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A Problem-Solving Game For Teachers and Administrators

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By Gayle Allen

Earlier, I wrote about four activities teachers and school leaders can use to jump-start creative problem-solving in teams. Given the increased pressure on educators to innovate, the goals for each activity were to build or deepen skills associated with that work. Readers expressed particular interest in one of these activities, so I wanted to do a deep dive and provide additional information.

This activity grew out of my work with teachers and school leaders to identify effective solutions to school problems. Over time, I became curious about how schools might make pain points visible, in order to tap into educators’ collective wisdom to solve them. I wondered, too, if we could structure this problem-solving in such a way that everyone’s voice would be heard. Finally, I wondered if there might be a way to make it a fun and creative game. That’s where a set of index cards comes in.

Game Objective

To identify as many creative solutions to pain points as possible by pairing each to a relevant observation.


Rules of the Game

1. Each team plays with an identical set of cards.
2. Each deck of cards will be developed in advance of game play.
3. Every stakeholder will have an opportunity to contribute cards to the deck. This ensures that all pain points are made public.
4. Observations are neutral. There is no such thing as a “bad” observation.
As many stakeholders as possible -- teachers, staff, administrators, students, parents, families, board members, etc. -- will participate, so that everyone can be part of the solution.
5. Team size is determined by the amount of time for card play and by the total number of cards per deck.
6. Teams should be no larger than six and no smaller than two.

How to Build the Deck

1. There are two types of cards in every deck, Pain Point and Observation cards.
2. Each deck will include an equal number of Pain Point and Observation cards.
3. Create cards using index cards or, if card players prefer, an online note tool, like Evernote.
4. Cards will be highly readable, and pain points and observations will make sense to everyone. This is especially important if game play will include teachers from across the district or stakeholders from outside the school.
5. Everyone who plays the game will have an opportunity to create cards for the deck. Players are more invested if they can contribute pain points and observations.
6. Time will be provided for everyone to create cards. It’s best to request cards in advance of game day, although game facilitators can also build time into the day to allow everyone to build the deck.

Building Pain Point Cards

Sample Pain Point card (Courtesy of Gayle Allen)
Sample Pain Point card (Courtesy of Gayle Allen)

Every Pain Point card should include the following:

-The title “Pain Point” so that players know it’s not an observation
-Problem question or statement. Examples include: “How can we find more time for community service in the middle school?” or “Laptop carts are also signed out in the high school. We don’t have enough carts for all students and teachers.”
-Tags. Possible tags for the sample two cards would include community service, middle school, laptop carts and high school.

For those addressing issues beyond their immediate school, include the school level (e.g., elementary, middle, high school, etc.) to avoid confusion. Knowing the school level will allow stakeholders unfamiliar with pain points and observations associated with that school to tailor their solutions.

Building Observation Cards

Sample Observation card (Courtesy of Gayle Allen)
Sample Observation card (Courtesy of Gayle Allen)

Every Observation card should include the following:

-The title “Observation” so players know it’s not a pain point.
-Neutral observation statement or question. Examples include: ““We don’t provide language classes in the elementary school” or “Why are there so few girls in AP Computer Science in our high school?”
-Tags. Possible tags for the sample two cards would include language classes, elementary school, girls, high school and AP Computer Science.

If relevant, be sure to include the school level (e.g., elementary, middle, high school, etc.) or grade.

Instructions for Play

1. To start, provide each team with an identical deck of cards. Keep team sizes to no more than six and no fewer than two. Size should be determined by the number of cards in the set – larger teams if deck size is 20 or more – and the amount of time allotted. The goal is for each team to work through the entire set of cards. Not all Pain Point cards will have a potentially matching Observation card. Set those cards aside and work with the matching pairs.

2. Each team should identify a note taker before the activity begins.

3. Provide at least one hour for this activity. Remember that participants will need time to read each card in the deck, to sort and re-sort cards, to think through and process with one another all the possible connections between the Pain Point and Observation cards, and to record connections and solutions. Rushing the process will make it more difficult for participants to be creative and to engage in the types of discussions needed to work through their ideas.

4. Provide time at the end for each team to share out at least one innovative solution. If possible, ask teams to post or tape all solutions and connections on a board or wall. Then ask all teams to do a gallery walk around the room, in order to learn from other teams.

5. Be sure to gather everyone’s recordings at the end of the activity. Facilitators create a shared document, like a Google doc, to which everyone can contribute. They can also collect hard-copy recordings and add the information to a shared document. Announce the timeline for how you will analyze this information and report back to everyone, and any other next steps. Facilitators can follow up at schoolwide meetings to lay out findings and next steps. Participants will be more engaged if they know there will be follow-up and that their solutions may be implemented.

Every time you do this activity, it should take less time, since participants will know what to expect, will have a stronger skill set in making creative connections, and will have a smaller deck of cards (there should be fewer Pain Points as time goes on).

Three Examples

1. A middle school loses a dedicated maker space to a much needed classroom due to increased enrollment. A team reads through their cards and looks for patterns. They notice that several cards include the tags of "physical space." They put them to one side and read through them together. They wonder if they can find a way, as a group of teachers, to get creative with their classrooms by building a pop-up maker space schedule. While they don’t yet have all the answers, they know there’s something there. They pair up the cards, write up the connection, along with a draft of their solution -- a classroom “timeshare” -- and then move on to the other cards.

Sample Pain Point card (Courtesy of Gayle Allen)
Sample Pain Point card and Observation cards.(Courtesy of Gayle Allen)

2. Another team gets caught up in the computer programming Pain Point. Several members of the team have read articles about online resources for learning how to code. This prompts another member of the group to look at the card tags more closely. She sees one focused on online resources and asks the group what it thinks. Immediately, another group member brings up the idea of creating an after-school programming club, open to all high school students, using free online resources that they can research, vet, and select as part of the club. Soon the group is recording the connections it has made and the solution it's proposing.

Sample Pain Point card (Courtesy of Gayle Allen)
Sample Pain Point and Observation cards. (Courtesy of Gayle Allen)

3. Finally, another team gets caught up in a discussion of the card about the fifth-grade research project. For many of the team’s members, mostly middle and high school teachers in schools across the district, this is the first time they’re learning about this project. Several reflect on how hard it is for their own students to decide on research topics, and this gets them wondering if there isn’t a more real-world way to do it. In sorting through their observation cards, they notice the “real-world skills” card. This triggers a team member to talk about student entrepreneurship and a recent article he read about student pitch fests. The team categorizes pitching as a real-world skill and makes the connection between it and the research topic pain point. They record their idea and mention the article as a resource.

Sample Pain Point card (Courtesy of Gayle Allen)
Sample Pain Point and Observation cards. (Courtesy of Gayle Allen)

Clearly, this is just the start. Once ideas are recorded and shared, team members may want to connect with others post-activity to work through the details of problem-solving and implementation.

Empower Everyone to Innovate

This activity empowers all stakeholders. It gives everyone an opportunity to share pain points and observations and to brainstorm solutions. By building a card deck of context-specific pain points and observations, there’s buy-in from the start. All participants have a vested interest in the cards they create. Likewise, the activity has enough structure built in to drive toward solutions.

All who participate get to practice and deepen their creative problem-solving skills. You’ll be surprised at how energizing it will be to problem-solve with colleagues, how creative the solutions will be, and how pain points will begin to disappear.


Gayle Allen spent nearly two decades as a teacher, school leader and founder of two professional development institutes. She holds an Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University, where she focused her research on teacher learning. Gayle currently serves on the advisory board for BioBuilder Educational Foundation and is an edupreneur at BrightBytes. She blogs at Connecting the Thoughts and tweets @GAllenTC.

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