Creating a cohesive and meaningful learning experience across subject areas is valuable work. As Erikson (2012) discusses, learners enjoy a greater permanence in learning when they are able to organize the many facts that they must internalize into concepts. Concepts, ideas like “beauty”, “community”, and “change”, engender connections across subject areas that facilitate cross-curricular planning. Teachers simply have to work together to identify concepts that they can teach simultaneously, and cross-curricular units are born.
Seems simple enough, right? If only that were the case! Consider the life of an average world language teacher. She may have 200 students of which 20 percent have Individualized Education Programs that require a good deal of differentiation outside of what she normally does in class. She is committed to giving feedback to her students, so she grades nightly and on the weekends. She also wants to find interesting and authentic sources, so she spends her time driving listening to podcasts in the target language. When she gets home from those drives, she plans and executes the activities that go along with the podcasts. Needless to say, the time required to think about and plan cross-curricular units of study with educators from other fields is difficult to come by.
What do we do as educators then when we simply need time to think about concepts to use in our planning but have none of it to spare? There is no way, for example, that I can come up with a meaningful unit of study and/or project that involves myself as the world language teacher, the math teacher down the hall, the history teacher next door, and the science teacher on the other side of the building without setting aside time to work with those individuals to make sure that the concepts and topics that we discuss are both cohesive and coherent. Otherwise, the students will see the work for what it is-superficial, or worse, inauthentic.
Fortunately, the website Games for Change (gamesforchange.org) can really help educators to understand what a good cross-curricular unit or project might look like. The games that are included deal with global themes like humanitarian issues, environmental issues, civics, conflict, and poverty. The treatment of these themes belongs to all subject areas, not just one.
Parable of the Polygons (http://ncase.me/polygons/) is a game featured on the website that perfectly demonstrates cross-curricular alignment via the exploration of historical segregation bred by racism (or, by extension, any other differences that exist among populations of people). In this game (available in English, Spanish, Dutch, French, Portuguese, Chinese, and more), players are given a simple task: to make a slightly “shapist” society’s members happy by moving their residences. Each polygon wants to live in a diverse neighborhood, but each polygon is only happy if at least 1/3 of its neighbors are the same type of polygon. As the player begins to reorganize the neighborhood so that all of its residents are happy, he or she is able to observe how segregated it becomes overtime in a graph.
Figure 1: Screen shot of player’s experience segregating neighborhood
Subsequent tasks allow players to interact with and witness what happens if individual polygons have a higher or lower tolerance for diversity and allow them to consider what exactly changes in neighborhoods that were built with slightly shapist preferences once those preferences go away. Questions to guide players’ thinking regarding these changes are posted throughout (saving planning time for teachers!).
So how might this game be used in multiple classrooms at once? Though the possible answers to this question are infinite, an easy way to conceptualize using this game for teaching is to consider gameplay to be an experience to prime students for learning. Essentially, the game will allow learners to explore the tough issue of segregation in an unthreatening way and will prepare them to understand the content being disseminated in all of their classes. In the world language class, once learners are done working to negotiate meaning in the target language throughout gameplay, they can turn their attention to understanding the historical precedent of caste systems in the countries in which the target language is spoken. History teachers can use the initial gameplay experience to walk students through the Civil Rights movement and the long-term impact of segregation in the United States. Math teachers can help learners to gain numeracy skills by having them predict to what extent changing ratios and/or percentages of diversity tolerance in a given society will impact segregation. Essentially, in using this short game, teachers give their learners not only the experience needed to understand the topics of racism and segregation more profoundly than they may have once understood them, but also to see the interconnectedness of the disciplines that they are studying. In a very real way, what students are learning in math class impacts and adds meaning to what they are learning in Spanish class and vice versa.
Erikson, H. L. (2012). “Concept-based teaching and learning”. IB Position Papers. Retrieved from http://www.ibmidatlantic.org/Concept_Based_Teaching_Learning.pdf.
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