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  • Writer's pictureDr. Sue Chapman

The Name of the Game is Learning

Using Game-like Protocols to Tackle Problems and

Build Professional Expertise

three boards drawing on a marker board

How can we create a safe space for collaborative thinking that allows educators to generate needed professional knowledge and tackle complex problems in service of students? Playing collaborative games as a part of our professional learning practices may be an answer. When team members play a game, they temporarily suspend reality, creating a model world that becomes a risk-free environment for creative thinking and problem-solving. ,

The book Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers is a curation of such games, “a set of tools and strategies for examining things deeply, for exploring new ideas, and for performing experiments and testing hypotheses, to generate new and surprising insights and results” (p. xvi). The authors, Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, and James Macanuto, come from Silicon Valley where knowledge workers are expected to be creative. They define gamestorming as “a way to approach work when you want unpredictable, surprising, or breakthrough results – a method for exploration and discovery” (p. 14). They tell us:

Innovative teams need to navigate ambiguous, uncertain, and often complex information spaces. What is unknown usually far outweighs what is known. In many ways it’s a journey in the fog… Voyages of discovery involve greater risks and more failures along the way than other endeavors. But the rewards are worth it. (p. 8)

Game Storming Book, by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown and Jame Macanufo

We need these same abilities in our work as educators. The importance and complexity of our knowledge work, helping all students to thrive in school and beyond, require our best creative and collaborative thinking. And so, games that support our collaborative problem-solving processes definitely have a place in professional learning and education leadership today.

​Finding ways to help all students to thrive in school and beyond requires our best creative and collaborative thinking. Games that support collaborative problem-solving processes can spark such thinking.

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Five boxes playing with string

Below is an outline for a professional learning plan using several games from the Gamestorming book. It is offered both as an example of how collaborative games can be used in professional learning settings and also as a spark for thinking about professional learning activities you might use in your context. The games described can be used separately in short meetings or together as part of an all-day professional learning session.


Together with the faculty, our school’s leadership team chose the theme of teacher and student efficacy as a connecting thread for professional learning across the school year. During the month of October, we want to build shared understanding of the concepts of teacher and student efficacy. We have chosen to use a series of collaborative games to develop these concepts because we know games can deepen and sharpen organizational thinking while building norms essential to a strong learning community.

Game 1: Show and Tell (Gamestorming, p. 119)

  1. Tell teachers that the purpose of this game is to begin building shared understanding of what efficacy is and why it’s important for students and teachers.

  2. A few days before the professional learning session, ask teachers to bring an artifact for Show and Tell, an object that represents the idea of efficacy. Request that teachers keep their object secret until the meeting so that each teacher has a chance to do some personal thinking about the concept of efficacy.

  3. In teams, have teachers take turns sharing their objects and explaining how these objects represent the idea of efficacy.

  4. After everyone has shared, ask teams to discuss the various perspectives on efficacy and come up with a team definition of efficacy which they write on a sheet of chart paper and then share with the group.

  5. Debrief from the game by considering similarities and differences in the definitions that are shared.

Water pail, certificate, tools, soccer goal, puzzle pieces

Game 2: Empathy Map (Gamestorming, p. 65)

  1. Tell teachers that the purpose of the game is to identify indicators of student and teacher efficacy.

  2. Provide a few minutes of quiet think time and/or turn and talk for teachers to consider what an efficacious student might see, say, do, feel, and hear.

  3. Invite volunteers to share out, recording their ideas on an empathy map (shown below) drawn on chart paper.

  4. Repeat the process with a second empathy map for teacher efficacy.

  5. End the game with a discussion of why student and teacher efficacy are important. Brainstorm a list of factors that contribute to efficacy.

Empathy Map, Student Efficacy, Seeing, Saying, Doing, Feeling, Hearing

Game 3: The Blind Side (Gamestorming, p. 149)

  1. Tell teachers that the purpose of this game is to identify the knowledge the learning community currently has about student and teacher efficacy and additional understandings that need to be researched and developed.

  2. Using a matrix like the one shown below, start with the Know/Know category (Things that we know we know about efficacy). Ask teachers to write one idea per sticky note and post in the lower left quadrant of the matrix. Sort and categorize the sticky notes and identify big ideas. This will be the easiest category to complete.

  3. Repeat this process with the Know/Don’t Know category. This will also be a fairly easy category to complete because it asks group members to identify things they want and need to know.

  4. Next, repeat the process with the Don’t Know/Know category. This category will generate thinking about untapped resources and forgotten knowledge.

  5. Finally, repeat the process with the Don’t Know/Don’t Know category. This category stretches thinking, often leading to exploration and insight.

  6. End the game by identifying knowledge about efficacy that would be helpful for the learning community to have. Begin to create a plan for acquiring this knowledge.

Four square graph

Game 4: Prune the Future (Gamestorming, p. 247)

  1. Tell teachers that the purposes of this game are to help the group synthesize ideas that have been shared about efficacy, to consider the relationship between teacher efficacy and student efficacy, and to help the group move into action planning for strengthening student efficacy and collective teacher efficacy.

  2. On a chart or white board draw a picture of a tree trunk, limbs, and branches. Tell the group that they will use green sticky notes to represent the leaves of the tree or the teacher actions that grow student efficacy. They will use pink or orange sticky notes to represent the fruit, the indicators and benefits of student efficacy. Explain that, just as with a real tree, the newest growth is at the outermost branches and so the leaves and fruit that group members place at the center of the tree will represent current realities and instructional practices already in place. Leaves and fruit placed at the tips of the branches will represent practices and potentials that the group wants to grow. Invite teachers to “go out on a limb” by thinking creatively about ways to build the efficacy of all students. Provide time for teachers to think about and place sticky notes of both colors on the tree.

  3. Close the game by discussing the relationship between student efficacy and teacher efficacy. Together, generate a list of shared commitment statements that the learning community agrees to implement.

According to Luke Hohmann, founder and CEO of The Innovation Games Company, “Serious games help organizations solve complex problems through collaborative play” (Gray, Brown, & Macanufo, 2010, p. xiii). Education leaders can use collaborative games such as the ones described above to support educator professional learning and strengthen school culture.

​Collaborative games can deepen and sharpen organizational thinking while building norms essential to a strong learning community. Click to Tweet

Collaborative games share many characteristics with discussion protocols used in meetings and other professional learning settings. Learn more about the use of protocols as professional learning tools in Power Up Your Meetings with Purpose-Driven Protocols.


Gray, D., Brown, S., & Macanufo, J. (2010). Gamestorming: A playbook for innovators, rulebreakers, and changemakers. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, Inc.

Sue Chapman is a professional learning consultant and author of MathVentures: 33 Teacher-Coach Investigations to Grow Students as Mathematicians. Learn more about her at and connect with her on Twitter at @SueChapmanLearn.

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