Globalization and technological advances have not automatically lifted everyone. Inequality is growing, both within and between countries. To help unify a world that is becoming increasingly fractured we need leaders, who have a sense of collective stewardship, and innovators, who can find new solutions to current and future challenges – possibly using technology that has not yet been invented.
The vital question, therefore, is how far are we succeeding in fostering the skills children need to be those future leaders and innovators? The World Bank dedicated its latest annual flagship report, The World Development Report (September 2017), entirely to learning and education, for the first time. According to it, 650 million children attend primary school, but a staggering 250 million are not even learning basic skills. Even after several years in school, children, especially those in the developing world, cannot read, write or do basic maths. As the report concludes, without proper learning taking place in schools, education will fail to deliver on its promise to eliminate extreme poverty and create shared opportunity and prosperity for all.
The learning crisis is a global crisis
Education in developing parts of the world is evidently lagging, but is everything on track in the developed world?
At the LEGO Foundation, we would argue that the learning crisis is in fact even more disturbing than the picture painted by the World Bank. Not only are children not learning the basics, they are also not learning the breadth of skills – in particular creativity, problem-solving, critical thinking and collaboration - needed to address the growing challenges of a fractured global society. Skills like creativity and collaboration have less to do with what is being taught and more to do with how children learn.
Many school systems have not evolved over time but continue to rely on traditional teaching methods suitable for the demands of the 19th-century industrial revolution or 20th-century knowledge society, but not the 21st-century reality. Knowledge retention is still at the core and testing regimes leave children (and teachers) stressed and disenfranchised.
As stated in the Global Human Capital Report, school systems are simply “disconnected from the skills needed to function in today’s labour markets”. In essence, the learning crisis is a global issue which requires a rethinking of education systems to ensure children are prepared to tackle the challenges that lie ahead.
Play – a serious and powerful antidote
One approach to redesigning education systems and equipping children with the right skills is often overlooked. We need to provide opportunities for children to learn in the way most natural and engaging to them: through play. We also need to erase the false dichotomy often drawn between children’s play and their learning of academic content.
From the earliest moments of infancy, children have an amazing natural ability to learn about the world through play and a growing body of evidence underscores how play is paramount to children’s development and learning. We know that creativity is a hugely important skill and pretend play – pretending to be Batman or to host a tea party for imaginary friends – is a way for children to practice original thinking, one of the main cognitive processes in creativity.
Playing also helps children to learn skills that are predictive of later academic achievement. For example, research shows that construction play is related to the development of spatial visualization skills – and these skills are strongly connected to math skills and problem-solving.
A recent study determined that for every $1 invested in early, quality play-based education, $7-12 is returned to society. As such, learning through play is simply a great investment for society.
But learning through play is not only relevant or applicable in the early years. A great example of how a playful approach to teaching core subjects and a breadth of skills can pay both in and outside the classroom is the FIRST robotics programmes. Teams of kids are given a particular challenge each year, such as tackling the waste problem or disability issues, and learn how to build and programme robots that address these. A recent study underpins the effectiveness of these programmes and finds that participating students learn STEM skills and develop a desire to work in STEM-related fields. Importantly, the study also finds that students develop vital workforce skills, such as good communication and problem-solving expertise.
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Counteracting the learning crisis
If we fail to counteract the learning crisis and continue on the path of standardized testing and knowledge retention, we are doing our children and the world a great disservice. A more holistic view – one that includes both traditional academic skills and a breadth of skills – is urgently needed.
Creating a playful learning environment is not counter to learning the classic disciplines taught in school already. On the contrary, it is an opportunity to tap into children’s natural ability for learning and create opportunities for much deeper learning and more engaged students. It will prepare them to be the leaders and innovators of tomorrow ready to tackle a fractured world.
Quoting the late Seymour Papert, Professor Emeritus from MIT, we must never forget that children are born great learners and that we, as adults, should, in fact, try much harder to be like them.