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Dungeons & Dragons storms K12 education

  • ADVENTURE-BASED LEARNING—Students, like this girl in Virginia, practice teamwork, collaborative problem-solving and creativity playing Dungeons & Dragons in after-school clubs and in the classroom.
  • ‘REAL-WORLD’ EXPERIMENTING—A student at Davis Ninth Grade School (part of Aldine ISD near Houston) considers his Dungeons & Dragons quest. His teacher, Kade Wells, says the game allows students to experiment with real-world decision-making without real-world consequences.

What can you learn when your third-level cleric’s hunting party falls into the Cave of Unknowing and gets trapped between an angry fire giant and a deadly mist cast by an evil warlock?

If that sounds like fantasy-novel gibberish, you may be missing one of the latest trends in game-based learning: Dungeons & Dragons.

Yes, that role-playing game your 1980s, middle school self was too cool to play—or too uncool not to play—is a thing (again).

A group of educators has revived the nondigital adventure game to teach students skills that have become a top priority in modern-day education.


SIDEBAR: Curriculum quests


“You’re solving problems with friends, in a safe environment, and you’re learning to communicate,” says Chris Bugaj, a teacher in Loudon County, Virginia, who organized an after-school Dungeons & Dragons club for middle school students.

“There’s critical thinking—how will your friends be impacted by your choices in the game—and there’s an element of fun.”

‘Radius means something to your wizard’

If you’re not familiar with the game, it goes a bit like this: One player, called a dungeon master, uses an official game map to lead a party of characters, who are created by other players, on a quest in the style of The Lords of the Rings.

Along the way, the characters collect weapons, magic spells and other necessities as they battle monsters and navigate tricky terrain.

Players get to use their imagination when inventing their characters, who can be, for example, a human warrior or elvish wizard.

Dungeon masters can send the character groups in any direction they want—for example, they can dump players into the dreaded Cave of Unknowing. The characters then have to figure out how to use their weapons and spells to defeat the bad guys and escape.

These aspects can encourage reluctant readers to read (particularly the game’s various manuals, and books such as The Hobbit).

Students will also start doing research using the game’s multiple guides and rulebooks, says Paul Darvasi, a teacher who started a Dungeons & Dragons club at Royal St. George’s College, a private grade school in Toronto.

“Players can write elaborate backstories for their characters and the adventures, and not worry so much about grammar and spelling, which can be discouraging, particularly for boys,” he says. “The game is a form of collaborative storytelling.”

Students benefit by not playing the game on a screen, says Darvasi. “The whole environment is being rendered in your mind. It’s a powerful way to flex your imagination muscle.”

Teachers and therapists have seen that students build real-life self-esteem when they serve in a valued role in a group of adventurers.

“In role-playing, you learn the skill of rewriting your own identity—it allows kids to experiment with other versions of themselves and other personality types,” he says.

Oh, and there’s math, too. For instance, the spell a player casts might only be effective within a certain radius and duration, adds Bugaj, who is a specialized instructional facilitator for assistive technology.

“Suddenly, it’s not just something on a test that you can memorize and forget,” he says. “Radius means something to your wizard.”

A way to ‘practice life’

Kade Wells, a ninth-grade English teacher in Aldine ISD near Houston, may be the guru of educational Dungeons & Dragons. He has started after-school clubs, and the game also has inspired his unique form of classroom management.

He has turned his classroom at Davis Ninth Grade School into its own expedition, dividing students into four character types: protector, diplomat, initiator or sage. Each group has a set of responsibilities. The sages, for instance, must keep track of and organize all student work.

For completing tasks, teams earn gold pieces that they can exchange for everything from a bathroom pass to higher scores on tests. Team members have to decide together how to spend their gold, says Wells.

The role-playing element also allows all students to test out certain behaviors in an environment with no real-world consequences. “They can explore being bad without actually being bad,” Wells says.

“It’s a unique way to have kids practice life before actually doing life.”