If Expectation is the Enemy of Play, Is it the Enemy of Education?


Nursery Play

Recently, in a series on play by The Walrus, Olympic athlete Marnie McBean commented that "expectation is the enemy of play." In setting out her premise, McBean reported that in one Olympic compettion in which the Canadian team clearly held the advantage on many levels, a competitor team unexpectedly beat the Canadian team. As she watched them, McBean observed that the Canadian team, in its expectation of winning, had forgotten about the joy of her sport. Mcbean went on to observe that in mature play, there may well be expectations but they should "lift you up and inspire you."

Interestingly, right about the same time that McBean was airing her views on play, two commentaries about the role of play in education were published. One, by New York Times writer David Kohn, argues that the emphasis in the United States on international achievement tests has resulted in a didactic approach to teaching. Kohn goes on to cite research about the possible negative effects of such an approach on children's learning. So, is this a case of expectation (as represented in tests and the direct teaching approach that often accompanies them) being damaging to education? Well, according to Psychology Today writer Peter Gray it just might well be the case.

Gray reviews several studies that indicate that even though small gains in achievement accrue from direct teaching of academic skills in the early years, these gains are soon lost and sometimes even reversed! What could account for this pattern? Gray speculates that: "One possibility is that the initial school experience sets the stage for later behavior. Those in classrooms where they learned to plan their own activities, to play with others, and to negotiate differences may have developed lifelong patterns of personal responsibility and pro-social behavior that served them well throughout their childhood and early adulthood. Those in classrooms that emphasized academic performance may have developed lifelong patterns aimed at achievement, and getting ahead, which—especially in the context of poverty—could lead to friction with others and even to crime (as a misguided means of getting ahead)."

So expectations prove to be more complicated than what can be represented in tests. Matters of relationships, social behavior, responsibility, and yes, joy, may well have a lot more to do with how we and our children move through life in the wake of school experiences.

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