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?

Similarities between Communism and the Common Core

When I was on my high school debate team, we would discuss all kinds of philosophical principles “in theory.” I remember several discussions about Communism in which the common tagline was: “It was a good idea in theory, too bad it didn’t work in practice.” That phrase always bothered me. To me, a good idea was something that worked. If something couldn’t be put into practice, it just wasn’t a good idea, in theory or practice.

Understanding human nature is a vital component to an idea being good. If you have an idea for how people should interact with each other, but that idea doesn’t respect aspects of human nature and psychology, then it’s just a plain bad idea. And that was the problem with Communism to me, it didn’t respect how people work. It didn’t respect our intrinsic needs for agency, competency, and ownership. If you are designing a solution for people, it has to work for people, it can’t just be “good in theory,” in some abstract, idealistic sense of the word.

More recently, I’ve come to understand a similar sentiment in Silicon Valley entrepreneurial world. Venture capitalists aren’t just looking for a good idea. They are looking for someone who has a good team behind them and can lead them to success, someone who understands the market and how to reach users: in sum, they are looking for someone who understands people, both internally in building their team, and externally in getting users. Great ideas are a dime a dozen: great realizations of great ideas are rare gems worth funding. In other words, you can’t get funding with a great idea in theory: you need to have a great idea in practice.

Now, let’s shift to the Common Core. First a distinction- I want to distinguish between the Common Core framework, and the system of high stakes achievement tests used to determine whether students have passed the tests. Sidenote: by high stakes, I mean there are consequences for both students and for teachers based on the results of the tests- a low stakes test can evaluate how smart students are, but low and high scores have absolutely no consequences for students or teachers, they simply give feedback on how well the system is doing. When states “adopt” the Common Core, it typically means they adopt both of these things, they aren’t just giving their teachers a new set of standards to teach, they are also implementing a system of high risk testing.

The Common Core framework might be an “idea that’s good in theory,” but the series of high stakes achievement tests that accompany it are absolutely terrible in practice. We like to pretend that the way we test learning doesn’t have an effect on learning itself, but that simply isn’t true. High stakes learning environments stigmatize failure and emphasize right answers, which stifle grit, perserverance, creativity and curiosity, which are traits valuable in themselves and known to increase learning. When students have grit and perserverance, they learn better. When students have interest in their topic of study, they learn (and test) better. To put this simply, how you test learning affects learning. Both pieces need to be considered when determining whether an educational system works for human nature and psychology.

This is the problem- the Common Core framework might be a nice set of standards on its own, but words on paper don’t make change. The framework needs a realization to be implemented in schools and reach kids. And this is where a great idea results in a terrible realization. A high stakes testing environment carries no understanding of human nature and psychology, and is a solution that will fail and flounder, and seriously damage students and teachers along the way.

As an after-school educator in NY, I was floored by the effect I saw on students both last year and this year as a result of the testing. The first effect was a drop in our attendance rates for our Spring after-school programs like we hadn’t seen before, with the most common reason given that our children needed sleep and rest to do well on their testing. The few children that did show up were a mess- I’ve never seen a 4th grade student so exhausted and stressed as I did when they attended our program during testing.

I’m writing this article as a call to step back and think about Common Core as we roll into implementation. It’s easy to find articles criticizing the Common Core nowadays, but what strikes me most is quotes from Common Core supporters. The supporters’ claims seem to fall in the same buckets: that Common Core is necessary to improve education, that there’s no debate about whether we need higher standards for education, that Common Core is undoubtedly a good idea but we just rolled it out in the wrong way. In other words, they seem to be saying “Everyone agrees the Common Core is good in theory, we just haven’t gotten it to work in practice yet.” Well, will it ever work in practice? And is Common Core really such a good idea if it can’t work in practice?