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  • Writer's pictureDr. Patrick E. Crawford

Infinite and Finite?

Leadership Thoughts | Issue #139

In 2019, I read Simon Sinek's book, The Infinite Game. Sinek presents the theory of two types of games in the business world: finite and infinite. In the finite game, there are rules, the goal is to win, and there is a clear beginning and an apparent end. The rules of an infinite game are changeable, the goal is to continue, and there is no defined endpoint. By embracing an infinite mindset, people commit to a vision so inspiring and compelling that they must continue building upon it daily. Although they don't know the exact steps toward the vision, it is the vision that guides them.

I've been thinking about whether education is a finite or infinite process. I've concluded that most of the current instructional practices are based upon a finite mindset where the goal is to get to the end to win. Although most educational mission statements refer to lifelong learning with the underlying commitment to preparing students for their future, instructional practices are caught in a finite mindset. On the surface, both quests are desirable and reasonable, but the unstated assumption is learning is a linear process with mandatory milestones that apply to all learners.

Finite Process

Education is designed to have specific goals and objectives. For example, completing a certain level of formal education, such as high school, college, or graduate school, can be seen as finite milestones with defined endpoints. These educational programs have set curricula and graduation requirements, so in that sense, they are finite processes with rules and a clear beginning and end.

Infinite Process

On the other hand, learning and education extend far beyond formal schooling. Education is a lifelong journey of acquiring knowledge, skills, and experiences. It is not limited to classroom settings or structured programs. People continue to learn and grow throughout their lives, whether through self-directed learning, on-the-job training, reading, exploring new hobbies, or simply gaining wisdom through life experiences. In this sense, education is an infinite process because it never truly ends.

While contemplating education as a finite and infinite process, I realized that although we as educators verbalize the importance of becoming life-long learners (infinite learners), we rarely consider intentionally integrating experiences to support the development of a lifelong learner.

The finite mindset in schools can be seen and heard when we tell students they must learn (fill in the blank) because they will need it for the next grade level or when they enter middle, high school, college, or sometime in the future. Students are programmed to see each lesson as a necessary step toward winning the grade, promotion, college, or career of their choice instead of the lesson's value and relevancy. Our current educational practices set learners up to see the finite goal as a grade, a test score, promotion, and graduation instead of appreciating the value and relevance of the lesson. So, what does infinite learning look like in practice? Since the ultimate goal is to empower students to become lifelong learners, what are the traits of self-directed learners?

Self-directed learning, also known as autonomous learning, requires students to take control of their education without relying heavily on external guidance or instruction. Here, individuals actively seek educational resources, set their own academic goals, and determine the pace and methods of their learning journey. This approach can be used in various settings, including formal education, online courses, and informal learning environments.

Let me pause now and clarify that the degree of autonomy given to a student in a formal educational setting must be adjusted according to the student's readiness. Since formal learning is both a finite and infinite experience, the educator's role is to meet the learners where they are and guide them toward self-directed learning by providing learning experiences that promote continuous intellectual and emotional growth. The challenge for educators is to develop learning experiences that demonstrate the following traits of autonomous learners:

  1. Internal motivation: Autonomous learning is driven by the learner's desire to learn, rather than external rewards or supervision.

  2. Self-management: Autonomous learners can manage their learning process, including setting goals, scheduling study time, measuring progress, and adjusting as needed.

  3. Independence: The ability to learn effectively with reduced reliance on teachers or instructors.

  4. Decision-making: Autonomous learners decide what to learn, how to understand it, and when to learn it. This includes selecting resources that are best suited to their preferences and needs.

  5. Critical thinking: Analyzing information and evaluating the quality of sources for accuracy and relevancy.

  6. Problem-solving: Working out problems or obstacles encountered in the course of learning and finding solutions independently.

  7. Curiosity and exploration: Having a strong sense of curiosity and willingness to explore topics outside formal curriculum guidelines.

  8. Continuous learning: A commitment to ongoing self-improvement beyond academic instruction.

Autonomous learning is an invaluable trait that allows individuals to take ownership of their education and adapt to various educational settings. Learning independently, being open to new concepts, and thinking that challenge and motivate creates an invaluable mindset; autonomous learners are usually more resilient and proactive in working toward their academic, career, and personal goals.

The idea of education as an infinite process emphasizes the importance of continuous learning and personal development throughout one's life. Especially during the formal education process, individuals can and should continue to educate themselves to adapt to changing circumstances, acquire new skills, and broaden their horizons. So, while specific educational programs may have finite durations, the broader concept of education is an ongoing, lifelong, infinite endeavor.

Reflection Questions

  1. What are the main differences between a finite and infinite mindset in the context of education?

  2. How can educators promote and facilitate self-directed learning in their instructional practices?

  3. Why is it important for learners to develop traits of autonomous learners?

  4. How can integrating infinite learning practices benefit students in terms of their personal and professional growth?

  5. What strategies can educators employ to shift from a finite mindset to an infinite mindset in their teaching approach?


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