Apr 162014

The other day, we looked at competitive play. Today, we’re going to look at its “fluffy bunny” counterpart – cooperative play. And what we’re going to learn is that cooperative play is no more a fluffy bunny than competitive play was a chance to inflate one’s sense of superiority. In fact, cooperative play brings its own set of challenges and learning opportunities.

Let’s start with a “definition”. In cooperative play, a team works together toward a common goal. It may be a group of roleplayers playing out a campaign where they have to locate treasure. It may be a group acting out escorting a very important person. When my friends and I sat down to play Shadows Over Camelot a few years ago, we were excited to find that we would be working together to drive the shadows out of Camelot. There aren’t enough board games where you work together to win. It’s important to remember that the ultimate goal in cooperative play is qualitative – effectively, to reach the end goal of the play period.

But cooperative play has its own teaching moments. On a personal level, cooperative play helps a learner find her own strengths, interests, and passions, and through play allows her to develop confidence in her skills as she develops them. As she works with her team, it helps her develop a sense of community with her team and helps her find her place within that team. She learns how to contribute, how to collaborate with others, and how to discuss and negotiate with her team members, building her communication skills.

On the team level, the team learns how to find its voice as a unit, how to showcase each person’s skill set in that unified voice. The team learns how to communicate, to prioritize and collaborate, to solve problems in a way that each individual couldn’t do alone. One of the benefits of cooperative play for an individual acting in the team level is that it allows the individual to look at where the skill gaps are in the team, look at others’ skill sets, and then build a strong team by recognizing how to fill in those gaps with the right people, rather than just with friends or people they know. (Quest to Learn actually has a profile system in place that helps middle school students find and build the right teams for different projects.)

Like competitive play, cooperative play offers learners many opportunities to learn, to recognize and develop their own strengths while respecting others’ developing skills. It offers a chance to really utilize some of those more elusive transdisciplinary skills in a practical situation.

Apr 142014

As we get older, play often takes on a dualistic nature. Either we’re competing with others, or we’re working with others to achieve a goal. This week, we’re going to look at both – what they are, and how they can benefit learners.

Let’s start with the often demonized competitive play. Even among children, who are still engaging in play to explore and to learn, “competitive play” is practically dirty language. We’ve built a culture in recent decades where we are obsessed with who is the best at something. We’ve boiled efforts and activities down to mere metrics that are supposed to make it inarguably clear who is the “best” at something. And then we put a lot of pressure on those competing (including on ourselves if we are competing) to achieve the best metrics or to game the system until we have reached those metrics. We’ll figure out what least amount of work and effort will get us the right metrics, and we’ll treat those we’re competing with as if we’re so much better than them.

And then we insist that no matter how hard you work, everyone is just as good and the same. Goodness forbid we hurt the feelings of those who didn’t put in the effort or whose talents lie elsewhere. It’s insane.

Under those conditions, it’s completely understandable that competitive play would get such a bad rap. We only have certain facts about competitive play right. In competitive play, an individual or team typically works toward a goal that other individuals or teams are also working toward. The goal is always quantitative. Everyone is trying to come in first, or gather the most, or complete a task fastest. Something that can be determined through metrics.

And there is nothing wrong with that. Competitive play actually offers interesting opportunities to a learner. On a personal level, competitive play helps the learner develop goal setting skills and intrinsic motivation. The learner has to plan out a strategy for learning the skills and techniques necessary to do their best in the competition, and then the reflection skills necessary to review their performance and alter the strategy to help them reach their goal in the next competition. The learner also has to develop intrinsic motivation. Nothing is ever more motivating in a situation like this, where you’ve studied and practiced and strategized, than your own will to show what you can do. (This is actually one of the benefits of the current ISU scoring system, because it encourages figure skaters to develop a set of programs that plays to their strengths, but at the same time stretches themselves and takes risk.)

On an interpersonal level, competitive play still incorporates strategy and intrinsic motivation, but it also offers other opportunities for the learner. Ideally, the learner will finds a competitor who is near them in terms of level, and will build a relationship with that competitor. This kind of relationship pushes both to continue to pursue mastery, to take risks, ultimately benefiting both learners. (In the right environment, with the right encouragement, this can actually be a supportive, rather than destructive, relationship.) Competitive play is an environment ripe for autodidactic peer teaching moments, because we learn so much from watching others.

Basically, when we don’t remove compassion, friendliness, and grace from competitive situations, they offer a wealth of learning opportunities. And couldn’t we all use a more supportive environment to learn and perform in?

Apr 102014

Science fiction is the art of saying “What if?” and then exploring the potential answers to that question and their ramifications. As such, it’s always looking forward.

We joke about not having our car that packs itself into a briefcase or our hoverboards, but how quickly was the world progressing toward the time the story was set in compared to when the story was written? No, seriously. Think about this. When The Jetsons debuted in 1962, it wasn’t uncommon for families to have a car or two. And because these cars were so sufficiently advanced from the cars of forty years previous, it wasn’t that hard to make the leap and believe that in another hundred years cars could fly and become as compact as a briefcase. (We’ll guess that science classes weren’t teaching laws of conservation at the time.)

Sadly, skateboard tech has not enjoyed the car’s innovations, so those hoverboards might take another fifty years to get here, too.

Star Trek brought viewers ideas of a spaceship that explored space the way old sailing ships used to explore oceans. Projects Mercury and Gemini had already shown Americans that it was possible to go into space. The Apollo program was already working toward reaching the moon. The thought of being able to actually live in space, traveling from planet to planet, seemed possible. It just hadn’t happened yet. (Sadly, innovations haven’t moved as quickly in that direction as many of us would like them to.)

Star Trek not only offered us hope of what life could be off-world, it offered an array of technology that seemed fantastical fifty years ago. But today, we have personal communication devices (that went through a flip-style at one point) and portable access devices. We can hold video chats across long distances. And scientists are working on molecular copy machines. (No, I don’t share Bones’ cynicism about transporters. I just understand when a scientist says he can only make a facsimile of me rather than move me as I am that I’m not going to be myself after the first trip through the transporter.)

Even near future science fiction, regardless of how dystopian or utopian it may be, has proven to not be science fiction for long. The cyberpunk subgenre has painted a picture of a gritty near future where cyborgs and wearable tech are common. Prosthetics and other medical assist devices are incredibly powerful and adept compared to the ones available just ten years ago, and we all know about Google’s foray into watches and Glass. Not bad for being only seven years away from the game Cyberpunk 2020, right?

For better or worse, science fiction will always be pushing what we know or what we don’t realize we already know, bringing us developments that might bring us a better lifestyle.


Apr 092014

About fifteen years ago, Montessori programs and children’s museums had the phrase “Play is FUNdamental” all over their marketing materials. It was an obvious and easy play on words, but there was an emphasis there that really took away from the real message: Play is fundamental.

What really made this interesting on the materials from the Montessori programs is that Montessori doesn’t actually support play as we think of it. Because the curriculum is strongly geared toward allowing a child freedom to explore lessons and tools in the classroom, fantasy play doesn’t have much of a place. Instead, children complete real-world tasks with real-world, child-sized objects. They do it as practice for a Practical Life lesson, or they do it in service to their classroom. They may even do it at home to help their family.

A child outside the Montessori environment completing the same actions in his child-sized kitchen with his child-sized cooking tools and dishes would be considered as engaging in fantasy play, even as he is learning and pretending to accomplish real-world tasks he’ll undertake several years down the road. The child engages in mimicking what he sees the adults around him are doing, learning how to become a productive adult through example.

Children’s museums have long honored the way young children (those under the age of seven) learn through play, providing themed opportunities to explore skills, concepts, and ideas through experiments and dramatic play. Even if the child gains nothing more than exposure to the concepts presented, he’s in a position to carry the concepts with him beyond the museum’s doors and into the real world, to use them to build more skills from.

Corny marketing messages aside, play really is fundamental to a young child’s development. Providing opportunities to become engaged through play with the skills and concepts a child will need to understand allows the child to connect with the skills and concepts on his own level and make it part of his world.

Apr 072014

Today, we’re going to talk about “meaningful” play. it sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? Play isn’t meaningful. “Meaningful” suggests a goal, a structure, a plan. Play has no goal. It has no structure. It isn’t planned.

At least, not in the sense we plan out a lesson, a project, or even our day. Play can have a goal, even if it’s simply a goal of getting out and away from a controlling adult so the child can explore and experiment. Play can have a structure. How often do we watch a random group of children, who may not even know each other, run off to play independently, only to organize into some kind of game or story? Play can have a plan. A child may look forward to a play session because they want to act like they’re a favorite character and pretend they can do the things that character can do, be it leaping tall buildings, opening an ice cream shoppe, or just saving others.

When we talk about meaningful play, what we’re really talking about is a play session where a child sets out with some sort of idea of how they want to play. She may play her own plans in harmony with other children’s games, or she may just play on their own. Maybe she wants to try on a new role or to play out her own take on a new or favorite story, or maybe she just wants to figure out a change in her world. We may have no idea what she’s doing as she runs around pretending, or we may feel a bit frightened at what she’s pretending, but to that child, it’s just a chance to figure out for herself what’s going on.

The point here is that play can be meaningful to the child. But that meaning comes from the child, and makes sense only to that child (unless she wants to talk to us or her friends about her play). It can’t be created outside the child for the child, and it never should be. We can create frameworks for play, but the true meaning of any play session is going to be personal to that child. And that’s all right.

Apr 032014

One of the most common pieces of advice given to aspiring writers is: Write what you knowIt seems reasonable. If you write about what you know, then you’re likely to write something solid because you’re familiar with the material. But sometimes, writing about what you know is either harder than it looks, or just doesn’t interest you enough to delve deeply into it for a sustained period of time. Maybe you have a passing familiarity with the material, and you don’t have enough of the background information or know enough of the underlying issues to really bring depth to the story. Maybe it was interesting when you became familiar with it, but it’s really uninspiring after that initial burst.

Another piece of advice, far less commonly given out, is: Write what you like. Some years back, an editor whose blog I followed created a list of story ideas she would love to see cross her inbox (I saved some of them because they were really interesting ideas.), and invited authors and editors to share their lists. It was an interesting exercise because it’s too easy to get caught up in this sense of trying to write what you feel you’re supposed to write, or in trying to catch trends that are often dead by the time they hit the mainstream, or to get caught up in the above. But if you look around at what’s available and can’t find a story you’d like to read, then you’re the ideal person to fill that gap with your own story, and you’ll likely stay with it because the idea interests you.

None of this is to say that what you know and what you like can’t intersect. If they do, go for it!

As for me, I run into this struggle a lot in my own work. I know the stories I would enjoy writing…and while they reflect my own reading and viewing habits, they don’t reflect what I know (sometimes to comical levels). Fortunately, I’ve figured out I can turn that gap in my own writing abilities into teachable moments – as in, they get added to the skill development section of my to-do list. I haven’t been brave enough to actually take on one of those learning tasks yet, but because of a story I’m desperate to make match my vision of what the story could and should be I’m now entertaining options for how to turn what I like into what I know.

How about you? Do you write what you know, what you like, or some combination? And when you find something you like but struggle to write, how do you handle that?

Apr 022014

“To be outstanding, get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” – Alrik Koudenburg

Back when I was covering transdisciplinary skills, I missed a pretty important one. Risk taking, often lumped in with entrepreneurial skills in twenty-first century skill lists, develops some pretty important traits. Now, when I talk about risk taking, I’m not talking about base jumping or anything extreme like that. Sometimes, taking a risk can be something as simple as saying hi to a stranger or trying a skill or project that feels beyond your current skills set. Learning how to try something you don’t know the outcome of, and to accept the outcome gracefully, leads to more resilient adults.

Learning to take risks means pushing boundaries – your own or those placed by some outside constraint. Pushing boundaries can lead to innovations and creative solutions to challenges. It means learning how to face fears, one baby step at a time. Risk taking can even teach how to make mistakes and recover, or to accept rejection as the end of one path and use the knowledge gained to move quickly on to the next path.

Being able to take risks means developing the ability to assess a situation, being able to identify the problem or challenge along with potential positive and negative outcomes, and then to form a plan and implement it, accepting the outcome with poise and reflection. The earlier we start supporting and encouraging children’s natural risk taking ability, the more often they practice, and the more confidently and successfully they will be able to take larger risks.

Mar 312014
I know it’s a day early, but I just couldn’t wait to get started on the April theme. Play is probably one of the most misunderstood aspects of human nature. It’s a kid thing, inappropriate for adults to engage in. But adults who don’t periodically skiv off and play become monsters. It’s enough to make your head spin.

As we move through the next month, you’re going to see that play is really just an ingrained part of human nature, and an integral part of the learning process. It is how we first learn to explore and assimilate information. It’s how we learn to work through problems. It’s how we blow off steam, and how we learn how to relate to others. It’s how we learn to take risks, to open our minds to possibilities, to find who we are so we can just be ourselves.

When we talk about play, we think about activities that are removed from our “normal” lives. Johan Huizinga described this as the “magic circle”, a space where the members agree upon a reality, a set of rules, that may not be anything like normal life. What happens in the circle, though, doesn’t necessarily stay inside the circle because play is, by its very nature, transformative.

There are four aspects of play that we will likely touch on a few times as we look at different types of play. Play is usually a voluntary activity. You may feel forced into it when a toddler hands you his “ringing” toy phone or his purple bear, but he is really inviting you into his play and if you accept that phone or that bear, then you’ve voluntarily agreed to join his view of reality. (And if you don’t accept, what is wrong with you? Being the purple bear is awesome!) Because it’s a voluntary activity, it’s intrinsically driven. You’re there because you want to engage in the play, not because you’re going to get some kind of reward at the end of it. Play is often active. It’s kinetic. And as a result, it’s a more deeply immersive experience, hence the transformative nature. Finally, play is about make-believe. You aren’t really a purple bear. You’re pretending to be a purple bear…who happens to enjoy hot chocolate tea and mac and cheese by crayon light while wearing its best feather boa, or who wears that same stylish boa while building cars and houses out of blocks…even though you yourself would never be caught dead in a feather boa. But by engaging in that make-believe, you’re experiencing imaginative environments and other points of view. (Maybe you would be caught dead in a feather boa if it were the right color.)

The point is, play brings far more benefits, and raises far more questions, than just about anything else we do. Over the next few weeks, we’ll look at different types and aspects of play. But for now, TAG! You’re it!

Mar 262014

So, we’ve come to the end of our closer look at the Recording Phase of the personal learning environment. Hopefully, you’ve picked up some tools or tricks that you can apply to this relatively administrative part of the PLE.

Over the month, we’ve looked at the Recording Phase as a time to gather articles and links to interesting or inspiring information related to your projects, current and future, and as a time to brainstorm and focus your project. For students, the Recording Phase is an excellent time to learn and practice various information literacy, research, analysis, and distributed cognition skills.

The Recording Phase is a time to explore, to see what’s out there, and to let it inspire or help shape your project. It a daily process, but it shouldn’t be allowed to take over more than an hour of your day or you won’t have time to work on your actual project. (It’s okay if you call the occasional “mental health day” if you’ve found a really interesting rabbit hole in your reading. But only occasionally.)

In May, we’ll look at the Processing Phase, which is a time for more decision and action. But next month, we’ll be looking at the role play has in the learning process, and why early childhood education reform advocates are way too late to the party in their reaction to the early childhood Common Core standards.

Mar 242014

I realize that as I’ve been talking about the Recording Phase this month, it’s been from a decidedly technological standpoint. But as you’re going to see, it doesn’t have to be. The whole point of the Recording Phase is to record information and inspirations relevant to your project, and as a result you should use the tools that make the most sense. 

But we’ll start with the technical tools. When we talked about setting up information feeds, we talked about setting up RSS readers and social media searches. Capturing information from them is usually most easily accomplished through some sort of bookmarking system. RSS readers like feedly usually have their own built-in capture feature. You can’t organize what you’ve captured, but you can at least hold onto it for later. Certain notetaking apps, like Springpad and Evernote, have a button you can add to your browser to capture articles, although a number of RSS readers support integration so you can just send them over. (For convenience, Evernote even has a specific Read Later app if you don’t want to have a Read Later folder.) And there are the bookmarking apps. delicious, Instapaper, and Pinterest all offer browser buttons so you can save pages as you surf, but delicious and Instapaper have also been integrated into some RSS readers to make saving easier.

Whichever path you choose there, be consistent or you will violate the second of our key questions: How do I find this again?

Now, technology is awesome. It rocks. We have phones that can serve as mini-computers so we never have to worry about being away from our information.

But not all information comes from the internet. I know. Gasp! Shock! Surprise! (Sorry about that.) But thanks to those powerful little phones, we can still record information and inspirations around us as we live our lives away from our computers. (Well, you can if your phone is more powerful than mine. I actually have to carry a video-capable point-and-shoot camera in my bag in addition to my little “Plain Jane” phone. But it’s always in there, unless it’s charging.) You can record notes to yourself about a conversation you’ve had. You can record informational interviews and lectures. You can take pictures (and videos) of things you see that spark something related to your project. As long as you’re recording it and putting it somewhere you can retrieve it later when you’re working on your project, it’s fair game.

There are many tools for capturing information for your project. Try them out until you find the ones that work best for you, and don’t be afraid to change them up from project to project. Different projects have different capturing needs. Just be consistent in how you store and organize your captures.

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