I Learn to Play & Play with What I Learn

I’ve been worrying over what’s to become of my 2¢ worth as I come to pay less attention to the education debate and less effort on promoting my own value to that conversation, which is at least a small part of what my pennies’ worth has been. Do I continue to have my children publish their video and infographic contributions, or drop the blog all together.

What continues to play at the edges of this conundrum is what was perhaps the most resounding nail I’ve hammered on during the final years and months of my professional career – that there is a distinct and crucial difference between learning and being taught. I suspect that there has been no time in human history where the ability to skillfully, resourcefully and continuously learn has been such an essential life long working (and playing) skill — lifestyle.

It’s a profound notion that begs the question, do we need an education system to teaches children how to be taught, or that helps them to learn to teach themselves? And if this is a question worth asking, then what does its answer mean to the pedagogies of our classrooms, libraries, school schedules…

As I have turned my attention away from writing about education and preparing for three keynote addresses a week (mostly not an exaggeration), I will must insist to you that I have not stopped learning. To treat my wife, I’ve taken on more of the cooking — applicable learning. I've started practicing the martial art of Aikido — reflective learning. Digital photography and the art and technique of post-production — information-rich learning.

I wonder if it might be useful to write about these learning experiences, removed from formal education. Though I've done a lot of thinking about my martial arts learning, the injured my coccyx (tail bone) from a bicycle accident, has prevented me from visiting the Raleigh Aikikai Dojo lately. I’m not yet mended enough to go and repeatedly fall down again. So let's look think about my photography learning.


I bought a descent DSLR camera several years ago, as an incentive strategy for getting me out of the hotel rooms of the interesting and sometimes exotic places my work was taking me. The scheme worked, and I now have a wealth of snapshots going back close to twenty years. It’s afforded me a richer memory of my global wanderings, but also given me a virtual warehouse of digital images with which to learn and play.

I am mostly using three software tools: Photomatix Pro, to enrich photos by blending different exposures together; Photoshop, to shove pixels around with; and Lightroom for the finishing touches. They are all three, rich and powerful tools for working in a field about which I have no formal training. I simply look at the work of better photographers, watch videos and read blog articles about how they accomplished their masterpieces, pick out a particular technique of interest or need, and teach myself to do it.

And I play.

To the right are before and after images from the train station in Basel, Switzerland, where my wife and I changed trains travel from Frankfort to Milan. The before image is a fine snapshot. It’s clear and crisp. However, there is little sense of the station itself. So a produced a copy of the photo with the exposure cranked up, revealing the high rounded roof and ribbed structure. Blending these two files, with a third lower exposure copy, not only revealed the vast size of the station, but with some play, gave the photo an antique and artistically rendered effect. Near the far end of the building, there was a hint of some open windows with morning sunlight shining through. To excentuate this, I used some techniques that I'd learned the day before to enhance the beams of light add added some extra open windows, giving the photo not only a sense of place, but also of moment.

My point is that

I learn by playing and working and then play and work with what a learn —

..and there is no clear point where one ends and the other begins.

Might classrooms be a little more like this, where students learn by playing and working (accomplishing something of value) and then play and work with what they've learned?

Might these sorts of writings be useful to you, practicing educators?


8 thoughts on “I Learn to Play & Play with What I Learn”

  1. Keep the writing coming . . . I think you are on the path many of us will soon follow and you are setting a great example for embarking on this journey with joy and purpose!

  2. I hope you keep writing… even infrequently, but whatever your decision I ask that you archive the blog so we can still access it’s many gems.
    Thanks David!

    1. Brian, Thanks so much for your note. Coming from you, it means a lot.

      I suspect that the blog will remain up here for some time. But what’s curious, is that I don’t seem to be able to stop blogging :-/

  3. I seem to be on a blog writing binge right now, but I suspect that it will be come less frequent in the coming months and years. I have been doing this since 2004, so you might go back, when you get really board, and scan the archives. The most commented on articles are a good place to start.

  4. What we have to figure out, as educators, is what’s play and what makes it engaging. Not all play is fun. Some parts of some video games are hard work, tedious and mundane. Yet, children spend the time and effort to do it, for some reason.

    I’ve often suggested four qualities of their outside-the-classroom learning experiences that make them engaging.

    1. They are responsive
    2. They provoke conversation
    3. They inspire personal investment
    4. They value safely made mistakes

    The question I’m asking myself, here at the end of my career is, “What might this look like in a classroom.”

  5. Roberto, Like you, I’ve taught myself how to play musical instruments. It is a learning experience that instantly returns its reward. I’ve often asked the question, “How do we turn math, language, chemistry, etc. into a performing art?”

    Thanks for helping to continue the conversation.

  6. I really like the point that David made I
    learn by playing and working and then play and work with what a learn — ..and
    there is no clear point where one ends and the other begins. I
    think all of us like learning by play, especially for young students. Last
    Friday, I had Chinese lesson with my second-grade students. When I gave the
    writing sheet to them and asked them to write some of Chinese characters, they
    felt boring and said to me, “Ms Michelle, can we play Chinese characters game?”
    They like games more than writing the characters. I always play “where I am”
    game with them. I put some Chinese characters on the floor, and then I sorted
    them into two groups for having a competition. When I say where is the Chinese
    character ????means city? who is the first
    student to stand by the character??will be the winner.
    Students love to remember the Chinese character through games. During play with
    students, I also learned some new teaching strategy from my students.

  7. I also support David’s point learning through play. My
    sixth-grade students love to learning math through playing the games. When I
    say this period math lesson we are going to play a math game, they all say

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