Play-Based Educators Are In The Business Of Learning, Not Teaching



As play-based educators, we are in the business of learning. Many of us interpret that to mean "teaching," but the longer I've been in this profession, the more I've distanced myself from that because I've found that it very often gets in the way of the learning.

Oh sure, if I choose the subject (or have a subject determined for me by a pre-packaged curriculum) then lecture, explain, demonstrate, and assign in just the right mixture, I can compel this or that child to repeat what I consider to be the correct answers on a test, and this is a kind of learning, I suppose. It is learning that relies on lower level cognitive processes like repetition, memorization, and pleasing an authority figure. And because I've imposed correct answers and test scores on the children as objectives, most of this learning will be of the short-term variety, because it is unconnected to the child's life outside the confines of school. Of course, a good teacher will strive to make the subject matter relevant to this or that child by causing them to somehow experience it, but because that manufactured experience is an abstraction from life (as is most of what we call school), it's a hit or miss (mostly miss) process.

In this model, we see the active adults choosing, compelling, imposing, and causing, while the child is seen as a passive receptacle.

This approach is, to my mind, completely backwards. As an educator, I've found that if I focus on the actual thinking, creating, and understanding, when the child is the active one, the one doing the choosing, compelling, imposing, and causing, we find ourselves in an environment in which higher level learning can take place.

This is the kind of learning that involves the actual thinking, which, as Eleanor Duckworth points out, is indistinguishable from learning. "The development of intelligence is a matter of having wonderful ideas." Rarely does a wonderful idea emerge from "teaching," except perhaps as an act of rebellion, because wonderful ideas are the product of higher level thinking.

And thinking is the process of trying to understand.

When we observe children at play, which is to say choosing their own course of "study," we are witnessing  self-motivated learners engaged in thinking about relevant subject matter. We see that thinking is not merely a process of the brain, but rather one that is so fully engaging that it involves the entire body. There is no need for adults to "get" the kids to do things or to "impose" or "cause" things to happen, but rather to be alongside the child, observing, researching, and supporting them, minimally. An educator, as opposed to a teacher, trusts the child's natural instinct to think and understand, not what the adult wants them to know, but whatever is relevant to that child.

But then they will only learn what they want to learn. What about all the stuff that they need to learn? 

Setting aside the hubris in this question, I would assert that a child who has been free to think, to understand, and to pursue their own answers to their own questions, will be well-equipped to learn those things when and if the need actually arises. In other words, when this or that trivia becomes relevant, when not knowing stands in the way of knowing, the child will have the self-motivation and skills to more readily learn it.

Literacy, the Holy Grail of the adult-directed model of learning, is a classic example of this. Increasingly, we are "teaching" two-year-olds how to read. Then we teach them when they are three, then four, then five, then six, then seven when, for many of them, they finally learn it. The self-directed model requires that we wait until the child themself recognizes that reading is relevant to them, which for most kids is around seven or eight years old (although it obviously varies by child). In other words, all that "teaching" was, at best, a waste of time (although research shows that children who receive formal literacy in preschool tend to become teenagers who read less for pleasure and with lower comprehension). When the child is the active agent in the learning, self-motivation and actual understanding make reading a task of a few months rather than years. 

But what if they think "wrong" thoughts? What if they are "teaching" themselves things that are not true?

Play-based educators know that learning is not about correct answers, but rather the thinking, which is indistinguishable from learning. When we are free to think our own thoughts, to follow our own curiosity, and to strive to understand, we will, like any scientist, develop theories that we must test, through our self-selected activities. This might involve living with a "wrong answer" for a long time before it becomes relevant to reassess.

Generations ago the right answer to understanding a thunderstorm was that all that rumbling was the sound of superhuman gods at battle. Now, most of us reduce these storms to concepts like friction, sparks, vacuums, and imagined banks of burly air smashing together to make the noises. Neither of these conceptions are, in fact, the correct answer to what is a thunderstorm. In both cases, we're thinking in metaphors that feel familiar, which is to say, that make us feel as if we understand.

Educators know that correct answers are a moving target, changing as our metaphors change, and those metaphors are the product of thinking, often with our whole bodies . . . Which is indistinguishable from learning.

And play-based educators are in the business of learning, not teaching. 

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