Guest Article by Pamela Proctor
Pamela Proctor is co-founder of Vancouver's Charles Dickens Annex and the author of Honouring the Child. She continues to write and to give presentations and workshops on organizing for play-based learning.
Children learn by playing. Yet, the very word play conjures up images of indolence and idleness, and its significance gets lost. The concern for many seems to be how children can play in school and learn at the same time. The difficulty is that most of us are accustomed to the factory model of schooling, which has prevailed since the institution of public education.
The factory model is teacher dominated as famously depicted by Charles Dickens in Hard Times in 1854. His account of Thomas Gradgrind demanding that girl number twenty define a horse seemed to me to be exaggerated until I read in my father’s life story, I Was There, something he actually witnessed in school in England in 1912. His teacher Mr.Potts who “caned viciously when he was angry” asked the class a simple question, then pulled a girl, frozen in fear, from her desk by the hair on her head when she failed to answer.
Fortunately, the factory model had softened by the time I started teaching. However, teachers were still the centre of the action, standing at the blackboard asking all the questions. I divided my grade two children into three groups based on ability and taught the 3 R’s to each group in turn. Then I administered tests. Based on the results, I ranked children in order from top to bottom, failing those at the lowest end of the scale. I call it the teach, test, rank and fail approach following the lock step system by which I was taught as a child and which was reinforced by my university professors and school district supervisor. I knew no other way and, having been rewarded for my work, I thought the way was correct.
Then I went to England on exchange for a year. I even thought that after I showed my stuff I would be rewarded there too. But methods in the English school were totally different. Instead of sitting quietly, children moved around and talked. There was no blackboard but there were plenty of materials such as sand, water, building blocks, paint and puzzles. I didn’t know how to put such materials to use. More to the point, I couldn’t see how the children could learn anything unless I formally taught them.
However, I was determined to fit in. Following the suggestions of another staff member, I spent each day in a manner foreign to me. I put the materials out and my six year old children chose activities such as weighing, measuring, doing sums, painting, reading or writing. I sat at my table and they came to me one at a time. They shared their efforts with me and I listened to them read. I saw each one face to face each day. They saw each other face to face each day. Relationships formed. The children flourished and I learned a lot. It wasn’t long before I began to see that even when they played, the children were learning.
At the end of the exchange I was left in limbo—convinced that less formal ways were better yet unsure of how to adapt them in a Vancouver classroom. How was I going to introduce play? Would anyone understand if the children talked in the classroom? Would it seem that I had lost control? Seeking support, I took a year out to attend UBC. Studying English literature and the Philosophy of Education, I read the works of Dickens and other novelists who exposed harsh, strict schooling and the work of many educators who advocated the approach I had experienced in England.
During the following three years, I made many modifications in my way of working despite being surrounded by teachers who continued to teach in the same formal way. Then, after a summer taking courses in England, I was appointed as a primary consultant. It happened that two other consultants appointed at the same time had similar ideas to mine. After much discussion and research, we formed a team with three other teachers to plan for the opening of a primary school in Vancouver based on the principles we agreed were important in the education of young children.
Organizing Charles Dickens Annex was an all encompassing task. We formed five classes of 4-9 year olds, an arrangement called Family Grouping which, among other benefits, would allow the children greater opportunities for relationships. We capitalized on their natural curiosity and desire to learn by offering an integrated approach in a workshop-like environment where they could choose from a wide range of materials which we set up in centres. We paid attention to their choices and to their efforts. We found that they learned from and inspired each other and gained confidence speaking in a group during sharing circles twice a day.
We assisted children in identifying and expanding their interests through on-going class studies, projects and frequent field trips. The parents, whom we considered to be our partners, helped us on these trips as well as in the activity areas. Also, we invited parents and others to share their interests and expertise with the children.
At any given time, one could observe 150 children engaged in many activities going on concurrently such as writing, weighing, measuring, sorting, block building, drawing, painting, playing in the playhouse or the sand or water tables, doing woodwork, cooking, sewing, singing in the music room or running, jumping and climbing in the gym. They worked and they played. They imagined, they created and they learned. We had relinquished control and with each child progressing at an individual pace, the learning seemed to be slower. However, we noticed that the children learned much more than the basics, developing on a broader front including soft skills such as teamwork, problem solving and adaptability. They were creative and productive, cooperating with each other toward becoming confident, caring individuals. As teachers we were facilitators as well as learners in the process.
The output of each day’s activities was as varied as the children themselves—a wide array of paintings, drawings, sewn, woven and cooked items, woodwork creations, stories, book reports, science experiments and interest studies, tape recordings, models built with clay, and blocks of all sizes, graphs, patterns, etc. What they produced was indicative of the way they were--curious, open, thoughtful, enthusiastic, energetic and self-directed. Our hundreds of visitors could see as we did, that the children were focused and determined.
Our on-going assessment included observation during activity times, individual conferences, cumulative records and portfolios. However, we aimed to have the children become lifelong learners, so we needed to know how they fared as they grew older. After about fifteen years, I queried some in their late teens and early twenties. In their written responses they shared their many memories of the school including having the freedom to choose, the excitement of field trips, and having fun while learning. More importantly, in comments such as the following, they conveyed an understanding of our purposes:
* "‘...the learning environment was very educational for me” - Leah
* “We worked to do our best, not for reward or anything and in the early stages of learning, I feel it is important not to alienate or discourage those who may not be doing so well.” - Maria
* "Schooling when you are young is not so much about facts and figures, but rather interacting with other children.” - Ian
* “The openness of the school led to my awareness of different methods, lifestyles, cultures and ideas.” - Jessica
* “I learned to make decisions by myself and I knew what I wanted.” - Vanessa
Just a few weeks ago, I heard from Dan, now forty years old. As a child, Dan attended Charles Dickens Annex for four years. He confirmed the value of our approach in an email he sent after finding my website.
“You had a very important role in my early development thru your teaching and I am very grateful that you always took the time for me and instilled a self learning mechanism within me.”
The school, supported by the community as well as many parents outside the area who chose to have their children attend, outlasted funding cutbacks and administrative changes. Then in 1990, the government produced a new curriculum embodying the principles on which it was based, called The Primary Program, an internationally acclaimed achievement. Although it has been revised, it stands to this day.
Unfortunately, The Primary Program is being sabotaged by provincially prescribed learning outcomes and testing. The result is that teachers feel compelled to continue to dominate the classroom. Many stick to the basics for long periods, often omitting important subjects such as music, physical education and creative arts. There is even pressure on both teachers and parents to compel children to learn skills earlier and earlier. Recently, a program on CBC’s Ideas called The Hurried Infant exposed a multi million dollar industry around products such as Baby Einstein, Brainy Baby, Baby Genius and Jumpstart Baby designed to accelerate the development of babies.
In Dad’s day, children finished school at age 13 unless their parents could pay for them to continue. Lifelong learning wasn’t considered. Now, we know better. Or do we? Policies that affect the classrooms are borne out of governmental fear of falling behind other countries. Further, these policies are supported by economists for whom it makes sense to focus on a narrow range of goals that are measurable and to administer tests.
The situation is serious. The rights of children are being violated. The damage is extensive as demonstrated by the frustration, anger and obesity of some of our young people. For this, public education must accept some responsibility. Formal group learning, rigid and time-defined, served to children without considering their needs, creates stress when they are young and is potentially a stifling handicap to them as adults.
The simple fact of the matter is that children differ widely from one another in their rates and style of learning and in their physical, social and emotional growth. Just as we make our public facilities and our city streets accessible to everyone, we need to ensure that our public schools serve all children. We need to remove barriers to each child learning so that we’re not educating some at the expense of others. When we discard outdated methods and offer children choice and chance to work and play together, to converse, collaborate and cooperate in the classroom, we will save public education and more significantly, honour all children.
Read more about Pamela's work in Honouring the Child: Changing Ways of Teaching or at