Learning in a Dungeon (sometimes from a Dragon).

My introduction to a knowledge rich education

For those who know me, this next statement will come as no surprise. I really love Dungeons and Dragons. I have been playing for the majority of my life, starting when I was 8 or 9 in the late 80s with the old Basics Red Box set before moving on to Advanced Dungeons and Dragons just as the second edition was published. That saw me through my teenage years with the third edition coming out as I headed of to university (who needs nightclubs when you have a twenty sided dice, am I right?). Then came the forth edition and the decline in the interest in the game but then, in time for a global pandemic, the fifth edition had arrived and once again D&D was everywhere. It is filling up platforms with podcasts, shops with books and twitter with debates over class combinations. As people were forced online by the Corona Virus and looking for new things to do together, thousands returned to a game they grew up with and thousands more joined them in playing for the first time. It is great to see the game back.

For those who know me, this next statement may come as more of a surprise. I think there is a lot children can learn by playing Dungeons and Dragons. “Hold up” I hear you cry (possibly by using a sending stone or the message spell) “Didn’t you tell us that you didn’t believe in fun lessons and didn’t you take umbrage at someone who suggested we learn best from playing games in class?” Well yes. Yes I did. And I stick by that as stubbornly as a dwarf sticks to Moradin. I don’t think we need to include Dungeons and Dragons on the curriculum or start playing a campaign in our geography lessons (although that would be awesome). But I do think it is something we should support in schools the same way we support other extra-curricular activities that we view as positive to young people. And I would (and will) argue that D&D is hugely positive for young people. After playing it through my formative years I am pretty convinced that it played a pretty big role in educating me and left me with my love of a knowledge-rich curriculum.

For a start, Dungeons and Dragons involves reading. A lot. Want to play a wizard in your next game? You’d better read these densely packed 6 pages on it, followed by the chapter on using magic and then the sprawling appendix of spells. Whilst you are reading this you will come across words like Invoke, Evoke and Transmute. Reading the recent publication The Mythic Odysseys of Theros, I was struck by the language and ideas that a new generation were being introduced to. How great would it be to have pupils who already knew what an Archetype was and how they fed into the ideas of myths and literature? Would it mean that each and every one of them would rush out to read A Hero with a Thousand Faces? Probably not, but it means that should they come across it they will find the ideas less daunting.

Introducing a new generation to the ideas of myths, legends and allusions.

Then we start hitting some numeracy. You want to cast one of those spells in a game? I hope you have worked out the area of effect and checked the range? How many creatures does it damage? Do you need to divide the damage between those creatures? Go on, quickly and without a calculator. Does your barbarian need to cross that rope bridge? How much does she weigh with her equipment? What are the odds of crossing this bridge vs the odds of scaling that wall? Best quickly work it out. Whilst dodging arrows.

One of my first introductions to geography wasn’t a lesson at school but the old Wilderness Survival Guide which included discussions of different terrains and the hazards found within. It also discussed world building and how the Dungeon Master (who runs the game) needed to create a believable world so had to consider things like hydrology and weather patterns. I was ten – but happily working out the impact of the rain shadow created by Dragon Mountains and the arid land left behind them. The old Dragon magazines contained descriptions of eco-systems in fantastical settings but that were expected to obey real world rules. That old dragon lurking in a dungeon was going to have to eat something and there would be a consequence if its food source became depleted (when the adventurers came along and killed them off). I was introduced to ideas like apex predator and the idea of balance in a system.

Beyond all the substantive knowledge that the game taught me, there are all of the soft skills that develop through socialisation. Those things that we don’t need a school to teach because we usually learn them by being around people. Dungeons and Dragons meant I was around people, and a wide range of people, a lot. I had to learn the skills of conflict resolution when the wizard wanted to throw a fireball at the group of orcs that the bard was trying to talk to. I needed to work as a group to solve puzzles and see how our individual strengths could be combined to overcome challenges. We had ethical debates about the nature of evil and to what extent the ends could justify the means (usually when that wizard had a pyromaniac gleam in his eye). All of this is found in groups of people playing Dungeons and Dragons and what has been good to see is the diversity of such groups increasing. People of different genders, ethnicities and backgrounds mixing together with one goal, kill the dragon, loot the dungeon and have some fun telling stories together.

I could continue listing all the thing that I learnt from playing Dungeons and Dragons until the Deep Rothe cattle came home but I hope you are convinced that Dungeons and Dragons is something we want our young people playing. It is the kind of hobby we want to encourage – young people sat around together, talking, reading, telling stories, thinking and learning about the world. So how do we encourage it? Firstly, we can provide a safe space for young people to play it. Even in these Covid times we may be able to do this within year group bubbles after school. There is certainly a demand for it. Last year alone I had 4 different groups of students asking if they could set up a D&D club. Secondly, we can make sure that there are the resources available for people to use. Schools will often provide sports equipment for after school clubs so why not a few sets of the Dungeons and Dragons books for the school library and a copy or two of the Starter Set and Essentials Kit?

As much as I would love to drop my curriculum and teach geography by playing endless games of Dungeons and Dragons, I know it is a terrible idea. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate that people do learn a huge amount outside of my lessons and that I can’t do my best to encourage and celebrate this. I would challenge anyone to name a hobby that better fits into an appreciation of a knowledge rich curriculum than Dungeons and Dragons.

One thought on “Learning in a Dungeon (sometimes from a Dragon).

  1. Your formative years seem to have mirrored mine, Mark… many people may call us sad individuals, but D & D, and the ubiquitous Tolkien shaped my love of maps and the love of landscapes – mountains, streams, rolling hills – and dragons, ofcourse!
    Love your work. Thank you for how you are shaping Geography teaching for the better – from an old Paladin!

    Liked by 1 person

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