Hello to everyone who attended my presentation and session with playworkers (and advocates) in Aberdeen's Macrobert Lecture Theatre on October 30th, 2010). The presentation is below, beginning with the "Saturday Morning Cinema Club" (taken from YouTube) on play themes. These YouTube videos are integrated into the Slidecast, so please click through to see them as instructed. All of the references on the presentation are hotlinked through to their original sources, and if you want to download the original powerpoint, there's an option at the top.
Really enjoyed myself, and looking forward to hearing from you! -- PK
Hi to all who attended the Boathouse seminar on 15/10/10 organised by the IFF and the Scottish Government on future scenarios for Scottish education and technology. A Vimeo video of my presentation is above. The Slideshare below is fully hotlinked, so all references mentioned in the presentation should be accessible. Delighted to hear any comments, and mail me direct at the link above. All the tweets from the conference are available at @ediff - many great links and comments there.
I was speaking at the Scottish Doctoral Management Conference in St. Andrews on 28th May, to a room full of prospective PhD'ers interested in studying the processes of the Creative Industries (the main organisation there is called The Institute for Capitalising on Creativity, run by Barbara Townley). And frankly, with a few hours to go, I was wracking my brain to think of what to say to them that might be of value.
Facing a blank Powerpoint screen, I came up with an idea: I would present myself to them as a one-man object of ethnographic study. And I would speak about the relationship between my love of social and cultural theory, and my actual practise as a cultural and civic entrepreneur over the last nearly 30 years, from studenthood to media company partner.
Once I started doing it, an onrush of stuff came out - simply going through Google Images and finding the covers of books I remember, in order to illustrate the presentation, heaved up all manner of ideas (and selves) that I had forgotten meant so much to me. It almost felt like an exercise in play-therapy - a rather joyful opening-up of some old chasms inside me. For anyone of A Certain Age who's made their life by ideas and projects, I'd recommend it.
I finished it with minutes to spare, and at times I'm not sure what the collective high-cognitive masses in front of me knew what was hitting them. Anyway, many thanks to all there for the invite, and here's the Slidecast presentation below.
Here's the text of my speech at the TEDxOrenda at Olympia, London, 13th January 2010. As ever, keen for any responses from those who've heard it (and those who haven't). I'll stud the text with links over the next few days (and post video when it appears
Pat Kane at TEDxOrenda
Is there much I can tell a hall full of teachers and technologists about the power and potential of play? Maybe not. The best I can do in my twenty minutes is to dip briefly into my own musings and researches into this perpetually startling, continually inspiring dimension of human behaviour and culture. And hope that it brightens your perception of your own practice and vocation.
I tend to go deep and high with play. Deep into biology, evolution and neuroscience. And high into the broader social, political and global significance of play, as it moves to the centre of our collective agendas.
To the depths first. Anyone who thinks about play always struggles to find a definition of it. Indeed, the literary theorists I used to consume in the 80's as a student would tell you that play, as difference, is itself the very evasion of definition. (Remember that one, post-modernist pop-pickers?)
But here's my definition, pushed up against a wall and with Ken Dodd's tickling stick at my armpit: Play means to take reality lightly. Why do we need to take reality lightly? Because play is a necessary and vital principle of possiblity in the human condition. A solid body of evolutionary research has told us for at least half a century now that we need to play to develop properly, as complex mammalian organisms. (I'm sure any early years teacher in the room will know this to be true). And here's where the taking reality lightly bit comes in: play – and that's all forms of play, not just rule-bound games – helps us to rehearse the business of living with other subtle, semiotic, richly emotional and social creatures. In a way, play is virtual reality.
The great educational psychologist Brian Sutton-Smith sums this up by calling play 'adaptive potentiation'. We try out techniques, strategies, scenarios, personas, in delimited zones, where the usual urgent determinations of life don't automatically apply. This is where we see the similarity between cubs at play and children at play: both of them rough-and-tumbling through their environments, exuberant animals testing their capacities. Thinking about these spaces – the schoolyard and the savannah – also helps us to think about those how arts and sports are an extension of the play moment. In the arts we suspend our disbelief in movie halls, gigs or theatres; in sports we willingly subject ourselves to arbitrary rules, on specific fields and grids, for the thrill of contest.
This developmental view is bolstered by a growing body of psychology and neuroscience – which shows how much our cognitive and emotional development in early years is helped by periods of sustained, rich, directed and self-directed play. And this consensus on the health-giving properties of play is making an impact at top levels. The government's recent £100 million pound outdoor play budget, encouraging outdoor play for children, is rooted in these findings. As was the Cambridge Primary Review in Feb 2009, which recommended a move away from early testing, and an expansion of playful time and space, in primary education. (Though the same government that wants to build play parks also bizarrely rejected the Cambridge Reviews recommendations. Obviously when you get inside the gates of the school at 9 o'clock, Gradgrind still rules...). Stuart Brown's recent book on Play is magisterial on this research.
And yet I have a problem when the power and potential of play is so tightly tied to child development alone. This keeps play in that place that the educationalist (and good Swiss Calvinist) Jean Piaget kept it – as the scaffolding that falls away, eventually, to reveal the man and woman of good character (copyright David Cameron, I don't think). However, there is a mounting body of research on the continuing effect, throughout our lifespans, of what the ethologists call "neoteny" – meaning the extension of juvenile characteristics throughout the lifespan of an organism (the biologist Stephen Jay Gould was the first to really flag this up).
And by juvenile characteristics in humans we mean flexibility, curiosity, thirst to learn, indefatigability, optimism … that is, play. What's distinctive about humans is how pervasive this childness is – which is not the same as childishness - in our lives. It's this neoteny, this continuing flexibility and response-ability, that allows a brain-damaged human to recover some of his or her faculties through will and training, but prevents a similiarly-damaged chimpanzee from progessing beyond their impaired condition. (Again, I take this from Brown's Play).
Now here is the first place where my deep scientific take on play touches my high political take on play. A cross-mammalian truth about play is that its flourishes best under conditions where immediate scarcity and danger has been kept at bay: the rough-and-tumbling cubs on the savannah may be posing risks to each other as they jump about, but they are distantly protected by their parents, and are usually replete in terms of food, water and rest. (I'm reminded of the time when I asked a little boy in a Bristol school whether he could tell me when he felt that he had stopped playing. I was trying to find out whether they had a sense of when they "got down to work", of what their sense of the social limits of play were. His answer to when he stopped playing? "When I'm exhausted".)
We even see this relationship between play and scarcity in the movie version of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Whenever The Man and The Boy know they have a moment's defensible respite from the eco-apocalypse they dangerously travel through …Well, books are read, jokes are performed, the last can of Coke in the world is cracked open… the urge to creative conviviality bursts through. In short, play (and its derivatives – arts, sports, scientific enquiry, learning, craft) are what we complex mammals compulsively do when we are not faced with the urgencies of survival.
So here's the big question: what happens to us when societies move almost exponentially further and further from the urgency of survival, as western developed societies have over the last forty years? To me, since the counterculture of the sixties right up the internet of the oughties and tens, it's obvious what's happened. There has been a huge and widening disjunct. Between, on one side, a neotenic and playful human nature that's become ever more resourced to explore its potentiality. And on the other side, there are traditional institutions of employment, education, commerce and democracy which are struggling to contain, match or even dampen down this unleashed, amplified and lifelong playfulness. (With some honourable exceptions in education, of course – Montessori, Steiner, Reggio Emilia, Summerhill, and to some degree the work of FutureLab in the UK, and the Institute of Play in the US).
I often cite the internet as the phenomenon which most clearly shows the shaping, constitutive power of human neoteny and play. Through a combination of planning, vision, misadventure luck – and perhaps, also to expand upon the strange word in the title of this conference, an evolutionary fatedness - we have ended up in the tenth year of this century with the ultimate planetary playground. A structure loose enough to be effective, generative and fecund, but with enough governance and design that it simply doesn’t fall into a set of incompatible fragments.
Yes, rough stuff can happen in this playground; it has to be managed sensitively and civically; and I don't doubt it will takes a global village to be able to raise our children, and develop ourselves, in cyberspace - in ways which minimise the darker tendencies of the human condition. But the possibilities for creation and self-expression, for sociability and collective action, for generating a consciousness and conversation that can effect a better stewardship of this planet, both interculturally and ecologically… well, you don't have to be Al Gore (but it helps) to see the Net one of our major tools for progress as a species. And I would claim that no matter the historical specifics of its design and origination, the reason why the internet is such a transforming and revoultionary force is because is draws, very deeply and directly, on our playful and neotenic natures. That is, the Net isn't just an analogy of our playful natures – it may well be homologous with that nature, branching from a similar root in our species-being.
As they say, much more of this on the website, in the book… But I wanted to leave this room full of educators and techies with one caution, and one request.
A caution: don't presume that computer games are the only obvious conduit between a) the growing importance of play, as a developmental process and increasingly a positive identity for young people, and b) the curricula and pedagogy you design and teach towards. I've just reviewed a very impressive book for the Independent about the importance of video games, Tom Chatfield's Fun. Incorporated. But my one objection to it was his conflation of two things - the essential nature of play, with the particular nature of rule-bound games.
It Ain't Necessarily So. From my reading of the scholarship, play demands that we potentiate widely and fully to remain adaptive and response-able. Even if we stick to games, this means entertaining what James Carse called the infinite game as well as the finite game. That is, infinite games in which the rules freely change according to the creativity and desires of the players. As much as finite games - those regimented, tightly iterated, conquest-and-victory oriented game-worlds, both in consoles and online. What really got my warning bell ringing in Chatfield's book– and it's been ringing for a while – is the way that such game-play presents a delightful spectacle of team-loyalty and self-discipline to corporate recruiters and Chinese government officials alike (the Chinese state is a huge investor in online game worlds). A conference I was at in New York recently descrbed the burbling dutifulness often found in World of Warcraft not play, and not labour, but 'playbour' – the familiar grind of the work ethic transformed by trolls, monsters and self-chosen routines. And worse, when online, this playbour provides a stream of behavioural data that could easily find itself in less-than-idealistic hands – whether subtle marketers, or not-so-subtle Communist party (or NSA) officials.
To state my worries simply and briefly: I think play is also about a box of generic Lego bricks, as well as the rule-book of a game. That is, play should also be about the mental and physical freedom to combine simple elements according to your whim, your insight and the exponential fantasies of your pals. There's no point in our neotenic energies being powerfully amplified in the mainstream of our lives, for these energies to be immediately corralled back into a slightly more lurid version of our already over-administered, over-instrumentalised lives. I propose a rebranding: let's call it World of Workcraft.
I also have one request – and it's partly an answer to my one caution. Within the next few years, London (or some other major British city) needs to host a massive, multi-discplinary, cross-practice conference on play – its science, its global history, its applications in the real world. As Chatfield's book demonstrates – after all, it is called Fun Inc – many vested interests and powerful parties (advertisers, governments, corporate managers, even educators) are beginning to invoke the power and potential of play. But in my view, they're basing their claims on merely partial bites of the expanding and dense pie of play research and practice. And if they do so, they will make bad policy and bad decisions.
I always invoke Brian Sutton-Smith's book The Ambiguity of Play because it is to me the only example I know of an intellectual approach to play that's remotely adequate to its complexity and richness – and even that, as he would himself admit, is only a start.
So with a profound belief in fertile messiness, I'm hoping to get a few indications of the possibility of such an event from the tweeting, blogging and gossiping masses before me. But James Carse's even more salty definition of play hovering before my eyes: she who must play, cannot play. So, TedXers, and I mean this with all profundity… Do What You Like!
As a welcome to all those who'll be attending Drew Buddie's TEDxOrenda conference next week (Twitter, tickets), here's a draft version of an afterword I've provided for a US volume called Educating in the Creative Economy, edited by Daniel Araya, out next year. It's a mash-up of the paper I presented in New York recently at the Digital Labor conference at the New School, but it gets to the heart (via quite a lot of theory, apologies) of my thoughts around play, tech and education.
Comments welcomed below, and looking forward to seeing you all there! -- PK
PLAY, THE NET AND THE PERILS OF EDUCATING FOR A
As complex mammals forged through play, from the beginning
to the end of our lifespan, humans are fated to be lifelong learners. Yet the
crucial question for the effectiveness of education in a creative economy is:
to what degree is the playful generativity at the heart of our species-being a route
leading towards autonomy, or heteronomy?
One might think that rising affluence, improving health
indicators and the cognitive surplus represented by the internet would provide
the optimum conditions for a post-work/players' identity in the developed world
– a spreading 'ground-of-play', where our potentiating faculties find ever
greater zones in which imagination can enchant and infuse our lives.[i]
But the story may not be so blithely heading in the direction of playful
The distinct neoteny of our species – that is, the extension
of youthful characteristics far into our maturity, by comparison even with
other simians – keeps us always, as the Italian autonomist thinker Paulo Virno
says, in a state of "permanent formation".[ii]
We have kept this endemic and anxiety-inducing opennessto the world under control, says Virno,
by means of what he calls "cultural and social devices" – religions,
castes, class identities, civic values, regional and national traditions,
foremost among the last of these (as Ernest Gellner might say[iii])
being the nation's education system.
But Virno's warning is that the regime of flexible
production and informationalised management that typifies contemporary Western
capitalism is now uniquely exploiting our neoteny. Post-Fordism (should we bite
the bullet and call it Googlism?) deliberately accelerates this indeterminacy –
the faculties that open us up to endemic flexiblity and openess – to make it
the very fuel of the social and economic order: "The death of specialized
instincts and the lack of a definite environment, which have been the same from
the Cro-Magnons onwards, today appear as noteworthy economic resources".
Virno moves through our natural faculties of potentiality, and lashes them
methodically to the flexible personality required by informational capitalism.
Our biological non-specialization? The grounding for the
"universal flexibility" of labour services: "The only
professional talent that really counts in post-Fordist production is the habit
not to acquire lasting habits, that is the capacity to react promptly to the
unusual". Our neotenic forever-youngness, always ready to learn and adapt?
We are now subject to "permanent formation… what matters is not what is
progressively learning (roles, techniques, etc) but the display of the pure
power to learn". That fact that we are not determined by our environment,
but make and construct our worlds? This is mirrored by the "permanent
precarity of jobs", where we wander nomadically from one cloud in the
nebulous world of labour markets to another.
Here's the second of my regular 'Ludocrats' podcasts - a conversation series with people interested in the power and potential of play, captured on an iPhone (and Brando mike) as I go about my business in media, consulting and music.
Belatedly posting up my Times Educational Supplement article on Katie Salen's Quest to Learn school in New York, which aims at using 'gaming literacy' to develop a new kind of education that teaches kids to think systemically and creatively. I also have a podcast composed of the interviews I did for the article, which I'll post up some time after Xmas. (And there are some pics of the day in this post). All comments welcomed.
Published in TES Magazine on 18 December, 2009
By Pat Kane
I am in New York, with an appointment to visit a school of the future. But when you jump out of the yellow cab in the city’s Chelsea district - where panhandlers strike up fights in local coffee shops and you are surrounded by Manhattan tenements - it’s difficult to see where it might reside.
When you discover the actual location - a large, bolted door on a crumbly old building, where security guards check you into care-worn hallways right out of the 1950s movie Blackboard Jungle - you might wonder how the reality will match up to the school’s impressive website.
The photocopied A4 signs eventually lead to a bright, busy - though decidedly ad hoc - inner-city school on the third floor. There I am greeted by Robert Torres, co-founder and research head of Quest To Learn (Q2L), the world’s first secondary school dedicated to educating 11 to 18- year-olds in “gaming literacies”.
He is immediately at pains to say that “this isn’t a place where kids just play games with consoles all day; we are educating here in ways that people will be able to recognise”.
As instant proof, Mr Torres stops to have a quiet word with a pupil who has just been put outside the classroom by his sure-footed teacher for “talkin’ over everybody”.
Julio has just been sent out of a class called Codeworlds, which teaches a combination of language and maths under an approach that sees both as “systems that convey meaning”. He is also missing out on an explorers’ visit to the land of Blubonia, where they are using gaming technology and role-play to pick up the local lingo (which happens to be first year Spanish). Clearly, something new is going on here, even if the built environment is echoing hallways and squeaky linoleum floors.
In The Play Ethic book's education chapter, I quoted with approval the ideas of Ivan Illich, whose Deschooling Society and Tools for Conviviality - when I encountered them, almost 20 years too late, in the early oughties - seemed amazingly prescient. His vision of an education liberated from schools and into cities - using computer technology to turn offices, parks, factories, museums into opportunities for learning - is becoming credible again, as the internet (and children's literacy in it) shakes up existing models of schooling.
The de-schooling option has always interested me, as an answer to how to educate 'players' instead of 'workers' - that is, enterprising, adaptable, mobile, energetic pupils. Perhaps unleash them on the city or town, get them engaging with public space and specific problems, than keep them in the crowd-control corralls that too many schools are.
However it was lovely to read today, in the Guardian's education section, of how Illich (and his Scottish - and equally radical - contemporary, A.S.Neill) has affected the seemingly most establishment figures. John MacBeath is the head of Educational Leadership at Cambridge University, and the shaper of self-inspection schemes for the English educational ministry Ofstead. All very solid.
But McBeath (as befits his bearded lefty image) has a wild seventies past:
MacBeath visited the celebrated School Without Walls in Philadelphia. "The kids were being educated on the parkway, in hospitals, shops, any place where you could learn. They were 14 and 15 and, hearing the way they talked about how the city worked, local government and politics, I thought, boy, oh boy, they were getting an education they would never have got inside the classroom."
MacBeath started his own free school in Barrowfield, a working-class area of east Glasgow, close to Celtic football ground and then notorious for gang warfare. With surprising encouragement from the Scottish inspectorate, he rented premises above a local taxi firm. "Our kids didn't come 9am to 4pm. They drifted in about 10.30, but they'd be there till 10 or 11 at night, and they'd
The school inevitably got flak, particularly from neighbouring heads, and before each of his college lectures, MacBeath's departmental head would announce that the views expressed in them had nothing to do with the college. The experiment came to an end when the children decided a boy should be banned from the next trip for stealing. While everyone else was gone, he burned the building down.
Would Macbeath have sent his own two daughters there? He hesitates. "In my more idealistic moments, I would have said yes. In greater maturity, I would say the prime reason parents choose a school is the other children who go there. Many of the kids at Barrowfield were on the verge of criminality, their language wasn't good, they smoked like chimneys and they probably did a little bit of drinking as well."
Relevant last question there. I've met quite a few rueful old radicals in my consulting journeys through the public services in the last few years - most of them trading loon-panted tales of guerrilla educating or social care among themselves at the end of a night's drinking, than something they draw on for their current managerial careers. But MacBeath seems to be different:
He is now moving back to the thinking that inspired Barrowfield. He has concluded that schools make a difference only at the margin, which he puts - that precision again - at "between 9% and 15%". He continues: "If you're bright and do your homework, and surf the net intelligently, and have supportive parents, school's fine, school's enough. But some kids, as one head said to me recently, go home to hell. That's why schools now have breakfast clubs, extended hours, summer schools and so on. I'd like to go further."
MacBeath's eyes gleam as he talks of reviving the half-forgotten Children's University (started in Birmingham in 1994). "We are looking at airports, docks, museums, art galleries, theatres, football clubs, racecourses as places where children can go and do 10-week modules and get credits."
So the de-schooling movement, albeit older and wiser, lives again.
But it's worth noting here that de-schooling becomes an option again, as a response to the domestic chaos and turmoil that too many children face. Is it right that educationalists seek to extend their service throughout society, providing safe havens for children's learning, as an answer to them "going home to hell"?
At least it's a positive and supporting vision from Professor MacBeath. But play isn't enough, if you don't address the basic nurturing and social conditions that make it really function as a form of development. Not just a "play ethic", but a "care ethic" too. Or: education, education, education can't make all the difference. Politics, politics, politics is needed also.
A fascinating morning recently, delivering a keynote speech to the Toy Industries of Europe 'Toy Safety' conference in Brussels. The toy industry has had its troubles to bear in 2007 - many safety recalls of toys from major manufacturers, largely located in their Chinese factories (80% of all toys in Europe are made in China, 95% in the US). As I said to the audience at the conference, with books like Eric Clark's The Real Toy Story being published (which tries to do for the toy industry what Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation does for convienience food), they are an industry which risks a lot by not lining up their ethical business practice, with the trust that parents put in them to provide safe, ethically and sustainably created products. But if they extend 'play ethics' throughout their business - from labour conditions in China to the nature of the toys they produce - the opportunities for their business (exemplified by the turnaround in Lego, whose CEO Jorgen Knudstorp delivered the other keynote) are major, given the general shift of social values in a 'play-friendly' direction.
NOTE: I'm using the embedding function of Slideshare for the first time here - if you go through to the actual link, you can download the PPT of the presentation with extra notes.
Very much enjoyed my time at Channel Four's latest incarnation of In The Wild, their forum series exploring wellbeing, kids education and Web 2.0 - this time as a sideshow to the Scottish Learning Festival in Glasgow. I have to say I enjoyed it mostly for sparring with Carol Craig, the head of the Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing - whose speech clarified a lot of my problems with the hidden normativity, and neo-Puritanism, of the 'happiness' debates. I'm perhaps not the most objective person to report on this, so let me point you to a very useful account of our debate from an edublogger (a new category of blogger, of which Ewan Macintosh is the pertest possible exemplar) called Alan Coady.