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Archive for the ‘Play Learning Theory’ Category

One of the most intellectually stimulating books of the fall season is Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt‘s The Coddling of the American Mind. It is a formidable and persuasive critique of recent changes in American university campus culture. The new orthodoxy of “safe spaces” and “no platforming” was ripe for serious analysis and the authors have diagnosed the sources of what is termed “safetyism.”  Young people are being taught to “trust their feelings” and to call out the “goodies” and “baddies” in contemporary society. In a strange twist, “what doesn’t kill you, makes you weaker.”

The two academics demonstrate a sound grasp of the “culture war” enveloping campus culture and correctly point out that “safetyism” poses a real threat to academic freedom on North American campuses.  As a child of the radical sixties, I was there when students fought to make the universities more open to new ideas, controversial speakers, and more democratic practices. Racism, bigotry and intolerance should be resisted and rejected. Having said that, it’s disconcerting to see today’s university students so quick to take offense and so inclined to silence those espousing different viewpoints.

While Lukianoff and Haidt correctly dissect the problem, they miss the mark in diagnosing the state of early childhood learning. The “decline of play” is plainly observable in today’s schoolyards and playgrounds. Overly protective parents, known as “helicopter parents,” are easy to spot in affluent and upper middle class school communities — and gravitate to independent schools.  It is simply wrong, in my estimation, to assume that “play learning” is endangered in pre-school, kindergarten, or early years education.

“Play-based learning” is ascendant in Canadian Pre-Kindergarten to Grade 3 education and is in no danger of disappearing. It is no exaggeration to say that “play learning” is the current catechism espoused by faculties of education and accepted, without question, by provincial education ministries. Since 2010-11, early leading has emerged as an education priority and provincial education departments, one after another, have changed their names to become the “Department of Early Childhood Development and Education.”

Where did Lukianoff and Haidt get the idea that “child’s play” was threatened in the primary grades?  Their primary source appears to be Erika Christakis, a Yale University child study professor and author of the 2017 book, The Importance of Being Little. Judging from her writings, she is an unabashed constructivist who sees great potential in “little children” and idealizes them “watching bulldozers on a construction site” or “chasing butterfies in flight.”  Surveying today’s preschool and kindergarten classrooms, most likely in New England, she claims that “learning has been reduced to scripted lessons and subject metrics that too often undervalue the child’s intelligence while overtaxing the child’s growing brain.” 

She is, in all likelihood, well acquainted with Ivy League prep schools. High and mismatched expectations, she contends, “wreak havoc on the family.” “Parents fear that if they choose the ‘wrong’ program, their child won’t get into the ‘right’ college.”  Such fears are “wildly misplaced,” according to Christakis, because young children are not only natural learners, but “exceptionally strong thinkers.”

Unstructured free play is good for little children and it does help to prepare them for the real, ‘rough-and-tumble’ world.  Where Christakis, Lukianoff and Haidt all go wrong is in setting up ‘free play’ in opposition to any form of early learning incorporating explicit teaching of core knowledge and skills. Claiming that it is harmful flies in the face of a great deal of recent education research informed by cognitive science.

Australian teacher-researcher Greg Ashman has effectively demolished the two essential claims about early learning made in The Coddling of the American Mind.  Free play may well be essential in learning social skills, but that does not mean it suffices for academic learning. Renowned Canadian education critic, Andrew Nikiforuk, once put it this way:  “If learning is so natural, why do we go to school?'”  The implicit answer: to learn something.

Pyschologist David C. Geary makes the helpful distinction between two types of learning, biological primary and biological secondary forms. Play is probably the best way to learn social skills, such as learning to work together, but not for learning academic abilities and skills.  The weight of research evidence, drawn from cognitive science, suggests that most children require more explicit instruction because learning requires some prodding, practice, and persistence.  Some students, particularly those with learning difficulties or socio-economic disadvantages, simply do not grasp the key ideas or master the fundamental skills without a measure of teacher-guidance.

Lukianoff and Haidt, citing Christakis, are critics of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the “Common Core Curriculum” and very much opposed to student testing in elementary grades. That may be why they are so inclined to see “testitis” creeping into the early grades.  While there is some evidence of it in American elementary schools, the same cannot be said for Canadian schools.  No homework is given in Kindergarten and only modest amounts in Grades 1 to 3. Provincial testing is administered starting in Grade 3 but it cannot be described as “high stakes” testing of the kind found at higher grades in the United States. 

Lukianoff and Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind  offers a telling critique of what’s gone wrong on many university colleges.  Children from advantaged backgrounds may, from an early age, be subjected to academic pressures and discouraged from engaging in free play.  Parents with two degrees and homes full of books give privileged kids an early immersion in learning and, in many cases, have the added benefit of parents providing explicit instruction to fill gaps in understanding.  Over-parenting can and does produce coddled children , but it’s a stretch to claim that this is the real life experience of children from less favoured circumstances, raised in disadvantaged and marginalized communities.

Early learning programs in Canada, with few exceptions, are “play-based” and place considerable emphasis on nurturing social skills and supporting ‘student well-being.” Few Canadian early learning researchers would recognize the pre-schools and kindergartens as depicted in Lukianoff and Haidt’s otherwise impressive book.  In fact, it’s tempting to hypothesize that Canadian primary years programs are actually the nurseries for a younger generation who are so bubble-wrapped that “skinned knees” are treated as calamities.

Where’s the evidence that “play-learning” is imperiled in today’s pre-schools and kindergartens?  How prevalent is “helicopter parenting” and is it directed toward raising standards or to ‘school-proofing’ kids?  Is it fair to suggest that play learning and academic learning are mutually incompatible? Is “safetyism” what is actually being taught in kindergarten? 

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Hundreds of children in Canada’s Ocean Playground” (aka Nova Scotia) entering school for the first time  in September 2018 will be prevented from using the playground equipment in their own schoolyards.  In Atlantic Canada’s largest school district, Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE), parents were only alerted to the new rules affecting children under 5 years in June 2018 newsletters that advised them about “risk management advice” about the use of playground equipment during the school day. The news provoked quite a reaction and prompted Halifax playground expert Alex Smith to post a stinging July 2018 critique headed “Look- Don’t Play” on his widely-read PlayGroundology Blog.

The Halifax school district, like many across Nova Scotia, used the Canadian Safety Association (CSA) standards for outdoor play as a rationale for barring all Junior Primary and Senior Primary (not only ages 3-4 children , but also those age 5), from using the school playground equipment.  School administration had been alerted to the potential problem back in the fall of 2017 at the time of the announcement of an expanded provincial Pre-Primary program. Instead of introducing kids to the joys of outdoor play, principals and teachers will be occupied trying to keep them off the equipment.

Nova Scotia is not alone in ‘bubble-wrapping kids’ on school playgrounds. It is just far more widespread because most of the province’s schools are only equipped with older, off-the shelf, equipment with CSA safety restrictions. Instead of phasing-in the introduction of Pre-Primary programs with playground upgrades, the N.S. Education Department has plowed full steam ahead without considering the importance of providing purpose-built kindergarten play areas.

Vocal critics of school and recreation officials who restrict child’s play are quick to cite plenty of other Canadian examples. Back in November 2011, a Toronto principal at Earl Beatty Elementary School  sparked a loud parent outcry when she banned balls from school grounds. One Canadian neighbourhood, Artisan Gardens on Vancouver Island, achieved international infamy in a June 2018 Guardian feature claiming that the local council had “declared war on fun” by passing a bylaw banning all outside play from the street, prohibiting children from chalk drawing. bike riding, and street hockey.

Such stories make for attention-grabbing headlines, but they tend to miss the significance of the changing dynamics of play in Canada and elsewhere. Protecting kids at all times has been the dominant practice, but fresh thinking is emerging on the importance of “free play” in child development. Alex Smith of PlayGroundology is in the forefront of the growing movement to replace “fixed equipment play” with “adventure sites” and “loose parts play.” While aware that child safety is a priority, the “free play” advocates point to evidence-based research showing the critical need for kids to learn how to manage risk and to develop personal resilience.

School superintendents advocating for the retention and revitalization of recess can be allies in the cause of ensuring kids have regular play time.  Some school district officials, however, seem to thrive on “over-programming kids” and see recess as another time to be planned and regulated. Typical of the current crop of North American senior administrators is Michael J. Hynes, Ed.D., Superintendent of Schools for the Patchogue-Medford School District (Long Island, NY). Providing a decent school recess, in his view, is just another solution to the “mental health issues” affecting many of today’s schoolchildren. Makes you wonder how ‘liberated’ kids would be on those playgrounds.

Larger Canadian school districts in Ontario have managed to avoid the CSA playground standards debacle.  The five-year Ontario implementation  plan for Full Day Junior Kindergarten, starting in 2010-11, included funding to redevelop playgrounds for children ages 3.8 to 5 years. In the case of the York Region District School Board, outdoor learning spaces in their 160 elementary schools were gradually converted, school-by-school into natural “outdoor learning spaces” with fewer and fewer high risk climbing structures. Outdoor creative play and natural settings were recreated, often in fenced-in junior playground areas. In Canada’s largest school district, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), targeted funding allowed for similar changes, over 5-years, in some 400 schools.

Converting all elementary school playgrounds can be prohibitively expensive for school districts without the resources of these Ontario boards. Instead of investing heavily in the latest “creative play equipment and facilities,” playground experts like Alex Smith recommend taking a scaled-down, more affordable approach. Many of Halifax’s after school Excel programs adopted loose parts play following a presentation on risk and play by the UK children’s play advocate Tim Gill three years ago.  His message to school officials everywhere: “Loose parts play is doable from a budget, training and implementation perspective. What an opportunity!” 

What message are we sending to children entering school when they are barred from using playground equipment?  Should expanding early learning programs be planned with a program philosophy integrating indoor and outdoor play?  Is there a risk that we are robbing today’s kids of their childhood by over-protecting them in schools? When does ‘bubble-wrapping’ children become a problem? 

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Fifty years after its appearance, the June 1968 Ontario Hall-Dennis Report lives on in the philosophy and pedagogy that it seeded in the schools of Ontario and right across Canada. In its ringing endorsement of child-centred learning, its imagery of playful school children, its spirit of experimentation, and its flirtation with gradeless education, the Report left its mark and defined the limits of so-called “progressive education” for a generation or more. It also ushered in a student-centred philosophy harkening back to days of the renowned American educational progressive educator John Dewey that remains deeply ingrained in elementary education.

The “progressive education” mantra bequeathed by Hall-Dennis exposed deep divisions over core philosophy and preferred teaching practice.  Education professor Ken Osborne perhaps put it best in his 1999 guide to the Canadian education debate:  In its day, the Report was revered as “the shining star of educational reform,” but two decades later it was considered passe — and “painted as at best wholly-minded idealism and, at worst, reckless irresponsibility.” 

Child-centred teaching, teacher as facilitator, and learning centres many not have originated with the Hall-Dennis Committee, but all were sanctified in the Report and became preferred methodologies associated with ‘good teaching.’ From that time forward, child-centred approaches did become like a “Holy Writ” among elementary school teachers, while high school educators considered it symptomatic of “dumbing down” subject teaching.  A few smaller elementary schools, even today, like the Halifax Independent School, are explicit in their adherence to Hall-Dennis inspired progressive ideals.

One Toronto elementary school, Alpha Alternative School, founded in 1971, continues to hold a candle for the educational philosophy and approach to education espoused in the Hall-Dennis Report.  It also provides a lens through which to examine and take stock of the Report’s key principles.  The first line of the 1968 report “The truth shall make you free” remains today as the essential mission of Alpha and its 2007 satellite site, Alpha II.

Student-directed education inspired by Hall-Dennis springs from Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations enshrined in the 1968 report. Based upon that Declaration, the Report proposed fundamental principles for Ontario school education:

  1. the right of every individual to have equal access to the learning experience best suited to his needs, and
  2. the responsibility of every school authority to provide a child-centered learning continuum that invites learning by individual discovery and inquiry.

While the principles conveyed a spirit of openness, it was firmly committed to “progressive education” and surprisingly prescriptive about “how child-centred learning should take place.” The key tenets of the Hall-Dennis Report convey a sense of certitude that implies imparting a “new wisdom” in education:

The Child-Centred Curriculum

“The curriculum of the future must be child-oriented and must provide opportunities for choice within broadly defined limits. Teachers at every level, supported by qualified counselors, will be required to guide each child along his own critically determined path, far more flexible than a computer guide, but critical in the sense that the learning programs initiated and developed will best meet the needs of each child at the time best suited to his development. ” (H-D R, p. 52)

The Open and Flexible Learning Environment

“There is increasing evidence that children are often better taught in groups centered around interests, and as individuals, than in classes consisting of 30 or 40 pupils. Group teaching and individual learning programs break down the old formal class organization. But despite advocacy of clustering children around interests, supported by appropriate resource teachers, children, particularly young children, seem more relaxed and at ease when identified with at least one home teacher…., so that she may be aware of the child’s changing moods and responses. “(H-D R, p. 56)

The Student- Attuned Curriculum for Young People

“A good curriculum must meet the needs and expressed desires of pupils. It creates in the school a pleasant and friendly environment in which young children know that they are appreciated and accepted; in which maturing young people will find that they and their ideas are respected; and in which all pupils find interest and satisfaction in learning. It gives a realistic and objective exposition of society and its institutions. It encourages pupils to ask questions, to contribute further information, and to express their opinions freely, and it encourages teachers to answer pupils’ questions truthfully as often and as fully as possible. At the same time, such a curriculum provides for studies related to institutions of higher or further education or which are needed to obtain specific qualifications.” ((H-D R, p. 56)

Eliminate Grade Promotion and Curtail Examinations

“The curriculum must provide for the individual progress of pupils. To make this possible, two major innovations are indicated: complete abolition of the graded system throughout the school; and the use of individual timetables at the senior level. The introduction of graded textbooks and the placing of pupils in ‘books’ or grades undoubtedly improved education in Ryerson’s day…. But during the last fifty years, as it has become increasingly difficult to retard and eliminate pupils at an early age by failure, the graded system has become an anomaly…. [Formal examinations are] “arbitrary measures of achievement” and “concepts of promotion and failure” should be “removed from the schools not to reduce standards, but to improve the quality of learning. The evaluation of pupils’ progress should be a continuous part of the learning process, not a separate periodic exercise….” (H-D R, p. 72)

Page 93—Developing a Sense of Responsibility in Students

“Teachers can take definite steps to develop a sense of responsibility in children, such as: Have pupils plan and manage their own routines of study; Encourage pupils to suggest ventures in learning which they would like to undertake;Encourage joint or group undertakings; Reduce assigned homework in favor of pupil-planned study or practice; Apply only those rules that are necessary for the maintenance of a healthy, invigorating and pleasant learning atmosphere; Give pupils practice in making decisions of a personal and social nature. ” (H-D R, p. 93)

The Teacher as Guide at the Side

“The modern professional teacher is a person who guides the learning process. He places the pupil in the center of the learning activity and encourages and assists him in learning how to inquire, organize, and discuss, and to discover answers to problems of interest to him. The emphasis is on the process of inquiry as well as on the concepts discovered.” (H-D R, p. 93)

Innovative Learning Environments – Cooperative Learning, Study Centres, Learn Through Doing

“In the future a school will contain various kinds and sizes of learning areas, including classrooms, small study centers, and large open areas. In a well-organized schoolroom efficient, flexible use is made of available resources, and routines proceed with a minimum of confusion and interference….. The organization of schoolroom routines should be regarded as a co-operative activity of teachers and pupils, operating within the general organization of the school. The establishment of routines should be an exercise in democracy in which pupils establish and maintain as many as possible of their own ‘rules,’ evaluating and revising them as conditions demand. This exercise provides for the development of self-discipline and responsibility….

The spotlight in the school is shifting from methods of teaching to experiences for learning, and the truly professional teacher now employs in each situation the methods that will enhance the quality of the learning experience of the pupils in his care….In establishing the atmosphere for learning the professional teacher remains sensitive to the interests and problems of pupils, and allows the direction or pace of the lesson to change as the situation demands. He realizes that for an individual child the sequence of steps in the lesson may be less important than a word of praise or kindness, or a sign of recognition or reassurance; indeed, such actions are themselves part of teaching ‘method.’ A teacher may actually be teaching very well when he is apparently doing little more than observing pupils at work; he does not believe that effective teaching demands constant activity on his part.” (H-D R, pp. 139-40)

Student Evaluation – and Assessment for Learning

“With the introduction of a child-centered program, evaluation is changing in both function and form: its function is to determine the effectiveness of the program in the pupil’s development; it takes the form of day-by-day observations of the pupil’s interests and activities, difficulties and achievements. Evaluation is part of the learning program, is often planned jointly by the pupils and the teacher, and provides for self-evaluation as well as for diagnosis. The process may involve a discussion of the effectiveness of a learning situation, of the degree of participation of the pupils, and of suggestions for improvement of study habits, research and discussion procedures, and use of reference materials.”(H-D R, pp. 142)

Democratic Schools and Teacher Autonomy

“The structure of the system and of the school itself should be a democratic one-one where the teacher has freedom, not one that is so rigidly bound by rules and regulations that he feels his freedom is being questioned. The teacher’s loyalty to the system will be conditional upon the degree to which the system and the individual school serve to make it possible for him to do his best work. The system that meets the professional needs of its teachers will usually have the highest teacher morale. “(H-D R, p. 157)

The Principal as Curriculum Leader

“The principal who sees himself as the curriculum leader of the school acts as a consultant, adviser, and co-ordinator, and spends most of his time with children and teachers in psychological, sociological, and curricula activities. He subscribes to the theory that the aims of education are determined philosophically, and he realizes that striving for uniformity through standardized tests, external examinations, and other devices and controls has little to do with the attainment of objectives in education. Subjectivity is his accepted mode for educational endeavor; objectivity is desirable only in specific instances, subordinate to the major purposes of education. “(H-D R, p. 170)

Looking back, it is striking to see how much of the so-called “progressive orthodoxy” was articulated and extolled in a document that is all-too-often forgotten, especially among teachers born after its appearance. Few who lived through the Hall-Dennis era would miss the connective tissue linking contemporary “innovations” with concepts and ideas espoused in that Report.

What contemporary educational principles, concepts and pedagogical approaches find earlier justification in the Hall-Dennis Report?  Which of the Hall-Dennis reform proposals proved the most successful?  Which of the proposals simply fizzled and went nowhere?  Will there ever come a time when the vision is fully realized in K-12 education? 

Third and Final commentary in the Series.

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“Tear yourself away from the Saturday cartoons, boys, it’s time to go outside and play.” That oft-repeated mother’s admonition still rings in my ears. Today, sixty years later, with millions of children seemingly hypnotized by computer and video games, that parental lesson has now been appropriated by the big brands and is being repeated with much greater urgency.

MinecraftFatherSonA ‘Brand War’ is now underway for the minds of children.  Global technology colossus Microsoft essentially conquered home play rooms and has just launched Minecraft Education for schools.  A “Dirt is Good” Movement, funded by Unilever’s laundry products division, Persil, has even enlisted TED Talk superstar Sir Ken Robinson in its latest campaign to win parents and kids back from the virtual world with an appeal for the forgotten pleasures of outdoor play.

One of Britain’s most astute education observers, Martin Robinson, author of Trivium 21c (2013), was among the first to spot the emerging societal trend. In his recent online commentary, “Progressive Education, Shared Values, Play and Dirt” ( April 4, 2016), he identified the fault lives in the contemporary war for the hearts and minds of children.

“The story starting to unfold,” Robinson pointed out, was one of “global brands tapping into progressive education discourse and using it, emotionally, to firstly sell a product and secondly to campaign for libertarian parenting and play based learning.” The ultimate objective, he added, was to woo us into “letting go of what we know, opening our minds to creativity, playing outside and not on computers, or playing inside on computers or with (Lego) bricks…”

After reviewing the “Dirt is Good” media campaign and the recent Microsoft Minecraft Education launch promotion, Robinson’s critique appears to be deadly accurate. A report, Play in Balance, commissioned by Unilever’s Persil division, polled 12,000 parents of 5-12 year olds worldwide and provides the fodder for the “Dirt is Good” campaign.

ChildUtopiaThe Persil-funded survey (February and March 2016) results were startling: In the United Kingdom, 75 per cent of parents reported that their children preferred to play virtual sports games on a screen rather than real sports outside. Almost one-third of children in the UK play outside for 30 minutes or less a day and one in five do not play outside at all on an average day. Children spend twice as much time on screens as they do playing outside.

Sir Ken Robinson’s interpretation of the survey’s lessons is far more problematic. “I think it’s important that we look again at the importance of play-based learning — there’s a long history of research to show that play is not a waste of time, it is not time that is badly spent. Play, among human beings, has very important social benefits.”

That sounds a lot like the competing narrative advanced by global technology advocates like Sky Academy, the British high-tech learning firm espousing ‘human potential’ and ” the power of TV, creativity and sport, to build skills and experience to unlock the potential in young people.” In announcing the impending launch of the Minecraft Education edition, Anthony Salcito, Microsoft VP of Worldwide Education, championed it as the next stage in the “immersive learning experience” which would “open the door to a classroom and a world of possibilities and learning infused with curiosity.”

MinecraftJuneauClassMicrosoft Education does not seem to be deterred in the least by Sir Ken Robinson and the “Dirt is Good” defenders of outdoor play. After spreading to millions of homes worldwide and 7,000 schools in 40 different countries, Minecraft Education edition will be rolled out in June 2016 in 11 languages and 41 different countries, and will allow teachers to download the program for free, in exchange for product marketing feedback. Corporate promotion touts the product as one that will “help to educate children on social skills, problem-solving skills, empathy and even help to improve literacy.”

The latest phase in what is generally termed “21st Century Learning” is starting to look a lot like an attempt to revive the now faded ‘romance’ of educational progressivism. Instead of learning from the past and its lessons, the ‘Brand War’ for children’s minds seems to be devolving into a tug of war between contending versions of play-based theory.  In pursuit of play learning, it amounts to a familiar contest between those who want our kids to play inside and those who want them to play outside. Whether it’s outside or inside, one can only hope that they will be learning something of enduring value, deeper meaning, and measurable substance. 

Who –and what — is winning the ongoing war for children’s minds?  Is “play theory” making a comeback in today’s “Brand Wars” being waged in and around children and schools?  What are the risks inherent in turning children’s education over to the big brands? How can the concept of “wholesome outdoor play” compete with “digital Lego” and virtual sports?  Most importantly, what — if anything– have we learned from our educational past? 

 

 

 

 

 

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