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    Total play! exploring participation and play in higher education

    Lean, John James (2019) Total play! exploring participation and play in higher education. Doctoral thesis (PhD), Manchester Metropolitan University.


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    This thesis connects the concepts of participation and play in higher education (HE), both of which are familiar themes in education literature. The former is typically seen as a ‘problem’ to be solved (i.e. widening participation), and the latter as a potential ‘solution’ (i.e. games-based learning). I challenge this conception by arguing that the logic of problems and solutions is a symptom of a flawed neoliberal discourse that overlooks much of what happens in universities. Education is often treated as a game, and this metaphor can be developed further by asking how participants actually play it. To do this, I conceptualise play and participation as situated social processes that must be understood in qualitative terms rather than on the basis of impact or results. Using a novel model of the ‘magic circle’ drawn from Huizinga (1949) and Lave and Wenger (1991), and a playful pragmatist methodology influenced by Dewey (1929), I explore the question of how play and participation can influence each other to transform HE. My research data comes from my work with a typical ‘widening participation’ cohort on a foundation degree in Education Studies. Twelve students took part in ten group interviews on the topics of play and educational participation, and I engaged in critical reflective teaching and research practice as I designed playful learning activities for a cohort of eighty students, producing field notes from observations and a reflective teaching journal. Critical thematic and autoethnographic analysis of data suggests that the way in which students and educators respond to the ‘rules of the game’ affects their participation. This thesis makes a contribution to theory through my use of ideas drawn from play (the magic circle, playstyles, Total Play) in the philosophy of HE. It also contributes practically; I argue that play is useful not because it improves results, but because it unlocks new ways of experiencing and thinking about HE. My key conclusion is that if HE really is a game that we all play, we should also play with it.

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