Even in the hybrid setting I’ve been trying to set a little bit of time aside each week to let students work on their semester long National History Day projects. Some weeks I could only really spare 20 mins or so out of my 90 total minutes. This was fairly easy in the beginning as we were setting up project ideas and practicing skills. Letting them play in a data base or breakdown a new primary source doesn’t take incredibly long so this worked fine. As we got further into the semester I realized that the students were losing motivation to complete the bigger and more complex elements of the project.
At first I was worried students were getting bored with their topics. After some discussions they still seemed to have the same passion and the same curiosity. I thought maybe they were being lazy but then reminded myself that that isn’t really a thing. Students, even unproductive students, always have a reason for their actions. They likely have other school work that is more pressing, are more engaged by their social sphere on line, or they are just traumatized in the middle of a Pandemic. So what was going on? Why was this project and my ability to assist not taking a priority?
I think the answer lies in the 90s video game tech limit necessity – Save Points.
During this video game era it was common for a game to be complex enough for a player to show growth through out an extended storyline but still limited enough by the tech to need certain trade offs. A great example is Final Fantasy VII.
Unlike a modern game like Skyrim where the player can save their progress after every small combat or cleared room, Final Fantasy VII only allowed players to save at certain points in specific locations called Save Points (or any where on the World Map). These named locations were where most of the narrative and combat took place so they were incredibly important not to miss. The problem was that the save points could be spread out uncomfortably far. There were several reasons this could be an issue. The biggest concern was being killed by n enemy before reaching the next save spot. At that point the player has to start over from the last scene point and replay all the battles and see all the cutscenes again. Many a controller were smashed over a forgotten save point.
What I think is happening in the classroom though is the second consequence of the Save Point system – time management. I remember many times wanting to play a game but knowing that I was being dragged to a family function in 30 minutes. If I started playing but had to leave before I got to a Save Point all of my effort would have been wasted. When playing an RPG there is little that is more frustrating than losing progress.
It was better not to play than to invest the time and then have to quit before I reached the goal.
I think that is the same problem my students are facing. They could take out their materials and get started BUT the trade off is not worth it. By the time they prepared both physically, mentally, and even emotionally to dive into their topic the amount of time available to organize their thoughts would not be enough to allow any meaningful progress. The progress they do make might not be sustainable when they have to switch gears for whtever content the will face in their next class.
For the deep, complex, and critical thinking necessary for a big project like the National History Day project the students need to have enough time where they know they will get to “reach their save spot”. The mental and emotional investment will match their ability to be successful. The kids are not being lazy they are weighing consequences in a fairly responsible manner.
The day I noticed this happening I had given students 25 minutes to work on their projects. After about 5 minutes, I started walking around checking on students. They were all working on class related materials but almost none were working on the project. They were working on activities for my classroom but it was all activities they would be able to complete from start to finish in that short window of time.
Now that I’ve identified a potential problem I need to figure out some solutions. Last year I had a “build day” where students could take a “field trip” to my classroom (which turned into larger common room space because of signups) where they could take all day to work on the project. Signups were high. Every student worked. The projects were great. The challenge this year will be planning for Social Distancing and the Hybrid model.