It was around twenty years ago. I was conducting a learning inquiry with the principal of a school in the quaint English village of Croydon. As we entered the classroom, we noticed the teacher, a ten-year veteran with pale gray eyes, seemed uncomfortable. “Stop playing around!” she admonished the students before glancing at us, nervously.
Thus began a conversation. What was it about play that was to be admonished? A little investigation revealed the teacher – who I will not name out of professional courtesy – had presented students with a worksheet like some kind of medieval factory owner. The students’ lack of engagement with such a task was understandable. Serving up a worksheet to young people implies that the goal is to simply complete the worksheet and nothing more, perhaps by regurgitating disconnected facts. What could be less motivating? And so, naturally, they had sought to direct their own learning through play – a natural way of learning given to us by nature.
So, the principal and I decided that her school needed to press refresh! We designed a four-year program that we put the teachers through. It was so successful that, in 2009, Ofsted, an esteemed British educational research organisation, declared that the school and all of its teachers were officially outstanding! Their highest rating! What an inspiration!
If we were to design such a program today, we would probably add in some more contemporary reasons for doing the same things such as racism and the upholding of white supremacy. Or maybe something to do with trauma. However, the content would be the same because it would draw on the same basic fundamentals of what psychologists know about the basis of the foundations of learning. As ever, it is essential to hitch our wagon to the deep well of nature and drive forward.
Because learning should be natural. And nature has given us a gift of the learning tool of play!
Was it ever justifiable to force young people to rote learn disconnected facts? The jobs of the future that haven’t been invented yet will involve doing the things computers cannot do – smiling, being empathetic, thinking deeply, going on about creativity and innovation and saying the correct things on social media. If we want our young people to find lucrative forms of employment in the coming post-capitalist society, we need to develop their capacities to do these sorts things and so play is more important than ever!
And this became our plan all of those years ago in Croydon. Instead of worksheets, we developed playsheets. Instead of boxes to fill-in, they contained simple prompts – prompts for play!
Sadly, progress is always a battle against dark forces. In time, the inspirational principal moved on. The new principal, under pressure from the narrow dictats of a neoliberal inspection service under the direction of a right-wing British government, decided to go backwards to the pedagogies of the past. The focus shifted to teaching to the test under the false assumption that narrow standardised tests measure anything that is important about the learning process.
But there is hope. The inspirational principal now heads a university education department.