Practical Theory - The Origin
The Scholars in CyberEnglish
ToDaY's MeNu - Ted

Monday, September 20, 2010

Learning and Playing

Play has always and will always be an integral part of learning. Socrates played with his scholars minds with his incessant questions. Scientific knowledge has been acquired by "playing" around with some chemical, weight, glass, flame, or string. Discoveries made by each learner, those precious "ahha" moments, so often occur in a moment of play. We often hear someone say prior to some epiphany or revelation, "Let's just play around with this idea for a moment and see what happens."

If we stop and reflect on those important events in the history of man, we will discover many incidents where play was a crucial part of some altering discovery by man for man. Consider how "play" and many of its synonyms are used by us as we undertake something new. The importance of play is crucial in education and the recent elimination of recess in too many elementary schools bothered and concerned me. Who will ever forget the scene in The Shining when we see what Jack Nicholson has been typing: "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." The consequences of that very notion were tragic and horrifying.

One must learn by doing the thing.
For though you think you know it,
you have no certainty until you try.
Sophocles (BC 495-406, Greek Tragic Poet)

Sophocles suggests the idea of play in this important quote. In order for us to know something we must do that thing and play is one of the ways in which we can realize that knowledge. Through play we unlock a truth, an inner essence of an idea, a practice, a theory. John Dewey uses this notion in the last century with his mantra of "learning by doing." O'Neill's Summerhill was a school based on play as was Montessori's experiment that has flourished around the world. Coaches provide a very useful playing field for the mind of our scholars as they use play to teach many important lessons for life.

I have an old and dear friend, Eric Crump, who in the 1990's spoke about and wrote about the importance of play in education for NCTE conferences and publications. Marc Prensky, a former teacher, is another writer who has devoted his time and efforts to research and document the positive effects of play in learning. In the early days in NYC, high schools like Murry Bergtraum; Martin Luther King, Jr; and Washington Irving formed an association that sponsored three ACT (Advancing Technology in Teaching) conferences at NYU. The first conference featured those schools in Manhattan using technology. The third conference included the high schools of the Alternative High School Superintendency. Other schools involved with technology in those days through Teachers College initiatives were Dalton, and Ralph Bunche Middle School. All of these schools not only used technology and play in the classes but also had digital clubhouses and tech squads to help maintain the technology. In some cases games were created in other webpages were created. Creating classes that combined disciplines like math and English were becoming very common as the technology was opening up more avenues with the world to become mentors. Theworld was becoming our playground as many schools engaged in international educational programs.

With a change in educational leadership in NYC, the initiatives begun were suddenly altered as we lost technology departments, lost the superintendencies and the technology wizards were scattered into the wind. Some retired, some left for more friendly technology environs, and some stayed and found a place to replant and to continue the work. Soon we saw schools created for the specific purpose of using technology in the learning process like Information Technology High School. Because of the emphasis on tests, technology was all but forgotten. Slowly almost at a glacial pace do we see technology emerging from its deep hiding place. It will be a while before we return to those halcyon days of the 90's when the NYC schools led the way in technology use in this country. Because of the constant changing of personnel and titles at the NYC Department of Education, technology keeps getting shortchanged as does any sustained educational policy. We still do not have a technology leadership person or committee. There are no technology offices that help teach the ways to use technology, to present at an annual best practices conference, or plan to incorporate technology in our schools. At best it is haphazard as someone comes up with an idea for a school that uses technology and sells the idea to Joel Klein.

During the 90's we were flying thanks to the leadership of President Clinton. But in 2000 we were suddenly thrust into a Dark Ages in education when W became president. Technology and play were closeted in favor of multiple choice tests and more time was used to prepare our suffering scholars for those mind numbing exams. We haven't recovered yet from those dark days. Obama hasn't quite got it yet about the importance of play and technology, though there do seem to be some glimmers of hope with the technology initiative. Race to the Top is countering real growth in education. What we need in our seats of leadership are people like Sophocles, Dewey, ONeill, Montessori not CEO's like Duncan, Klein, and many others who have assumed important educational leadership roles in this country. They just don't get education.

I know I was very excited when Obama had Linda Darling-Hammond as his spokesperson for education during his presidential campaign. I was relieved and hopeful because I thought he got it about education by having this brilliant woman lead the educational discussion for him. Wow was I shocked when I learned after his election he was debating between Arne Duncan and Joel Klein, choosing the former for the position of Secretary of Education. Duncan and the president may play basketball often, but they aren't quite there about the importance of play in education or about the importance of technology in our very competitive educational world.

More articles like the one in the Sunday Magazine section of the September 19, 2010 New York Times are needed. I only wish the author had spent a bit more time on the play in education and the history of technology in NYC schools. This one school in NYC is not new nor unique to NYC. Ten years ago this same publication reported on technology in our schools with more promise for the future than the September 19, 2010 article did. We have a long way to go to get to where we were ten years ago. The reason for this dismal situation has been poor educational leadership and it isn't much better today. In a world where technology is freeing people and liberating economies, I'm still stunned at how poorly technology is incorporated in the public schools when President Obama charges our scholars in his now annual beginning of school speech to do their best and to honor America, but technology is kept from them as a tool to excel. I've said it before and will say it again, technology is the panacea for our educational woes. Technology assists in differentiated instruction, in customizing education, in meeting the needs of our scholars in this brave new world. And what is the answer to this by our educational leaders? The use of filters, the banning of electronics in our schools. These are the very tools others use to excel. This is a tragic irony.

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