The Game of School

Are there unnecessary hoops students are expected to jump through?

I was having a conversation with a fellow educator the other day and she was commenting on how teaching has changed in the last fifteen years. I thought about it for a minute and asked her, “how has it changed?” Her response what the easy, go-to change that society, in general, has gone through in the last twenty years; the breakneck pace of new technology. Now instead of blackboards, we have SMART boards, instead of overheads we have LCD projectors, instead of going to the library or getting a set of encyclopedias, students can access the internet. These are indeed changes to teaching, but are they really? Each of those new pieces of technology basically do the same thing their predecessor did before them, it just might be faster, or more easy to manipulate, or cooler, but it is the same basic premise.

I have been in education for over twenty years. In that time I have seen lots of reforms come along. The outcomes-based education, the inclusion movement, small schools, STEM, and a host of others, but when you wipe away the veneer from these shiny new initiatives, you are left with the same elements of school there has always been. Bell rings, kids move to a subject-specific classroom, bell rings again, they go to another one. In each of these classes, students are taught material that has been laid out for them and then they must show mastery of said material in some kind of assessment. This usually comes in the form of a grade. If a student receives an A, it indicates she is doing pretty well, a C would show she is having some struggles while an F would mean something is seriously amiss.

This is how school was when my parents went, it is the same as when I attended, it is the way it is now that my children are going to school, and if we are not careful, it is how it will be for our next generation of children. The question is, why haven’t things changed that much? That is the fundamental problem in education; that most people, from parents to teachers to politicians, want our current crop of kids to have the same education they had when they were in school. What that means is we want our children to have a twenty year old education. This always amazes me considering how people have to have the most up-to-date cell phone that is available, and yet they want this traditional, outdated education.

Because there has not been much change, school has become a game. There are certain hoops we expect students to jump through such as attending class, turning in assignments, taking tests, and following directions. Like most games, those who are compliant and follow the rules tend to be more successful. Unfortunately for those who choose not to play the game, either because of disillusionment, lack of resources, or inability, school is a lot more difficult for them. And because they are not playing the game, there is no system in place to help them get back on track. After all, you would have to play the game in order to access this system. The game doesn’t work for those who don’t want to play it.

Games have rules. Some of these are written in the rule book; some are unspoken and yet are just as powerful. For instance, the game of baseball. There is a thick rulebook for the sport, and yet there are so many unwritten rules. Here are some of these:

  • Don’t step in front of the catcher on the way to the batter’s box
  • Don’t steal a base if your team is up by a big lead
  • Don’t admire a home run
  • Don’t try to break up a no-hitter with a bunt
  • No one but the pitcher should step on the pitcher’s mound

What happens if you break any of these unwritten rules? There are no penalties or loss of score by violating these. Instead, baseball polices itself and you are more than likely to get a fast ball in your ribs.

School has its unwritten rules. And although breaking them will not result in a baseball to the ribs, it will hurt your chances of doing well. Here are some of the unwritten rules in school:

  • Compliant kids get better grades than those who are not
  • If you try, a teacher is going to find a way to pass you
  • Grit takes you a lot further than ability
  • There are students who take advanced classes and AP courses and then there are “those” kids
  • Teachers do have favorites

Probably the biggest unwritten rule of school is that schools use grades as a carrot. The way a carrot works is that you tie it to a string which you attach to a stick. Then you hold the stick out, keeping the carrot right in front of the donkey’s line of sight, but just out of reach. This motivates the animal to move forward because he is trying to reach the carrot. Schools do the exact same thing with students. They use grades as the carrot and assume that by dangling the promise of good ones, it will entice everyone to move forward. The problem is that it does not work for everyone. There are kids who are not motivated or enticed by grades. In fact, because they are unwilling to play the game of school, they place very little value in grades. The major problem with this is that in order to try them to get their grades up, what do teachers use but grades as a motivator. Or worse yet, schools believe the threat of bad grades will motivate these students. You can see the problem with this. If you are a student who doesn’t care about grades, why are grades going to make you care?

Because we have placed such a high value on grades in this game of school, we really don’t have any other carrots to offer. The narrative we sell to children at a very young age is if you get good grades, you will do well in school, and if you do well in school, you will have a better chance at a good life. Like the belief in Santa Claus, some kids buy into this hook, line, and sinker. There are others who for various reasons, are a bit skeptical if not complete non-believers. And just like Santa Claus, the older children get and the more they see the realities of the world, the more questioning some of them become toward the myth. There are some kids who for whatever reason, do not believe in the value of grades, or simply do not care. The big question becomes how can you find the carrot that will motivate them?

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