Play for Learning Environments

In The New Culture of Learning, Thomas and Brown make the case that we have entered a new paradigm in learning. I differ with the authors that the “new culture” is really all that new. For example, comparing Encyclopaedia Brittanica to Wikipedia, they opine that “making knowledge stable in a changing world is an unwinnable game”  and that encyclopedias are “a good example of the ongoing effort to preserve knowledge in a fixed form,”  as though encyclopedias are published once and not updated regularly. What has changed, however, is the speed, democratization, and transparency afforded by the medium and metadata .

What is Old is New Again

Similarly, the promise of the late-aughts that blogs would usher in a golden age of collaboration and break the publisher-consumer model  has, at best, migrated over to social media . Some new media empires have been created, some old media empires have adapted, but the blog as it was has all but disappeared. Years of blogging even caused Andrew Sullivan of “The Daily Dish” to “yearn for other, older forms.” 

All this is not to discredit the book’s main points about learning but rather to show that King Solomon was correct, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9, English Standard Version). What the World Wide Web has done is less about something new and more about undoing, albeit in a different form, some of the effects of industrialization. So too, what is old is new again in learning methods.

Thomas and Brown reference play as an essential part of the “new” culture, but watching a young child learning the world will demonstrate that nothing is as natural as learning through play. In fact, Stuart Brown notes that the propensity to play well in adulthood sets us apart from animals .

Incorporating Play in Developmental Education

How, then, can I incorporate meaningful play into developmental education? Math, being so concrete, seemed particularly challenging. Sure, plenty of math games have been written, but the vast majority amount to flash cards dressed up with fun graphics. How can the play be more meaningful? Thomas and Brown’s definition of play, “the tension between the rules of the game and the freedom to act within those rules” , provides the framework. To create a meaningful play environment, then, one needs to create the structure in a way that allows freedom for the learner to explore within.

In discussing developmental math with one of the professors here at Sauk, he noted that many math students have learned a foundational principal foundation incorrectly which causes them to struggle in math for years. He suggested that what many students need is “math therapy,” where an instructor could find the source(s) of the error and then work on correcting that root problem.

One possibility might be to have different types of math problems, give the student the answer, and then have work toward that answer. Once the student has a solution, they can then be shown other similar problems and answers to test their solution (of course, demonstrations of the “right” way to solve the problem could be provided as well). By presenting it as a challenge in this way, I think it could help the student understand there could be other ways to get to an answer and open them up to learning a better way than what they may have learned earlier.

This is, of course, just one possible example. This way of thinking about play, though, provides a for how to develop learning environments that provide enough structure and “rules” to challenge the student, but enough flexibility to make the learning environment meaningful for the student.