Thursday, September 26, 2019

The Game of School and the Levels of Learning

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 fulfill 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, 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 industrial society, from the age of twelve or thirteen a few centuries ago, to the mid- to late-twenties now.

My slide in the Google presentation on this topic had a bar graph, with the top 10% being shaded and labeled, "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 institutionalized 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.

Institutionalized work, where most adults spend their day, is a game, and usually a pretty complicated one. So of course, I realized, preparing students for the modern work 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 we remember ourselves 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. And 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 and to find bring out the potential in each student. But 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. 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?

And 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 internalize the belief that they themselves are actual failures--that they are not good learners. And 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 behavior 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 honors and AP-level students begin to refer to the other students. They start to believe the same thing about the other students which those students are starting to believe about themselves--that they are "less than." (For the reader really wanting to think more about this, see Plato's Noble Lie.) In a very weird way, our modern industrialized 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 realized 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 interesting other common uses for the word school. A school of fish all turn and swim in a synchronized 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 memorization 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 marginalized 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 a 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 learned 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. Institutionalized 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.

I'm starting a new online community for students, teachers, parents, librarians, administrators, and others to share their experiences playing the game of school. It's at If this is of interest to you, please join me there. It's brand new with nothing (and nobody) yet, but it will grow. It's going to need some thoughtful contributors to curate and build helpful content to give students good advice about making the game of school their own. I'm looking for people to interview on this topic, and for student interviewers who can do the same, with advice on homework, classwork, tests, and all the practical tips they have for playing the game.

I've also created and am hosting 90-minute online workshops (there is a cost) for parents and teens on how to really win at the game of school and to create a home-centered, school-supported learning experience. It's at I've built it from the responses of hundreds of educators who kindly replied to an incredibly-long survey I did earlier this year. There is great advice from them, and the raw survey results will be available at soon. If you know a student or family that needs this but can't afford it, email me at

Your feedback is most welcome.


  1. Great blog!
    I have been using the same term for some time. It really is about figuring out the teacher and giving them what they want.
    Very little REAL leaning is in those textbooks! That is why I teach Problem Based Learning.
    It's nice to find someone else that thinks this way!
    Keep it up!

  2. While I enjoyed this read - and there is no question that school is a game - I find your response to the concept, i.e. helping students "win" at the game, chilling. The idea that school as game is somehow acceptable and should be encouraged is simply buying into a system that we know doesn't work. This will do nothing but further the problem. And it is a real problem, becaue while it may supply the economy with the worker drones we need, it also turns out thinker drones.

    We should be pushing for school to stop being a game. For example, eliminating A, B C grades in favor of substantive comments would immediately start the shift away fom the game and towards real learning. There are many ways this can happen, and both individual students and our society would benefit.

    If you want to help students win at the game, start a tutoring company.

    1. Thanks. I think you missed my point. For me, telling them about the game is actually telling them the truth--they can decide how much they want to play it. By not telling them the truth they often believe they are failures when they are just not good at the game. Second, if I'm right, the kind of wholesale reform you're wanting to push for instead is the kind of work I've watched and admired for decades and wondered: why do things stay the same? My conclusion is that public schooling, like other institutions, has an advertised narrative which is different than the role it actually plays--and so reform efforts designed to appeal to the advertised narrative end up being futile. Another example would be the narrative that banks are there to help us be financially stable, but what banks and banking really do is to get people into maximum debt in order to make a profit. So trying to reform banking is likely as much of a futile task as reforming education. My answer is, instead, to work to empower individuals, as I see this as the only way around the dilemma.

  3. Replies
    1. Thanks. It was an important influence, and I didn't reference it in my original post not out of disrespect, but just to be able frame the story a particular way "out of the gate." I will spend some time today reviewing it--I reached out years ago to Robert had had agreed to be on my original Future of Education interview series but I never heard back from him and repeated unsuccessful attempts to contact him left me sad to not have been able to really drill down on his work. I suspect that I've come to two conclusions that are different (I'll check later today and let you know!): 1. That school being a game is a "feature not a bug," and that it's actually more than just school--it's how the world works, so that 2. The answer is not tinkering with the institution but empowering the individual. Thanks!

  4. Shout-out to Jim Gerry for pointing out the good focus by some schools to help students "learn how to learn." I personally include that in the self-directed learning category, so I updated that section to incorporate this as well as the phrase "life-long learner." Most appreciated.

  5. Anonymous9:41 PM

    I must say I don't think I ever understood the 'game' in all levels of education and due to illness during the primary school years I didn't quite understand the basic grammar skills required for completing higher education course work. As I now work in a library surrounded by training guides I taught myself these skills and my last degree (I have a couple) I ended up in the top 10% of results for the course. Just saying it is never too late to self-train and I still score better in online courses than within the classroom as I never learnt the subtle art of providing constructive criticism to my trainers.

  6. Great read! It was so powerful to hear that students and other folks are giving you this information that they never felt smart but just succeeded at school by playing the game. This is true for me and at least my brother. I think so much of what drives people’s decisions as adults is that they secretly believ they are not smart so they push themselves in their careers or they push their kids to be smarter than they are. This is a great item for me to reflect on personally. Thanks for sharing!

    I am not completely picking up the levels of learning. I like sir Jen Robinson’s definitions of some of those. It ultimately see them as different entities so it’s a bit of work for me to wrap by head around them as levels.

    As the lions share of kids are in “standard schools” it’s great to see that you are creating tools for their success. We need more alternative learner centered school! But we also need existing schools to be better!

    Again thanks for sharing and for having the courage to put your work out there. Keep it up!

    1. Really appreciate the feedback. Regarding parents pushing kids: I believe that the things that we have in control in our own lives, the places where we have learned mastery, are the areas where we know how to help others (including our own children), and so we are patient and can map out plans for providing long-term help and support; but where we, ourselves, don't feel in control or are struggling, is where we find ourselves impatient, frustrated, and emotional--and often resort to force or "because I say so" methods. I'll think about your feedback on the levels of learning--it's more an explanation of the words "school," "training," "education," and "learning" than anything, which are often used interchangeably and contribute to muddled thinking. Finally, as much as I'm a fan of alternative and learner-centered schools,I have come to the conclusion that trying to build the better school isn't the solution, it's helping to change the idea of learning from being school-centered to individually-driven. Cheers!

  7. Thought provoking notion that I've heard kicked around for a few years. School is a game with rigid rules because it is usually overseen by a bureaucracy. In the case of public schools it is school boards and state and national regulations. In the case of private schools, parents often act as de facto school boards. I'd place the blame on parents, who are the customers in K-12 education. If their kids were doing any real-world work that they could observe, then they would see that most students are not getting important life skills. They are content to see terse scorecards in the form of report cards and cut-and-paste comments.

    1. There's a chicken-egg thing going on here, John. If you look at the history of mandatory public schooling, there are pretty clear statements at the time (late 19th / early 20th century) that the goal was to reduce the role of the family and increase loyalty to the state. It's a fascinating thing, goes back to Plato's Republic. I'm not sure I'd blame the parents as much as I'd suggest that the solution lies within them... schooling is an institution, and institutions are good at maintaining their roles. You've hit at the heart of why I'm spending time on this--we're so much in the mindset of reforming schools, I'm thinking what we need more is the power of an idea: parents and students reclaiming their agency.

  8. Steve-
    This was such a great read.
    The idea of school becoming a game- or the Game of School- is brilliant. A simple concept, but is it that simple? It took all this time to put it into words. This post spoke volumes to me. I am currently a coach for two of my son's soccer teams. I love the game, but I also played softball, a little bit of basketball, volleyball, and this thing called life. Your idea of playing the game of school is important for young learners and older learners to understand. It can be a musically in-tune learner, it could be a voice for the mute or deaf, this thought can register to those with any disability, any learning curve, any emotionally damaged or perfect student has played a game before; This concept can come into place in any part of the child, teen, adult’s life. The fun for learning and the competition between one's self between a singular person or group is important. When we play solitaire the idea is to win and get all the cards flipped over and ultimately get the four suites matched in numerical order; the more we think about those directions and the fight to beat the cards, group of people, singular person, or self in any game we can imagine the feeling of victory. The same feelings come when we learn a new language, new skill, new move, new system and apply it to Real Life situations. All of these are crucial for a learner to improve their abilities. The more we collaborate and anticipate the elements that contribute to the learner or “player” the easier and more effective motions can be put into place when providing a better education system. Your four pillars or Levels of learning- are important, but I am unsure if they work side by side to help the game or is this a ladder approach. I do believe that those four are important and in order to win the game whether in school or during life changes we need to adapt to the world around us. I will be looking at your link provided. I appreciate your views, and I am glad I could reflect on my own thoughts. This game we play allows the excitement for learning, the collaboration of parents, staff and communities to come together as one and support the “player or team,” and the heightened motivation for oneself is important. As a coach I often ask how my students are in school and use references to their class activities; I do this to compare their practices for math are just as important for their foot skills when playing soccer. I also add that I continue to grow as an adult and use my children as and family as my team members. We need to all support each other and look at a loss of battle, hurdle over an obstacle, or failure to a test all steppingstones to get to the Wining platform. We need to learn how to cope and grow from these losses and use those experiences to shape how we can do things differently next time. I believe our lives are a game and we need to play to win, digitally, physically, intelligently, and emotionally. We can do this by our self, for ourselves, or with others and/ or for others. Thank you for your thoughts again and I look forward to more posts in the future.
    Cori Smith

    1. Loved your comments. Game has three connotations, and thanks for helping me think through this: 1) a game as in a challenge, helping the learner/player to improve skills through challenge and motivation; 2) a game as in something rigged, something that most students don't know is going on, and where winning isn't necessarily virtuous (as in "gaming the system;" and 3) a game where *really* winning is not necessarily winning the particular immediate game, but rather discovering through the game that which one really cares about and which is most important in life.


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