Three Rs plus playful classes builds creativity, critical thinking


There has not been such a burst of interest in plans and programmes in South Africa’s education system for a long time. From preschool to university, practitioners, researchers and opinionistas are talking about the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). It makes sense that the place to start preparing for a life with artificial intelligence is the school.

What must happen before we can even think of primary schools doing that? The minister of basic education, Angie Motshekga, appeared to strike the right chord when she said to journalists at a recent meeting: “We must get the basics right first.”

And the basics are the three Rs. Imagine what adventures children can have with coding if they can read well and grasp maths in some depth. And just think of how helpful it could be for children if they had some sense of the nature of science when they start designing and making things on devices.

But what about the four Cs — critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication — that are crucial for life in the 4IR and which my colleague Sarah Gravett referred to in an article in the Mail & Guardian (Industry 4.0 is being taken seriously, January 18)? How does one educate for critical thinking and problem-solving, creativity and innovation, collaboration and teamwork, communication and information literacy?

In our research centre at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) Soweto campus, we have learned a few valuable lessons about the four Cs: children are creative and innovative, they can solve problems, they can think (very) critically and they are keen communicators.

By the time they enter school, they are already playfully engaging with the four Cs at their level of development. They have already created playthings and have made up their own games, collaborating with their peers and siblings. They have solved the problems they face in their play world and they have learned how to communicate — often in different languages.

So, what goes wrong when they go to school? Why does the future for the grade 1 class of 2019 look bleak?

The grade 1 class of 2019 are perfectly good citizens of our times, ready to design robots and to engage with machine learning. They have, by virtue of the evolution of our species, developed brain power that can, ultimately, live with algorithms; these little people have human intelligence.

What they don’t have is knowledge and skills that are very recent in human history — reading and mathematics. They have to learn to read and to make their world mathematical. Someone has to teach them. It does not happen naturally.

It is only recently that our brains have had to “recircuit” their visual powers to learn to read. And it is only recently that we started structuring the world mathematically.

Cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene, of the Collège de France in Paris, has written two compelling books about this learning. He writes convincingly about the challenges of growing from being the playful toddler to the serious child student of the alphabet and of number.

Contemporary young humans learn because they are instructed in some structured way. Such learning does not happen spontaneously, as play does. It is organised and it is assessed regularly to find out how they are progressing.

There is not much time in school for spontaneous, imaginative play. This means there is less time to create, to design, to solve childlike problems, such as where to hide when playing hide-and-seek and how to manage peers in a world of joint fantasy. Children’s spontaneous play has all the characteristics of the four Cs.

To address the importance of play, the Lego Foundation is sponsoring the Lego Professor of Play at Cambridge University, where studies will include how “children are equipped with 21st-century skills like problem-solving, team work and self-control”. The recently appointed chair, child and adolescent psychiatrist Paul Ramchandani said in an interview with The Independent in 2017: “Everyone has an opinion about what role play should have in early education and there is some wonderful research, but there are also big gaps in our knowledge.”

For many in education, play is still divorced from serious, deep learning. It is slotted into that time during the school day when teachers use it as a medium to teach, knowing that it has educational value, but often for relief and “fun” during the long school day. Children take on a role and the teacher structures some of the plot. I think, though, that much more can be done to harvest the richness of the four Cs with which children come to school.

One of these is to let children produce artefacts — to be makers in playful makerspace classrooms. My student Refilwe N is a teacher, and she studied teaching aids for mathematics in foundation phase classrooms. She concluded that children, themselves, should design artefacts for learning to count, to calculate and to make their own “playthings” for learning about time, space and number.

Another student, Francois N, found that when children make their own models of the solar system, using clay, that teachers have a more direct glimpse into children’s conceptual understanding. This type of “making” is playful.

Play, in its broad sense, does not mean only acting and speaking, though. Play is also not limited to games — especially if its strongest characteristic, namely imagining, is replaced by “rules of the game”. The design-thinking element is best observed in preschool groups who have only a few objects with which to invent a playful scenario. In fact, children with too many manufactured toys often do not quite know what to do with these, unless there are rules and they are playing a structured game.

The Lego Foundation conducts research about learning though play, which suggests that it is not only a medium for learning, but also a source for learning and development.

“Neuroscience helps explain how playful experiences can support learning. We find that each characteristic — joy, meaning, active engagement, iteration and social interaction — is associated with neural networks involved in brain processes. These processes include reward, memory, cognitive flexibility and stress regulation,” the research reads, in part.

There is really no manual for creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking. The best schools can do is to make sure that the three Rs and a knowledge- and competency-rich curriculum has space for playful, innovative engagement.

For schools to teach critical thinking, for example, requires much wisdom from those who advocate it. I agree with @rpondiscio (Robert Pondiscio, vice-president for external affairs at the Thomas B Fordham Institute in the United States and adviser to Democracy Prep Public Schools) that children cannot become critical thinkers by acquiring this crucial competence in a knowledge vacuum. For starters, to engage with the algorithms critically, you need to know quite a bit about them.

Professor Elizabeth Henning is the National Research Foundation South Africa research chair: integrated studies of learning language, science and mathematics in the primary school in the Centre for Education Practice Research at the University of Johannesburg’s Soweto campus

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Elizabeth Henning
Professor Elizabeth Henning is director at the Centre for Education Practice Research at the University of Johannesburg. She is also a South Africa Research chair: Integrated Studies of Learning Language, Science and Mathematics in the Primary School

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