The Educator’s Guide to the “Kobayashi Maru”

Sometimes in education, there appear to be situations that seem to fall under the category as “no win scenarios.” For, no matter what efforts are made, the situation will remain unresolved. As a life long Star Trek fan (insert nerd jokes here), the idea of the “Kobayashi Maru” or the “No Win Scenario”  has always been troubling as both an educator and as a parent. We try and teach our children that nothing is impossible, and that if they work hard, they will be successful. Is this really accurate? Does every problem or challenge truly have a solution?

After more than 15 years as a teacher, administrator, and technology director, I know how difficult it can sometimes be for schools to solve every problem. Often, the needs do not equal the available resources, which puts the schools in what can sometimes be “no win” situations. Here in Israel, at my son’s school, a science teacher suddenly quit at the beginning of the year. While the school worked to find a replacement, my son’s class did not have a science teacher for half of the school year. The parents were up in arms, and the school administration became very defensive and vague, as they felt they were trying their best to solve this staffing crisis. At another school in New York, a group of middle school math students were clearly struggling in their class. Parents demanded that the school do something to help these children through this tough situation. The school tried the standard “solutions” of providing extra work and lowering the academic requirements for these students, but these steps were clearly not enough. The school was left with a “no win” situation. They had no way to add another math group for these struggling students. There was no money in the budget to provide more services and in the school’s eyes, it was already doing what was expected.

Can we accept the “Kobayashi Maru” scenario? Are there situations where we all need to accept that this is the best that can be? Well, let’s turn the tables a bit. If a student came home from school and told his parents that he was not going to take science this year because  the class time conflicted with another commitment, would we as parents accept this rationale? If your son/daughter decided that math was too difficult so they were not going to bother to find ways to manage through, what would we say to this child? Most parents in both of these cases would do what was needed to help their children figure out a solution. We would not accept the “no win” option.

From the position of the schools, there are always challenges and budgetary issues that everyone needs to keep in mind. Yes, there are certain situations where one could argue, perhaps parents expect too much. It would be virtually impossible for a school to provide every student in the school with his own curriculum. This is just not the way schools operate. During my time working in schools, I have heard some pretty outlandish parent demands. One parent actually expected her daughter’s school to change the entire schedule so that her daughter did not have to take a difficult subject during the last period of the day. There definitely is a balance, but the question is, are we doing enough to resolve all of the challenges with which we are faced?

In today’s modern world of education, many issues can actually be solved with tools and resources that did not exist in previous generations. My son’s principal is a very nice and caring man, but I am guessing that his educational training never included using new technological tools and resources. When the staffing issue first came up, I suggested that the students learn online until a permanent solution could be put in place. I figured that this was an easy and affordable way for the school to at least create a temporary solution. The principal did not know what to do with this suggestion. I felt for a few minutes like I was speaking a foreign language. He could not wrap his head around the students taking an entire class online. Now, to be clear, this administrator is a very caring individual who goes out of his way to help his students. For him though, the lack of available science teachers was in fact his “Kobayashi Maru.” He went through all of the standard channels and came up empty.

For the math students, it was clear that the school was only going to do so much. This particular school has well over 1,000 students and is not known for its surplus of funding. With so many math resources available online and through other channels, maybe the school could have received some additional tools to help these kids succeed at math. The problem is that the school’s administrators, have most likely not furthered their training to include 21st Century learning tools. These are administrators who have been in their positions for many years and still rely on more “old school” methods. One of the parents in this group requested that the administration allow the children to spend at least part of their math time, doing some remedial/skill building work using an online math learning program. From the school’s view, these weaker math students would just have to deal with what was available, as there was nothing more the school could do. Once they learned about some potential new options, the school, very cautiously decided that working in this online program could be helpful. Now, three months into this pilot program, these students have steadily improved both their abilities and confidence levels.

Captain James T. Kirk proved that there really was no such thing as a “no win scenario.” He found a way to beat the system and to defeat the “Kobayashi Maru.” Some may call this cheating and other may say that there may actually be situations with no good solutions. Often with education, it seems that schools are quick to label something as “no-win” before considering all options. Since beginning my work in online education more than five years ago, I have witnessed first hand how thinking beyond the “standard” approach can be a game changer. Everyone is limited by budgets, staffing, and other challenges. If we consider all options though, a solution can often be found.

I am happy to report that as of this month (yeah, it’s already February) my son’s class has a new science teacher. They are trying to make up for lost time, and will probobly finish the year behind. While on one hand, I am happy that they finally found a teacher, on the other hand, if the school administration had thought a bit more outside the box, perhaps the situation would have been different.

For educators, there should be no such thing as the “Kobayashi Maru.” If a solution does not present itself, every option needs to be considered.

About the Author
Aryeh Eisenberg is the CEO and General Manager of Bonim B'Yachad, an online education technology provider for schools and individuals. Based in Israel, Bonim B'Yachad works with students all over the world.
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