And in the real world, understanding how to make good choices, along with other social skills, may be more important than fact memorization.
Assimilative learning is easier to test for, Blatner says.
But employers won't necessarily be looking at test scores. According to a study done by the Sacramento Regional Research Institute at the California State University of Sacramento, businesses are looking for workers who know how to actively listen, ask questions, find answers and present their solutions clearly.
An employee with strong basic math skills is not as desirable as an employee with "better interpersonal and work ethic skills, more responsible attitude towards their jobs, better problem solving and critical thinking skills, and stronger organizational skills," the survey said.
José Millan, Chancellor of the California Community Colleges, thinks learning by memorization has become so disconnected from real-life applications that it becomes irrelevant to students. "We need to reconnect with the generation who have grown up playing Xboxes," he said in a panel discussion on education this fall. "We need to reach out to them and make [learning] fun ... It doesn't have to be a drudgery. We have to keep them motivated."
Though surrounded by living examples of contextual learning's success, Thomas said there is a time and place for more traditional, rote memorization. "I find myself really conflicted as an educator," she says. "I'm afraid that in the push for contextual learning, we'll lose sight of the fact that sometimes we just need to memorize facts."
If a student at the workshop hasn't memorized his times tables, for example, Thomas bluntly asks him to do so, because it makes more advanced math problems quicker and easier to solve. Not even a calculator can replace the value of that skill, she says.
Learning needs to be balanced between assimilation and accommodation, then. But when only one learning method is tested, and teachers are accountable for only one aspect of education, how much are students missing out on? Seventeen-year-old Adam Littlestone-Luriais is a Game Master In Training at the workshop. For two years, he fought with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a disease with symptoms of severe exhaustion. Even when he was sleeping 18 hours a day, he would drag himself to the Roleplay Workshop to participate.
"I'm incredibly grateful to have had Abantey available to me during these years," he says. "It gave me a community and a chance to engage my mind in something other than the flu-like pain of my illness."
Today Littlestone-Luriais is learning valuable leadership skills and even crisis management skills, which Thomas requires her staff to master. Once he graduates to Game Master, he will be in charge of a table of kids and will create a story for them. "It's ... been a wonderful experience and quite a challenge to learn to be an authority figure and to be able to maintain a fun environment for the players that nevertheless feels safe, controlled and supportive," he says.
Ginsberg has also learned a lot while having fun in the fantasy world of Abantey. "I've somehow managed to improve my self-control, confidence and discipline on the side," he says.
The leadership skills, social skills and creativity these students have learned can't be measured by a standardized test. No studies have been published on the effectiveness of roleplaying in education. There's no formal documentation correlating test scores and contextual learning. But these students will tell you they have performed better because of what they have learned.
Some students are not even aware they are learning as they play. For Thomas, that is one of Abantey's greatest secrets: that learning is fun.
Lacey Coleman is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.