Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Play the game

This post is predicated by a fascinating discussion in the conference today about game playing.

The research presented was some really useful work being done in remote areas of Australia where staff turnover is high, student attendance is very low and every teacher who rocks up changes stuff in order to 'make a difference' (cue: note to self on this one...)

Those schools that are functioning relatively well in this environment have begun adopting a discourse of 'the game' whereby they make the most simple actions and behaviours of going to school explicit to their students and communities as the rules of the game "Going to School" and then are consistent about those rules. For further information, read the paper here. It's really good.

This notion of game playing really resonates with me, but not in the way intended in the paper. Here are 3 examples of games I've encountered that are worth sharing.

Game 1
My own offering to today's conversation involved the most strange and alarming phenomenon that I first encountered at the school regarding my students' books.

For my students, the main function and attribute of their book was form: it must be neat, it must be beautiful, it must not have scratchings or incorrect answers or messy work or mistakes in it.

Rough work was done on ANY other available surface: torn out papers from homework diaries, toilet paper, the wall, the desk, you name it. Anywhere else except in the book.

So when I insisted that they show me their working inline they were--initially--horrified. "But Miss, that will mess up my book!" Or, even worse (lord forbid) I came around to check how they are doing and wanted to do an example with them together in their books so that they could watch good mathematics being modelled and retain the example for future reference...

"NO MISS NOT IN MY BOOK! NOT WITH RED PEN!" <thrusts a pencil into my hand>

The only red allowed in the book is a tick. A nice red tick. And if I don't provide it as timeously as the students want, they put it in themselves, irrespective of whether the work is right or not.


I was boggled. Bemused. And disturbed at the same time. Because there is only one place that my students could've learnt this particular ritual, and that was in their previous classroom.

What on earth could possibly conduce the teachers to only ever tick, or the students to never show their working and scratch around thus for any surface (including, might I add, themselves) on which to perform their calculations?

To economists my answer will seem obvious: incentives. The Rules of the Game manifest in different ways. There are the 'official' rules of the game. And then there are the real rules, the ones that the rewards, penalties and pressures incentivize. The Rules of the Game might 'officially' state that teachers need to check all their students books regularly. But if a teacher is being told that books will be randomly inspected by the visiting authorities and each sum must be marked, well the incentive is to do as few questions as possible to alleviate the assessment burden (any sane mathematics teacher will tell you it is nigh on impossible to assess every question that every student ever does. That's where self-assessment comes in).

Also to alleviate the burden of marking, we go old-school: ticks and crosses against the final answer only. Working, misconceptions, the process of calculation count for nothing. Only the answer. *tick*.

The result is a charade: a dance of shadows where teachers act out something they call 'teaching' and students act out something they call 'learning'. Learner copies off the board and then waits. Teacher comes along and goes 'tick'. Inspector comes along and goes 'very good! Beautiful books'. Teacher smiles. Student smiles.

Nothing approximating the igniting of mathematical understanding has happened at all.

Game 2

Another interesting example of the Game. Who would've thought that a potential explanation for principals admitting students into their already over-full schools could be linked to salary scales?

Size of school -> Principal's payscale.

So here we have a payscale system that is trying to acknowledge those principals who are running schools of 1200 kids and that what they do is harder than running a school of, say, 300 kids. And that's fair enough. But the distorted behaviour that manifests is profound.

Game 3

The final interesting example comes down to advisor visits. I was really not very happy about my advisor visits (euphemism of the millenium). I was particularly not happy about being made to sign their report to acknowledge they had 'advised' me. They came on a day when I had no free time to chat with them, at a time when I was teaching all day, with no room for negotiation. They arrived late and then were frustrated when they had to leave late.

[It should be added that this rather rushed engagement was the result of a slightly tense interaction in which many emails over a period of about 5 weeks requesting an amicable visit went unanswered. I think they got upset when we contacted the powers-that-be and asked why we were not getting any responses to our requests for help.]

No effort was made to engage with what I have tried to do for remedial interventions with the students. The interventions were just 'me going off curriculum'. They poured over my files while I was in class and then I kind of got it with both barrels about 'not sticking to the pace-setter'. My protests of the students' weakness and knowledge gaps were met with the response "That doesn't matter. You must stick to the pace setter. These kids will keep you behind if you give them half a chance".

Give them half the chance? Perhaps them not getting half a chance might explain why they are in such a pickle in the first place? I'm not joking here: on the notes they gave to me they have literally written "do not let "don't understand" get in the way". I've been officially instructed to not worry if my students don't get it.

At this point in the hurried meeting I really was restraining my desperate urge to either pack up laughing hysterically or punch someone in the face.

But off we set on this game. They talked at me, s-l-o-w-l-y, showing me in monosyllabic terms the most unpedagogically sound mechanisms for teaching fractions I have ever seen, assuming that I didn't know how to teach this level of mathematics. I nodded, steam coming out of my ears, wishing they would go away or make an effort to get to know what I've done, what I can do and what I'm trying to do and actually advise me. No such luck. We just played the game. The Box-Ticking Game. Educator X has been 'corrected' and has been made to sign a document stating as much. School Y has been visited and can be ticked on the list. We've done our jobs here. This school is now 'right'.

I think it was John Maynard Keynes who said something about creating employment by paying people to dig holes and paying other people to fill them in again. This really sums up to me what our education system currently is. One very large, elaborate, expensive charade, a game to keep a few hundred thousand people employed. Which it does very well. But in the immortal words of Blackadder, there's only one teeny tiny problem....

It was bollocks.


  1. I just lost the game :( sad Marta.

  2. My dearest Marta... as your ex-teacher, I can categorically state you have perhaps only lost this round.

    One of the most difficult things to learn for those of us who are used to winning The Game (of Education... you know, those of us who find tests and studying and sitting in desks and remembering stuff comes naturally)... your REAL education just began: learning what it feels like to be on the wrong end of the Rules of the Game. That's real education. What I taught you was nonsense. Your real schooling is in experiences like these.

    The only question now is how you respond...

  3. Wow, that sounds rough. I"m really sorry that you had to endure such a load of crap. What do they do if you refuse to sign that you have been corrected?

    1. seriously good question actually. Am not sure... wasn't really feeling like rocking the boat in that way was wise?

      We're all still on contracts... maybe once I'm in a more sure situation I might question that :)