Education Opinion

All Work, No Play: Why High School Students Should Have Fun

By Jal Mehta — April 14, 2014 6 min read
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By Sarah Fine

The days that I spend at home with my son are not always easy, but they are always full of play. For a ten-month-old, this means an endlessly iterated version of a single task. Take off the sock! Put the sock in the box! Take the sock out of the box! Put the sock in the dog’s mouth! From my perspective the game quickly gets old, but I stick it out by telling myself that this is how babies learn.

And it is. Thanks to Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget and those who extended his work, we know that play, while undertaken for its own sake, is far from purposeless. By experimenting with objects and enacting imaginative stories, children learn how the world works and how to navigate within it. Exploratory play leads them to new understandings; repetitive play supports them in strengthening new skills. Throughout, the improvisational nature of the process infuses it with pleasure. Take the sock out of the dog’s mouth! Put the sock in your mouth!

Even in the age of high-stakes testing, the world of early and elementary education still celebrates play. The education section at Barnes & Nobles is full of volumes that counsel teachers of young children in how to craft play scenarios that promote development and learning. Pedagogical traditions such as the Montessori Method put open-ended exploration at the center of instruction. And in response to an ever-increasing emphasis on basic skill-building and seat time, advocacy associations have sprung up around the shared belief in children’s “right to play.”

Play also has begun to be recognized as an important dimension of professional work. A recent book on play describes how a U.S. engineering firm realized that their new hires, while highly educated, were generally unable to tackle complex problems creatively. The firm’s executives eventually discovered that their most successful employees were those who had spent time tinkering with mechanical equipment as children. They began to incorporate questions about childhood play into interviews and found that they could more easily identify strong candidates. Other companies, most famously Google and IDEO, have woven a playful ethos directly into the design of their work.

It makes sense that taking a playful stance would be associated with deep learning and good work well beyond childhood. Professional life often includes drudgery, but at its best it also involves opportunities for open-ended problem solving. These opportunities require flexible and improvisational thinking, thinking that begins with the question “What would happen if?” and ends with insight and innovation.

But what about adolescents? If playfulness is associated with positive outcomes for both children and adults, shouldn’t the same be true for teenagers? Wouldn’t we assume that secondary instruction should include tasks that ask students to explore, experiment, and improvise?

Intuition would say yes. Research, however, is largely silent on the subject. And, based on four years teaching and another four years observing secondary schools around the country, reality is not much better. High school classrooms tend to be profoundly un-playful places. Students are expected to sit for hours passively receiving academic content, but they are seldom engaged in pleasurably open-ended tasks. Playfulness is seen at best as peripheral - suited for the cafeteria or student lounge - and at worst as deviant. “Stop playing around,” teachers warn their charges when a lesson threatens to go south. I was as guilty of this habit as any.

These realities take their toll. Year after year, The National Survey of High School Student Engagement reveals that almost three-quarters of adolescents are bored and unchallenged by their classes. The country’s lackluster performance on international tests bears out this pattern: on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a large portion of American fifteen-year-olds fall behind on problems that require higher-order thinking.

It’s not hard to sketch an explanation for such bleakness. Blocks are short. Classes are large. A longstanding tradition of “teaching as telling,” as well as the pressures posed by college entrance exams, encourages superficial content coverage. On top of this, high schools reflect the profound discomfort that characterizes our society’s broader stance toward adolescents. This stance sees the teenage years as a time of turbulence and responds by asserting control; in this view, giving teenagers real latitude opens the door for the wrong kind of experimentation. Admittedly, there are some justifications for this perspective, but anyone who has spent extensive time with teenagers knows that alongside their notorious bouts of rule hating they harbor deep curiosities about the worlds they inhabit.

What would happen if high school teachers treated these curiosities as assets? If they took seriously the idea that “playing around,” when designed as part of instruction, could help students to engage with academic content in a way that is both joyful and deep?

Current school reform efforts tend to ignore these questions. They bank instead on a model of discrete skill-building that breaks academic tasks into their smallest components. This model helps teachers to hone in on specific standards with razor-like precision, but it does so in a way that leaves little room for open-endedness. It thus reifies a perspective that is closed to the possibilities offered by playful learning, especially when it comes to adolescents.

But there is hope. In nearly all of the high schools that I have observed, there are teachers striving to integrate playful thinking into their instruction. One of these teachers encourages his English Language Arts students to try out different perspectives and voices in their writing before settling on one. Another has her biology students conduct open-ended experiments with lab materials, allowing them to test hypotheses rather than following a predetermined list of steps. There is even a whole school network where teachers treat “messing around” with ideas - what design firms often call “ideation” - as a central element of their project-based instruction. (See more about this school here.)

This work varies in its particulars, but it is unified by a commitment to giving students opportunities to engage in open-ended work. Such opportunities help them learn to tackle complex problems creatively and flexibly, and to engage deeply while doing so. The classrooms where this kind of learning is happening are joyful and rigorous places to teach and learn - and much more aligned with the real world than most.

Playful learning in adolescence is certainly not the same thing as playful learning in early childhood. The drive to learn biology or rhetorical analysis is not as hardwired as my son’s drive to learn the concept of “in” and “out,” and, as a result, the rewards of experimentation are less easily accessed. But this does not mean that it is any less important. To the contrary, finding ways to support adolescent learners in learning playfully is more critical because it is less intuitive. Doing so will go a long way toward revitalizing our high schools, and toward preparing our students to navigate modern life with pleasure and skill.


Note: This piece was excerpted with permission from Sarah M. Fine, “A Slow Revolution": Toward a Theory of Intellectual Playfulness in High School Classrooms, Harvard Educational Review 84:1 (Spring 2014), pp. 1-23. http://hepg.org/her/abstract/1264

Sarah M. Fine is an advanced doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she collaborates with Jal Mehta on an ethnographic study of secondary schools that are striving to enact deeper learning for all of their students. Prior to starting her doctoral studies, she worked as a teacher, department chair, and instructional coach at an urban charter high school in the District of Columbia, and as a freelance education journalist. Her work has appeared in a diverse array of publications, including the Washington Post, Phi Delta Kappan, and Education Week.

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