You may have noticed articles about ChatGPT which uses Artificial Intelligence to write in response to prompts. One of the worrying things is the potential for students to cheat.
Before we get down to the topic of education, I need to explain to you about finite and infinite games:
Finite games are games with a clear endpoint and a defined set of rules. The objective of the players is to win the game, and once the game is over, it cannot be played again. Examples of finite games include chess, checkers, and tic-tac-toe.
Infinite games, on the other hand, have no clear endpoint and the rules are constantly changing. The objective of the players is not to win the game, but rather to keep the game going. Examples of infinite games include relationships, politics, and business.
Finite and infinite games are concepts introduced by James P. Carse in his book “Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility” which he uses to illustrate the different perspectives and motivations of individuals, organizations and societies.
Now when I say that I need to explain, what I actually mean is that I need to cut and paste what ChatGPT wrote in response to: “Can you explain finite and infinite games?”
Personally, I think I could have written it better. For example, in finite games, once a game is finished, it’s finished and that’s what ChatGPT meant with “it cannot be played again”, but the way that it’s phrased it sounds like you can’t challenge to a rematch. And the AI uses similar examples, when I would have mixed them up with other finite games like tennis, golf and basketball. I would have also pointed out that there are different rules for winning. For example, tennis is played till a player (or players) reach a certain score while basketball is usually played for a set time.
Whatever, I managed to get something on infinite games to give to you in twenty seconds or so which freed up my time and let me move on to the main point I’m trying to make.
When it comes to coaching for an finite game, society gets it. When it comes to education, not so much. There is something dramatically wrong with the way we judge schools, and it has to do with the fact that most of the measures we use are part of some finite game, while a school’s real value is how it prepares students for the infinite games of life.
For example, if parents came to me and told me that their primary school child might be a tennis protege and they wanted me to coach him… Well, I’d actually be very surprised because, while I can actually hold a racket and hit the ball back over the net if it’s my vicinity and not travelling too fast, I’m not actually that good…
But they didn’t want to pay a good coach until they found out if he was worth the money and they heard that I was cheap.
Leaving aside all the implausibility of the scenario and accept for a moment that I’m asked to prepare him for a tennis tournament so they can see what he’s like. I agree and I give him a lesson and I tell him to go home and practise his ball toss because he doesn’t always throw it straight up. I also suggest that he may need to be fitter so I’d like him to run at least three kilometres twice a week. To check on this, I tell him that he needs to record it with a Fitbit.
At no point do I imagine that he’ll cheat and get his older brother to do one or two of the runs, while his parents do the ball tosses. After all, that won’t make him a better tennis player.
On the other hand, if I were to ask him to write a thousand-word essay on what it’s like to be Ash Barty instead of any of the things I’ve suggested I could understand why he doesn’t feel like this is helping his tennis career. And I could certainly understand why he might feel the need to cheat. Similarly, if I explain that it would be really good to understand the physics of the ball movement through the air and in order to help him determine the area under the ball as moves from the serve to landing, he needs to study calculus so I’m putting the tournament on hold until he’s mastered his use of a slide rule. What do you mean we don’t use slide rules anymore? Surely something that’s been around that long can’t be improved on.
The basic point is that if the kid is really serious about tennis, then he’ll do the things that seem relevant to improving his tennis, but he’s less likely to want to do the essay about Ash Barty or the calculus.
And, if he does manage to win the tournament and get taken over by someone else, was that a result of my great coaching or simply the fact that he had a natural aptitude for tennis? Of course, great coaching – like great teaching helps – but some kids succeed in spite of their coach and others only manage to perform at an acceptable standard thanks to a great one.
Which gets me back to the original discussion of finite and infinite games. Schools are not like a finite game where all that matters is the Australian Open and where the kid is seeded in the draw is a measure of previous success, as well as an indicator of expectations. Schools need to prepare their students for an infinite game of challenges and, while the eventual ranking is nice and worth aiming for, there’s only going to be a handful who make the finals.
Things like ATAR scores do have value, but the whole ATAR system is a zero-sum game which produces winners and losers. Nothing wrong with winners and losers when you’re looking at a finite game. It’s only a problem when you forget that life is an infinite game and it’s what happens after the finite game that counts.
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