Friday, October 29, 2010

The Role of PLAY in Learning

I just got back from a conference on the role of "play" in learning, hosted by the Progressive Education Network. While most of the attendees were K-5 educators, there were a handful of us who wanted to explore this topic in our work with grades 6-12. I'll start by admitting that I am not exactly the most "playful" adult, and so I knew going into this that I might need help bringing play into my classroom.

Beyond the minor tips and tricks that I acquired from attending, the real take-away message for me was the basic premise of the conference itself: play produces meaningful learning. The things we do when we "play" teach us a lot about life. Playing any game begins with a shared premise and mutually accepted "ground rules," which make it possible for us to feel safe, jump in, take risks, and commit to a common goal. Through simple games like four-square, children learn the roles of leaders and followers, participants and spectators. They learn values like fairness, teamwork, trust, humility.

One of the keynote speakers at the conference was Dr. Jill Steinberg, professor in the UW-Madison Department of Human Development and Family Studies. She talked a lot about the research that's been done on the cognitive and social-emotional affects of play. She said that "real" play has a lot of qualities that make it developmentally powerful. First, it actively engages the executive functions of the brain, such as abstract thought, planning, and rule acquisition. Second, it is safely chaotic, which increases children's tolerance for unpredictability in later life experiences. Third, it is voluntary and self-governed, which leads to a greater sense of self-efficacy.

I came away with a number of burning questions:
  • How can I create a classroom environment at the high school level that implicitly and explicitly promotes play?
  • How can I do a better job of communicating the value of play to my high school peers and superiors?
  • How can this idea fit into a school culture where curriculum is pre-ordained and relatively static? How can I "make room" for it in the lesson plans?

I also came away with a number of resources I need to explore to understand some of this further. I'll list some of them here.

Brown, Stuart. Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. New York: Penguin, 2009.

Elkind, David. The Power of Play: How Spontaneous, Imaginative Activities Lead to Happier, Healthier Children. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2007.

Leave No Child Inside:

Meier, Deborah, Brenda S. Engel, and Beth Taylor. Playing for Keeps: Life and Learning on a Public School Playground. New York: Teachers College Press, 2010.

National Institute for Play:

Singer, Dorothy. Play = Learning: How Play Motivates and Enhances Children's Cognitive and Social-Emotional Growth. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

New Publication!

I recently had an article published in Unboxed, the ed. journal of the High Tech High Graduate School of Education. It's called "Race and Ethnicity in an Integrated School," based on the action research project I did for my graduate thesis.

There are some other great articles in the issue, too. My favorites are one about "Family Math" and another about students building autobots. Check it out!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Habits of Mind

As I continue to work my way through Deborah Meier's The Power of Their Ideas, I'm particularly struck by one of the key organizing structures around which the intellectual work done at CPESS revolves: their "Habits of Mind."

From my work at High Tech High, I was already familiar with such ideas, but they were sort of an endangered species in the years when I worked there. Now that I'm seeing them described in Meier's book, I'm reminded how much they resonate with my own values about what defines work worth doing. The six habits that they emphasized at CPESS were:

Evidence: "How do we know what we know?"
Viewpoint: "Who's speaking?"
Connections: "What causes what?"
Supposition: "How might things have been different?"
Relevance: "Who cares?" "So what?"

Once upon a time, HTH had adopted this same set of habits (although they preferred the term "perspective" over "viewpoint"). I think they should bring them back.

I realize now, as I don't think I have done before, that I imply a lot of these habits in the work I do with my students, particularly the first three, although I rarely make explicit the manner in which these habits can be learned and cultivated. The fourth - supposition - is the one I practice least in my own life, and so is not surprisingly the one I promote least in my own classroom.

The fifth - relevance - is the one I think we as teachers do the worst job of addressing with our students. What I mean is that we too rarely have a good answer to the questions, "Why are we learning this?" or "When am I ever going to use this in my life?" Although the relevance of our curricular content is usually (hopefully) clear to us, it's not made clear to students. It's not surprising, then, when students have a hard time applying it to their own work.

Meier, D. (1995). The Power of Their Ideas, (50). Boston: Beacon Press.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Excerpt: The Power of Their Ideas

Lately I've been reading The Power of Their Ideas by Deborah Meier. One might point out here that my reading selection is about a decade behind a lot of thoughtful educators of a certain ilk, to which I would reply that I was also born at least a decade behind many of those educators. I'm still playing catch-up, so bear with me.

Most of this book resonates with my former work in a progressive school environment, and a lot of it flies in the face of my experience in a traditional comprehensive high school. Here is an excerpt that succinctly summarizes some of the key ideas this book presents:
  1. Schools should be small and highly personal. Where schools are large they should be broken into interdisciplinary houses.
  2. Cooperative learning is a key to successful learning.
  3. There should be integration of curriculum: history and literature, math and science, etc.
  4. Academic periods should be longer in high schools--at least an hour, ideally two hours.
  5. High school homerooms should be full-length periods and serve as serious advisory places, and teachers should stay with the same homeroom for two years or more.
  6. Fewer subjects, taught thoroughly, are better than lots of courses taught superficially.
  7. Decisions about curriculum, pedagogy and scheduling should be made by on-site professionals.
  8. Parents should be informed and involved in their children's education.
  9. Students should be expected to demonstrate their abilities directly--to "show" what they know and can do. Multiple-choice tests are not a substitute for the real performance.
  10. Students should be expected to engage in socially useful work, and should learn about the world-of-work through school-directed work experiences. (Meier 1995)
Meier, D. (1995). The Power of Their Ideas, (65). Boston: Beacon Press.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Student Publication and Teacher Revelation

This last week, a group of my students completed publication of Scatterbrain: A Collection of Memoirs - a book we've been working on together since mid-October. As the title suggests, it is a collection of short memoirs written by the students. Here's the description they wrote for the back cover:
"Many adults wonder what goes through a teenager’s mind. Many teenagers wonder the same thing. Scatterbrain: A Collection of Memoirs offers an insight into the elusive minds of those living in a world that is completely their own, between childhood and adulthood, wanting to make big decisions about their futures yet needing Mom’s help to shop for clothes. These memoirs show their laughter and tears, love and hate, confusion and clarity. From coping with the death of a father and battling an eating disorder to camping, fishing, and traveling with friends, the perspectives that these writers have shared are at once unique and universal. They reveal the hopes of children through the vivid memories of young adults."
We used -- a "creative publishing service" as it's called -- to take what would otherwise have been just a 'class assignment' that got written, graded, and thrown away and make it into something with value that extends beyond the school building.

One really fascinating experience that this whole process created occurred two days after the book was finished. As a way to celebrate the beautiful work the students had done, I sent an email to our faculty and staff to tell them about the book and ask them to congratulate the kids.

The next day, a few students told me this had made them really uncomfortable. It wasn't the idea of having their work in public that bothered them (they said they didn't mind strangers or even family reading it); it was the idea of their teachers being able to read it that freaked them out. We had a class discussion about it, but no one seemed really able to pinpoint what it was about this situation that they didn't like.

That night I got an email from a student who wanted to explain things more clearly:
"We all appreciate the project, it is really cool. The issues that we had seemed to be with ourselves. I guess it's scary to put yourself out there, especially to teachers who have always been our 'superiors'. We have always been taught you are subordinate to your teachers and they are there to teach you. It seems really sad, but unfortunately it has always been that way. I think moving out of our comfort zone is something we have to do, and for some people that is a harder step than for others."
She mentions being "taught" to believe in this barrier between students and teachers -- I wonder if it's possible to pinpoint when/how that socialization process happens. I've always felt that fewer barriers is the way to help students achieve more meaningful learning (see my post about the CES School Study Tour), but I know that not everyone agrees with that view. In fact, there are some really stellar teachers here at OHS for whom those barriers seem essential to the way they craft their teaching.

The one piece of advice I had for the authors of Scatterbrain (who are all seniors preparing to go off to college) was that they should begin unlearning some of those barriers now. In college, they'll only get in the way.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Adventures in a Traditional High School

Since my last post, I moved across the country and began work at a traditional comprehensive high school. What I've observed so far may not be a revelation to anyone but me, as I've never worked in a traditional school setting. However, I'm quite literally in shock about how many aspects of this environment just don't make sense. I'll try to describe them here in a way that reflects their absurdity:
  • During each 45 minute period, teenagers and adults are expected to engage fully in absorbing information and/or participating in activities that have no connection (explicit or otherwise) to either the 45 minutes that came before it or those that would follow it.
  • The chunks of the day are meted out by loud ringing noises, whose volume is intended, one must assume, to cut off any train of thought they might be interrupting.
  • Students' behavioral patterns are regulated in innumerable ways, so that they must adhere to appropriate use of speech, restrooms, physical space, movement from place to place, and exercise. Similar behavioral patterns are imposed on inmates in prison.
  • The vast majority of students' intellectual (and sometimes physical) output has no practical function; its sole purpose is to demonstrate a set of knowledge or skills (as determined by the teacher, often without adequate justification provided to students), after which it is usually discarded.
This is only the beginning of what could be a much longer list. It's been said before that education is the least changed public institution of the last 150 years. It was designed for the needs of industry, at a time when schools were expected to produce factory workers and tradespeople; now, in a country where the vast majority of workers produce no physical objects and do most of their thinking about abstract concepts, our schools are woefully ill equipped to educate most people for their expected futures.

Sir Ken Robinson argues the point masterfully in his TED lecture about the need for schools to teach creativity. He says that, in today's world, creativity is just as essential as literacy, and it should be given the same gravity in schools. You wouldn't believe the number of blank stares I get when I ask my students the last time their teachers asked them to be creative. The implied message (and sometimes even the stated one) seems to be that, in the confines of a traditional school - with all the trappings presented by the bulleted list above - schools aren't equipped to encourage creativity; students will just have to wait for college to get that.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Coalition of Essential Schools: Boston School Study Tour

This week I attended the Coalition of Essential Schools' (CES) Boston School Study Tour. Every time I visit another of the CES schools, I'm reminded how powerful a learning experience it can be to encounter new contexts and new approaches to schooling.

On this trip, I visited the Boston Arts Academy (BAA), a public pilot school that emphasizes the arts through direct arts instruction as well as integration of the arts into traditionally academic subject areas. I also visited The MET in Providence, RI, a publicly-funded "district" of small schools that emphasizes extremely personalized instruction and uses internships as the focal point of the students' curricula.

Both of these schools gave me things to think about; I think I was most impacted, though, by the MET. It is a truly alternative model of schooling that resonates with a lot of the values I've held for a long time but haven't known how to articulate. To give you an idea of the impact it had on me, here are some notes I took during the visit:

"I’m thinking about how to break down walls. Being in a classroom every day is too safe, I get too comfortable, and the tendency to revert back to the ‘default’ is too great. Kids feel it also—people like Andy should be rock stars, but they’re barely passing. The dangers of traditional schooling seep into those kids too.

We need to leave school more. Kids need to have more choices. I need to be willing to have less control. I need to be more transparent and more of a whole person, and I need to encourage students to be that too.

How can I bring these ideas back to HTH? How can other teachers get a sense of this without having seen the alternatives for themselves (that is, true alternatives, not just new names for the same things)? When we always get positive reinforcement from visitors and guests, it’s hard to see through another lens. Even here, amongst the most progressive educators, the questions being asked sound something like, 'But when do they learn math??' so it’s hard to imagine stretching so far outside the box when people are coming from that frame of reference."