Progressive Education Is Not Just Child’s Play by Garn Author Steve Nelson

By Steve Nelson | View original article on Huffington Post (republished with permission) | Steve Nelson, is the author of First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk (Garn Press) | Paperback book on sale on Amazon. 20% off, $14.35 and contributing author to United We Stand, available on Amazon ($14.95) .

By Steve Nelson

The New York Times published an Op-Ed by Berkeley psychologist Alison Gopnik, a frequent advocate for play-based learning for young children. In recent years there has been a refreshing re-focus on the importance of play, exploration and discovery in early childhood education.

Gopnik cited her own and others’ research that makes the case unequivocally. Not only is play important; it must be relatively unstructured and uninstructed. This unambiguous body of knowledge contradicts much current education policy and practice, wherein early “academic” work is de rigueur.  

If only this understanding would penetrate the Department of Education and the thousands of economists, bureaucrats, politicians and reformers who are pressing children into unnatural, unspeakable and unproductive activities. As is the case in most education policy, enlightened education, including play-based practices, is the stuff of privilege. Poor children, particularly children of color, are seen as problems to solve, not girls and boys to love, so we press them into tedious settings where mechanistic systems push, prod, and process so that they might become functional contributors to the economy. This is nonsense because discovery and play-based learning will also develop the best employees, if that is one’s sadly limited aspiration for education.

While not dismissing or diminishing Gopnik’s work (or the work of hundreds more contemporary theorists, psychologists and neurobiologists) this is not news.

Johann Pestalozzi wrote eloquently and persuasively of the importance of play in the 18th century. Friedrich Frobel added to the body of knowledge and began the first kindergartens, based on the same principles.   Maria Montessori, Loris Malaguzzi (founder of schools in Reggio Emilia), Rudolph Steiner and many other early progressive educators based their schools on precisely the same understandings that Gopnik and others are now articulating. Contemporary science is merely adding evidence to a mountain of existing experience.

Many wonderful teachers and educational leaders have been living with this head-shaking frustration for years.   Despite the incontestable evidence of what is best for young children, our society continues to tolerate – often celebrate – schools and educational methods that directly contradict several hundred years of evolving knowledge. At least among sensible educators, the importance of play and discovery for young children is a consensus belief, despite policies that often make it hard to teach that way.  

Perhaps more frustrating is the state of education for older children and young adults in America.  

Even many who support an active, discovery-based, constructionist view of learning for young children, seem to believe that children change sometime in the elementary school years and it’s time to “get serious.” Curriculum, standards, protocols and rubrics; homework and multiplication tables; order and consistency. We must assess and measure, punish and reward.

Why? Because we are caught in a circular system where efficacy must be proven. The results gained from open-ended discovery and the construction of knowledge are harder to measure on standardized scales or through controlled experimentation.

There is a research industry devoted to measuring outcomes, defining educational “dosages” (isn’t that a lovely way to look at learning?), and tweaking instruction so as to create “statistically significant” changes in insignificant micro-units of learning. I’ve read dozens of arcane, sophisticated-sounding research papers purporting to prove the efficacy of “interventions” based on intense scrutiny of inputs and outputs.  

I just finished writing a book, but when my book-writing energy is restored I hope to write another one dismantling, piece by piece, the deep flaws implicit in this way of looking at children. The problem with nearly all education research is that it is confined to a zero sum analysis of a limited realm of learning with no accounting for the wider consequences of the traditional instructional practices being examined. I believe that the entire field of evidence-based practices is making education worse throughout America’s schools.

For example, the so-called evidence-based practices that may improve reading or mathematical performance don’t occur in a vacuum. These practices suppress intrinsic motivation and deprive children of physical activity and the arts.   They ignore the unambiguous power of multi-sensory environments and the importance of imagination. They are not mindful of different intelligences. They ignore the highly individual developmental trajectory of each child. They stifle creativity in service of getting the “right” responses. These practices may improve test scores but they also inhibit fluid intelligence, which is ultimately of much greater value than the modest and temporary gains in so-called academic skills.

Gopnik wrote, “ . . . new studies of “active learning” show that when children play with toys they are acting a lot like scientists doing experiments. Preschoolers prefer to play with the toys that will teach them the most, and they play with those toys in just the way that will give them the most information about how the world works.”

What precisely changes at some arbitrary point? Why do we shift from learning to instruction, from curiosity to standards, from construction of knowledge to receipt of information? Yes, preschoolers “prefer to play with the toys that will teach them the most and play with those toys in just the way that will give them the most information about how the world works.”

Human brains don’t radically change in form and function as we age. Students from cradle to grave will explore the world through those things that will teach them the most and in just the way that will give them the most information about how the world works.   If we just let them.

The entire educational edifice in America is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of human development and learning. The surge of enthusiasm for more enlightened early childhood education is necessary, but insufficient.   All people, through school years and beyond, deserve and would benefit from the same freedom to use imagination, curiosity and their own interests so that they might construct knowledge, develop understanding, and be truly educated.

Steve Nelson, is the author of First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk (Garn Press) | Paperback book on sale on Amazon. 20% off, $14.35 and contributing author to United We Stand, available on Amazon ($14.95).

Related: Garn Press Education Books

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