(originally published at www.catapultlearning.com)
Once upon a time, I worked as a secretary at a New York investment bank. There were two types of people who seemed to hold that job: Lifers—the middle-aged women who had been working as secretaries forever; and Dilettantes—the youngish painters and writers and musicians who needed a paycheck to support their art. I was one of the Dilettantes.
I started on the job a few months after the company had provided PCs to all of the bankers and all of the secretaries for the first time. The Lifers treated these machines as if they had been dusted with a fine coating of bubonic plague. They wanted nothing to do with them. They learned how to do a handful of required tasks on the computer, but they relied on their old typewriters for everything else. We Dilettantes, however, tended to play with our computers. They were new and shiny, and we were bored. So we experimented with functionality, we tested capacity, and we learned how to do all sorts of non-work-related things with them. We goofed off, in other words. But as a result, we became proficient and confident users of the new machines, and were able to serve the company and our bankers pretty efficiently. It was a great education for someone like me, who had never done anything with computers beyond some very rudimentary word processing.
Here’s another story: I was shopping for a new car (this is also some time ago) and was interested in getting a Mini Cooper. I researched it online, then went to the dealership and learned all I could about the car. Then I was taken out for a test drive. As we neared a sharp turn, the sales agent turned to me, grinned, and said, “Gun it!”
“What?” I said.
“Gun it. Take the turn too fast. Go on.”
So I did. I slammed on the accelerator and the little car whipped around the corner like a go-kart. The sales agent laughed. I laughed.
“You gotta find out what the machine can do,” she said. “You can’t really know it, otherwise.”
Two anecdotes, one lesson: information is useful, but we learn best by playing. Life teaches us this lesson so often that we don’t even notice it. But those of us who care about lessons for a living—do we notice? Do we incorporate this learning when we teach? If we’re good, we build structured lessons that lead students towards te independent and competent practice of skills and use of knowledge. But do we give students a chance to play with what they’ve learned—to see what it can do? I doubt many of us do. How can we? Once the kids have learned X, it’s time to move on to Y. Play time is wasted time, we’ve been told.
When I use the word “play,” here, I’m not talking about educational gaming, or playing-a-game-in-order-to-learn. I’m talking about playing around—playing with your learning—using your learning as the raw material of your play. Exactly the kind of thing that many people feel is a waste of time.
Think about what it means to play with something—what it means at the most elemental level. When a child gets a new toy (even if it’s just a cardboard box), she immediately starts to experiment with it, to test its limits. Will it bend? Will it stretch? Can I turn it inside out? What happens if I throw it off the porch? They aren’t doing this to destroy whatever little thing we’ve bought for them; they’re doing this to find out what the thing is. Only by manipulating it and testing both its capacity and its limits can they really understand what it is they have in their hands. Sadly, far too often, our response is to grab the toy away from the child and tell her to behave. “It’s a fire engine. All right? The ladder goes up and down, like this. See? Now just leave it alone.”
Or we teach a child a new word, like “dinosaur,” and he starts saying, “dinosaur, minosour, flynosaur, cry-no-more, die-so-sore” and so on, until we lose our minds and beg him to shut up.
But this is exactly how children learn—from the time they’re born. They play with objects. They play with sounds. They put things in their mouths so that they can know them with all of their senses. They tear things apart. They stack large things on top of small things, over and over again, until they learn that they have to stack smaller things on larger things in order to build a tower. Children are born knowing how to learn this way. And then they come to us, and we make them stop. Unless they are artists, in which case, somehow, against all odds, they continue learning about the world by testing it and stretching it and playing with it. I’ve seen a twenty-something Bob Dylan take a phrase he’s just seen on a storefront and play with it just the way the child above did with “dinosaur,” and the look of joy on his face (and in his entire body), as he drives the words into absurdity and towards poetry, is wonderful to behold. He doesn’t have a pre-set idea about the words; he just plays with the words and discovers what they can do for him.
We want to build some level of expertise in our students, but author Daniel Willingham points out that building expertise is exceedingly difficult, because true experts think abstractly. They don’t simply access pieces or lists information; they think in patterns and shapes. Donald Schon talks about how expert practitioners, faced with a new challenge, draw upon on a repertoire of prior experiences and responses, and do it without consciously thinking about it at all. He talks about the “tacit knowledge” that experts have—the things they know without knowing how they know it. This is how they can see patterns within the structure of a problem, and identify a solution that will make the best sense, because it made sense in a similar situation some other time—and the similarity often lies hidden in the deep structure of the problem, not in the surface details. In fact, similarities in surface details are what can often sidetrack and confuse novices, sending them towards the wrong solution (this may be why that old adage tells us that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing). Doctors see this happen with medical students all the time.
Thus, for Willingham, there is no easy route to expertise, or the “transfer of learning” from one context (the curriculum) to another (a state test, or a real-life problem). The only way to develop expertise is through patience, persistence, and a variety of experiences.
Variety seems like the key, to me. If we reach the Independent Practice stage of our lesson and give students a worksheet of, say, 20 math problems, how much variety is likely to be included? More often than not, we’ll be asking students to practice the one or two things we’ve taught them, in two or three different ways (if it’s a decent worksheet; sometimes it’s all just one way). But in a practice set, kids don’t get to play; they simply respond and react to what we’ve given them. They answer….but they don’t ask. They don’t take the car out for a test drive.
When you play with the content—randomly, without agenda or pre-determined goal—you have a chance to stumble upon the patterns that lie within it—the things that make it tick. You engage in a dialogue with yourself about what you’re doing: “If I do this, then that happens…but now, if I do that, this other thing happens. That’s interesting…”
There have always been educators who have advocated something like a play-centered curriculum or structure of schooling. A.S. Neill, who founded the Summerhill school in the early part of the 20th century, believed that learning should never be forced on children—that they should be free to stumble upon an interest organically and then have teachers and other adults on hand to feed them what they need to satisfy their curiosity. Neill found that his students often came to skills like reading later than their non-Summerhill peers, since they weren’t forced into it, but once they started learning, they learned quickly, catching up to and then overtaking their peers.
Rudolf Steiner’s Waldorf Schools took a somewhat similar, if more structured approach, using creative play as the driver of learning. There are probably many more examples, in all sorts of alternative schools. But what if you’re in a more traditionally-structured school and classroom? What role can “play” play in a more old-fashioned lesson?
I think it can play an important role, even if done in small doses. Any chance a student has to stretch and twist and play with what he’s learned is a chance to understand things better. For example, let’s say you’re teaching young students about digraphs, pairs of letters like th, sh, and ph that create a single sound. A traditional, old-fashioned lesson would teach these letters and sounds, provide examples of their use (perhaps writing words on a whiteboard and underlining the digraphs), then have students find the digraphs is a set of words on a whiteboard or a worksheet—first working in pairs or groups, then working independently. And that’s fine: by the end of the lesson, I know that when I give you the word, you can find the digraph. You’ve learned something—but in a fairly narrow and limited context.
How can a little bit of play help? What if I asked kids to tell me some words that use the digraphs, rather than just responding to the words I give them? What if I asked them to give me three words that use sh at the start of the word, and three others that use it at the end---plus a bonus for anyone who can think of a word with sh in the middle? What if I asked them to try to think of a word that used one digraph twice (“shush”)—or two or more of digraphs together (“thrush”). Maybe if they can’t come up with a real word, they can invent a word and provide a cool definition for it. Maybe if they can’t come up with a real word, you can point out that some letter combinations don’t seem to occur much in English (is there a word that uses both ph and sh, other than the new computer term “phishing?” I’m not sure). Maybe they can try to write a song or a poem using as many digraphs as possible.
The exercise here isn’t about building vocabulary or learning how to spell; it’s about playing with sounds and figuring out what works and how it works. It’s about working something until you feel like you own it. It’s about treating learning like silly putty—pulling at it, stretching it, seeing what it can do. It’s about allowing time for some semi-structured goofiness to see what sparks might fly, what a-ha moments might occur. It’s about letting students take their learning out for a little test drive, and maybe letting them take the turn a bit too quickly, just to see what happens.
With older students, one area where I always saw a lack of play was in the teaching of metaphor and simile. Students rarely understood the difference between those terms, other than the fact that similes used “like” or “as.” That’s about all the teacher would ever tell them—possibly because the teacher didn’t understand the difference very well herself. But the difference is crucial; it’s the difference between whole-to-whole comparison (“he’s a pig,” or “the snow blanketed the earth”) and part-to-part comparison (“he eats like a pig,” or “the snow warmed the earth like a blanket”). Letting students play with imagery is a great way to help them nail down this difference. Throw an image at them and ask them to use it as a metaphor. Now as a simile. Now can you use it to represent something completely different? How far can you stretch it? What has more “give” to it, a metaphor or a simile? Can you come up with an extended metaphor—one that works at such a large scale that it can rule over an entire poem or story, like E.E. Cummings does here? (perhaps a tad inappropriate for school, but you should see what happens when teenage boys figure out what the poem is actually about.) We ask students to write poems for us (sometimes), but we rarely ask them to dig into what they’ve written and play with their own language, re-writing it and twisting it this way and that way, as Dylan does in the video clip.
How about mathematics? Teachers like Dan Meyer have been advocating for removing some of the support and scaffolding from our math questions to engage students in genuine problem-solving, which requires some inquiry, some experimentation, and some play. Instead of giving kids the measurements of a picture frame and asking them to solve for the area, why not give them a sum total of wood and tell them they can cut it up any way they want to, to create their own picture frame, as long as they’ve used up all the wood. Now, what size picture can it hold? What if you cut it up differently? How many different ways can you do it, and how large a picture can you manage to hold? What does that tell you?
It’s that stretch, that plasticity, that manipulation of academic material as though it were silly putty, that leads students away from responding and reacting and leads them towards the possibility of a spark—an a-ha—a moment where they might discover something important, deeper than the factual answer to a particular question. This kind of play can help push students deeper than the surface details of one particular situation, down towards the underlying patterns and what Aristotle called the first principles—the nature of a thing; what it is and why it is and how it works.
And yes, I did just use “silly putty” and “Aristotle” in the same paragraph, claiming they were somehow related. I stand by it.
We learn the world by playing with it. Are we willing to let some play into our classrooms and let our students get their hands dirty…figuratively or literally?