Directions Optional – What Teachers Need to Learn From Gamers

by Randy Fairfield, 12/26/18

During my last blog post in this fifteen blog series, I covered my first point, “Gamers like to be in control.” In this post, I will be addressing my second point, “Directions are optional” by discussing the way educators lead students into learning activities.

How many instruction manuals have you read before jumping in and playing a video game? Probably none. Seriously, why does anyone even bother making those things? Half the fun of gaming is jumping right in and figuring out how things work. Unfortunately, sometimes we as educators are in the nasty habit of killing the fun by overdoing it with the directions and getting in the way of students learning by doing. The jobs of tomorrow will require students to learn on the fly, and while our intentions may be good in setting students up for success by diving deep into the directions for an activity before getting started, I wonder about the unintended consequences of not giving students enough room to take a quick dive off the deep end and productively struggle through uncertainty. While some students could benefit from learning to take help from adults, particularly in the age of helicopter parenting, it seems to me that even more adults could help kids by just backing off a bit. Cue, Homer Simpson.

What happens when we overdo the directions and don’t allow enough room for self-exploration? Well, let’s just look at the adults that were taught almost exclusively with the “I do, we do, you do” model of instruction. Listen, I mean no offense here, but after spending three years as a technology/instructional coach I started to go a little crazy with an adult majority that simply refused to explore on their own and were reliant upon me for direction. Like, there was a little part of me that died inside when the same teachers kept repeatedly coming to me for technical help navigating a platform. They would take step-by-step handwritten notes on how to accomplish one specific task as their hand shook over the mouse and they made audible sounds expressing discomfort. While that’s still streets ahead of some who were outright resistant to learning something new, it still killed me because I knew that the help I provided in that moment was only going to help that day. Whatever platform they were working on that day was inevitably going to change tomorrow, and they would be back again asking for help with pencil, paper, and sticky note in hand. When encouraged to do a little exploring on their own, their response was almost always, “I don’t learn that way.” Students in our classrooms need to learn to learn that way or they will be left behind.

Snap Circuits

So what does that look like? How do we teach kids to learn by exploration? There’s much to be said here, but I’ll just share a recent example from a 2-3 STEM class that I subbed for at the last minute and didn’t really have much of a lesson plan to go off of. Besides consulting with homeschooling families, I teach a little bit of secondary social studies, so I was a bit out of my element. The students had these Snap Circuits for light and sound that neither I nor they had ever messed around with before. Instead of letting that be a deterrent, I simply let them work in groups of two or three and told them to try and figure stuff out together as best they could. They productively struggled for most of the class period, and I learned alongside them while choosing to show them nothing but encouragement. And then some lights came on. And then some sounds were emitted. And they didn’t need me or the instruction manual for anything other than the suggested builds. And it was pretty cool.


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Randy Fairfield, MEd and MBA, is a teacher and consultant in the Richland School District in Eastern Washington. He is also a Google for Education Certified Trainer, Edmodo Certified Trainer and Hapara Champion Trainer and Consultant.

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