Strategy Games and Teaching Metacognition

15 09 2009

The issue of the definition of what a game is has open up many opinions. It has been said that the simplest questions are the most difficult. I would like to apply the lessons of strategy games to teaching.

Is there enough agreement of the definition of the word ‘game’ so it can be used as an adequate metaphor for life or at least some aspects of life? I believe every game has some sort of strategy.  Given that every player suspends disbelief and enters the spirit of the game, every player has a method in which they use to seek to win the game.  Can we assume that this is true with life?  Would it be too much to say that every person has a strategy for life whether they have articulated or not?  Perhaps it is easier to confine this idea to a particular task or assignment.  What is the method or strategy that a person uses to accomplish a puzzle?

I do this often with my students.  As I give them an assignment or a problem I walk around the room and ask them, “What is your method? What is your strategy?”

What I mean to do is for the student to be aware of his thinking method.  I am asking the student to practice metacognition which for many is very difficult.  When asked, “How did you arrive at that conclusion many students would say, ‘I don’t know I just did’”.

Arthur L. Costa says, “We can determine if students are becoming more aware of their own thinking if they are able to describe what goes on in their head when they think. When asked, they can describe what they know and what they need to know. They can describe their plan of action before they begin to solve a problem; they can list the steps and tell where they are in the sequence of a problem solving strategy; they can trace the pathways and blind alleys they took on the road to a problem solution.

They can apply cognitive vocabulary correctly as they describe their thinking skills and strategies. We will hear students using such terms and phrases as: “I have an hypothesis…,” “My theory is…,” “When I compare these points of view…,” “By way of summary…,” “What I need to know is…,” or “The assumptions on which I am working are…”

As an experiment start asking students what their strategy is for simple tasks and ask them the same question for more difficult tasks.  Hopefully as they become used to this and learn to articulate their mental process they can begin to see similar strategies with more complex tasks.

I started today by teaching my students some basic “row” games based on Tic Tac Toe.  We talked about how well known Tic Tac Toe was and transferred this knowledge to more complex games. We discussed how intuitive the rules of these other games were because they had a connection to this simple game.  This laid the groundwork for the principles of learning by drawing on past knowledge and applying it to new situations

Some of those games were:

Abstract Strategy Game Checklist


Dots and Boxes


L Game

3 Spot Game



Tetra Trax















Score Four



Stadium Checkers

Stay Alive

Connect Four

Rubiks Magic Strategy Game

Slide Five




Shift Tac Toe

Today’s goal was to learn how to play three games and to sense the learning process from learning the rules, playing a practice game where they learn to observe, and then to some basic strategy.  When I played one boy a game of Bolix I lead him to a double two way win to demonstrate the depth of a simple (elegant) game.  His response was, “My head hurts”.  In my chess club a similar occurrence happened when the younger students murmured, “This is too hard”. Perhaps Samuel Goldwyn said it well, “If I look confused it’s because I’m thinking.”
Knowing that my pedagogy may be some of the issue, I do recognize that many students do not understand how to learn. This brings me to the quote…..

Thinking is what you do when you do not know the answer”

Intelligent behavior is performed in response to questions and problems in which the answers are NOT immediately known.

This is one reason I teach strategy.  How a person plays a game reflects how they think in other areas.     Plato once said, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.