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I’d been thinking about the need for experimentation in learning. How might we design experiences where learners feel safe and motivated to explore? To disrupt habits and take risks?  

Then my daughter’s daycare classroom closed due to a COVID-19 exposure, and instead of writing a blog post, I broke out the play dough.

Rainbow play-dough

Julietta Watson from Unsplash

I like play dough. It’s squishy and calming and easy to work with. I made people and dogs that my daughter could smash. After a couple of versions, it started to look how I wanted — “woof, woof!” she said, in recognition.

But as my email dinged and timer alarms reminded me to join meetings, the play dough didn’t feel so fun. It’s hard to shake that other voice, you should not be playing right now, you should be…

I wonder if that’s how learners feel, when we ask them to do exploratory or metacognitive work. Like they’re being taken away from The Work That Matters, i.e. the tasks that will earn them the grades that will earn them the degrees that will advance their careers as they desire. Required play adds stress when we have other obligations.

Yet I can’t ignore my daughter’s absolute joy as she ripped the limbs from play dough dogs (“woof woof”!) and smashed play dough people. Makes me think about how much release and stimulation and excitement come from acts of destruction. Joyful breaking, you might say.

Girl joyfully pops giant soap bubble

Jacky Zhao from Unsplash

This doesn’t line up with how we often approach making learning experiences. After all, we know students thrive when each activity aligns with a desired outcome. Yet, I wonder if the focus on relevance makes it harder for students to explore. Even if an activity doesn’t count for much, might the stakes of failure still feel high when learning is closely connected with real world application and long term goals?

What if we offered students the opportunity to joyfully break? What might that look like? And how can we provide these experiences without adding to student stress and workload? 

A Few Ideas

  • In existing assignments, add metacognition in the form of questions that allow learners to erase the past, at least imaginatively.
    • Ex. What problem would you want to make disappear from this exam and why?Design activities that allow students to take apart or remove something rather than making or solving
  • Design activities that allow students to take apart or remove something rather than making or solving
    • Ex. Write a proposal to eliminate one element of the criminal justice system (prosecution, sentencing, corrections, etc). Why would this make sense? How would the rest of the system be affected?
  • Allow students some measure of choice in which learning activities count toward their final grade

As I consider these ideas, I’m already thinking about how they might go wrong. Will learners be confused? Frustrated? But maybe there’s a value in finding small ways to joyfully break our own teaching habits. Doing something differently might not work, at least not until we learn and reconsider based on student experience. But maybe it’s still worthwhile to disrupt our own process. To get out the play dough.

Abby Greenbaum

Abby Greenbaum is a Learning Experience Designer at CETLOE. When not wrangling dogs and toddlers, she loves to ride bikes and hang out in the mountains.