why do we assess students at school?

I’m already sold on Peter Gray’s argument for free play as an educational need of children (and adolescents). However, consider some of these points:

“About thirty years ago, a team of research psychologists headed by James Michaels at Virginia Polytechnic and State University conducted a simple experiment in a real-world setting. They hung around the pool hall in a university student center and watched friendly games of eight ball. At first they observed unobtrusively and counted the percentage of successful shots that each player made, in order to categorize the players as experts or novices. They then moved in closer and began watching in a way that made it obvious to the players that they were evaluating their performances. They did this for multiple players over multiple games. Here’s what they found: close observation caused the experts to perform even better than they did without observation, but it had the opposite effect on the novices. All in all, the average success rate of the experts rose from 71 percent up to 80 percent under observation, while that for novices fell from 36 percent to 25 percent. other experiments, using a wide variety of tasks, have produced similar results. When research subjects believe their performance is being observed and evaluated, those who are already skilled become better and those who are not so skilled become worse. The debilitating effects of being observed and evaluated have been found to be even greater for mental tasks, such as solving difficult math problems or generating good rebuttals to the views of classical philosophers, than they are for physical tasks, such as shooting pool. When the task involves creative thought or the learning of a difficult skill, the presence of an observer or evaluator inhibits almost all participants.” (pp.132-133)

“There is every reason to believe that this principle, that evaluation facilitates the performance of those who are already skilled and inhibits that of learners, applies to students in school. Schools are presumably places for learning and practice, not for experts to show off. Yet, with their incessant monitoring and evaluation of students’ performances, schools seem to be ideally designed to boost the performances of those who are already good and to interfere with learning. Those who have somehow already learned the school tasks, maybe at home, generally perform well in this setting, but those who haven’t tend to flounder. Evaluation drives a wedge between those who already know how and those who don’t, pushing the former up and the latter down. Evaluation has this pernicious effect because it produces a mind-set that is opposite from the playful state of mind, which is the ideal state for learning new skills, solving new problems, and engaging in all sorts of creative activities.” (p.133)

Research (that Gray goes on to discuss here) has shown “that learning, problem solving, and creativity are worsened by interventions that interfere with playfulness and improved by interventions that promote playfulness.” (p.134)

“To the degree that we engage in an activity purely to achieve some end or goal, separate from the activity itself, that activity is not play. What we value most, when we are not playing, are the results of our actions. The actions are merely means to the ends. When we are not playing, we typically opt for the shortest, least effortful means of achieving our goal. The nonplayful student, for example, does the least studying that she can to get the ‘A’ that she desires, and her studying is focused directly on the goal of doing well on the tests. Any learning not related to that goal is, for her, wasted effort.
In play, however, all this is reversed. Play is activity conducted primarily for its own sake. The playful student enjoys studying the subject and cares little about the test. In play, attention is focused on the means, not the ends, and players do not necessarily look for the easiest routes to achieving the ends. …Another way of saying all this is to say that play is intrinsically motivated (motivated by the activity itself), not extrinsically motivated (motivated by some reward that is separate from the activity itself).” (p.143)

“Researchers have shown that rewards in some cases actually reduce the likelihood that a person will engage in an activity, by instilling the idea that the activity is work rather than play.” (p.144)

“People often think of play as frivolous or trivial, and they are right. …play is activity conducted for its own sake rather than to achieve serious real-world goals such as food, money, praise, escape from a tiger, or an addition to one’s resume. It is activity that takes place at least partly in a fantasy world. So it is indeed trivial! But here is the most delicious of play’s paradoxes: the enormous educative power of play lies in its triviality.” (pp.153-154)

When children are free to play, they play naturally at the ever-advancing edges of their mental or physical abilities.” (p.155)

Perhaps play would be more respected if we called it something like ‘self-motivated practice of life skills,’ but that would remove the lightheartedness from it and thereby reduce its effectiveness. So, we are stuck with the paradox. We must accept play’s triviality in order to realize its profundity.” (p.156)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) Peter Gray (c2013) Free to LearnWhy unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. Basic Books: New York


About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
This entry was posted in History of Childhood, Literate Contexts, play, Standardised Testing, Teaching excellence and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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