Learning through playtime

When are you most engaged and inspired to learn something new? Thomas and Brown, in their book “A New Culture of Learning,” argue that play is a powerful setting, and motivator, and facilitator for learning. Sitting down to a new board game, exploring an online MMORPG, experimenting to find the best baseball swing — these are all settings that push you to integrate new information and also to explore the limits of what’s possible. What happens if I click there?

These are also settings that seem incompatible with the form that our public education currently takes.

Thomas and Brown sing the praises of the “new culture of learning,” which they define as unlimited access to information (i.e., the Internet) combined with an environment that allows for “unlimited agency to build and explore within boundaries.” Agency enables exploration and discovery, and the boundaries serve as spurs to imagination. Similarly, constrained art forms like the sonnet or haiku can provide boundaries that inspire new creations. Thomas and Brown also use the word “culture” deliberately, and not in the sense that probably first came to mind: think bacterial culture in a petri dish, something that grows through cultivation.

And in Chapter 2, something more radical emerges.

“For most of the twentieth century our educational system has been built on the assumption that teaching is necessary for learning to occur,” Thomas and Brown assert.

Wow. Yes! If a teacher is absent from the classroom, we assume that learning grinds to a halt, and that it is only through the teacher’s intervention that the students will learn anything. Yet a moment’s consideration raises a multitude of counter-examples. Have you ever read a wikipedia article out of curiosity? Watched a Youtube video to learn how to make mitered borders on a quilt? Tinkered with Legos to see how tall a tower you can build? Tried a new route to work to determine whether it’s a shorter commute? Invented a variation on a recipe? Read this blog to Learn Something New?

We are learning all the time, with or without teachers.

Thomas and Brown characterize our current view of learning as “mechanistic” in that “learning is treated as a series of steps to be mastered” in which “the goal is to learn as much as you can, as fast as you can.” That doesn’t sound so bad. In fact, the idea of an organized curriculum, a progression of easy to hard, sounds quite attractive to me. But it rests on some unstated assumptions that just might not be valid:

  1. That all knowledge *can* be organized in a logical series of steps. Is this true of every field?
  2. That the same organization of knowledge works equally well for everyone.
  3. That knowledge doesn’t change much over time. (Otherwise the curriculum would be in constant need of revision.)

Thomas and Brown discuss #3 in their book. The first two are mine, and I think both assumptions are suspect.

What can we do instead?

Thomas and Brown suggest viewing learning in terms of an “environment” (the boundaries mentioned before). The learning culture emerges from the environment in which people operate, and they learn through engagement in that world (not by being externally instructed). Learners are not constantly required to prove that they “get it” but can instead embrace what they don’t know and keep asking questions and exploring.

I am reminded of the critique of education levied by Sir Ken Robinson in 2010, brilliantly illustrated by RSA Animate (“Changing Education Paradigms”):

It gets especially relevant around 6:30 when he discusses the historical evolution of our approach to public education and how influenced it has been by the industrial revolution. What was most striking to me was the point about how we educate children in “batches” by age. Really, does this ever make any sense?

Moving to an emphasis on the environment and play opens up entirely new approaches to learning. It also places more responsibility on the learner: to be active, to explore, to prioritize his or her own learning. This is a natural outcome to reach as an adult, free of the pressures of obligatory schooling — yet so often we are consumed with life maintenance that we do not carve out time for learning or for play.

Thomas and Brown suggested that this is, or at least has been, a natural shift in priorities. They argue that historically, as children grew up, the world seemed more stable with age. People figured out how the world worked, and then could settle into a mostly static view of the world and the best strategies for interacting with it. But they argue that today, the amount of change (driven by technological advances) renders this strategy less successful.

It’s certainly not new to claim that today’s citizens experience a higher rate of change than those in the past. However, this is the first time I’ve seen a prescription for coping that encourages, effectively, more play. “Embrace change,” Thomas and Brown advocate. Open your arms, and your mind, to a rich environment that provides endless chances for learning and growth.

I will quibble slightly with one of their claims. I don’t think it’s uniquely the Internet that makes this kind of endless learning possible. Some people manufacture a learning environment wherever they go, constantly wondering “how does that work?” and “why does it look that way?” and “could I make one myself?” It’s all already there, anytime you want it.

Play on!

2 of 2 people learned something from this entry.

  1. Holly said,

    February 19, 2014 at 10:44 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    I like your point that “Moving to an emphasis on the environment and play opens up entirely new approaches to learning. It also places more responsibility on the learner.” First, this is absolutely true! Secondly, I think it works because it doesn’t *feel* like there’s more responsibility in that kind of environment. In a traditional teacher-student environment, a student feels a lot of pressure because their responsibilities are well-defined and feel almost job-like–do the work, get the right answer, get a good grade. In a learning situation that is more about the environment and play the feelings of pressure dissolve. The student’s responsibilities shift to one’s that are mandated to ones that are more organic.

  2. Mel said,

    February 20, 2014 at 7:34 am

    (Learned something new!)

    2 core thoughts, which may be slightly contradictory.

    1- While I agree that it’s not exclusively/uniquely the Internet that makes “endless” learning possible, however wouldn’t you agree that with such simple and easy access to information (via the internet) at our fingertips (rather than in a library and in printed form, or exclusively within the experience set of others), that we are MORE free to explore and learn? And that without the internet the “new culture of learning” would not exist / did not exist? Is it not the internet that even allows such educational videos as http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=diUDZevv0Bk … or the free access to what would be typically considered as standard ‘course work’ like Khan Academy to even exist?

    Again, I do agree that the internet (although not endless) is not what uniquely makes such seemingly endless learning possible, I would argue that without out it there would not be the “new culture of learning” you refereed too. My facts are based on history… is the internet Causal… I think it’s the best argument.

    2- Yet, I would contend (from personal experience) that with so much information available and with an ever increasing amount of distraction our ability/bandwidth to process and store information may in fact be more limited today… and that we can become lazy (or create coping mechanisms). Meaning, who needs to actually contain knowledge in their brain, when the internet can simply be an extension of our brains capacity to ‘store information’ where we access information via a digital device rather than recollection.

    This is actually a very recent realization/consideration/thought process I have had as I find myself indexing and storing book marks to sites, or creating Google docs with short cuts and key strokes infrequently used so their not worth memorizing (but are used enough that I want to keep them close at hand… like a recipe). We do this, with cooking all the time using recipes. Rather than commit to memory how to make Split Pea Soup, storing a recipe for easy access becomes an extension of our brains file system, and we simply store a ‘reference’ to the recipes location.

    I think an effective argument can be made that the internet has become a crutch where mastery of topics, and a real command of a subject is decreasing… and substituted with merely ‘let me Google that’. I’m not applying any value judgment on this, just an observation.

    While I am learning the basics of maintaining a Rabbitry, breading rabbits, cultivating rabbit meat, etc., I have no desire to ‘learn it all’ because it’s so easy to pull up a YouTube video or read an article on the topic ‘as I need it’. This allows me to conveniently NOT LEARN, but benefit from the Knowledge because of the Internet.

    Just 2 days ago, I “learned” (read: essentially copy and pasted) the command line for mounting a USB device to a server directory in CentOS. What I learned was structural concepts but not actual mastery or real understanding of what I was doing. So, I “get it”, but I would have to look it up again, not from memory but from the Internet. However, I have a ‘hash_ref’ to the process of retrieving it again if needed.

    This “new culture of learning” I agree… 100% exists. I believe it expands our spacial reasoning as an entire society, allowing us to map and connect references to information easier, and in more complex ways. The KIND of learning in this new culture, outside of the procedural education you mentioned… is typically leaning connections of superficial space holders or ‘reference’ in our brain to the “hash or array” rather than the actual values, information, knowledge itself. These references point to: Google and a key word or words.

    Are we really FREE, or are we more isolated than ever?

  3. Kiri said,

    February 20, 2014 at 10:21 pm

    Holly, thanks for your comments about learning responsibility — they made me think about it further. I think the “new culture” of learning does put more responsibility on the learner, and the reason it might not “feel like it” is that the learner also has a lot more agency (as noted by Thomas and Brown). Responsibility with the freedom, resources, and tools to live up to it is a good feeling. Still, it does mean more effort is needed on the learner’s side, to proactively ask questions and seek out resources for answers. But maybe that’s a good thing :)

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