The Four Freedoms of Play and Common Core Standardized Testing

I was inspired by Scot Osterweil’s recent presentation at GLS, in which he presented his four freedoms of play:

  • Freedom to Experiment
  • Freedom to Fail
  • Freedom to Try on Identifies
  • Freedom of Effort
What makes this framework most interesting is that to Scot, these are not only the four freedoms of play, but also the four freedoms of learning. Good learning environments also need to contain these freedoms to be effective, an idea very much resonant with James Gee’s view on games and learning.

Although these freedoms are not a particularly new idea, it was new to me this year, and it really helped crystalize several previous thoughts I’ve written about. It definitely resonated with my ideas that agency is not a binary quality of an activity, but that learning activities can contain different degrees of agency. This framework helped illuminate some of those different degrees to which an activity can contain freedom/agency. 

But most interestingly, Scot noted in his talk how school doesn’t contain these freedoms, despite the fact that both games and learning do.  His challenge to us was to imagine a school environment that did contain these freedoms. I found it especially interesting to think about in relation to Common Core and standardized testing, which led to the question of this blog post: could a school environment that was constrained by standards ever achieve these four freedoms? Let’s try to break down the freedoms and answer that question.

1. Freedom to Experiment

The freedom to try out variations and play around with a system.

So, how do standards rack up to freedom number 1? Ok at best, I suppose: it could be worse.

The standards themselves are quite open and emphasize higher-order skills, which can be learned in many different contexts. This provides some grounds for exploration and experimentation in learning. At the same time, it doesn’t require such experimentation and teachers can use a very structured, linear lesson plan to teach whatever standard it is they are trying to teach. So, it could go either way here.

The standardized tests do ruin the freedom to experiment a little bit, as ultimately you can do as much experimenting you want until you get to the tests, and then you need to learn how to pass tests. But hey, it could be worse–with a good teacher, you can still spend most of the year learning higher order skills through experimenting.

2. Freedom to Fail

The freedom to fail as often and as much as one would like, without consequences.

How do the standards rank to freedom number 2? Definitely a big fat zero.

The standardized tests very explicitly do not allow for failure–you need to get them right, and get them right that first time, otherwise there are consequences for both you as a student and your teacher. Any system that has high stakes tests by definition does not include freedom to fail; that is literally a part of the definition of “high stakes.”

3. Freedom to Try on Identities

The freedom to engage in an activity with the role, identity and perspective of your choice, and to change roles as you wish.

C’mon standards, how about freedom number 3? Another big disappointment.

The whole point of a standard is that by definition, everyone fits the standard and looks the same. A standard creates one identity that everyone has to mold into by the end of each year- your ability to try on different identities, to specialize in your learning in any way is irrelevant and not encouraged by the standards. In fact, the standards are very explicitly reinforcing uniformity, the exact opposite of this freedom.

4. Freedom of Effort

The freedom to try as hard or as little as you like.

What about freedom number 4? Well, standards probably didn’t make school any worse off at this than it was before, but there’s certainly no improvement here.

Can you choose to try hard in your learning one day, and not in the next? I’m not sure this goes against the standards as much as it goes against our very idea of school, which is comprised of kids sitting in chairs and being forced to put effort into listening to a teacher at prescribed times. The standards certainly don’t help the issue (there’s things that need to be learned this year by everyone, whether you want to or not!). But school itself was structured quite heavily against this freedom well before the standards arrived.

The standardized tests themselves, of course, make everything that much worse. Testing days, which become more and more extensive every year, force students to sit and expend effort on challenging tests hour after hour. Certainly there’s no freedom of effort here, you have to show up and you have to take the test and do well. 

Conclusion: School will never embody the four Freedoms of Play as long as it has standards regulating what should be taught.

Of course, I’m sure this conclusion has some of you shrugging your shoulders, saying “So what? School shouldn’t feel like play, what’s the big deal if standards are promoting that atmosphere?” To which I’d point you back towards Scot Osterweil’s talk, because these Freedoms of Play are not just for play and games, but are also the freedoms that embody good learning. What does it say about schools when standardized testing renders schools incapable of being good learning environments?