Jul 24, 2023 - Education

Temple leads study to reimagine elementary school

Illustration of wooden child’s play block with an exclamation point

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Temple professor Kathy Hirsh-Pasek sees an educational crisis in the U.S. that saps joy out of learning and turns students into rote memorizers.

Driving the news: Looking to change that outdated model, Temple is leading a five-year study that examines how to make elementary schools' classrooms more engaging and playful.

  • The study will focus on under-resourced schools around the country.

Why it matters: The basic model for teaching elementary students — often referred to as the "sage on a stage" approach, in which one teacher talks to 20-30 kids — hasn't changed much over the last few centuries, Axios' Michael Mooney writes.

The big picture: The pandemic set students back and led to widespread teacher burnout. Dropout rates skyrocketed.

  • And in a future where artificial intelligence will be able to handle a broad range of tasks, a student's ability to memorize and recite facts won't help build the skills needed to thrive.

What they're saying: The "Learning Through Play" study has the power to upend the status quo, leading to students who are better prepared to succeed in an increasingly technocratic society, researchers say.

  • "When you have something in the file cabinet, it's easier to pull it out than to rethink," says Hirsh-Pasek, director of the Temple Infant and Child Lab.
  • "But if we can … take those same file folders, take those same lesson plans, and reimagine them in a way that makes [teachers] happy and makes the students learn more, we have a real shot at changing education in America."

How it works: Researchers will work with dozens of teachers to build customized lesson plans for pre-K through fourth grade.

  • Students must become proficient at what Hirsh-Pasek calls the six Cs: collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative imagination and confidence.
  • Through classroom observation and teacher surveys, researchers will evaluate how the teaching process changed, whether classrooms became more playful, and whether students engaged in deeper learning.

Context: Temple is conducting the study with seven other institutions, including the University of Chicago and Southern Methodist University, and the help of roughly $20 million from the LEGO Foundation.

  • The interactive model has already been piloted in schools in Pennsylvania, Michigan and New Hampshire, where they're seeing positive early signs, Hirsh-Pasek tells Axios.

The bottom line: Hirsh-Pasek says prioritizing input from teachers is crucial since their voices are often dismissed when discussing how to improve the educational system.

  • "We're doing it with teachers, not at teachers, not for teachers," she tells Axios.
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