Archive for November, 2011

Mastery, risk-taking and play

This post is a culmination of a week or so of talking about play-based education.  If that’s its official term for it?  I don’t know.  I must declare my rookie status in this field, which means you should feel really free to jump into the comment s section below and school me on what I’ve missed!

Thanks to @malynmawby, @vormamim, @biancah80,  and @benpaddlejones for their ideas via twitter and email. You can read more about @malynmawby ‘s experiences with play-based learning here, here and here.

Play-based Learning: Another PBL?

My current interest in project-based learning has also put me in contact with the terms challenge-based learning and problem-based learning.

Despite these terms being used fairly liberally (along with inquiry-based learning), I don’t seem to often come across material that explores the differences or similarities between these terms.  I mean, I’m sure we could all take guesses about it, based on what we know about the words chosen; what is a project? what is a challenge? a problem? an inquiry?

Well, while you’re pondering it all, here is some more information to add to the learning theory soup.

States of Play

An overview of the elements of play presented by the National Institute for Play (based in California) outlines seven “patterns of play”:

  1. attunement play
  2. body play and movement
  3. object play
  4. social play (including ‘rough and tumble’ play and ‘celabratory’ play)
  5. imaginative and pretend play
  6. storytelling-narrative play
  7. transformative-integrative and creative play

And here is a really excellent TED Talk by Stewart Brown, who argues the physiological importance of play:

After listening to Stewart’s TED talk, the idea that I keep coming back to is this:

If the purpose is more important than the act of doing it, it’s probably not play. (Stewart Brown, TED Talk 2008, at ~6 mins)

Which begs the question: by trying to pin down a definition of ‘play-based learning’ to use in my curriculum theorising, am I contributing to WRECKING IT?

Play in the curriculum

In my quest for answers I came across some interesting material relating to motivation and mastery.

This puts me back into territory that is a little bit psych-y, and I know such approaches don’t always sit well with post-structuralist curriculum types like myself. But I resist that 😉

Writer and researcher Katherine Cushman lead a Practice Project for the non-profit group ‘What Kids Can Do’ ( asking the question ‘what do kids already know about and do well?’.

When adults openly explore our genuine questions about getting to mastery—and include young people’s knowledge and experiences in that exploration—we model the expert’s habit of taking intellectual and creative risks. We demonstrate that we, too, always have things we need to understand better, and things we need to practice. We teach kids to approach any lack of understanding as a puzzle: stretching the limits of their competence, continually testing new possibilities and seeing how they work out. As they expand their knowledge and skills, young people, like us, will discover even more challenging puzzles they want to tackle—not just outside school, but as part of it. (K. Cushman, Fires in the Mind p.10)

In light of this, play strikes me as a form of ‘intellectual and creative risk taking’, essential to building the habits of mind and the resilience needed to seek out and tackle new puzzles.

Who is playing?

Concepts about transformative play have been utilised by the Quest Atlantis project, and a lot of my Tweeps are currently going bananas for Minecraft. These are rich sites and communities tapping into discourses about educational play.

However, I rarely hear any critical views about play or games, and I guess that’s what makes me itch to interrogate this field.

The reflexive dilemma

Listening to a talk by Julian Sefton-Green during his recent visit to QUT, I was conscious of the points he made about the field of ‘out of school learning’, which often involves elements of play.

His research has found distinctions between school and out-of-school learning tended to set up binaries that actually maintained the boundaries around ‘official’ curriculum, and other project and play based activities happening outside of schools (the binary of formal and non-formal learning, for example). His review of the literature showed how debate about not-school environments in the UK is often bound up with techno-utopianism and generalisations about the public school system.

In relation to this, he poses the ‘reflexive dilemma’ that we face in thinking about all of this. That is, the more we reflect on learning experiences, the more we formalise them. In our quest to ‘optimise’ all learning experiences, the learning is more carefully arranged and disciplined.

Which brings me right back to that TED talk – by naming ‘play based learning’ and trying to give play an official role in curriculum, do we run the risk of ruining play? Will the act of ‘doing play’ become just another ‘strategy’ for learning?

In short, how can we develop play as a habit of the mind without over thinking it and taking the fun out of the act of play? And, will defining the difference between all of the different PBLs etc help us in this endeavor, or just get in the way by drawing boundaries that don’t need to be there?

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A transformative digital literacies pedagogy: Thomas (2011)

Thanks to @malynmawby @benpaddlejones and @Vormamim for engaging in tweety-chat today about play-based learning and transformational play.

There was an article that I wanted to post the full reference to – this one by Angela Thomas (@anyaixchel)

Thomas, A. (2011) Towards a transformational digital literacies pedagogy. Nordic Journal of Digital Literacy. Vol. 6 pp. 89-101

You can see the abstract for the paper with my own annotations, above.

In it she argues that there are:

a number of significant characteristics of digital literacy that are imperative to include in a pedagogy of digital literacy in order to make it a transformational pedagogy.  These include: explicit understandings of multimodality, opportunities for play and experimentation, participating within communities of practice, and critical engagement with text.

I had picked this article up to read Angela’s findings about digital pedagogy, but it was a timely read.  I am a big fan of the work of Paulo Freire, and of his work to empower communities through literacy.  By bringing in Freire’s notion of ‘transformative pedagogies’ this article reaffirmed the need for critical, participatory and dialogic practices to be woven into the digital learning landscape.

I’d love to hear of other readings and resources along these lines, if you know of any…?

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Dear Mr Gonski

The biggest review of schools funding in over 30 years is almost over.

I was number 5126 to join the For our Future website tonight.

Here’s what I wrote in my message to the Gonski review panel:

There can be no serious attempt to argue that the current education system in Australia is socially just. With the exercising of ‘choice’ in education increasingly being seen as a feature of responsible parenting the provision of education is becoming even more stratified.

Government policy has been instrumental in encouraging the allowance of parental ‘choice’, giving parents ability to seek the school that will provide the greatest level of ‘excellence’ for their child. A need to invest in excellence based on the manufactured concern about the decline in standards in public education has meant an increase in Government funding of private schools to enable more parents to have the option of ‘choosing’ a private education for their children. This has led to the creation of a dualistic, market oriented education system, where public and private schools compete for enrolments and for Government funding, and ideas about what an ‘excellent’ education really consists of are distorted in order to lure ‘consumers’.

Despite public perception, it is not my belief however that a private education is a ‘better’ education, or that education in specialist schools such as selective or performing arts schools is more beneficial to the students who attend them. In fact inequity in education is diminishing the educational experience of these students by creating schools that lack diversity and encouraging social reproduction. It is not just a matter of the ‘poor local public schools’ being at a disadvantage because of lack of resources, funding and staff, but ALL students being disadvantaged by a curriculum that is too narrow and largely exam driven, and which therefore cannot develop fully the talents and capacities of many students.

It is largely the marketisation of the education system that has resulted in competition between schools, which lowers the standard of educational experience for all. The idea that schools should be striving for ‘excellence’ and the threat of falling enrolments and possible school closure if schools do not demonstrate themselves as achieving this ‘excellence’, has led to a dramatic rise in focus on NAPLAN results and Year 12 exit credentials, and exaggerated interest in comparing schools’ performance. The result is a decrease in the ability of ALL schools to provide a holistic, democratic and inclusive curriculum that caters to the needs of individual students and values diversity.

It is for these reasons that I argue the need for a substantial increase in funding to public schools, as well as a radical reduction in the proportion of funds made available to non-government schools in future funding models.

I was taught in public schools, and I have been a public school teacher.  There are many of us out there who are loyal to the democratic values of public education, and will not falter in our support of this system.  Please invest in us – we won’t let you down.

Write your own note, or just use the form letter provided online to send your own message today via the For our Future website:

Before it’s too late, join parents, teachers and principals from around Australia and send a final message to the head of the review, Mr David Gonski, about the importance of investing more in our public schools.


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National Day of Action for Public Education

There’s a lot at stake over the next few months in the countdown to the Gonski panel’s final advice on schools funding. That advice, and the Government’s response, could determine the long-term future of schooling across Australia and, in particular, the nature and quality of public schooling in this country. (J.F. McMorrow ‘Real Reform in Schools Funding’ paper Sept. 2011)

A wealth of material is available to learn more about the Gonski review into schools funding, including the paper quoted above. The review is due for release in December, and while the (one month!) period for submitting formal responses has closed, there is one last opportunity to have a say on the issue of schools funding.

I have written before about the Gonski Review, but am sorry to admit that I did not enter a submission when they were called for earlier in the year.

As luck would have it, however, the Australian Education Union has organised a special website for people like me (and maybe you) to lodge their view:

It’s quick and easy to show your support for Public Education in Australia by signing the petition on the site.  If you want to do more, you can join as a supporter to “tell us why investing more in public schools is so important”. Whichever you choose, you should do this TOMORROW, Tuesday 16th November, the National Day of Action for Public Education:

There has been very little public conversation about this issue in my circles – as Darcy Moore pointed out to Stephen Downes in October.  I fear that many teachers that are passionate about Public Education are weary from years of arguing about equity, only to see nothing change.  The approach of telling people how unfair things are just hasn’t worked so far.  Explaining how big the funding gap really is hasn’t worked so far.  Arguing that diverse student populations produce better educational outcomes than homogenous ones hasn’t worked so far.  The idea that parents should be ‘free to choose’ is too appealing, and sounds too much like ‘common sense’.  But, for those inclined to look beyond their own backyard, and to the society at large, it is clear to see the devastating impact that ‘school choice’ has had on the wider community. While we continue the charade of ‘meritocracy’, the current schools funding model has continued to deliver a system in which learning facilities and access to knowledge and social status can be bought by those with means.  When that is the case, it’s hard not to enter the discourse of class wars, don’t you think?

This is not just about class wars, however.  A summary of public views put forward collected by the Australian College of Educators observes that “Australia’s approach of providing funding as an entitlement to the independent sector is not the standard approach of most OECD countries”.  And yet, this question of measuring Australia’s financial commitment to education against other OECD nations was seen to be largely absent from public debate.

As for me, I support a substantial increase in funding to public schools, and a narrowing of the resource gap between public and independent sectors.  I do not support policies that position families with means as being entitled to more educational choice than others.  Tonight I will be adding my voice to the For our Future website, and wishing for a future where the support, learning and success of all students is priority number one for politicians and citizens alike.

I hope you will join me.


Guest Post: ‘I Have A Dream that the HSC Will End’

  • Post to celebrate completion of my PhD: CHECK.
  • Post with an update on my upcoming conference papers: CHECK.

So…where to next?

As fate had it, this decision was made for me, with the arrival of a piece of student writing in my inbox.

The author of the piece is a recently graduated HSC student, one whom I had the pleasure of teaching year 8 English, and coaching for debating 🙂  This is him counting down the days until the end of his exams:

I invite you to read his work (below), which he has given me permission to reproduce (along with his picture) in this post.  Oriniginally published as a Facebook post on October 28th, it is a re-writing of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous I Have a Dream speech, which has been adapted to make a satirical commentary on the HSC.  It comes with a mild language warning (c’mon; it’s satire!), and is a brilliant example of a ‘textual intervention’.

I’m very proud to feature it here  as my first ‘guest post’!:


I Have A Dream that the HSC Will End

By B. Wylie

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our state.

Two score years ago, an a*shole bureaucrat, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, created the Higher School Certificate. This momentous decree came as a great source of pain and suffering to millions of NSW students who were about to be seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a sorrowful dusk which signalled the beginning of their long night of academic captivity.

But fourty four years later, the student still is not free. Fourty four years later, the life of the student is still sadly crippled by the manacles of standardised testing and the chains of rankings. Fourty four years later, the student lives on a lonely island of studying in the midst of a vast ocean of facebook updates. Fourty four years later, the student is still languished in the rooms of NSW high schools and finds himself an exile in his own class. And so we’ve come here today to dramatise a shameful condition.

In a sense we’ve come to this facebook note to cash a check. Read the rest of this entry »

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