Learning should be fun - it is the best way to educate lifelong learners

The LEGO Idea Conference 2015 (14/15 April 2015) gathered over 300 carefully selected experts from all around the world with a diverse background from academia to practice with a very ambitious goal: defining solution to address barriers to unlock every child’s potential. The aim was not only to identify and agree on barriers blocking progress, but also to co-create new ideas, innovations and partnerships to overcome these barriers. In general to promote learning as something great and enjoyable – and also to make it become like that. The day before the conference also offered an opportunity to start working with a small core group of experts around this – a group thinking that is planned to go on for the years to come - and also to meet the owner of LEGO, Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, a visionary and dedicated man.

The LEGO Foundation presented their new strategy, involving substantially more partnerships and funding in order to ‘re-define play and re-imagine learning’. Their activities are dedicated to a future where learning through play empowers children to become creative, engaged lifelong learners – an idea EPA cannot agree more with. This redefining is clearly necessary for many reasons. One is that it is becoming clear that today’s school is not suitable for 21st century children. This is something proven by research and also the fact that more and more children have problems fitting in the system. There is another, more economic driving force to the need to re-define and re-organise. With standardised testing becoming more and more widely used, schools tend to become ‘exam factories’. At the same time a survey shows that employers are looking for young employees who are able to work in a team, make decisions and solve problems, plan, organise and prioritise work, communicate verbally as well as to obtain and process information. If you have ever been in a standardised testing situation, you know it is the exact opposite. Preparing learners for tests clearly has nothing to do with preparing them for life.

Two quotes from two leading scholars in the field of playful learning were the drivers of our thinking and teamwork in identifying the barriers and suggesting solutions. Kathy Hirsch-Pasek is urging us to stop thinking about learning versus play and start speaking about learning via play. Jack Schonkoff was emphasising that play shouldn’t be an escape from learning but a driving force behind it. The tone of the co-creative activities was given by an inspiring young man from New York, Nikhil Goyal (19) who told the audience about his very recent experiences of school as a boring, unchallenging place with a lot of unhealthy competitions. He believes that considering children as competent humans is scary for many adults. It was clear from these two days that those attending the conference were not among them. Nikhil had a very important message: we parents should complain when schools create circumstances for children that we wouldn’t accept as adults. We should have a thorough look at our school systems and we will be shocked, I’m sure. He is advocating for a school that helps parents to raise happy, curious, engaged, self-directed children and not obedient servants.

After these inspiring first ideas the participants were invited to think and create – not only talk, but also build, draw or even sing and dance – their ideas on how to engage all people, and not only those already converted to these ideas, how to overcome the difficulties of measuring progress and impact and how to convince people – families, companies and governments – to invest in these activities. Although it is more or less sure investment will only come once there are measured results, we al agreed that there is a need to change the language as definitions can change the issues themselves. The conference was tackling five main – mostly interlinking - barrier areas:
  • ·         Mindset and attitudes – First of all generally there is a narrow approach to education – something EPA has always argued against. The value of play is not clear to most. There is a need to change terminology. Fear of change may be behind difficulties of change. The greatest barrier seems to be the lack of communication leading to local ownership globally. (There already is a Global Business Coalition that tries to be the driving force in this and to act as agents of change also putting emphasis on the social impact of all investment.)
  • ·         Formal learning – We know it all too well that teacher education is not equipping future teachers with relevant skills. Traditional student-teacher relationships (and let EPA add: family-school relationships) are also a barrier. In most schools the physical environment is not suitable either. But the biggest issue of all: there is no agreement on what the main aim of school today is.
  • ·        
    Informal learning – The basic problem is that the knowledge base is not or mis-understood by most people, even professionals and the language around it is not clear. It is often viewed as a luxury and not something necessary and useful. Professional support is often missing. There was agreement that measurement will need to be changed.
  • ·         Finances – Participants agreed that funds availabile are inadequate and there is inequity in availability, too. It is not always clear how funds are spent and there is a lack of scale-up systems. The question of affordability for parents and families was also raised.
  • ·         Measurement – We are very good at saying what is wrong, but there is no agreement on what should be there instead. The starting point for changing measurements is to take ownership of it. First of all we have to ask the question? is it possible that the wrong things are measured? Although we all need at a certain point in life some kind of proof to show others of what we know, measurements should not be a pass or fail issue, but they should be considered as a learning tool.

A lot of time was dedicated to define the barrier areas more clearly and also to create innovative solutions to overcome them. Several possible projects were presented. I will take the liberty to present three I personally liked most from a parental point of view:
  • ·         in order to change mindsets a Council should be  created to set the Global Agenda for Positive Impact of Play, involving parents (with special emphasis on father), children, the private sector, role models, social media, mass media, government, civil society, research and the public/community in general;
  • ·         a peer parenting movement should be started and maintained to empower parents and also to equip them with physical and other tools to become great, playful educators;
  • ·         a strong global brand with local ownership should be built to promote and support learning through play by empowerment, engagement, awareness raising and also by providing tools.

The LEGO Idea prize was presented to Carla Rinaldi, the driving force behind ReggioEmilia, a great place for children and learning.

To finish with let me offer some great quotes from the event and the accompanying exhibition:
‘Talking about music is like dancing about architecture’ – Elvis Costello
‘We say we play music because it is supposed to be fun. If it feels like work, you are doing something wrong’
‘The future of our children lies not in the hands of our children, but in their creativity’
‘Creativity is as important as literacy and numeracy, and I actually think people understand that creativity is important – they just don’t understand what it is’ – Ken Robinson
‘Parents encourage children to do academics earlier and earlier. How do we convince them this actually hampers the child’s development?’
‘But we have to ask, what are the skills we want our kids to have. Parents might think that the most critical skills - reading, writing and maths – require early and intense instruction. But according to Kathy Hirsch-Pasek just as important are creativity, critical thinking and the ability to learn from failure – all skills best learnt through play’
‘In school you’re taught a lesson and then given a test, in life you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson’ – Tom Bodett
‘I have never let my schooling interfere with my education’ – Mark Twain

‘Thinking of education and preparation for something that happens later can overlook the fact that the first 16 or 18 years of a person’s life re not a rehearsal. Young people are living their lives now’ – Ken Robinson

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