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  • Writer's picturePhil Jarvis

Can Education Evolve Back From Work To Play?

Updated: Mar 19, 2021

For millions of years, hunter-gatherer children educated themselves through self-directed play and exploration. With the rise of agriculture about 10,000 years ago and industry about 300 years ago, children became forced laborers. Play and exploration were discouraged. Independence and willfulness, which until then had been encouraged, became something to stifle. Within living memory, parents had as many children as possible to work on the family farm, and harvest had priority over school.

The notion of universal, compulsory education began with the industrial revolution. With the rise of schooling, people began to see learning as children's work. The methods that had been used to make children work in fields and factories were brought to the classroom. In the 19th and 20th centuries, public schooling gradually evolved into what we have today.

The methods of schooling, including harsh discipline, have become less severe but the underlying assumptions have not changed. Learning continues to be defined as children's work. Power and authority are brought to bear to make children do their work. School teaches children what our prehistoric ancestors never knew—the difference between work and play. Teachers and parents say, "Do your work first, then you can play." Too often work is what we do not want to do, but must. Play, what we do want to do, is a lower priority.

Imagine if the core mission of schools was to prepare youths for what they do want to do as adults. Both school and work would then be more like play. What would we want students to learn? We might start with the question, “What does one need to learn to enjoy a happy, healthy, and fulfilling life?” Authentic answers to this question likely point to issues other than subjects now the focus of school curricula.

Possibilities might include:

  • Personally relevant spirituality rooted in deep gratitude for the gifts of life and love

  • A deep sense of awe and wonder at the mystery and magnificence of the universe and the fragility and preciousness and the only home all humans and animals know, Planet Earth

  • Faith in the inherent goodness with which all humans are born, and equality which is their birthright, no matter their nationality, ethnicity, race, religion, or gender.

  • Respect for, and ability to access the accumulated knowledge of humankind, with a deep thirst and yearning for more

  • Fluency with language, numbers, technology, financial literacy, and priority management

  • Commitment to a healthy lifestyle to maintain good physical and mental health

  • Respect, honesty, integrity, kindness, and empathy for other people and cultures, no matter how different they may be

  • Respect and deep appreciation for nature and all life forms

  • Strong self-esteem, awareness of one’s unique talents, and a clear and compelling sense of purpose

  • Awareness of techniques for emotional and stress control, and meditation

  • Comfort and enjoyment in working in teams that support, encourage, and draw out the best in all members to reach and celebrate shared objectives.

  • Faith in one's vision and the skills, courage, determination, and resilience to take on entrepreneurial challenges

  • Conviction to fully develop and deploy one’s gifts to make the world better in personally relevant ways

  • Awareness of nutritious diet choices and ability to plan, shop for and prepare meals.

  • Basic personal hygiene, safety, and first aid

  • Respect for personal property and ability to handle routine accommodation and vehicle maintenance

  • Strong awareness of the diversity of adult life and work roles, acquired through community-based, real-world projects from pre-school through at all grades and experiential learning opportunities with employers and community agencies in secondary and post-secondary education.

Can you think of other desirable outcomes?

These, and what is relevant to these outcomes in current curricula, can best be learned through supportive, collaborative, project- and community-based learning projects linked to 'big ideas' students truly care about. The 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals articulate big ideas and big challenges on which citizens of all communities on Earth need to focus attention.

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