An interesting thing about being an educator is that you work in a field where there are many truths that people hold tightly, but no science that establishes them in an absolute sense. Education is about theory based on observation and bolstered by a little bit of science. If there were an absolute truth, either I would be out of a job, as independent schools would have no reason for existence, or I would have won a Nobel Prize.
I love my job; this is my twentieth year doing it. Yet each day as I come out of the subway, I feel the stress of the challenges I envision facing. Once the day begins, it is for the most part, great fun. Some things (like teaching Kindergarten science) are like candy, while other things (like writing this article) are a heavier lift. The joy comes because the activities of the day are purposeful and directed toward meaningful ends. The stress come from external demands beyond my control.
Stress, joy, purpose, fun, direction and meaning all have their place and supporters in the context of education, sometimes in conflict with each other. To be reductionist, there are two basic camps. Those in the first camp want schools that put students into situations where they work hard at tasks chosen by the adults. They believe that students need to learn a prescribed group of skills and information while at the same time experiencing stress in the context of school to prepare them for the rigors of adult life.
Those in the second camp believe that all true learning comes through play. They say that for most of history, the natural way for humans to prepare for adulthood is through the practice in play. This approach creates situations where students work hard at tasks chosen by them.
What does the science say? Let's begin with the concept of stress in school and its beneficial effects. Stress is essentially the moment that triggers the fight-or-flight decision in the human brain. Deep in human evolutionary history this trigger kept the species alive. Stress produces an endorphin run that in extremis will overwhelm the normal cognitive functioning of the brain and force an instant decision. If one has never faced this strong emotional force in what is essentially practice sessions during childhood, it would be dangerous and debilitating as an adult. Military organizations from the beginning of time have provided physical and psychological training so that when the moment comes that the brain blinds itself, the training will make the next response automatic.
Obviously, our job in schools is not to produce warriors. However, our job is to produce people who as adults are ready for the rigors of the life they will encounter. There are many fight-or-flight encounters that are not life-threatening, but are important to the ability to function in the adult world. There is evidence that those who experience them in their formative years will be better able to function in adulthood. Amy Chua, author of "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom," recently wrote an Op-ed piece for the New York Times where she posited that cause for the economic success of certain ethnic groups comes in part from the stress of "otherness" in American society. The second key ingredient was the ability to defer gratification, which is another exercise in stress management.
People who work in stressful occupations--and I count my job as a stressful one--give witness to how they train themselves to channel stress to be productive. The argument goes that schools are an apprenticeship for life and life is filled with stress, so schools should give students early stress experiences so they can, one small step at a time, build an ability to handle that stress. At the same time, students learn the necessary skills and information required for success in the adult world. This theory requires that schools have at the center of their students’ lives high stakes events such as tests, exams and papers which provide the information as well as the motivation to learn the skills and the experience of stress to ready themselves for the future.
The counter-argument -- learning through play -- runs like this: when humans are open and joyful, they are capable of using all of their senses to absorb information and to learn skills. Humans do not just react to their environment to satisfy their bodily needs, they are able to expand their worlds though the creative process. Play is both practice for life and a discovery process. When the creative process bears fruit, one experiences a feeling of exhilaration, which is the brain rewarding the system and providing incentive to keep at the creative process. When you watch a small child succeed at solving a puzzle, you understand what is happening. The moment the last piece goes into place there is a squeal of joy and the desire to try something new and more complicated.
Play also takes very little psychic energy. Generations of parents have witnessed their children passionately engaged with their hobbies and interests for hours on end, the same children who could not focus for minutes on tasks presented to them by adults. Play, they will tell you, is self-energizing. When something is perceived by humans to be meaningful, the brain can stay on task for as long as the body will allow it. Focus on a task perceived to be of extraneous value requires vast amounts of energy, quickly exhausting both body and mind. Daniel Pink argues in his book "Drive" that autonomy is one of the central drivers of motivation. Play is an autonomous activity. Children have precious little autonomy in life, and when given the opportunity, need very little energy to get started or stay at the task.
There is a point of direct conflict between Amy Chua's idea that success comes through impulse control and Daniel Pink's argument that autonomous beings follow their passions.
Now let’s look at the down side of both:
We have reams of documentation on how disabling stress is. In the realm of schools, we know that while stressful high stakes test will cause a student to study and be able to give back answers, we also know that stress clogs the synapses and much of what was learned for the test is not retained by the brain unless it has immediate and repeated value. It produces knowledge, but not necessarily understanding. Ask a lawyer about what he or she remembers from the Bar exam. Adolescents are developing the pre-frontal cortex, so their experience is amplified in memory as an adult. Stressed and fearful people in their teens tend to grow up as stressed and fearful adults.
I have no problem with the notion that intrinsic motivation is stronger than extrinsic motivation, but it is naïve to think that every child will discover all that needs to be learned on his or her own. We need to lead kids to what is important and then aid in the sorting process. We all know of people who cannot focus enough to execute their own ideas because they never learned to respond to the challenge from outside forces.
Just as we know that post-traumatic stress is life-threatening, we also know that people who have low impulse control are much more prone to fall into addictive behaviors.
This may appear to be a lose-lose choice, but there is good news. There is a middle way. Both play and stress have a place in the life of children. In fact, both are probably necessary. First, with respect to stress: The accepted narrative is that we are preparing students for fight, not flight. Encouraging the idea to "tough it out;" and that “grit” means you always move forward--this is fight. We need to change that narrative. What stresses students is fear of failure, based in part of the fact that they are not supposed to be allowed to fail. It is especially true in independent schools where, frankly, failure is bad for business.
When failure is common, it actually becomes a lower stress activity, though never without discomfort. It is OK for the first grader to see the learning specialist because he will learn to read. It is OK for the sixth grader to lose a best friend because she can make another. It is OK for the 7th grader fail the science test because there will be another. It is Ok for the 9th grader to be cut from the basketball team because there are other sports to play. Steve Jobs gave a speech shortly before he died that the two best things that happened to him we're dropping out of college and getting fired by Apple at the age of 30.
Stress becomes particularly debilitating when kids perceive it as a “fight or be devoured” choice, a false choice largely reinforced by Schools and families. We communicate to students that everything they do is crucial to their life so that they get the maximum benefit. We often forget that there are many redeeming moments in life, and not all of them are successes.
Effort followed by success is better than failure that follows from lack of effort. However, from failure can come perspective, renewed effort and success.
The play narrative is similar. Play is practice and discovery, but if it is not the practice for life that we see in other species, then it is a waste of precious learning time in a very complex world. Roof time for children in Early Childhood is critical social learning time, important for gross motor development and a time of creative development of fantasy stories. When 10th graders practice in groups dividing DNA by making models that use tooth picks, gummy bears and Twizzlers, not only do they gain impulse control (a stress experience), their amusement means that the patterns are seared into their long-term memory. Play can, and should, have rules and direction, and at the same time it should promote autonomy, mastery and purpose. Play is low-stakes testing. People can be fully invested emotionally during play. When a batter comes to the plate with a runner on third, he or she practices a stressful moment. The heart beats. The blood pressure mounts. The endorphin flows, but in the end, it was only a game.
I do not suggest that all play should be completely rule-bound and adult controlled, as that negates its purpose of providing meaning. Play can be within parameters that are adult-inspired, but child-chosen. We are training our students for lives as adults in human society, which puts a premium on social interaction. Thomas Freidman recently noted that when Google hires they do not care about GPA. They want social skills, specifically the ability to pull together data on the fly, leadership that knows not only how to direct but also how to step back and let others contribute. They look for humility and ownership. These are attributes that cannot be learned from a book or lecture or practiced on a test, but through interactive play.
Interactive play needs only inspiration to gain traction. Sometimes that needs to come from the adults. Students in a fifth grade science class were studying genetics and recessive and dominant traits. They had read the theory the night before. In groups of two they tasted a PTC strip with some squealing about the taste and others in odd silence. What was happening? Before their very eyes, the mystery was solved--super tasting was a recessive trait and using the "T" and "t" methodology, it proved out that 25% of the class were super tasters. Directed play in action.
What we articulate as a goal for this school is to develop wisely joyful people. To get there you need the confidence to work through failure to success. You need to be able to rely on others to help you realize your goals and contribute to others attaining theirs, which is an exercise in impulse control. Those experiences, while adult-inspired, must belong to the students, allowing them to play with enthusiasm and practice social roles that will help them function happily and well as adults. Wisdom is the product of knowledge, experience, understanding and empathy. Joy is the product of autonomy, purpose and meaning. And so, quite naturally, it is stress and play every day.