Learning How to Play the Game of Learning
Written by Jim Knight.
November 1, 2010

My wife, Jenny, has decided that she doesn’t want to know the rules of football.  Growing up in Nebraska, surrounded by football fans, it took some fortitude to not learn how the game is played, but she stuck to it, and she is blissfully unaware of the magic and mystery of touchdowns, field goals, and quarterbacks.

Nonetheless, Jenny is gracious enough to go to the games with me here in Lawrence.  Once at the stadium, she and I have totally different experiences.  My attention is totally focused on the game; I’m always optimistic that our team will win, and I watch each play unfold with close to rapt attention.

Jenny has a completely different experience.  She notices everything except the plays on the field.  She sees the little redheaded three-year-old sitting three rows ahead of us, the cute hair cut on the woman beside us. She wonders about how hot it must be in the mascot’s outfit.  At the end of one season where Jenny and I had gone to all six home games, I asked her what her favorite part was.  “Oh easy,” she said, “that was the fly over by the stealth bombers before the Nebraska game.”

If she wanted to, Jenny could pick up the rules during one game, but she likes her blissful ignorance.  She would rather enjoy the context than worry about the score and who wins and loses.  I believe there are students in everyone’s classes, too, who are quite a bit like Jenny. They don’t know the rules and they don’t follow the game at all. In the children’s case, however, they would love to learn the game, but they don’t even know where to start to find out how to play.

Kids who don’t know the rules might not know how to find the most important information in a text, or how to relate learning to their own personal experience. They might not know how to break down big tasks into manageable goals, or how to simply negotiate day-to-day relationships with their peers. They might not know how to ask for help, or even how to interact during a discussion in class.

Not knowing the rules, they stop playing.  Sometimes, they make up their own game, sabotaging their teacher’s efforts to teach, or disrupting their peer’s attempts to learn.  Other times, they show up in class, but they don’t participate. They spend the class with their head down: in the room, but not connecting. They hide behind a mask of sullenness–hard people for anyone to reach.

And when they choose not to play, the temptation is blaming them, of course. They are rude, angry, negative. But what if they want to play, but they don’t know how?  What can we do to make sure that more and more students do know the rules?  Maybe the next time we see a student who is totally disengaged, we should start by asking whether she knows how to play?


  1. Denise Carlson

    A comment from central Iowa. . . How about those Cyclones?! Saturday was a good day for us. 🙂

  2. Ruby Arroyo

    The analogy of learning to understanding football is very astute! I share these emails each time I receive them, but will expand my sharing list for this particular posting.

    Thank you for your insights.

    Also, we have very little to brag about here in the southwest – our teams are struggling!

  3. Ann

    Great post– has me thinking. I also think we treat all students as if a) they know the rules of the game and b) they have all had the same training prior to coming to the game so they should be ready to play. As educators we know that isn’t the case and yet, we treat them all the same, no matter what.

  4. Jennifer Sikes

    Marzano, Pickering, and Heflebower’s new book “The Highly Engaged Classroom” focuses on the four questions kids ask themselves in regards to how engaged they’ll become in the lesson: 1) How do I feel? 2) Am I Interested? 3) Is this Important? and 4) Can I Do This? All of which get back to the ideas expressed in your last two blogs The Sweet Spot of Learning and Learning How to Play the Game. You’re right, too often when students are disengaged, we place the blame on them. We need to find out what it is they need in order to become engaged–it is all in our questioning and compassion.

  5. Kaye Bennett

    Your thoughts have come at a perfect time for us as we plan our Strategic Plan for the next 3 years with a major focus on student engagement! I have been looking deeply into our student opinion surveys and have discovered many disengaged students who are compliant in the classroom and obviously suffering quietly at the same time. I will definitely look at the book suggested by Jennifer as it sounds great.

    What I now what to know is … how do we communicate the rules to these kids so that we can support them to become engaged?


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