The importance of interpretation (or what Telephone-Pictionary can teach us about the past)

By: Kelsey

In-class activities are very popular among progressive educators and it’s easy, intuitive even, to understand why. Instead of sitting and letting someone lecture you (the student) for an hour or two about the Incas or linear regressions or the Mesozoic you get to DO SOMETHING. Maybe you get to chat to your neighbor about a reading or write down your thoughts or even discuss a contentious subject with the entire class. It’s taking the communication skills honed by Twitter and Facebook and using them to critically think about class materials.

My favorite in-class activities involve games. Whether it’s the infamous finite resource candy games (there are a variety) or the great clade race, games engage the brain on a social level with classmates AND on an intellectual level with a theory or process. So, not only is the student engaged, they are having fun while learning and they are much more likely to remember the content.

Backgammon, back in the day!
Timeless fun! Source: Heidelberg University Library

One subject easily missed by students in archaeology, paleontology, and anthropology classes is bias – specifically, how interpretation of artifacts (or remains) is dependent upon the person, time period, and accuracy of any measuring device used. These processes do not discredit previous or all interpretations of a fossil or archaeological site, but illuminate the importance of knowing your discipline’s history and the strength of many viewpoints.

To get these points across, I suggest using the game of Telephone-Pictionary, specifically the version I played Saturday night at a colleague’s eighth annual cheese party. In this version of the game you each have a stack of cards equaling the number of people in the group. For a class this means dividing the class into groups of 6-10 people. It is easier if the numbers are even, but not essential. Each person writes a phrase. The phrase should have something to do with the class material. Each person then passes his/her stack to the next person, who reads the sentence, puts the card in the back of the stack, and then DRAWS a representation of the sentence. After everyone has done this, the cards are passed again; the next person sees the picture only, puts that card in the back of the stack, and then WRITES a phrase interpreting the drawing. The rounds continue, alternating pictures and phrases, until each person gets back their original sentence.

Finally, everyone goes around sharing the sequence of sentences and pictures. Some will be surprisingly accurate (e.g., “The unicorn loves going to the cheese party” stayed the same), whereas others will be way off the mark (e.g.,  “the frog waited for the party” turned into “the giant frog was slayed by the mailman in front of the apartment”).

This game can reveal the importance of going back to the original source and how a small error of interpretation can be conflated into something completely different. You can then ask students about “real world” examples. There may be silence at first, but when someone points out the latest dead celebrity rumor or health craze or scientific “fact” that was proven to maybe not be as true as people thought, you’ll easily run out of time to explore all the examples.

And, perhaps, next time one of those students throws a party and is preparing the cards for Pictionary, they’ll remember your lesson on bias and tell their friends. This is helpful step towards creating an educated society. All it takes is a couple games.

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