Can play-based learning fill America's skills gap?
A nation with some of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the world houses a college-educated population that significantly underperforms in the areas of literacy, numeracy and problem solving. Where does the problem start?
In an Op-Ed piece for the OECD last year, we argued that “better early learning is not about learning more or earlier but about developing the skills that underpin learning for an entire lifetime”.
We were reminded of that idea when reading a report published in January 2015 by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) based on an analysis of the latest Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) data. Strikingly, the report reveals that while Millennials “may be on track to be our most educated generation ever, they consistently score below many of their international peers in literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments”.
The ETS report concludes: “The PIAAC results also indicate that simply providing more education may not hold all the answers … we also should carefully examine what kinds of post-secondary education and training are leading to increased skills, and which are not”.
That is a great observation, but a very incomplete conclusion on the solution to the skills gap crisis. The skills which young adults need to perform well in tests of literacy, numeracy and problem solving are not developed in “post-secondary education and training” alone, but are the cumulative consequence of many years of education built upon a foundation set down in early childhood. The problem – AND the solution – starts early.
Our analysis at the LEGO Foundation challenges conventional wisdom by questioning if the rush to teach more, earlier is unintentionally preventing young children from developing the skills that underpin literacy, numeracy and problem solving in the first place?
Several studies suggest that the answer might be yes. For example, a 2010 study from UK academics published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology found that “working memory skills (rather than IQ) at 5 years of age were the best predictor of literacy and numeracy 6 years later”. Working memory helps kids to hold on to the sounds that letters make long enough to sound out new words. A 2013 study from academics in New Zealand and Germany compared the reading proficiency of two groups of children; one group had started learning to read at age 5, while the second started at age 7. The reading fluency of both groups at age 11 was near identical, but the group who delayed reading until age 7 had “generally greater reading comprehension”. Why? Well, much more research is needed to be certain – but working memory helps children to recall the words in a sentence long enough to comprehend the meaning of a paragraph – the basis of comprehension.
However, it’s not all about working memory. There is a growing body of evidence showing that developing self-control, learning to explore, spatial skills, and asking questions are among the critical early skills that are often better predictors of lifelong outcomes than IQ. These matter at least as much as literacy, numeracy and problem solving.
Ultimately, there is a lot at risk for society as a whole when children don’t develop literacy, numeracy and problem solving skills. Adults with better skills are healthier, wealthier, and more engaged and productive members of society. On the other end of the spectrum, the ETS report notes that adults with less developed skill sets are more likely to “represent the most vulnerable members of society—those at risk of having restricted access to basic services and less than full participation in democratic practices and educational opportunities.”
At the LEGO Idea Conference, a yearly conference held in Billund, exploring solutions that promote a wide range of skills, including working memory, is on the top of the agenda. The question asked here is how we can point to new ways of learning that enables academic skills, and more importantly underpins learning for an entire lifetime. Join us in the conversation around play-based learning, soft skills, and solutions to today’s educational challenges before, during and after the Idea Conference by following the Foundation on Twitter, LinkedIn, and by using #ideaconf15.
Global Head of Research & Learning, the LEGO Foundation
The figure shows not only the absolute size of the gap in each country between performers at the 10th and 90th percentiles, but also how that gap manifests itself in relative terms when comparing among countries.
Despite having the highest levels of educational attainment of any previous generation, America’s millennials (ages 16–34), on average, demonstrate weak skills in literacy, numeracy and problem solving compared to their international peers.
Source: America's Skills Challenge: Millennials and the Future, Figure 5, ETS report, www.ets.org