Playing to learn what?

In Old Whine, New Bottle, Robert Pondiscio rips a New York Times op-ed, Playing to Learn by Susan Engel, a lecturer in psychology and director of the teaching program at Williams College.  Engel imagines a third-grade classroom where children

“…spend two hours each day hearing stories read aloud, reading aloud themselves, telling stories to one another and reading on their own. After all, the first step to literacy is simply being immersed, through conversation and storytelling, in a reading environment; the second is to read a lot and often.”

Pondiscio wonders why “phonics and decoding is neither the first or even the second ‘step to literacy’.”  And what about curriculum and content?

Engel wants children to spend “an hour a day writing things that have actual meaning to them — stories, newspaper articles, captions for cartoons, letters to one another.”

That’s three hours on reading and writing. But only “a short period” would be spent practicing computation.

Once children are proficient in those basics they would be free to turn to other activities that are equally essential for math and science: devising original experiments, observing the natural world and counting things, whether they be words, events or people.

Students wouldn’t learn “isolated mathematical formulas” or memorize “sheets of science facts that are unlikely to matter much in the long run.” (Do third graders learn math formulas — isolated or not — or memorize sheets of science facts?)

Scientists know that children learn best by putting experiences together in new ways. They construct knowledge; they don’t swallow it.

Teachers would have conversations with small groups of children so they could have “a chance to support their views with evidence, change their minds and use questions as a way to learn more.”

And there would be lots of time for play and collaboration.

Pondiscio writes:

In short, Professor Engel is offering not one new idea here, but rather a steaming gumbo of fads, failed ed school homilies and constructivist ideology.

It does seem like the kiddies are going to teach themselves reading, writing, math and science with the teacher needed only to engage in conversations.  They’re going to construct knowledge from the sort of experiences available to third graders. It sounds . . . confusing. I don’t think I could or would have come up with meaningful science experiments in third grade or devised instructional math games. I certainly didn’t spend my play time counting things, though I was one of the few third graders who wrote newspaper articles in my free time for The Wednesday Report, which I founded with my best friend, Janice. (Janice went on to become a botanist and I don’t remember her doing freelance science experiments either.)

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  1. Interestingly, a colleague and I were just discussing how today’s youth are not taught to think. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t have dozens of 13-year-olds saying “Now, what do I do?” or “I don’t understand.” Or, worse yet, they sit and stare into space, waiting for me to give them every single step to an activity.

    I do believe that more individual thinking activities, like reading and writing about current events, would certainly go a long way to improving the average American student.

  2. Mark,

    You need to have a head full of knowledge to think. You cannot be “taught to think”. James Joyce said, “Imagination is memory”. If your long-term memory is filled with knowledge of Indonesian coral reefs, how viruses replicate, the lives of Japanese courtiers at Kyoto, light-rail systems, and horror stories of tyrannical regimes throughout history one can IMAGINE. History class, in particular, is nutritious food for the imagination. The Chinese ground up scabs of smallpox victims and shoved them up the noses of healthy people. Wow. If all you know is the local mall and computer games, and all you do in school is read vapid kid lit, you have no fuel for imagination.

    Engel falls prey to the same dreamy delusion that knowledge is the enemy of imagination. The opposite is true. Einstein really blundered when he said “Imagination is more important than knowledge”. It’s not, because knowledge (stored in memory) is the mother of imagination.

    Thinking skills are congenital. Teachers fool themselves if they think they are imparting an ability to analyze, compare and contrast, make inferences, etc. This stuff is the hardware of the mind. School provides the software: knowledge. Unfortunately, we’re installing lame software right now. A content-rich curriculum allows the hardware to operate optimally.

  3. Conversation and storytelling, enjoyable though they are, are hardly characteristic of “a reading environment.” They were the mainstays of a preliterate environment.

  4. tim-10-ber says:

    I am amazed daily at the ability of my kids to think for themselves. One has been a free thinker since an early age — I believe it is because he is so creative. He has been able to see through the fluff and go to the core and then connect the dots and draw his own conclusions. I know this did not come from his days in his failed government schools. I believe it came from him having the resources he needed to explore his ideas, asking questions, people listening to him and draws his own conclusions. His government 7th grade math teacher tried to squash this when she insisted he show his math work on paper…she could not understand he knew the answers and that was all that mattered.

    My younger son is much more linear in his approach. He sees where he wants to go. How he works through this I do not know He did not get this from his government schools (better than this brother’s). I truly think his was born this way as I noticed this ability when he was three.

    I believe the child’s ability to think is innate. They need to be given the tools or basic encouragement to fine tune these skills. Kids are curious…they love to figure things out. They are always asking why in order to increase their knowledge base and help fine tune their ideas. However, in school they are not given this luxury or freedom. They are told what to do, when to do it, how to do it and that there is only one correct way to do it

    Teachers need to read Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach. It is a fascinating book. I would have loved to have been in his classes…

  5. Diana Senechal says:

    The curious thing is that even (or especially) in the “inquiry-based” classrooms, children are told what to think, when to think it, and what to do with it.

    Group work can become chaotic very easily, so teachers have to structure it precisely, making clear to each student what task he or she is supposed to complete. And then as things work out, the groups tend to arrive at “consensus” very quickly instead of taking the time to think the matters through.

    When there is nothing substantial to think about, the tasks become routine, and the ideas start to resemble each other. If we really want to encourage students to think for themselves, we must give them plenty to think about and a foundation for doing so. Otherwise we actually teach students to think alike, in the name of critical thinking.

  6. Play-based learning is important. But it’s also what happens mostly outside of school hours. Or should.

  7. Roger Sweeny says:


    Wow. I wish I’d thought of that.

  8. Student of History says:

    One of the experts testifying in the Seattle inquiry learning textbook trial phrased this well:

    “It is a rare student who is able to synthesize experience into a correct and precise statement of mathematical truth” .

    All too often the inquiry classroom urged by Engel results in highly engaged kids spreading misconceptions. Without enough content knowledge, who will correct the erroneous ideas or recognize all the cracks in the foundation of individual knowledge?

    Is it okay to be ignorant if everyone is getting along together?

  9. In fairness to Engels, a third grade teacher should not have to emphasize phonics and decoding. The kids have already had three years to learn that, and should be ready to just read. They may need some support in figuring out new words and sentence structures, but if they cannot read on their own, they don’t belong in third grade yet.

    OTOH, my experience is that most people, even quite literate adults, will not read on their own, just for the pleasure of it. They need a goal or purpose, and being able to do next year’s school work is too abstract and distant a goal for third graders. Or most college students…

    I probably would have taught myself everything I needed to know about English, much quicker than I actually learned it, if I’d been turned loose in a room full of good books, and occasionally required to write a report, and I did teach myself much more science than any of my teachers before high school knew. But there would be little reading getting done in the classroom Engel describes, and 99% of the discussion in those discussion groups would have nothing to do with education.

    As for math, Engel might as well expect each generation to discover fire and invent the wheel on its own.

  10. I tend to conceptualize group work as guided practice. It may be practice in analytical thinking, but I’m not expecting the kids to discover great truths like a room of monkeys playing with typewriters.


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