Yes– our students must practice to learn, they must do to learn, and they should also play to learn, as this terrific Op-Ed in the Times by a college psychology lecturer argues.

For the most part, this blog, entitled 21 (for 21st century) k-12, for k-12 education, focuses upon high school, and to a slightly lesser extent, middle school.  But I am a recent (recovering?) former K-8 (actually PreSchool-8) Head, and I certainly care deeply for 21st century elementary education too.

Engels piece, entitled Playing to Learn, opens with the anxiety that I too share: that too much of the “reform” coming from the Obama-Duncan adminstration focuses on learning broadly, not deeply, and not in the ways students best learn.

Our current educational approach — and the testing that is driving it — is completely at odds with what scientists understand about how children develop during the elementary school years and has led to a curriculum that is strangling children and teachers alike.

As a secondary educational leader now, I want to heartily endorse Engels on this following point:

what children need to do in elementary school is not to cram for high school or college, but to develop ways of thinking and behaving that will lead to valuable knowledge and skills later on.

Engels is a balancer and reconciler, as am I: yes, most certainly, elementary students need to memorize and master facts. “Children would also spend a short period of time each day practicing computation.”  They would spend an hour every day writing, with high standards for excellence, though they would be given great opportunities to choose what to write.

But as I argue here, they should not be restricted to worksheets and workbooks: “What they shouldn’t do is spend tedious hours learning isolated mathematical formulas or memorizing sheets of science facts that are unlikely to matter much in the long run.”

Instead, they should organize the world around them as the budding scientists, engineers, authors, and historians we should view them.  Engels is great on this:

Once children are proficient in those basics they would be free to turn to other activities that are equally essential for math and science: devising original experiments, observing the natural world and counting things, whether they be words, events or people.

Just as we should ensure high school classrooms are as much laboratories and studios as they are theaters, so should we ensure elementary classrooms are places for the necessary content and skill learning is infused with a spirit of inquiry, of experimentation, of natural observation and practical problem-solving.    By this, we will not only have students who know more and be more proficiently skilled, because what they have learned and memorized they have attached meaning to and they have put in practical effect, but they will best come into our high schools ready to lead, collaborate, problem-solve and create.