My only memories of my grandfather on my mother’s side are probably not really my own memories at all. I know he was universally beloved. A kind, hardworking man who’d had the first of his 11 children at 50 years old; he owned a farm in northern New Brunswick and lived to the ripe old age of 91 years. I was 7 when he died.
When I was young, maybe 4 or 5, I used to play cards with him in the kitchen of the ‘new’ farmstead (long since gone). One of those stories, and the one I remember best, is the one where I caught him cheating at Crazy Eights. I was, I am told, terribly appalled by the transgression. My 4-year-old fury, the story goes, was quite possibly the funniest thing my gentle, kind grandfather had ever seen.
And when I try and think about it, I can’t imagine that he was actually cheating in any real attempt to win. I have the vague memory of leaving the old house convinced that I was an excellent card player.
He must have been letting me win. And he was cheating.
Flash forward 40 or so years and my 10 year old returned from summer camp this year with a slightly worn deck of cards in her pocket. I had purchased this deck for her in the vague hope that she’d want to play with me. You see… I never really lost that love of card playing. That little boy who was taught to play cards by his grandfather wandered the beach every summer afterward looking to play cards with anyone either too polite to say no or too old to be able to get away in time. I bought my daughter the deck hoping that the kids and I could get ‘card playing’ into our repertoire so that we’d have something else fun to do on our wanders around Ontario.
And now, here she is, stalking me with a deck of cards in her hand. All I can see is Matante* Carmelle and Matante Janinne shaking their heads at the cottage in the summer as I asked them to play dame-de-pic. So the 10 year old sits me down and explains her new card game to me. She shows me her new shuffling skills… clearly her time at camp was not wasted. She’s got this evil, card shark grin on her face that I don’t really recognize… a new look for an almost 11 year-old girl.
We play. I win.
Is that really what success looks like?
As I sit here this summer trying to collect my thoughts about how our practices in education don’t actually match our goals, I’m left a little embarrassed I worked so hard to beat a 10 year old. The oft-repeated, and silently bemoaned, mantra that I repeat to my kids all the time is “What goal do you have for that job? What does success look like?”
I sit here in my basement a little bemused at how i could have missed success by so much.
If you made it through the story above, my goal for the card game was obvious… I want her to keep playing. While I suppose it’s possible that playing a 10 year old with every cut-throat piece of skill you’ve learned in 40 years of card playing is ‘encouraging’…it’s not terribly likely.
I did complement her on shuffling, and did engage her in card-based fun conversations, but, as soon as the shuffle dropped, I fell back to the zero sum winning-means-winning approach that my own 10 year old self took on at the beach so many years ago.
It’s not like I didn’t have a good model to work from. My grandfather clearly had his goals sorted when he was sitting on that little corner table with me so many years ago. He wanted to play with his grandson. There are only so many games shared between 80-somethings and a 4 year old, and this was the place he chose for us. And we played. And, when he got bored, he cheated a little… probably to help me win.
Instead, my daughter learned that the reason for playing IS winning, which she promptly demonstrated by using the same cut-throat mentality I had taught her when she played with her mother an hour later. And she beat her mother.
While I do think that learning how to win can be a super useful skill – it lacks context. Her mother wasn’t trying to win… she just wanted to spend time with her daughter.
How then, do we define success in learning?
I succeeded, I guess, in teaching my girl success in the simplest sense of the way a game can be played: stay on top of the game. Ignore social cues in order to maintain top competition readiness. See success in a strict mathematical sense.
This is the danger, I think, of ever thinking of the learning process as games-based. As the superficial sense of ‘winning’ is so easy to see, so easy to measure, it’s easy for us to slide into our habits and wash away the complexity that lives underneath. There is not likely going to be any advantage to my daughter thinking of cards as a game to enter with the sole purpose being ‘winning’. I mean, I guess she could be a professional card sharper or something, but I’m not sure that that’s a future I would hope for.
Not really my goal.
My goal was to have something for us to do together while we were out enjoying weekend rides out into the country. Something to share. Learning how to work together, to weave competitiveness with social awareness. To see games as a way to become better acquainted with someone, rather than to express dominance. Hard things to measure. My sense is that it’s the kind of thing we can only model. The best teachers I can think of were curious, and giving, and socially aware of the people around them.
The blog post previous to this one was a history of how the desire to use assessment for gatekeeping, for bureaucratic advantage and to encourage student effort lead to our current state of mathematical obsessiveness with grades. Where we saw success as a number that, however artificially created, is the true sense in which we see learning. And, by extension, how we move our learning to objective, extrinsic motivators for reasons that, strictly speaking, have nothing to do with learning.
I’m left thinking about how I can do better with my own kids in encouraging intrinsic motivation. I want them to want to play cards with me because we have fun together when we do it.
It’s the same kind of intrinsic motivation that I want from the education system. So much of our system is defined and constrained by how we measure success. So often we default to the easy measurement, to the convenient measurement, and lose our way altogether. It may be that the way we model learning as teachers is the only real learning that happens in the classroom. I should pay more attention to my grandpa.
note: Matante is an acadian slurring of ‘ma tante’ (my aunt). For the first 8 years of my life, I thought the word ‘aunt’ was ‘matante’ instead of ‘tante’