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Creative Play and Scientific Inquiry, Part 2: A Mandate to Make Learning Meaningful

Anthony Cody

Science Coach and mentor, Oakland, California
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This is the second part of a two-part entry. Read part one.

In many of our schools, we have stopped giving our students real creative challenges because there is not enough time for anything open ended. Open-ended projects, by their very design, allow students to explore a wide variety of interests, concepts, and skills. That means we can't easily assess these projects with a multiple-choice test; therefore, schools suffer when they pursue them. Low-performing schools believe they must spend every available instructional minute focused on tasks that will raise standardized test scores.

So our kindergartners miss out on creative play. Our elementary school students lose opportunities to explore science by reading what interests them instead of the carefully selected readers we provide. Our middle school students spend their science-class time memorizing rather than investigating. And our high school students simply walk away because they no longer care what is on the test, having become disengaged years before.

At the same time, we expand the capacity at our prisons, already filled with people who lack self-control. We incarcerate more than 1 percent of the total population and more than 10 percent of young African American men. It may seem strange to make this juxtaposition, but I believe that the ability of our young children to play, explore, and satisfy their curiosity is far more than child's play: It is a matter of life and death.

I only hope the reexamination of the whole standardized-testing project that awaits us after the demise of the No Child Left Behind Act -- and I do believe its days are numbered -- will yield some deeper questions about the nature of education. This shift does not mean we will ignore the ability to read. It means we seek to inspire students by having them read material they are interested in reading. It doesn't mean we do not teach math skills. It means we must be creative in developing a true interest for math in our students, so they develop their skills by solving real problems. It doesn't mean we make science easier. It means we challenge students to design and perform real experiments, rather than simply memorize facts.

For me, there are a couple of questions: How can we teach our students the most profound lesson of all -- to be responsible for their own knowledge? How can we teach them to have an awareness of and curiosity about the world around them? We need to evoke the scientist, the writer, the solver of mathematical conundrums, the historian, the musician, the dancer, and the athlete that resides within each student. Our students are waiting to be challenged by their own curiosity, by their own creativity, and by the thrill that comes from expressing their own unique humanity. My mission as a teacher is to get them to that point, not just to prepare them for a test.

Please share your thoughts.

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Anthony Cody

Science Coach and mentor, Oakland, California

Comments (20) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

jennifer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have a good friend who works in a district very similiar to mine (very low-income, high risk students). He and his district have been conducting research on inquiry-based teaching and the effectiveness with high poverty students. From the limited population he is looking at it seems to be very important for their own movitavtion to learn. He teaches 4 middle school classes or periods of science. Two of the classes are hands on, inquiry-based. The other two classes are book dominant. In the past 2 years he has been conducting his research all 4 classes score about the same on his assessments. The class that is hands on, however, has many more students participating in everyday class work. He has also noticed a drop in discipline referrals in those classes. Many times his hands on class will get onto a topic unrelated to curriculum, but they get excited about it (i.e. a show on the national geographic channel). I think this type of motivation is essential to producing life long learners. That should be the goal of educator, not taking a test.

Daydra (Greensboro, NC)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too believe that students are spending most of their academic learning time being taught the test. Students spend so much time memorizing facts and details that they are not able to apply the material to real-world situations. They lack a very important skill--problem solving.

When I was in school I do not remember so much emphasis being placed on standardized tests. We did however learn a multitude of things in every subject--not just those being tested. The things we learned were used throughout the school year in many different situations helping us to retain the information.

I try to use similar methods in my teaching by relating concepts across subjects and using hands-on-activities. This is extremely helpful because I work with the special needs population who need ways to connect information in order to retrieve it later.

The hardest thing for my students to do is to take information they have learned and apply it to various situations and problems. If things are not word for word or number for number the same way they learned them, it looks foreign to them. I am sure this is not only a special education thing.

What do you all see among your student population?

Stacy Nigro's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Too Much Testing!?
I write an exclamation mark and a question mark in my title because I truly mean it as a statement and a question. Testing is obviously beneficial to figure out the levels of our students and to help us figure out what we have to do to make sure they are all on the right track. The problem is when is testing too much?
I am currently teaching second grade and it seems like every other day we are testing for something. Cramming in a section of the test whenever we have a spare minute. When testing becomes overwhelming for the teacher it makes me wonder how my students can handle it. I attempt to be as creative and hands on as much as possible but the truth is there is so little time. My goal is to produce life-long learners who will be productive citizens. It bothers me when it seems like administration and more so state are so worried about test scores that the "My Favorite Book" displays are simply wall hangings.

Kimberly C's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that today's students face an overwhelming amount of testing. With all the time that is spent preparing for tests, many basic skills seem to get lost in the school day. I am an art teacher at a large subburban elementary school outside of Atlanta. I have a unique perspective in that I don't test and don't have to prepare students for testing. Instead, I emphasize the ever-increasing lost art of problem solving and reasoning. I give students perameters of the assignment and ask them to complete their project in any of a number of ways that meet those guidelines. Anytime I have new students, who aren't used to this way of working, they follow me around the room asking, "Is this right?" or "Can I do this here?". It is sad, sometimes, with the lack of ability they have to make even the simpliest of decisions for themselves. I am proud, however, to see their progress over time, and to hear kids think out all the ways they could go about doing something, and then figuring out which would work best. I enjoy teaching art because I do strongly agree that students need that experimental, "think outside the textbook" time, to truly develop into well-rounded human beings.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

When I was in school, we took standardized tests, but we were not failed based soley on the test scores. Students were also judged on classroom performance and assignments. Even typically developing students need to be able to apply the topics taught in school to everyday life otherwise they do not truly get the concept and remember it. I think that teachers of regular education populations should take your special education approach to hands on learning so that children internalize the lessons.

Beth Libby's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I, too, am an art teacher in a suburban town outside of Portland, Maine. I see some of the same stagnated thinking described by Kimberly. The idea of an elementary art program is for students to take the stimulus and problem presented and be able to solve the problem by working and thinking through it. In other words, they have to think creatively. They need to be able to look at another artist for inspiration and apply their own ideas and knowledge to the problem they want to solve. They need to be able to come up with new ideas and images, not regurgitate something that's been given to them. They need to be able to implement their own "wild card" where their thoughts are put into action. This type of thinking supports Anthony Cody's comment that "open ended projects, by their very design, allow students to explore a wide variety of interests, concepts and skills." I maintain this type of thinking is critical to science, math and learning about the lessons history provides for us. This all starts with creative play where young children are hard wiring their brains to think outside the box. "Is this OK?", a student will ask. I answer, "What do you think?" or "Who's the artist on your art work?" Sometimes I receive the deer in the headlights look but often I see the empowerment students are looking for to think for themselves. Creative play does translate into creative thinkers.

Amber's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a Pre-K teacher, I often became frustrated with child-intiated learning until I read "What Kids Really Learn In Preschool" in Parents magazine (September 2007, p. 216). I felt as I needed to be teaching ABCs and 123s so my students would be "ready" for Kindergarten. After reading the article, I learned what children learn in Preschool. I agree that children need meaningful learning opportunities. Now when parents enter my classroom, I feel comfortable explaining why play is important for 4-year olds. These child-initiated activities are helping my students develop social skills as well as teaching them responsiblity.

leanne's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a kindergarten teacher, I am constantly trying to promote children to explore different activities. I want them to be curious about the world around them. I have a variety of stations set up in my classroom, but love when children create their own play activities. In order to for students to succeed, they need to want to learn. It is important that children learn to discover the process of learning instead of always being instructed to. My job as a teacher is to make school an enjoyable experience, and to increase children's motivation to learn. I agree that play activities are extremely important for children because they allow students to have social interactions, thus learning social skills. As teachers, we need to make sure creative play never leaves the classroom!

Ruviolet's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a science educator, it is evident that without inquiry there is no science. If there was never inquiry, would there have been any Galileo, Edison, Newton, or George Washington Carvers? I think not, and the world as we know it with its conveniences would not exist. We must realize that some parameter free thinking allows students to use their brains and think of wonderful ideas and explanations outside of the box that shows that they understand and grasp the concepts presented. We must show our students that it is okay to not always know the right answer. It is our duty to show them how to investigate and inquire to discover.

Jackie Brotherton's picture

As a Kindergarten teacher, I am struggling with advocating for time to "play", especially under increasing pressure and accountability from administration in our district. Thank you to the bloggers here who cited research that I can delve into further to help me justify the developmental need for play! Your resources are invaluable to me.

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