“They’re just playing…”

I was recently listening to a conference session by Katie Sellstrom. During the talk, she made a statement that was so simple, it was brilliant. And needs to be repeated. It paraphrases like this: “Yeah, I mean, okay. Maybe you’re only taking this kind of data because the law requires you to. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t try to make the experience awesome for your students.”

Katie was speaking of in-class assessments and formative data and MTSS structures and stuff like that. The stuff that plays into what a lot of people are lamenting about the modern state of education. Education is currently a world of standards, learning targets, data goals, and accountability. I think those are good things. I think that schools should be expected to do a good job growing every single kid in their school. And if they are doing a good job for every kid, they shouldn’t be offended by being asked to prove it. And if they can’t prove it (either because they aren’t keeping track, or because they aren’t doing a good job growing each kid), we shouldn’t be okay with that.

But, we can’t lose sight of what drives change. The ultimate goal is for all students to achieve at a high level. Not simply to do their best, but to change their best and then do the brand new best. And in order to do that, it should be a foregone conclusion that we need the students to come to school. Everyday. All year. Every year. And not simply because the law makes them.

Side note: the data on the negative effects of dropping out are intense and not in dispute and yet, in light of that, many kids see it as a reasonable choice compared to coming to school. So, it should satisfy NO ONE that we have to require kids by law to come to our classrooms. Why aren’t they flocking to them by choice?

Well, for one thing, when the accountability systems started tightening the screws on everyone, many schools (particularly those who need the most growth) decided it was time to buckle down and get to work. #NoMoreFoolinAround Which is completely understandable, but…

… it seemed to often come with a corresponding reduction in the stuff that makes the classroom environment enjoyable. And the concern over that isn’t simply fluffy “kids-should-be-kids, shouldn’t children be happy?” stuff. Not at all. It’s economic. We need those young people to come to school. Enthusiastically, if possible, so that our systems can help them grow. If the learning environment is regularly uninspiring, then we are going to lose our target audience. And everyone loses if that happens.

So, what to do? Well, perhaps we could consider designing academically-meaningful tasks that were also enjoyable. Tools like Desmos, Formative and EdPuzzle (among others) help a lot in creating flexibility in lesson design that can bring a variety of potentially enjoyable elements into core activities. But beyond that, take a look at the two pictures above at the top of this post.

Here, I’ll show you one more.

JustPlaying3

I visted this school in the midst of their “Oral Language Groups.”

It was collaborative play time. (That doesn’t look as good on a master schedule). But it isn’t “just play time.” First things first, the students were all actively engaged. Secondly, about 90% of them were collaborating actively with a classmate. Third, they weren’t all doing the same thing. The students could pick which group they wanted to be at. And fourth, they all seemed to be really enjoying themselves. Behavior issues were low. Students wanting to brag about their work was high. So, can it be aligned to anything? (This is an important question. All activities should fit in with the broader goals.)

Common Core ELA: 

CCRA.SL.1 – Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasive; CCRA.SL.6 – Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks…

Common Core Math:

SMP3 – Construct viable argument and critique the reasoning of others, SMP5 – Use appropriate tools strategically, SMP6 – Attend to precision

Next Gen Science Practice Standards

Planning and Carrying out investigations, Analyzing and interpreting data, Using mathematical and computational thinking, Constructing explanations and designing solutions

Some of those are a bit of a stretch, but you get the idea. Strategic play time isn’t “just” play time. Just like maker space time isn’t “just” maker space time. These environments can be built to create academically supportive learning experiences.

Notice: “can be built”… it requires strategic design to make it valuable. So, here are some thoughts I have about how to take “just” play time and make it meaningful.

  1. Have a goal for your students during your play/maker time. What type of learning are you trying to get? Do you want the students to collaborate? Communicate? What do you expect that to look like in this type of setting? How do you intend to communicate those expectations to your students?
  2. Don’t let your goal be an excuse for reducing student autonomy. This isn’t a cookbook chemistry lab. This is play time. And many of the growth pieces that you are hoping for with your students are cut out when you start micromanaging the play. Skenazy and Haidt put it this way: “Gray’s main body of research is on the importance of free play, and he stresses that it has little in common with the “play” we give kids today. In organized activities—Little League, for example—adults run the show. It’s only when the grown-ups aren’t around that the kids get to take over. Play is training for adulthood. In free play, ideally with kids of mixed ages, the children decide what to do and how to do it. That’s teamwork, literally. The little kids desperately want to be like the bigger kids, so instead of bawling when they strike out during a sandlot baseball game, they work hard to hold themselves together. This is the foundation of maturity.”
  3. Take data during the play time. The students are playing. You are not. Your job is to figure out if this thing is working toward your goal. So, decide what data you are going to take. Take it. And monitor their progress. Remember, data isn’t always quantitative.
  4. Have the students reflect a bit. Having a bit off a “show-off something cool” time will give the groups a chance to describe to the class what they made, tell a story about it, and gather ideas for next time while listening to the others.
  5. Be reasonable about how much time you have to devote to play/maker time. It’s possible that given the “have-to’s” of your situation, you can only make this work out once per week. That’s okay. Do the best you can. But please, please… whatever you do… please. Don’t turn this into a reward for learning fast. Planning these in as a reward for behaving and passing assessments sends the exact wrong message and sends that message to the group of students most likely to benefit from the play/maker time. (The message: You struggle in school, so you don’t get to have fun. Stop struggling, then we’ll let you have fun.)

Rushton Hurley says “it isn’t our job to entertain the kids, but if we do our jobs in an entertaining way, then they are much more likely to come along for the ride.” I endorse that message, because them coming along for the ride is exactly what we need them to do. Remember, if we are going to grow them, we need them to be in school. Everyday. All year. Every year.

Let’s start thinking about creating the kinds of environments where a young person would voluntarily do that.

Learning from Playing Around

These past two weeks have been an awesome time of learning for the students we’ve been working with, but I’ve also done a bit of learning myself.

I’d like to have my students love math and science and naturally be interested in it. But they’re kids. They would prefer to play. People get the most out of that which they put the most in to. If given the chance, students will put a ton into playing around.

These past two weeks I’ve been working with upper elementary-aged students. I normally teach high school students. I’m not sure if the age difference changes anything. The stuff they want to play with might be different, but not the desire to play.

And after 7 years of teaching math, there’s something appealing about a situation where students will be voluntary and enthusiastic participants.

Play Science 1

I have just spent two weeks watching students play with two activities. The first was an activity called “Table Timers” where they were challenged to design and construct an apparatus on a table top that reliably moved a marble down an inclined table in ten seconds. Second, The Helium Balloon Problem challenges students to keep a helium balloon rising, but to have it travel as slowly as possible upward. Not every group worked well and not every group achieved these goals, but the engagement level has been high. I suspect this is because they we allowed to play.

Here’s what caught my attention the most: In the midst of their play, the students demonstrated some authentic problem-solving techniques. They had to identify the major challenges to their goal, which they often did. They had to brainstorm possible ways to overcome the challenges, which usually took the form of raking through a tub of blocks or looking through the supply table. They discerned which seemed like the most realistic and then test. Following a test, they discussed what happened, why, and revised. And the students were often quite excited when they got the right answer (knowing themselves that it was right and not relying on me to tell them).

That’s a pretty good learning model. That’s something that I have a hard time getting my students to do with book work.

Play Science 2

So, the sharing, the idea-making, the consensus-building, the authentic assessment are all good things. Obviously I am not simply advocating letting the students play around all day. But perhaps by using play, we can improve engagement and the students seem to more naturally fall into a more authentic problem-solving mindset. When I consider helping them draw out the learning, some thoughts come to mind.

First, it seems like during the whole process of exploration, design, construction, testing, revising, and demonstrating, there needs to be an abundance of contents-specific vocabulary. The marble didn’t “bonk into that block.” That block “applied a force” to the marble. Students don’t “figure out how big the shape is.” The “find the area” or “circumference” or “volume.”

Second, students don’t seem naturally inclined to take data or to keep records. In the past two weeks, it seems that students are avid experimenters and do a pretty good job of verbally analyzing the problems if the plan didn’t work. Practically NONE of them documented anything on paper. No sketches, no data, no records of updates. This is an important part of the problem-solving process that would have to be established as a norm.

Third, the activities have to be tiered. Video games are great at this. The entry point tends to be quite low. The first couple of levels are pretty manageable and then the intensity and difficulty pick up. People get locked into video games through that model and people get unlocked quite quickly once the game has been beaten. Both Table Timers and The Helium Balloon Problem worked with this model. Then entry point was low for both activities and it was easy enough to begin to approach the goal, but perfecting the design and executing the plan took much more care. Then, once they hit ten seconds, we’d challenge them to add five seconds to their timer.

Fourth, I think that the groups need to be expected to summarize and present their work to each other and to field questions from the class. Class norms should allow for questioning of each other’s work and students can learn a lot about their own design, but also about the content when they know that they are going to have questions coming from their peers. Also, it would seem like this would encourage more thoughtful designs, too. Besides this, idea sharing gives the students an opportunity to look at other designs, integrate specific vocabulary into more regular use, and get the students comfortable with collaborating.

 

Play Science 3

I don’t think that playing around is the answer to everything, but I know that in my own experiences, it seems to be the forgotten learning model and if I’ve learned anything these past two weeks, it’s that an environment that produces enthusiastic student participation shouldn’t be ignored.