I recently received the following e-mail from a former teaching colleague of mine. “While hanging out at the pool, I have been doing my summer reading requirement and have actually been profoundly moved by the book I am reading and immediately thought of you and wondered if you have read it as well. It is A New Culture of Learning, Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown. It is all about the notion of play as the new way kids learn in the digital world. It is amazingly concise, organized and has tremendous clarity about the importance of play as the best way to learn and how it is happening - cannot be avoided; we will be left behind if we don't embrace it. You probably know all about it but I thought I would mention it in case you had not come across it yet. Plenty of good references within the book to other sources and writers on related topics as well.”
It so happened I’d been reading the book myself and also found it compelling. Though not, strictly speaking, a book about school reform, I think my friend is correct in assessing we will be left behind if we don’t embrace the importance of play in learning.
I find it ironic that a book about the importance of play is required faculty reading. To be fair, this book was an option among several titles faculty were asked to choose from. I can understand a need for some common ground for opening of school year faculty discussions. Still, there is a sense in the assigning that things will fall off the rails, wind up going nowhere, unless someone at or near the top of a hierarchy determines what will be read, maintains some control. It is the element of control that bothers me. It is as if whoever assigned the book never read the book, or never really quite got it.
I’ve sat through some of those return-to school-meetings where everyone has had to read and then sits in small groups to discuss the assigned material. The grousing, lack of engagement, and resistance, are palpable. Of course, in a few days, those same teachers will turn to assigning their students reading. And a few days after that begin to fret over students’ lack of engagement. Does anyone make the connection?
What if the administrator who assigned the reading had instead simply posed a question or two? Set a problem for colleagues to wrestle with. Something like, “What is the role of play in learning at our school? What might it be? What should it be?” Then invited faculty to read, discuss, research, ponder, and play, with the question. Perhaps have the school’s tech people set up an online forum where people could compare notes, mention books and articles they’ve read, YouTube videos (There are some good ones on the topic, including this one by John Seely Brown: http://bit.ly/Vvyed), questions they’ve been asked at a wedding reception, play they’ve engaged in, anything. Create the possibility of a networked discussion throughout the summer (thus avoiding summer learning lag for teachers) that could continue through and beyond the opening of school. Allow people to contribute anonymously if they so chose. Such networked collaboration might even lead to the question, “What do we do about the role of play in our school? “ That question invites the possibility of growth and change. Unless, of course, growth and change wasn’t part of the agenda to begin with. Unless, no one wants to hear too much of what teachers think about how the school might operate. Then, assigning a book makes perfect sense.