Reach for the Top: trivia, knowledge, and education

I recently spent some time doing something rather unusual: writing trivia questions. It’s a way to put my modest writing ability to some use, and for someone with the right mindset it can also be a lot of fun. Reach for the Top is a Canadian collegiate trivia competition. It used to be a televised game show (hosted at one point by Alex Trebek!), but today it exists as a series of small locally operated leagues through the “Schoolreach” program. Teachers who wish to start a team get their own buzzers and subscribe to Schoolreach, which gets them an annual series of question packets for practices and special packets for tournaments.

During my high school days I was a member of the West Kildonan Collegiate Reach for the Top team. We were surprisingly successful for such a small team at such a—forgive me, Mrs. Mackenzie—third-rate school. At one point we had only three players and needed to find a warm body in order to field a team at the tournament. Other than me, few of our members had very good trivia skills, which meant that most of the time I had to carry the entire team. I got us pretty far—we made a respectable showing in the biggest tournament we ever attended—but in the end without teamwork and equal levels of complementary knowledge, a Reach team can never achieve much.

The experience of writing the questions is fun. You see, I’m a bit of a bore. I’m the kind of person who has a lot of knowledge and is always acquiring more, and always wants to share it with others whether they want it or not. I frequently realize about ten minutes into a conversation that I am coming off as condescending—I often find myself giving impromptu sociology lectures to my dad, who has had a distinguished career of nearly thirty years as a social worker. So it’s great fun for me personally to be given this chance to unobtrusively introduce high school students to, say, Wilkie Collins or the terracotta army of Qin Shihuang.

I and people like me enjoy being introduced to new things in this way. When I come across something interesting I don’t know much about, I make an effort to read at least one book on it. Frequently it becomes a part of me, and in some cases it changes me irrevocably. I don’t know how common such people are—I certainly never met any during my high school career—but I have faith that they are out there and it is comforting to know that I am touching their lives in some small way.

But there are some surprising challenges to trivia writing that hadn’t occurred to me before I tried it. For example, it is difficult for a human being to behave in a truly random way. We have our set patterns. Our interests may expand over time, but they can only cover a tiny portion of all human knowledge in a lifetime. So it’s hard for me, for example, to avoid making all the question about music.

It’s also incredibly frustrating to write snappers (a series of miscellaneous questions) because you have to individually research every question. When there’s a set category, all the information you need can be in one or two sources and each question can flow logically from the previous one. Even my reasonably broad trivia knowledge is no help here because I still have to go through the time-consuming process of finding sources for things I already know.

Perhaps most difficult is finding a balance between expanding students’ horizons and writing questions on topics they can reasonably be expected to be able to answer. It’s no good to anyone if we talk down to high school kids—they won’t enjoy it and they won’t get anything out of it either. But no one likes to feel stupid, and it’s reasonable to expect that teenagers won’t have been exposed to some things. There have to be enough questions they can get in order to make the game worthwhile, but there also have to be some that no one is likely to get in order to stretch their knowledge. Most importantly, when a student through some fluke happens to know the answer to a question you’re not supposed to be able to get, their sense of satisfaction and self-affirmation is lasting.

I think that most people don’t understand the appeal of trivia competitions like Reach for the Top. To most people trivia is boring. It’s right there in the name: how can trivia be anything more than trivial?

Without looking at the considerable number of notable people who have participated in Reach for the Top, it is fair to say that successful people usually have broad reference pools and are consequently good at trivia competitions. Whether your standard is success in business or politics or the arts, you can find an example that suits you. Dale Carnegie, the great salesman and corporate trainer, illustrated his ideas with examples from business, history, philosophy, and animal husbandry. Stephen Fry, a Paul Robeson type with so many skills that he totally defies categorization, is the host of the greatest trivia show and possibly the greatest television show ever produced. Michel de Montaigne was a great orator and diplomat during a pivotal time in French history, and the briefest glance through the Essays reveals a mind constantly absorbing, categorizing, and thinking through the implications of new information.

Trivia does, of course, have to be approached with the right attitude. It’s important to take into account the applicability and cultural import of a question. Some questions, like science and math ones, are inherently educational, but the further we go into history, politics, and culture, the more arguments over the canon become relevant. The things we show to young people become their world. Curricula define reality—a terrifying thought for anyone with any experience with educational professionals. This means everything, from our portrayal of Darwinist thought to a Reach question about Louis St. Laurent, is political. We carry a heavy weight on our shoulders, and different considerations pull us in different directions.

There must also be a commitment to rigorous accuracy. This is where QI and even Jeopardy! shine, and where Schoolreach is sometimes deficient. It is important to maintain the distinction between proper trivia and the lists of factoids your grandmother emails you—it is not just false but meaningless and contemptible to say that a duck’s quack doesn’t echo, as a Reach question I came across once did.

Even more important than mere accuracy is the fitting of facts into a framework of understanding. The biggest error that our school system instills in students is the idea that knowledge is a series of discrete answers to predetermined questions. It just so happens that the question-answer format is a convenient way of testing knowledge, but all too often students (even very intelligent ones) develop the mistaken idea that this is how knowledge is actually structured.1 They conclude that having a lot of knowledge requires a prodigious memory and is therefore beyond their capabilities. Students are put in this position with alarming frequency by Canadian schools, and it is our education system’s greatest failing.

So how does trivia help? I’m just running my mouth off unscientifically, but allow me to sketch a theory of how it can be useful to students.

A trivia competition forces you to think on your feet. In a tournament it’s not good enough not to know the answer: you have to make your best guess, and your best guess has to be right most of the time. No question, not even a single snapper, is an isolated fact. It proposes a whole network of facts with their own complex structure. An intelligent person is not just someone who knows a lot of information, but someone who has their knowledge well-organized and knows the approximate shape of the things they do not know. For them, a guess is not just a random flail of desperation, but an attempt at the spontaneous generation of knowledge.

You need to be the sort of person who looks up words he doesn’t know, who reads books on subjects he sees no obvious use for, just in case. And crucially, you have to internalize and retain the things you learn from these books. You cannot define yourself as someone who doesn’t know about X; you have to transform “things I don’t know about” to “things I didn’t used to know about” at an astonishing rate. And each bit of knowledge reflects on and changes the last, so eventually you are able to answer questions about how much advanced math Shakespeare could have known or who was prime minister during the height of Beatlemania. The facts don’t matter; once the connections are in place they seem inevitable, and remembering them does not tax your limited capacities.

In short, you have to become a better learner. That’s what Reach for the Top is in the business of producing, and that’s why it is a powerful positive influence on young people, and why I am proud to be providing them with more material.


Notes:

  1. What helped me with this concept was learning how to use databases when I was twelve. The idea of efficiently structured knowledge that can be queried and presented in any number of ways depending on what it’s needed for resonated deeply with me.
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