September 17, 2010

Still Overselling Play

I understand the allure of using play and games as a means of making learning more enjoyable for children.

I get it. I do.

These breathless stories never fail to flush out the educationally naive.  As if wishful thinking alone will improve the instructional value of children's play time activities.

This kind of child-centered learning has been tried  for a very long time and the improved learning has yet to materialize.  The technology is certainly there.  But no one seems to understand instruction well enough to use all that technology productively.

Even I find this surprising.

And yet a thirty year old critique of child-centered education techniques still remains valid today.

[C]hild-centered approaches have evolved sophisticated ways of managing informal educational activities but they have remained at a primitive level in the design of means to achieve learning objectives.
Child-centered approaches rely almost exclusively on a form of instruction that instructionally-oriented approaches use only when nothing better can be found.
This primitive form of instruction may be called relevant activity. Relevant activity is what teachers must resort to when there is no available way to teach children how to do something, no set of learning activities that clearly converge on an objective. This is the case, for instance, with reading comprehension. Although there are some promising beginnings, there is as yet no adequate "how-to-do-it" scheme for reading comprehension. Accordingly, the best that can be done is to engage students in activities relevant to reading comprehension-for instance, reading selections and answering questions about the selections. Such activities are relevant in that they entail reading comprehension, but they cannot be said to teach reading comprehension.
The contrast of sophistication in management and naiveté in instruction is visible in any well-run open classroom. The behavior that meets the eye is instantly appealing-children quietly absorbed in planning, studying, experimenting, making things-and one has to marvel at the skill and planning that have achieved such a blend of freedom and order. But look at the learning activities themselves and one sees a hodge-podge of the promising and the pointless, of the excessively repetitious and the excessively varied, of tasks that require more thinking than the children are capable of and tasks that have been cleverly designed to require no mental effort at all (like exercise sheets in which all the problems on the page have the same answer). The scatteredness is often appalling. There is a little bit of phonics here and a little bit of phonics there, but never a sufficiently coherent sequence to enable a kid to learn bow to use this valuable tool. Materials have been chosen for sensorial appeal or suitability to the system of management. There is a predilection for cute ideas. The conceptual analysis of learning problems tends to be vague and irrelevant, big on name-dropping and low on incisiveness.
Unless thinkers and experimenters committed to child-centered education become more sophisticated about instruction and start devoting more attention to designing learning activities that actually converge on objectives, they are in danger of becoming completely discredited. That would be too bad. Child-centered educators have evolved a style of school life that has much in its favor. Until they develop an effective pedagogy to go with it, however, it does not appear to be an acceptable way of teaching disadvantaged children.

The tools at educators' disposal have improved dramatically. And yet educators don't seem to know how to use these tools to improve instruction. It must be the pedagogy, the instructional know-how, that is lacking.  I can't think of any thing else.

Teaching beginning skills to children is often a mindless and dull endeavor.  Effective practice requires lots of repetition.  And, repetition is boring (at least for the adults teaching the skills).  You know what are good at mind-numbing repetitive tasks?  Computers.  It doesn't take a genius to see the potential.


Bognor Regis Herald said...

I think that you fail to understand the issue when you say ""Teaching beginning skills to children is often a mindless and dull endeavor. Effective practice requires lots of repetition. And, repetition is boring (at least for the adults teaching the skills)." If you haven't cottoned onto the fact that, as children are NOT computers they do not respond that well to what you propose. If the child sees that teacher is bored shirtless, how does that do for inspiring a love of learning.

Play-based learning is like any other - it can be done well or badly, and fails the child as effectively in the latter case as with any other system.

I was in at rote learning. In the UK in those days, though 80% of kids went to secondary moderns at 11, we only considered it worth talking about the 20% who went to grammar schools. They usually came from more affluent and socially better-established families, and, amazingly they could all read and write, do sums etc.

I went to the A-stream of an unusually good secondary modern - we were the minority, and we had B-D streams, kids all raised by rote learning at primary level. Forget the Black Paper Mythology - many of the C and D kids could not read or write or enumerate to any great degree of proficiency at 11. When we see modern stats and bemoan what has happened, maybe we should ensure we are comparing like with like.

My eldest son, Matthew, learned to read at age 3.5 years - we used Doman's 'Look-Say' system and by 5 his reading level was rated as comparable to a normal 12 year old. That system was play-based, and taught by parents not paid pedagogs. (This caused dismay at school at first because 'what to do with a kid already reading and by a system not employed by the school'? We sorted it.)

If you'd tried rote methods on that boy you would have had trouble, probably behavioural, and that is a parent talking about a well-adjusted boy who he knows better than any teacher.

My other son Andy was 'chalk'n'cheese', no interest at 3/4 years, learned to read equally well at school by another method.

Both had two factors in common. 'On board' parents and .... Excellent Teachers

You don't get it, you don't.

KDeRosa said...

If the child sees that teacher is bored shirtless, how does that do for inspiring a love of learning.

Children care mostly about themselves. I am quite bored attending to the daily needs of my children and they couldn't care less about my boredom as long as they are getting what they need/want.

Play-based learning is like any other - it can be done well or badly, and fails the child as effectively in the latter case as with any other system

Let's turn that around.

Practice-based learning is like any other - it can be done well or badly, and fails the child as effectively in the latter case as with any other system.

That effectively disposes with the rest of your comment which is focused on ineffective learning, i.e., rote learning.

Rote learning is not the same as practice-based learning.

Dick Schutz said...

We get fooled by the application of labels.

"Rote" is bad. "Play" is good.
"Child-centered" is good. "Adult-centered" is bad. And so on.

As with you and your kids, Ken. The kids themselves don't know the difference and they could care less.

Kids will watch dumb cartoons and play repetitive games, "shoot baskets" and such without any ADHD, Why aren't these boring? Because the child is getting continuous feedback that can be acted upon.

Play that is structured by an adult is "adult centered" rather than child centered.

You say "the technology is there." What is there is Information Technology. That's not Instructional Technology.

The reason there is yet no adequate "how-to-do-it" scheme for reading comprehension is that "reading comprehension" has no more reality than phlogiston.

Don Hirsch, myself, and some reading theorists have tried to make the point that reading comp involves the same kind of background information that is entailed in comprehending spoken language.