Updated on 3/25/2021: After this article was originally published, Meguey Baker graciously provided some additional insight into the PbtA engine. The article has been updated to include those insights in the “Enter the Apocalypse” section below.

One afternoon in summer, a second grader I’d been working with for a while plopped down at the table. She’s usually a pretty cheerful kid, but today she was in a bad mood. A little bit of gentle prodding revealed that she was upset about the summer tutoring program she’d been enrolled in during the morning. The following conversation took place:

Student: They’re the most strictest in the whole world. And they make us do standards.

Me: Oh yeah? What standards?

Student: You have to do a lot of standards. One boy, he did 80 standards.

Me: That sounds like a lot. What are they teaching you?

Student: Mostly, they tell us to be quiet.

It was one of the more scathing indictments of an educational program I’d ever heard. I was also, unfortunately, not surprised.

Education vs. Paperwork

It’s no secret that California has a teaching shortage, but what a lot of people might not know is that one of the side-effects is a thriving after-school tutoring industry. Parents who can afford it are increasingly seeking out supplemental education options. Where there is demand, there is money to be made. Businesses and franchises have sprung up everywhere with a sudden desire to ensure the education of the next generation (or at least high scores on their SATs). There is a killing to be made on parents’ desire for their children to have a good future.

If I sound upset about this, it’s because I am.

I have a pretty low opinion of the average tutoring franchise. Based on my students’ stories, they largely consist of putting as many students as possible into a room with tables. The teachers either lecture them for 45 minutes with no check for student comprehension or (more often) simply tell them to be quiet and hand them work packets. Student success is measured by paperwork produced rather than learning achieved, if it’s measured at all. Students hate it, teachers I’ve spoken to hate it, and the educational value is about what you’d expect, except maybe worse because it teaches kids to hate learning. Parents grit their teeth against the complaining and keep sending their kids because they’ve been sold the story that this will give their children, whom they love, better lives. Also some of them need childcare and this is cheaper (and more educational!) than hiring a nanny.

It’s a textbook example of what happens when you double down on a system wrought with prescriptive technology and try to apply it to a human. 

New Leadership

We’ve already spent time talking about prescriptive technology and its downfalls, so instead today I’m going to tell you a story about a tutoring company that’s doing things differently, and the curious case of how a tabletop RPG helped shape that change.

In January 2019 the after-school tutoring company “Ready Study Go” (RSG) was acquired by one Karyn Keene. As a former private teacher and tutor herself, Keene gave an actual-damn about student education. The program she inherited ran on paperwork and packets with a staff that had largely been stripped of its agency. It was your quintessential prescriptive tech system: the curriculum breaks down the subject matter into work packets, tutors ensure that the kids worked on the packets, and success was measured by how many packets were completed. There was also a homework assistance program which was good — kids need help with their homework sometimes — but success was still measured in paperwork. If students finished their homework early they got, you guessed it, more packets. This is not at uncommon among tutoring companies but I can say with confidence that the only people who loved this system were the ones not subject to it. 

Keene wanted better for the students that attended the program. She and I had worked well together when we were both teachers, and I’d done some freelance work for her in the past. I was hired as a freelancer to help design a training curriculum that would support student education and wellbeing on a systemic level, and then build it.

Freedom to Thrive or to Fail?

Since the system that needed to be designed was focused on humans, I set about exploring it through the lens of growth technology, balanced with the practical limitations of Ready Study Go’s existing resources and structures. If you haven’t been following along with this series of blog posts, growth technology is a term coined by Ursula Franklin. It describes a system which creates an environment where the outcome you are trying to create happens organically rather than trying to assemble the product piece by piece. This is especially important when dealing with human-centric systems.

Several interesting challenges presented themselves for reimagining RSG. Chief among them was the tutors themselves. There was a huge range of teaching experience across the staff. Some had been teaching in classrooms for years, and others were just starting their undergrads. One of the key design questions that needed to be answered was this: “How do you design a system that teaches people how to be good teachers and doesn’t get in the way of teachers who are already good at what they do?”

Good teaching is highly contextual. There is no one-size-fits-all for kids’ education. There are consistent underlying principles, but the application varies. Some days, students need to be pushed. Some days they won’t be able to learn anything until they explain why they were upset that their friend didn’t pick them first at recess. They struggle with a basic concept one day, and then race through three milestones the next. Kids are not machines systematically imbibing and outputting information. They grow in fits and bursts. Understanding this on a fundamental level is core to the patience, value judgments, and tenacity of a good teacher.

In order to enable good teachers, I needed a system with a lot of freedom for judgment calls. On the other hand, if I left the system too vague and wide open, the inexperienced tutors wouldn’t know what to do. They would default to what they had been trained on: paperwork. Without concrete guidance, they were liable to continue handing out packets and telling kids to focus and sit still. 

Enter the Apocalypse

I discussed the problem with my husband in the car on the way to tutoring my students one day. More specifically, I was bemoaning the lack of growth-tech systems for me to use as a pattern. “Huh,” my husband commented, “sounds like an RPG.” He was right, and that basically amounts to the plot twist of this story. Apocalypse World was right there and I’d been missing it that whole time.

In case you’re not as deep in the weeds as I am in indie tabletop RPG nerdom, I’ll back up for a moment. Apocalypse World, designed by Vincent Baker and Meguey Baker is a game set in a post-apocalyptic world. Imagine playing Mad Max: Fury Road in all its grit and glory, except the story is new and no one knows what’s going to happen. The setting is implied rather than strictly defined and there is no preset narrative. Instead, players flesh out the world together and the story writes itself during play. In addition to being a lot of fun, it’s also a great example of growth technology at work. 

Rather than instructing players to follow the deconstructed beats of a narrative (first write a hook, then some rising action, next a climax, etc.), Apocalypse World creates an environment where good stories happen. It does this using the Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) engine. Each player manages one of the story’s characters. They make Moves to interact with the fiction of the world and roll dice to find out if their efforts are successful or not. Moves include things like “Act Under Fire”, “Read a Sitch”, or “Go Aggro”. One of the players, referred to as the Master of Ceremonies (MC) has the job of managing the apocalyptic world and its non-player inhabitants. The MC follows three Agendas, which are like goals for the story. They are also given a set of Principles to help them figure out which Move would make for the most compelling story. The system reliably gets people to be good storytellers and say interesting things without reverting to prescriptive systems. 

Meguey Baker also has this to say about PbtA:

The underpinnings of the design work in Apocalypse World is acknowledging the consent and agency of the participants in the conversation, treating people with courtesy, decency and respect, and understanding participants, in this case students, as the people best able to articulate their own experience. From this, we understand the roles in a productive conversation, one that creates new understanding or a shared fiction or space for authentic learning, are not all the same, and that structuring these roles in concrete and actionable ways produces better and more repeatable results than unstructured conversation.

This also takes into account different communication styles and learning modalities, as more out-going participants gravitate towards roles – called “playbooks” in AW – that are more action driven or performance-oriented, and quieter participants gravitate more towards observational or analytical roles. The affordances and constraints of each role allow the structure of the design to put conversational and psychological “guard rails” in place, giving each role its own space and tasks, allowing the participant to focus on their piece while being a contributing part of the whole. And by allowing participants to choose their own role, with more agency and control over their own degree of performance vs observation vs analysis, they can choose the role that most fits their comfort level or method of learning in that moment. Their engagement is higher vs roles or tasks being assigned that they feel less motivated to perform or complete. This also creates an increased comfort with trying out other roles in the future, as they experience positive results.

Meguey Baker, March 2021

For teacher training purposes, the Agendas, Principles, and Moves of PbtA interested me most. They were very clearly defined boundaries and yet the system ran on judgment calls. It was a system, a technology, that didn’t try to side-line humans whenever possible. Instead, it depended on them and supported them. It both drove players in a very particular direction, and gave them a staggering amount of freedom. 

Apocalyptic Teaching

Armed with this working model of growth technology, I built a training curriculum aimed at equipping tutors with the skills of seasoned teachers without disrupting the good work and judgment of teachers already skilled at their craft.

I want to say very clearly here that what was done was not “gamification” of education. Gamification as it’s currently used implies the addition of external, artificial rewards (and sometimes artificial obstacles) in an effort to make the task at hand more “fun”. Attaching extrinsic rewards to learning is a devil’s bargain. It garners short-term gains and compliance at the expense of the long-term learning process. It 1) implies that the task is not worth doing for its own sake, 2) makes people reluctant to do the task when the reward is not present, and 3) has diminishing returns. Instead, this curriculum was designed more like a toolkit. It both defined what was acceptable in a learning environment, and helped tutors figure out what to do when they weren’t sure how to proceed. 

In Apocalypse World, when a player doesn’t know what to do they look at their character sheet to see what moves are available to them. In this teaching toolkit system, tutors who didn’t know how to proceed looked at the list of moves and picked one.

For example, one of the Agendas the tutors were given was “Build a learning environment”. Some of the associated moves were “Limit a distraction”, “Set an expectation”, and “Give specific praise”. Another Agenda was “Help students achieve learning goals” and some of the associated moves were “Teach a hard skill”, “Teach a soft skill”, “Design and play a game”, and “Model work”. They weren’t referred to as Agendas and Moves within the training curriculum, but for simplicity’s sake, that’s what I’ll refer to them as here.

[As an aside, I’m prepared to put together a separate post detailing each move and what it accomplishes, but this post has already stretched long. If there’s enough interest, I’ll do a follow up. I’m also looking at submitting a paper about this project to the GENeration Analog Games and Education Conference, so we’ll see if anything comes of that.]

Growing Forward

The new training curriculum was implemented in September of 2019, at the start of the school year. In December of that year, I met up with Keene to see how things were going. It had only been a few months, but there were already strong indicators for success. Staff turnover was way down, and student grades were on the rise. The program gave weight to both hard skills, such as adding fractions, as well as soft skills, such as organizing a backpack, and it was paying off. Homework wasn’t just being done: it was also being turned in. Enrollment was climbing then and has continued to climb since, primarily through word-of-mouth referrals.

For me though, the biggest victory wasn’t in the metrics. The tutors, Keene told me, weren’t referring to the kids as “the students” so much anymore. They were calling them “my students”. That, to me, is winning. 

It’s been more than a year since the program launched, and even though Ready Study Go continues to grow and thrive to this day, the coming of the COVID-19 pandemic pretty much destroyed any reasonable kind of data collection for the project in early 2020. Even so, the project gives me a deep, aching feeling whenever I think about it, in a good way.

I write cyberpunk, and I spend a lot of time looking at how technology is systematically being used to control and destroy. 

It was nice to set a system loose in the world that made it a better place for a change.