Monday, July 18, 2011

That's What I Wish For Schools

I hear it a lot, I've said it myself, and I hope there's not a parent who doesn't wish it for her child. Our great hope for ourselves and our loved ones is that we do something we love, that word "do" referring to the vocation or calling or role we play in life. It can't all be joy and sunshine, of course, but we want that activity upon which we spend the best part of our time and energy to be a thing we are motivated to do from the depths of our souls. Perhaps it's too much to hope that we get to say, as comedian Jerry Seinfeld does, "I've never had a job," but it's something like that: to at the end of our days be able to know that we've spent our time on the planet engaged fully in our passions.

This is not some new-fangled, secrets-to-success-and-happiness kind of idea. It was Confucius (551-479 BC) who is supposed to have said, "Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life." And it was probably not original to him. Humans have always had access to the knowledge that work is not the opposite of play: work is the absence of play.

If you ask Bill Gates, Arnie Duncan, or any of the other self-appointed education reformers out there about this, I'm sure they would agree. If you ask Alfie Kohn or Sir Ken Robinson, or any of the other self-appointed progressive education advocates out there about this, I'm confident they'd agree as well. So, if everyone has the same goal, ask yourself then, which approach is most likely to lead to children who understand this? Can an educational model that calls for larger classes, more testing, and increased standardization ever hope to help children find that passion, let alone live it? Or does it seem more likely that a play-based, experiential model will get us there? I mean, could the choice be any more of a no-brainer? One approach is based on the efficiencies of the factory; the other upon the tradition of education that predates Socrates and runs through John Dewey.

No one has ever had a passion for factory work.

The opposite of play isn't work, it is rote. ~Dr. Edward Hallowell

This is why, I believe, there has been such a concentrated, if unconscious, effort to denigrate play over the past couple centuries, to dismiss it as idle and empty, to equate it with waste and laziness. Play is something, we're told, to do with the time that is left over. It's because so much of what our modern world offers up by way of jobs is mundane and repetitious, hollowed out of the opportunity for creativity, exploration or innovation. Most of us won't have the luxury of doing what we love.

But no one reading here aspires for her child to work in one of those jobs, right? I sure don't. So what do we do? Naturally, we expect they will go to college where we expect they will learn specialized skills that will qualify them for jobs that will one day lead, if they keep their noses clean, by the time they are in their 30's or 40's, to the opportunity for creativity, exploration or innovation.

I've finally reached a position of responsibility; now I can afford to be irresponsible. ~Albert Brooks (playing David Howard in Lost In America)

Perhaps I'm exaggerating, but if you take a look at the typical pathway from here to there -- decades of grades and homework and testing and resume-building and rote -- it's incredible to imagine anyone making it through to the life of passion for which all of us hope. Yet, some do, which is to me me a testament to the power and tenacity of play (and teachers willing and able to somehow buck the system).

But what a waste of years, what a long, uncertain, and unnecessarily circuitous route. If the goal is for each of us to do something we love, I say the way to learn to do that is to do it. And that is what a play-based curriculum is all about, giving children the opportunity to choose a job they love, to pursue it with their whole being, to engage meaningfully with the things and people around them; to be supported by adults who encourage and inspire them, who ask questions and make suggestions, and even give the occasional boost up to a level that is just slightly out of reach.

That's what I wish for schools.

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Melissa @ The Chocolate Muffin Tree said...

Great Post! Thank you for your inspiration!

Saya said...

I <3 this...
Great way to start my day of play - reading your blog! Thank you! :)

Juliet Robertson said...

Hi Tom - I'm wondering if you've ever visited the Puget Sound Community School in Seattle. It's for Grade 6 and up but it aims to develop children's passions as a route to achievement. Yes - it's a pity it's a fee paying and not a state school. I'd love to see more diversity within state education everywhere.

Alexis said...

Hey Tom!

Great post although I will admit, I didn't read much of it yet...I got caught up on the first photo....what kind of paint, what are they painting on? I love it!! Can't wait to try this out with my "Little Explorers" next school year!!

I will go back and read the post now - the burning part of my brain has quieted down now that I have asked the questions!!

Thanks and have a great day!

Teacher Tom said...

@Juliet . . . I've never heard of that school. I'll check it out. Thanks.

@Alexis . . . That started as a project where we were kicking balls through tempera paint on a big, plastic tarp, but it turned into a what we wound up calling "Paint Skiiing."

Ms. W said...

Wow! Couldn't have said it better myself. it is refreshing to hear the viewpoint about play being the method for children to discover, hypothesize and learn and if truth be told that is exactly what the proponents of changing our educational system with their reform did when they began their jobs. They played, they hypothesized, they failed, tried again and discovered!

The Ortega's said...

LOVE it. That is what I wish for schools too....and my boys. It does seem to be a "no brainer." As always, thanks for the insight and inspiration.

Holly said...

I am so thankful for you and your blog.

Akemanartist said...

I love reading your posts! I get great ideas to do with my kids, I homeschool and I'd love to do the paint on the plastic tarp thing. We live in an apartment so we better have a way to clean up the outside. Sounds like so much fun.

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