Did you play today?

Creativity requires taking and switching between different perspectives, and play facilitates exploring different perspectives, creating alternate worlds, assuming different roles, enacting different identities, and also taking all these, and the players themselves, out of the cognitive contexts in which they normally operate.                                                                   — Mainemelis and Ronson, 2010

image cc by Wootang01 on flickr

If you are like me at this time of year, you are more than ready for the winter break.  With less than two weeks to go, I am mindful of feeling emotionally and intellectually drained.  I am also amazed at how, despite feeling caput, I am energized when I step into the classroom and immerse myself in a fun lesson or activity with students.

Engaging through play

In the Spring, 2010 issue of the Rotman Magazine, Charalampos Mainemelis and Sarah Ronson discuss notions of play, creativity and engagement in their article, “Ideas are Born in Fields of Play:  Creativity & Play in Organizations”.  They suggest that play manifests itself in our busy work environments in two ways:

1.  Play as diversion.  This is when employees check out periodically to engage in diversionary activities such as catching up on Facebook.  Rather than being a waste of time, the authors argue that this type of play is beneficial:

Such play provides mental breaks, which are important for incubation — the stage of the creative process that involves unconscious processing and the free recombination of ideas….  In addition, a moment of fun with colleagues helps team members break down hierarchical boundaries and relate to one another in a personal way.

When we step outside our traditional work roles and engage in interactions not typical of our work, we engage in play.  The challenge is to maintain the benefit of these playful, diversionary moments after they are finished and we are back to our ‘real work’.  This holds true for education.  We can use play to engage both students and colleagues, but what can we do to maintain the atmosphere of trust engendered by instances of playfulness?

2.  Play as engagement.  This is the type of play that is part of the everyday work you do.  For instance, musicians play when they work together to write music — they mix sounds and experiment with combinations, using imagination and creativity.

Within the context of education, where are there opportunities for harnessing diversionary play and introducing more play as engagement, in our classrooms and our learning experiences?

Playing with Creativity

Mainemelis and Ronson explore the cognitive processes that engender creativity through playful experiences  Four of the processes they discuss relate directly to learning and education:

  • Problem Framing: Reframing problems to allow for multiple possible solutions is a basis for creative activity.  In play, as in improvisation in musical composition or dramatic performance, problems are reframed in many unique ways, allowing for the proliferation of creative responses.
  • Divergent Thinking: Through play space is created for shifts in perspective, another condition for creativity.
  • Mental Transformations: When the way we think is flexible and open to change, we open a door to creativity.  In play, we take risks and open ourselves to imagining new possibilities.
  • Experimentation: When risk is lowered through play, the ideal conditions for experimentation and improvisation come into existence.

Think about the types of learning experiences we offer our students.  How many of them include these elements?  Below are a few examples of activities through which students (and teaching staff) might unleash their creative capacities:

  • providing legos or other building materials for students to explore and construct models of things, events or processes, such as a model of the economic process (raw materials to your dinner plate, for instance)  Here is a link to a student interviewed by Wes Fryer regarding Lego and Creativity
  • providing truly open-ended questions in math class (For instance, “how much candy gets distributed at Halloween?”) and allowing students to struggle with determining which variables are important and relevant.
  • encouraging students to assume the role of detective or when approaching a problem in science (or any other) class (“What happened here?”)
  • making time in the computer lab for students to pursue creative interests (blogging, animation, recording music, etc…)

What other activities have you tried or seen that would qualify as playful and therefore open to creative approaches?

fall flat on your face please (from time to time)

strategic dono cc shannoninottawa on flickr

strategic dono cc shannoninottawa on flickr

So, I want you to think back to your most recent moment of failure.  I don’t mean your inability to defeat theme 3 level 17 in Angry Birds.  Unless you were playing on the big screen at a stadium in front of scores of onlookers, many of whom could whip you soundly.  I am talking about a failure that is out there – like face planting off your buddy’s unicycle in front of the neighbourhood children at a street bbq.  The type of fail that, if captured on video, would easily garner epic status on fail blog.  Got it?  At the time, did you wish you could vanish into thin air?

I bet you can chuckle about it now though.  Maybe you even learned a thing or two about yourself through the experience.

Last summer I experienced several moments of failure as I learned to windsurf.

One afternoon I caught some wind and before I realized it,   I was out past the drop and the water was too deep to walk the board back to shore.  Smack! I dropped the sail and hurtled headfirst into the water behind it.  Scanning the shoreline, I saw several folks at neighbouring cottages sitting by the water, no doubt enjoying the entertainment, refreshments in hand.  On our own dock sat my two loving children waving gleefully and giving me the “thumbs-up!” sign.  Thank goodness for unwavering support!

I honestly wanted to cry.  I spent the next 40 minutes struggling to get myself back to shore, falling over and over.  Over the course of that time, I realized that my experience was not unlike that of students who struggle in their learning.   I didn’t like the experience at first, but something in it — possibly the mere distance between myself and the shore — motivated me to dig deep and commit to the achieving some level of mastery, which, according to Daniel Pink, is one of the three elements of genuine motivation.  It also provided me with a fresh perspective on the role of struggle and failure in learning.  As educators, I think it is important to fall flat on our faces from time to time.

If you’ve never failed …

Pam Fitzgerald, trustee with the OCDSB, shared this video with me earlier this week.  Viewed 1.5 million times on youtube and shared extensively across twitter and facebook, it asks us to consider the role of failure and struggle in our lives.  I like the feel-good message.  And, I think that students need to struggle and fail from time to time.  I worry that we take away too many opportunities for our students to develop the resilience, adaptability and resourcefulness skills that they need to navigate our current information-rich world when we guide them through their learning and employ on the “gradual release of responsibility” model excessively.  Too often it is overly gradual and we don’t spend quality time developing collaboration and independence.

If we don’t let go …

I’m not suggesting that the gradual release model has no place in learning, but I wonder if we haven’t fallen into the mistaken belief that it should be employed across all areas of the curriculum.  What can we do to provide an environment where struggle is valued and failure is a learning experience, where students come to collaboration through a genuine need to connect with others and learn with them?  I’m talking about a learning space where fun and discovery go hand in hand with inquiry, critical thinking and collaboration.  What conditions need to be present to make struggle enjoyable and failure motivating?

Thinking about play and inquiry has dove-tailed recently with a project that has me thinking about games in education and what we can learn from our students’ experiences with gaming.  I will end with sharing two blog posts that have me thinking for a future post: @melaniemcbride “Gamification, Gaming, Edugames:  Keeping it Real” and @cleanapple “What teachers can learn from video games:  Gaming is a literacy”.  I would love to hear your thoughts and / or recommendations for further reading with regards to struggle, motivation and learning.