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Leah Thomas

It’s strange how much a shift in perspective can impact the learning experience.
For the past few months I’ve been teaching ESL online to students in China. Last week, a parent pulled the webcam away from her student and asked me whether or not elementary students in America get homework. I told her yes, of course, but it doesn’t compare to the daily four hours of work given to many primary-school students in Beijing.

She seemed distraught, so I reminded her, “But students in China are more likely to be bilingual, and on average do better on standardized tests.”

“Yes,” she said, “but they don’t have time to play.”

It was a mutually sad moment, I think because it was a true one. There are advantages and disadvantages to every kind of education system. The more I thought about this conversation, the more I fixated on an underlying point:
As a global society, we rarely think of “learning” as synonymous with “play”.

I’m not sure when that shifted, but I think every year the shift happens sooner. There are kindergarteners who bring home homework packets. The students I teach in Beijing are as young as four. Here in the states, we are growing accustomed to competitive preschools. And while the intentions behind this pursuit of excellence are good, the result is that learning becomes drudgery for some.

What’s distressing isn’t that children are learning more, or even that they’re studying more. It’s that learning isn’t enjoyable. For the most part, homework assigned is a chore and rarely a joy. The work doesn’t feel valuable and it isn’t engaging.

When I think back on my years in school, this was often the case, but it wasn’t always the case. I remember the sheer fun of building an invented solar system diorama for my 8th grade science class, the enjoyment gleaned from a 9th grade American Literature project that asked us to record game show videos in character as Roderick Usher and Tituba. The Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? pop-up book I made for composition class. Assignments that incorporated the arts always felt less like work.

There are myriad benefits to integrating the arts into schoolwork, but I think we forget the simplest, most primal one: art makes learning fun, and “fun” is not a curse word.