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Moneyball in Education (How to win an unfair game)

Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win.

Paul the Apostle

The Game

Parents, whether you realized it or not, the day your child was born, they entered into a competition. I call it “The Education Game” and how your child competes in the first 25 years will determine much of their health, wealth, and satisfaction for the remaining years of their life. 

This competition is not optional. All children must play, but unfortunately, there is no requirement that they compete to win. It will be your job to help them do so. 

For parents in-the-know, they are all too familiar with The Education Game. Their kids are on a selective preschool waiting list months before their child is born. They are playing to win. 

The Fiercest Competition

Last month I visited Lance Armstrong’s bike shop in Austin and was dumbfounded at the numerous displays of “winning” jerseys, photos and paraphernalia proudly displayed. (It’s almost like he doesn’t realize that we know.) 

But, we do know — and, at some level, we understand how the pressure to win can warp us.  

The same pressure exists in The Education Game. We all can become warped into the idea that learning only happens in school and that the most critical knowledge is what has been defined by state and federal policymakers. Or, perhaps, we are warped into believing that multiple-choice tests are reasonable ways to assess a child. 

Like Lance, this warping is what drives some parents to bribe, cheat, and mislead to achieve their child’s educational goals. We all do what we can to secure a “win.” 

What Game are you Playing?

“If you must play, decide on three things at the start: the rules of the game, the stakes, and the quitting time.”

Chinese Proverb

Philosopher James Carse coined an important term in the book “Finite and Infinite Games,” which was recently popularized by one of my heroes, Simon Sinek. Carse and Sinek argue that some games are Finite, while others are Infinite. 

Finite games, like sports, have a specific endpoint, clear rules by which all players must abide (unless your name is Lance), and obvious winners and losers. In these games, zero-sum thinking predominates, cooperation is discouraged, and restrictive rules stunt innovation. 

In contrast, Infinite games are the higher callings of life. Love is an Infinite game. There are no rules, no zero-sum thinking in love. Education can also be an Infinite game. Education should spark passion, curiosity, and a lifetime of learning. 

But which of these two frames describe our education system? Finite or Infinite? 

Finite Thinking in an Infinite Game

In America, the education system is structured as a Finite game. There are hard-and-fast rules set up by political forces (and, ironically, higher education) to evaluate teachers, students, and schools. Here are some of the Finite rules:

  • Grades and standardized testing determine who is winning. It doesn’t matter what you learn.
  • There will be 180 instructional days each year. The other 185 days are unimportant.
  • Teaching is primary. Learning is secondary.
  • A good teacher is one who improves standardized test scores, not one who inspires a child to love learning.
  • Good students are those who can best memorize and regurgitate information, not those whose talents lie in the practical application of knowledge.
  • Wealthy kids are generally “Gifted and Talented,” and disadvantaged kids typically aren’t. 

As we reflect on these Finite Game “rules,” we see that many are antiquated while others are counterproductive. These rules lead to high levels of student, parent, and teacher disengagement while destroying creativity in our kids. 

Parents, you have a choice. You can begin making the switch to the Infinite Game and, thanks to a pandemic, now is your best chance. 

Enter Moneyball

The book “Moneyball – The art of winning an unfair game” reframed how sports were played. It pointed out how the old assumptions about how to win were meaningless at best and self-defeating at worst. 

The Moneyball approach pioneered by the Oakland As back in the 1990s was the first to link the behaviors and statistics that most led to success on the field. The Oakland A’s started with the end in mind, then worked backward, asking new questions along the way. The result: Oakland began playing an entirely different game. A game where traditional rules were discarded in favor of new approaches connected with longer-term success.

Oakland’s surprisingly simple innovation was slow to be adopted by other baseball teams. Still, once the success became obvious, other teams, then other sports, then industry, began applying the lessons to their fields of play. 

Moneyball in Education

In the education system, the Moneyball mindset has not taken root. The political apparatus that guides and funds education chokes most innovation. As a result, the Moneyball revolution is not happening inside of schools. It’s happening outside of them. 

Individual parents are throwing out old strategies in favor of ones that are much more engaging for their child and more aligned to the future of education and work. Like the Oakland A’s, these parents have decided to play a different game. 

New Game Principles

This New Game has the following principles:

  1. A 21st-century definition of educational “success”.
  2. The strategic use of technology.
  3. The intentional development of independent learners.

In later posts, I will profile dozens of young men and women who followed a variety of paths to educational “victory.” 

  • Some went to “low performing” schools, yet, because of their parent’s guidance, emerged highly marketable to colleges and industry. 
  • Some showed exceptional promise in math, writing, art, or music. Their parents radically personalized their learning to capitalize on these gifts.
  • I know of a straight-A student at a coveted high school who, with her parents full support, quit to build her own high school. One that gave her the freedom to expand her interests, deepen her passion, and better prepare her for college and career. 
  • I know a young man who, in middle school, found his passion and is building a business while also constructing his unique educational path. 

The common theme between all of these profiles is that parents took the leadership to play by a different set of rules. Their choice proved lonely and difficult. Most received no coaching, no support, and faced backlash from family, friends, and, sometimes, their schools. But their example guided me, and you can learn from it too. And, if you decide to play, it will require your leadership, time, and commitment.

Sadly, most parents will choose to stick with the old model. They will double down on finding the “right” school, more tutoring, grade-grubbing, and test preparation. These parents are helping their kids build a competitive resume for the year 1994. 

But we live in a world where what got you here, will no longer get you there. 

The Infinite Paths to College and Career

The families who are playing educational Moneyball are helping their child build an entirely different kind of resume. One that is infinitely more challenging, fun, and engaging for the student. It also happens to be much more competitive to colleges. But, I must be honest here, it is also more difficult for the parent in the short term. That’s the trade-off. But, having seen it, and having lived it, the exchange is worth it. 

How to Get Started

In the last four weeks, I’ve been hosting a Zoom webinar on Saturday at 10 am CST. It is a forum for a small group of parents to explore the practicalities of shifting to the New Game. I welcome your participation by clicking here to sign up

The first step in adopting the Moneyball strategy is to define what “winning” looks like for you and your child. In a future post, we’ll dig in here. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with two quotes to reflect on:

“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”

Lewis Carroll

“If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.”

Stephen R. Covey

The 21st-century will be nothing like the 20th. It’s time for your child’s education to adjust to the new realities of today.

A Request

Look for another post next Tuesday morning. And please forward to one parent who might be open to a different approach for their child. 

As always, thanks for reading and I pray that something I say or do can help you and your child “win” The Education Game. 

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Quick Start Guide

If you made it this far then don’t stop now. The Quick Start Guide delivers a week’s worth of curated and highly practical resources to grow your learning leadership for the next 5 days. This is only the beginning! 

What’s included:

  • Key podcasts
  • Questions to ask your child
  • Blog posts
  • Interviews & videos