Infinite Games: My Hope for Education

Whatever the reason, when someone asks me what I would like for a present, the answer is always either "something cool" or books. This causes my wife no shortage of frustration but she never ceases to surprise me with really cool  finds. Last year, she bought me James Carse's Finite and Infinite Games which is one of those philosophical books that applies to everything but is about nothing. Every page I found connections to education whereas an artist might have been inspired otherwise.

To put it simply and perhaps not do the idea its full justice, a finite game is one where there are rules to win and lose and ways to end the game with some being winners and others being losers. An infinite game is one that can have people winning or losing at any one point in the game but the rules are such that the game never ends and everyone is winning in what they are gaining through the game.

Now, don't take the words "game" too literally, this could certainly be applied to a sport, but is intended to be seen as a larger metaphor. As I said, I applied some of what was said to education because so much of what was said resonated with what I see. For example, a finite game ends and that ceases learning. We organize our classrooms into small blocks and one takes "physics" for a year only to sigh with relief that they have finished it and can promptly forget it. This is a finite game where people either win or lose and then the game is over and their grade is locked in.

I see a possibility for school to be reorganized as an infinite game, one where the learning never stops. I feel like the robotics program like VEX, FIRST, Botball, BEST, etc. are a great representation of what education could be. For those of you not familiar with it, there is a new "game" released every year. Sometimes it is picking up tubes, others it is throwing footballs or kicking soccer balls. The point is that there is a game with explicit rules on how one can win or lose. The difference is that the game changes each year. The robot that wins the previous year could not possibly win the next and so the learning must continue.

More specifically to my team, this is the third year of our team and our extremely talented and passionate seniors are leaving. This could be disastrous to the team if I had not thought of this situation long ago. You see, the position of robotics president can only be held by a Junior. This allows the previous president to train the new one while they are still at this school while still allowing the senior to challenge themselves in other ways. I have this policy for every other position on my team and it works really well to ensure that there is continuity and that wisdom and skills are passed on. 

This is an infinite game because there is no robotics team that will always be the winner, anything can happen. It is furthermore an infinite game because Chaos Vortex does not ebb and flow depending on which or how many students are in the program, continuity is maintained and we will always be able to do amazing things.

Case in point, in our first year I had a student who was very artistic and wanted to move into digital creation. I showed him what I knew about Blender (which wasn't a whole lot at the time) and in less than a week he had created a video game! This was incredible and I worked with him to continue to refine his skills, but what was even more exciting came the following year. 

A freshman entered our team and was learning how to use Blender. You should have seen our faces when he was able to recreate in an hour what had taken the other students six months! This is because the students were able to teach each other and support one another. Learning was compressed and less mistakes had to be made to reach the same level of mastery. That is the point of an infinite game, everyone wins. This is why Woodie Flowers of FIRST promotes Gracious Professionalism and Coopertition. Yes, we are playing against each other, but if we can help another team out to improve then the game becomes more fun because more people are playing at their best.

Imagine, our schools being transformed into areas where learning was not repeated/disseminated by the teacher over and over again to a new group of students but instead served as a mentor to inspire experienced members of the class and facilitated the training of the newer students. This would result in masters emerging and innovation like one cannot imagine. It already exists and it can be done immediately but there is one big obstacle to overcome and so I again return to Finite and Infinite Games:

While a finite game has clear winners and losers and is far less preferable to an infinite game, there exists an unspoken agreement among the players that keeps the game going. There are supposed rewards to playing a finite game (money, power, prestige) that keep even those losing playing the game. If we decide to walk away from the game of finite game of baseball to play a game of catch, away from the profits of wall street and become Social Entrepreneurs, and walk away from the classes that last for 180 days or so and then all learning in that area ceases, then perhaps we can save education. 

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