Monday, 9 September 2019

Organisation and Play in Education

"Play" in learning has become a dominant theme among pedagogical innovators in recent years. Far from the stuffy lecture halls, the enthusiasts of play will bring out the Lego and Plasticine as a way of motivating engagement from staff and students. Sometimes, the "play" objects are online. Often it is staff who are exhorted to play with their students, and I've done a fair bit of this myself in the past - most recently on the Global Scientific Dialogue (GSD) course at the Far Eastern Federal University in Russia.

I first encountered playful learning approaches in three brilliant conferences of the American Society for Cybernetics which were organised by the late Ranulph Glanville. I was initially skeptical at first, but on reflection I found that these conferences deeply influenced my thinking about what happens in not only in scientific conferences, but also in educational experience. The last of these ASC conferences, which took place in Bolton, UK, was the subject of a film, and the concept of the conference led to a book. There was lots of music (participants had to bring a home-made musical instrument). The previous conference featured the great American composer Pauline Oliveros, who had a bunch of engineers and cyberneticians singing every morning around the swimming pool of the hotel we stayed in the Midwest!

In 2018 I organised the Metaphorum conference in Liverpool, and attempted to bring a more playful approach encouraging delegates not to "talk at" each other when presenting their ideas, but to organise an activity. This conference was attended by two academics from Russia, and the experience of it led directly to the design of the Global Scientific Dialogue module: a course like a conference, a conference with a set of activities and lots of discussion, focused on science and technology.

The important point about this approach to pedagogy (and to conferences) is that "play" is not an end in itself. As an end in itself, play is empty - and there is nothing worse that being forced to play when you either don't want to, or can't see the point. Games only work when people want to play - and overwhelmed academics are sometimes understandably sceptical about the pedagogical exhortation to "get out the Lego".

So what is play about?

Fundamentally, it is about organising conversations. More specifically, it concerns creating the conditions for conversations which would not otherwise occur within the normal contexts of education. This is what matters, because the "normal contexts" create barriers between people and ideas which shouldn't be there, or at least should be challenged. Play does this by introducing uncertainty into the educational process. In an environment where everyone - teachers and learners together - are uncertain, they have to find new ways of organising themselves to express their uncertainty, and coordinate their tenuous understanding with others.

The organisational reasons for introducing play are to break down barriers and to create the conditions for new conversations. On the Global Scientific Dialogue module, this is precisely how it works, and the elements of uncertainty which are amplified are not just contained in the activities, but in the content which draws on current science and technology about which nobody is certain. Inevitably, everyone - learners and teachers - are in the same boat, and what happens is a kind of social reconfiguration.

However, if play is imposed on the unwilling, then it reinforces barriers between the pedagogical idealists and exhausted teachers struggling to manage their workload. This raises the question as to how an organisational intervention might serve the purpose of reorganising relationships between exhausted academics in such a way that the underlying causes of exhaustion might be reconceived and addressed together.

In the final analysis, effective play is the introduction of a particular set of constraints within which the reorganisation that we call "learning" occurs. But every teacher knows they can get their constraints wrong, and it can have an oppressive effect. Play in itself cannot be the thing to aim for. Like all teaching, the effective manipulation of constraints, or the effective organisation of contexts for learning conversations is what matters. The magic of this is that in coordinating this, teachers reveal their understanding of the world, their students and themselves. 

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