Watch Children Play


Watch children play. We know they’re the hardest-working learners. Whether they meet on the playground or at the beach, even as strangers, they quickly form an excited band of explorers chasing shared connections a community of learning.

The platform of learning has changed more in the past 20 years than in the past 200. Perhaps not since the proliferation of printing that began nearly 600 years ago have we witnessed such a tsunami of access to information.

We would do well to learn from their example. Our primary organization for learning and development — schools — might become more effective if we modeled their function less on the model of a factory and more on the model of play — the intersection of discovery, agility and community.

The platform of learning has changed more in the past 20 years than in the past 200. Perhaps not since the proliferation of printing that began nearly 600 years ago have we witnessed such a tsunami of access to information. Like printing, this has transformed how we communicate. It has also transformed how we learn. Yet much of our thinking about schooling still lags, in a limbo between the printing press and the World Wide Web.

I’ve been involved in the art of teaching for most of my life. I remember chalkboards and mimeographs. They were tools, but they didn’t fundamentally change learning. Joel Barker, in his book “Paradigms,” points out a critical difference in the impact of inventions. The touch-tone phone was an important invention. Yet switching from rotary to touch-tone phones didn’t change the fundamentals of communication. The cell phone, however, is a different story. The cell phone is what Joel Barker labelled a “paradigm-shifting innovation.”

Our brave new world of the Internet, love it or otherwise, has shifted the paradigm of learning. This provides a terrific opportunity to change how we see, and practice, schooling.

We know from recent research that our brains are functioning differently under the new rules. Even our thumbs may be developing differently — watch a 12-year old text and compare that to a 60-year old. Hmmmm. The jury’s out about the long-term impact of this revolution. Some love it, others feel less affection. But it’s here to stay, probably to accelerate.

The human brain learns all the time, even when we’re sleeping. We know that the capacity of the brain to hold information is practically limitless (280,000,000,000,000,000,000 bits, on average).* We also know that when we feel pressured and restricted, e.g. tests and being expected to sit still in rows, our ability to think strategically and systemically is abbreviated. As the founders of Sudbury schools suggest: “You can’t make students learn anything until they’re ready. Once they’re ready, you can’t stop them” We can start taking some concrete steps to open up the school experience to take advantage of curiosity and wonder.

Leaders are responsible for creating the context for the development of ideas, insights, and growth, not just for showing the way. So we parents, administrators, teachers, supervisors and students can apply a guiding question to what we do every day: What are we doing that inhibits discovery, agility and community? Anything that does we can adjust or discard.

It took me more time teaching than I care to admit to realize that I was often standing in the way of my students’ development. The barriers? Control, fear of not knowing everything, focusing on the answer rather than answers, underestimating the extraordinary capacity of each student to expand and learn. The list goes on.

As I prepare to lead learning these days, I remind myself that the context for exploring ideas courageously is my primary responsibility. We know from the research of Daniel Pink (Drive) that we all feel the need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to make a difference for ourselves and our world. These drivers are intrinsic, so we simply need to make room for them.

In other words, I’m responsible for my learning. The responsibility for their learning — our students — belongs to them.

That’s the jumping-off point to start moving away from the model of school-as-assembly-line. And a few adjustments can engage all of us in 21st century learning.

We can start by seeing everyone as a partner in discovery, all sharing equally the same mission, whether five or 65: to learn together. No one person with more power or control over the basic and miraculous power of curiosity. This is not to say that someone with a Ph.D. in astrophysics doesn’t have access to a different body of knowledge than someone learning her alphabet. That more focused experience provides insight and guidance for the new learner, best in an atmosphere of partnership rather than of authority. Equity, not hierarchy.

Second, we can accept that every human mind will always find a way to learn and explore. We can let go of any boundaries that put our agile consciousness in a bind. Let students re-design the lesson. Let administrators come to class for instruction by students. Nurture mentoring, up, down, sideways, in and out of the classroom.

Think of all the lessons we’ve learned in our lives that came from unexpected sources and events. Spreading out learning opportunities, letting go of the outmoded concept that teachers (or anyone) should, or even can, control learning also tells those around us that we trust them to learn. The tightly-controlled classroom sends exactly the opposite message: you aren’t capable of learning on your own.

Teachers used to be the source of information. With instant access to information via our various devices, we can reframe our role as sounding boards for informed skepticism and understanding. In a world of TMI, we need to help each other make informed choices.

Third, embrace the concept that learning, and applying learning, work best through connections. Connections to other learners, to the community, other schools, across disciplines, via dialogue and collaborative projects. Watch children play. What we call a game is actually applied critical thinking. Take note of the nimble formation and engagement of different groups as the game morphs. Why not bring together a mix of students — across grade levels — parents, teachers, people from outside the school, and administrators that incorporate loosely for specific projects, an agile community of learning?

These threads encourage everyone to be equally involved and responsible for learning, replicating the democracy of the Internet with a self-directed sense of structure and purpose.

There’s an added benefit to changing our perspective — and thus our values and behavior — about schooling. In my leadership work, mainly with tall children, a.k.a. adults, I hear more and more conversation — and sometimes noise — about the chasm between generations. If the older cohort, the advance guard, as it were, can incorporate a more open and accepting attitude about possibilities and ambiguity, we (I’m an advance guardian myself) can find greater cohesion.

Seeing younger people as alien and misguided may feel delightfully self-righteous. It’s really delightfully pointless. Seeing every other person as a resource to enrich our understanding through learning, agility and community, works for all of us.

The Einstein Factor, by Win Wenger and Richard Poe (Three Rivers Press, 1996)

Mac Bogert is president of AzaLearning, providing coaching and facilitation services focused on leadership, language and learning. He also helped found Matrix Classroom, a site for exploring alternative approaches to learning for schools, corporations and government agencies. In addition, Bogert is the author of “Learning Chaos: How Disorder Can Save Education.” He lives in Annapolis, Maryland.

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