Play, Standardized Testing and Wall Street

A student from my Creating Games class came to my office today to talk about the keynote speech from a conference he had recently attended.  The speaker was lamenting the fact that kindergarten has become increasingly focused on “preparing children for first grade” rather than socialization through play activities.  Because we talk a lot about play and its importance in life (even adult life), he wanted to know what I thought about this.

We had a great conversation and in the middle of it, I had an epiphany that many of our society’s ills stem from the very philosophy that encourages (or even requires) kindergarten classrooms to be structured around preparation for first grade.  I think the philosophy comes from capitalistic tendencies to focus on “efficiency,” “productivity,” and “progress,” all of which are defined in a very narrow sense.  And the more I think about this, the more I see it everywhere in our society.

My original thought was that we are forgetting the importance of play because we are so focused on short-term, immediate, measurable outcomes.  We have few resources and so we need to use them efficiently in order to make progress toward some short-term goal.  Any “unproductive” use of resources is discouraged as wasteful.  That is, if we can’t see the immediate consequence of the use of those resources, the resources have been wasted.  So children engaging in unstructured, “unproductive” play in kindergarten is wasteful because they aren’t learning to read, something they must know how to do when they enter first grade.  We need to test our students regularly (using standardized tests) to measure their “progress” and if they aren’t all making the same “progress,” someone must be punished (with loss of funding or firing). So we eliminate art programs and physical education and other extra subjects so we can focus our resources on getting students to perform well on our measurement tools.

As I thought more about this, I started to see this idea everywhere. Because money is the only measurement tool that matters for the stock market, if a company is not making adequate “progress” (which means increasing profits every quarter–profits which stay the same are not “progressing”), it will be punished by shareholders leaving them (well, maybe not in this particular economic climate). So companies engage in practices which make (or save) money in the short-term but which might not make sense if we had a longer view.  And mathematicians and fund managers design financial products that will increase in profits every quarter. If we had a longer view, we would recognize the risk of these products and wouldn’t allow them to take down our entire economy with their collapse. We won’t fund basic research and development because it isn’t immediately clear what the benefits are. And so we won’t learn more about how the universe and the world works just for the sake of learning those things today but which tomorrow might lead to amazing technological advances. I could go on and on.

This kind of thinking is the root of many of our societal problems. Kids engaging in unstructured, unsupervised play is important to teach them skills that can’t be easily measured and whose benefits may not be visible for years. They will learn to entertain themselves. They will learn to focus on an activity for more than a half hour at a time. They will use their imaginations. They will learn to navigate the world on their own, without some external force guiding them to the next “correct” step. These things may take years to learn and are definitely not easily measured. But it seems to me that those are not valid reasons to give up on them. Yet, I think we have largely given up on them. Just as we’ve given up on many of the things in my list above.

I realize I probably sound like a curmudgeon longing for “the good old days.” Or that I think we shouldn’t measure anything in the short-term. But that isn’t my point at all. My point is simply that our societal focus on ONLY measurable, short-term outcomes has consequences. And I would argue that those consequences are mostly bad. They lead to less creativity and fewer workers prepared to adapt to the ever-changing world and economic collapses and fewer technological advances and and and. Focusing on these other things, these things we can’t measure or see the results of immediately, is risky. We might “waste” some resources. But sometimes, what seems like a “waste” today turns out to be life-changing, society-changing, at a point in the unknowable future. And the really sad thing is that if we don’t invest in these “wastes,” we’ll never even know what we might be missing.

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