by Fiona Sherwin

Mā whero, mā pango, ka oti te mahi: With red and with black the work will be done

“To steer correctly, a system with inherent physical momentum needs to be looking decades ahead.”[1]

In pre-COVID-19 times, our society maintained that inherent physical momentum, making any large-scale changes difficult at best. However, COVID-19 has forced society to pause, shutting down businesses, school and tertiary education campuses, and travel, with restrictions placed on how and when even essentials can be obtained. With this slow-down, the COVID-19 pandemic has given many sectors in New Zealand the unprecedented opportunity to radically change their structure and function before the momentum of society starts to build once again.

The Education sector is one area which has been forced into radical changes in a very short space of time. There has been an intense period of pivoting the system from largely onsite learning to completely offsite learning. Now it is time to reflect. When we return to on-site learning, do we want to return to the same education system? Or, is there another way (or multiple ways) to engage in education which steps away from the current system and is more responsive to the learner, culturally sustaining and equitable? Right now, as the education system’s inherent physical momentum is simply spinning in place, we have the incredible opportunity to choose which direction (or directions) it might take as it first comes to rest and then plots a course into the future.

This article draws on the work of James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games[2] to propose a framework to think about and reimagine how education might move into the future. Carse suggests that people play life as a finite or infinite player. Finite players play to win, whereas infinite players play to keep the game going. In education, finite play may be conceived as what education is, whereas infinite play stands for what education could be. In a finite game, only certain people are granted access to play. Players must prove their skill and worth before being allowed to enter the game. When someone wins, the game is over. In contrast to a finite game, the infinite game invites all people to play, it has variable rules where players can come and go and the game flexes to the needs and skills of the players. The goal is to keep playing. There are certainly aspects of competitive finite gameplay that serve even infinite players well. The drive to win something can be a positive experience. However, winning should not be at the expense of another’s humanity, nor due to the absence of certain groups of players who are not invited to play. Infinite play invites all who want to play to participate in the game.

As a Christian educator, there is a theological lens which is important to this work. A finite game speaks to the finite nature of humans whereas the infinite game speaks to the infinite nature of God. Although humans (individually) are finite, humanity is connected via infinite nature or God.[3] This gives those entering the infinite game a different perspective on how they may play. Those choosing to participate in infinite play are not merely individuals living out their own lives, they are an interconnected organism in communion with God. Each individual plays a role in the future health of the whole.

Arguably, this articulation of God is what was intended for humanity’s relationship with God and each other from the very beginning of creation. When imagining the beginning of humanity with God in the garden (Gen 2), I imagine that He had an infinite game in mind. The invitation was for all to participate and for the game to keep going. My ability to enter into the infinite game and reject finite play has been supported by a strong theology of love and participation and by an understanding of an infinite game playing God. Can the education system make changes to parallel this invitation for all to participate? And in making the invitation, also ensure that there are no barriers holding children back from participating?

Due to the current suspension of traditional forms of education creating an opportunity to enact change, it is important that any changes are not made in isolation but in consultation. Making any changes without consideration of long-term impacts or consultation with key stake holders may lead to changes that magnify problems already inherent in a particular system. Part of the process is to examine the system that we currently have to determine what needs to change to ensure an infinite game type of education system where all are invited to play and barriers to participation are removed. Why do we currently have a finite education system of winners and losers where many children become the losers?

Evidence is clear that there are barriers to participation, especially for Māori children where the effects of colonisation continue to be evident. [4] It should be noted that it is not all bad in the New Zealand education system; there is also much to celebrate. There are examples of infinite play, encouraging those participating to bring what skills and knowledge they have and to build on them. In developing Our Code Our Standards[5] for the teaching profession, the Teaching Council of Aotearoa New Zealand sets out a comprehensive framework for teachers to be Te Tiriti o Waitangi led with a focus on inclusive education for all. However, the implementation of the espoused values in this document is proving to be difficult and slow in a system with historical inequities built on the privileging of Western knowledge. To better understand how New Zealand education has arrived at a place where barriers to participation remain, it is necessary to examine the past.

When missionaries arrived in New Zealand in the early 19th Century, they found a highly organised society with education traditions based in a strong oral culture. Māori were welcoming and keen to learn from them. Introduced to written conventions, Māori were quick to develop their own written language seeing the advantages it could bring. Māori were also keen to learn of Western society so they could participate. They were not looking to assimilate and become like the missionaries but to participate in ways which could benefit their people.

The New Zealand Company, which followed the missionaries, sought to colonise New Zealand with the ways they brought from “the Motherland” England, including a class system that benefited a small percentage of the privileged from the work of the “underclass.” This involved the acquisition of land and the establishment of government and laws in which tribal shared ownership of land was not recognised, but rather, individual ownership was promoted. Despite the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, which intended to bring Māori and Pākeha into equal relationship (according to the English version, translation and understanding of the agreement is highly problematised), Pākeha continued to oppress Māori through practises such as land confiscation, the on-going effects of which are still evident in society including higher rates of unemployment, health outcomes, the prison population, and in educational outcomes.[6]

School, from the colonisers perspective, was seen as a vehicle to “reform” Māori into acceptable Western societal norms. Te reo Māoriwas banned from schools and children were punished if they used it. In school, Māori oral traditions were not acknowledged, nor was the concept of shared knowledge and learning. Māori children were forced into the Western model of individualised education based on a meritocracy where Western knowledge and ways of learning were rewarded with access to higher education and entry to the workforce. The colonisers’ societal narrative of the “native issue” as one of “not trying hard enough” was entrenched in thinking. The school system, which was intended to bring equity, saw Māori failing at much higher rates than Pākeha as the process of assimilation produced disenfranchised students who could not see themselves within that system.

As the effects of the processes of colonisation became more obvious, there was a rise of meritocratic rhetoric that saw the blame for underachievement placed on Māori. Meritocracy would have people think that all students have access to the same teaching and resources and if students would just try hard enough, they can achieve. Therefore, if they are not achieving then they must not be trying hard enough. You may have heard the saying that people just need to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps,” meaning to succeed by your own efforts and abilities. This resonates strongly in Pākeha New Zealand’s “do-it-yourself” culture. However, to put this notion into perspective for Māori children we may ask; what if you don’t use bootstraps? What if someone stole your bootstraps? What if it is a community who pulls up bootstraps and not just an individual? The barriers to education in New Zealand were becoming ever more evident.[7]

Image by: Craig Frehle

The current iteration of the New Zealand Curriculum has been developed with the intention to promote egalitarianism and racial harmony. Egalitarianism can be conceived as the acknowledgement of inequality of people and the intent of distributive justice whereby all people get what they need to succeed to their fullest potential. Thus, “put simply, in an unequal society there should be unequal treatment in favour of the disadvantaged.”[8] This can be illustrated by the widely distributed and analysed cartoon by Craig Frehle.[9] Although all of the children have the same box in the first picture, due to the different heights of the children, the one box does not help all to see over the fence. In the second picture, they each get what they need to participate in watching the game. However, the creation of equity is not so simple. The world in which we live is a complex network where simple solutions often do not bring about the desired outcomes. We could ask of this particular “boxed” solution to the problem: Why not take down the fence? Does the fact they are all watching the same game represent the hegemony of society? Are the boxes adaptive? Can they be made into a ramp for example? Do they all even want to watch the game? Is this somehow the fault of the shortest child?

Although the intention of education in New Zealand is to bring equity to all who participate, there are still instances where all cannot participate due to multiple complex issues such as access, cost, and safety. The system is stacked against them and they become a product of that system. The egalitarian notion is unable to be outworked within the context of colonisation as underlying assumptions about class and culture prevail. What might infinite game principles offer as a solution to this on-going problem?

Infinite game principles would seek to remove any barriers for those who want to enter the game. Infinite game principles also seek to acknowledge and honour what each new player brings to the game. Requiring all players to have the same set of skills to assimilate to the current game is not the goal of infinite play. Rather, all players (current and new) learn new skills and the game flexes to those who are present to play—the infinite game is an adaptive game.

This idealistic vignette of joyous gameplay is not without its issues. There will most likely be misunderstandings and misinterpretations that may result in arguments and (for younger players especially) the need for a referee. However, it is the willingness to engage with another and to play alongside each other to keep the game going that is important. Infinite game play is a long-game which is intergenerational. Educators and children alike play together learning from one another. Slaughter argues that educators “constitute one of the few constituencies in society with an inherent responsibility to take a longer-term view.”[10] However, the responsibility is not placed only on educators, but that educationalists, planners, and policy makers all need to work together with the empirical informing the critical and epistemological.[11]

Most important in this planning is the inclusion of indigenous world views so that the ideology of Western industrial hegemonic is not the imposed answer on a grateful world but that a range of cultures and world views are represented.[12] Part of this planning will be the invitation for all people to sit with different beliefs and ways of being. “Being” here is contrasted with that of “having.”[13] The tension of sitting with these different beliefs and ways of being will need to be viewed as a positive feature of being rather than an attack on one’s own person.[14] As both Slaughter and Carse point out, the future is a reorientation away from a completed past to a future that is yet to be created. A future in the state of “being” that is where:

One rests secure in the richness of one’s human and wider cultural inheritance. It is a poised and dignified state, not under threat. One lacks nothing essential because all the essentials are already given: life, consciousness, awareness. There is no inner scarcity.[15]

The interruption of COVID-19 has presented us a window in time where the inherent physical momentum of everyday life has slowed. Now there is an opportunity to intentionally set the direction in which we want steer. In imagining education as diverse, non-hierarchical, collaborative, connected, and a joyous expression of what it is to be human, what are the connections and potential pathways that might lead to this post-COVID-19? This is not an answer an individual can conceptualise, but it must include multiple voices and multiple possibilities for the future. However, as Sardar points out, “[i]t [the future] is created through our actions or inaction in the present.”[16] What if teachers’ future actions were guided by infinite game principles in an effort to invite and make space for as many people who want to play to be able to play? The barriers put in place to keep people from playing, such as the valuing of Western constructs of knowledge, might be questioned in order to unveil systems of oppression and open pathways in which more people might play the education game. How might a decentering of the personal and individual, in order to make space for the experience of others, aid all to learn how to play new variations of the game? I would suggest a posture of radical co-operation with an intention to invite the same from others.

In his book Disobedient Teaching, Welby Ings ends with an encouragement to those choosing to play by the ever-flexing rules of the infinite game:

And finally, question bravely and constructively. Stand up for ideas. Be tenacious. Take courage. Disobey. To do this you have to believe in yourself. Really believe in yourself. You are your own source of power to make things better. You are the font of tenacity and wonder, the wellspring of ideas and the origin of strength. Never, never let people convince you otherwise.[17]

When I first read this, I found it inspiring. However, in considering the principles of infinite game play, as a Christian educator seeking to remove barriers to participation experienced, especially by Māori children, and wanting to walk in the way of authentic partnership set down in te tiriti o Waitangi, I would like to modify this ending slightly and offer an invitation for you to do the same:

And finally, let us question bravely and constructively. We can stand up for ideas that seek to include the participation of all, especially in taking down barriers to participation such as Western, neoliberal, individual barriers. To do this, we have to believe in others. Really believe in others. It is we, in partnership with God and each other,who are the source of power to make things better for those who have been unable to join the game. Together, we are the font of tenacity and wonder, the wellspring of ideas and the origin of strength. Never, never let the finite game players convince you otherwise.

Philippa Isom is a lecturer in Initial Teacher Education at Massey University. She is passionate about quality teaching and learning using evidence based, innovative and flexible resources and environments to meet the needs of all learners. She believes that education needs to respond to communities and the unique needs that exist within them. Strong relationships form the partnerships needed for whanau to feel confident in the school and for children to feel safe and therefore able to learn

[1] Richard Slaughter, From Fatalism to Foresight: Educating for the Early 21st Century: A Framework for Considering Young People’s Needs and Responsibilities Over the Next 20 Years (Victoria, Australia: Australian Council for Educational Administration, 1994), 22.

[2] James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1986).

[3] Spinoza’s ethics: What do you mean by ‘God’? Jonathan Rée,

[4] Colouring in the White Spaces: Reclaiming Cultural Identity in Whitestream Schools, Ann Milne

[5] Ministry of Education, Our Code Our Standards (Wellington, New Zealand: The Education Council, n.d).

[6] Ministry of Māori Development, Jobs for those who want them = Ata tirohia te ao whakawhiwhi mahi: Background on Maori in Work Today and Issues for the Future (Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Māori Development, 1994).

[7] There are many books dedicated to the history of New Zealand education which were consulted in writing this section. For further in-depth study from multiple perspectives, you may want to read; Tony Ballantyne, Entanglements of Empire : Missionaries, Maori, and the Question of the Body, (ebook, 2014); Elizabeth Rata & Ros Sullivan, Introduction to the History of New Zealand Education, (Auckland, New Zealand: Pearson, 2009); M. P. K. Sorrenson, Ko te whenua te utu / Land is the price: Essays on Maori History, Land and Politics, (ebook, 2014); Judith Simon & Lauren Massey, “Historical perspectives on education in New Zealand,” in The Politics of Learning and Teaching in Aotearoa-New Zealand, eds. Eve Coxon, Kuni Jenkins, James Marshall, & Lauran Massey (Palmerston North, New Zealand: Dunmore Press, 1994).?

[8] John Clark “The Aims and Functions of Education in Aotearoa New Zealand,” in Education and society in Aotearoa New Zealand, eds. Paul Adams, Roger Openshaw & Julie Hamer (Victoria, Australia: Dunmore Press 2005), 132.

[9] The evolutions of an accidental meme, Craig Frehle,

[10] Slaughter, From Fatalism to Foresight, 25.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Andrew Gibbons, “The Limits of Biculturalism: Ka Hikitia and Early Childhood Teacher Education in Aotearoa/New Zealand,” in Conversations on Early Childhood Teacher Education: Voices from the working forum for teacher educators, ed. Andrew Gibbons and Colin Gibbs (Redmond, WA: World Forum Foundation, 2009), ch2.

[15] Slaughter, From Fatalism to Foresight, 19.

[16] Ziauddin Sardar, Future (London, United Kingdom: Hodder & Stoughton, 2013), 5.

[17] Welby Ings, Disobedient Teaching (New Zealand: Otago University Press, 2017), 189.