Playful Learning

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

[This post is part one of a reflection on a Brookings webinar I recently participated in.]

I took the opportunity this week to participate in a webinar presented by the Brookings Institute titled “A new path to education reform: The next chapter on 21st century skills“. I thoroughly enjoyed the stimulus of the discussion among the panel led by by Brookings Fellow Helen Hadani, each of whom shared their various perspectives on how to remake education, foster educational equity, and prepare students for a better future. Rather than go into detail of all of the discussion I’ve included the recording of the webinar at the end of this post. What follows is part one of my reflecting on the things I heard…

I was particularly interested in the reference to the recent Policy 2020 report “A new path to education reform: Playful learning promotes 21st-century skills in schools and beyond”. which was used to provide the context for the discussion that followed. The introduction to that document mentions the following..,

Here, we offer an evidence-based approach to education inspired by research from the science of learning addressing how children learn and what children need to learn to be successful in the 21st century. Critically, the implementation of this framework must be flexible and culturally-relevant, while maintaining core principles that foster educational equity for all students.

It was the reference to the ‘science of learning’ that caught my attention here. It’s not a phrase that is all that commonly used here in New Zealand, but I’m familiar with it all the same – in fact, I contributed to a publication by the Aurora Institute last year titled Aligning educational policy with the science of learning and development. In truth, here in New Zealand we use the word pedagogy most frequently which is defined as the art, science or profession of teaching, which really boils down to the method, or practice, of teaching.

Throughout the past century or so we’ve seen a great deal of literature from educational theorists through to educational researchers and positing their evidence-based views on what constitutes the best form(s) of educational methods and/or practice – much of which, in my cynical view, is completely ignored at a system level which seems entrenched in the methods and practices of a post-industrial era.

This is exactly the point made by the Brookings report, and the motivation for them to identify, using the “science”, the skills [read competencies, capabilities, dispositions] students will need for success in the 21st century.

Based on their research, the Brookings team argue that it is time for a scalable, evidence-based education reform that puts student engagement, educator expertise, and equity at the centre of what we do. This brings the focus primarily on the ‘experience’ of learning, as distinct from the instructional emphasis on skills and content (although those things aren’t ignored).

The report argues for an emphasis on ‘playful learning‘ which they describe as an umbrella term that includes both free play and guided play. They argue that research demonstrates that children learn best when they can be active and engaged in learning that is meaningful, socially interactive, iterative, and joyful (in much the same way as workers in any form of business or industry perform best when these same conditions apply).

I couldn’t agree more – in fact, this reminds me of conversations I had with Stephen Heppell back when we were starting up CORE Education here in New Zealand, and his relentless focus on ‘making learning delightful‘. Of course, he is not alone, so many others have been focused on this as an important first principle in the way we design learning, from Montessori through to Sir Ken Robinson and a host of others between.

The Brookings research identifies the following six key attributes of playful learning that they argue should be evident in our work in schools as much as they are in successfully operating workplaces:

  • Active (minds on) – where learners are focused and engaged in the learning process through questioning and reflection—over passive learning where students listen and memorize information.
  • Engagement – filtering out distractions and focus their attention on the task at hand
  • Meaningful – connecting learners’ own experiences and interests to new information.
  • Socially interactive – acknowledging how cooperative play with peers supports many aspects of children’s development, including areas of cognitive, social, emotional, and linguistic growth.
  • Iterative – enabling learners to generate, test, and revise hypotheses while interacting with their environment based on data.
  • Joyful – recognising that positive emotions are inherent elements of play.

While it’s easy to read a list like this and nod wisely in recognition of the fact that his sort of thinking has been evident in our educational discourse for some time now, it’s a timely challenge to be reminded of just how important these things are – particularly in light of our experiences through the COVID-19 pandemic.

My key pondering is if, as the Brookings team assert, this approach is underpinned by good evidence from the science of learning, then how might we take it more seriously and seek to apply these attributes in our programme design and the way our educational settings operate? If these are indeed the conditions under which learners learn best, then how might we do more of it and make our settings ‘joyful’ places to be, where playful learning abounds and student engagement and equity are indeed at the centre of our thinking?

If you were to use the list of attributes above as a ‘checklist’ in our your setting, inviting feedback from our learners in the process, how do you think you’d rate?

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