Restoring trust in university learning is child’s play

A utilitarian approach to undergraduate education is leading to disenchantment among students and society. It is time to put ‘play’ at the heart of learning, says Colm O’Shea

February 16, 2023
Competitors solve Rubik's cubes to illustrate Restoring trust in university learning is child’s play
Source: Alamy

The first thing you learn when you tackle a Rubik’s cube is that it cannot be fixed one side at a time. The cube is in effect a single, if complex, structure, and has to be solved altogether or not at all.

For the uninitiated, the prospect of wading into a garbled multi-chromatic matrix and imposing order – six sides of one solid colour each – can seem impossible. Anyone who approaches a tricky puzzle is liable to experience “overwhelm”: the very interconnectedness of the facets leaves us with no place to get purchase, no place to start.

That was how I felt when my eight-year-old daughter asked for help solving her own Rubik’s cube. I’d never learned how, so I scrambled to some bright children on YouTube for help. It turns out that even in the solution space there is a dizzying array of methods. The one I settled on involved a first step where you create a “daisy” – a yellow centre square with white “petal” squares to its north, south, east and west. From there, you employ a cascade of algorithms that solve the cube in layers. It’s tricky, and takes time and patience, but the problem is tractable once you have a starting point and a coherent strategy.

There are few puzzles more urgently in need of solving than the crisis of confidence that Americans seem to be experiencing in their attitudes to virtually every institution right now, from the Supreme Court and Congress to journalism and education. Since every major institution in effect leans on all the others in a vast feedback loop, restoring trust in any of them seems to require fixing them all simultaneously, too.

I have no idea if the problem of waning trust is tractable or not. But I have four children and dozens of students every semester, all of whose futures I care deeply about. I’m invested in this society and I want to assume that not only one but multiple possible solutions to its dilemmas can be found. To avoid overwhelm, though, I need my “daisy”.

Since I’m a university professor, I’m inclined to locate my starting point in the field of education. And since I’m thinking in terms of working through a complex but fairly logical process, I’m reminded of the educational theories of the logician Alfred North Whitehead.

The term “creativity” was forged by Whitehead – surprisingly recently, around 1927. He was speaking about cosmology, how the universe has a knack of twisting and recombining things in novel ways, thereby renewing itself. Whitehead’s cosmology informed his view of education and vice versa. The universe is having an adventure reconstituting itself, and therefore if faculty and students don’t see learning as an adventure – an exciting renewal of both the self and one’s civilisation – something has gone badly wrong.

Our goal as either scholars or teachers, writes Whitehead in The Aims of Education (1929), should be to keep knowledge alive. By “alive” he means a quality that he has conceptualised almost literally: once pulled from the sea of knowledge, ideas left on their own do not “keep any better than fish”, he says. Perhaps ideas are like Rubik’s cubes: they’re interesting only if you keep turning them around in your hands. For Whitehead, the breath that animates knowledge is imagination. “Imagination is contagious,” he tells us. “It can only be communicated by a faculty whose members themselves wear their learning with imagination.”

“Learning”, as described here, is a species of play. Far from understanding the intellectual life as a quest to build and defend one’s own fortress of expertise, the learning-as-play model embraces vulnerability for the sake of making discovery possible. Locating alien concepts or techniques becomes an occasion for thrill, a suggestion of untold new forays we might undertake. When faculty wear their playful ignorance this way, we excite in our students what Whitehead calls “Romantic emotion” – a thirst for reconnecting concepts in “unexplored relationships”.

I’m wary that Whitehead’s term “Romantic” might elicit sceptical eye-rolls from some readers, triggering associations with “soft” disciplines or emotion-oriented practices such as art or creative writing. Bear in mind that Whitehead was a logician and appreciated rigour. His educational progression involved using this “Romantic” fascination with new or alien ideas or techniques as a preliminary stage, followed by a period of apprenticeship learning the precision of one’s specific discipline.

But the wonderment comes first. It has to. Why? Let me quote the mathematician Paul Lockhart, writing in his alternately hilarious and despairing 2009 book, A Mathematician’s Lament, about the woeful state of contemporary maths education. “The art [of mathematics] is not in the ‘truth’ but in the explanation, the argument. Mathematics is the art of explanation,” he says. “If you deny students the opportunity to engage in this activity – to pose their own problems, make their own conjectures and discoveries, to be wrong, to be creatively frustrated, to have an inspiration, and to cobble together their own explanations and proofs – you deny them mathematics itself,” he contends.

Maths must be taught by designing “engaging and natural problems suitable to [students’] tastes, personalities, and level of experience” and “giving them time to make discoveries and formulate conjectures” within an “atmosphere of healthy and vibrant mathematical criticism”. “In short, by having an honest intellectual relationship with our students and our subject.”

If the sceptical reader responds here with concerns that we don’t have time for an “honest intellectual relationship” with our students because there’s a finite amount of time to bring medical and engineering students up to speed on their coursework, consider for a moment the crisis of innovation we’re currently experiencing across all sectors of our culture. What is that costing us?

It’s relatively easy to paint an inviting picture of Whitehead’s and Lockhart’s ideal. But how to bring a spirit of play to fruition in the classroom is not obvious. It’s vital to note that play doesn’t necessarily mean easy or relaxed amusement: when my daughter and I were searching for better algorithms to solve the cube efficiently, the twin spectres of frustration and uncertainty loomed large. As the philosopher of game design Ian Bogost points out, truly challenging games are about working with difficult constraints.

What one might call “fun” is typically a by-product of adapting to being at the edge of our abilities, surfing the edge of frustration or even despair. When we’re engaging with the world of physical objects or concepts in order to play with them well, Bogost notes: “There’s effort involved. But then when you’re finished, you can conclude, ‘Actually there was something gratifying about the hardship that I just encountered.’ That discovery of novelty is where the molten core of fun is.”

It follows that trust is vital here; it’s an act of faith that there might be something valuable to getting stuck, or getting lost, enduring the messiness of not knowing if you’re on the right track. So much novel thinking emerges from this “tinkering” attitude to conceptual schemata that you might say that the quality of one’s thinking is directly proportional to one’s capacity to endure being temporarily lost. Certainly, it’s a better metric of intellectual potential than the ability to reproduce drilled procedures under timed test conditions.

In practical terms, perhaps we can help our students at the outset by inviting them to trade ambitions to be rigidly “correct” for goals of transformation, while understanding that transformation involves a journey into unknown territory. John Henry Newman, a kindred spirit of Whitehead, said in 1891 of liberal education: “In a higher world it may be otherwise, but here below, to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

 A giant Rubik's Cube deflating to illustrate Higher education should be a stepping into a labyrinth

On my more optimistic days, I see writing an essay – and teaching the essay – as a romance of the soul: “What new connections will I make today, and how will this play reconstitute me?”

Although play is one of the most natural and intuitive activities for humans – young humans in particular – to engage in, readers may find my starting point too romantic, too naive. Fixing universities may seem like being asked to solve a Rubik’s cube within the larger, multi-institutional cube of modern society. Kevin Carey, vice-president for education policy and knowledge management at the New America thinktank, framed the vastness of the problem in a 2015 article for The Chronicle of Higher Education. It encompasses “rampant status competition, runaway costs and prices, declining academic standards, administrators and professors at war”, he writes.

“Determined to be many things at once and animated by the ambitions of the administrative class, universities sprawled ever upward and outward, driven by a bottomless appetite for new functions and expenses.” As a result, “the educational mission was steadily subordinated to the demands of reputation and research, what [legendary University of California president] Clark Kerr described as the ‘cruel paradox that a superior faculty results in an inferior concern for undergraduate teaching’.”

Cruel paradox, as the ancient Greeks impressed on us, is part of the human condition: convinced that we know how to “solve” a given problem, we create a set of incentives that engenders a new problem downstream. We see this in contemporary American public life, where our way of addressing one extreme is to twist hard in the opposite direction. The reason I’m advancing Whitehead’s unusually playful, apolitical attitude to idea exploration as the primary role of the university is that I see open-minded, conceptual play as an antidote to this convulsive back-and-forth. Very religious colleges established to counter a secular enemy, or conservative colleges presenting themselves as the antidote to left-liberal cultural hegemony, are ultimately only tactical solutions, offering – at best – a short-term counterbalance.

Building parallel but hermetically sealed “left” and “right” universes only worsens a political and cultural polarisation that is spiralling out of all control. Our three-dimensional landscape is collapsed down to a 2D plane, one with merely a left and a right, or a right and a wrong. We can’t solve a cubic problem when we’re missing a whole dimension.

Instead of instructing our students on what to think, then, or who to read/watch/listen to, how do we lead them to perceive that there is a depth-perception problem in the first place and invite them to wade into that depth? In my classroom over the past few years, garden-variety adolescent self-consciousness has given way to a more pernicious fear: that students might accidentally offend someone by espousing the “wrong” idea or using the wrong terminology. There’s a persistent anxiety, well founded or not, that some peers might try to reputationally destroy them if they misstep. In a final turn of the screw, the students don’t trust themselves to think the right thoughts, and often seem to regard their own ideas with suspicion, not unlike the inmates in Bentham’s panopticon prison, each man his own warden.

I cannot convey here just how much collective relief is expressed in our small workshop setting when the conditions are set up for the students to share all this paranoia at the same time and collectively realise that they have trapped themselves in the same little box – but that they can escape whenever they want. Once they grasp that, the possible permutations of new thoughts expand rapidly, and a sense of adventure (“what might I realise next?!”) takes hold.

If we want to feed the Romantic emotion in education – the capacity to see learning as an adventure or a delightful set of challenging puzzles – the first thing that needs to be established is trust. And we must ask: how can we, the faculty, model for students what it is to take intellectual risks? If the long-term goal is to reduce paranoia and polarisation, then the first step is not to talk them into trusting institutions so much as to teach them to trust themselves. I don’t mean blithe complacency about regurgitating what they already believe: quite the opposite. I mean trusting themselves to be immersed in a real puzzle – one they might not make immediate progress on. Getting stuck, getting lost, countenancing “wrong” ideas.

Faculty need to be able to do these things ourselves – in public. It’s our obligation to trust ourselves enough to conduct our own explorations on an uncertain footing. Then we can encourage our students, without hypocrisy, to trust themselves, no matter how much anxiety or self-doubt may initially come along for the ride.

In short, higher education should be a stepping into a labyrinth, and that will require something of the heroic mindset. Things should get messier before clarity emerges. Once students trust themselves to forge their own thoughts, then – and only then – will they trust the institutions that aided that project.

We cannot win their trust when we don’t trust them and therefore aim to program them (whether to the left or right, to the secular or the religious). We cannot win their trust when we act as if all the important questions are already answered and imply that they had better repeat what we already believe. My strongest intuition here is that the future of education in the US belongs to any institution or system that sets up the rigorous conditions for self-discovery and self-renewal – in a word: creativity.

No amount of liberal or conservative bromides about “excellence for all”, “social justice”, “preserving the canon” and so on can compete with this difficult but straightforward task: getting the student to trust themselves (and their peers) to have a real intellectual adventure.

All we can do, ultimately, is set up conditions for the student: where is your centre? Where are the petals? Now we’ll proceed together to map out the cascade of solutions waiting to be discovered by free, open-ended group play. If you make a wrong turn, be glad: you’ve just learned something. Be honest about it, go back and try another route.

The world is large and houses more permutations than we can dream of exhausting. Adventures aren’t about being “right”; they’re about moving forward into new space.

Colm O’Shea is a clinical associate professor with the expository writing programme at New York University. His monograph on sacred/morbid geometry in Joyce’s fiction, James Joyce’s Mandala, is available from Routledge, and his novel Claiming De Wayke is available in Kindle and hard copy formats. With physical educator Robbie O’Driscoll he created the Rescape Project, which studies the effect of creative play on a variety of fields, such as philosophy, art and athletics; further details can be found at

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Reader's comments (2)

Thank-you! The observations you make about the attitudes and behaviours of both students and staff have been at the front of my mind for some years. I’ve recently retired without finding an adequate solution to the problems of student trust and the often paralysing need to always come up with the ‘right answer’ that many display or even articulate. You say that you are able to rescue the students’ willingness to share their feelings and discover the love of learning by discovery in ‘small workshops’. In my own subject area the numbers of students made small workshops the exception rather than the rule and so the liberating effects you describe may be a feature peculiar to small groups whose members develop a familiarity with each other and with staff. Trust is certainly something that I’ve often wondered about. In any situation in education in which the learning is difficult (eg troublesome knowledge), or where the benefits of mastery are not immediately evident (eg threshold concepts) - for both see - there is little prospect of success without trust. Over the years I believe I observed a fall in the level of trust that students would afford my colleagues and I. In recent years, our advice and guidance has been often ignored or outright rejected, even when our rationale is explained or justified in ways that were previously unnecessary. I applaud your desire to restore students’ capacity to pull the order of understanding from chaos of knowledge and I agree that trust is a key factor. I wish you luck in identifying how to turn this around.
Thanks for this great article. Whitehead still has so much to teach us!