Mastery, risk-taking and play

This post is a culmination of a week or so of talking about play-based education.  If that’s its official term for it?  I don’t know.  I must declare my rookie status in this field, which means you should feel really free to jump into the comment s section below and school me on what I’ve missed!

Thanks to @malynmawby, @vormamim, @biancah80,  and @benpaddlejones for their ideas via twitter and email. You can read more about @malynmawby ‘s experiences with play-based learning here, here and here.

Play-based Learning: Another PBL?

My current interest in project-based learning has also put me in contact with the terms challenge-based learning and problem-based learning.

Despite these terms being used fairly liberally (along with inquiry-based learning), I don’t seem to often come across material that explores the differences or similarities between these terms.  I mean, I’m sure we could all take guesses about it, based on what we know about the words chosen; what is a project? what is a challenge? a problem? an inquiry?

Well, while you’re pondering it all, here is some more information to add to the learning theory soup.

States of Play

An overview of the elements of play presented by the National Institute for Play (based in California) outlines seven “patterns of play”:

  1. attunement play
  2. body play and movement
  3. object play
  4. social play (including ‘rough and tumble’ play and ‘celabratory’ play)
  5. imaginative and pretend play
  6. storytelling-narrative play
  7. transformative-integrative and creative play

And here is a really excellent TED Talk by Stewart Brown, who argues the physiological importance of play:

After listening to Stewart’s TED talk, the idea that I keep coming back to is this:

If the purpose is more important than the act of doing it, it’s probably not play. (Stewart Brown, TED Talk 2008, at ~6 mins)

Which begs the question: by trying to pin down a definition of ‘play-based learning’ to use in my curriculum theorising, am I contributing to WRECKING IT?

Play in the curriculum

In my quest for answers I came across some interesting material relating to motivation and mastery.

This puts me back into territory that is a little bit psych-y, and I know such approaches don’t always sit well with post-structuralist curriculum types like myself. But I resist that ;)

Writer and researcher Katherine Cushman lead a Practice Project for the non-profit group ‘What Kids Can Do’ (http://firesinthemind.org/about/) asking the question ‘what do kids already know about and do well?’.

When adults openly explore our genuine questions about getting to mastery—and include young people’s knowledge and experiences in that exploration—we model the expert’s habit of taking intellectual and creative risks. We demonstrate that we, too, always have things we need to understand better, and things we need to practice. We teach kids to approach any lack of understanding as a puzzle: stretching the limits of their competence, continually testing new possibilities and seeing how they work out. As they expand their knowledge and skills, young people, like us, will discover even more challenging puzzles they want to tackle—not just outside school, but as part of it. (K. Cushman, Fires in the Mind p.10)

In light of this, play strikes me as a form of ‘intellectual and creative risk taking’, essential to building the habits of mind and the resilience needed to seek out and tackle new puzzles.

Who is playing?

Concepts about transformative play have been utilised by the Quest Atlantis project, and a lot of my Tweeps are currently going bananas for Minecraft. These are rich sites and communities tapping into discourses about educational play.

However, I rarely hear any critical views about play or games, and I guess that’s what makes me itch to interrogate this field.

The reflexive dilemma

Listening to a talk by Julian Sefton-Green during his recent visit to QUT, I was conscious of the points he made about the field of ‘out of school learning’, which often involves elements of play.

His research has found distinctions between school and out-of-school learning tended to set up binaries that actually maintained the boundaries around ‘official’ curriculum, and other project and play based activities happening outside of schools (the binary of formal and non-formal learning, for example). His review of the literature showed how debate about not-school environments in the UK is often bound up with techno-utopianism and generalisations about the public school system.

In relation to this, he poses the ‘reflexive dilemma’ that we face in thinking about all of this. That is, the more we reflect on learning experiences, the more we formalise them. In our quest to ‘optimise’ all learning experiences, the learning is more carefully arranged and disciplined.

Which brings me right back to that TED talk – by naming ‘play based learning’ and trying to give play an official role in curriculum, do we run the risk of ruining play? Will the act of ‘doing play’ become just another ‘strategy’ for learning?

In short, how can we develop play as a habit of the mind without over thinking it and taking the fun out of the act of play? And, will defining the difference between all of the different PBLs etc help us in this endeavor, or just get in the way by drawing boundaries that don’t need to be there?

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  1. #1 by Dean groom on November 29, 2011 - 3:21 pm

    Stunning post. Let me throw parents at you. They are the first and most consistent teachers in a child’s development. The don’t pre-define learning or label it, but from the outset know that play is essential to trust and discovery. We were once told to put away childish things, but you know what, being a parent is an invite to re-descovering play. What we see happening is that play is no longer ending with parents handing over play-making to the soccer or swim coach, as we sit passively watching. We can keep playing just one more level. It’s purely a social-convention that inhibits parents admitting game play in video games is just as effective at extending our relationship with our kids well past the Lego table or building blocks. I don’t regret or shy away for one second for doing this. Last week I was away from my kids, but played everyday with them in minecraft. Learning labels are what they are, they help organisations make charts and diagrams. I see no reason that play needs to work harder to be justified, and even inside games, you’ll find how increadibly behavioral that can be, as you grind though seemingly repetitive tasks. This in another form would be called ‘boring’, but at least in games, there is the nexus between game-play, game-rules and meta-rules that in a good game ensure play-trust is never broken, and that a sense of mastery and accomishement is seconds away. Well maybe not Skyrim.

    Let’s just say passive play is called spectating, and every spectator of sport I suspect has at some pointed played it, and once imagined themselves out there. Imagine if there was no play in a childs life – would it make then happier, smarter or more productive? What kind of parent would call that a strategy.

  2. #2 by kmcg2375 on November 29, 2011 - 4:45 pm

    Thanks for this insight Dean. I am such an admirer of your work, and get a bit nervous about interrogating games and play when I know such powerful things ARE happening in this field.

    It’s funny. I don’t have kids atm, but I can’t imagine bringing any up in a house of no play. I wonder, is this a function of being a gamer? Not a hard core gamer, by any means, but I think I was in Year 6 when our family got its first game console, a Sega Mega Drive (Alex Kidd in Miracle World FTW!) and I was a teenager when the Internet spread into households. I suspect I carry around some assumptions about the ‘common sense’ of play.

    It seems there is an important sociological issue here – what time and capacity do different kinds of parents have to get involved in play? While we can work to change the culture of play, im keen to find ways of making sure these practices are able to be known about and adopted by all. That’s probably why I always drag this back to official curriculum, even though that isn’t typically seem as a domain for parent involvement.

    Your example about playing Minecraft with your kids resonated with me. I use multiplayer games in Call of Duty to keep in touch with my brother, and Words with Friends to keep contact with other family and friends, ones that that I see everyday as well as ones I live far away from. So the ‘social glue’ provided by game play is something I think parents and teachers should certainly be made more aware of. But perhaps i need not worry, as this is actually happening via socially networked sharing of experience?

  3. #3 by @malynmawby on December 3, 2011 - 9:50 pm

    I wouldn’t normally make the association between play and projects (find my definition of project here).

    For projects to succeed, they do need to be managed. And this sense of ‘controlling’ various aspects of the project is perhaps the think that differentiates projects from play the most. Even for ‘purposeful play’, I think the play in there suggest much less rigidity, if at all, compared to a well-run project.

    Even in a student-centred PBL scenario, there is no loss of control; the teacher merely conceded it to the student. For this student to succeed, he/she has to manage the project.

    Playing can involve projects and vice versa, too.

    So what of play in the curriculum? I believe it has its place but should all learning be play? Can’t work be fun as well? And what some may deem as hard work may be play for others.

    Does this make any sense at all?

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