There’s a brilliant RSA animate film up now called Changing Educational Paradigms (via Sociological Images). It’s Education Professor Ken Robinson’s speech, illustrated as it goes, and the best 12-minute explanation you’ll find of why we have the educational systems we have – and why we need to make them better.
His core point is that children today “are living in the most intensely stimulating period in the history of the earth” but we’re still educating them according to a model established in the Industrial Revolution. We’re still prizing conformity, standardization and the ‘right’ answer (to be reached at the right time, phrased in the right way and without collaboration of any kind). We need to be helping children to develop their own capacities for flexible thinking, for problem-solving and individuality, but instead we’re using outdated methods to ‘prepare’ them for a future we can’t begin to imagine.
Play is of course the opposite to this kind of educational system. It’s a process, an approach to the world in which learning incidental, multi-faceted, self-led and holistic. With lots of opportunities for physical and material engagement with the world, play is a way in which children can tinker through ideas and possibilities in their own time, without being divided according to age or ability. Play is open-ended and based around experimentation, and while formal education seeks specific answers, play leads to more (and better) questions.
Personally, I loved formal education and kept returning to it long after I could have left. Even now, there are few things that I would rather do than sit down and read. I actually enjoyed doing research, writing papers, talking through ideas. In many ways I was probably an ideal student – eager to please, to ‘get it right’. I did great at standardized tests – and can tell you first hand that most of this is total bunk. The skills that made me good at all of those things all came down to perceiving what the teacher wanted and providing it in a sweet tone of voice – and that’s not a skill that helps at all once you’ve left the classroom. In the mean time, vast numbers of children who couldn’t or refused to perform in that way were alienated from the educational system.