Why do people choose crosswords but not lessons?

Fact 1: Games are popular.

Fact 2: Lessons are not.

Fact 1 is popular. Fact 2 is not so much and many educators might point at examples in an attempt to prove it wrong but there’s no escaping that children would not rush to school every morning if it was optional. This is why I want to talk about how New Zealand has spent the last decade shifting the focus of classroom experience to the very thing that makes games popular. A shift that John Hattie in this recent podcast highlighted was still sadly unusual.

As educators, we need to realise that it is not the monsters, wizards, weapons, and puzzles that make games popular and what does make games more successful can be added to the learning experience.

To prove my point let’s take the example of another popular pastime that involves no weapons, footballs, or even point scoring.: Crosswords. Every morning hundreds of millions of people choose to sit down to a morning ritual of filling out the newspaper’s crossword. The reason for this and its sense of purpose is not in the answering of individual cryptic clues but in completing the crossword itself. Take away the black-and-white squares leaving only a list of cryptic clues and you find that daily cryptic quizzes are not as popular as there black-and-white grid-based equivalent. The grid is essential for making a journey of it and giving purpose to and linking the clues. The grid also means that an individual clue (school assignment) has a place and purpose in the bigger picture (personal growth/purpose).

School work makes for a bad game.

In a fantasy computer game, slaying a monster is temporarily satisfying but it’s understood that this in not the point of playing. The weapons, coins, and points that are gathered from the ground after the fight that will help future challenges and making progress in the larger game itself become the purpose of slaying any individual monster. Monsters themselves are quickly forgotten because the focus is on the clearly visible ongoing journey.

In all games, the focus is always on one’s progress and not the individual moments and elements of the game. The clear and visible sense of self within the larger game is what make them popular and gratifying. Games that fail to show progress are not as popular. In a funny way, successful games are always saying “don’t focus on me, think about yourself!”

For the last hundred years and to this day, classrooms essentially do the opposite. The prevailing habits in education lead teachers to present cryptic clues with no crossword grid and individual monsters with no journey. It maybe temporarily fun to a minority to solve a cryptic clue or slay an individual monster but once you have been scored for your 10th individual abstract clue it quickly becomes a game the vast majority of us lose interest in.

In New Zealand we have a curriculum level system which has the focus of levelling a child and calculating next steps on the journey rather than grading individual pieces of isolated work themselves. Schoolwork is a means to an end that is graded as further evidence of learner level and not an abstract and detached performance grade for each piece of work (Clue/Monster). A performance that is quickly forgotten as the next often unrelated demand is presented. In crossword terms, New Zealand teachers work with learners to look at which clues have been answered so far and so make the judgement as too which would be the easiest and obvious next clue to answer. Learners ‘fill out the crossword’ at different speeds and in different order but the longer term journey from start to finish is always visible in the national learner curriculum levels.


If you are still only grading and reporting on individual pieces of work, test scores, or other ‘performances’, talk with your colleagues about how these might be broken down and mapped out as just part of a longer learning journey where students can see why, how and what they are gathering along the way as they develop knowledge and skills to reach the next level.