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by William H. Benson

August 19, 2010

     This past weekend I read in The New York Times Magazine of an online board game called “Bring It,” in which players draw from a deck of cards a series of math questions. Although it appears that the program deals from the deck randomly, the game is rigged. How a player answers the first series of questions determines the level of difficulty of the latter cards he or she will receive. It advances or contracts in terms of difficulty according to the skill level of the player.

     “If a player answers the math questions correctly, the deck changes so he will draw more-challenging cards and stay interested. A player who misses questions does not draw the hard cards, so he will not become frustrated. With the deck rigged in this charitable way, the players generally cross the finish line almost together.”

     In other words, everyone wins: the more intelligent will not quit out of boredom, and the less intelligent will enjoy the thrill of winning.

     In a similar way, I recently have noticed how the Web accommodates itself to my personal tastes. For example, if I order a certain book from an online bookstore, it will then suggest other books in that same category. “As a populous commercial precinct, the Web now changes in response to our individual histories with it. . . . Digital “things”—apps carefully dressed as objects—change as we use them, too. And it’s weird enough when those things are being solicitous and cooperative.”

     School begins this week, and even though school does its best to gear itself to the skill and intelligence level of the students, similar to the game “Bring It,” school is still a meritocracy, where those with intelligence, ambition, and the ability to acquire a skill quickly, win the grades. Those without those same talents will struggle and falter.

     By its very nature, school must be competitive—in grades, as well as in athletics, and in the social arena—for the community expects the teachers to set the education standards sufficiently high enough to force all students to stretch to achieve them. Unlike that rigged deck of cards in “Bring It,” the teachers must deal from a random deck.

     School’s competitive nature is a winnowing process designed to produce competent workers for the community. Students begin by mastering a sizeable amount of information laid out in textbooks. Next, the teachers present the students with opportunities for hands-on training, during which the students attain the skills. The third factor is the experience that the students gain once they find themselves in the work force and are required to deal with real-life situations. The result is a competent professional.

     Albert Einstein once said, “The most important method of education always has consisted of that in which the pupil was urged to actual performance.”

     This process—competing in order to achieve competency—produces excellent doctors, surgeons, accountants, attorneys, and educators. Much of this educational process though today is focused squarely upon “standardized curriculum, rote memorization, and nationalized testing.”

     Some observers have noticed that what is missing from this process is the nurturing of creativity. Newsweek, in its July 19th edition, pointed out in its featured article “The Creativity Crisis,” that “all around us are matters of national and international importance that are crying out for creative solutions.” Creativity is considered an innate skill, like intelligence or personality, and certain students may have it and not even know it. The deeply creative individuals would consider playing the online game “Bring It” a pointless waste of their time, although they would be the ones to create it.

     Ingenuity or the ability to creatively solve problems is not normally taught or even fostered in America’s standards-obsessed schools today, but it can be tested and has been for fifty years. The Torrance test, devised by E. Paul Torrance of Minneapolis in the 1950’s, consists of “a 90-minute series of discrete tasks . . . and has been taken by millions worldwide in 50 languages.” The result is for each student a CQ score, analogous to an IQ score, and the tragedy is that U.S. CQ scores have been declining.

     Television and videogames siphon away a student’s interest in brainstorming, asking questions, and solving problems, and the teachers are overly preoccupied with prepping their students for that standardized test, such that the highly creative students are ignored.

     The American society truly wants and needs more of both the competent professionals as well as the gifted and creative individuals who can identify and solve a multitude of problems. Much of the challenge for the students is to find that program that fits them and then to work extremely hard at it. School is still a meritocracy, and the winners are those who achieve inside of a classroom that is not rigged.