Inspired Teaching Q&A with Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek

May 12, 2015

(Photo courtesy of Dr. Hirsh-Pasek)

Dr. Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek is the Stanley and Debra Lefkowitz Distinguished Faculty Fellow in the Department of Psychology at Temple University, where she serves as Director of the Temple Infant and Child Laboratory. With her long time collaborator, Roberta Golinkoff, she is a recipient of The APA Bronfenbrenner Award for lifetime contribution to the science of developmental psychology, the APA Award for Distinguished Service to Psychological Science, and the APS James McKeen Cattell Award for lifetime contributions to Psychological Science. She has also received Temple University’s Great Teacher Award and Paul Eberman Research Award. Learn more about Dr. Hirsh-Pasek’s work and publications here.

Inspired Teaching recently spoke with Dr. Hirsh-Pasek to ask her about the science behind “playful learning.” Below is an excerpt from our conversation. 

How does learning through play prepare children to succeed academically and in life?

Somewhere along the line, the idea of play got muddied. And I’m not sure how that happened, but I think it was a dangerous move. Goats play, monkeys play, dogs play, and, of course, little babies play to explore the world around them. So there’s something that’s been evolutionarily primed here. And it’s worth looking into exactly what that is.

My own research has shown that young children learn as well or better through playful learning than through passive learning. There’s a wide range of research showing how much we learn through playful exchanges. I hope we can bring play back and make it part of every child’s school experience because I think it will be healthier for children. And I think children and adults will all learn better.

The skills students need in the 21st century are not what they needed ten or twenty years ago, but our schools haven’t changed to reflect these shifts. I read a Time Magazine article that quipped that if Rip Van Winkle woke up today after sleeping for 100 years, the only institutions he would recognize are the schools. We just haven’t adapted.

Today’s students are growing up with the Internet and Google at their fingertips. Information is accessible everywhere and simply being able to generate facts isn’t going to help students succeed. With information doubling every two years, we couldn’t catch up even if we wanted to. It’s not sustainable.

My colleagues and I asked ourselves – if memorizing information is no longer the skill students need to succeed, then what skills are needed today? We’ve identified 6 skills (the “6 Cs”) that students need to thrive in today’s world:

  1. Collaboration – you need to be able to get along with other people and build a true community.
  2. Communication – with a community comes the need to communicate effectively. This includes a lot of things: being able to listen well (which we don’t do a lot of), being able to read and understand information, being able to analyze, speak, and present arguments well.
  3. Content – this is where our schools focus, and students do need to master content to engage with the world; however, this is one skill among several.
  4. Critical thinking – students need to be able to navigate through masses of content. They must ask difficult questions and apply information to solve complex problems.
  5. Creative innovation – the ability to see things in new ways. We don’t know what the future will hold, and we need to have a generation of new, creative thinkers who can design, build, and create in this environment.
  6. Confidence – students need to develop the grit to stick with it. Otherwise, they won’t put themselves in positions to continue growing or to take intellectual risks.

Playful learning builds each of these skills. Our schools are spending all their time on content, but that’s not preparing students for the real world. Colleges, employers – they’re all saying that America is producing high school graduates who can’t think on their feet. And as a result, no one wants to hire them. Our current education has become a national security risk.

It’s time to try something different. We need to rethink how we educate so that we create lifelong learners and incorporating playful learning is a great, effective way to do that.

How did you become a researcher who studies learning through play?

I love to play. I really do. But nested in that play is an opportunity to practice a suite of important strategies and competencies. Think about tennis, for example. The only way to have a good game is to constantly interpret and reinterpret your opponent’s body language, information you gather from how they raise their racket, their position on the court, the angle of their shot. You are a strategist on that court, and you are doing physics at the same time. Or take gardening, where the problems involve thinking critically about where to place plants so that they get the right amount of sunlight or so that taller plants will be placed in the right spatial orientation with respect to smaller plants.

It’s less about play per se and more about play as a metaphor for the passion with which you approach learning and problem solving. I got into this field because I’m really interested in how we can help people learn through doing what they enjoy. Focusing on play offered a perfect window onto how we might learn while staying focused and engaged.

How can we assess the impact of play on student learning?

Right now, there are tests that can address many, although not all of these skills. I would love to see more funding put into answering this question.

We have a handle on measuring most of the skills I mentioned. There are the “learning to learn” tests, tests to measure grit, tests that measure executive function and the ability to plan. Where we’re not so strong is measuring creativity. Of the tests we do have, 85% measure creativity through divergent thinking, which focuses on asking questions like “How many things can you do with two cups?” Those tests are limited at best.

One of challenges we have as researchers is to define the skills and competencies needed to be a lifelong learner well enough to create accountability at a scalable level. I don’t think we’re that far off.

How do students master these skills?

When we think of learning, we often think of a linear model. Students learn A, then move to B, then end at Z. But that’s not truly accurate.

Roberta and I developed a learning model that is more of a spiral. We’re constantly moving up through the spiral, returning to questions and problems, but at a higher level. I like to give the example of a Jewish student reading the Torah for her Bat Mitzvah. She’s supposed to read a portion of this ancient text and give her interpretation, but surely we learn different things from a text when we revisit it later in life. The same text – be it Shakespeare, Beowulf, or the Bible can be mined over and over again with new meaning. Our skills are constantly reformed and recycled because we’re constantly encountered new things and ideas that we incorporate into our understanding.

Another example applies to critical thinking skills. At the beginning of his learning process, a student might say “it’s my way versus your way.” And he can’t possibly imagine your way! “There’s no way you can like beets because I hate them.” This stage reminds me of how the US Congress seems to operate. “Whatever you like, I automatically won’t like.”

Next, moving up a level, the learner is able to understand: “Oh – I have an opinion, but you also have an opinion. Both have value.” Finally, the leaner asks for evidence. He’s reached a point where he wants to assess each opinion, weighing the evidence for each side, and potentially coming up with a new view altogether.

Where do we see this process happening most often in schools? On the playgrounds, as students play and learn together. When students have to figure out the rules to a game, self-referee, and problem-solve, they’re learning the process of thinking and mastering these key skills.

What are promising ways forward in promoting learning through play?

The step we need to work on right now is getting the message out. And as researchers, we have to do our jobs. We have to nail down what’s key to study about learning through play, how we can examine it, and then create assessments. We have to also be able to train teachers in this new pedagogy as it runs counter to what they are generally doing today. And if we can train them in way that will allow them to use playful learning with fidelity – doing it true-to-form each time – we can actually test the impact of the new pedagogy on learning in school settings. All signs point in the direction that playful learning will increase engagement by students and allow them to master content, but there’s a lot more work to be done before we can confidently come to that conclusion.

Some of the most important conversations I have are with parents. Many parents today think of play as a negative, “four-letter” word. They feel enormous pressure to help their children succeed, and sometimes this leads them to restrict play because they think children need more time for learning. But play and learning go together; that’s why we use the term “playful learning,” a term first coined by Professor Mitch Resnick at MIT.

It’s funny to think that we’re a counter trend right now, and it’s important for people to understand that this work is based in science and research. When we talk about the science of learning, playful learning is part of that category.

What’s the most rewarding aspect of your work?

I love getting the opportunity to make a difference for real people. It’s intellectually extremely rewarding, but there’s no better moment than when you’re speaking with a group of educators who work with children every day and that spark goes off as they realize that they can really prepare a group of students to love learning and to master competencies at the same time.

The classroom educators we work with help us researchers understand what we should look for in the real world. And we inform their work by providing the supporting research and science. It’s a wonderful partnership.

Who inspires you to continue your work?

There are so many people in so many different fields. For example, there’s some tremendous work being done right now on the neurological changes that might take place as young children are playing games. Silvia Bunge’s work comes to mind as exemplary in this category.

I am wowed by Ellen Galinsky who is CEO of the Family and Work Institute and author of Mind in the Making and by Jackie Bezos, head of the Bezos Family Foundation and founder of Vroom. Together, Ellen and Jackie are working towards a society filled with learning communities.

I’m inspired by Dr. Jack Shonkoff at Harvard University who’s done so much policy work as a pediatrician and as the brains and motivation behind Harvard’s Frontiers of Innovation initiative. There’s also Dr. Barry Zucherman’s powerful work with Reach Out and Read and Alan Mendelson’s fabulous work with parents through pediatricians’ offices, offering a new point of contact with young families looking for advice in health and in learning and development.

I am inspired by Rosemarie Truglio who does the research behind Sesame Street and by Alice Wilder who uses her brilliance to put the science to work in app and program development.

All of these leaders have taken on the challenge of doing cutting edge research while creating what Roberta and I call “edible science” that is accessible, digestible, and usable by real people.

I can’t wait to see where this movement is going. After years of trying to put science at the service of children’s education, I think we’re finally going to see playful learning on the radar screens of more and more people. If we want to reach the millions of children who aren’t receiving the opportunities they need, then we need to think big. We’re going to have to transform education and ditch the well-intended but fairly disastrous No Child Left Behind mentality in order to make a real difference for children.

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