The picture above has made its rounds through the many social media outlets.
This specific picture was taken from Instagram. It does a wonderful job depicting the goal of school; to prepare students for the life ahead of them. When we look a little closer we see that the school system seems to 'know' the path of the student before the student's life is even created. The system has life all laid out for children that don't even exist yet. Do you see the person making a run for it? This is an 'unexpected system error.' If you don't fit the mould, you're accommodated with a bright light and any means necessary to get you 'back on track.'
To be fair, the system exists for a reason. Just as we looked back at the history of the child to determine what our view of children is, we must too determine how the system became what it is to help understand why it is.
You may have heard that the origin of summer vacation is rooted in the agrarian calendar. This is a misnomer. The school calendar, with its substantial summer break was the compromise of the people and the system. Kenneth M. Gold, in his book 'School’s In: The History of Summer Education in American Public Schools' tells us that summer vacation is the result of upper and middle class families wanting to flee the cities during the summer months to escape the summer heat. "A long break would give teachers needed time to train and give kids a break. And while summer was the logical time to take off, the cycles of farming had nothing to do with it" writes Gold. You see, The System isn't bad, or at least it isn't meant to be bad. But it does come with strings attached.
Public education is a product of the state. The above image reminds us that public education systems are influenced by more than just their purpose. In Sir Ken Robinson's TedTalk 'Changing Education Paradigms' he makes several key points about the current state of public education: (to watch the full video click here)
The goals of public education are to nurture children that can take our place in the economy and to build citizens that will carry on our cultural identity. Each country holds its own identity, and passing this on seems vital to the survival of the country as it is presently known. A state run education system has a vested interest in maintaining it's cultural relevance in a world undergoing globalization.
The current system was designed for a "different age." It was conceived during the industrial revolution. If the state can 'train' all of the children to get and maintain jobs, our society will advance. When we look at how our current schools are organized we can see the influence of industrialization. We ring bells and separate our learning into different subjects. We also group our children by "batches" such as age and ability.
I have often told people that I believe the goal of public education is and should be 'to create positive, contributing members of society.' The above points support this belief. However, public education and I may share different view points on what society is and should be.
I believe that society can exist without the strains of modern politics. But, in the words of Paulo Freire, "No education is politically neutral." The lead up to any election often sees reform to education that will sway votes their way. In Ontario, where I am from, the current government was re-elected, in part because they reached an agreement with elementary educators in the weeks leading up to the campaign. This element of public education is hard to change from inside the classroom. But, from the vantage point of the educator, money, liability and the purpose of education are areas that allow for creative flexibility. The following is designed to help show you the flexibility that lies within public education policy and will highlight some of the more prominent areas of contention between policy and pedagogy.
These areas will be:
As you move through the next four areas we need to take with us an understanding of play-based learning. The Ontario Kindergarten Program (2016) document outlines the fundamental principles of play-based learning on page 12 of the document. It states that:
play is a right under the United Nations Convention
play is essential to the development of children's cognitive, physical, social and emotional well being.
play-based learning honours every child's views, ideas and theories
play and inquiry engage, challenge and energize children
children's choices in play are the best starting points for the co-constrcution of learning with the child
educators extend children's learning by observing, listening, provoking, questioning, providing feedback and giving explicit instructions at the right time!
The question still remains, what is play? I have been involved in many debates with colleagues about what play really is. Some people believe play is simply having fun. Others believe play is a past time for children only. Still others believe that play can be the result of adults telling children to go to the block center to build a tower taller than themselves. But to find the true meaning of play I look to Dr. Mannell and Dr. Kleiber. In their work 'A Social Psychology of Leisure' they define play as being intrinsically motivated. They then site the famed Hungarian phsycologist Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi when they link intrinsic motivation to Dr. Csikszentmihalyi's concept of FLOW. Flow is a "highly focused mental state" that originates from intrinsically motivated factors. When the challenge meets one's peak ability level during an activity that is intrinsically motivated, one experience flow. Basically, if you choose to do something and that something is pushing your ability level to the brink, but not beyond, you enter a "highly focused mental state." It is through play that children (and adults if you ask me) experience, assess and build on their funds of knowledge in the most authentic way.
The Reggio Emilia Approach, the Te Whāriki curriculum (from New Zealand's public education system) and many other Early Childhood education curricula from around the world rely on play based learning. The public school systems in North America are beginning to recognize its importance and are implementing curricula that honour play based learning. Many provinces in Canada have or are currently adopting play based learning models. British Columbia and Ontario are leading the way with their current models of full day kindergarten but they are not alone. The curricula for Saskatchewan (although not full day), Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Soctia as well as Newfoundland are at the beginning of their implementation. In the United States, the federal act No Child Left Behind and its subsequent 'blueprint for reform' encourage play based learning in early years settings. As we examine the four areas listed above to uncover the policy versus pedagogy tension, it is important that you keep the research backed importance of play based learning, specifically remembering that play, in it's essence, is very much a personal choice, at the forefront of your thinking.