Education in Two Worlds: Work, Play and the Loss of Relevance

William Doyle is a Rockefeller Resident Fellow and a Fulbright Scholar who spent time recently at the University of Eastern Finland. When he returned to New York City, he went in search of a Finnish-style public school and found it. It is called The Earth School. The experience started him thinking about things like work and play and schools and what education should be about. He wrote me a letter to which I have cobbled together a reply below.

First, Bill's letter:

Dear Gene,
I am enjoying reading about your fascinating, essential work in education. I am co-authoring a book with Pasi Sahlberg on the need for more play in school from pre-K through age 17. We are defining “play” as regular periods of freedom, choice and intellectual and physical play, both structured and unstructured, and both indoors and outdoors.

May I ask you 3 questions for our book?

  1. What is the importance of play in childhood education?
  2. How would you characterize the current state of play in school (pre-K through age 17)?
  3. What specific recommendations might you have for integrating play, both indoors and outdoors, into the "schools of tomorrow"?

Thank you very much for considering this!

With appreciation, Bill

Bill continued:

“My child now goes to PS 364, also known as the Earth School, a little-known gem of a public K-5 elementary in the East Village.
“The student population is some 50% black and Latino children. Half the students qualify for free and reduced priced lunch, and 23% of students receive special education services.
“If American teachers built a school, instead of politicians and bureaucrats, it would look a lot like this. Founded as an experimental program in 1992 by a group of New York City teachers who wanted, in the words of the school’s website, “to create a peaceful, nurturing place to stimulate learning in all realms of child development, intellectual, social, emotional and physical,” the Earth School is guided by the values of “hands-on exploration, an arts-rich curriculum, responsible stewardship of the Earth’s resources, harmonious resolution of conflict and parent-teacher partnership.
“While 'working rigorously in literacy and math' the students are encouraged “to explore, experiment, and even sometimes make a mess in the pursuit of learning.”
“The atmosphere of the school is one of warmth and safety. Teacher experience is prized here — the principal, Abbe Futterman, was one of the founding teachers of the school a quarter-century ago, and many other staff members have worked here for at least five or 10 years.
“Children at the school are assessed every day, not primarily by standardized tests — the majority of parents opt their kids out of state exams — but by certified, professional childhood educators who provide the ultimate in “personalized instruction”: the flesh-and-blood kind.
“Children at the school learn in part through play in the early years. They are encouraged to ask challenging questions and think for themselves. They are encouraged toto be creative and compassionate, and to make their own decisions. Children get unstructured, free-play outdoor recess in the big play yard most days.
“Like employees at Google who are given 20% of their time to devote to projects of their own choice, children are given a free afternoon every week to pursue their own self-chosen 'passion projects.'
“In a striking innovation I especially appreciate, parents are actually invited into the school and directly into the classrooms for the morning drop-off, and given a room in the heart of the schoo, to relax, chat and plan much-needed school fundraisers.
“The school is not perfect, and it is not for everybody. If you’re looking for universal iPads, data walls, digital learning badges or boot-camp behavior modification in your child’s classroom, you won’t find them here.
“But somehow, this oasis of child-centered, evidence-based childhood education has managed to survive and flourish for a quarter-century in the heart of the New York City public school system.
"If it can happen in New York City, it can happen everywhere. If we ever get over our love affair with testing, anything is possible. Even a normal childhood.

Bill's experiences gave me an opportunity to unburden myself of several grievances that have been brewing inside for some time.


First, the false opposites of WORK – PLAY confound thinking. Indeed, the puritanical attitude toward play is widespread, to the detriment not only of schooling but to all of life. If work aims to build, create, solve, or contribute, play cannot be any of these things. At best it is rest, necessary for future bouts of work. Virtually everything is wrong with this way of thinking. And it is a shame that it permeates all levels of the education system. 

Let me focus on two things that are wrong: 1) play can lead to development of many kinds; 2) work is rapidly disappearing. 

The idea that play is a state of being in which serious cognitive processing are turned off for the duration is simple nonsense. Such an idea harkens back to naïve thinking of fifty years ago about “culturally deprived” [minority] children. Persons who should have known better conceived of urban minority children existing in a state of suspended animation in which their minds were completely unengaged because of a lack of “inputs.” This was and is absurd, of course. When a person appears to be unconnected in a cognitive and conative way, it is simply that the observer is ignorant of what is going on in that person’s mind. That observers cannot conceive of what is going on in the mind of a child who is “at play,” does not mean that that child’s mind is not involved in complex and indelible learnings.

My colleague at Arizona State, James Gee, has spent a good deal of effort studying [working on] how children’s thinking is shaped by playing video games. If you haven’t seen his work, take a look at his Wikipedia page

Personally, I see a lot of problems with video games. It’s not that children don’t learn a host of important things while playing them; it’s that I have real reservations about turning children over to the control of game developers – whose goals are basically commercial. Plus, I’m seeing too many of my own grandchildren opting for the screen in their bedroom rather than their age-mates outside the home. There are things to learn there too.

Secondly, the prejudice against play is shot through the education system. And it is just getting worse. Increasingly children are viewed as future employees of corporations who must be trained – at public expense – to contribute to the corporation’s bottom line. Standards and goals and tests are the instruments of production of the workforce of tomorrow, and they have infiltrated all the way down to kindergarten. Academics spin out 1,500 math objectives guaranteed to produce a high school graduate who can code for Facebook. 

There are several things wrong with what has happened to our schools in relation to the WORK – PLAY dichotomy.

Why should the public pay for the training of workers for the corporations? The threat that untrained high school graduates will be unemployable is ridiculous. The vast majority of jobs involve brief training that is so particular to a time and place that it makes no sense to attempt it to a broad population of school children. Furthermore, the corporations’ wish to push job training off onto public schools is just another recessive tax passed to the general public. The corporations benefit from trained workers; they should train them themselves.

But worse than conceiving of all education as merely job/career education – as is increasingly happening – is simply closing one’s eyes to the inevitable disappearance of work. It is almost impossible to get people of all sorts to conceive of a world without work, and yet, everything is headed to exactly that end. Robotics and artificial intelligence are destroying jobs. Machines and electronic processors are replacing human beings who engage in work. Even Facebook’s Zuckerberg recently opined that tens of millions of jobs will become obsolete in a few decades. People who hear this find it incomprehensible. They say that there will be jobs for people to code the processors and build the machines. Yes, one person in ten thousand will do such work. But what about the other 9,999? In the full scope of human history, the time segment in which people thought of themselves as "having a career" will appear to be the mere blink of an eye. For eons passed, people hunted, fished or grew food. In a future that is rushing toward us, people's challenge will be how to put together a healthy and meaningful life in which machines do all the work. 

Education is surely the most conservative institution in all of society — ignoring religion for the moment. It’s job is to transmit the culture to each new generation. Preservation of the culture is the very purpose of Burkean conservatism. Trying to get education to adapt to the reality of a world without work is like trying to relocate a cemetery. Instead of producing graduates who are job/career ready, educators should be asking themselves, “How do we prepare persons for a world without work?” I’m convinced that public education in all the industrialized nations is incapable of meeting this challenge. They are trapped in their conception of what the world will be and what there responsibilities are to prepare children for it. Moreover, should educators attempt to escape from the intellectual straight-jacket of “career-ready” education, they will be slapped down by conservative, corporate powers that control public schooling. 

Instead of math – 90% antiquated and useless – and writing – soon to be completely replaced by recorded speech – and spelling – Autocorrect is writing as I type – and most of the remainder of the K-12 curriculum, we have to teach children how to engage their creative, playful, and emotional life. Learning about art and music are goals worthy of human beings freed from the drudgery of work. A liberal education was said to be education for a man (now person) freed – liberated – from work. A child should be helped to develop habits of mind and behavior that prevent their abusing their own bodies. Life-style sicknesses (diabetes, heart disease, various addictions) are epidemic and are one of the biggest detriments to the U.S. economy. Perhaps it is no coincidence that this has happened at the very same time that education has turned away from play. 

Well, Bill. I suspect you can see where I am going with this. I won’t belabor all the details. 

Gene V Glass
San José State University 
Arizona State University 
University of Colorado Boulder
National Education Policy Center

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Gene V Glass

Gene V Glass is currently a Senior Researcher at the National Education Policy Center and a Regents' Professor Emeritus from Arizona State University. Trained originally in statistics, his interests broadened to include psychotherapy research, evaluation methodology, and policy analysis. He was twice (1968, 1970) honored with the Palmer O. Johnson...