‘Intelligence is what you use when you don’t know what to do.’
(Attributed to Jean Piaget)
Learning is often compromised by competitiveness (Brown & Vaughan, 2009). Bred from the outcome-driven higher education systems we spend so much of our time in, it is measured through examinations assessing the individual effort, while explicit collaboration is uncommon.
Introducing play pedagogy can help overcome these competitive barriers to improve learning and better reflect the nature of working life (Koeners & Francis, 2020). Collaborative learning is vital; for example, in medicine, the hospital would be a very unsafe place if all professionals worked only to benefit themselves. Indeed, the importance of interprofessional teamwork in healthcare has been consistently highlighted. Within education, the benefits of learning from each other are huge, with social, psychological and academic wins.
Add to that the growing demand for creative skills, innovative thinking and complex problem-solving suggested by the World Economic Forum, and we see the need to move beyond simply revisiting existing knowledge and towards the notion of ‘taking an idea for a walk’, all of which adds up to the perfect opportunity to introduce playfulness into any learning environment. By being playful yet focused, without the pressure of a fixed conclusion, we get to think. We can push an idea, combine it, contradict it, relocate it, stretch it and see where all that leads. After all, in the same way that we can learn without thinking, we can also think without learning. In other words, we can just play.
‘In the same way that we can learn without thinking, we can also think without learning. In other words, we can just play.’
Play is increasingly recognised as both a fundamental part of the human experience and a paradigm for improved learning and societal change (Koeners & Francis, 2020). It is increasingly evident that humans are intrinsically driven to create and solve problems and overcome obstacles playfully, while many studies confirm that rewards such as monetary incentives or extra credit are generally detrimental for performance. This is known as the overjustification effect. Play and playfulness promote a state of ‘flow’, described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as an optimal psychological state where psychic energy is effortlessly focused on clear and achievable goals that provide relevant and immediate feedback to the individual (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). By promoting a state of flow, play increases intrinsic drive because of a sense of effortlessness in learning. This state of flow is essential to creative thinking and reinforcing motivation.
So how can we promote flow and playfulness? One way is to tap into Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘high challenge, low stress’ state through the questions we use. If we consider a question with a set answer to be a dead end, cognitively speaking, then a question without an answer (or with many right answers) means the thinking never ceases. The person answering cannot be wrong (or right) as there is always another way of looking at things. The challenge of striving for resolution is suitably counterbalanced by the stress of not achieving that resolution, all done in a playful manner.
‘Thunks’ – questions of a philosophical nature with multiple possible responses – seem to satisfy the demands of playful learning (Gilbert, 2007). With examples including ‘Is a pregnant woman two people?’ and ‘Is it right to bully a bully?’, ‘Thunks’ grew out of the Philosophy for Children thinking skills approach. They are used in classrooms and other environments around the world to develop thinking and creativity and also have had a reported positive effect on self-esteem. If my thoughts count, I count.
The challenges of the pandemic have reinforced the need for us to be able to navigate the unknown. If an education system focuses solely on the dissemination of what is known, there is a danger that we are, inadvertently perhaps, promoting a message that everything is known, that the answer is always out there somewhere. But life in a complex adaptive system means that this is not true; knowing things will only take us so far.
‘If an education system focuses solely on the dissemination of what is known, there is a danger that we are, inadvertently perhaps, promoting a message that everything is known, that the answer is always out there somewhere.’
Higher education, and society in general, is subject to increasingly stressful and demanding workloads and expectations. When combined with other environmental stressors – and now the pandemic – we are seeing an increase in emotional health issues. Play can help.
The ability and courage to promote playful learning through collaboration and creativity lie in our capacity and willingness to understand better the true nature of motivation, learning and creativity. At a time when we have had to reassess so much of our lives, now is the perfect time to embrace the serious challenge of playful learning.
Brown, S. L., & Vaughan, C. C. (2009). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. Avery.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. Basic Books.
Gilbert, I. (2007). The little book of thunks: 260 questions to make your brain go ouch! Crown House Publishing.
Koeners, M. P., & Francis, J. (2020). The physiology of play: Potential relevance for higher education. International Journal of Play, 9(1), 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1080/21594937.2020.1720128