(inspired by ‘The Infinite Game’ by Simon Sinek 2019)
What is Success in Education?
Close your eyes for a moment and picture the faces of your children. Now imagine telling them what real success in life looks like. The kind of success that means you have achieved your visions and goals, purpose and meaning i.e., living a successful life. Is it about academic achievement? Attaining a better HSC mark? Being part of a cohort with a high-ranking HSC? That is unquestionably important, however, it seems like a narrow definition of success.
As a school principal, I often ponder how we define success. What is the ultimate objective and purpose for our children’s schooling?
I believe that most parents have a broad, rich, purposeful, and meaningful definition of what success is for their children. Academic achievement is an element and important vehicle in that success.
At a high level, I believe success at Moriah is:
- Empowering every child in our care to face the future with knowledge and pride in who they are as Jews.
- Equipping them with self-efficacy and confidence in their abilities.
- Ensuring they ‘belong’ and have deep and meaningful connections with their peers, families, and community.
- Imbuing them with a deep desire to improve upon, and positively change the world around them.
These values propel a child towards living a truly successful life.
When a child goes out into the world feeling proud and secure in who they are, their intrinsic purpose and meaning is easier to find. When they are confident in their abilities and have self-efficacy, they have hope in the face of life’s inevitable challenges.
At the heart of Judaism is a deep, empathetic, and multifaceted social connection. Community, family, and friends play a vital role in our culture and our psyche. As a result of this fundamental connection and empathy for others, we do not sit back when there are challenges, issues, or malaises affecting society, our community, family, or friends. We do everything in our power to resolve them and better the lot for those around us. To quote Rabbi Sacks, we are “a religion of protest”, we do not accept the status quo.
I often observe a tug-of-war within elements of our school community, trying to pull Moriah in different directions, to change our trajectory, or simply mold the school around an individual preference. We listen and respond to a lot of constructive feedback from our students, community and parent body, yet it is vitally important for any organisation or school, to maintain and continuously enhance its integrity and stay true to its mission, vision, and purpose.
Infinite vs Finite Games
In Simon Sinek’s book, The Infinite Game, he quotes an idea from Professor James P. Carse, who says there are two kinds of games in the world and life: ‘Finite’ games and ‘Infinite’ games. Finite games are played by known players with fixed rules and agreed upon objectives. When the objective is achieved, the game ends. Football for example, has an agreed set of rules, a referee to enforce the rules, and everyone plays by the rules, and whichever team scores the most points, achieves the agreed objective and wins. In a Finite game there is always a beginning, middle and end.
In contrast, Infinite games are played by known and unknown players. There are no exact or agreed upon rules, although there may be some conventions or cultures that govern how the players conduct themselves. Within those broad guidelines, the players of an Infinite game can operate with a significant amount of autonomy and they can choose to veer from the conventions of the game. In a sense, how each player chooses to play is entirely up to them. Infinite games don’t have a specific time and there’s no practical end to the game, which means that there’s no such thing as winning or losing. The primary objective in an Infinite game is to keep playing, and to successfully perpetuate the game.
Examples of Infinite games are all around us. Most, if not all, businesses are infinite games. They are not just about the bottom line, rather the ongoing sustainability, impact and success of the business. Healthy marriages or friendships are Infinite games, you can’t win or come first in friendship or marriage.
In a Finite game, there is a single metric that separates winners from losers, for example, how many goals were scored, who was the fastest, or displayed the most strength. In Infinite games there are multiple and complex metrics, which is why we can never truly declare a winner. In a Finite game the game concludes when the time is up, while an Infinite game lives on beyond the individual player(s).
Finite-minded players don’t appreciate change or surprises, they like routine and don’t think out of the box. Infinite-minded players expect surprises and are prepared to be transformed by them. They often think and play way beyond the box. An infinite perspective frees us from fixating on what others are doing and allows us to focus on a much larger and more important vision.
As an example of this paradigm, Sinek presents a contrast between speaking at education summits for Microsoft and Apple, a few months apart (in the early 2000s). He describes the presenters at the Microsoft event as devoting a good portion of their presentations to discuss how they would beat their archrivals, Apple. In contrast at the Apple event, all the presenters focused on how they could help teachers teach, and help students learn. Microsoft was obsessed with beating its competition – playing a Finite game. Apple was obsessed with advancing a Just Cause – playing an Infinite game. At the time, Microsoft was declining and Apple was capturing a lion-share of the technology market, in fact, they were creating completely new markets with their innovative devices.
An infinite vision drives creativity, purpose, innovation and ultimately drives numbers. Companies and schools that adopt an infinite-minded mindset often enjoy record success. In addition, the innovation, inspiration, and cooperation that results from infinite-minded leadership, is sustainable both in times of stability and challenge.
Playing the Infinite game of education
School and education may be finite in its formal timeline, however there’s no such thing as ‘winning’ in education despite some of us occasionally using ‘Finite’ language about school. We sometimes speak about ‘winning’ or ‘beating the competition’ by gaining the highest mark or ranking higher than other schools. Thinking or leading with a finite mindset in an Infinite game leads to all kinds of problems. In contrast, leading with an infinite mindset moves us in a better direction. Organisations, teams, groups, and communities that adopt an infinite mindset enjoy much higher levels of trust, collaboration, innovation, and success.
Thinking about our children’s education in an infinite sense enables us to appreciate the process of learning, the ups and downs of growing up, the grit and resilience developed in the face of challenge, and the true values of what is important in education and what success looks like.
When we approach education with an infinite mindset, we imbue our children with the desire to continue to learn and engage, to think critically and flourish, far beyond the in-school tenure. Infinite-minded education ensures that our children, staff members and community members share a common higher purpose, an inspired vision and goal.
A finite-minded approach to our children’s education focuses on outdoing others. An infinite-minded approach focuses on the difference that our children will aspire to make in the world around them. The result, increased life fulfilment and happiness.
Recently, we introduced diaries, study guides & training and increased formal assessments and marks into our High School. We believe it is important to assess and provide clear feedback to our students about their progress in learning. The infinite-minded thought-process of the rubric reporting system is however, of tremendous merit and value. Infinite-minded education, is not about how high a mark you achieve and who you have beaten, rather it focuses on the process of learning itself. In a finite-minded culture, leaders, communities, parents, and students can become obsessed with what the competition – other students, or other schools – are doing and find themselves in a never-ending ‘whack-a-mole’ game of trying to outdo others.
A school with a finite-mindset puts too much focus on finite objectives with arbitrary metrics in an arbitrary time frame, for example, HSC school rankings. Top ranks/marks doesn’t necessarily mean that the school is providing students with what they need to ensure long-term, sustainable, and meaningful success. In fact, often by overly focussing on an arbitrary metric we compromise the core elements that contribute to our children’s success. We are trying to intervene and accelerate their success at the cost of the fundamental building blocks for their true and meaningful future. It’s like a business, so overly focused on quarterly or annual returns, that they compromise the longer term, bigger picture sustainability, purpose and impact of the business.
Moriah is not an academically selective school, nor do we weed-out less-academic students. We are proud to be an inclusive, community school where students can achieve and succeed equal to, if not better than, at any other school.
Ultimately, maintaining an infinite mindset is not easy. To complicate matters, Finite games are seductive. They are easy to measure and compare, and can often be fun and exciting. As a school leader, it is challenging to lead an infinite culture and vision. It would be much easier to be focussed on fixed or finite goals rather than the infinite vision of our children’s future.
Together with the leadership teams and staff across the College, we regularly discuss and contemplate how to advance the Just Cause (mission) of Moriah. Are we building trust in our teams, with our parents, with our students, and with our stakeholders? Are we studying our worthy rivals to say abreast of innovation and quality trends in education whilst ensuring that our educational basics are strong? Are we prepared for existential flexibility so that when a challenge such as a global pandemic turns the status quo on its head we are ready to navigate the challenge and emerge stronger and better for it? And are we continuously demonstrating the courage to lead our school along infinite path?
I encourage each and every one of you as parents, to contemplate choosing to embrace an infinite mindset about our children’s education. It’s a journey that will lead us and our children to feel inspired every day, and help us focus on what’s important. When our children leave school, we want them to continue playing the Infinite game as lifelong learners. Just imagine how fulfilling their lives will be and how many people they will inspire along the way.
About the Author
Rabbi Yehoshua Smukler is the College Principal at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.