Re: The school game

Beth W. Baldwin, Ph.D. (bobaldwi@HAMLET.UNCG.EDU)
Mon, 12 Aug 1996 13:45:37 -0400

On Mon, 12 Aug 1996, Marcy Bauman wrote:

> It seems that no
> matter what Mick might or might not have done, the student's responding
> to the assignment in the way that he did put the fact that school _is_ a
> game irrevocably into the spotlight.

I have to bow to my own cynicism here (although I like to insist I'm
sardonic instead, since I have a grand sense of humor) -- school as we
know it *is* a game. Students for the most part have 12 years of
experience prior to entering college to arrive at that conclusion,
consiously or not, for themselves. School is designed to "level the
field" of students, encouraging young people to strive for mediocrity.

By mediocrity here, I'm alluding to connotations of "the middle ground"
more than to "average" work. The mediocre, the middle ground, just
happens to be whatever criteria a specific teacher sets forth for her
class. You can't be too brilliant or clever without risking being labeled
a smart s--t who's in it for selfish reasons (and what better selfish
reason that to get an A, your parents' praise, stay out of trouble, win
the scholarship, etc.). You also can't be too dull. Too dull or too
brilliant won't win the game when the goal is the middle ground.

The challenge to the school game is that each player (all the different
teachers you have) are like players in a chess game. They can, and do,
move differently. Some like clever. Some like brown-nosing. Some like
you to sit and be silent. Some like lots of interaction. To be a good
school gamesman, you have to scope out all those moves and play

> Whatever went on between Mick and
> that student from that point on was pure power moves, it seems to me:
> either Mick could construct the situation so the student won, or so the
> student lost -- but the student's learning was no longer at issue. Early
> on, Mick said that the student could in fact do the required coding, and
> Mick and he both knew it -- and at the time, I wondered what purpose the
> quiz was serving, if in fact Mick had been able to determine people's
> coding abilities in other ways. Was the quiz a game? (I don't mean to
> imply that Mick _intended_ it to be, or even _knew_ that it was, if it was.)

Just so. Learning becomes a tangential issue all too often. The game
becomes the object itself -- the playing. No wonder so many students
learn to be passive, ask so many questions about things like "how many
pages does this essay have to be," and insist on clear definitions of what
is required. Any room for creativity is often greeted with mistrust and
cynicism -- what if I try to be brilliant or clever?

> The cynical me thinks that there's no way to construct situations
> that can't be turned into games.

The sardonic me agrees. I like to acknowledge the game up front, talk
about it.

> (And yes, I've done that,
> myself: I remember once in high school being asked to write a book
> report on the historical implications of _All the KIng's Men_ -- and
> writing a book clearly and distinctly about Warren's writing style, in
> the style of the book itself. My "cleverness" prompted the teacher to
> overlook the fact that I hadn't really completed the assignment because I
> didn't _ever_ mention any historical implications, in which I had not the
> slightest interest. But it was a _History_ class.)

I feel certain that lots of us have those experiences. Sometimes we win
and sometimes we lose. We find we've made a stupid move but since we've
already "taken our finger off the piece" we have to recoup the loss some
other way.

> I'm not sure what to make of such moves. I'm hesitant to reward
> them. I wish that there were real learning and real engagement taking
> place (and maybe that the dynamic in the classroom weren't so
> teacher-centered), in which case people wouldn't feel the need to be so
> cute. But I'm not sure that we can ever completely create those situations
> within school walls.

The closest I've ever come is by using electronic discussion. At least in
that environment, the playing field seems more or less level for all
players, teachers included. I also try to keep in mind that although
there are some excellent game-players in my classes, and I am certain
that many are playing the game since the course is required, some are
there who *are* genuinely engaged and that *some* real learning is taking
place. I'm happy with that.


Beth Baldwin, Ph.D. *
Office of Continuing Education *
University of North Carolina at Greensboro *
Greensboro, NC 27412-5001 *
910-334-5301, ext. 44 *