Friday, April 30, 2010

Academic play: Is goofing off in the classroom a bad thing?

One of my favorite blogs is maintained by Daniel Coyle a former contributing editor of Outside magazine and now a full-time writer.  A recent post explored the power of play in developing skill and left me wondering why we don't see more "play" in academics.  

Coyle argues that the very best athletes get to be that way, in part, because they spent a fair amount of time "goofing off" in fairly unstructured environments.  That's not to say that elite athletes don't at some point adopt a very structured and rigorous training regimen.  But, it seems that the path to skill started on playgrounds (for many NBA players), empty swimming pools (skate pros), and dusty streets (Ronaldinho & other South American soccer stars) in a number of cases.  The rationale is that these unique practice environments give young athletes a chance to be creative, invent their own games, get lots of reps, and develop a passion for their skill or game.  This new-age coaching mindset doesn't always sit well with "veterans" because it can mean chaos, loss of control, and a lack of the all-important "drill."    

This doesn't seem altogether different  from the view we take of education.  In most schools structure seems to be king--highly defined curricula, students in desks, and quiet individual work.  While pure logistics dictate much of this structure out of necessity, I wonder how learning would be impacted if students were engaged in "academic play" a little more often.  

In A Whole New Mind,  Daniel Pink describes how this concept of play is taking hold in successful businesses (e.g. Google--they encourage employees to spend 15% of their time working on whatever personal projects they find interesting and loosely connected to Google's mission), the military, and medical training.  And, U.S. Soccer just hired former Men's National Team captain Claudio Reyna to try and infuse "play" into the training of youth soccer players in the U.S.  

So, what would "academic play" look like?  Would it even work in a school or classroom setting where, at best, only half of the learners are motivated to learn?