give them choice and flexibility. So I don’t know, I think to me, it depends on what type of play I’m using and how much choice they have.

David Thomas  56:14

There’s a very large literature about varieties of play. I mean, the different kinds of play or the different ways people play. I mean, a classic one of online video games is Richard Bartels player types. He just says, you know, there’s different kinds of players that play for different reasons, and they can all play together. You know, of course, there’s Roger colloids, you know, different types of play? I think Lisa’s right. It’s choice, I think at the point where something is required you risk extinguishing the font or the joy. So you have to be careful of that. But I do think that properly structured activities do give people different entry points to play at, whoa, that sounds an awful lot like UDL doesn’t. It’s just saying you invite everyone to play, but invite them to play in different ways and don’t demand that they play a certain way.

Lillian Nave  57:06

Yeah, that flexibility is key and choices and options. So, okay, I have one more question that I’m just gonna throw at you. And that is, what advice do you have? If somebody is listening to this podcast now? And they say, you know what, I think I’m going to try it. What would be your advice to somebody who’d like to introduce play in their course?

Lisa Forbes  57:36

Um, I would say, um, I think it’s going to be a challenge, I think it’s going to make you feel potentially vulnerable, because it’s doing something different outside of the status quo of what we’re taught to do as faculty. And so I think it’s starting small. So it’s not like, you have to design your whole course around this whole course design, or you have to do play every single class period, I think, start small and figure out how to be a little more playful, or how can you change your syllabus and the wording of it? Thinking about things in a different way, in a playful way? But really, I think it’s it kind of comes down to the societal narratives around play in adulthood. Because we’re told, you know, play is for kids. Play is not for adults, if you’re doing it in adulthood. It’s trivial. It’s childish, it’s a waste of time. And so if that’s kind of the narrative that we live by, as faculty, of course, we’re not going to do play in higher education, because we don’t want to be trivial, trivial faculty member wasting everyone’s time. But I don’t think that narrative is right. And so I think a lot of times it’s, I’m considering what is the narrative that I live by in terms of play in adulthood? Is that true? Can I flex on that a little bit? Because I think if you’re on the underlying surface, you still live by that narrative, that play is trivial. It doesn’t matter how many techniques you’re given, it’ll be really hard. So I think the first thing is really flexing on what you believe about play and challenging the status quo that plays only for kids. So that would be my first step. And then take it one step at a time. Do little little experiments here and there.

Lillian Nave  59:24

Great, David.

David Thomas  59:26

I would concur with everything Lisa said. And I would say, go to professors of play. I mean, that’s why it exists. There’s a big community, there are people to ask questions of, there’s a lot of resources, a lot of things we’ve talked about or encapsulated in blogs and other postings. So it’s a chance to kind of digest this stuff. And one blog, I’d point you to in particular at Lisa wrote a blog about precursors to play, the kinds of things that you kind of have to do to really get into this. And one of those things is is um, have a buddy you know, I, I think that that’s the thing that I have realized the most over the year, so we’ve done professors at play is that we are by far from being alone in this. And I think we think you’re the only playful professor in your university, you feel really isolated. Find someone that you can share your successes and failures with find someone who holds you accountable to doing things. I think that that may be it, pair up, team up, group up, you know, start your own clown college, I don’t care just you know, don’t don’t go along. So

Lisa Forbes  1:00:31

one other thing I’ll add to that is if you think about neuroplasticity, your brain can change and can reshape itself. And it just depends on what you’re doing every day, those new new neural pathways will be stronger than the old neural pathways. And so I think if you’re used to lecturing all the time, that’s the strongest neural pathway in your brain. And so yeah, doing something different in playing is going to feel really awkward and not comfortable. And so I think it just takes some time to carve out that new neural pathway in our brain. And also students brains because their their neural pathways for sitting and listening and taking notes are very strong. That’s what they’ve done for decades. And so sometimes it’s just helping them learn to carve out some new neural pathways. Yeah.

Lillian Nave  1:01:17

Well, this gives us a lot to reevaluate, I think and how we see play, and gives me a lot of connections to to our universal design for learning guidelines, that I think we can make a really strong case of neurological why this is an important addition to our educational toolbox. So thank you so much, Lisa, and David, for joining me on the think UDL podcast. I really appreciate what you had to tell me and our listeners today. Thanks. It was a lot of fun. Yeah, it’s great talking to you great ideas. Great. Well, thanks so much. And all of the things that we’ve mentioned, we I’ll make sure are on our website. So if you will make sure we point you to the blog and to professors at play, and you’ll be able to find all of that and start being you can follow the think UDL podcast on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to find out when new episodes will be released, and also see transcripts and additional materials at the think website. The think UDL podcast is made possible by college star. The star stands for supporting transition, access and retention in post secondary settings, and the website provides free resources and instructional aides based on UDL principles. If you’d like to know more, go to the college website. Additional support for the podcast is made possible by Appalachian State University where if you call it Appalachian, I’ll throw in Appalachia. The music on the podcast was performed by the Odyssey quartet comprised of Rex Shepherd, David pate, Bill falwell and Jose ko chez our sound engineer is Tanner Jones and I am your host, Lillian Nave. Thank you for joining us on the think UDL podcast.

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