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A School That Ditches All the Rules, But Not the Rigor

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PlayMaker School
PlayMaker School

How can we make school a joyful experience without sacrificing rigor? What's the best way to measure true learning? What's the purpose of school? The founders and teachers at the PlayMaker School (watch the PBS Newshour report by April Brown), an all-game based school in Los Angeles, are asking those big, abstract questions that all teachers grapple with. And they're trying to find their own answers through their constantly morphing, complex experiment.

Here are their thoughts about these issues, in their own words, from extended answers to the PBS NewsHour report. How can teachers, parents, and administrators these ideologies to existing public schools?


Tedd Wakeman/PlayMaker co-teacher

We’ve always defined, as an educational community, rigor as being a lot of hard drudgery, what we consider really hard work, taking engagement and interests completely out of the equation and saying, "If we see kids who are sitting at their desks and they're just writing

Tedd Wakeman
Tedd Wakeman

a ton or they're doing a bunch of research, if they just look kind of upset, if they look like they are not enjoying themselves, then there is rigorous things going on in that classroom." That’s a real problem.


We need to stop defining rigor as busywork, as kids knuckling down to the pressure and the drudgery of school. At the end of the year, there is this huge binder of notes and diagrams from PowerPoint exhibits, stuff that kids worked all year on. I’ve talked to kids here who have produced an artifact like that. To the outside community, even in many ways to the inside community, that looks rigorous because, look at what you produced.

But when we talk to those kids, when we ask, "What are your retaining from this? What do you feel, what are some of the big concepts that you came away with, and how are you applying those in your life in your lives every day," they can’t tell you. They know that they did this thing and they got a good grade on it but they can’t tell you what they are going to do with that. And yet to the more traditional educational community, that’s viewed as rigor.

We would much rather define rigor as the pursuit of solving a really difficult task that you care about solving. And that persistence can be taught in that way as opposed to, "Yeah, let’s teach kids persistence by having them do this thing that they couldn’t care less about, but it’s really hard and just if you can survive it, that’s persistence."

Lucien Vattel, CEO and founder of Game Desk, and Playmaker

I think of rigor in a very hyper-dimensional way. It's not just acquisition, which is what a lot schools especially at the K-12 level focus on -- the ability to retain intellectual knowledge to be able to communicate that intellectual knowledge back. That works very well for the test-taking society.

Being a highly knowledgeable and highly adaptive, self-driven, well-rounded human being. That is my definition of rigor. What we get at is the absolute best route to rigor because the information is not changing. We are not teaching less -- in many cases we are teaching more -- it’s how we are teaching it and what kinds of additional knowledge skills and abilities are

Lucien Vattel
Lucien Vattel

enabled by engaging it in an interactive, authentic way that's more life reflective, that gets us to a person who can be driven by their own passions, who can understand things at a complex level to be able to engage in discourse at a complex level and to be able to negotiate that information and their emotions, and their interpersonal relationships, and inter-business relationships at a high level. So if you think about that level of rigor, all of those skills at that adaptive level lead to entrepreneurialism, lead to the ability to lead in a variety of contexts, take on very complex and deeply difficult situations, to be able to take on new situations and also be able to engage in what you’ve learned in a way that allows you to perfect your knowledge so that it never stops and that you are constantly driven to do. That, to me, that’s rigor.



Tedd Wakeman/PlayMaker co-teacher

We are trying to prepare kids for a future where the problems are problems that we can’t really even imagine. That’s a really difficult task, and certainly isn’t going to be solved using the techniques that created those problems. It's certainly not going to be solved using the strategies and approaches to education that we employed in the 1950s.

What does sitting in desks, and an authoritarian teacher, kids in rows facing the chalkboard, regurgitating information, what does that produce? What do grades produce in kids? Do they produce kids that are curious and creative and want to take risks? Or do they produce kids who know how to get the A and are going to just to do that, and real self esteem issues for those kids who can’t get the As.

What does it mean when we try to define lifelong learning? We’re preparing kids to be lifelong learners, then we don’t prepare them for that by developing strategies that actually have them hate learning and equate hatred with school?

By the time they get out of 12th grade -- and granted there are people around the country that are doing good things, and there are memorable teachers along that path and memorable classes, certainly -- but as an educational community as a whole, why are kids surviving this? It’s happening to them. So the reason that [PlayMaker School] works is because agency and value and relevance are things that we all value as adults. Why on earth would we not value them as kids?

PlayMaker School


Tedd Wakeman/PlayMaker co-teacher

Developing those first principles [in our school] -- what are you trying to achieve -- and having some sort of set of beliefs, ideal things that you are not willing to budge on, for us that’s engagement. For us, that’s problem solving, creating meaning, making connections, and that’s all driven by a sense of curiosity, persistence and creativity. If you take those fundamental beliefs, and everything that you create, you hold them up to that and you say, "Are we hitting this?" Are we hitting this every day, and then taking a playful approach? Think about what’s engaging. Be willing to change it when it doesn’t work. Be willing to allow the kids to change it. Be willing to allow the kids to have agency in that process. Don’t make them passive members of this unit that you are hanging out with every day.

But it is hard if you are bound by standards, if you are bound by test scores, if you are bound by all these things. I won’t dance around it… I will tell you, "Stand up, it’s time to revolutionize this." There are people that are sort of enforcing these rules and regulations on education, the barnacles that have attached themselves to education. We’ve got to scrape those off. So question, question, question. And I think we can make a real change.



Nolan Windham, 11 years old, 6th grade in Playmaker.
One of the differences here is that knowledge and facts are not what everything is based around. Yeah, it can be interesting to know when Christopher Columbus settled America, but it’s not

Nolan Windham
Nolan Windham

really going to be that useful in those situations and there's something called Google that you can use to look that up anytime you want… I’m not saying that facts are not important. Those are definitely important, like your times tables, like basic facts and things that will actually be useful and are definitely important.

One of the main things that we're doing this year is we’re figuring how to learn that, but also to think about what that means. We’re thinking about how when we take in information, how to process it and how to create information and how to create media, how to create different things, and that’s what you are doing in your adult life. You're taking in things, you're taking in information, you're taking in food, you're taking in money and you're giving out services, ideas like physical labor. Just all of those things you are giving and taking in, but here you are really learning the internal processing. How all these things work together and what they mean.

If everyone could do [have self-directed learning], I think that there would be so many more people that actually like school. Like I remember there was one parent from last year, a lot of them were nervous even this year, [thinking] 'I’m not sure if this is going to work. I’m not sure, how are you guys just playing games all day? Are you guys just doing things for fun are you actually learning anything? And are you taking tests, are you looking at papers?'

Yeah, we’re doing that but it doesn’t mean that we’re not learning. It’s just a different way. Just because we’re not using papers, just because it’s not traditional means that it doesn’t work. I mean change is necessary. This is really, this is really old type of learning. This was great for back in the 1900s when you needed a system of people that knew math and writing and all those basic things that you need, and it worked really well for that, but it never changed. We never evolved with the rest of the people on earth changing as well, and that’s what I think this is. I think this is really evolving with that. So when the year was over, the parent was so happy and they said, "I’ve never seen my kid so excited to go to school."

Isaac Prevatt, 12 years old.

One thing I really love, the thing where you are doing stuff that you love doing, at the end of the day, you're like, 'Oh my gosh I just learned so much stuff today,' but you didn’t feel like you were doing it all.

Isaac Prevatt
Isaac Prevatt

So like the last couple of days we did the thing called Geo-Guesser. It teaches you to expand your mind to think about things differently. For instance, normally when I’m walking down the street, I see a sign and I don’t really care because I’m not driving. But when you play this game, you see a stop sign, let’s think about this. So it’s not written in English, let’s figure out what language this is. Put it in Google translate and  figure it out. That’s one thing that they are really trying to incorporate this year, is thinking about things differently.

One of the electives I have is yearbook and I always go in there and talk to 7th and 8th graders, and they're like, 'Wow, are you seriously 12?' They really see a difference in me maturing, and I really feel a difference.  I feel like it’s really being thoughtful, you're not just learning, you're really learning it in a different perspective than normally, and I feel like that’s really made a huge difference."

To learn more about the PlayMaker School, watch the PBS NewsHour report.


Image credit: Greg Waigand for top image; Mike Fritz for all other images.

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