Tuesday, May 24, 2005

PLAYING IS LEARNING

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Odds Stacked Against Pleasure Reading says a headline in the Washington Post today. The article is about students and parents complaining about school reading assignments for advanced students. They claim it is killing the joy of reading.

They are right.

The reason people read books is to kill time, entertain the mind, learn something new and to collect reference points so one can sound cultured in a conversation. In past times, people read things that were topical for themselves. There were fads such as Sir Walter Scott's medieval sagas that caused a rage for all things chivalric that changed architecture, music and fashion. People read his books because they were exiting and fun. They talked about these books excitedly in parlors and in schools. Dickens was wildly popular. Literally, his books stopped business and traffic as everyone rushed to discover the latest developments in his chronicles. All of this was topical and uninhibited.

Take the same books and force people to read these archaic stories and the eyes glaze over and the reader's interest collapses. I vividly remember reading books. They were private and they were mine and better than all that, I could warp them to my own woof! Seriously, I altered all the stories I read, some of them very significantly. For example, if the proteganist was a boy he would become a girl. Or a minor character that I liked would become a major character. Or I would alter whole sections or even the end of the book or discard 90% of it and completely redo the entire project to suit myself. This mental tinkering was not only fun but was creative and necessary to the enjoyment of the book.

This made it nearly impossible for me to participate in proper book rehashing sessions. I can deconstruct a book ruthlessly and if a work doesn't inspire me, I can tear it apart easily. But this is cold blooded work. When I hate an article or a book I rip it to shreds on various levels.
"I haven't read a book for pleasure in about three years," said Sachar, 18. "If I do, it's in the summer, and I might only get through one book because I'm so sick of trying to read. It's not fun anymore."

Allowing students some choice in what they read and helping them understand the content is a difficult balance to strike for today's teachers, educators say.
The dead hand of the academic at work here. I must confess, I love medieval books and read them for fun. The Icelandic sagas or old Mittlehoch deutsch minnesaenger, I read this for fun. I have a huge library of ancient books. No one tells me how to think about these books and nothing would please me more than sitting in a leather chair with a cool beer, fire in the grate, feet up, chatting with a group of interested people about the intricate trellis of Songs of the Rose. Well! No one is grading me or punishing me for spouting off so it is fun!

Why do academics kill fun?

This is the fundamental question.
Allowing students to pick their own books is more than a democratic reading experiment. Studies show that reading achievement is significantly improved when students have an opportunity to choose from a selection of interesting texts rather than being dictated to.
Here lies the key. "Dictated to". No living creature likes dictators. The natural urge is to resist or rebel. The liberal revolution was supposed to be all about freeing the mind. But stubbornly, humans try to chain it up. The urge to microcontrol minds is irresistible. I know, my teachers tried it in vain on me. They could stymie me but not stop me.

Fun. This concept of play being important to the human mind needs to be explored more. Let's look at sports. One sees jr baseball teams and basketball leagues and so on all over the place but when you look at the majors you see something astonishing: most of the very top players, the very best, came off of the "streets" and usually are former street urchins who played with other street urchins. Watching these people play, one sees immediately that they are having fun. It is all a blast to them as they move effortlessly and gracefully along, not a puppet on strings but free humans! Why do children in the Dominican Republic playing with broken sticks and empty tin cans make the top baseball players? They have few rules, no umps and they hit anything and everything and run everywhere, laughing, no adults in attendance!

I used to live in the inner city in NYC. Every day, children took over the basketball courts and played. Not as teams, really, but pairs for slightly more, all under one basket, no dribbling back and forth, they just jostled for the ball so they could pop it into the basket and the score that mattered was how niftily or with what level of cool one did the dump. Then the watchers would yell compliments and high five each other and the player who did the best mid air choreography would be the winner. There never were any umps or adults stopping the action with whistles and instructions.

When these same kids end up in colleges playing for schools that don't like them much, one can see the sullen anger build up. The play is less chaotic but less fun, too. By the time the ruthless winnowing process is over, the survivors play with grim determination because this makes them very rich but the joy of the game usually is lost.

Rules are good but too much control can be bad. This yin/yang tension is where creativity happens. The reason why novels are getting less and less well written is because the reader is tired and the writer is frantic.
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