PlayAugust 7, 2014
I should have learnt from the experience described here, or from phonics denialists, that for a lot of tweeters and bloggers, the methods used in the teaching of younger children is not a subject open for debate or even the mildest form of questioning. I don’t really have any views on the details of early years teaching, and don’t really have much insight into what small children are like. I’ve so very little to say on the issue, and yet it’s really easy to lose a day on twitter just dealing with misrepresentations and attacks dealt towards anybody who is seen as questioning the orthodoxy. But I suppose I might as well state the grand sum of my views here; ask the questions that I am actually interested in, and then let it drop.
Let’s deal with my only real opinion on something to do with early years. Back in March of this year, Sir Michael Wilshaw wrote what seemed to be a fairly sensible letter pointing out that OFSTED did not require a particular method of teaching, even in early years, and instead said he expected “inspectors to apply common sense when observing how well children learn and how effectively adults teach children to develop skills, knowledge and understanding”. He made some pretty uncontentious (to an outsider) suggestions about looking into whether the early stages of maths and English were taught and whether children were being prepared for school. However, the response was intense.
A bunch of the usual suspects wrote a letter to the Telegraph describing this as a “Gradgrind for tiny tots”.
This utilitarian shift from experience to content betrays an abject (and even wilful) misunderstanding of the nature of early childhood experience. The determination to dragoon England’s young children into unconscionably early quasi-formal learning is catastrophic for their well-being, and is setting up many for failure at a very young age.
They even ended with what appeared to be a call for civil disobedience. Much of the comment I saw on Twitter considered it a threat to “play-based” learning. One NUT activist who was a signatory complained:
We know exactly what Wilshaw means when he makes a pronouncement such as this- an erosion in children’s right to learn through play and exploration.
Another signatory made the following complaint:
This leads me to my one opinion on early years teaching methods: OFSTED are right to judge them by outcomes rather than acting as the “play police” and seeking to enforce play-based learning. I tend towards letting teachers choose their methods unless they are outright harmful or so dumb as to undermine the profession. While I don’t really get play-based learning or how it works, I know it hasn’t always been the in-thing and other countries (well, France) are rumoured to manage without it, so I don’t see why it needs to be compulsory here. I don’t have views on the the best ways to teach in early years. I don’t have views on how much play small children should have during the school day. I don’t even claim to really understand what play-based learning is. I just think that children should be expected to learn and that teachers should have freedom over methods.
Now, you’d think that might be the end of it. I don’t know much about it; I don’t have much to say about it; I don’t have a method to push.
But of course not. There have been multiple objections to what I said back then.
Firstly, there’s an ideology here:
To question the need for play-based learning was taken to be indicative of a whole attitude to children. No distinction was made between being against compulsory play-based learning in schools and nurseries and being against any play-based learning in schools and nurseries. Nor between that and being against children learning from play at all. Nor between that and being against play. Nor between that and being against children enjoying themselves. You either wanted compulsory play-based learning or 2 year olds behind desks being lectured in Latin and kept in cages. Nothing in-between was allowed as far as I could tell.
Away from the ad hominems, there were two main arguments. One was that play-based learning was unavoidable. Either there were no other teaching methods (which is odd as play-based learning seemed to have been in and out of fashion in my lifetime). Or alternatively, everything really small children did was a form of play. Not knowing anything about small children, I can’t reject this out of hand as a claim, but it seemed self-defeating as an argument. If play-based learning was unavoidable then there was even less reason for OFSTED to compel it. Another variation of this was to demand I define “play” and pick fault with that. This was interesting in as much as it turned out that I actually seemed to have more of a positive view of play, as something enjoyable and worth doing for its own sake, than many of the advocates of play who seemed to present it only as a means to an end. But again, this seemed a self-defeating argument. If play couldn’t be usefully defined then that was another argument against making play-based learning compulsory.
The other argument was about the benefits of play-based learning. Remarkably some of the people keenest to dismiss the masses of evidence about how best to teach reading, were far keener to accept the evidence on play-based learning. As I understand it, there are some positive studies, but nothing so overwhelming that it could justify making it compulsory. But, and this is where I drifted into controversy again, and this is why I was controversial today, there was considerable opinion that play was very, very necessary for learning and development. Not being against play I tended to accept this at first, but as time went on I started wondering. How does anyone actually know this? Are there case studies of children who were deprived of play and nothing else? Are there ethically dubious RCTs where children were stopped from playing and the effects measured? There might be correlations between play and development, but the obvious explanation for that would be that development drives play, not that play derives development. It’s not that I thought that depriving children of play wouldn’t harm their development, it seemed likely that it would, I just wondered how we knew that it would, and generally, how could we know how important it was.
And this is where I seemed to have caused most offence. A lot of advocacy of play-based learning seems to start from making assertions about the benefits of play, then jumping to the idea that, given these benefits, it only makes sense to use play in teaching. To actually ask about the empirical evidence for these benefits and their extent is to undermine the arguments. There were a few pointers towards the benefits of particular types of play, but these were often contested. There were a lot of theories from any number of disciplines to explain why play should, in theory, have benefits. There were any number of reports from advocacy groups which made claims about the benefits of play, but there was a distinct lack of empirical evidence. There were those who insisted there was huge amounts of evidence out there, but seemed unable to narrow it down in such a way that I might actually find any of it. Mainly I had to deal with people who were outraged that, as far as they were concerned, I must have suggested that children don’t learn from play. Of course, children do learn from play, but that does not establish how necessary play is for learning. It is also, again, a self-defeating argument as far as the controversy over OFSTED goes, because the objection hinges on the idea that by looking for learning OFSTED are undermining play.
A few interesting things did come up, and I hope to find time to read some of them, but I think we are still as far away from as ever from having any real justification for so many of the claims made about play, let alone anything that would justify making play-based learning the only permissible method of teaching in the early years.