Gaming the System

All, Teaching Tips

The phrase “gaming the system” has a bad rap. I would argue that teachers should spend more time teaching their students to game the system than comply with it. because, let’s be honest, the system is not designed to support learning and growth. My students reminded me of that fact yesterday after I showed up rather dreading my own classes. Not really a good thing for the teacher, but we weren’t going to do anything fun. There would be no playing games and no digging into texts to find connections with popular culture. Instead the plan was to dig into the department-mandated argument research paper so we covered the two-page detailed common assignment (there are 14 bullet points!) that was not designed by me. Frankly, it has been years since I have shared such a rule-bound assignment with students and it felt wrong — over-focused on compliance and under-focused on thinking and writing — but we forged ahead.

I then covered finding and evaluating sources with one eye toward preparing students for the aforementioned assignment and the other focused on preparing students for another assessment — a department “research” quiz. By that point I had had enough of talking at my students and more than enough of compliance and shifted back to our usual writing workshop approach. Students gathered into small groups to first assemble their list of standards to be used to guide workshop feedback, final deliverables, and achievement reports then to discuss the topics they were exploring, the additional research needed, and potential claims to argue.

As I moved in and out of these conversations I was struck by something pretty momentous. While we had spent the semester focused on games we had done a lot of serious work with text, rules, and analytical thinking in the midst of all that play — and that mixture of work and play had prepared my students for the challenge of crafting complex nuanced arguments supported by diverse academic sources. Through study and play my students had learned to examine an idea from multiple angles, break down the structures and context of a text, and look for complexity and nuance.

While we are nowhere near final drafts and many students are still focused on crafting their claims, I am so proud of their thinking, their confidence in their ability to manage a task that is more challenging and complex than prior deliverables, and the community of writers and thinkers we have created to support this work. It turned out to be a pretty good day after all. Reminding me once again that we reap what we sow. All of the best teachers I know have learned to game the system to make it work for their students, isn’t it time that we taught students how to do so as well?


  • Your process and mindset really resonates with me, Deanna. In my PBL practice, I work in an out-of-school environment, so have fewer hoops to jump through. I’ve never used games as you describe, so thanks for the inspiration! I do ask the students to find connections with pop culture on a regular basis, in both my lit/writing and history classes. We have used combinations of books, graphic novels, picture books, films… to explore genres and mentor texts. I firmly believe learning critical thinking/analytical skills outweighs content any day. Brava!

    • Thank you so much! I don’t know that I will ever be over my love affair with pop culture, but this semester my work with games exceeded all my expectations.

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