By Sam Piha
Many afterschool leaders describe their programs as using “disguised learning”. I always cringe when I hear this term. Why you ask?
1- Definition of “Disguise”
According to the dictionary, disguise is defined as “to change the appearance or guise of so as to conceal identity or mislead, as by means of deceptive garb; to conceal or cover up the truth or actual character of by a counterfeit form or appearance; misrepresent”. Why do we need to conceal learning or mislead the learners? How is this related to children, their learning, or our role as teachers?
2 - Assumptions about Learning
This term assumes that you have to hide learning. I always found this offensive because through my experience as a classroom teacher and youth worker, children love to learn. They have an innate drive to learn and master, thus why the need for disguise? “Disguised learning” is like “candy flavored medicine” - it assumes that learning is foul tasting but good for you.
3 - Assumptions about Play
“Students think they are merely playing, but they are simultaneously learning.” This assumes that children only learn through play when adults sneak it in. We know that play is an important form of learning and that children are always learning.
The problem is that adults have managed to make learning a negative thing by making it boring and divorced from the real world and young people’s interests. In this way, we have suppressed children’s drive to learn and master.
Instead, we need to ensure that learning experiences are challenging and engaging. In the LIAS project, we name five attributes that promote young people's learning: Learning needs to be active, collaborative, meaningful, support mastery, and expand horizons. We can even be transparent about our learning objectives of the activities.
I believe that those touting “disguised learning” are well intentioned. We just need to do away with this term. Instead we can talk about being intentional about the learning objectives, informal learning, using clever ways to introduce learning objectives through non-traditional tools, such as games, to encourage students to have fun while they learn.
By Sam Piha
We promote social emotional learning, character building, and participation in afterschool programs by promising that these things will help young people succeed in “school, work and life”. We are all familiar with research and evaluation that confirm that these things increase academic outcomes in both the short term and down the line.
We now have a study looking at how participation in an afterschool program changed the arc of young people’s lives. According to Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post,“ ‘You Can’t Be What You Can’t See’ is a new book by Milbrey W. McLaughlin that looks at the long-term effects of an after-school academic program in Chicago’s notorious Cabrini-Green public housing project, a violence-wracked complex that was located on the Near North Side of Chicago and was once home to some 15,000 people.”
We interviewed Milbrey McLaughlin in a recent LIAS blog post published on June 19, 2018. We now invite you to read a review of her book and commentary entitled How this Chicago after-school program helped shift the arc of kids’ lives — for the long term. This is written by Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post and David L. Kirp from the Graduate School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley.
Sam Piha is the founder and principal of Temescal Associates, a consulting group dedicated to building the capacity of leaders and organizations in education and youth development.