The following is a critique of our tendency to look for structural and technical processes to change what is ultimately a relational enterprise. How kids play on the playground, how a teacher interacts with the children, how we relate to “neck up” learners and “neck down” doers shape the process.
Over the last week or two when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” and Bill Gates and D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee were on Oprah, I have been reading Deborah Meier, Brenda Engel, and Beth Taylor’s wonderful new book, Playing for Keeps: Life and Learning on a Public School Playground. The book is a record of children playing during recess at Mission Hill School in Boston. A simple framework and a simple focus: What do kids do when they play? The resulting book, though, is anything but simple, for the authors demonstrate the intelligence and imagination that is tapped during play, and they use this rich record to argue for a capacious and humane understanding of the role of play in children’s lives. And this argument, in turn, is embedded in a broader one about the need to acknowledge this intellectual and imaginative richness in current education policy, a policy that seems hell-bent (my phrasing) on advancing a very different approach to education and child development.
As I read Playing for Keeps, I keep thinking about how little we see in current reform efforts that reflect Meier, Engel, and Taylor’s view of children. You won’t find much of school life in NCLB or Race to the Top; in fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find a single example of a teacher thinking through a lesson or interacting with a child or a child learning a scientific concept or being engaged with a book. What we do have is a technocratic and structural approach to education, and sadly it has become the coin of the realm.