Play is Risk-Tolerant

I recently read the following claim in a piece from the creative folks at KQED Mindshift:

“Up to 70 percent of the tasks in most jobs are on track to be automated, leaving only the most creative, empathetic, technically fluent, collaborative work for humans. Students need to find motivation and meaning, and take a playful attitude that makes it safe to try and fail” (emphasis added).

This excerpt says a lot about how human work differs than work that can be automated by using a few important words: creative, empathetic, collaborative, motivation, meaning, playful attitude, try and fail. We all intuitively know that play is an important part of how we interact in the world. If we paused for a moment in the midst of whatever work we’re involved in, we might be able to think of several ways we engage in playful activity. And if we talked with each other about our play preferences, we would find points of convergence and divergence. What is play for some may not be play for others. This is one of the reasons the concept of play is difficult to define.

I think the impetus for the above claim is the question of whether playfulness and schooling are compatible. In other words, if collaborative, creative, and empathetic work is reserved for humans, what are the learning and teaching interactions that foster a playful attitude in learners? And what implications can be suggested for mathematics classrooms?

One implication relates to the learning environment. If learning environments support trying and failing -if they support risk-taking- then motivation and meaning are more likely to follow. I don’t believe motivation is something that needs to be drummed up or produced artificially. When we enter into environments that promote various ways of thinking and honor our curiosity, we’re more motivated to engage in activity. If consequences are suspended and we are free to try and fail, we’re more likely to come up with creative solutions to whatever problems we encounter. Environments are not static entities that remain unchanged as a result of our interactions; rather, the ways we interact with others, with materials, and within the constraints of our environment, influence the nature of the environment itself. In other words, the environment changes alongside participants.

I’ll suggest further ways mathematics classrooms can become spaces where playful attitudes are encouraged and fostered in future posts. If you have any suggestions or ideas from your own experiences in learning and teaching environments, feel free to share in the comments.


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