On many Fridays I like to take a topic that I’ve found from elsewhere on the Internet and share my thoughts on it here. It’s a nice way to hear what others are thinking, learning, and how they’re growing in their educational lives. That, and it makes for some good personal reflection.
I spent this week reading through a couple of articles for my graduate level seminar course. The one that caught my attention the most was a paper that came out of the MIT Media Lab, written by Mitchell Resnick. The paper, (which you can download and read with this link) “Computer as Paintbrush: Technology, Play, and the Creative Society“, paints a picture of playtime as learning time. Not just the average run of the mill playtime with blocks, crayons, and toys; but rather play time as serious problem-solving engagement time. Something almost akin to the Montessori method; allow children to have the tools and the time to learn, experiment, fail, and ultimately achieve on their own.
Which got me thinking. In my unique situation as a computer lab teacher, my lessons, teaching goals, and methods can often conflict with the student’s expectations. The students come into my room and they want to play on the computer. Games, drawing, internet; they don’t care what it is, they just want to play. I have clear standards and goals for them to master, or at least be introduced to, and can’t justify letting them play all the time. Which is the problem. I personally believe that allowing a learner time to play with a new program, website, or piece of software, will help them pick up new skills faster, make deeper connections with how programs work in general, and give them the chance to discover those all important “this is totally SWEET ” moments.
As I write this, a 4th grade class is exploring Art Rage, a fabulous art simulation program that all schools should have installed on their computers. This is the 3rd year I’ve worked with this program, and by giving them time to play, they make important discoveries about what’s important to them in the program. Some students become experts in erasing, undoing, and eliminating mistakes with the many tools they have. Others get excited when they discover that they can zoom in on their painting, or move the canvas around with a right-click drag. And the truly artistic start playing with all of the drawing tools, and manipulating the settings until they can draw the most perfect bunch of purple grapes. Their excitement with the painting program is ten fold the amount it would be if I had simply told them to open up this new painting program, and then had them start painting and authoritatively instructing them on how to use the tools. When I assign them their self-portrait project next week, they will feel much more prepared, and feel more confident because they’ll be basing their work on their own personal trails and errors, not on what “Mr. Rimes told them to do”.
However, there needs to be a balance. If I let them play for too long, or too often, students will enter my room with the notion that “computer lab = play time”. Many students will enter asking “Do we have free time today?!” week after week in hopes that they will get to play. In every class there are also a few students who will purposely neglect work in order to continue playing. They already understand the concepts I’m teaching them, and how to manipulate the program, I just haven’t provided them with a compelling enough reason to stop playing.
Then again, there are some programs that I can’t expect the students to just “play with” and figure out. Google Earth is a great example of a very unintuitive experience for elementary students. Flying to places is simple enough, but creating placemarks, adding folders, and then organizing those placemarks by folders is something I have yet to see a student just “pick up” on their own. It requires careful planning on my part to disguise the tutorials for Google Earth as “games.” I imagine the challenge is akin to what video game designers must go through in planning tutorials for their proprietary game or control systems.
Where to strike the balance between play and instruction can be difficult, especially with a classroom full of a wide range of learning styles, disabilities, and students that bring with them a diverse background knowledge. How do we as educators, find the perfect balance of play?