An interview with Ron Stadsklev
Upon visiting the reservation of his relative; the young college graduate of quarter-Indian descent is shocked to find the deprivation faced by his full-blooded kin. He is also shocked at the hostility with which he is treated because he is not full-blooded like his relatives. He begins to understand the way his people have been treated while living under the dictates of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Sound like a John Wayne western on the late show? An episode of Daniel Boone with Mingo in the starring role? No, it’s education, 1978 style. The “graduate” is a 10 year-old boy, learning what it’s like to be member of a minority group. It’s a 20 year-old, learning the value of his upper middle class existence. It’s even a 40 year-old, learning how unfounded his prejudices are.
If this form of education sounds somewhat like a game, it is. Simulation gaming (or, games which simulate real life) has in past years been growing as an important means of social education for all ages, and Ron Stadsklev, Coordinator of Experiential Learning in the University’s Institute of Higher Education Research and Services, is a nationally-recognized expert on the topic.
Simulation games like the one above, “Indian Reservation, or Life Today on the Northern Plains” are, according to Stadsklev, “designed to simulate real life situations that most couldn’t experience in real life, like living in a ghetto, planning a marriage and family at age 16, being a politician.” In the room next to Stadsklev’s office in the East Annex is his own personal collection of these experiences; experiences dealing with topics ranging from garbage to crime to preventing the Civil War. These games form a resource reserve for the field of experiential learning composed basically of simulation and instructional gaming.
But how did a man trained in elementary education (with several years’ teaching experience ranging from first grade through graduate school) become involved with social education? “Basically,” Stadsklev said, “I saw the education system I was locked into. I think I saw simulation gaming and instructional gaming as a great technique that moved me out of a stifling situation.”
“My interest in simulation gaming came out of a frustration that all good teachers have – inadequacy, “Stadsklev continued. He said that he, as all teachers, saw the students in his classroom and began to wonder what thing of value they were going to take away from there. They might be able to recite a poem or know the date of some event, but what do they really have to show “I began thinking I could fix broken water mains and serve humanity more.”
So, Ron Stadsklev left the traditional mode of teaching and began to branch out. “It meant working longer hours, “ he admitted, “but I found I could ignore the formal system. I could spend time working hard and learning, with creative work, and be involved in a meaningful way instead of going through the gymnastics of formal education. I was up to here with the inadequacies and meaninglessness of the conventional system.
“If there really is a system, it is just to keep jumping from one log to another — survival,” Stadsklev emphasized . “Just teach them how to survive a day.” And survival is the key to the simulation games themselves, You do not win, you survive. And that emphasis on the practical, Stadsklev feels, is essential to education in the modern world. “Things are improving in education, but our needs are growing even faster.” he noted. “It’s the faster we run, the farther behind we get syndrome. What I wanted to do was look for changes significant enough to catch up with the needs instead of getting us farther behind.”
But has simulation gaming as a classroom teaching method caught on enough to make those significant changes? Not yet, according to Stadsklev. “Of course, no one can really give you any actual figures.” he said, “but because of the system we are locked into and the inadequacy of most teachers as to what training they’ve got, it isn’t used much.”
Things are changing slowly, though. “There is a movement from teacher-centered to student-centered education processes,” Stadsklev noted, “and this is a threat to conventional teachers.” He compared the situation to a ball game where the teachers, who have always held the ball before,suddenly find themselves empty-handed and having to function without advanced preparation. “It is a frightening experience for the unprepared teacher,” Stadsklev said.
But one way the teachers can become prepared is by learning to accept and use the fundamentals of experiential learning through such programs as those set up by Stadsklev and Doris Lyons, his associate and coordinator for Special Projects at the Institute. “We are involved in putting together a resource center second to none in the world when it comes to experiential learning materials for social education,” Stadsklev said. “This is available to the university campus and surrounding areas. Right now, the center is being set up to look at experiential learning techniques for instructional purposes, and the other is experiential learning as it pertains to personnel growth in human relations.”
Stadsklev’s work shows up in a variety of areas. One of his current concerns, is the human potential seminars. “The first visible structure we’ve designed since we’ve been here is our seminars on human potential, on human growth,” he said, “and our great area now comes from those human potential seminars.” According to the seminar brochure, “every person is a gifted person,” and the seminars themselves are designed to bring out the gifted person in every individual who participates. This is done through developing self-confidence, self-motivation, self-determination and regard for other people.
Sponsored by the Alabama Center for Human Potential Seminars and the National Center for Human Potential Seminars (with Stadsklev and Doris Lyons acting as state coordinators), the seminars have thus far met with good response.”We trained University Counseling staff and they are conducting seminars,” Stadsklev said. He and Lyons also, he added, have trained key personnel for University Housing, putting into effect the seminars’ success-oriented process for the dorms. Thus Stadsklev said, this success-oriented process, or “trans-personal education.” is the “cutting edge” for the Institute right now, as well as being gradually accepted as a key educational tool.
But the recognition of the need for social education has not been an easy or rapid process. Nor is it yet in full swing, and Stadsklev is still the exception rather than the rule. “I’ve been considered a rebel in many circles.” he admitted.”The more notoriety I got, the more I need it to express certain convictions I have. The fact that I was able to make a name for myself in that field made people put a label on me.” And make a name he has. While teaching, Stadsklev said he became aware of work by James Colman at Johns Hopkins University in “a really mickey mouse-sounding thing” called educational gaming, But, Stadsklev continued, “my big break came in ’69 when I was selected as one of two teachers in the country to work with the Social Studies Education Consortium (SSEC).” The SSEC, Stadsklev said “is a think tank or clearing house for all social studies curriculum development. That was a place where I could do what I wanted to do and get results without worrying about having a paper pedigree.” Stadsklev said of his work with the Consortium. “They said you become the best simulation gaming expert you can and I got to pick the brains of the greatest in the country.”
That need of freedom in his work, the freedom to work creatively, Stadsklev said, is one thing that held him to The University of Alabama from his position as Associate Professor of Social Education at Concordia College in Seward Nebraska. “Dr. Tom Diener, Director of the Institute, was the basic reason for my coming down here.” he explained. Adding that he had, at the same time, been offered a position with a division of Boston University. “Diener made me a better offer,” Stadsklev said, “It was not in the sense of money, but the man himself; his attitudes and feelings about education. I was given a free hand to work with.”
Much of that “free hand” was initially spent with simulation gaming, Stadsklev’s specialty. One of the products was the development of the “Indian Reservation” game described earlier. Allowing, as in all simulations games, the “people entering into it to experience at least vicariously what they couldn’t do otherwise.”
Another of the early products and one that has continued to to the present, is Stadsklev’s Handbook of Simulation Gaming in Social Education (Part I: Textbook) (Part 2: Directory), which he describes as “the most exhaustive guide to social education materials published to date.” including “sections on what it is – why use it — and how to do it.” The textbook contains essays by such educational gaming experts as James S. Coleman and Garry Shirts (not to mention Ron Stadsklev), while the directory gives listings, descriptions and cross in-dices of 700 games in social education gathered from about the country. Updates to the Handbook are also printed bi-monthly in Simulation/Gaming/News.
And, so far, the Handbook’s first edition (the second edition is now in the works) has been effective, with 26 universities ranging from Sir George Williams University in Montreal, Canada, to Yale Divinity School using it as a text. The University of Alabama, of course, also uses the Handbook, one of the most notable examples being its use as a text in a graduate level psychology seminar in gaming taught by Dr. Michael Dinoff last spring
“The Handbook was five years in the making, and two in the writing.” Stadsklev said of the enormous amount of work and organization that went into the book. “I had been collecting information since ’69 and became most knowledgeable about the field because of the SSEC experience.”
Ron Stadsklev’s gaming is not all work. As a “sideline,” he has also been busy developing two games currently heading for commercial release. It all began with “The American Dream.Game” Stadsklev said. “The American Dream Game” has a unique feature – twenty of the top blue chip companies have made bids, and have thrown willingness to support the game.
“It’s a game about free enterprise.” Stadsklev explained. And, in keeping with the topic, some very large corporations (Coca-Cola and Exxon to name two of the largest) have shown interest. Ironically, he said, this kind of backing is what is needed to produce a game of free enterprise for the crowd with whom Monopoly holds the majority. “It’s easy to make a game better than Monopoly.” Stadsklev stressed. “But you’ve got to have a marketing system. You’ve got to have muscle. The reason I went ahead with ‘The American DreamGame’ is the ‘in’ it had with the big companies.”
A second game Stadsklev has worked up, and one which has potential for massive success if properly marketed, is the “Hobbit Game,” based on the characters of J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary works. A “Tolkien expert,” Stadsklev said, had heard about his work on “The American Dream” and had contacted him absolutely “infatuated with the idea of a Tolkien game.”
At present, the “Hobbit Game” is in the hands of Ballantine Books Company, who are going to produce the game, their first venture of this sort. “There is a hang-up with licensing with the Tolkien people now.” Stadsklev said, adding that the game could be released in conjunction with a Tolkien movie series of greater than Star Wars dimensions. Coordination of these releases would greatly help the sale of Stadsklev’s game, particularly to the crowd not that familiar with Tolkien’s literary work, but who see the movie. “The Tolkien people liked the game,” Stadsklev said, “but now it’s dealing with the bureaucracy again.”
So dealing with bureaucracy from both within the system and without, Ron Stadsklev continues to be a self-admitted rebel, and will be until either he, or the current educational and social system, changes. One gets the distinct impression that the change will not be Stadsklev’s. “I’ve got to be involved in bringing value in education.” he said emphatically. “I could never go back.”