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Learning at its Best

Why Not Just Do It?

Adults at play as builders

Will Wright, creator of SIM gaming, said in an interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson that “play and storytelling were the educational technologies” for generations of humans. Wright and Tyson “riffed” on the science of video gaming, early games, storytelling and play, an area of study known as “ludology.” Their perspectives caught my attention.

This weekend I had the chance to re-frame my own thinking about the power of these early “low risk” learning technologies through a recent conversation with an architect invested in social constructivism and a reminiscent moment about an early childhood teacher who I once spent a lot of time observing.

I recently sat down with Alex Gilliam, @publicworkshop, and chatted about the possibilities of a rural project that takes advantage of his expertise and leadership with what he’s come to call Tiny WPA projects. Alex – architect, designer, and student of how people learn – has worked with teenagers, young adults, and volunteers in several urban communities from NYC’s the Bronx to Flint, Michigan. He’s developed and sustained a deep appreciation for the capability of young people to come together as creators and makers as they build structures that delight and enchant people in often neglected urban neighborhoods. In our most recent conversation with a middle school principal he used a verb that caught my attention as we talked – stitch. As teens engage with him to hack an urban area, they become crowd-sourced designers, engineers, and builders.

They rapid prototype the competencies needed to design and complete a project and become team members, tool users, and idea makers. When the project’s finished, they stop, pause, and realize what they’ve created goes far beyond the project. They’ve stitched together a community – bringing children, adolescents, parents, teens, and volunteers into a real inter-generational learning experience that’s representative of those early education technologies referenced by Will Wright.

Alex has walked into the concept of public workshop and Tiny WPA as tools for learning through community co-construction of learning through structural design and build. I suspect this ancient process also offers today’s schools a way of thinking about how to re-imagine making as core to their learning spaces. Why? Kids like to make things through their play and storytelling. I often noticed through observations and interactions of learners in school that when given the opportunity, children weave ideas into stories, structures, and play as they learn. In doing so, they construct language, mathematical thinking, scientific principles, and social skills together as a community.

play, bridge design, and learning about bending moment

Wise teachers know how to observe the cycles within a learning culture. They learn over time when to intervene and when to let learning unfold. They don’t see mistakes as a failing grade but as an opportunity for teachers and learners alike to practice experimentation, reflective processing, and abstract reasoning. They don’t spend time criticizing and judging children but rather assessing how they as teachers can provide the scaffolding needed to evolve and advance learning, as well as a love for engaging in it. They understand that different pathways offer different children entry points into learning and they define their job as not interfering with, but rather supporting the process.

I remember a group of five-year-olds who almost two decades ago created and became immersed in a fantasy world they called “Rose Kitties.”

Some might have called what they were doing, inconsequential or silly, but I noticed their teacher watch them build in the block area, make posters in the writing work shop, act out stories on the playground, and dress up in housekeeping. She didn’t have to stop them to attend to test-driven standards, but rather supported and advanced their work to make sense of story, structure, and community through play. She spent a lot of time noticing what the children were doing and why. She waited on the children to move past their “Rose Kitties” phase, using her own storytelling and read alouds of fantasy picture books to pull them farther along the pathway to literacy while using their own creativity as the fuel for further learning. I wondered as I watched this teacher use real language with five-year-olds – no dumbed down directions or “little people” talk. There was no drilling of alphabet or decontextualized worksheets to practice phonemic awareness.

Later, she said to me that children love words, words of different sizes, shapes, colors, sounds, and feel. She encouraged them to label what they made with as descriptive language as possible – regardless of the spelling. She brought jazz into the class during workshop time. She taught the children how to eat with chopsticks and to appreciate Shel Silverstein. And, when the year was over, the children walked out of her room with a love of learning and deepened knowledge not limited by a list of standardized objectives for five-year-olds. In many ways her class represented tiny WPAers at work to design, create, make and build learning in their neighborhood. They stitched together their community and they hacked the curricula along with the teacher.

To a great extent, the technologies of play and storytelling have been subtracted from today’s learning experiences and pedagogy of teaching. This parallels a loss of creativity we educators and others now spend time admiring as a problem of today’s schools.  We all know that making as we used to label it – from block building and sand tables to shop class and home economics – has mostly been lost from a school curricula now packed with reductionist test preparation that begins in the classrooms of our four- and five-year-olds and doesn’t end until teens drop out or graduate. But, there is always hope.

Now there’s a revival through the maker and connected learning movements occurring in communities across the United States. Educators and parents learning outside of school from maker-teachers such as Alex Gilliam (@publicworkshop) are asking the question: why don’t we get back to play, storytelling, and making as key educational technologies in our schools?

We need children who grow up to be adults who create and make. It’s what keeps our homes functioning, our workforce employed, and people interested in learning new things. How children learn matters. Community matters. It’s why I encourage creation of maker spaces and making activities in the corners of classrooms, libraries, cafeterias and halls across America. If you’re not in the position to take a giant step today, take a tiny step tomorrow.

Why not just do it?

A Few Play, Storytelling and Maker Resources:

Public Workshop

Maker Ed org

Institute of Play

World Maker Faire /New York Hall of Science

Maker Spaces in Libraries

DML Research Hub: Play

Why Tell Stories?

Tech Shop

About pamelamoran

Executive Director of the Virginia School Consortium for Learning: We create paths to contemporary learning by supporting participants from member divisions to engage in critical inquiry to develop curriculum, assessment, and Instruction consistent with a focus on supporting learners to acquire competencies of critical thinking, communication, citizenship, collaboration, and creativity.


3 thoughts on “Why Not Just Do It?

  1. Pam, as someone who’s working a lot with superintendents right now, how could play and storytelling transform the work of busy, over-stressed school administrators? Do you have a story to tell about this from your own practice? I’m intrigued.

    Posted by Kirsten | November 26, 2012, 8:42 am
    • Great question, Kirsten-

      I actually use storytelling all the time … see it as key strategy when teaching which I think we all do all the time…. I actually tell historical stories of our work alot to remind us all that education work is like a great television drama – not a sitcom that begins and ends each week as if the prior episode had never occurred ….. social stories, historical stories, observation stories — and whenever possible linked to video clips or images that tie together language to visual story. I think metaphors work to help process the “why” of what we do. We educators spend a lot of time on the “how” but not the why of what we do. I also see linked stories as key – how do we not just tell stories but listen to others’ stories, encourage others to share their stories, and connect our stories so that we sense make together. It works with children and teens and it was the first educational “technology” – people around the campfire sharing oral history, mythologies, metaphors, and daily occurances so that children and adults would learn together. In some ways, contemporary technologies are restoring the art of storytelling and turning those who use social media into the Seanchas of the current day.

      Posted by pamelamoran | November 26, 2012, 9:02 am
  2. A couple of ideas that I think – from my own experience – would help us just do this:

    • Explicit administrative and school board support for this work in place of traditional instruction/test prep. Cover for this work and a thorough unpacking of the realities of what can happen to test scores as classrooms shift gears into this kind of work
    • Intra-community Fulbrights between classrooms where this work is just beginning and classrooms/community programming where this work is well-developed and on-going.
    • Executive decisions to schedule this work differently and to group adults and students ready to model this work in larger settings as a kind of fishbowl capable of both outreach and supportive self-care.

    What else would help teachers and students take such important, tiny steps together tomorrow?

    With thanks,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | November 29, 2012, 8:25 pm

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