Models for Learning; Where do the Children Play?

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I write a lot about improving student learning, but with reading scores flat, do we need better models for learning, better models for assessing and better models for environments to accomplish both? In this blog I look at a model for learning called arts integration that supports student creativity, a model for assessing student learning that uses hand-held tablets and a model for learning environments like Reggio Emilla where they take the arts and play seriously.

25 Years of Flat Reading Scores

Standardized testing has not yielded any sign of improvement over the last 25 years. For example, in 1992, the average scale score on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test at 4th grade was 217. This scale number relates to standards and they are marked as 210 is basic, 240 is proficient and 270 is advanced. In 2017, 25 years later, the average score for fourth graders was 222! This flat reading score result, which is a little above basic and much below proficient, is showing us a number of interesting conclusions, and one that comes to mind is that maybe we are not making any progress within the standardized school system we have in place right now!

Arts Integration Drives Creativity

When students engage in the arts, their creativity spikes! Arts integration is the instructional strategy of improving Common Core Curriculum by integrating the arts into that curriculum. This means giving students time to play, create, choose, understand, and develop their thinking. It also means that students remember their thinking and can usually recall any part of the curriculum for further use in assessment of student achievement, especially in disadvantaged populations. Here is a section from my research on arts integration:

Results: This rigorous experimental research design shows that Rochester’s RAISE Model succeeded in integrating arts strategies through elaborated residencies that built the capacity of regular teachers and students to increase student achievement in disadvantaged populations. The evidence of this model’s arts integration effectiveness can be seen qualitatively during the residencies, observations, interviews and teacher surveys and quantitatively in the Common Core New York State testing.


Effect Size: The average effect size in year 3, 2013, of the four year study, 2011-2014 was 41.4% more students receiving arts integration passed the ELA Test, and 38.0% more students passed the Mathematics Test. This exactly replicates the 0.40% average for meta-analyses of the effect of integrating curricula (Hattie, 2009, p. 298). This research found that it is possible to develop significant arts integration with disadvantaged urban populations through “mental stretching” (Gardiner, 2000, p. 72). The arts skills are not so much transferred as they are over-lapped—in a deliberate effort to improve performance. The active acquisition of arts skills overlaps the needed subject skills such as elaboration and oral production and the student’s brain handles this integration through mental stretching.

Southworth, et. al. (2017). The SchoolWorks Lab, Inc.

Since arts integration is so effective at improving student achievement as measured by standardized testing, could we design schools and assessments that honored the role of arts integration, creativity, the arts and play, rather than standardized curriculums and tests? How would we measure student learning and instructional effectiveness in creative environments that support arts integration and children playing at learning?

Can We Assess Creativity Through Technology?

“Well I think it’s fine, building jumbo planes
Or taking a ride on a cosmic train
Switch on summer from a slot machine
Yes, get what you want to if you want
Cause you can get anything

I know we’ve come a long way
We’re changing day to day
But tell me, where do the children play?”

Cat Stevens

This was a very powerful song when I was growing up, and the question at the end of the chorus wafts around educators to this day. Children’s lives seem to be very organized and standardized with some schools eliminating recess and sports to support instruction that may not be helping us make progress. And the eternal question of the song seems to be drowned out as educators argue for more rigor.

So in the past, children played out front of their stoops, in their front yards, at the school playground and anywhere there was space to play. Where do children play today? They play on their phones. But we need to help them play on tablets. Tablets are the technology that supports their writing, drawing, investigating, and performing at higher levels of achievement. Tablets can document creativity and creativity can be broken down into a set of skills, called a skill-set, and assessed as students perform on their tablets. Teachers can see in real time the progress students are making and choose to intervene effectively to help that progress become powerful learning.

School Models Where Children Can Play

Structured play in the arts enhances creativity through exploration and hands-on learning, so arts integration makes sense in standardized classrooms, but where is the example of a whole school designed for play?

Every Teacher Can Learn from the Reggio Emilia Approach

“The story begins in the northern Italian city of Reggio Emilia in the immediate aftermath of World War II. For nearly two decades, Italy had been ruled by fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who was also a close ally of Adolf Hitler. Exhausted after years of war, the citizens of Reggio Emilia vowed to do whatever they could to ensure their young children grew up in a different kind of world. The Reggio Emilia approach has been evolving and spreading ever since. There is nothing magical or mysterious about the Reggio Emilia Approach. In many ways, it embodies the philosophy and goals shared by dedicated early childhood educators all over the world.

There are basically two sides to the Reggio Approach: the social side and the pedagogical side. The social side centers on the principle of universal preschool, the belief that all children should have access to early education. To achieve this goal, the citizens of Reggio Emilia drew on the region’s strong communal traditions, meaning that the entire community takes responsibility for ensuring all children have access to quality early schooling. This sense of shared responsibility is essential and is, perhaps, the reason so few states in the US offer universal preschool: it really does take the whole village to raise a child! On the pedagogical side, the Reggio Emilia approach was principally developed by educator Loris Malaguzzi (1920-94), who designed a complex, research-based system inspired by the work of well-known psychologists and philosophers like John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and Howard Gardner. 

The Reggio Emilia approach continues to develop and evolve to keep up with the latest research, but the basic philosophy and principles remain. The best-known aspect of the Reggio approach revolves around the concept of the “Hundred Languages of Children,” or the belief that children have a wide variety of ways to express their ideas and communicate understanding. Sculpting, painting, and dancing are examples of the different ways by which children can think, discover, and learn. The approach also emphasizes the importance of hands-on learning and the notion that play and learning are inseparable. As mentioned, there is no magic or mystery to the Reggio Emilia approach; it is based on best practices and the latest research. What makes it special is the merger of the social side and the pedagogical side. One can’t work without the other. Please read the other articles in this newsletter and learn a little more about the Reggio Emilia approach as an example of what it really takes to provide universal access to high-quality early education.”

Child Care Education Institute February Newsletter
Reggio Emilia in Your Child Care Setting, Volume 9, Issue 2

Models for Better Schools

So maybe we need to build schools that take play seriously? Why not build schools and classrooms that welcome students in and give them great technology tablets to play with? Let’s use those tablets to document and assess their arts integrated learning, and expect that these students will read and write to standards, create and perform above proficiency, explain their thinking and achieve our learning goals— all while playing in a supportive and rigorous environment!