How playful interventions can support high-quality learning in schools

written by: Ollie Bray


The OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) is an international large-scale survey of teachers, school leaders and learning environments in schools TALIS has been conducted every five years since 2008 and has grown to represent 38 countries and economies within its most recent data set.

The LEGO Foundation is committed to re-defining play and re-imagining learning to ensure children develop the skills needed to navigate an uncertain and complex world and large international data sets like TALIS are useful as they provide a starting point to help systems (countries and economies) understand and compare where they are at a given point of time. This data can then be used to inform key policy decisions to help education systems mature and evolve into this re-defined and re-imagined state where children and young people are truly able to gain both the knowledge and skills that they need to thrive in the modern world.

This article presents some of the key findings from the latest TALIS report (2018 data) and discusses how the findings align with the ongoing work and mission of the LEGO Foundation. In particular we will discuss classroom practice, digital technologies and building teacher capacity.

Classroom Practice

The frequent and widespread use of high impact pedagogies and teaching practices is an important factor of teaching quality within any education system. Although teaching practices that aim to improve classroom management and the clarity of didactic instruction are used widely across OECD Countries participating in TALIS (OECD 2019: 28). Practices involving cognitive activation (activities that require students to evaluate, integrate and apply knowledge within the context of problem solving) are less frequent, with only about 50% of teachers across the OECD reporting to use them (OECD 2019: 28). For countries or economies wanting to increase the pedagogies that promote cognitive activation in their classrooms than an adoption of more playful pedagogies provide solutions to help achieve this ambition.

Cognitive activation or actively engaging pedagogies have strong alignment to the LEGO Foundation five characteristics of play. Learning through play happens when the activity (1) is experienced as joyful, (2) helps children find meaning in what they are doing or learning, (3) involves active, engaged, minds-on thinking, (4) as well as iterative thinking (experimentation, hypothesis testing, etc.) and (5) has opportunities for social interaction (Zosh. et al. 2017).

The recently published LEGO Foundation white paper Learning through play in schools: a study of playfully integrated pedagogies that foster children’s holistic skill development in the primary school classroom outlines eight pedagogical approaches where evidence suggests there is strong alignment to these play characteristics. These approaches are: active learning; collaborative learning; cooperative learning; experiential learning; guided discovery learning; inquiry-based learning; problem-based learning; and project-based learning (Parker and Stjerne Thomsen, 2019).

One of the key policy pointers from the 2018 TALIS Report is that both initial and continuous teacher training and professional development should emphasise that effective teaching practice should foster the use of pedagogies related to actively engaging pedagogies (OECD 2019: 28). It goes on to state that, ‘teachers should be trained in the use of these practices, be aware of their importance, feel able to use them and enjoy the conditions to actually implement them’. The LEGO Foundation continues to promote and support this type of training throughout the world and the recently up-dated and re-signed Memorandum of Understanding with the Ministry of Education in Ukraine, where 20,000 teachers have already been trained in Learning through Play, is a good example of this in practice.

Digital Technologies

Digital technologies can be used to enhance some of the actively engaging pedagogies mentioned above and one of the heartening results from TALIS 2019 is that there has been an increase since 2013 in teachers from OECD countries using digital technology for project-based learning (OECD 2019: 29). This increase is in many ways not surprising given the societal spread of digital technology in both our personal and professional lives. However, what may be more surprising is that despite the increase reported in this area the percentage of teachers using digital technology to support project based learning is still only 53% (OECD 2019: 29). And only 56% of teachers report that they received training for the use of ICT in their teaching (OECD 2019: 29).

The LEGO Foundation is committed to helping teachers and school leaders globally understand how digital technology can be used to support actively engaging pedagogies and it does this through the promotion of a number of interventions that link project or enquiry-based learning to learning through play with technology. These interventions include our ongoing work around creative coding, robotics and making / tinkering. As part of this work we are committed to working with teachers and school leaders to help them understand not just how the technology works but how the technology can be used to create powerful opportunities for learning in a more active and open-ended way.

One of the LEGO Foundation interventions in this area has been our ongoing partnership with the Lifelong Kindergarten Group (LLK) at the MIT Media Lab who develop the visual programming language Scratch. Since January 2019 there has been an increased attempt to improve the knowledge and skills of how to use Scratch in a more creative way though the regular Scratch in Practice online seminars, discussions, blog posts and twitter chats (#scratchinpractice). LLK also offer a free six week online course called Learning Creative Learning where participants are encouraged to collaborate and consider how technology can be used to support creativity though Resnick’s (2014; 2017) four lenses of projects, passion, peers and play.

Building Teacher Capacity

Both Scratch in Practice and Learning Creative Learning are good examples of how it is possible to build teacher capacity through professional development. Pleasingly, TALIS data shows that teachers across the OECD attend about four different types of professional development activity in the 12 months prior to the survey being completed (OECD 2019: 44). Although the survey does not measure the quality of these experiences it does capture the types of professional learning that teachers and school leaders participate in across several broad categories. The most attended forms of professional learning are courses or seminars attended in person (76% of teachers across the OECD) and reading professional literature (72%). However, only 44% of teachers participated in training based on peer or self-observation such as coaching, learning and networking (OECD 2019: 44).

The above is important as part of TALIS 2018included teachers describing the characteristics of professional development they felt were most impactful. These characteristics include strong links to curriculum and subject knowledge that involve collaborative approaches to instruction while incorporating active learning (OECD 2019: 44). Research evidence tells us that courses and seminars can be an effective professional development tool (Hoban and Erickson, 2004) but school-embedded professional development such as peer learning opportunities tends to have a larger impact on teaching practices (Kraft. et. al, 2018; Opfer, 2016).

One of the LEGO Foundation interventions in this area is linked to our work on developing a Pedagogy of Play with our partners at the Harvard Graduate School of Education: Project Zero and the International School of Billund. As part of this work we have been developing an approach that we call Playful Participatory Research. Playful Participatory Research is a form of practitioner inquiry, which is a type of research that is organised by teachers, school leaders and other practitioners who are actively working in school settings. It places an emphasis on conducting research with rather than on communities. These approaches are distinct from other examples of educational research in which external researchers may conduct studies within school settings, but without engaging with school-based practitioners as partners in the research.

Outputs of the research are often ‘Picture of Practice’ such as Playing with Money: Playful Learning meets Curriculum Goals (Ertel & O’Neill, 2018) which become part of a bank of resources to encourage more playful learning across physical and online communities. Countries wanting to develop their approaches to school-embedded professional development opportunities should consider approaches like Playful Participatory Research and other opportunities to create research engaged professional learning networks.

In conclusion to this short article it is clear the further work is required to fully understand the detailed patterns of TALIS 2018 and this is particularly the case at an individual country level. Although within this high-level overview it does appear that play-based interventions to support the development to classroom practice, the use of digital technology in schools and the capacity building through collaborative enquiry of both teachers and school leaders could be used to fill some of the gaps highlighted within the 2018 TALIS results.

Ollie Bray is Initiatives Lead in the Connecting Play and Education Programme at the LEGO Foundation.


Ertel, K & O’Neill, I. K. (2018) Playing with Money: Playful Learning meets Curriculum Goals, International School of Billund, Billund.

Hoban, G.F. and Erickson, G. (2004). Dimensions of learning for long-term professional development: comparing approaches from education, business and medical contexts. Journal of in-service education, 30(2), pp.301-324.

Kraft, M.A., Blazar, D., Hogan, D. (2017). The effect of teaching coaching on instruction and achievement: A meta-analysis of the causal evidence. Review of Educational Research.

Parker, R. & B. S. Thomsen (2019), Learning through play at school, The LEGO Foundation, Billund.

OECD (2019), TALIS 2018 Results (Volume 1): Teachers and School Leaders as Lifelong Learners, TALIS, OECD Publishing, Paris.

Opfer, D., 2016. Conditions and Practices Associated with Teacher Professional Development and Its Impact on Instruction in TALIS 2013. OECD Education Working Papers, (138), p.0_1.

Resnick, M., 2014, August. Give P’s a chance: Projects, peers, passion, play. In Constructionism and creativity: Proceedings of the Third International Constructionism Conference. Austrian Computer Society, Vienna (pp. 13-20).

Resnick, M. and Robinson, K., 2017. Lifelong kindergarten: Cultivating creativity through projects, passion, peers, and play. MIT Press.

Zosh, J. M. et al. (2017), Learning through play: A review of the evidence (white paper), The LEGO Foundation, Billund.