” play-based learning” “enquiry learning” ” project learning” investigative learning”
Why do I feel a sense of despair in the pit of my stomach when I hear these labels being tossed around like the lettuce in my mixed salad? Is it the implied simplicity that accompanies such statements as ‘Just follow the interest of the learner’, or is it the assumption that all our students come to the table with a strong language foundation that equips them to engage in the openness and by some form of osmosis develop the necessary skills and competencies to engage with the multitude of learning opportunities offered?
Don’t get me wrong, I believe in play as an essential part of the learning process. I believe in and in fact am a strong advocate of ‘personalization’ (Breakthrough, Fullan, Hill &Crevola, 2006). My concern stems from the assumption that these things are ‘new’ discoveries, and that they have arisen out of recent research that is associated with the solid body of evidence which does in fact support precision as a means to personalization.
As a way of an example I will take the approach to play-based learning known as the Reggio Emilia approach. This is currently being considered by some educators as an approach to learning that is fitting for the 21st century classroom. Malaguzzi in Reggio Emilia, Italy founded the Reggio Emilia Philosophy in 1945. This program was developed as a way to get children who had been through the depression years and the war, thinking and acting independently and being allowed to explore and have a sense of freedom. It begs the question as to why would we be looking to understandings from 1945, to inform our understandings of learning in 2011? The intense interest in such programs stems from the integration of early childhood practices with those of formal schooling.
Instead of looking to balancing our Kindergarten (JK,SK)/Reception/Preparatory classes by assimilating play and exploration into the formal aspects of reading ,writing and mathematics. There is a move, I believe, to turn back the clock. Over the past 15 years my research and work has shown time and time again-across three continents and in four different countries, that the first year of schooling is the most critical foundational learning period. It is where teachers in normal classroom settings actually can achieve accelerative learning for their students. Let’s not forget what we have learned and know. Let’s not throw out that baby with this bathwater. What happened to our understandings of judging approaches and programs on the evidence of the impact on learning for all our students?
For many early childhood educators, a play-based curriculum is the only learning process that they consider. For others the jury is still out. For me, I reflect upon fifteen years of evidence that show there can be up to forty percent of students entering Kindergarten/Reception who are unable to understand all but the easiest of instructions. What happens to those students when we ‘follow their interests’ but fail to explicitly instruct and have precision to inform the small group and whole class intentional instruction? How can they connect with the prolonged exposure to the dialogue and extended thinking when they cannot even follow a simple instruction or a story read to them in their classroom?
I began my research in 1995 in this exact same place, now I find I am having the exact same conversations that I had sixteen years ago. Are we really going back there again? Have we not learned some things along the way to re-enter this discussion much further along the track with our understandings of the importance of language to learning and thinking? Maybe nervous is not what I am, maybe I am frustrated that we allow this incessant swinging of the educational pendulum.
What are your thoughts? I welcome the debate and sharing of ideas.
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