The Water Balloon War Final Exam

I was listening to some Big Think videos this weekend when I was struck with an insight about educational philosophy. I am pretty sure it isn’t a new insight, but the metaphor that occurred to me might help a little bit with the conception of the problem.

At the tail end of an interview with psychologist Laurence Steinberg, he says that there is no problem with teaching to the test if the test is measuring something that you want kids to achieve.

Sir Ken Robinson and others have pointed out that our goals for education are based in Industrial Revolution thinking where education was meant to create a competent workforce. (Robinson’s words are entertainingly illustrated in the Zen Pencils cartoon I shared last week.)

As Robinson has pointed out elsewhere, we barely know what the world will look like in five years time, much less what skills will be needed in 15-20 years time when students being educated today start to enter the job market.

The thing that struck me, perhaps influenced by the Super Bowl this weekend, was that our current education system is akin to having the evaluation of effectiveness measured by success in a football game at the end of the year.

People complain that the approach is brutal, damaging, favors certain genders, races and physical types (or learning styles in the case of education), and doesn’t really confer the skills required for employment or even college.

The counter example that occurred to me was having a water balloon fight as the end of year evaluation. Even though both football game and a water balloon fight would be informed by history lessons in battle tactics, geometry and physics, a water balloon fight lends itself more widely, creatively and easily.

There are many more lessons to be learned preparing for a water balloon fight about the use of terrain and technology in battles that would bring history alive. With options of hand throwing, catapults, slingshots to launch water balloons, geometry and physics have to be factored in constantly by participants.

Chemistry class can be devoted to investigation of whether adding gelatin changes the ballistic properties of the balloons and whether the stickiness upon explosion will be sufficient to gum up the works of enemy weaponry and thwart hand launching attempts.

Biology class can include investigation of using biodegradable materials for balloons so the battle doesn’t ruin the environment. Literature classes would study speeches, poems and stories that inspired people to great feats from Beowulf to Shakespeare to Martin Luther King.

On the whole, a water balloon fight final exam promotes greater creativity and inquiry, exactly the type of skills we want to engender in students. It is fun and engaging and doesn’t heavily favor gender, ethnicity, physical or mental ability.

If you haven’t guessed by now, water balloons in this metaphor are arts and creativity in the classroom.

The reason why, literally and figuratively, few school districts would move from a football final to a water balloon final despite the exciting opportunities it affords, is because no one views water balloon fighting skills as marketable but football skills are viewed as such.

As we know, the same perception exists for education today. Even though few people can be employed solely based on their football skills/K12 education, those skills are still the main focus because there are a handful of people that achieve great renown.

Just as it is easier to cut arts programs than sports programs in schools, politically it is very difficult to shift away from teaching what is quantitatively measurable to what is qualitatively measurable.

Yet we still know what the results are. When students enter universities, even if they don’t require remediation, effort is still required to move students from regurgitation of facts to an inquiry mode of thinking.

Even upon graduation from university, businesses are saying their biggest need from employees is the creativity to help their companies move forward.

Integrating creativity into the classroom and returning arts classes to schools won’t solve all the issues with the education system any more than a water balloon fight is automatically superior to a football game.

Though really, wouldn’t you be more excited to learn if you knew it was connected with the Great Water Balloon Fight?

Like the water balloon fight, the inclusion and advocacy of arts and creativity has the potential to change the dynamics of the learning environment, level the playing field and increase accessibility for a wider range of people.

The reality is, there is nothing idealized, impractical, theoretical or metaphorical about my water balloon example. Winter weather aside, you could use water balloons tomorrow in connection with different subject areas in the ways I have suggested and see a lot of investment from students.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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