Tools of the Mind: How the Future of Education is in RPGs

It may not have swords and dragons, but the future of education looks more like drama class than a lecture hall. In 2009’s Nuture Shock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman spend a long time following a promising teaching method called Tools of the Mind, originally developed by Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Merryman discusses the process of how kids are engaged through Tools of the Mind in this interview.

So for “Tools of the Mind,” which is Elena and Debbie’s program, they have kids go through a scenario. Like they’ll decorate the classroom like a firehouse, and they’ll spend a week talking to the kids about fire stations. Maybe a fireman came and gave a lecture, or they went to a fire station.

Then they have this week where they can play fireman. They say, “Okay, who are you going to be?” And one of the boys says “I am going to be the fireman” and the other kid says, “Well, I am going to be rescued.” The other kid says, “Well, I am going to be the dispatcher, the 911—I tell people where to go.” Then they have to role play that through for a half an hour. And they stay in character.

Nurture Shock
Nurture Shock by Bronson and Merryman is a great book on child development.

Sounds like a role playing game, doesn’t it? Another article in the NY Times describes it this way.

“At the heart of the Tools of the Mind methodology is a simple but surprising idea: that the key to developing self-regulation is play, and lots of it. But not just any play. The necessary ingredient is what Leong and Bodrova call “mature dramatic play”: complex, extended make-believe scenarios, involving multiple children and lasting for hours, even days.”

For very young kids, Tools of the Mind has been shown to reduce agression, increase self-regulation, and promote vocabulary and spelling. To me this makes sense. It is much easier and less frustrating to grasp a new subject or skill when you need to learn it in order to complete a higher level objective. In school, learning itself is the objective and that seems backward and perverse.  It comes out in the “when are we ever going to us this?” complaint heard in math classes everywhere.  Structured “pretend” time or role playing helps manufacture that need where it didn’t exist before, and according to research, that’s enough.  The only trick now is trying to come up with innovative role playing scenarios or games to learn every subject.  Here are some ideas for various ages:

1.  History – Have them play war games out to learn the mechanics of war, but also have them role play out the damage done to to families by war.

2.  Math – Have a casino party to learn probabilities.  Good games are roulette and craps.  If you think it would promote gambling among students, then you probably don’t understand the math enough either.

3.  Vocabulary – Who’s Line is it Anyway?, a sketch comedy game show, used to have a great game called “party quirks” where one person was the host of a party and three guests were some person, place or thing and had to act it out until the host guessed who they were.

Role playing exercises in school can improve behavior and enhance literacy skills
Role playing exercises in school can improve behavior and enhance literacy skills


In relation to Dungeon Adventure, there are lots of ways these ideas can be incorporated into it to make it more educational.  For example:
1.  Money management
2.  Mathematics to keep track of hit points, probabilities
3.  Expansion of vocabulary, especially if you target certain words or phrases

What are some tools you have used in Dungeon Adventure that your child was able to take away and use later?

2 thoughts on “Tools of the Mind: How the Future of Education is in RPGs”

  1. I have been thinking this for quite awhile now. I see a fantasy RPG as a stepping off place for a number of subjects. You could have it set in a alternate history, then challenge them to see how this differs from our actual history. Writing about the adventures touches LA. There is all sorts of math involved. It also involves critical thinking and problem solving.

  2. Of course, using something in the real world is the best way to learn but you don’t always have those needs. Role play is the best way to generate them.

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