School as Punishment or Puzzle

The famous Jet D'Eau of Geneva
The Jet D'Eau of Geneva

Week one of my residency in Geneva is done, but I still have thoughts from the first day rattling through my head. Despite my instructor’s best efforts to reduce our brains to pulp with some intense Rails instruction, I can’t stop thinking about something discussed last Monday.

We were introduced to the simplest understanding of game theory and it’s applications to education. The first slide was just one of many definitions of a game; “a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles, in which the outcome is uncertain at the outset, is a
game.” This makes sense to me. I play games with a large portion of my free time, and like any other addiction hobby, the unnecessary obstacles are what makes games so intriquing to me. Whether it’s a simple jump to make, or a complicated logic puzzle, I enjoy the false sense of pride that I earn when I cane figure out a puzzle or challenge in a video game. I often make the analogy to teaching and learning. We as teachers are asked to place unnecessary obstacles in the way of our students everyday, a sentiment that was reinforced by my professors.

The real fun came at the last slide which gave a basic definition for punishment; involuntary attempts to overcome unnecessary obstacles. Something that teachers do everyday without perhaps even a second thought. Not that our curriculum or projects are based around creating punishing opportunities for our students, but in the act of our everyday management of classrooms and/or immediate learning goals, we often find ourselves resorting to punishing forms of education. Which of course, is entirely discouraging to me. Especially when it seems that turning education into a game, or a puzzle would be so much more rewarding, both for myself and my students.

The reality of the situation is that given the time frame I have with my students (45 minutes at a time), it can often be easy to lose sight of the forest for all the “trees” of immediacy.  Obviously, I don’t want to create punishing opportunities for my students, despite the small number of learners that actually enjoy having unnecessary obstacles and tasks thrown in their direction. My professors believe that instruction should be puzzle and game centric. More specifically, education should be focused on simulation and emulation of real world scenarios.

In retrospect, this isn’t a very earth-shattering post, just a reflection of some of my thoughts this past week. Would I love to be crafty enough, possess enough raw energy, and have enough free time to create wonderfully engaging puzzles and projects with which to educate my students? SURE! Is it going to happen overnight? Nope, but I’ll give it a good try this fall.


  1. Great post Ben,
    The difference is in words is small, but the result is significant isn’t it. That fact is that K-12 education is largely involuntary for our students. I know I look at my collage career in a completely different light because I choose to go to collage, I choose the course of study. What can we do in our classrooms to give out students the autonomy they need? That’s what we are talking about here right? Autonomy? The problem is, would students choose to learn?

    John, I don’t think it is about letting them ponder the answer, it’s about letting them choose to ask the question.
    .-= Chris Eldred´s last blog ..Moodle Mash-Up =-.

  2. The key for me is getting students interested in the goal so they want to overcome the obstacles. I don’t even put them in place. If I get them motivated towards doing the right thing a lot of that takes care of itself.

    Not that coming up with the right questions is easy, nor building up to the point where they’ll even try this after years of passive participation in school.

    It is awesome you’re in Geneva and learning Rails. I’m quite jealous. Enjoy it.
    .-= Tom´s last blog ..The School Network =-.

  3. It is a way of learning be exploring the various possibilities yourself. Not spoon feeding per se. It is a better way to learn. The most challenging but the best way to learn.

  4. When I was a College student, I have a Professor which always gives us a headache question during every start of his class. He always makes a deal with us like. If we don’t try to answer it, we cannot know the answer to it as well. If no body tries to answer there will be no class discussion but a quiz. So we have no choice but to think and study harder for us to know the answer to those headache questions. As with that, it really makes me think critically because I learned how to reason out and depend my answers which I think is a good way of learning. So giving a puzzle to a student for them to do is a good way of teaching them, in my opinion.
    .-= Mikaela´s last undefined ..If you register your site for free at =-.

  5. Education thru games and rewards could bear good fruits. It could enhance the interest of its student to go beyond their regular capabilities and meet challenges that may come in their way in the course of learning. Anticipating there is a price after a hard work can motivate those young minds. In the other hand, punishment can block any interest that the student may have in learning further.

  6. Geneva is sure a pretty place to settle down. It had been long since I’ve left my town and wandered abroad. I just can’t wait to go back home now.

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