Maybe it is because the heaps of snow are, at long last, melting from my back yard, but thoughts about play and playfulness seem all around. I had just written the last blog post citing Hilary Conklin’s commentary on the value of play in middle school, when I ran across Sarah M. Fine’s “Slow Revolution” essay, calling for an examination of intellectual playfulness in high school classrooms. It is a wonderful—though profoundly disturbing—piece of work
Like Conklin, Fine had set out to study something else. She was engaged in a study of “ambitious” learning—things many teachers might refer to as occurring at the higher levels various taxonomies, and engaging students in complex questions. She was studying only schools that aimed for such lofty curricular goals, yet the landscape was desolate. Fine describes a “grim reality” in which students (at best) sat quietly and listened to teachers present material for students to memorize, or minimally apply. It is the scenario educators have tried to rise above for decades. And yet, thanks in large part to high stakes assessments, here we are, once again.
The general grimness of the educational landscape made Fine react with delight and frustration when she encountered the rare exceptions—places in which rigor and joy coexisted. In one example,
Students described their teachers as allies, not as nemeses or task masters. . . . Most notably, the word boring was markedly absent from their descriptions of classroom tasks. “The work is interesting because we work on stuff that had purpose,” [one student told Fine], Even writing papers is more fun.” (p. 3)
There’s that word “fun” again. Where did we get the idea that fun is a bad—or time wasting—thing? Puritan heritage I suppose, but if so, a heritage that is profoundly dysfunctional. Because the truth is, nothing we can do can force anyone (to say nothing of an adolescent) to truly intellectually engage with anything, or to work as hard as is necessary for real innovations or accomplishments. They have to want to be part of the game.
Fine proposes three dimensions to secondary instruction that could be described as playful—all very familiar to those of use who think about creativity. She suggests tasks that are open-ended, absorbing, and entail intellectual risk taking. I want to think more about how these might provide structure for those trying to bring secondary curriculum to life. As much as students need content, they need to understand what it feels like to revel in learning, or to find delight in communicating something they care about. Playfulness needs to be part of the process. And joy. Really.
Fine, S., M. (2014). “A slow revolution” Toward a theory of intellectual playfulness in high school classrooms. Harvard Educational Review, 84, 1, 1-23.