Musing about learning by doing

My thanks to Dominik Hofer for the wonderful photograph shown above

Did you ever get the chance to read Blink? In that book,  Malcolm Gladwell said something like the following:

We learn by example and by direct experience because there are real limits to the adequacy of verbal instruction.

Now this is something I’ve believed in ever since I was old enough to believe in anything. I count myself very lucky to have grown up in a time and space where curiosity was considered normal, and where you were expected to be passionate in your pursuits. Some months ago, some Swedish filmmakers asked me whether I’d share some brief views on a single big idea for 2020, as part of a larger collection of ideas. If you’re interested, you can see the 3-minute video here.

During the interview, I couldn’t help but focus on the “Maker” Generation coming into the workplace now, and how their experiences will affect education in years to come. Regular readers of this blog will know how taken I am with the zeitgeist embodied in, for example,  the more recent works of Cory Doctorow (For The Win, Makers, Little Brother); the whole ethos behind Tim O’Reilly and Dale Dougherty’s vision encapsulated in Make Magazine; the joys and challenges of digital creativity as articulated by Larry Lessig in Remix.

When I saw that the interview had been released, I tweeted it; and a long-time blog reader and twitter friend, Greg Lloyd (@roundtrip) reminded me about something he’d written riffing off something I’d written around three years ago, as part of my series on Facebook and the Enterprise.

And that got me thinking: the Maker Generation could be in for a fantastic time when it comes to learning by doing, and when it comes to being able to augment that experiental learning with observation of example.

My thanks to Fabrizio Cuscini for the wonderful photograph shown above

Why do I think that? Serendipity. A number of things are coming together:

  • Experience-capture tools are getting better, cheaper and more ubiquitous: Nowadays, with the cost of smartphones continuing to decline, with mobile connectivity apparently getting better (notwithstanding Western urban experiences of a post iPhone 3GS world), and with the cost of storage continuing to plummet, the Maker Generation is able to collect and collate experiences in ways that prior generations could not.
  • Communal tools for sharing are getting better:  In parallel with the evolution of smarter mobile devices, there has been a rash of places where sharing can take place. The Facebooks and  Twitters and YouTubes and Flickrs and SlideShares and TiddlyWikis of this world make it possible to persist experiences, share them, augment and enrich them. Publication of material tends to be community-oriented nowadays, even courseware is going more and more opensource.
  • The Maker Generation is more inclined to share: Whatever we may think about the implications for prudence and privacy, this generation is prepared to share experiences in ways no other generation was prepared to. The lifestreaming phenomenon is something that continues to gather pace; when you look at the digital social objects people upload to Facebook, and the relentless growth of that behemoth, you begin to see the sheer relational power of shared experiences. In this context, we need to remember that India and China are both cultures with a high focus on education, and on sharing as part of education.
  • The need for experience-based learning in the marketplace has never been greater: The Big Shift spoken of by authors John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison, (and expanded on delightfully in their book The Power of Pull) at least in part focuses on the transformation from a “stocks” based worldview to a “flows” based one. The “learning organisation” that Peter Senge spoke of has never been more needed.
  • There’s an increasing focus on education worldwide, with more appetite for radical approaches: The World Economic Forum’s Global Education Initiative is an example of such activity, highlighting the gravity of the situation and seeking to mobilise real energy into solving it; it made me ashamed to realise that I am part of a world where 72 million children of schoolgoing age don’t go to school, whatever the reason. Somewhat smaller initiatives such as the School of Everything (which I chair) also seek to change some of this landscape.
  • Trust in historical command-and-control “broadcast mode” institutions has never been lower: The willingness to accept learning-by-being-told is at a remarkable low, coming as it does at a time when most traditional authority figures (parent, priest, teacher, policeman, banker, MP, judge) are better off not running popularity contests.

A change is gonna come.

6 thoughts on “Musing about learning by doing”

  1. This is a really timely summary for me as I'm developing a project based on these approaches to learning, and also our company Flow Associates has opened an office in India, so it's interesting to see your comments on India & China.
    The critiques of Constructivism usually revolve around the isolation of the learner, that people need more guidance and modelling than they imagine discovery-based learning allows. But the participatory web is starting to provide the mentoring and modelling that learners need.

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