Playing with Plato: Teaching with Games
I’m teaching a senior seminar on Plato’s Republic this semester. One skill I have been focusing on all semester is close reading. I have students do several short assignments in which they have to offer close readings of the text. But in our class discussions, conversations tends to become more general and less tethered to specifics of the text. I want students to make their claims rooted in the text and to see that arguments over how to interpret are a key part of the philosophical work in the history of philosophy.
As I was planning for yesterday’s class on the second half of Republic VII (we started early and skipped Fall Break so we are almost at the end of the dialogue), I read Socrates recommendation to Glaucon, “[D]on’t use force in training the children in the studies, but rather play” (536d-537a). I realized that I had to have the students play a game in class to learn that day. So I started thinking of categories and ‘answers’ for a Jeopardy! game. I came up with five categories, with most of the focus on the discussion of the second half of Republic VII. I wrote the categories on half sheets of paper and then I wrote answers for each categories on half sheets and then organized them from easiest to hardest and wrote the points on the other side, which would be facing students. In class, I organized students into three groups (there are nine seniors). One student was virtual because he is quarantined, but a student on his team turned on Zoom on his phone (we are mostly in person), so that that student could participate. Students could buzz in to answer by hitting their desk. Then, and this part was essential to achieve the learning I wanted, the other students had to determine from the text whether the ‘question’ given was the right response.
I have never seen students so invested in a textual argument as I did in yesterday’s class. They offered careful textual analysis of the relationship between calculation and geometry in an effort to consider whether “What is geometry?” was the right question to the answer, the discipline Glaucon agrees leads to being and for which he says he will legislate its requirement. Students found the text where Glaucon agrees to this point about calculation and about dialectic, but not geometry. The person who answered geometry, made the case that in one place Glaucon does say it will be required after having shown that it also leads to an understanding of being. At another point, they argued over what the goal of finding a life better than ruling was for the city. And at another point, whether the philosopher was shown an injustice by being required to return to the cave to rule. I’d never seen students so carefully working with the text until 600 points were on the line.
For the last ‘answer’, I posed to them the way that Socrates recommends students learn and the reason we were playing Jeopardy! in class. This ‘answer’ led to a discussion of how play provokes learning in a unique way. Students pointed to how they became invested and how their investment led them to hunt down specifics in the text, which opened the question of what other kinds of reasons besides winning at Jeopardy! might they become invested in making their case from the details in the text.
I’m really looking forward to their final papers now.