Sunday, September 25, 2011

Peer-Driven Learning: The Power of Play and Wasting Time

As a follow up to my last post on encouraging play, and the subsequent #FYCchat, I'm thinking about the groups in my peer-driven learning class that have been the most "creative" in their project ideas. One of the worries that was expressed during the chat on Wednesday was that when we encourage creativity and play, it looks too much to the outside observer that we're not "doing" or accomplishing anything. Or, that we're wasting time. 

I've written about this issue before, what my "job" as a teacher actually looks like in practice: Coach? Editor? Maternal Figure? All of the above? None of the above? And when I started this peer-driven learning project, I had to once again radically reconfigure what a teacher does. And, a lot of the time, to an outside observer, it looks like nothing much. In fact, if one was to walk into my classroom, they might assume that none of us, myself or the students, are doing much of anything at all.

One particular group of students, a really good group, was killing time the other day during class time. They had their direction, decided on individual assignments for the rest of the week, and were just hanging out together. They weren't being disruptive, as the whole class is typically a fairly noisy affair, with groups working out their projects. But I knew they weren't "working." One of the students had his iPad out, and the others were looking at it, asking what certain apps do, how he liked using it, etc. Another group member saw the DC app, as in DC Comics. Thus began a discussion about how DC was rebooting their entire line of comics, with each super-hero starting all over again at Issue 1. And then, magic happened. This particular group is working on the broad subject of human nature, specifically examining the question of why people commit crimes/transgress laws. Could we, one offered, make a comic book? Within five minutes, they had found an affordable ($2) app allows you to modify photos to looks like a comic book. The group decided, they were going to make a comic book. 

I was thrilled. Thinking about it, though, this idea might never have occurred if the students hadn't been given the time and the freedom to simply sit around and talk. I know that it helped that I encouraged them to think of different ways they could present their materials, but the idea of the comic book might never have come about had the students not had the time and space to just relax and talk things out. I know that I'm being redundant in this paragraph, but to most, what I let them do is tantamount to misconduct or negligence in my role as their teacher. Instead, they're creating something really interesting. 

Another group, on their own, decided that they were going to use Facebook to communicate and collaborate with each other. As one of the students put it, I'm on it almost all the time playing. Not any more, I exclaimed! Once again, the line between working and playing is blurred; the students are now working in a virtual space that many see as a waste of students' time and a massive distraction, a place where they go to socialize (at best) or gossip (at worst). It made me realize that perhaps I should start using Facebook to better communicate with my students. 

Time. If we want our students to be more creative and playful, we need to give them more time. The pressure of deadlines, the limited resources, the overwhelming amount of work students often are faced with, all of that acts to create students who actively work to avoid thinking about their school work. My students are actually pretty relaxed, loose, and dare I say it, enjoying their experience in class. All because I give them time. 

Even it looks, from the outside, like we're wasting it. 


  1. Very cool that they had time. I hope it comes out wonderfully.

  2. I love your point that we need to give our students time to explore, even if that exploration looks more like recreation than formal learning. We all need time to explore, to play around with ideas, to get to know the other members of the group, to push our thinking. I bet your students' results will be so much stronger as a result of your choice to give them time.

  3. I love your posts, and most of what you say here, I completely agree with, except for one thing: time. As a writer, I do need the pressure of deadlines to keep me focused, and I do my best work when I have a bit of pressure to push me forward. Most of my students are not good enough at time management to enforce those deadlines upon themselves (neither am I). Where is the happy balance between deadlines and just dead weight, though? That's definitely a tricky one.

  4. @NP - They do have deadlines, they're just very far off (they have four weeks to work on their project), and they were deadlines that the students set for themselves. They decided that four weeks was a reasonable amount of time. So, yes, I agree that deadlines are important, but I'm letting the students set their own deadlines (within reason, of course).


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