Playing the Game of School

CC Image from Sheila Vick


Just the other day, I read AJ Juliani’s post, “The Game of School vs the Game of Life,” and like so many others (check out the comments at the bottom of his post), I found the topic so provoking that a mere ‘like’ plus a ‘retweet’ just wasn’t good enough.  Juliani’s post questions the “game” that we as educators and even as parents continue to play – one which focuses on content and conformity rather than expression of individuality within a differentiated world. I read his post, reread it and I couldn’t stop thinking, “yes, but games are supposed to be fun.” I watched the short animated film, “Alike” and like Juliani, I was brought to tears (the film is a must view and definitely one to share with your staffs with a nod towards the why we do what we do).

After the third viewing and after the crying (always cathartic for a guy in his fifties), I began to reflect on the film and Juliani’s post, both as an educator and as a parent. What the film makes clear, without the use of words, is that passion and purpose in our schools should not be dependent upon collecting the dots or colouring between the lines. Rather, they should be products of a process that encourages students to connect the dots of their learning (in and out of school); a process that helps students see and appreciate that the time they spend in school is a vital and enriching part of their very real and very important lives; a process that fosters a sense of wonder about the endless possibilities of youth.

Take a look at the film again. Watch it from 4:35 to 4:45 and stop it there. How can you not appreciate the creativity in the young child’s artistic interpretation of the letters, “A, B, C and D”- the C morphing into a magnet then a crescent moon and finally a bug!

What does this mean? Well, only this: the core principle of “the game” should be student engagement and its purpose is personal meaning making and relevance. Within this game, teachers are artists and designers given enough time and support to craft meaningful experiences for students and by extension each other. This is the value added that we as public educators bring to the game – the learning opportunities that we design for our students, every day.

Like Juliani, I spend more time working with adults now than I do with students. However, in working with school based administrators, I have a simple question that I often turn to – one influenced by Sydney Finkelstein’s premise that the primary path to excellence is via great talent fully immersed in creating value: What are you passionate about? Passion and engagement may be innate but they need to be modeled and taught to our students – What does it mean/feel/look like to be in the company of a passionate adult who is rigorously pursuing inquiry in the area of their subject matter and is inviting students along as peers in that adult discourse? 

Passion and engagement are the states of being that underpin all of the educational Cs – collaboration, critical thinking, communication, creativity etc… Without them we cannot empower our students, we cannot help them find their own distinct voices, we cannot acknowledge and appreciate the aesthetic literacy inherent in a child’s drawing of the letter D in the form of a butterfly. It’s really quite simple: passion creates engagement which encourages rigour and leads to mastery.

As it is for Juliani, so it is for me: the game of school is rather personal. I too have kids (Lauren, 19 and Daniel, 16). Despite their age differences, my daughter (and son) like Juliani’s, loves learning. Eventually, they figure it out. A few months back during one of our FaceTime talks, Lauren had an epiphany – the one in which the player finally gets to define the rules of the game. In the flow of our conversation, she said, “Dad, you know, when I was in high school I always wanted to know how much it was worth. Now I find myself asking, is it worth doing?” She is now asking about the purpose of the game and whether or not she should participate within it.

In the end, why should we play the Game of School? Perhaps the answer lies in asking the real question: What is the purpose of an education? Since Lauren is now a sophomore at Smith College, I’ll look for an answer in the words of  former president Carol Christ who, in re-imagining the liberal arts for the 21st century, understood that skill acquisition (and not merely content retention) would have resonance and impact beyond the immediacy of any specific situation or context:

I believed we needed to go beyond the major and emphasize capacities of mind and imagination so that when someone talked about their Smith experience, they didn’t say, ‘I went to Smith and this was my major.’ Rather, I wanted them to say, ‘I went to Smith and these were the fundamental skills that I developed.’

So, the game of school? Let’s argue that it should always be played in the same arena: a place where all of us can pursue our passions and in so doing engage in ways that will allow us to discover and develop our own admirable purposes. These are the fundamental skills that we can develop in a game that’s worth playing!