Sunday, January 20, 2008

Shouldn't we base our educational systems primarily on Play?

I was asked "shouldn't we base our entire educational systems primarily on Play?", I think not, but we should use all we know about play to guide education.

School is a new invention, it is only a couple of hundred of years old. Before that, learning alongside adults also contributed to children's development. Children would learn alongside adults in the field, the kitchen and at the forge. Call it apprenticeship learning. Schools became necessary after the industrial revolution in part to free adults from childcare. Also, as society becomes more complex, some kinds of learning become too specialised to learn in a village apprenticeship way.

The points here are that

* play was never enough on its own
* school performs purposes other than learning
* the needs of society have changed since play evolved in mammals

It is time, now that technology gives us options, to reconsider the teacher at the blackboard in front of a class of children. It was only ever a stopgap compromise. We should consider what we know of play and learning and see if we can improve on the "talk and chalk" model.

Learning is best if it is authentic, like apprenticeship. It is much more motivating if you can produce something real and of value to others. Perhaps this was what Papert meant with constructionism (the N word not the V word) that learning "happens especially felicitously in a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity, whether it's a sand castle on the beach or a theory of the universe"

Learning is best when it is relevant, when you can see that what you are learning will actually be useful to you.

There must be a balance between effort and achievement or reward. Too hard and you give up, too easy and you are bored. (I read somewhere that motivation is highest when the chance of success is 50%). You can visualise effort and achievement (reward) as two curves that have to match. We are familiar with the initial learning hump where effort is not matched by achievement/reward .

Immediate feedback. Problem solving in games works well when you can quickly test your hypothesis. The problem solving process works like the debugging process that computer programmers are familiar with. You test, arrive at a hypothesis or solution and then implement. When the implement & test part of the cycle is quick, as in programming, you spend most of your time in the cognitive conflict or cognitive dissonance part of the cycle. This is where the real cognitive development occurs. It is very frustrating but it is almost addictively motivating. Ask any computer programmer or game player whether they have still been on the computer at 3am. "I'll just fix this program bug...." or "I'll just add some more roads to my Sim City...."

Peer tutoring. Rather than locking kids into a competitive process through assessment, they should be placed in an environment where they can cooperate too. Then you can have a class full of teachers. The best way to learn is to teach something. See Is the emphasis on assessment an attempt to motivate kids through competition in the otherwise boring environment of "talk and chalk" classrooms? I read somewhere that less than 15% of teachers use assessment as feedback to tailor how and what students learn.

An example of a cross curriculum games based project is at

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