The Game of School




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A few years ago, I gave a talk on education at a conference being held at Google’s main headquarters. I expressed my concern about the small number of students who, when graduating high school, saw themselves as ‘good learners’, and about the much larger number of students whose experience in school left them believing that they were not good learners, and even more concerning, that they were not smart.

This concern had developed in me over a period of a few years when I felt like I kept meeting people who, when asked about their school experiences, would actually start to cry. The emotional wounds that they carried from school were life-long and deep, and as it turned out, surprisingly common.

“I wasn’t one of the smart ones” was a phrase I consistently heard.

I began to believe that the institution that we depend on to help every child fulfil their learning potential could maybe be doing the opposite for the majority of students. This is something of a shocking conclusion I know, and it presents us with some cognitive dissonance. So I’ve gotten a little better at framing this issue when I talk to people. I ask:

“What percentage of high school students do you think graduate as competent adults – that is, they are capable of living on their own, holding a full-time job, and even starting a family?”

I call this a ‘generative question’ because it tends to generate a lot of good thinking (basically, a one-question version of the Socratic Method).

The question is a great ‘thinking and discussion’ starter because it starts off on relatively easy footing (since we assume everyone is capable of being an adult at some point), whereas defining someone as a ‘good learner’ leads us into all kinds of complicated and problematic thinking about innate intelligence and IQ.

What’s interesting about the ‘competent adult’ question is that it almost always leads to an involuntary half-laugh, then usually a sarcastic “none!” before a fairly substantive conversation about when children become adults and how we facilitate or diminish that transition.

Most people I talk to have some sense of the way that we’ve now stretched out the shift from childhood to adulthood in the industrial society, from the age of twelve or thirteen a few centuries ago, to the mid- to late-twenties now.

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My slide in the Google presentation on this topic had a bar graph, with the top 10% being shaded and labelled, ‘good learners’. What happened after I finished that talk dramatically changed my perspective on what school is. Some students came up to me after the talk. One said, “We’re interns at Google. We agree with what you’ve said, but we’ve been talking. We’re in that group you’ve identified as the top 10%. But we didn’t see ourselves as good learners. We were good at the game.”

The game. The game of school.

“Is school a game?” I asked myself. I was aware that others had made the claim before, but for the first time, it really struck me how much this explained. I began to ask top-ranked high-school students, “Is school a game?” Try it yourself. They almost always reflexively smile and then quickly give examples of how it is a game and how they play it.

This teacher likes homework done this way. This other teacher, you only have to worry about the tests, you can ignore the homework. If you take a course at the local community college, it’s actually easier and you get a weighted grade on your transcript. 

Just like in any institutionalised work environment, learning how the game is played, what the rules of the game are, and how to do well at it are the key elements to succeeding. Institutionalised work, where most adults spend their day, is a game, and usually a pretty complicated one. So of course, I realised, preparing students for the modern working world would require preparing them for the game.

Schools are about learning, but it’s mostly learning how to play the game. At some level, even though we like to talk about schools as though they are about learning in some pure, liberal-arts sense, on a pragmatic level we know that what we’re really teaching students is to get done the things that they are asked to do, to get them done on time, and to get them done with as few mistakes as possible.

It’s not that the subject matter in schools isn’t valuable information, but if we ask ourselves honestly how much do we remember of the academic work we did in high school, most of us would answer, “almost nothing”. That material is just the context for preparing students for the ‘real world’ by teaching the traits needed to be good workers.

I know that there’s some over-simplifying here. There are students who become devoted or passionate about something in their school years, and their scholarship starts early and sometimes as a part of what they are doing at school.

There are schools that are mission-driven to help develop students as life-long learners, and those schools work hard to provide art and music to bring out the potential in each student. However, by and large, public school is about work training, it’s about learning how the game is played.

I met a man the other day who’d been a school teacher and a coach, and who ultimately became a district leader over his 35-year career. I told him I was working on this idea, that school is a game. He looked at me, puzzled for a minute, his head tilted. Suddenly he broke into a smile, and said, “You’re right!” He then proceeded to tell me about the many ways he had learned as a young man to play the game.

Intriguingly though, schools are more than just a game – they are also a sorting mechanism. I think we can say that without vilifying those involved, right? The kids who do well, who respond to the game, who work hard are going to find themselves getting into college (and into the better colleges), and are going to be prepared to be managers and leaders; the kids who struggle are going to be followers and do the kinds of work that require less confidence and competence.

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I think the danger comes from believing that those who by chance, genetics, temperament, family support, or cultural background find the game easier to play are actually somehow inherently better or have more human value than the other students.

How many of us remember one particular teacher or mentor who really changed our lives, who helped us to see ourselves differently, or challenged us to do something we didn’t know we could do? What if we hadn’t had that influence? Isn’t this, in our best conception, what devoted parents do? But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The students who aren’t succeeding usually don’t have any idea that school is a game. Since we tell them it’s about learning, when they fail, they then internalise the belief that they themselves are actual failures – that they are not good learners. We tell ourselves some things to feel OK about this taking place: that some kids are smart and some are not; that the top students will always rise to the top; that their behaviour is not the result of the system but that is their own fault.

This all actually makes sense – for someone to be willing to accept lowered expectations for themselves, they actually have to believe that they are not worthy of more and we have to believe it too. You can also see the sorting in how the honours and AP-level (Advanced Placement) students begin to refer to the other students. They start to believe the same thing about the other students, and those students also start believing about themselves – that they are ‘less than’. (For readers wanting to think more about this, see Plato’s Noble Lie.)

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In a very weird way, our modern industrialised and consumption-driven society depends on a large group of people who don’t believe in themselves and so will, therefore, accept the role of being the consumers and followers. I think deep down, we all know this is actually what schools do, we just don’t let ourselves say it out loud. I’m not saying that being hidden makes it malicious or evil.

In most aspects of our lives there’s a large ‘elephant in the room’, and we might even argue (à la Ivan Illich), that schools help to prepare us to conform to a world in which this is true. There is value, though, in thinking and seeing clearly, and in doing what we can to empower others to do the same, and ultimately to help ourselves and them to become the agents or actors of our own lives.

In this regard, I realised that I myself was using words interchangeably that I should be able to better define separately, and that doing so would help me personally to think more clearly. Those words are: ‘school’, ‘training’, ‘education’, and ‘learning’. See if you think what I’ve developed is helpful. I call this:

The 4 Levels of Learning

1. Schooling

‘Schooling’ is the entry-level to formal learning. While there is learning at schools, it’s less about subject-matter and more about learning the skills needed to be a good worker. Schools teach conformance and obedience, getting work done – doing what, when, and how you are told to.

Schools are a system of rules, schedules, bells, attendance ratings, and constant testing. We casually refer to this as ‘education’, but it is not (see #3). Rather than trying to find the unique value, capacity, or capability of the individual (which is the story we often tell), schooling allows a stratification of the students to take place so that some can lead and others will follow.

The widespread adoption of mandatory public schooling in the 19th century can be seen as the result of its significant effectiveness as a means of managing large, industrial, urban populations – basically, public schooling is a governance strategy. Seen in this light, this helps to explain why education policy (at least in the United States) is often directed not by educators or research bodies, but by politicians. Schooling is also an effective way of communicating shared societal expectations and values.

There are some other interesting common uses for the word ‘school’. A school of fish all turn and swim in a synchronised fashion. Also, if you get schooled on the basketball court, that means that someone has taught you a lesson, usually in a shaming way.

2. Training

This next level of learning is specific career or vocational training: mechanical, medical, legal, industrial, etc. It’s largely memorisation and certification. This level of learning is attractive because it is career-specific and often allows individuals to transfer between social and financial classes. Immigrant families or marginalised populations have historically seen high-level training as a means of bettering their (or their children’s) life circumstances.

3. Education

A definition of the word education that is helpful for our purposes (and I think most will agree is fitting), is that it is from the Latin: ‘to lead or to draw out from within’. This is what we commonly intend when we talk in lofty ways about how education frees the individual mind.

It’s what is supposed to happen in a ‘liberal arts’ (also from Latin: liber = free) education. It describes what someone means when they talk about how an individual teacher changed his or her life. Education can happen in school, but while often stated as the primary objective, it is uncommon for it to actually be primary.

In my own definition, education is always the result of a one-to-one relationship, where a mentor helps a learner think at a higher level and to see something differently than they have before. Education is arguably the critical level of learning that has to exist for people to think about life beyond evolutionary instincts, and to create freedoms and protections against abuses of power and control.

Education helps us think past the current moment and be concerned with systemic outcomes and how we truly help ourselves and others.

4. Self-directed learning

Self-directed learning is the ultimate goal of a healthy education system. It’s when someone has learnt how to learn, and is able to manage his or her own learning goals and processes.

It’s what we mean when we talk about becoming a ‘life-long’ learner. It’s the same way that a parent wants to help their child grow and become an independent, self-directed, and capable person. It’s the best education outcome for those who believe that the strength of a society is the aggregated strength of its individual members, who together then can solve hard problems.

I hope this has been helpful. For me, understanding the ‘game of school’ and the ‘four levels of learning’ has really shifted my beliefs about how to improve the school experience and the pushes for school reform. I’ve concluded that efforts at school reform which are predicated on believing the story that the system exists primarily for learning are unlikely to actually change anything.

I think schools are doing exactly what they have been designed to, even though we talk about them using loftier sentiments. I don’t think efforts to ‘reimagine’ or ‘reinvent’ schools are ultimately going to work because we depend too much as a society on schools doing what they currently do – producing conformity and obedience.

Institutionalised systems are effective and efficient, but what they usually produce is often sterile and synthetic, and with painful unintended consequences. So where does this leave us?

For me, it’s one-to-one sharing, coaching, and teaching. If we can change a student’s school experience, we can change his or her life forever. If we help them (and help their parents and other caring adults to help them) to individually turn their school experience into a true education, then I think we have helped them to really win at the game of school.

Steve Hargadon is the founder and director of the Learning Revolution Project and the founder and chair (or co-chair) of a number of annual worldwide virtual events, including the Global Education Conference and the Library 2.0 series of mini-conferences. He pioneered the use of live, virtual, and peer-to-peer education conferences, popularized the idea of ‘unconferences’ for educators and built one of the first modern social networks for teachers in 2007 (Classroom 2.0). He also supported and encouraged the development of thousands of other education-related networks, particularly for professional development. To engage with him, email us at

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