What does success look like? card-playing edition

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.

Thinking education

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’

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

8 thoughts on “What does success look like? card-playing edition”

  1. OK, trying this again.

    My mum was a solitaire player, right up to (literally) her quiet passing, found sitting on her sofa with a hand played out on the coffee table in front of her. As her only child, I grew up loving the worn and shiny feel of the cards, and how she always had a pack with her. We also played board games, and I wanted to win but then learned that that was what ended the game. Gently she taught me that the narrative of the game was the thing. Fresh clean start, complex play, messy game space, someone wins, end. Like you, I’m sure she was cheating in various ways to encourage me to keep going.

    So it was natural to me to bring cards into the life of my daughters, and then to watch how they each take a different angle on the possibility of winning, avoiding winning, cheering the winner, minding about things. And like you I can see that what they’re doing is buying time with each other, laying out something that takes a certain amount of time to do. Small rituals — making hot drinks, clearing the table, what about a snack? Then in-game talk, and easygoing ways of being together when sometimes just being together without a game is too hard.

    What we in education call groupwork seems to emerge oddly and spontaneously when a game is stuck, especially a game involving memory.

    When I was very little I learned to play memory games with cards with my dad, who was sick in bed and moving towards the end of his life at 48. I can still clearly remember the feeling of balancing the cards on the blankets over his legs. Much later I realised what he was doing playing cards with me.

  2. I played bridge with my grandma. Bridge IS a conversation, there is a kind of enfolded discussion, cryptic and tender, within the bidding in each hand….I could go into that, but I won’t, because, in the end, it remains about competition. In every family that plays games, there are the cutthroats, and the saps who just like the way the game brings us together, and those who inhabit the middle ground.

    So too in education, etc. We could riff on this forever. We are all so damn good at metaphors, but how do we take this specific idea, the notion of modelling the learning, into institutions? You eat the elephant with a teaspoon.. .so what kinds of micro-change would work towards a teaching practice in which the teacher models learning?

  3. I would have commented even without the twitter nostalgia of blog commenting… but put that aside.

    Maybe I missed it, but did you ask her about what she got out of the game play? I hear you feeling it got overwhelmed into the winning for sake of winning, but is there a chance your winning she might see as something to learn from? To want to up her own game? To want more game time?

    That was my experience with Mom, who taught me scrabble early on. She of course won every time for a while, but the game play itself always made me want to play more, because it was about spending time with her. And over time, may be years, I started winning. That relationship we had, and I would guess you have with your daughter would never get tossed under the rug in one game play. There’s too much history there.

    None of this takes away from the thoughtful leap you make to the non game of education. That line about our goals and practices is some great conversation going with my wife.

    Nice post, as the commenters say 😉

  4. Great post, funny enough, it is the other way around with my mom. She was the one always wanting to win, relentlessly, and I ‘shsped’ the game do she would be happy.
    Completely agree with your ” 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”, and I never realised which complex interactions underlied the parent/child card games we had. Nice parallel.

    1. My mom is the same about winning. She has an entertaining way of going about it (which i did not inherit) but my mom’s approach to winning certainly underlies my own commitment to it 🙂

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