Play, Neoteny & Convivial Learning


A number of years ago, I gave a talk entitled ‘The Joy of Learning’ to the Australian College of Educators in the impressive setting of Geelong College, a few miles south-west of Melbourne. In my presentation I spoke about Convivial Learning, an idea that I had derived from just a few short phrases offered by Ivan Illich in his book ‘Tools for Conviviality’. I am currently working on my own book in which I will  elaborate extensively on the bare-bones definition that I offered for Convivial Learning in Geelong.

Illich defined conviviality as:

…individual freedom realized in personal interdependence and, as such, an intrinsic ethical value….I intend it to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment; and this in contrast with the conditioned response of persons to the demands made upon them by others, and by a man-made environment.

That powerful notion of individual freedom realized in personal interdependence’ was the kernel that sparked my attempt to describe a kind of education that starts from respect for the autonomy of every learner but that simultaneously recognizes the ineluctable interdependence that defines our humanity. We are autonomous as learners, ultimately, and yet we are at our most creative when our autonomy is mediated by our intercourse with our fellow human beings. All of this chimes perfectly with my own philosophy of learning distilled into I Am Learner.

One component (amongst a number) that I am building into my discussion of conviviality in education is that of play. Many, of course, have written about play in relation to education, most commonly focused on early years education. Two writers and thinkers who have influenced me greatly with respect to this critical ingredient of our basic humanity, both of whom look at the nature and necessity of play in the round, far beyond the realm of education, are Dr Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play in the USA, and, here in Scotland, our own Pat Kane, musician, writer, activist, and author of a superb book, The Play Ethic: A Manifesto for a Different Way of Living. It is a book that every educator should read and ponder.

I began that talk in Geelong by showing an excerpt from a TED talk by Dr Brown, in which he used an example from nature to demonstrate the power of play. The excerpt is worth watching.

In his book, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul, published in 2009, he writes:

Of all animal species, humans are the biggest players of all. We are built to play and built through play. When we play, we are engaged in the purest expression of our humanity, the truest expression of our individuality. Is it any wonder that often the times we feel most alive, those that make up our best memories, are moments of play?

To achieve the truly convivial in education, we have to permit and indeed encourage all learners (ALL learners, not just the youngest) to play. We must enable every learner to engage fully in the purest expressions of their humanity and their individuality by playing. An education that does not acknowledge the power of play is no education at all. Dr Brown introduced me to the concept of Neoteny, which is the retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood. It is a term with some very specific meanings in developmental biology, especially around paedomorphism (a term I would not want our squalid tabloid newspapers to get hold of in case they send their ignorant vigilantes to beat up some evolutionary biologists). Brown  argues persuasively that is our species’ predilection towards neoteny that has allowed us to adapt to diverse environments across the world and to enhance our capacity for coexistence with our fellow humans throughout our history. It has:

…allowed us to come down out of the trees and live anywhere on the planet. We are designed by nature to an evolution to continue to play throughout life. Lifelong play is central to our continued well-being, adaptation and social cohesiveness. Neoteny has fostered civilizations, the arts, and music…

It does come with some drawbacks, though  – he quotes the psychiatrist Erik Erikson:

It is human to have a long childhood; it is civilized to have an even longer childhood. Long childhood makes a technical and mental virtuoso out of man, but it also leaves a lifelong residue of emotional immaturity in him.

A few years before Dr Brown wrote his book, Pat Kane positioned his concept of The Play Ethic in explicit opposition to the work ethic that has been seen as ‘the cornerstone of industrial modernity for over 250 years.’ In the early 19th century, Thomas Carlyle could write:

Labour is life…in idleness alone is there perpetual despair.

In these few words is distilled the very essence of the industrial revolution, the very ‘spirit of capitalism’ that Weber described in his great work on the Protestant Ethic. My five decades and more in education, from my very first days in primary school onwards, have taught me that the work ethic has long been, and I believe remains, the unfaltering backdrop to institutional education. Anyone doubting this only needs to look at the relentless focus on ‘impact’ in schooling – whether it’s at the thoughtful end of the spectrum, typified by the likes of Hattie’s Visible Learning, or at the Gradgrind end,  typified by government interventions the world over designed to force standards and targets and pointless testing down the throats of teachers and students.

But nurturing the playful in learning – creating opportunities for ludic learning – is central to any notions of conviviality in the sense of individual freedom realized in personal interdependence. And here – as Pat Kane emphasizes, we cannot simply define play as games or sport or just plain having fun. It is about so much more than any trivial or frivolous definition of play. Play enables us to bring together all the mental, physical, creative, artistic, joyful and meaningful characteristics of what it is that makes us human, and to apply our whole selves to how we live and work and, of course, learn. It is the kind of play that I see encapsulated, for instance, in the Maker Movement that is starting to take a hold across the world of education: makerspaces, where they are established according to the free and open and learner-directed philosophy at the heart of the Maker Movement, are basically letting learners play. They tinker, they experiment, they make (and make mistakes), they direct their own activity in creative intercourse with their peers, they get help when they need it, they ask for some teaching when it is needed (though not always from those with the formal designation of teacher), and they teach others around them. Makerspaces are just one of a host of wonderful, playful, learner-liberating ideas that are beginning to grow across the work-ethic-focused education systems of the world.

As Pat Kane wrote:

The play ethic, like the work ethic, is intended to be a kind of social mythology – a constellation of meanings, a set of values and sensibilities, an inclusive rhetoric – which can help us draw energy and purpose from the irreconcilable tensions of our dynamic age. If the more conservative and controlling leaders in politics and business could begin to at least acknowledge the playful ferment all around them – rather than raise their fiery cross against it – then it’s not inconceivable that reform could take place, with policies and strategies forged around a play-based rather than a work-based agenda.

Old-Scottish-ClassroomWhen I read that phrase ‘conservative and controlling leaders’ from my perspective as an educator, I look around the world of formal education and all I see is a solid phalanx of politicians and business people and other social ‘leaders’  who are undeniably conservative whatever their political affiliations. I find it hard to ascribe truly radical views on education really to any of our political, economic or social leaders today. Whether from Right, Left or Centre, whether socially conservative or liberal, whether Green or Climate-Change-Denier, from all across the ideological continuum, there are really very few if any in power who have ever had even a single truly radical thought about schooling, about education in general and about learning and teaching. I can take Pat Kane’s general point above about the work ethic being at the centre of our global polity and I can undoubtedly place it squarely in the laps of those who decide and manage education policy across most countries in the world, almost without exception.

Pat Kane is, of course, wholly correct to set work in opposition to play, a polarity that is so especially accurate in the context of education. It is our obsession with the work ethic that continues to thwart the potential of play in teaching and learning, an obsession that also has to be neutralized if we are to begin to nurture those truly convivial aspects of education that I will be setting out in my book.

However, it does interest me that Stuart Brown contends that:

The opposite of play is not work; it is depression.

That is a notion that I will keep very much in mind as I continue to consider and shape and scribble down all of my ideas on what convivial learning looks like. Play will be there at the heart of my thinking, and thinkers such as Dr Stuart Brown and Pat Kane, and a host of others, will help me pull together the many and disparate strands that define convivial learning.

More anon….