Does Your Curriculum Allow Enough Play?

Aside

“The best questions are the ones that create the most uncertainty.”

The quote, by Beau Lotto comes from a recent TED talk called: Science is for everyone, kids included. It’s about the importance of play. Uncertainty and ambiguity are naturally uncomfortable for humans, but he says that play has helped us step into that zone of uncertainty. Science experiments are in fact games (play with rules), and scientist and creative types have always embraced this while others have been a little more wary.

In this talk, he describes working with a group of 8-10 year olds in developing an experiment from a question the students had. They are also the youngest group to have a peer-reviewed paper published. It’s an example of experiential learning at its best and includes a lot of great educational topics: risk/failure/problem-based learning/collaboration/inquiry/intrinsic motivation/etc. He also brings out Amy O’Toole (now age 12) one of the original researchers to speak about the project as well.

Here’s a link to the paper.

Still Learning #isedchat

In the book The New Culture of Learning, which I briefly posted about a week or so ago, the authors conclude that the fusion between the two elements of information and experimentation, and the resulting transformation of both, is what defines this new culture. In a sense, it’s learning through play.

This past Friday, I concluded a three week teaching stint for SIG at The Overlake School. I have done a lot of reading about longer 90 minute classes, multi-age groups, process-based curricula, etc., and these past three weeks gave me the opportunity to experiment with those ideas.

It’s true one can learn a lot through reading, or be inspired by watching. I have to agree with the authors, though, that until you do it yourself, fail, learn and try again, play and experiment, the other kind of learning isn’t transformational.

My challenge for the coming school year will be to make sure my students are not only inspired to learn, but are given opportunities to experiment as well. I also want to try and have a good balance which focuses on both the processes as well as the skills.

One of the many reasons I blog is that I’m intrigued by the pros and cons of social media, something I’m still learning a lot about. And believe it or not, it was a tweet I responded to that led me to the summer gig. Aside from my own personal learning, it was great to meet and work with some wonderful educators and kids.

I’d love to write and reflect more about my experience, but I’m in the middle of nowhere and just glad there’s currently a small wifi signal so I can post this. So much for those who insist iPads are only consumption devices.

The new culture of learning is about mindsets and motivation. Hopefully, I can teach kids that.

A New Culture of Teaching

I recently finished a book called A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change by Doug Thomas and John Seely Brown. The book, was recommended by the independent schools Special Interest Group at the ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) conference. It’s a fairly quick read that had several themes resonate with me.

As the title of the book suggests, the culture of learning is changing, and as teachers we have to think about teaching differently. Apple computers coined the term ‘Think Different.’ and over a decade later, teachers are starting to make those changes. Great teachers have always been those that teach kids to learn, but according to the authors, the context of in which learning takes place has changed due to technology. The authors use the ‘teach a man to fish’ phrase as an example of that shifting context: What if fishing is unsustainable and the supply of fish is depleted? What if the water’s polluted? We need to know how to ask those kinds of questions, grapple with them, share, collaborate, and try to come up with solutions.

Vinnie Vrotney, who hosted a book club twitter chat tonight of A New Culture of Learning has a great post on his blog reflecting about delving into blogs 5 years ago, and how five of his colleagues are now sharing their summer reflections via blogs.

I only began fooling around with twitter in February to try to follow a couple of colleagues and others attending the NAIS conference in D.C. I had no idea what hashtags were, or what @ signs meant. I had attended the conference the prior year, when I started this blog, and was eager to participate (albeit remotely), and was beginning to learn how twitter fit into all of this.

Did I take a class or read a manual about twitter? Nope. I’m still learning how to use it: I even failed tonight, forgetting to put #isedchat in one of my tweets. I also had to leave the chat early as I had other plans, but a transcript of the chat was posted afterwards. For those who want to reflect a little longer and deeper, each week, Vinnie Vrotney will post a prompt on the Independent School NING in order to continue the conversation asynchronously. The book talk will also include a synchronous web conference with one of the authors of the book: John Seely Brown.

What do some of those things in the previous paragraph mean? NING? #isedchat? I could explain in another post, or you could be resourceful and find out. I think one of my jobs as an educator is not only to inspire my students to be resourceful, but to encourage my colleagues to do the same. It’s a mindset.

This mindset is cultivated by learning through others, sharing, asking questions, knowing, making, playing, taking risks and learning to fail.

Some may wonder what kind of ‘deep learning’ can happen from an hour long chat where participants can only use 140 characters or less per tweet. Aren’t those just soundbites from like-minded people? Well remember, we did read a book, tonights tweets included polite counterpoints, and also led me to read an interesting blog post on Scientific America called, “The Educational Value of Creative Disobedience.” There will be further reflection each week on the book, a web conference with one of the authors, and one can read transcripts of interviews of the authors like one by Steve Denning from a Forbes column on leadership named ‘Rethink.’

I hope to post more thoughts on this book, but want to end with this: Vinnie Vrotney, the person I mentioned earlier who led the chat tonight is not just a random educator I follow, but an inspiring educator I’ve actually met face to face. That meeting wouldn’t likely have occurred if I didn’t have a twitter account.

Play

 

Last week, I posted a TED talk about the importance of play. If you watched the talk, the speaker said we have an education “that values rote learning, memorization and standardization, and devalues self-expression, self-exploration,questioning, creativity and play.” Play is universal, promotes creativity, mastery, and purpose. Current research in neuroscience supports this. The New York Times reported last week that principals are finally re-evaluating homework. At work, play includes going out with coworkers for lunch, doing something you love, being autonomous, and not being a prisoner to a schedule. Some of those things are beyond most teachers’ control. Ask a teacher when was the last time she went out for lunch with a coworker (even on professional days, the trend seems to be that most teachers are working through lunch). I’m lucky, since I love my job (lunches and schedules aside). It allows for some autonomy and creativity, gives me a sense of purpose, and I get to laugh with the kids a lot.

Of course, teaching has the perk of summer break. So what I have done these first three days of summer break? Spent it at work. Something I’ve been meaning to do for the past 10 years is organize materials better and purge old stuff (belonging to previous teachers) that could be better used somewhere else. Well, I almost did it, but I feel good enough that I can leave the room alone until August. Now, I can go play. Before the ISTE conference that begins Sunday night in Philly, I will get to spend some time in NYC and do some of the other things I love: seeing a couple of shows, trying new places to eat, discovering new neighborhoods, and some art.

In the meantime, the ISTE conference is shaping up to be overwhelming. I’m trying to narrow down my choices and just to give you an example, here are my already pared down choices for the concurrent session number 5 on Monday (there are twelve – some are two hours long). Yes, I managed to narrow that one down to seven. Maybe since it’s a tech conference, I’ll use a randomizer app on my phone. I wish I were more decisive.

4:15-5:15pm

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Assessing Students Using Web 2.0 Tools [Concurrent Session; Lecture]
Location: PACC 107B
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4:15-5:15pm

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Integrating Digital Citizenship in a Web 2.0 World [Concurrent Session; Lecture]
Location: PACC 126A
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4:15-5:15pm

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A Leadership Framework and Instrument for Technology Innovation in Schools [Research Paper; Roundtable]
Location: PACC 105B, Table 3
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4:15-5:15pm

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Separating Truth from Fiction: Information Literacy for Elementary Students [Concurrent Session; Model Lesson]
Location: PACC 119A
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4:15-5:15pm

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Beyond Literacy to Information Fluency in the Age of InfoWhelm [Concurrent Session; Spotlight]
Location: PACC Grand Ballroom B
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4:15-5:15pm

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The Information Fluency Classroom in Action [Concurrent Session; Model Lesson]
Location: PACC 119B
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4:15-5:15pm

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Plan for Integrating 21st Century Skills in the Elementary Classroom [Research Paper; Roundtable]
Location: PACC 105B, Table 1

There are of course all kinds of other meetings in between, 3 keynotes, exhibits, demonstrations, people to meet, and for a fee, there are even evening workshops. Hopefully, I’ll be able to fit in a historical sight or two like Independence Hall, and write about some of the resources and learning I’m doing. As overwhelming as this conference appears, I’m very excited and can’t wait.

I’m All for Squishy Hands-On Learning

What should a five-year old know? This month’s Educational Leadership has a great article about trying to strike the balance between academic rigor and play in kindergarten. Many kindergartener teachers are moving to worksheets in order for their students to take something home to parents as evidence of learning. According to the article, there is also a much bigger emphasis on student performance and outcomes and a “rush to promote content achievement.” But what if we could do both? What if  we could integrate the natural curiosity of a child through play, and at the same time, develop important core concepts? The following TED talk is a fine example of how we can do just that. This video is less than five minutes long and shows how, using homemade play dough, you can turn little kids into electrical circuit designers.

If you like the video, you can get the recipes here.

August is Approaching

Having the summer off is really great for teachers. For me, just the slower pace of life brings so much calm. Of course that calm slowly disappears as the new school year approaches. Today, I decided I was going to need a little desk file rack and pencil holder for my classroom. But rather than go out and look for something cute from a stationery store, I decided to make mine – entirely out of Lego (a guilty pleasure of mine). Below is a photo of the result. During the school year, there would be no way that teachers could have time to do something like this, but the long relaxing summers in the Northwest let those who garden spend the whole day outside, those who train for marathons run to their hearts content, and just move at a more leisurely pace.

But as August approaches, teachers kick into gear and start preparing for our new batch of cherubs.

File Rack and Pencil Holder made of Lego - they also snap together

A Reminder to Play

Pixar seems to have a way with storytelling. I have enjoyed every single one of their animation features. I just came back from Toy Story 3 and while not my favorite, I still found it very satisfying.One thing that struck me is the importance wonder and imagination that children have when it comes to play, whether it be a cardboard box, doll, or make believe fortress. The movie reminded me how important it was when teaching lower elementary kids that toys should be part of the classroom. Especially for those frequent rainy day recesses here in Seattle.

My favorite toy as a child has never been featured in the Toy Story trilogy. It’s a toy that includes imaginative play and one that also involves a lot of math (measurement, ratios, fractions, spatial reasoning, structural integrity, etc.). That toy is Lego. The little plastic brick toys have evolved since I was a kid, but it’s one of those toys that at some point, some grownups decide it’s ok to play with again. Here’s a funny TED video of someone who explains this hobby.

play

Continuing with Daniel Pink’s  A Whole New Mind’s 6 “senses.” The fifth right-brained skill he identifies is play. When you’re doing something and it feels like play, your motivation automatically goes up. Just imagine if your job was like that. What if learning for kids involved play?

Innovation and invention often come about from play. The Smithsonian had an exhibit linking play to inventors. It’s clear the d.school with its new building, also had play as part of the design process.

Books, such as, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown and The Power of Play: Doing What Comes Naturally by David Elkind have reached bestseller lists.

Kids need to be kids sometimes too, but often the pressures of ‘covering’ a ballooning curriculum all across this country continue to grow with new things added to it all the time.

In addition to the traditional core curriculum, themes like global awarenes, financial, business, and entrepreneurial literacy, health literacy, civic literacy, and environmental/sustainable literacy should all be integrated. In addition, Creativity and InnovationCritical Thinking and Problem SolvingCommunication and Collaboration, Information, Media, and Technology skills are all viewed as essential according to the Partnership for 21st Century skills. Then there’s life skills as well as social/emotional learning. No where does it say play. But I agree with Brown, that it indeed invigorates the soul. We need to make learning fun for kids, and they can learn so much from playing.

According to Daniel Pink, the workplace should include play. Companies like google have done remarkably well because of play. One of Pink’s recommendations is to play some sort of Caption This game.

Looking John Medina’s Brain Rules: it’s easy to see that play fosters many of them: Exercise, Attention, Stress, Sensory Integration, and Exploration just to name a few.

Everybody’s play is different. Currently, keeping this blog and tinkering with web2.0 tools has been my personal play, and I’m learning a great deal as a result. For others, gardening, walking their dog, or running, may be theirs. Sometimes we become too serious and biased by our previous experiences to let new ideas blossom. We don’t give ourselves the chance to fail to learn, and risk to succeed in a changing world. Instead, while well-intentioned, we let “busy” get in the way and forget to play.