Monday, February 7, 2011

We play, we learn!

(photo, courtesy of Lisa Galley, NJEA)

NPR just did a great story on lessons we can learn from the education system in Finland.

Samuel E. Abrams, an educational scholar, observed students in Finland at recess in the freezing weather.

"The children must play," was the principal's response when Abrams wondered if it was a bit too nippy. "The children can't learn if they don't play." (

Let's stop and think about what happens in play for a moment.

In play, we are engaged. We may sweat when we run around or concentrate when we create different "play" worlds to roam in.

We collaborate with others - "You are the Mom and you are the Aunt. You're angry right now because I won't eat my cereal."

We act out "what if?" scenarios. We visualize our future and dare to articulate our dreams.

"Hey, everyone, I'm the king of the mountain and nobody can beat me!"

We test out being in love.

"We are married and you love me a whole lot!"

Play's lessons run deep and we miss them when we've stopped playing. We believe that the loss of play is as natural and expected as Peter Pan's passage to adulthood.

But the Finns provide their students with a balanced curricuum with "far more recess than their U.S. counterparts - 75 minutes a day." (

75 minutes a day!

Here, we frequently search for lots of ways to minimize recreational time for our students. We structure them so much and then wonder why we can't easily climb up Bloom's Taxonomy with them, to the creative and abstract thinking zone.

The Finns "mandate lots of arts and crafts, more learn by doing, rigoruos standards for teacher certification, higher teacher pay and attractive working conditions." (

Teachers have to succeed at getting Masters degrees and lots of people aren't accepted to these rigorous educational programs. People want to be teachers because their work is valued, meaningful and achieves results. Teachers are well paid, school administrators are cultivated from teacher talent and class sizes are capped.

This way students can spend more time on their labs and hands-on activities in an meaningful way.

For me, the best thing about what these tests show us is that an approach, which we seem to be drasticly veering away from, turns out to work the best. We are trying to more tightly manage schools, micromanage administrators and teachers and work out every second of a students' day!

Shouldn't we be looking at how the opposite might help people perform at a higher and deeper level? Perhaps giving students more enriched freedom (guided and filled with resources) would increase achievement.

The Finns have not embraced standardized testing because they say it takes away too much time from the work they are doing in the classroom and causes too much stress. Teachers create their own lessons, using the national curriculum as a guide.

Some people discard these findings and say that Finland's success comes from its homogeneity. How could we in the U.S.A., with our open, public education system, ever hope for similar results?

Abrams points us to Norway, whose results are similar to the USA's. Norway is also homogeneous, but Norway's educational reform involved lots of standardization, larger class sizes and resultant trouble keeping teachers in the classroom.

Sound familiar?

Maybe we need to take a breath and look around at what we have always instinctively known about children and learning. We might also want to think about whether we would want to be part of the classrooms we are envisioning for our children.

And maybe, we might all need to think more about play and its role in our students' lives.


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