Guest Column

Playing the Game of School


When my sisters and I were elementary-school age, we fought our boredom on rainy Saturdays by playing afternoon-long games of Monopoly.

I would get emotionally involved in these games. My sisters and I would compete fiercely, and I remember the tension I felt as I rounded Pacific Avenue headed for my sister’s hotels on Park Place and Boardwalk. It was uncanny how often I would land on these properties, to the delight of one of my sisters, who would happily end my participation in the game by putting me into bankruptcy.

I marvel at how emotionally involved I used to get with an activity that was just a game with a set of rules that only mattered while I was playing and had nothing to do with my real life. After that, win or lose, they were irrelevant.

Stuck in the Past
In some ways, school is like the game of Monopoly. In his 2005 book The Game of School, Robert L. Fried suggests school has a set of rules about how to play and what it takes to win the game. If one can’t play by the rules, or one’s style of learning is not well-suited to the game, then success will be difficult.

The difference between school and a board game is that one’s performance in the game of school matters, not because there is an authentic relationship between school and life, but rather because schools control the gates through which one must pass to be admitted into life’s endeavors.

Just as Monopoly has not changed since Charles Darrow patented the game in 1935, the game board for school has not changed much since it was conceived in 1892 by the Committee of Ten and structured into Carnegie units a decade later. What other institutions and technologies look the same today as they did 100 years ago?

It is past time for a serious examination of whether the game of school is really preparing students for life outside of school. If the tasks that promote student success in school are not consistent with what it takes for them to be successful in life, then “playing school” is like playing a game of Monopoly — important only while one is participating but irrelevant to what one must do when the game ends.

Misguided Focus
Most school improvement efforts completely skip the question of the meaningfulness of school as it relates to life outside of school. It is assumed that nothing is wrong with the 100-year-old game board, and thus our attention should be focused on helping students become better game players rather than upgrading the game board.

Testing remains the most important element of the school game. One becomes a better player by learning how to perform well on tests, a better teacher by teaching to the tests, and a better school system by having outstanding test results. Do these results mean anything outside of the school game?

We must not only examine our practice with respect to those who fail in our schools, but also ask whether those who have managed to succeed in the game are ready for the world in which they will live. Even a casual observer does not find many examples where success in life depends on taking paper-and-pencil tests. Yet how much of our evaluation of school performance is based on the results of this activity, and to what extent are these evaluations shaping what schools have become?

Relevance to Life
Schools have become high-stakes games that bear little relevance to life outside of school. We need to redesign the school game board so students are prepared for the world beyond graduation day.

We can start by spending time outside of school looking at what real scientists, mathematicians, writers and artists are doing. Is what we see these professionals doing in their chosen fields consistent with the skills and mental capacities we are asking young people to develop in school? Are students engaged in real-life challenges with adults who are experts in their field and with teachers who can guide students through activities that prepare them for what they will encounter in life?

Technology already has removed the barriers to this kind of education. Our schools today can reach out anywhere to anyone in the world. Authentic, engaging experiences that promote critical thinking can be brought into the classroom. Schools need no longer resemble a board game with a set of rules that apply only as long as one is playing the game.

Kenneth Greenbaum, who retired in 2004 after 20 years as a superintendent, lives in Moultonborough, N.H. E-mail: