Tomorrow’s Classroom

A diverse group of UK based educators and artists will be collaborating to present an interactive installation designed to test, challenge and redefine the preconceptions surrounding learning environments and experiences. Come play.

The following is the briefest of outlines of the ideas which underpin the playground project as it stands.

These ideas run much deeper than that which is written below.

We are looking forward to discussing them in more detail, and collaborating with other individuals to further explore both the ideas which support the project and the practical work which will key to make it a success.

It is fair to describe humans as biological learning machines. From the very earliest age, learning appears to be our modus operandi. This makes perfect sense. Our success and continued survival as individuals and as a species depends upon our ability to refine our instincts to the our physical and social environment. It is our incredible ability to learn which makes this process possible.

Next time you have the chance, take a moment to observe a toddler. You will almost certainly find them to be engaged in a wonderful and virtually continuous dance of exploration and discovery. No one told them to, no one asked them to and no extrinsic motivation was offered. And yet they do it anyway. In a short space of time, of their own accord, they are able to walk, talk, make jokes, imagine, engage with, and even manipulate the incredibly complex social situations they find themselves in. Surely these achievements are testament to the fact that without adult intervention children already have all the necessary faculties at their disposal to define what they want and need to learn, and learn it.

Now compare the average and normal toddler described above with the average and normal 8 year old in the context or an average and normal mainstream learning environment. The picture which emerges is a bleak and damning inditement of our education system. Curiosity is replaced with indifference, eager to learn is replaced with eager to please, confidence is replaced with anxiety, passion is replaced with apathy, agency is replaced with helplessness, intrinsic motivation is replaced with the desire for extrinsic reward, etc etc etc. It would be all too easy to continue but you get the fundamental point; something has gone horribly wrong. Someone has done something terrible to our children. Some of them will recover, but many of them wont.

Why? The life of a healthy and happy baby or toddler is defined by acceptance, freedom and choice. These characteristics create a situation in which play is free to occur. Conversely, the school life of a child is generally defined by judgment and coercion in which the completion of ‘work’ is the fundamental aim. The difference is the same as that between a slave and a citizen. It is the difference between freedom, and coercion. In the hunter gatherer societies with which we share about 99% of our evolutionary history, children are typically free to play for as long as they want, which usually means until around the age of 16 and often way beyond. It seems increasingly clear that it is the switch from free play or freedom, to adult imposed activity, or coercion, which is having such a damaging effect in children.

The evolutionary purpose of play, which is ubiquitous in all human societies, is not ‘to blow off steam’ or ‘have a laugh’ (although these may well be welcome side effects) but to enable the acquisition of the knowledge, skills, attitude and understanding necessary to allow an infant to become a functional adult. School is interfering with this process. Even as adults, our most powerful and meaningful learning experiences occur when we are in a state of play, a truism which has been confirmed repeatedly by psychological research.

In todays mainstream educational landscape endless lip service is payed to the importance of ‘learning to learn’. It is thought that since the extent of human knowledge is now in practical terms, infinite, the idea that a centrally defined body of knowledge and skills to be learned by children everywhere will be sufficient to provide an individual with the tools they need to navigate the world successfully, is poppycock. Metacognition, study skills, 21st century skills and many other buzz terms are thrown about in the endless cycle of initiatives which hope to address this issue. It seems to us that these initiatives, while well intentioned, are missing the point; children do not need to be taught how to learn, they already know. Perhaps all we need to do is provide them with the right environment, the trust, and the freedom, to continue to do what they do so marvelously as toddlers; learning by playing. In fact, it seems clear to us that it is we, the adults of the world, who all too often have lost the ability to play and in this way, lost the chance to engage in the most powerful learning experiences available to us as humans.

Thus, children have an important lesson to teach. All we need to do is watch, learn, and get involved. Our project will attempt to highlight this issue in a way which is engaging, visually appealing, interactive, and unsurprisingly, playful. To do so we plan creating what we have been describing as an inverted classroom. Essentially this is intended to consist of a very obviously traditional classroom layout which will house the adults. Rather than lead on to a teacher in front of a black board, or even a ‘facilitator’ in front of an interactive whiteboard, it will face onto, and provide the opportunity to observe a small but magical play space. The children, by playing freely and without imposition, will act as the teachers, demonstrating the ability to be free, to be imaginative, to play, to learn and to be truly mindful. It will be clear when the adults have learned the lesson; they will get out of their seats, and get fully stuck in.

Taking into account the ideas included in the invitation to Grabowsee it is hard at this stage to predict exactly what the playground will consist of. However, it is fair to say that the emphasis will be on malleable and flexible materials which will be chosen to encourage active imaginative play, visual aspects that are themselves intended to play with colour light and sound, and a haphazard chaotic atmosphere which will reflect the play we will engage with in the process of creating the space. Think of The Merry Pranksters, free parties, Hook, Detroit’s Heidelberg project, and you will start to appreciate the sort of direction we are coming from. We are very aware that Germany and particularly Berlin is renowned for its incredible and innovative play spaces. We are very much looking forward to visiting some if these spaces when we arrive in Berlin. Given the short space of time available we appreciate it is unlikely that we will be able to rival some of these spaces in terms of ambition and scope. However, it is worth remembering that these playgrounds are generally provided for the purpose of play as an activity supplementary to the serious business of ‘work’; “Terry, you can play when you’ve finished your work!” It is our opinion, and our intention to make the point, that for children and indeed adults, the distinction between play and work is unhealthy and unhelpful. Play should be your work and your work should be your play. Play is serious. It’s how we learn best.

The following is an extract from Peter Gray’s book, ‘Free to Learn’. This book is a highly recommended read for anyone interested in the ideas we began to explore above. This link will take you to an article exploring many of the ideas touched upon above which is more coherent, thorough, and fully referenced.


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