Stop Teaching Kids to Play the Game of School

By AJ Juliani, 4 comments

Bobby was an 11th grade student in my English class…and he was angry.

“I don’t understand this project, Mr. J. What are we being graded on and when is it due?”

I looked around at the class to see a handful of students just like Bobby. They weren’t used to this. In their 11 years of school, the game had been simple. A teacher like me would tell them what they needed to know, give them some homework and classwork to gauge their understanding, and then review and test them on whatever concept they should have “mastered” by now.

“There is no grade Bobby,” I said. “I want you to learn whatever you want to learn, and share your experience with the class”.

Bobby turned from my gaze towards his backpack and muttered, “this is stupid” under his breath. I could sense the tension in the room…but I wanted to make a simple point to my 11th grade honors students: School isn’t a game to be played…and learning doesn’t always need to have points attached to it. 

If you’ve been following my blog or read my book, you know this scene is when I introduced the “20% Project” to my students for the first time a few years ago. I had many students like Bobby who were frustrated with the notion of learning for learning’s sake…instead of for points. Yet, I don’t blame Bobby or any of the students I had for thinking this way. They’ve been taught since a very young age that school is a game…and if you follow the rules, it is easy to win.

I want to make this clear to teachers and parents right now: Teaching our kids to play the “game of school” will not help them later in life. Instead, it will teach them that learning is measured only extrinsically…and failure is not an option.

This Isn’t A Race

I recently read an article by Oliver Emberton, “Life is a maze, not a marathon“. In this post I continued to substitute the word “life” for “school” as I was reading and it opened my eyes to a simple question: What are we teaching our students about life, through the process of school? Here’s what Emberton has to say:

Imagine if life were a marathon.

There’s a start, a finish, and the faster you run, the further you go: The secret to winning a marathon is to knuckle down and keep going.

Most of us treat life like this, but reality isn’t so two dimensional. Real life has no signs, and no straight lines. There’s just a maze of infinite options:

Some paths, like some careers, take five times longer to get where you want. Some paths, like some relationships, are dead ends.

Are we teaching students that life is a marathon, or a maze? If life is a marathon then maybe our current view on school works…but if life really is a maze (and Emberton makes a good case) then we have to agree on this: Working hard and following the rules is no longer good enough.

How to Shift Away From the Game of School

It’s very easy to criticize something like the “game” of school. We’ve all played it (or resisted it and been labeled failures) on some level throughout our lives. We play similar games in certain jobs and industries as well. Yet, the reality of work right now…and the near future of work…has completely changed what students will be doing once they leave our schools.

In Will Richardson and Rob Mancabelli’s white paper, “Preparing Students for a New World of Work in the 21st Century”, they make this argument:

Schools were built for a time when access to knowledge, information and teachers was scarce, restricted to what we could find in our local libraries and communities. But with the advent of the Web and our growing abundant access to all of those things, the form and function of schools is now in question as the needs of our students begin to shift in some dramatic, important ways.

They continue to make the case for five important shifts in the workforce: The rise of self-employment, rapid job switching, the rise of the robots, works goes mobile, and the employee as their own brand. Each of these shifts make our past education system more and more obsolete.

So, it’s become clear that:

1. Life is not a marathon, and school should not be one either.

2. Work is shifting in ways we can’t truly predict, and students will have to navigate new choices.

Moving away from the game of school has to start with parents and teachers. If we continue to set up the same learning patterns and experiences students will quickly realize the best way to succeed in the school setting is to “play the game”. To move away from the game we have to make three shifts in the way we teach and parents need to support these shifts:

First, we need to give students choice in their learning experiences and support them when they fail.

I cannot stress this enough. The way we naturally learn is by experimenting, failing, and learning from our failures. Having only “one opportunity” to take an assessment is not a natural way to assess understanding or any sort of competency. Having only one “way” to assess is not natural. We learn differently. Let’s respect that in the learning choices we give students.

Second, we need to teach students to treat challenges as opportunities.

This mindset is so important and must be modeled by the adults as well. There will be challenges. Learning is not always easy, in fact it’s usually difficult. But, if we treat challenges as new opportunities we’ll also be preparing students to overcome those challenges once they leave our schools and go through the maze of life.

Third, we then can teach students how to make their own game…instead of playing in a pre-designed one.

Think of the really successful people in our world. Most of the time, they re-defined what success could be and what it could look like. Many of them did not “wait for their turn” or “pay their dues”. Sure, there was trial and tribulation and tough times. But they made choices to take a different path to success. They created their own game and changed the rules.

I’ve been wrestling with these ideas as a teacher and a parent for the past seven years. I’ve had conversations with my students, and my own siblings, about the “game of school”. I recently put these ideas and steps to break out of the game into a new book I’m writing, Scratch Your Itch. My hope is this book will be something that will inspire students, young people, and those that are treating life like a marathon to take a different approach. I’m giving it away for free to those who receive my email newsletter, sign-up here if you’d like a copy when it is released.

Let’s start working towards an experience for our young people to create and play their own game, instead of one we create for them.

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