I have been thinking a good deal about playing and learning. At two back-to-back conferences, I have spoken on this topic, so my musing continues.
Plato was perhaps the first to say that children should learn by playing. By compulsion you might make a child move through certain schooling steps, but that learning will seldom be permanent. I think experience shows Plato was right; our experience and recent research also tell us that children are not playing as much as they used to, and are perhaps trading away some important benefits and delights in exchange for… more screen time.
Here is a brief 13 minute video in which I recap what the research shows and what we already know. What will we do to make room once again for play?
Scholé Academy, Classical Academic Press’s live, online academy, is seeking a part-time writing instructor for 5–8th grade Writing & Rhetoric courses for the 2016-17 school year. Qualified candidates should be excellent writers and have previous experience teaching elementary-aged students. Familiarity with the Writing & Rhetoric series by Classical Academic Press is preferred.
Interested candidates should submit their résumé and brief letter of interest to Emily Price at email@example.com. Scholé Academy will contact applicants to set up phone and/or videoconference interviews.
Update: The position listed above has been filled. If you are interested in teaching for Scholé Academy, please express your interest to Emily Price (see above). We would be glad to consider you for future teaching opportunities as Scholé Academy continues to grow and expand.
Those of us seeking to classically educate our children know that they have a built-in capacity to bicker and quarrel. Bickering comes naturally to all children, and is only disguised by refined adults.
When it is time for students to learn dialectic, however, we want them to learn how to argue. There is no art to quarreling, but there is indeed an art of argument. It was Chesterton who said that his principal objection to a quarrel is that it ended a good argument. Just what is the distinction, then, between a quarrel and an argument?
Well, we instinctively know what quarreling is because it is so common and effortlessly rises within each of us. A good argument is quite uncommon, and takes effort and training to produce.
The Latin roots of the words help with this distinction. Our word quarrel comes from the Latin querela which means a complaint, or plaintive sound. It is related to the Latin verb queror, which means “to complain or lament.” The adjective querulus means complaining, even warbling (think whining). From the querulus we get our word querulous meaning “full of complaints; peevish.”
Our word argument, on the other hand, comes from the Latin argumentum, which means “evidence, proof.” The related Latin verb arguere means primarily to prove and make known. The related adjective argutus means “clear, distinct, graceful.”
Can you see now why argument can be an art? It takes artistry to present ideas and evidence that are clear, distinct and graceful. To learn an art takes training and apprenticeship. But who will train our children in the art of argument, if we lack training ourselves?
Of course we could seek a suitable teacher for our children. Would it not be better though to find a teacher for both our children and us? We could learn with our children and gradually become a qualified teacher of dialectic ourselves. How could anyone argue with that?
Our brains are responsive, adaptable organs—more adaptable than we ever imagined. Our brains serve us like faithful dogs that want very much to please. If we read lots of great books and novels on paper, our brains become optimized for this behavior. If we spend seven hours per day before a computer screen and swiping our iPhones, our brains will optimize for this. What do you want your brain to do for you?
May Swenson crafted a beautiful poem, entitled “Question,” about the body , in which she calls her body “my horse, my hound,” and “my good, bright dog.” In the context of this essay, I think of my brain, too, as my horse and hound. Here is Swenson’s short poem:
by May Swenson
Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen
Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt
Where can I go
without my mount
all eager and quick
How will I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure
when Body my good
bright dog is dead
How will it be
to lie in the sky
without roof or door
and wind for an eye
With cloud for shift
How will I hide?
Our brain is a critical part of our body—it might rightly be considered our horse, our mount, or our good, bright dog. Surely we should treat it well.
The scientific evidence is in, though I doubt most of us needed it to be convinced. If you spend several hours looking at a screen every day, you have become your own evidence.
You are not reading very much. You have not read a novel in a year. You don’t subscribe to paper magazines or journals; you read mostly online. You are not having sustained conversations about an important idea. When your phone is missing, you panic. As you retire to sleep, your last gesture is to check e-mail on your phone. You greet the new day in the morning by doing the same thing. You no longer think it unusual when others consult their phones during meals, popping in and out of the table conversation. In fact, you are beginning to do the same.
When the research tells us that our adult brains will adapt and “rewire” neural pathways to optimize a life of discursive screen surfing, we may raise an eyebrow, but must of us recognize that in some way we have indeed changed. Our eyebrows raise only because we thought it was simply a change in our habits and behavior—we didn’t know that our brains had changed.
“Reading long, literary sentences sans links and distractions is actually a serious skill that you lose if you don’t use it. Before the Internet, the brain read in a linear fashion, taking advantage of sensory details to remember where key information was in the book by layout.” –Rachel Grate, “Science Has Great News for People Who Read Actual Books, Mic.com, September 22, 2014
But they have. You changed your brain by surfing the Internet for five hours a day and wearing out the buttons on your smartphone. Now your brain has adapted for a life before a glowing screen. You will do better now in this new sleek and glassy life. But you will not read and think as you used to. Go ahead and try to read a book again. It will be hard. Your brain adapted to the screen. Why do you now want to read a printed novel?
“It’s like your eyes are passing over the words but you’re not taking in what they say,” she confessed. “When I realize what’s happening, I have to go back and read again and again.” –Claire Handscombe, as quoted in the Washington Post article “Serious Reading Takes a Hit from Online Scanning and Skimming, Researchers Say” by Michael S. Rosenwald, April 6, 2014
By the way, you are also moodier than you once were, and more irritable. You are easily distracted, and in fact now generally want distraction. The thought of reading a short story or some poetry does still flutter through your mind, but it is always overcome by an unconscious movement of your hand for your phone and a swipe to check Facebook, e-mail, or the news. The fact is, you have a muscle–memory relationship with your phone. You find yourself stroking the glass of your phone throughout the day with no particular purpose in mind. You touch your phone the way you sweep back your hair, rub your eyes, or scratch an itch. To the people around, you are usually not “fully present,” but for the most part neither are they—and they certainly don’t seem to mind or care.
The irony is that you say you want to be an educated human being and seek to live the good life. You even research these matters online (and your phone is one of the primary channels of information about the good life). But you find it harder and harder to read anything like the dialogues of Plato or Dante and to have conversations with others about those things of which a good life consists. And now you hear that your brain is not the strong and helpful ally it once was. Yes, you have changed, and (no surprise) your brain has changed with you. You whistle for it like a shepherd for his sheepdog, but your brain does not leap before you, ready to run, gather, and herd. No, your brain is more like a house dog, domesticated by the screen. If it is going to run and work for you again—well, it will need to be retrained.
That is the good news in this otherwise sad narrative: Your brain is capable of retraining. It still is your faithful friend, eager to please, and will gladly follow you outside if you drop your phone and go for a brisk walk. The two of you may have to walk together before you run.
“A 2014 study found that readers of a short mystery story on a Kindle weresignificantly worse at rememberingthe order of events than those who read the same story in paperback.” –Rachel Grate
I grew up with an Old English Sheepdog named J. Edgar, our family’s good, bright dog. J. Edgar lived to be thirteen, growing old and hobbling about before he eventually died (a sad day indeed for our family). He never forgot how to herd and gather. Though he was a house dog, I am convinced that in his youth he could have been taken to a sheep farm and performed nobly after a season of training and discipline. They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. But an old dog can still do his old tricks, even if with less agility. Our brains are not old dogs. While they age, they remain remarkably adaptable and renewable. What is more—the more we read, the longer they remain young.
This, then, is the neurological gospel: Though you have wandered, you may come home to a welcome. Your brain will happily follow you back to the books, conversation, and contemplation. Like a house dog returning to the field, it will take a while to get in shape, a matter of weeks not days, or perhaps even a few months. For some of us, it may take a solid year, but we will find ourselves regaining strength week by week, month by month.
So here is to our brain—our remarkable horse and hound that helps us ride and hunt. Let us give it a happy home, nurtured, rested, fed, and exercised.
“Pediatricians often recommend parents routinely read aloud to their young children. Now, for the first time, researchers have hard evidence that doing so activates the parts of preschoolers’ brains that help with mental imagery and understanding narrative—both of which are key for the development of language and literacy.”
“Slow-reading advocates recommend at least 30 to 45 minutes of daily reading away from the distractions of modern technology. By doing so, the brain can reengage with linear reading. The benefits of making slow readinga regular habit are numerous, reducing stress and improving your ability to concentrate.” —Rachel Grate
“To cognitive neuroscientists, Handscombe’s experience is the subject of great fascination and growing alarm. Humans, they warn, seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia.” —Michael S. Rosenwald
“Surprising preliminary results reveal a dramatic and unexpected increase in blood flow to regions of the brain beyond those responsible for ‘executive function,’ areas which would normally be associated with paying close attention to a task, such as reading, said Natalie Phillips, the literary scholar leading the project.” —Corrie Goldman
“Reading from an iPad before bed not only makes it harder to fall asleep, but also impacts how sleepy and alert you are the next day, according to new research from Brigham and Women’s Hospitalin Boston, Massachusetts. The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, said the findings could impact anyone who uses an eReader, laptop, smartphone, or certain TVs before bed.” —Damon Beres
“Bothparentsand clinicians may be ‘barking up the wrong tree.’ That is, they’re trying to treat whatlookslikea textbook case of mental disorder, but failing to rule out and address the most common environmental cause of such symptoms—everyday use of electronics. Time and again, I’ve realized that regardless of whether there exists any ‘true’ underlying diagnoses, successfully treating a child with mood dysregulation today requires methodically eliminating all electronics use for several weeks—an ‘electronics fast’—to allow the nervous system to ‘reset.’”
As I consult with classical school and homeschool communities, I find myself talking more and more about our five senses. This is because many in the classical education renewal are rediscovering the importance of embodiment. Our educational ideals (such as wisdom, virtue, and eloquence) need to be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and felt.
Please pardon this gross generalization: Since the Enlightenment, the life of intellect, learning, and education has become increasingly text centered. Now, I am a great advocate of texts, particularly the best texts, or the so-called great books. I think we should read much more of them and talk much more about them. I do think, however, that too much focus on texts makes for dull schools and dull students. Some will object. Should not the written word be central? Are we not under siege by all matter of inane video, images, and cacophony? Is not Christ called the Logos, elevating the “word” to the highest place?
Well, yes and no. The word and the text do deserve a privileged position, and yes, we are flooded with visual and sonic debris. Speech does set us above the animals and mark us as being made in the likeness of God. Christians acknowledge that God has spoken through Scripture and in these latter days through His Son—the divine Word.
Still, we should note well that Adam and Eve were placed in a garden and that the Word became flesh. Eve was able to see that the fruit was “a delight to the eyes” and “good for food.” Is it safe to assume that much of the garden (if not all of it) was also a delight to the eyes? We know that much there was delicious to eat.
Christians consider humans to be enfleshed souls, and that therefore the life of the body is delightful and good. In fact, as enfleshed souls, most Christians consider the body and soul (or mind) as two parts of one unified person. This means that our body is important for a life of the mind and vice versa.
I will refrain from a summary of the various positions of the body-mind or body-soul relationship in order to stress that despite some differences of opinion, we are enfleshed souls blessed with five senses that enable us to know, learn, serve, and love.
Why then do we pay so little attention to what will delight the eyes and ears? Hardly ever do we think about what we will smell, taste, and touch in our schools. Lesson plans and curricula are filled with references to what students will read (good so far, very good in fact) and what they will write and perhaps speak. But what about the senses?
Try this thought experiment: Imagine a lesson plan or curriculum that appeals exclusively to the sense of touch, smell, or taste. We are not sure what that would look like, for we must see everything. We could do much more with touch, smell, and taste, but we scarcely know where to begin. Probably, we would be wise to simply try to extend and deepen our engagement of sight and sound.
Try another thought experiment: Imagine going into a school for a day with a blindfold on. What would you hope to hear that would delight your ears? What sounds, what music, what laughter, what kind of conversations among teachers, students, parents? Is there any poetry? Are songs being sung, some of them spontaneously? What sounds are making you truly happy?
Imagine visiting a school, and this time you are unable to hear (via some very good earplugs). What do you see that delights your eyes? What countenances, what art, what light, what arrangement? Do you see smiles? Do you see animals? Is there a large, beautiful globe on wheels in a public space? Is the art displayed big or small, delightful or part of a mishmash of visual clutter? How are the children dressed? What are they doing with their bodies that indicates their own revelry and joy?
I recommend a five-sense inventory. What does each of your senses tell you about your school or homeschool? What delights? What would you love to see, hear, smell, taste and touch? What would embody your learning ideals?
I think we need to think creatively in how we embody our ideals and not merely talk about them, and I hope taking an inventory might help. I note these sad facts: Most schools (often due to circumstances they cannot control) are ugly. By this I mean “normal.” In comparison to other institutions, our schools more than any others resemble the layout and organization of a prison—casement windows that do not open, polished cement floors, heavy doors, long hallways, industrial fluorescent lights, buzzers, and keys. Visually, the classrooms are a clutter of calendars, class rules, number lines, word walls, maps (always too small to use), art prints (always too small to see from the middle of the room and usually unrelated either to each other or to any class theme), and the standard, obligatory class globe (always kept on a shelf like a knickknack because it is too small to use, but cheap enough to buy for display). The room is brightly lit by cheap overhead fluorescent lights.
I acknowledge this situation has something to do with money. We have a habit of doing schools cheaply, and we call this good stewardship. But we generally buy the best home we can afford. What if we thought of schools more like the way we think of homes? What if we confessed that beauty is just as important as truth (in fact wed to it) so we do all we could (with the resources God gives) to make our schools like lovely homes? This does not mean tearing down and rebuilding with marble and mahogany. Many teachers live in modest homes that they have made beautiful. We could, if we put our minds to it, beautify our schools in various ways. I think our difficulty is largely a problem of mind-set. Classical educators have majored in truth, and minored in beauty, if they have studied it at all.
If I sound severe, know that I am being severe with myself. Know as well that our aesthetic anemia is a culture-wide problem, and we are more or less being carried along by the contemporary cultural tide.
Let me close with a high note. There are schools (and countless homeschools) that are making their schools beautiful. The Ambrose School in Boise, Idaho, had the opportunity to build a school over five years ago. The school leadership thought deeply about how to embody the classical ideals of education in its architecture, painting, layout (they built the school around a two-story library), lighting, and furniture. When you enter The Ambrose School, you meet a cathedral ceiling and then look up to see the second floor of the library. Immediately to your left is a coffee shop/café run by the school, with granite counters, leather couches, and large replicas of classical art. You can take a look at the school here: theambroseschool.org/about/the-facility/.
There are many other schools that I could cite who have labored to create beautiful buildings: the Veritas School in Richmond, the Regents School of Austin, the new building coming for Immanuel Lutheran School in Alexandria. Many others, however, with modest funds, have worked to make what they have beautiful.
Why not take the five-sense inventory and note what your entire body “sees.”
Here is 10 minute video in which I discuss the five-sense inventory:
Scholé Academy, Classical Academic Press’s live, online academy, is seeking a part-time Latin teacher for upper-school Latin courses for the 2016-17 school year, with possible teaching opportunities beginning in January 2016. Qualified candidates should have studied Latin at the college level and have previous experience teaching Latin.
Interested candidates should submit their résumé and brief letter of interest to Emily Price at epriceatclassicalsubjects.com. Scholé Academy will contact applicants to set up a phone and/or videoconference interview.
Update: The position listed above has been filled. If you are interested in teaching for Scholé Academy, please express your interest to Emily Price (see above). We would be glad to consider you for future teaching opportunities as Scholé Academy continues to grow and expand.
Just last night I hosted a webinar with author Sarah Mackenzie, who wrote Teaching from Rest. The topic for the webinar was “Curriculum Is Not Something You Buy.”
The conversation went well. Clearly, like traditional-school parents, homeschool and private-school parents struggle to maintain a “balanced life.” Put another way, most parents and students must confront educational stress and anxiety.
There are a lot of reasons why parents have become anxious about education:
Many are uncertain about what a good education should be, so we don’t know what we are aiming for. We are not confident that we have had a great education, so we are hesitant to just give our children what we received.
If we have adopted the aims of a classical, liberal arts education (a fine goal) we remain uncertain of what to do. How do we give to our kids what we have not received?
Our modern moment is full of educational controversy: More STEM! No, let’s make that STEAM (the A is for art)! More standardized assessments; Common Core Standards. No, let’s reject these and return to the basics!
Families pursuing a classical education at home or in a private school make great sacrifices (in terms of time and money) to educate their children. This can heighten anxiety: we have invested so much to do this that it had better go well. We must prove to our skeptical relatives and neighbors that we have made a wise choice. That proof (in our minds) usually consists of our kids being smarter and brighter than their kids.
Then we decide to implement a classical curriculum. We are not sure what it is, having not received a classical education ourselves. What’s more, we are confused by the differing conceptions of “classical” offered by various experts. Still, we jump in and start researching and buying classical “curricula.” Feeling peaceful yet?
This is a good place to pause and reflect. At this point of choosing curriculum, we are likely to import our modern sensibilities of education right into or on top of the classical approach. They don’t mix well. The modern approach is frenzied, frenetic, busy, quantifiable, and data-driven. It “covers material.” The classical approach retains a tradition of contemplation, leisure, and encounter—we might even say the “uncovering” of that which is true, good, and beautiful.
Even the word curriculum is instructive. It is the Latin word for “race course,” “course,” “lap,” and “career.” The related adverb curriculo means “at full speed.” Think of the Romans enjoying a chariot race at the CircusMaximus and you will be thinking as the Romans did about curriculum. We could go further with this etymological study. The Latin verb curro means “I run.” From this verb we get such English derivatives as current (running water) and cursive (a running script) and discursive (running to and fro).
The irony here may be obvious: we take our curriculum far too literally—we run with it. A liberal arts curriculum is to be the course of studies we present to our students, but we ought not to run the course. We should walk it, for we are neither horses nor charioteers.
Aristotle seemed to understand this. He was called the “peripatetic philosopher,” for he would teach his students while taking them on a walk around the Lyceum. Learning becomes permanent not when we race through our studies, but when we find time to linger, ponder, and savor that worth knowing—the true, the good, and the beautiful. This does not mean that a student won’t work with diligence—he will. But his educational course won’t be busywork that fills his day or mere repetition of facts without understanding. To use Sarah Mackenzie’s words, the curriculum will be turned into a feast. Every feast will involve some hard work of preparation and cleanup, yet the feast itself will make this work merry work, work filled with purpose and satisfaction.
I find it gratifying to hear how many homeschooling families and some classical schools have recovered the “nature walk” as part of their curriculum. The slow, leisurely pace of walking in the midst of natural beauty creates a wonderful disposition for learning and loving the lovely that will seep into the home and classroom.
My advice for employing a classical curriculum? Go for a walk.
The Christian tradition speaks regularly about the importance of ordering one’s affections or desires. Augustine, for example, speaks about an ordo amoris (an order of love) in TheCity of God. Ignatius speaks of “disordered affections” that cloud our judgment. C. S. Lewis calls upon the ordo amoris to argue for a doctrine of objective value in which we give the appropriate love to every good thing we encounter—waterfalls are loved in one way, people in one way, and God in another.
Jesus often signals an ordo amoris, telling the rich, young ruler there is one thing he lacks (Matt. 19) and telling Martha that though she is busy about many things, Mary has chosen what is best: to converse with him rather than prepare dinner (Luke 10). When Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is, he responds that there are two: to love God with your whole heart and to love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22). Jesus seems to believe that there is a divinely ordered hierarchy of loves and pleasures.
If our loves are to be ordered throughout life, then surely they should be well-ordered in our schools and homeschools. Lewis argues (in The Abolition of Man) that the doctrine of ordo amoris is needed at the most basic level—for unless we believe that there are objective realities that truly merit our admiration and love, we must swim in a sea of subjective relativism that ultimately destroys man himself. The aims and means of education are undermined unless we can love trees, books and ideas with the loves suited to them, meaning that a towering redwood is truly beautiful and that Virgil is truly admirable.
When our loves are disordered we love things with distortion and misplaced passion. Some things we may love too much (such as having an obsession with excellent coffee) and other things in the wrong place (such as buying a new car on credit while still in college). Christians know that to lose our first love is to unravel all our other loves; with God off the throne, other affections begin to compete for our highest love, and the result is instability and often chaos.
The same holds for education. To give great affection to trivia or passing, frothy literature is to disorder affections. It is not to say that we cannot read shallow literature from time to time, but we ought to love it as shallow literature should be loved. Likewise, to attempt algebra as a fourth grader is to misplace loves. To study literature to the exclusion of math, language and science is to disorder loves. To ignore the study of music and art is to starve affections for the beautiful and the good. Classes conducted in drab, windowless rooms with florescent lighting reveal something troubling about what we love and what we do not: we love efficiency over inspirations; we teach children in a space we would never dare live.
Thanks to James K. A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom, many of us in the classical education renewal have come to see that what we do with our bodies has much to do with how our loves are ordered, or how our affections are formed and cultivated. Most of us have inherited the assumption that education can properly live in spaces that resemble prisons more than homes, with long corridors, polished floors, rectangular spaces (which are most efficient), florescent lights, and windows that don’t open. Let us add lots of locked doors, buzzers, and cattle-ready cafeterias with long plastic tables. Because our own affections have been formed in these kinds of schools, we rarely question educating our own children in the same kind of environment. Like a fish in water, we don’t notice whether or not the water is contaminated, and yet we breathe it everyday and bid our children to jump in. Are we unwittingly disordering the loves of our children by having them spend seven hours a day in spaces that we would deem repulsive to live in? And yet our children do live in our schools—at least they are trying to.
Teaching is a serious affair, as we are seeking to shape the soul of a child. We know of Christ’s warning that to lead a child astray brings quite serious consequences for the deceiver. We also know that educating children is the future of our families, the church, of civilization. We are raising up the next generation. What’s at stake? The soul of a child (and apparently the teacher). The soul of civilization.
What’s more, education is hard work, and we work with students who often would rather not be subject to authority, discipline, and teaching. We must ask students to do what they might not otherwise choose to do on their own. It is no easy task, this teaching enterprise, and James warn us that those who teach will be held accountable.
Consider how defenseless a small child is. Erasmus (from his book On Education for Children) points out that in contrast to the animals, our offspring are born and remain quite vulnerable. Erasmus notes that animals are after birth quickly equipped to live independently “with swiftness of foot, keenness of sight, strength of massiveness of body, coverings of fur, or the protection of scales, plates, horns, claws or poison,” while man alone is “created weak, naked and defenseless.” Whereas the animals by instinct (whatever that is) can build nests or hives, or store up food in a hole in the ground (ants), “man cannot eve eat, walk, or speak without instruction.”
Erasmus asks, “So what can we expect of man? He will most certainly turn out to be an unproductive brute unless at once and without delay he is subjected to a process of intensive instruction.”
So perhaps education is indeed a weighty endeavor. However, weighty matters bring with them their dangers. Serious tasks tend to make serious men. Important matters tempt men into men of importance. In other words grave tasks can be the death of us, since the one who becomes self-important must soon learn to die to himself. The very gravity of our work can rob the levity of our souls.
Once again, I must trot out Chesterton, who understood this paradox (and so many others). Chesterton says that a man should take his mission but not himself seriously. He also says notes that “the devil fell from the force of gravity” and that “angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”
Angels, we can assume, are conducting serious business, but they fly and are full of joy. Without taking time to explore the inner working of our own souls, can we at least ask ourselves, “Do I fly when I teach?” Or am I a somber presence in the classroom, teaching weighty matters and weighing down all the students?
Some of my readers will know that I am an ardent advocate of “restful learning” or scholé. The serious teacher may seem at rest, like a stone is at rest, but he is not restful, not full of the kind of contentment and satisfaction that we know when we are truly refreshed by our engagement with something truly good and beautiful. Nor should we neglect the pang of longing that is also mingled with our satisfaction, for we are not like the angles, we have not beheld the face of God. For we humans to rest, we still must endure longing, the awareness that not all is right nor perfectly good—yet. So we cannot fly like the angels, we are still tied down by that which made us fall. But can our spirits soar?
Even our fall gives us every reason to take ourselves lightly.
As a classical educator and consultant to classical schools for about 20 years now, I have often been amused and sometimes gratified by the ways scientific research rediscovers what classical educators have known (or at least believed) for centuries. For example, “studies now show” that the study of Latin will help you with your English vocabulary and verbal section of the SAT or GRE (classics students do better on the GRE verbal section that English students). “Research also shows” that multi-modal instruction (using the pathways of the eye, ear and body) enhance learning and memory. The classical pedagogy for younger students that involves chanting, singing, hand and body motions, all while viewing charts, song lyrics or diagrams turns out to be… multi-modal. Similar things could be said about Socratic teaching (collaborative learning) and having students actually teach other students (docendo discimus—by teaching we learn).
Most recently, “research now shows” that play actually enhances the way young students learn (NPR piece: Scientists Say Child’s Play Helps Build a Better Brain). Sergio Pellis from the University of Lethbridge in Alberta says, “The experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain… and without play experience those neurons aren’t changed.”
I quote directly from the NPR piece:
“Whether it’s rough-and-tumble play or two kids deciding to build a sand castle together, the kids themselves have to negotiate, well, what are we going to do in this game? What are the rules we are going to follow?” Pellis says. The brain builds new circuits in the prefrontal cortex to help it navigate these complex social interactions, he says.
In England children now start formal schooling, and the formal teaching of literacy and numeracy at the age of four. A recent letter signed by around 130 early childhood education experts, including myself, published in the Daily Telegraph (11 Sept 2013) advocated an extension of informal, play-based pre-school provision and a delay to the start of formal ‘schooling’ in England from the current effective start until the age of seven (in line with a number of other European countries who currently have higher levels of academic achievement and child well-being).
Whitebread stresses that this conclusion is based on numerous studies:
There are several strands of evidence which all point towards the importance of play in young children’s development, and the value of an extended period of playful learning before the start of formal schooling. These arise from anthropological, psychological, neuroscientific and educational studies.
He grounds these conclusion in neuroscientific, psychological studies:
Neuroscientific studies have shown that playful activity leads to synaptic growth, particularly in the frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for all the uniquely human higher mental functions.
I am gladdened and gratified (and yes, slightly amused) by these reports. Often scientific study confirms the conventional wisdom gained by accrued human experience. We humans have been working at training up our young for a while now, and have generally considered it a very important enterprise. So play is a critical part of the education of young children—neuroscience apparently confirms this. But it is worth pausing and asking–who said this first? Classical educators (and to be fair, scores of progressive educators) have acknowledged play as a key to the learning of young children. Children re-enact on the playground what they learn in the classroom. Teach the civil war to 6th grade boys (or the Peloponnesian War) and what do you get at recess? And how many of us have found our children “playing school or homechool” in the back yard on a summer day?
The Greeks would have the boys wrestle regularly outside as part of their education (I will pass over the fact that they did this the nude). They wrestled outside of class, and no doubt they wrestled in class with some noteworthy clarity (with tunics on). They wrestled outside hand-to-hand, then inside head-to-head. Ask any third grade teacher: Are students better prepared for a math lesson before or after recess? Recess remains in our schools (and doesn’t even need such a name in our homeschools) 2500 years after the Greeks integrated it into their curriculum.
So who said it first? It was likely Plato who first recognized the educational value of play. In Book VII of Plato’s Republic, Socrates suggests that play is where education should begin: “Don’t use force in training the children in the studies, but rather play. In that way you can better discern what each is naturally directed towards” (537a).
In the same context, Socrates goes on to say that forced or compulsory learning is fleeting:
“Bodily exercise, when compulsory, does no harm to the body; but knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind.” (536e)
We are very familiar with the cram-pass-forget cycle of American education, in which we “learned” material for a test, only to forget it a day or two afterwards. Plato says that such learning is a farce which would obtain “no hold on the mind.” Play, however, is the natural way young children learn, what they want to truly embody and possess knowledge. To the Greeks, there is a linguistic relationship here too. The Greek word pazein (to play) is related to the word for child, pais. It is preserved in a distant way in our phrase child’s play. There is a kind of play innate to a child that makes it a play proper to a child, even part of what it means to be a child. A child plays. A child learns as he plays. Much of his learning, from one perspective, is child’s play.
Can this insight be distorted? Yes it can, and often is. If we extend this insight about how children learn too far, we have children deciding at every juncture what and when to study, and we adults will ask nothing of them—for that would be “force and compulsion.” We must not forget that the purpose of play is to learn how to live in the drama of a real life, when sticks will be exchanged for swords, and the puddle for a roiling sea. The little girl who is a fairy will one day be running a household or a hotel.
This means that play is preparation and that play is in fact a serious matter. While children must be given a wide swath of freedom (recess should have as few rules as possible, and I think sticks must be legal), they also must be directed and they must be taught. In other words, the classroom and the playground work hand-in-hand. The teacher teaches, the students run outside, their heads full of Latin words, lines of poetry, tales of ships, battles and heroic feats of all kinds; the play back the lessons of the classroom in unpredictable, creative, delightful ways. They learn again, as only a child at play can.
Can play be imported into the classroom? Yes, in wise ways appropriate to the classroom—even as teaching can be taken outside, in wise ways. We might say, to change vocabulary, that there is way of weaving together informal and formal ways of learning. The wise teacher will know how to this to the best advantage, not permitting her classroom to become a playground, nor the playground a classroom.
When you look at a child to you see a pais, made to play (pazein)? To switch to Latin, when you see children, do you see liberi—the free ones? Do we teach them as free spirits? Could we benefit from the mindset of the Romans who called their school for young children a ludus—also their word for child’s play?