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Sunday, November 9, 2008

Play, Imagination and School

I’ve come to realize that the word ‘play’ has been included in the four letter word category by many educational policy makers. Have we as a nation drifted so far off balance that play, the rich soil imagination springs from, has no educational value for those that make education policy? There are many in that community who believe play should be given a scarlet letter and put in the stocks for public scorn?

When I started teaching in 1983 America was reacting to a report called “A Nation at Risk”. The report said America needed to toughen its educational standards so our children could compete with their peers in other industrialized nations. It was a call to arms. The states began reviewing curriculum. Standards were set and high stakes testing became the flavor of the end of the 19th century. I was a believer in the change. I felt American education needed reform. I raised expectations in my classroom. I asked my students to reach higher.

Then, as we’ve done so many times in the past, the educational community carried standards and testing to the extreme. We sped past balance taking students to the opposite side of the scale. Today we see the resutls of those policies. Our schools are fast becoming testing factories. We have inputs and outputs and, like any kitchen gadget, we believe we can analyze that output with a set scale to determine success or failure.

We are where Japan was in the 1980’s. I remember all to well hearing and reading reports on the Japanese industrial education system. To be successfull, Japanese children attended school six days a week. Intense testing was paired with intense pressure to achieve. I remember reading that the suicide rate of Japanese teens was one of the highest in the world. My educator friends and I became concerned that our school’s would follow that model. We haven’t gotten there yet but we easily could if we are not careful.

I believe American schools should foster the qualities that made America great. Our ancestors came to this country to make a better life for themselves and their families. They were extraordinary risk takers. They saw opportunities and took action. They dreamed big. They had powerful imaginations. They had an intense desire to take control of their lives. No longer would they be puppets to unbearable circumstances . They were pioneers in every sense of the word. They wondered what was on the other side of the mountain. That wonder was matched with effort. They put on the backpack, reached for the walking stick, and set out on voyages of discovery.

Are we fostering that spirit of discovery and independence in our schools? Are we teaching our children to take responsibility for their learning? Are we teaching them the joy and sometimes heartache of making decisions and living with the outcomes? Are we teaching them to dream the impossible? Are we teaching them to imagine what can be and make it happen?

Are our schools ships of discovery? Are the ships at sea exploring strange new worlds and facing fierce billowing storms or are they still in port never leaving the safety of the harbor? Is education structured so our students test well but cannot stand on their own feet in the real world because their intellectual foundation didn’t prepare them to think and reason? Are our students up in the rigging setting the sails? Are they scrubbing the deck and polishing the brass? Are they on the midnight watch? Are they partners in their education or are we creating performing monkeys?

America needs its pioneers. America needs its free thinkers. America needs the risk takers who ask “Why Not?” and then forge ahead. We must be careful as we prepare the next generation. Let us foster imagination. Let us foster individuality. Let us be careful not try to force the square block through the round hole.

I urge America to be careful with standardization and teaching to the test. It has a part to play in education but should it be the primary driving force of American schools? I say no.

Would it hurt to let a student out of the corral? Would it hurt to spend a fraction of the school day on meaningful play and imagination? Would it destroy children’s futures if we let them hear music again? Would all be lost if students painted a picture or sang a song? Would the world stop turning if stuents were given time to be children again and play?

Space Center students, get involved in your education. Get up in the rigging and let the sails down. Take learning out of the harbor and into the unpredictable seas. Your journeys may be difficult but I promise they will be unforgettable. Do you feel the wind? Out there is your future. As an American teacher I say, “Let’s discover your future together”.
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