Wednesday, August 09, 2017

What Is She Learning?

I was recently asked how I go about explaining to skeptical parents what their child is learning as she plays. It's a common enough question, one I don't need to address very often in my day-to-day life as a teacher, largely because the Woodland Park Cooperative School's reputation as a play-based school precedes it, mostly only attracting families who are seeking what we have to offer -- the opportunity for their children to play with other kids in a safe enough, loving, interesting environment, -- so I don't often have to deal with skeptics. The families of the children I teach tend to view play as a pure good, like love, one that needs no other supporting evidence.

When I see children on the floor, say, building with blocks, I know they are learning, because that's what play is: it's children setting about asking and answering their own questions. Can I stack this block atop that one? Can I make it even higher? Add a roof? Create a room? A zoo? Can I persuade this other person to join me in my vision? Can I join them in theirs? They aren't saying these things aloud or even in their heads, but it's quite clear that when humans play, when we freely choose an activity, that is what we are doing, testing the world, performing experiments, seeking answers to questions we ourselves pose. Play is how our instinct to become educated manifests itself, a concept that is supported by more than a century of research and observation performed by the brightest names in education, from Dewey and Piaget to Montessori and Vygotsky.

But as to the question of "what" children are learning at any given moment, the only one who knows that is person who is playing, and the moment we interrupt them to ask, the moment we test them, we forever change it. It's version of what in physics is called the "observer effect." As humans play, they are unconsciously asking and answering questions as they emerge, pursuing trains of thought, playing with variables, theorizing, making connections between one thing and another. The moment another person steps in with his own questions, that pursuit stops, and when the questioner is in a position of authority, like a teacher or parent, those questions become an imperative. The child must end their learning to explain it, to prove it, to translate it, and to invariably narrow it down to a sentence or two that can only, at best, provide a glimpse of a glimpse of what is actually being learned.

Experienced play-based teachers know this, of course. We tend rather to stand back and instead of testing the children we attempt to closely observe, then make educated guesses about what we imagine that child is learning. When they attempt to stack one block atop another, for instance, we might guess they are learning about balance. When the building falls we might surmise they are learning about gravity. When they invite another child to play with them, we say they are learning important social or emotional skills. But at bottom, it's all just guesswork and imagination, and even if we are correct at one level, we are invariably wrong about much of it, both specifically and through omission.

The great truth is that no one can ever know what another person is learning unless they directly tell us of their own accord: "Guess what I learned? . . ." And this is especially true of young children who likely don't even have the vocabulary or experience to put their insights into words capable of communicating the depth and texture of their moments of Eureka!

I rarely attempt to answer the question of what a child is learning at any given moment, even as I spend much of my day wondering about it. I can say, when asked, "I see her building with blocks," "I see her attempting to balance one atop another," "I see her building falling down," those are the things I know to be true; observable facts. But to suggest that I can know with any precision what she is learning is to ask me to read another person's mind. There is no test capable of answering that and our guesses are simply that, guesses, and they can only get at a very narrow sliver of truth.

But I do know my fellow humans are learning when they play and that has to be enough.

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