Play replaces punishment for pupils in Mali
In schools in Mali the pupils are to sit quietly while teachers review the alphabet with them, and to keep a classroom of perhaps 50 children under control, the teachers – out of desperation – use the rod to discipline the children. 2014 LEGO Foundation IDEA Conference focused on play as an important teaching tool.
By Pernille Stanbury, LEGO Group, Communications Department
Maria Diarra Keita has travelled from Mali to Billund to take part in the LEGO Foundation IDEA Conference 2014. That's because she has a story to tell – about Mali's educational system, which is only about 100 years old, and about children who don't feel like going to school.
In schools in Mali the pupils are to sit quietly while teachers review the alphabet with them, and to keep a classroom of perhaps 50 children under control, the teachers – out of desperation – use the rod to discipline the children.
According to Maria Diarra Keita, children who don't go to school at all are actually smarter than children who do because kids who skip school are allowed to play. In 1995 she founded the Institute for Popular Education in Mali, where teachers learn alternative teaching methods and are shown how children are more motivated when they learn through play, drama or dance. And without using the rod.
"The government demands that the teachers give lessons in computer use – but we don't have any computers. Instead we can for instance dramatise how a computer works – ‘the extraordinary machine’, the children call it. We prepare the children's minds, and when they one day experience a real computer, they'll be able to remember it all," says Maria Diarra Keita.
Teachers and parents are sceptical
Only about 40 percent of teachers in Mali support the new teaching methods. Parents are also sceptical and don’t necessarily believe play can be a form of teaching.
"So what we've started is a movement. We show that learning can be fun and interesting. We see the children smile and ask to learn more, and they want to go to school," says Maria Diarra Keita.
Her story was just one of many at this year's conference, but it is representative of the idea behind it. Researchers, debaters and representatives from grassroots movements from all over the world came to Billund to exchange knowledge about learning through play and to create a global network under the heading "Re-defining Play. Re-imagining Learning".
The conference featured lectures and small group sessions where the participants had a go at playing themselves or listening to contributions from speakers such as Maria Diarra Keita – people at the grassroots’ level who each in their own way have developed creative methods for teaching children and adults. Another example was Brij Kothari from India, who had the idea that the many illiterate people in India could learn to read if TV programmes had subtitles in the audience’s native language. Words change colours like in a karaoke text and the system, called "Same-Language Subtitling" (SLS), is also used in schools.
The common thread
The common thread throughout the conference was that children make progress through play – that play and learning go hand in hand – and that both children and adults remember what they’ve been taught when they learn in a fun and motivating way.
Tony Wagner, of Harvard's new Innovation Lab, argued that children need to be developed into becoming creative problem solvers. They need to build the ability to continually learn and try new things; they also need to learn that failure is acceptable.
"Innovation requires that you take risks and fail. A student who has tried something and failed, has learned more than a student who gets straight A's. At Google the employees are allowed to play one day a week. Imagine having the Google rule in every school, so that every student was allowed to spend 20 percent of their time playing."
Food for thought
Nora Scheuer had come all the way from Argentina to take part in the conference. She studies children's development in public schools for the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research.
"Lessons in most schools in Argentina are quite traditional, and play has not been something I've focused on. But I've definitely got something to think about, and I'm very interested in the networking idea," she said.
Before the participants parted ways, they came together in various groups to discuss how they would commit to further work on re-defining play and re-inventing learning. Some ideas included finding out how to establish a Nobel Prize for play, working towards new rules for entry to universities with less of an emphasis on regurgitation of subject content, sharing good examples and research results, and bringing researchers and politicians together to make progress.