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Commentary: It’s time to play

Teacher Jessica Keigan says children at play should inspire thinking on how to implement reforms like the Common Core Standards.

Last summer, I happened upon two children who were struggling to play on a teeter-totter. As they worked through their problem, they attempted many different strategies. They took turns sitting on either side; they climbed up the middle; they sat on the fulcrum and pushed each side down. It was fascinating to watch them experiment with different techniques and exhilarating to see their joy when they finally succeeded.

As I moved on, I realized that I had just witnessed truly authentic learning. And it made me wonder how much truly authentic learning happens in the educational system today.

Let’s consider how the children were able to learn to work the teeter-totter. Unlike the formal learning environments of their classroom, they had no instructions nor were they assessed while they were trying different strategies out. They were able to learn by trying until they found the best strategy for their play.

Compare that to the structures that currently exist in education today, for both students and teachers. They’re pretty different, aren’t they?

The good news is that teachers have a unique opportunity to revise their teaching methods to create more of these learning opportunities. The Colorado Academic Standards, with their increased rigor and heavy focus on practical, skills-based instruction, offer the opportunity to let our students develop and apply critical thinking and problem solving skills. Rather than just exposing them to great ideas, the standards offer opportunities for them to create their own great ideas. It is a daunting undertaking and will require a paradigm shift in how and what we teach.

Of course, most teachers are already well aware of the overwhelming amount of work that needs to be done to implement the standards with fidelity. Many are concerned; many are excited.

I imagine that most teachers (including myself) feel that the greatest support that can be offered in this process is space and time for our own authentic learning. Much like the children on the teeter-totter, we need to figure out how to balance our instructional practice with sound research and creative innovation. We need to experiment with the standards, to play around with ideas and have opportunities to share our thinking.

In many districts across the country, work is being done to implement similar standards based on the Common Core Standards, a rigorous set of standards developed by a cohort of educators from across the country for math, language arts and college readiness. However, the majority of this work is stuck at the macro level. The big picture mapping for the new standards is important, but it is still too far removed from the classroom. It does not get into the nitty-gritty of specific tasks such as analyzing how “literary and historical influences determine the meaning of traditional and contemporary literary texts.”

When designing professional development or district work plans, I challenge the district and state leaders who are creating the structures for implementation to support teachers by letting them take those structures and make them work for their students. Let teachers have the freedom to play with the standards. Only then can we learn, design and create the specific classroom strategies and tools necessary for successful implementation.

Teachers know that the freedom to develop their own techniques for teaching the standards is a key to effectiveness. In Primary Sources: 2012: America’s Teachers on the Teaching Profession, a study conducted by the Gates Foundation and Scholastic, found that the key to high student achievement were well supported, highly valued professional teachers. One key way to make teachers feel valued? Allow them to create a curriculum that is not limited by standardized tests or other over-prescriptive regulations. Standardization should provide the framework, but a framework without the creativity and innovation of classroom expertise will be flat and ineffective.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Let’s go back to the kids on the teeter-totter. They had a high expectation of joyful play followed by learning that wasn’t limited by formalized restraints. Teachers, much like their students, need to be given the opportunity to learn by doing. What better way to support the implementation of the new standards than to allow teachers a similar experience so they, too, can thrive in authentic learning?

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.