Playing the Infinite Game

Most of us have only ever experienced school in finite terms, with learning measured in seat time, grades and tests over a predictable timeline. It’s finite because there is a clear beginning, middle and end, from the first day of school in the fall to the last day of school in early summer. With a child’s formal entry into conventional schooling starting in kindergarten and culminating at high school graduation, 13 years later. Each year, a child gets new grades, takes new tests, and moves up to a new grade level. It’s easy to deliver, easy to measure, and easy to control. 

This timeline, and all of the traditions and rites of passage along the way, have provided a common rhythm by which most families and students have come to count on. For many people, the comfort of this familiar routine, can be alluring enough to ignore the essential opportunities our children are missing while living inside these rhythms and traditions. Instead, we play the game. We don’t even stop to consider if winning this particular game actually means anything. It’s amazing what we’ll trade for certainty. 

We play a different game at The Village School. It’s the long game, a game that some might even describe as the “infinite game”, since the type of people our children become and the unique contributions they will make to the world around them, will hopefully far outlive even their own footprints on this earth. 

Our community exists because we believe children deserve outcomes of personal agency, independence, resilience, creativity, curiosity, and integrity as a result of their education and we’re willing to play the long, messy, hard game to see it happen. 

Zooming in, we are a buzzing micro-school, where children get to work at their own pace and do really cool hand-on projects, earning badges along the way to demonstrate mastery of certain skills and subjects. Zooming out, we are part of a growing collective of people that believe a flourishing child is the greatest hope for a flourishing world. 

But, even when embracing an entirely new belief system of how young people learn and find success in the world, old habits are hard to break. Even when we consciously commit to the long game, we lose our infinite mindset and start looking for that predictable beginning, middle and end of our child’s school year. Without grades, tests, and report cards, we latch on to what’s easiest to measure and control- their progress on Khan, the number of research papers they’ve completed, their mastery of the reading and/or spelling drawers all contained within the confines of their badge plan. We start the year zoomed out, with a clear-eyed vision of why we’re here and what our hopes are for our children. Then, come spring, I find so many of us zoomed in on the badges our children have yet to finish, the skills they’ve yet to master. Somehow, our hopes for our children have been dimmed by our fears.

What if they don’t finish? 

How will they feel if they “fall behind”?

Will they always be behind? 

Will they feel bad about themselves if they don’t complete their goals for the year? 

Will they be okay? 

Self-paced and project-based learning seems cool when my boys are doing the work, but it feels incredibly uncomfortable when they’re not. It seems ideal when I think about the fact that they have nothing holding them back; they could fly ahead, mastering Algebra 1 long before their same aged peers and less ideal when they are working on math a grade level “below” these same peers. It is exciting when I see them shouldering the responsibility for their learning, submitting their session-long projects by the time it’s due and disappointing when I don’t. 

But, when I zoom out enough, I realize that it’s not about how fast or slow they go, or how many badges they earn, or how comfortable I am- it’s that they recognize their own sense of agency in the process. An unchecked box on their badge plan is just a signpost telling them where to go next. 

Admittedly, I think we need to get better about the narrative surrounding badge plans- so in the studios our learners see them simply as trail markers, not a measure of their worth. And so as parents, we see them as the tool they are meant to be- a tool, while imperfect, that’s far better than empty letter grades, that help our children develop those “long game” outcomes of independence, perseverance, self-awareness, and resilience.

The good news- it does get easier each year. I’m still learning- still constantly trying to shake old habits, especially at this time of the year. But I can see the fruits of this journey so clearly. A child who’s “behind”, hunkers down and completes their Level 4 and 5 badges in one school year. A child who has yet to show an interest in reading, comes in one day excited to master the colored reading drawers and surround themselves with books from the studio library. Within a month or two, they are reading independently. A child who is emotionally distraught that they have not completed their goals as planned, recognizes that they just need to read the signposts more clearly, and then does so, one day a time until they reach their goals. 

Will they be okay? 

They will be better than okay- as long as we’re willing to play the long, messy, hard game to see it happen. As long as we’re willing to trade the certainty of the “finite game” for something better. 

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