Friday, April 05, 2013

The Opposite Of Play Isn't Work

I don't know if this is true of other preschools, or maybe it's cooperative preschools, but it seems like a lot of former teachers, or teachers on maternity hiatus, enroll their kids in our school. In any given class there are 3 or 4 and it seems that 10-20 percent is a higher number than one would typically expect.

In any event, I'm always thrilled to have that experience and those skills in our community of parent-teachers. Every parent, of course, brings experience and skills to the table, but these former teachers generally arrive understanding from the very start what it takes to make a classroom run, both pedagogically and in terms of the nuts and bolts of preparation and planning. During my first year, one of these former teachers opened her home school supply closet (most of us have a home supply closet) to me. Everything arrived in carefully labeled boxes, categorized thematically. As a new teacher, this was a great gift both in terms of those supplies as well as the insight it gave into how she handled those nuts and bolts. We sat together after school one day as she walked me through each box, describing to me the way she had used the materials. She then earnestly looked me in the eye and said, "I know how much work you're putting into planning out each day. It shows. Write everything down. It will save you so much time in the future."

What great advice. I didn't write anything down.

I like knowing how she did things as a teacher and I think about her advice all the time, especially as I'm digging frantically through our storage room hunting for something. But even though I kept her donations in their carefully labeled boxes for several years thereafter, breaking them out and putting them away, slightly less carefully each time, it never became a part of how I did things. I think efficiency often gets in the way of education.

I remind myself of psychiatrist Edward Hallowell's line: "The opposite of play isn't work, it's rote." And it's that sentiment, I think, that throws up a block for me when it comes to writing things down or organizing materials thematically. I worry that in trying to save myself time, I risk creating a curriculum of rote.

Of course, I know it wouldn't necessarily become rote for the kids as they cycle through those themes, activities, and materials year-after-year. After all, even if we do the same fold-over paintings three years running, and a child experiences it as a 2, 3, and 4-year-old, that would hardly qualify as rote. In fact, older children will often squeal with delight from the memory of having done something before, eagerly launching herself into another session of pendulum painting or the balloon cage or oobleck. The fact that she is a year older, that alone, guarantees that it will be a different experience, even if everything else is the same.

No, I don't write things down, I want to avoid a curriculum of rote, because of me. I'm pretty sure it would drive me slowly crazy to year-after-year work off of the same set of notes, to break out the same carefully labeled boxes, and to present the same thinking opportunities to the kids. It's not just the kids who are at their best when they're playing.

Much of the push back against the corporate education reform movement has centered on professional educators objecting to such things as high stakes standardized testing, the move to privatize our public schools, and the narrowing of the curriculum to focus almost exclusively on math and literacy. And it should, but equally dangerous is the drive to create a national standardized curriculum, such as the Bill Gates financed Common Core Standards initiative. They claim their recommendations are research based, although they start from the assumption that "success" will be measured by high stakes test scores, something Bill Gates has already pre-determined as a goal. It's not a coincidence that all the "research" he funds is based upon how to increase test scores, which is simply not the same thing as education. It's not an accident that Gates has famously asserted that "experience" makes no difference when it comes to teaching outcomes because training kids to pass standardized tests is a skill any first year teacher can be taught to do, whereas actually teaching children how to think, something that no standardized test can measure, is a skill that takes years of classroom experience to develop.

The idea of these reformers, quite frankly, is the de-professionalization of teaching. If they can convince us to buy into their Common Core standards (which the Obama administration has pretty much already endorsed) in which success is measured by test scores, then who needs experienced teachers? Teaching can be made into a sort of assembly line job in which inexperienced, inexpensive test-prep drones can replace experienced teachers. And since teacher's salaries are by far the biggest expense in public education, this will result in the Holy Grail of every dilettante businessman who turns his eye toward "helping" government function better: cost cutting.

Of course, the rote of this job will cause teachers to burn out quickly, but who cares? Seniority is the enemy of economic efficiency and there will always be a new crop of test trainers waiting in the wings to take their places at lower pay.

This is how business people think. In their vision, "education" is a product that needs to be quantified and since standardized tests produce quantifiable data (no matter how dubious in quality or narrow in focus) they cling to it. In their vision, teachers are not skilled professionals, but rather "human resources," to be exploited and cast aside when their day is done. This is how you turn a profit. It's not how you educate citizens.

Genuine teaching simply is not a job that can be done by rote, on a schedule predetermined by bureaucrats, measured by computers, and then filed away in carefully labeled boxes until the next crop of kids comes around on the conveyor belt. Real education is about play, for both students and teachers, and that is the opposite of rote.

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couch8 said...

As always, Teacher Tom you hit the nail right on the head and with your usual power. It is if seasoned teachers are doing something wrong by teaching kids to think. We have to rise up against this factory model of education! I shudder to think what our world will be like in 20 years...
Thank you.....

Jenny Bartlett said...

Teacher Tom,

I wanted to take a moment to add to your ideas about efficiency, "productivity" and the dangers of creating rote curricula in our neo-liberal capitalistic society.

I think that a discussion around the benefits of developing curriculum frameworks rather than prescribed curricula could be useful here. I am a huge proponent of values based frameworks that present a small number of broad-based learning goals and promote project based learning programs that include engagement with open-ended materials as playthings that support inquiry, discovery and problem solving (like berry baskets and plastic straws). With this approach to education the dangers of replacing play with rote becomes far less of a risk because the implementation of such frameworks requires teachers to play, reflect and plan on an ongoing basis. They also require that teachers engage deeply with children as they co-construct knowledge and new understandings alongside each other. To me this is REAL education that not only prevents teacher burn-out (because the job always remains new and interesting) but also prevents "burnout" for children who, enrolled in programs with rote curricula, lose their intrinsic motivation to learn very early on in their educational experiences. Ken Robinson says it very well in one of his TEDtalks when he articulates that we must take an approach to education that is more similar to agriculture than manufacturing. He says (and I am paraphrasing here) that we cannot determine the results of human development so instead we should do our best to create the conditions in which children can flourish.

Oh...and you should see my "school supplies closet"! Not a theme or a label to be found because I think there is real value in playing and re-categorizing materials before I present them to the children in new and exciting ways. This is to my own benefit as well as theirs and while it me be less efficient it certainly saves a great deal of money as I use and reuse materials to teach any number of concepts to children.

Kelly Pfeiffer said...

I was mesmerized by the photos in this post! I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE construction/building projects for kids and have never used the idea of strawberry baskets and straws/sticks. Awesome!