How does choosing time solve problems?

How does choosing time solve problems?

Teacher readiness series #9

I’m not nearly as concerned about student readiness for school as I am about teacher readiness.  I was amused this past year when my wife, a kindergarten teacher, came home and announced they were no longer to have choosing time.  Choosing time, for any of you who do not know, is a time when students are free to go to various play areas and engage in free play.  Why was choosing time banned?  Likely because it is not teacher-directed student instruction time and cannot be measured on a test.

This reminded me of our experience in Japan where we taught students from grade school through college.  As educators, my wife and I both knew that Japan was having success in teaching kids to do well on tests. We also knew from living and teaching in Japan there that something was missing in the Japanese educational system.  Our experience as teachers in that country showed us that while our students could take tests, they were not as creative and inventive in problem solving as our American students who might have been less skilled in test taking.

What was the day of an average third grader like in Japan?  It was very common for grade school kids to get up at 6 am, go to school during the day, then go to Juku after school, then come home and eat dinner, possibly have piano lessons, and then sit down and do homework until 11 pm. Juku was like a school on steroids where the kids received teacher-directed intense supplemental academic education. They did this every day of the week and usually had homework to the max on the weekends.  There was no time for choosing time, either at school or at home.  Was there a basis for our gut feeling that Japanese students lagged American students in problem solving skills?  Years later we would read the answer based on solid research in a book titled Play by Stuart Brown, MD.

Play begins with the story of the Cal Tech Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) which has been a leader in aerospace research for many decades.  In the late 90’s management noticed that even though they were hiring the top graduates from the best engineering schools in the nation, these engineers, while they excelled in theoretical, mathematical problems, did not do as well as their older counterparts had done in solving practical difficulties in the real world.  In other words they weren’t as good at problem solving.

JPL’s leadership researched this problem and found that the older engineers had played more with their hands growing up and as a result were able to visualize solutions much better than their younger counterparts, who likely had spent a lot of time waiting to kick a soccer ball and sitting in a teacher-directed robotics class.  In other words, the pervasive creative free play of the older generation in which they spent hours taking apart clocks to see how they worked, or building play forts out of scrap materials (no instruction booklet or pre-engineered parts), or creating a better paper airplane to fly straighter and further, was no longer the standard for the adult-and-computer-program-directed younger generation.  Because of this discovery, JPL has altered their interviewing process and now their questioning makes evaluation of childhood play a standard part of their interview process to help them hire engineers that can solve problems.

What activities does my wife witness as her students engage in the allegedly wasteful choosing time?  A student might imagine building a house, and using their hands and trial and error, arrange blocks to create a roof that doesn’t fall through.  Another student with a friend may take animal figures and create a family, imaging social interactions, crisis creation, and problem resolution while having lots of fun.  Another student may imagine elaborate, ever increasing symmetrical designs and express their creativity through art.  Another student may dream of and create an ingenious system of traps that defends his warrior dinosaurs from the attack of the enemy.

One extremely important learning activity that does not happen in teacher directed instruction is students getting to invent the context or world in which their challenge exists.  Most of our instruction creates the rules and boundaries in which our students will operate.  This approach likely limits the extent to which students imagine the solutions to their challenge, how much they use their hands to see if their imagined solutions works, and how freely they can make adjustments in their solution design to correct its failures.  Outside of a teacher-directed context, the brain learns particular problem solving skills in formative years that will support that student’s problem solving endeavors for decades to come as adults.  The brain has certain periods of opportunity for learning skills as it develops, and this is one of the reasons the desire to play is so strong in children and youth.  Obviously this skill seems of little use in completing a Scantron, so that may be why we get rid of choosing time.  If so this is a sad direction for our American educational system.

My advice to teachers is to include choosing time and similar age appropriate activities that invite students to engage in free, creative play using their hands and movement in space.  Realize that the desire to play is one area that the students may be wiser than the teachers about their learning needs.  Also join my wife in living on the rebel edge where her kindergarten students regularly engage in choosing time instead of spending all of their instructional classroom time in teacher-directed academic instruction.


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