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Pairing serious inquiry with play, my students find a balance education policy lacks

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

At a Washington Heights bookstore in May, senior Sofia Arnold asked, “Does a rose by any other name smell as sweet?” She then took a rose and polled five audience members—first calling the object a garbage compactor, then a rose.

Sofia’s presentation, which also included lines from Macbeth and King Lear, was one of three “empirical Shakespearean experiments” that played a part in the launch of our school’s new philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE.

She and other students at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering created the journal over the course of the academic year. For them, the event was an exciting chance to celebrate their accomplishment and experience their ideas in action; for me, a teacher who has seen pedagogical reforms swing between what I’ve come to think of as piety and play, with little in between, it was refreshing to see students so naturally balancing the two.

In Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter posits that the intellectual life has “a peculiar poise of its own … a balance between two basic qualities in the intellectual’s attitude toward ideas—qualities that may be designated as playfulness and piety.”

For this context, “piety” consists of the pursuit of specific goals; “play,” in the unraveling and teasing out of possibilities. The primarily “pious” educator structures a lesson to meet clear objectives; the primarily “playful” educator welcomes the unexpected question or tangent, and follows it where it leads.

Hofstadter’s larger argument is that intellectual life requires a combination of piety and play. One must have goals and structure, but one must also have room for questions and surprises.

Unfortunately, education policy rarely gets the combination right.

Today the dominant emphasis is on piety, with little room for play. Teachers are encouraged—even mandated—to establish and meet clear objectives in every lesson. NPR recently featured a model Common Core lesson in which the students began by reading and discussing the Common Core standards that the lesson would address. Many would consider this good practice, but others would have the students set their own goals or even let the goals develop gradually.

Sofia Arnold conducting an “empirical Shakespearean experiment.”

Sofia Arnold conducting an “empirical Shakespearean experiment.”

In contrast, certain strands of progressive education (from the early twentieth century to the present) have emphasized creativity, spontaneity, and discovery—often at the cost of the structure and content I believe students need.  For example, proponents of “discovery learning”–many of whom teach at education schools or serve as consultants–maintain that students should discover subject matter on their own, with minimal direction from the teacher.

Given this landscape, what can policymakers do to foster intellectual life in schools? Attempting to prescribe a mixture of piety and play could harden quickly into dogma. But one step policymakers can take is avoiding dictating exactly how to teach. The “how” is the teacher’s vitality; remove it, and you drain the profession. On a school level, teachers can encourage intellectual life by thinking about the subject matter, mulling over questions, and listening closely to their students.

I support a structured curriculum with room for the unexpected—where the point is to open up the subject and the mind.

Granted, my experience is atypical. I teach at a selective school in Harlem, where certain basic skills are assumed. But I have also taught at struggling schools and seen students respond to a mixture of concrete learning and playful questioning.

Nafassho Nafasshoev and Memphis Washington reading from CONTRARIWISE, a student-written philosophy journal.

Nafassho Nafasshoev and Memphis Washington reading from CONTRARIWISE, a student-written philosophy journal.

During the journal celebration at the bookstore, my current students embodied the balance my colleagues and I have tried to create.

Take the introduction, for example. Rather than simply describing the journal, editors-in-chief Ron Gunczler and Nicholas Pape, both juniors, staged a playful interruption that also demonstrated their engagement with a core philosophical question.

Ron mentioned that the audience would have an opportunity to ask philosophical questions at the end, if there was time. A sixth-grader, Theo Frye Yanos, shot his hand in the air.

“Excuse me, I have a question,” he said with spontaneous flair, though the interruption had been planned.“What is time?”

Nicholas responded that they would answer the question after “an interval in the non-spatial continuum of the succession of events.” After conferring with Nicholas, Ron awarded the “H. G. Wells Award” to Theo for being the first to ask a question about time.

After Theo received his award, the event continued with readings, philosophical improv, more humorous awards, a song, a cake, and more.

Students read pieces from the journal— ranging from Faith Flowers’s “Roundtable on the Distribution of Health Care Resources” to Anthony Lewis’s “Letter on the Ethics of Lying,” in which Jiminy Cricket lectures Pinocchio sanctimoniously on Kant but then finds a contradiction in his own argument.

The delight of the event lay in its intellectual liberty; these students saw no contradiction between serious study and fun.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.