Playing to Learn

Yesterday’s New York Times had a wonderful op-ed by Susan Engel, Playing to Learn, about the pressing need to completely overhaul the education system. Instead of schools focusing so much on standards and facts, the author writes:

So what should children be able to do by age 12, or the time they leave elementary school? They should be able to read a chapter book, write a story and a compelling essay; know how to add, subtract, divide and multiply numbers; detect patterns in complex phenomena; use evidence to support an opinion; be part of a group of people who are not their family; and engage in an exchange of ideas in conversation. If all elementary school students mastered these abilities, they would be prepared to learn almost anything in high school and college.

With that in mind, schools could be an engaging place where students read for 2 hours a day, write about subjects that are meaningful to them, practice the math basics (and then go on to activities that are equally essential for math and science such as devising original experiments and observing the natural world), and have plenty of time to play.

Is anyone listening?

Read the piece here and then copy and send it to the principal of your child’s elementary and middle school.

25 thoughts on “Playing to Learn

  1. Oh dear. I saw Engel’s essay via Kitchen Table Math.

    What Engel is proposing as “revolutionary” for literacy is just warmed-over Whole Language.

    What Engelis proposing for mathematics instruction is already in place — constructivist math which leaves almost all innumerate and unable to think mathematically.

    Now, go look at this video of a kindergarten class — it’s the opening of the day, plus a brief lesson in sound-symbol correspondence.

    These children are engaged and learning. It’s the opposite of what Engel proposes.


  2. I could only watch half of that video. So that’s what “engaged” looks like. Learning what? To be parrots. To obey the rules in a mindless fashion. Does that poor teacher have only a script to fill her days?

    I wish I had a video of what I’ve seen go on in my child’s classroom. Small groups of 4 or 5 kids, sitting or standing at large child-height tables….chatting, sometimes laughing, hands busy, heads down, pasting, writing, constructing…sometimes watching/observing. The teacher talking in quiet tones offering suggestions, asking questions.

    I “get” what goes on in my child’s classroom. I don’t understand what I saw on that video….it frightens me.


  3. That was the most horrible education video I have ever watched. This goes beyond scary. This does not resemble anything I have learned or practiced in my 17 years as an educator. What was demonstrated in the video is all about mindless compliance, authoritative leadership, and only a hint of actual learning. It seems that the rules that the students were to follow needed daily repetition. Might this be due to a mismatch between the goal of learning and the learning environment? How can anyone expect children to engage in original, authentic, and meaningful discussions and activities when their heads are full of monkey-see-monkey-do verbiage? Why must there be posted incentives on the wall for prizes and parties? Is the environment not worthwhile as it is? Should any educator really have to bribe children to be good? I have found (for many years now) that the more respect I give students, the more I get back AND the more they seem to respect each other. And I teach thirteen-year-olds – the ones that many say are the worst of the bunch! All students can achieve greatness but few will be inspired to do so because an authoritarian dictator with a teaching degree tries to make them.


  4. Holy cow. How can this be called “whole brain”? There’s no room for an independent thought. There’s no room for creativity or imagination. Those are important brain functions.

    I get that there are problems with constructivist math curricula. But if this is the alternative, I’ll take the constructivists any day. Maybe they forgot to teach the kids how to divide fractions, but at least they’ve got room the kids get to be human beings.


  5. I just watched half the video. I’m headed out of town and will look at the rest when I come back. Not sure I need to see more. I agree with the others here.

    This is “whole brain?” More like brainwashing to me. These kids are automatons. They are merely parroting back what the teacher is asking them to do. It is very teacher directed, she is front and center, except when she lets some other kid parrot her rules, and the children are not exhibiting any independent thought.

    I agree with FedUpMom. I’ll take constructivist education over this any day. At least there, the children are truly engaged, happy, self directed and curious. These children are rewarded for playing the game, not stepping out line, being quiet, compliant, and following directions. Read the comments. It is disturbing that so many teachers embraced this video.

    These small children are being conditioned early on to please the teacher, play by the rules, not to rock the boat, and god forbid, have an original thought. Let’s pray there are no Einsteins or Edisons in this group for surely they would be put in their place quickly and no doubt punished for coloring outside the lines.


  6. You know what kept coming to my mind as I watched that video…..? The creation of the next generation of fast food workers. Or army boot camp maybe..

    “Did you want the meal or the sandwich?”

    “Any fries with that?”

    I think the point…and I may be wrong about this…. is to get the kids physically involved as they chant mindlessly. Maybe this is multitasking at its finest…

    And on top of all that, it was grating to the ears. There’s no melody, just yelling.


  7. PsychMom, my first thought as I began to watch was military training. I found it not only disturbing but downright scary. We are in awe of China these days. Just how much, we need to ask.

    Just goes to show you you can never take democracy for granted. When things creep up on society little by little, the general public is caught unawares. I’m reminded of that famous Thomas Jefferson quote: “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” Please let’s be vigilant. This may not lead to something nefarious but it doesn’t matter. It’s killing thought and innovation early. And we need people to be aware.

    A well known Holocaust survivor who has written several books, once said to me, “You Americans are such a messy bunch. And I love it. You are all so rebellious. You are all such vocal thinkers. This is good. It means I can die assured the Holocaust will never happen here. You won’t let it.” Let us remember her words. And decide that mindless obedience is not what this great country of ours, this land of freedom stands for.


  8. Is it those types of teachers who tell us we’re not good parents because we don’t fall in line and sign their reading logs?….ahhhh, now I see.

    I’ll take my deeply deprived math constructivist daughter, over that lunacy…any day.


  9. Yes, Psych. It’s a pecking order. I’m specifically addressing the teachers who lambaste us here, not the good inspiring ones.

    Take educ8, for example, who commented the other day and then, like Disillusioned says, was a hit and run. She is obedient and follows the dictates of the principal to the letter of the law, no questions asked. She then passes it on…to you! When you fail to fall in line, assembly line style, she is mystified and then angered. Slows down the mass production!

    Except we’re not making widgets, we’re not even making children. We are there to inspire and guide them so they can mold themselves.


  10. After viewing that video, I clicked on a couple of other YouTube related videos and I couldn’t believe what I saw. Please tell me that this “power teaching” or “whole brain teaching” or whatever they call it is not as common as it sounds. Please tell me that there are still good teachers out there like Susan Ohanian and those that actually care about a child’s own unique learning needs, or even look at a child as a human being. This new crazy technique is all about compliance and, like HomeworkBlues stated, assembly line teaching. I don’t even know what they’re trying to teach. I can’t imagine my own child in a class like this. I think he would be crying after 2 minutes from the noise alone. No doubt he would be labeled a disobediant trouble maker for refusing to go along with this nonsense.

    Unfortunately, I have experience too many teachers who are so focused on keeping a class compliant and in control that they will resort to any means such as bribes, threats, and punishments. Actual learning is not the primary goal. I can imagine how such a teacher would think that this new method of control is fabulous. Now they don’t even have to think up ways to control the kids – they can just follow the script including how many smiley faces and frowny faces to give out.

    If you want to be scared, watch a few more videos about this insanity:

    Here’s a power teaching training with reference to withholding recess and giving extra homework based on frowny faces:

    And an annoying first grade class:

    Please tell me that this type of “teaching” isn’t spreading! We have enough control freak teachers out there as it is. I will be having nightmares tonight.


  11. Hey, Anonymous, your post is too good to be Anonymous. Come up with a handle, as we used to say in the old days, so we can identify you! And thanks for the validation.

    Yes, very scary. Power Teaching. Oh, my. We have power breakfasts and power walks and now we have Power Teaching. The walks at least make sense. But Power Teaching? Let there be no mistake about it. We all know where the “Power” lies and it ain’t with the children.

    I know Susan Ohanian. She is that remarkable one of a kind teacher. She fights so hard to preserve this profession. For all the educational drek I see out there, a few notable teachers stand out. Why only a few? That is the most heartbreaking of all. Where did all the teachers go? If only Mary Travers were still alive, she could craft a song for our times.

    Teachers should be our greatest allies. What’s with all this control, mind bending and obedience? It is awfully scary and I’m glad we here at least, are wise to it.

    Peter Paul and Mary: “Where have all the flowers gone?”

    I saw this group almost every summer at Wolf Trap. And now Mary is gone.


  12. I watched the video and was reading some of the comments. Someone posted that classroom discipline (or lack of) was the number one reason “good” teachers leave the profession. I am so blown away that the classrooms of today are the same as the 1800’s. The paradigm of control before learning hasn’t changed much since the bygone days. HWB commented on how teachers are stuck in the fifties in regards to their relations to administration and parents (fuming, seething, and silent).

    When NCLB and uber-testing became all the rage; the factory school kicked into high gear. The robo- teachers I see in these videos will probably be replaced by REAL robots in the not so distant future. This might be a plus since robots don’t download their pent up rage to parents and children. Now, if only those pesky children could be replaced by robots, the whole system would run like a well oiled machine.


  13. I have a bad feeling that this is what KIPP schools look like. It’s horrifying to watch. It reminds me of the Hitler Youth. It’s more indoctrination than education.

    I can’t imagine what it would be like to be one of those kids, to have every moment of the day scripted, down to the gestures. Besides the obvious problems, I think it would lead to an incredibly shallow level of learning. There’s no time or privacy for a child to put together a thought in his head.

    Give the teacher a pitchfork, and you’d have a perfect vision of Hell.


  14. @ FedUpMom,
    I watched the 4th grade video, and was unimpressed, but I do feel the need to chime in to say that no, that wasn’t our experience with KIPP. My older daughter attended KIPP in 5th grade, and while there was a lot of homework, it was homework where I could see value. For instance, she had to write a page in a Composition book every night, but it was free-write, with maybe a theme thrown in, like tell a scary story for Halloween, or write about a mentor. It was not graded, but it was a chance for her to write and create, and she often looked forward to it. She went from an average student to a straight A student, and thrived there. (She also had music and art as part of her curriculum, which she loved, and they had opportunities to see the LA Philharmonic and other cool things.)
    Also, the teachers were required to answer cell phones ’til 9 pm if the students didn’t understand an assignment, and I could email them whenever I wanted and felt like I had true partners in her education than we ever had before. (I questioned the Principal on the amount of homework they received, and while he agrees that homework is not always helpful, he allowed the teachers to run their classrooms as they saw fit.)
    Having said that, I pulled her out after 5th grade because they put in a new Principal, and 2/3 of the teachers left, and I didn’t trust that the new Principal would keep the warm, supportive and yes, COLLABORATIVE environment that we felt in our time there. So I wouldn’t necessarily recommend KIPP as a blanket assessment, but it’s certainly worth exploring your local KIPP and seeing how you feel.


  15. Speaking of indoctrination, at some schools here, the children are made to do a happy dance the day before the state tests. They are forced to march and sing how happy they are to be testing the next day. Is that ominous, or what?


  16. April, I don’t have a “local KIPP”, it’s just something I’ve been reading about. I’m glad you had a good experience with a KIPP school, at least for a year.


  17. Imagine my surprise when I read something I pretty much agree with in Valerie Strauss’ column! It’s here:

    Basically, Willingham says what I’ve been suspecting for a while: progressive ed can be fabulous when it’s done well, but it’s hardly ever done well. When it’s done badly, you get a load of pointless mush. I think we’ve all seen this in action.

    You can be in favor of progressive ed, you can be in favor of traditional ed, but it all comes down to implementation. The best philosophy, implemented badly, can be a disaster.


  18. Also, I took a look at the Whole Brain website, and found this, under “Teaching Challenging Students”:

    If classroom instruction entertainingly engages the whole brain, students don’t have any mental area left over to create challenging behavior!

    In other words, if every moment is scripted, down to the words the kids say and the gestures they make, there’s no room in their heads for anything else. That’s not education, it’s brainwashing.


  19. Wow! I have to say I hear things like this quite a bit. WBT really needs to do something about those videos. I am hearing what is unfortunately a pretty common set of misconceptions about what WBT is and how teacher who use it actually operate.

    The videos you are seeing show the most basic beginning techniques used in WBT. Repetition is the basis of learning…initially, and that is all you are really seeing in these. The initial stages of teaching,

    I teach middle school science. We use very complex vocabulary. The kids need to learn the vocabulary to a point of mastery, and then be able to connect the vocabulary terms together to form bigger concepts, and then take these concepts and use inquiry, deductive reasoning, and collaborative learning, to create end products through analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

    We use the parts you are seeing, basic knowledge level using three sensory input systems instead of one, only to make sure that we are all speaking the same language. If my students cannot tell me the difference in bacterial, viral, fungal, and protist pathogens they cannot understand the interaction of the parts of the immune system in combating them in the body.

    You are incorrectly assuming that what you see is all there is to WBT. Furthermore, the average length of retention for common vocabulary words for most middle school students in a functional sense is three to six weeks before their memories are culled through the normal action of the brain’s memory management system. My kids, on the other hand, do not spend mindless hours writing down vocabulary, in fact we do not write down vocabulary. The retention time for my kids on any given vocabulary terms is in excess of fifteen weeks.

    WBT instructors expect that professional teachers will see the videos for what they are- the way to start out, and then modify them as they need.

    On the comment from “Teaching Challenging Teens” here:

    If class­room instruc­tion enter­tain­ingly engages the whole brain, stu­dents don’t have any men­tal area left over to cre­ate chal­leng­ing behav­ior!

    The poster is assuming that this refers to the robotic scripting of classes. The actual intent is that if you are making the classroom fun and engaging the kids will not feel a need to engage in such behaviors. Most challenging behavior results from kids being bored, or not understanding what is expected of them in class. Keeping the classroom fun and engaging eliminates the need for the kids to feel like they have to act out.

    I use the five rules, and the kids love it. I never have to yell at my kids, or even raise my voice. They handle most of the classroom management, and appreciate that I give that to them through the Scoreboard Game. If someone is talking while I am talking there is no confrontation, embarassment, or power struggle. I have the whole class quickly do the gesture and repeat rule two. No one is embarassed, I have not fussed at anyone directly, and there is no opportunity for a power struggle that could derail the class.

    I understand the objections I have seen, and would agree with them, if any of it were accurate. It is not the fault of the posters. I just think that those of us who actually use WBT and know what is really going on in these classrooms need to do a better job of demonstrating how we actually work so we can eliminate the unfortunate misconceptions some of these videos are leading to.

    The method is fun for them and for me. They are not parrots or robots. I am MOST CERTAINLY NOT training my students to be future fast food employees. My students are active, engaged learners. My students are being trained to be scientists, attorneys, physicians, architects, astronauts, engineers, CEO’s and entrepreneurs. They learn the basics through the methods you see, and then go so much further, using these methods as well as a variety of other methods.

    I am a Whole Brain Teacher.



  20. To Jeff,
    I don’t have time to write a full response but I think your last paragraph encapulates both your point and makes my point. You are happy to train students…and I ‘d say your method works well if that’s your goal. You are not training “sci­en­tists, attor­neys, physi­cians, archi­tects, astro­nauts, engi­neers, CEO’s and entre­pre­neurs” by the way….you are training 12,13 year old children. Those microbiology concepts that you described, BTW, were a part of my 2nd year microbiology course in university…not high school.

    I don’t send my child to school to be trained for anything. She’s not a seal…or unruly animal that needs to be kept in line. My goal for her education is to have the world opened up for her, and for her to be encouraged in the use of the tools available to her to explore what she’s interested in. I don’t want any brain cells taken up with remembering RULE #2.


  21. Jeff, WBT designs, produces and promotes the videos. I think it’s reasonable to assume that the videos show what WBT is about.

    You say, “the method is fun for them and fun for me.” Maybe your idea of “fun” is repeating rules out loud with prescribed gestures, but it isn’t mine.


  22. I have become very skeptical of teachers claiming their students love their class and are having fun. In my experience, teachers often don’t know what students think of them and their classes. I know of at least 2 instances when my daughter was deeply unhappy and the teachers causing her unhappiness had absolutely no idea. They thought she was “quiet”.


  23. FedUpMom – I agree with you completely. I think this teacher may be mistaking compliance with “fun”.

    He states, “I have not fussed at any­one directly, and there is no oppor­tu­nity for a power strug­gle that could derail the class.” No time for thinking either. I am disgusted that a middle school teacher would use such a juvenile behavioral control technique as the “scoreboard game”. My kids had a similar chart in first grade and, even at that young age, they were insulted by it.


  24. I have seen this video before, as well as others about power teaching, and I’d like to respond to some of the comments as well. I teach first grade in an urban school district. I teach in an area where children have no structure at home or in their environment outside of school, and therefore act out in deplorable and sometimes very violent ways in the classroom; therefore I think routine, rules and positive incentives (because no matter who you are or where you come from, people liked to be acknowledged for the good things they do) play an important role in keeping behaviors under control so that learning can take place. Teachers are not there to be drill sergeants and disciplinarians after all. What I did not like about the video, as an educator who is held to NCLB standards and all that that implies, is the lack of independent thought and creativity that the students displayed. It is very important for the students to know the rules and to be held accountable for their actions with incentives, and it is important for young children to have a routine that is somewhat predictable to help them feel ownership and control, but it is also important to let them stretch their minds and personalities, which Power Teaching does not seem to allow them to do. There is a lot of judgment passed on what is good teaching, but something one should always keep in the back of their minds is this. Teaching is becoming what society is making it. Teaching the ways that many of you are so upset about is not what many teachers want to do, or even like doing. Teaching is not what it used to be, and may never be what it used to be. It is becoming cookie cutter and robotic. As a teacher, I feel that singing about the days of the week and reviewing the rules has its place in the classroom, for some structure and normalcy, and I don’t see incentives as bribes, but as a way to maintain structure when it is one against 30, and you’re dealing with students who have never followed a rule in all their lives. On the other hand, this is not teaching our children to be thinkers, learners and to question what they are learning and explore what they are learning. There is a balance between routine and freedom. Unfortunately, most educators in the public school system are not allowed to find that balance. We want and need to keep our jobs, and as much as the kids are not enjoying it…many educators do not enjoy it either.


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