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Flawed thinking has hijacked early childhood education

As a facilitator and change initiator working with therapy services and schools, my greatest tool is my capacity to see disparate information and make meaning from that in a new way. Most often that is a dance between two opposing preferences or ideology. Conflict arises between people when innovative ideas are suggested and this conflict most often is a result of two flaws in the way that we think.

The first flaw

Misinterpreting the other person’s perspective. This happens when we don’t understand how much our ladder of inference is in operation. Most of my time in facilitation is spent asking people to explain their dislike or fear of a concept in more detail. This opens up more language that I can probe to identify the core issue below the surface. So when you hear the word ‘play’ your ladder of inference runs up to ‘wasting time’, meaningless activities, no learning.

Where did that interpretation come from?

What past experiences created that mindset for you?

Whose voice do you hear in your head creating that negative perception of a single word?

Do you misinterpret play as “student control over learning” whose effect size from the studies that Hattie averaged out as a minuscule 0.04?

So the person you are arguing with might need to talk you through the ladder they run up instead when they say ‘play’. Their ladder takes them to a place of joy, laughter, interest, engagement, and experimentation. It takes them to the place where developmental milestones are achieved and social and emotional learning takes place.

It takes them to young children manipulating items and socialising in a way that supports learning, challenges learning and expands learning.

It is a word that encourages meaningful repetition of a skill in a way that embeds that skill, integrates it with other skills and makes it automatic.

It is a word that has an element of direction and where teaching is already explicit from the adult building and extending their current skills set (without the child needing to memorise a learning intention).

For that person, play is not even close to Hattie’s “student control over learning” (of the two studies including by Hattie in this category neither of them appear to have much relationship with play as you can see here and here).

So a discussion for or against play is immediately at risk of turning into a discussion about two separate and disparate ideas depending on the individual’s mental model. Unless those cards are laid out on the table to start with the play supporter and the play disparager will never resolve their conflict.

The second flaw

The use of binary thinking processes. This is black and white thinking at its finest. For me to convey my idea advocating for play-based learning I must make the other person change their mind. I must win the argument and therefore the other person must lose and agree with me. This thinking is rapid, seldom realised and insidious. It’s the element of human nature that wants to beat competitors by proving why you are better than they are. It is the type of thinking that, in the current educational environment, makes teachers fearful of including anything that might remotely be misinterpreted as play. It is the thinking that suggests that we change the name from play to the “work of a child”. It is the type of thinking that everybody engages in, the moment we use “us” versus “them”. When “they” won’t let us, “they” expect it, “they” make you do it…

Establishing Purposeful Thinking

To counter this flaw two opposing groups need to embrace an alternative way of thinking. Alistair Mant describes it as ternary thinking — there is “you”, “me” and a third element that we are both considering. I like to call it purposeful thinking.

Having two parties consider what is the end point they want and getting agreement on what that looks like for both groups to feel good at the end of the discussion. In our play debate, for example, the purpose of the discussion might just be the best way for very young children to learn. Now it is not an argument about play versus literacy and maths rotations or play versus explicit teaching. It can be a focused exploration of how to agree on the best way very young children learn without blame and having to discard viewpoints.

The flaw of binary thinking is pervasive and damaging and far too frequently used by people who should know better.

Love John Hattie or hate him. Point out the flaws in Hattie’s study or disparage those who point out flaws.

Disparaging articles are written by the advocates of phonics versus whole language and the same bitter response from the whole language advocate back.

Play or formal learning.

The adversarial nature of defending your position combined with the unconscious “runs” up your own ladder of inference, means that you only truly hear the side you align with. It means constant misinterpretation of the points the other side is making and invalidates ever point they are trying to make. Rather than convince the other party, you only increase the venom and fervour of commitment to their own beliefs.

Binary thinking that my way is the only way - fires us up and sell products.

Harmony and thoughtful, respectful discussions sadly just doesn't sell as well. But our children are suffering until we achieve purposeful thinking.