“Ms. Burt, I literally hate school.”
Gianna, a student in my fifth grade history class, confided in me during a lunch break. Her frustration did not surprise me; we were midway through the first full pandemic school year. Our Providence, Rhode Island, charter school had lurched between online and hybrid formats more times than I could count. And given the combination of stressful COVID safety procedures, endless technical challenges, and limits on social interactions, I knew that many students were fed up.
“Why do you hate school, Gianna?” I asked, expecting her to list the COVID-imposed challenges. To my surprise, her complaint was not about pandemic learning. Here’s what she said: “School is a waste of my time. We are expected to listen to whatever the teacher thinks is important and then spit it back out. I should be writing my novel or working on a new play instead.” (After taking an elective playwriting workshop with me earlier in the year, Gianna had been sending me drafts of the plays she wrote in her spare time.)
My professional development sessions had taught me the canned reply I was supposed to give: “Even if there are classes you don’t like, these lessons will help you in the future. You are learning foundational skills that will give you the freedom to choose independent projects in high school and beyond.” But I couldn’t bring my mouth to form words I didn’t believe.
Teaching amid a storm of global disasters — a pandemic, an economic recession, a racial reckoning, and an escalating climate emergency — I felt cynical about how I was supposed to teach, test, and talk to students. I feared that the testing-centric curriculum my school enforced caused students like Gianna to disengage and left them unprepared for the global challenges that will shape their lives. So, I told Gianna the truth: She deserved better. “You have more creativity and perception than this school allows,” I said.
When I was asked a few months later to teach a two-week class of my own design, I jumped at the chance to offer students creative opportunities lacking from their core classes. As a COVID hobby, I had taken up designing escape room games. In these multiplayer, collaborative games, participants work through a series of puzzles and riddles to escape a situation they have been trapped in by a fictional villain. I had been itching to help students create their own escape games, but I knew it would be a challenge. As it was hard for me to create engaging, solvable, and connected puzzles, I knew it would be even more difficult for my young students.
The drive and quick learning I saw in the class surpassed my expectations. On the first day of our virtual class, students worked together to navigate an online escape room. The multi-part puzzles encouraged quick cooperation: Students divided up elements of each puzzle to work through them more effectively. For instance, to solve a clue with multiple scrambled words, each student picked one word to decipher. Similarly, students realized two different math strategies could be applied to a geometry puzzle and split the group in half to try both. The time challenge built into the escape game stood in stark relief to other timed assignments that provoked groans of dread. In the context of a game, the timer became a thrilling motivator.
During each successive class, students explored a core aspect of game design — story, mechanics, puzzles, aesthetics, and technology — to craft their own digital escape rooms. We also began each session with a “puzzle of the day.” Students solved the puzzle together and then dissected its structure and efficacy. They raved about a mad scientist puzzle that required answering riddles to find the color of a series of chemicals and then deducing which colors should be mixed to crack a code. They critiqued abstract riddles that didn’t build a narrative. “Why would a player be motivated to solve this riddle? The designer needed more of a hook and connection to a story,” one student commented.
Student engagement was off the charts. Even kids who disengaged from core classes showed laser focus on their games, working after school to perfect their final projects. The group cheered on each game designer as they presented their finished project. Several parents told me the class had been a highlight of the year for their kids.
It is not a revelation that students learn better in environments where they feel happy and curious. Yet, the challenge of cultivating these spaces remains elusive at many schools. In schools like mine that fall short on academic benchmarks, student creativity is typically a secondary concern. School leaders point to supplementary arts classes when asked about creative opportunities for students, but creativity rarely shapes the core curriculum. Instead, teachers are pushed to add practice tests, increase homework assignments, and compete with other teachers to achieve the highest test scores.
In my game design course, students tackled grade-level standards — developing their writing skills as they composed game narratives and embracing logic and math to create puzzles. They also learned the value of experimentation, revision, and collaboration.
A recent Gallup study found that in K-12 classes with frequent creative assignments, students are more likely to engage in problem-solving, demonstrate critical thinking, make connections between subjects, and retain key concepts across units. If schools accept the research that creativity ignites learning, they must center hands-on, student-led projects in classes of all disciplines.
As schools grapple with making up for the so-called “learning losses” of the COVID era, I am disheartened to see teachers pushed away from creative projects. Instead, they are pressured to cram in extra review units, use repetitive teaching tactics, and tighten disciplinary rules. The words of philosopher and activist Bayo Akomolafe ring in my ears: “What if the way we respond to the crisis is the crisis?”
This is a moment to transform how we teach. Educators must listen to students like Gianna, who know that they deserve better than stringent, rote lessons. We must reimagine the classroom as a space for experimentation, invention, and play. Integrating projects like escape rooms and other design challenges into core classes can boost student engagement and foster deeper learning. Most importantly, by championing creative problem-solving skills in the classroom, we better prepare young people to imagine solutions to the crises they will inherit.
Marielle Burt is a Providence-based educator who uses design thinking as the basis for game design and theater courses. They seek to create spaces for young people to play, invent, and chart their learning. Marielle teaches classes at Manton Avenue Project, City Arts, and the Gamm Theater. They taught previously at Trinity Repertory Company and Achievement First Providence.