Dark Souls: the Future of Education

Claiming that education can learn some important lessons from a dark fantasy RPG may sound silly, but hear me out.

Here’s the gameplay loop of Dark Souls:

  1. Reach a bonfire. This acts as a checkpoint.
  2. Venture into a new area. Get killed by enemy A. Get sent back to bonfire.
  3. Venture back out into area (henceforth abbreviated as “VBOIA”). Defeat enemy A now that you know his/her position and moveset. Progress a bit, get killed by a swinging axe. Return to bonfire.
  4. VBOIA. Engage enemy A, get killed because you’re still fuming with anger from the swinging axe.
  5. Take a deep breath. VBOIA. Enemy A is dispatched with ease, the axe is carefully avoided. Walk onto a precarious ledge, hear the whump of a crossbow, get hit by bolt, get knocked off ledge, die.
  6. Die a few more times to various enemies and obstacles, returning to the bonfire and V-ing BOIA each time. Eventually, reach the area’s boss.
  7. Enter the boss’ lair (EBL). Hit him/her once with your sword, immediately die to a fatal combo.
  8. VBOIA, EBL. Hit him/her twice with your sword, immediately die to a fatal combo.
  9. VBOIA, die to enemy A.
  10. Continue V-ing BOIA and E-ing BL until, eventually, you manage to defeat the boss with a sliver of your health bar remaining.

Notice that the player is never penalized for failing. Whether dying to enemy A, getting hit by a swinging axe, or being trampled by the boss for the seventeenth time, the only consequence is that the player is sent back to the beginning of the gauntlet to try again. And every time they’re sent back, they’re given an extra chance to practice the entire run over again, improving each time thanks to sheer repetition and the development of muscle memory. Over time finger calluses are developed, reflexes are sharpened, and knowledge of the area is ingrained into the mind. I’ve found that, on subsequent playthroughs, I can return to an area I haven’t seen in months and complete it on the first or second try. That’s the power of the Dark Souls learning process, a process that is somehow brutally punishing and generously forgiving at the same time. The willingness to try a task over and over again until a solution is found is rewarded generously; impatience and an unwillingness to adapt will lead to frustration and failure.

I think the “gameplay loop” of our school system has a lot to learn from the Dark Souls formula. Rather than giving students a prescribed set of content with a deadline to learn it by (as in, the date of the test), give them the flexibility and freedom to approach the challenge at their own pace and with their own mindset. Encourage them to try it repeatedly to figure out what works and what doesn’t; in the same way that different strategies work better for different stages of the game, different critical thinking skills and tools will be better adapted to certain tasks. Emphasize to students that they shouldn’t be afraid to try and fail; the only consequence will be the opportunity to give it another shot. Rather than giving a sink-or-swim assessment at the end of the unit, give students the time and resources to think creatively and from different angles until they find a solution to the task that makes sense to them.

Difficult to implement? Certainly. Learning to face challenges with perseverance and creative thinking, however, is a far more valuable skill than preparing for a prescribed assessment.


The Four-Part Thesis Statement

I was originally exposed to this system by a mentor and former teacher of mine. I’ve found it immensely useful for teaching ninth graders the fundamentals of writing an effective thesis. I’ve made some tweaks and additions to it, but the core steps have remained the same. It’s most applicable to basic argumentative essays about works of literature, but it can be adapted to other types of writing as well without much trouble.

The system is comprised of four basic steps. When I teach the system to students, I tell them that it’s best to write out each component individually and then synthesize them into a cohesive thesis statement.

First, the topic. This is the one component that is usually not directly included in the thesis statement itself, as it simply refers to the theme that the statement is concerned with. Although it is implicit in the thesis statement, having students write out the theme that their essay explores helps to guide the development of the other three components.

Next, the position. This is the stance that students take on the theme they’re exploring. It’s the core of any analytical thesis statement, as it ensures students are actually making an argument rather than a simple observation. Usually, this takes the form of a cause-effect relationship. This is the most important component of a basic argumentative essay, but higher-level pieces like symbol analysis may not have a clear “position” component, as they might skip straight to the “significance” section.

The reasons are the evidence supporting the analytical claim. In an argumentative essay about a work of fiction, this component is made up of textual evidence.

And lastly, the significance. This is usually the most challenging portion for students to address. In this section, the argument about the text is broadened to make a more generalized claim of real-world importance. It often takes the form of a moral claim or an observation about human behavior. Significance is intended to address why we should care about the essay’s argumentative claim.

Here’s a sample of how a student could use this system to outline a thesis statement:

Topic: Belonging/Acceptance in The Jungle Book

Position: Because he possesses the body of a human and the behavioral traits of an animal, Mowgli is barred from fully integrating into any society.

(Notice that this claim displays a clear cause-effect relationship. This is often an effective way to generate an analytical claim. )

Reason: Mowgli is taunted and rejected from the jungle for being a “man-cub”, and the citizens of the village view him as a savage brute.

(In the actual meat of the essay, direct quotes from the text should be included. In the thesis, it’s okay to give a quick overview of the evidence.

Significance: The desire for comfort and familiarity leads people to reject others on the basis of anything that makes them different.

(This claim is a good example of the “human behavior” variety of significance.)

Full Thesis: Because he possesses the body of a human and the behavioral traits of an animal, Mowgli is barred from fully integrating into any society; the animals of the jungle taunt and reject him for being a “man-cub”, and the citizens of the village look down upon him as a savage. This demonstrates that the desire for comfort and familiarity leads people to reject others on the basis of anything that makes them different, from their physical traits to their social behavior.

This is a somewhat cumbersome example, but it does a good job of demonstrating how the four-part method can be used to devise a direct, workable thesis. Oftentimes the components can be combined and pared down to make the statement more succinct.
Incorporating this system into a high school classroom (particularly at the lower levels) helps ensure that students write purposeful analytical essays that aren’t simply making an observation about the text. It strikes a healthy balance between guiding students towards writing effectively and providing them with the freedom to explore their ideas independently.

The Harkness Method and High School Film Classes

The typical high school level film class will, of course, be incorporated into the English department. While this is certainly the most suitable place for such a course, there are some points of drastic divergence as to how the class must be taught compared to the average English class.

The interesting thing about an introductory film course is that in some ways, it resembles a foreign language class more closely than a literature-based English class. In language courses, oftentimes the first two or three years are dedicated to learning the syntax, vocabulary, and structure of a language before having any actual discussions. In the typical high school level English class, knowledge of these concepts is assumed. Now, it would be silly to claim that a beginning film student must spend the first three years of their studies just learning the tropes and visual vocabulary of cinema, but nonetheless a strong foundation must be established before any high-level discourse is held to examine the technical elements of the medium.

So how does Harkness fit into this? My only experience with the method is with 9th grade English students so I can’t discuss all contexts in which it may be useful, but I can say that it isn’t a tool that I’ll be implementing at the outset of my course. The first few weeks will be spent building up a strong visual vocabulary, and the weeks following those will probably center around heavily guided discussion. I want to ensure that we build a strong understanding of the building blocks of cinema, and I fear that leaving students to their own devices will reinforce bad habits of film analysis. Perhaps later on, when I’m sure that students understand the purpose of cinematic analysis and the good habits that go along with it, I’ll give them more room to discuss in a more free flowing manner.

Yet I fear that by restricting free discussion early on I may set a negative tone for the discipline of film studies in general. While a great degree of film analysis involves the systematic deconstruction, there’s also an element of emotional connection to the medium that has to take place in order to analyze it in an original manner. Leaning too far towards the didactic teaching style would, I think, remove too much of this emotional connection. As I discussed in my last post, removing this instinctual link to some degree is crucial, but to do so completely is to destroy one’s ability to empathize with the thrust behind a piece. Perhaps my dilemma concerning Harkness demonstrates this pressure point, and my decisions about how to implement it effectively will turn out to be consequential for my semester-long plan for molding the analytical abilities of my students. If I can strike a productive balance between Harkness-style discussion and traditional classroom techniques, then I can also strike a balance between disconnected analysis and instinctual empathy. That, ultimately, is the reason to teach a film class in the first place.