Connor "C_Cage" Howard
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Special Education Teacher, Boston Uprising Supporter, TIME Person of the Year (2006)
· 3 min read

Why Dungeons & Dragons Is A Surprisingly Effective Educational Tool

The start of a series on the educational uses for games.

Why Dungeons & Dragons Is A Surprisingly Effective Educational Tool

Introduction

Every Tuesday for the past two years, I have played Dungeons and Dragons with a group of my high school friends. These sessions typically last between two and four hours, and are often my favorite part of the entire week.

For one of my grad classes last year, I was tasked with coming up with a non-traditional lesson plan to be used for a small-group reading lesson, perform this lesson, and report back the results. I really wanted to work on one that I had never seen before, something that was entirely original. Well, one Tuesday night, I wondered if I could teach my students how to play DnD.

For some context, I am a special education teacher. I focus mainly on students with both learning and behavioral disabilities so severe that they are not able to attend public school. Their disabilities also lead to several social issues amongst their peers. Because of this population that I work with, I have never had a "typical classroom".

The Planning

After some brief planning, I purchased the DnD Starter Set from Amazon. I went this route because the starter set comes with pre-made characters which ended up being a huge time-saver.

I gave the kids their character sheets, and told them to come up with a brief backstory for their characters. I gave them some ideas to bounce off of, and then told them to work on it for about ten minutes and let me know what they came up with.

This is where the kids started to blow me away. These are kids that would throw a fit (or a table) when you put a piece of work in front of them. In the rare instances where they actually put a pencil to a piece of paper, they would write the absolute minimum in order to be done quickly.

This was not the case here. These three students created very in-depth backstories that included in materials from their history lessons, movies and television programs that they watched at home, and inside jokes from throughout the school year in order to create a character that was fully developed. They even included motives for their character to be on the adventure in the first place. Needless to say, I was very impressed.

The Game

This is where I got really excited. The starter set included The Lost Mines of Phandelver campaign which is what I ran for this experiment. As I mentioned above, these students have social issues that have an impact on their peer relationships. You know who didn't have any social issues? Their characters. As soon as I encouraged them to speak in character, they assumed the roles of the brave warrior, wizard, and cleric they created. They spoke in character the entire time, even when they became frustrated due to a bad roll or something happening to a party member.

I became lost in the story we were creating together. The walls between student and teacher were removed and we all embarked on an epic journey together.

Before we knew it, the end of the day was here. I had to get them onto their buses, so we ended the session for the day. Before I did that, I gave them a homework assignment: Create a diary page for your character covering the events in the campaign today. Focus on how your character felt during the situation as well as what you think their relationship to their fellow adventurers is.

The Data

After one session of the game, I knew I had came up with the perfect lesson for my class. We ended up playing for about two weeks, long after I turned in my assignment. I took notes on each session, as well as their performance in classes after we finished. After looking over my notes, I came up with these ways as to how DnD helps in an educational setting:

  1. It got them writing
    It gave them a writing prompt that they can relate to as well as be invested in
  2. It got them talking to their peers
    Social interaction is not an easy skill for them, but in the context of a game it made it fun and exciting
  3. It helped with basic math skills
    Their addition and subtraction skills increased slightly due to the constant adding and subtracting of numbers from dice rolls.
  4. It got them reading
    Although these students were fairly skilled readers, they did not practice often. When I gave them the rulebook to look over, they all read it without any hesitation.

Conclusion

Dungeons and Dragons ended up being a very effective way to help my students with reading, writing, and math skills. However, when I ran it, I had a good relationship with the group that I chose and I knew that they had the capacity for such a complex game. That being said, it is absolutely possible to adapt the game to any situation. I'm very interested to hear your thoughts on this topic. Hit me up on Twitter @CCageGaming and let me know!