By now, most people have gone back to school in the U.S., be it teaching or a being a student. According to the Department of Education, 50.1 million students will attend public elementary and secondary schools. Of these, 35.3 million will be in prekindergarten through 8th grade and 14.8 million will be in grades 9 through 12. An additional 5.2 million students are expected to attend private schools, and 21.8 million students will be heading off to colleges and universities.
During the next few weeks the reality of a new school year will begin to set in, and before that concrete dries I thought it might be nice to share an idea from game theory with you. Whether you’re a parent of a kiddo starting school, a returning grad student, a teacher, administrator or anyone else involved with education, please take a moment to consider James Carse’s idea of finite and infinite games. (If you are a teacher, please teach your young students about this concept as soon as you can in their young lives, we’ll all be the better for it.)
In his book Finite and Infinite Games (1982) James Carse, a professor emeritus at NYU defines these two kinds of games like this:
“A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game is played for the purpose of continuing the play.”
Too often we link the idea of education to careers, money, success, and in short winning. If a child graduates high school they will have had approximately 12-14 years of learning. Here in the U.S., the average life expectancy is 78.7 years, with unfortunate variations based on gender and race. That leaves the average person with nearly 60 years of life during which they could be learning.
1. Learning should be an infinite game. The core curriculum of public education should be the instilling of an interest and excitement in children to be lifelong learners.
In finite games, there is only one winner or winning team. There may be a ranking of all players, but there can only be one number one. In infinite games, the goal is not to reach the end zone and declare a winner; instead the goal is to continue the game, and often invite more and more players into it.
2. Learning should be an infinite game: We should be having as many students feeling successful and engaged as possible for as long as possible. To have it set up where people go through life thinking of themselves as stupid or failures diminishes our species as a whole. There are simply too many things a human being can do and know that any one of us can’t excel at some of them.
In finite games, the rules must be strictly adhered to so that the game can end and a winner be declared. In infinite games, if the rules are running the risk of ending the play or excluding players, the rules need to be changed. As Carse puts it, Life is such an example of an infinite game.
3. Learning should be an infinite game: Teachers, administrators and parents need to rethink rules and allow for more flexibility and creativity. The minute we think of school or education as something to be gotten through in a certain way, something precious has been lost. That this loss may be hard to quantify in terms of test scores, district-wide achievement levels or time on-task may be true, but it is also trivial in comparison to the loss of human potential that such rigidity entails. Put another way, name one police state that has not resulted in a major revolution or revolutions.
Let’s stop making education such a finite game with winners and losers. Let’s stop trying to get students into the “right college.” There are plenty of right colleges. Plenty of people graduate from schools you’ve never heard of and go on to do magnificent things; in fact many people who don’t choose to go to college go on to do magnificent things as well.
This concept of scarcity of possibility for our children’s futures creates the stressed-out kids and emerging adults that we see today. I’ve seen dozens of adolescents who are in a club every day of the week, work after school, take AP or Honors everything. Somebody needs to tell them to go spend a half hour walking and kicking a rock down by the river. Remembering that there is a river you can walk and kick a stone by to take time out for your mental health is a life skill.
Unfortunately, the phrase life skills has gotten a bad reputation. If we started adding an academic track in schools called Life Prep people would probably avoid it or think of it as stigmatizing (in fact in some systems “Life skills training” is considered just that.) As it is, the current education system is great job security for therapists like myself: The high-achievers need to work with therapists because they are so stressed, and the kids who don’t fit the mold get pathologized and sent to us to be cured.
Look, you have probably never heard anyone come out and say, “when I grow up I want to stop learning” but most of us have heard kids and adults say “I can’t wait to graduate.” It reminds me of how traumatized and abused children often say “I can’t wait to be a grownup.” In a way it is saying “let this game end already, I’ve had enough. If I can’t be the winner or runner up let me at least take my marbles and go home.” This is where I think mediocrity comes from, not relaxing standards or not having a grading system. My graduate program didn’t have a grade point system, everything was pass and fail. I think I turned out okay.
You really can’t have ranking without a herd mentality. If we keep thinking of education as a finite game, sure, someone will end up getting to claim the title of Grand Poobah. But a herd of water buffalo ranking and rating itself is still a herd.
Going into this school year, let’s try to make school into an infinite game as much as possible, in fact let’s try to do it one step more than what we think is possible.