Learning as Work or Play

I’ve learned so much more outside of school than in it. For every book that I’ve read for a school assignment over the years, I’ve likely read 20 outside of school. I’ve conducted more interviews, written more, observed more, experienced more, and learned more. I’ve also surfaced far more insights outside of school than inside it. They’ve led to meeting and connecting with fascinating people; changing my beliefs, behaviors and convictions more than anything that happened amid my formative or higher education experiences. I’ve also enjoyed these activities immensely. I’ve lost track of time on late Friday nights. They’ve driven me to travel thousands of miles for a single conversation or a few hours of a new experience. They’ve left me  falling asleep at night with a sense of accomplishment and joy about a life of discovery and learning. They’ve also kept me from falling asleep, wanting to write or read just one more page, wildly scribbling out a new idea, chatting with a new friend, or dreaming of the possibilities. I had some wonderful experiences in formal schooling as well, but they just don’t compare to what I’ve learned beyond the walls of those buildings. Why?

In The Most Productive Ways to Develop as a Leader, Herminia Ibarra wrote the following:

In contrast, no matter what you’re up to, when you’re in “play” mode, your primary drivers are enjoyment and discovery instead of goals and objectives. You’re curious. You lose track of time. You meander. The normal rules of “real life” don’t apply, so you’re free to be inconsistent — you welcome deviation and detour. That’s why play increases the likelihood that you will discover things you might have never thought to look for at the outset.

This blog is play more than it is work. This is the place where I log and experience new discoveries. I am free to debate with myself from one article to another. I’m not trying to write like an academic. My thoughts are serious and I strive for substance, but this fun for me too. I don’t try to sell myself as much as I play with thoughts and experiences, exploring the possibilities and inviting others to join me in this play. Wonderful outcome emerge. I build new connections. The play extends. It often turns into “work” in the sense that money is exchanged, goals and planning emerge, tasks are accomplished, programs are developed, and agreements are signed; but for me it is still driven more by a mindset of play than work.

This leads me to wonder, if play is such a powerful lever for learning, why not take greater advantage of it in our learning organizations? I recognize that there are times when play might not work or it might not even be appropriate, but so much of what is done in school could happen through a culture of learning by play, as so powerfully and whimsically championed by the Institute of Play. Groups like the Institute of Play represent a movement in modern learning (not just schooling) and work that:

  • invites us to accept the challenge of addressing the engagement crisis in schools and workplaces;
  • helps us take advantage of our human propensity for play and discovery;
  • sees teachers as game-designers and architects of a culture of engagement;
  • invites students to participate in quests, challenges, adventures, and experiments;
  • and helps students learn to apply principles of games and play to direct their own learning throughout life.

Doesn’t that sound fun?

But how does a school full of games and play prepare people for the real world?

First, it helps them learn. Second, it helps them maintain that inquisitive, engaged, exploratory, adventurous spirit of their childhood. Third, it helps them chang the real world into a place with more curious, engaged, playful people. As Lincoln is quoted as saying, “The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.” Could the same thing be true for the communities and workplaces of the future?

Reflections on Tinkering-Based Learning & the Power of Play

In a recent blog post, Peter Skillen offers a fresh take on project-based learning. With most frameworks for using project-based learning, it is suggested that the teacher or learners start be devising a compelling, deep, thought-provoking, driving question. The project emerges from one’s pursuit of an answer to that question. Or instead of a question, some projects start with a real-world problem (sometimes called problem-based learning) or a challenge (challenge-based learning). Focusing on a contrast to question-driven projects, Skillen points out the value of what he refers to as tinerking-based learning, projects that naturally emerge from tinkering and play.

Looking at Peter’s background, I see that he spent many years in a school context, but also has a persistent interest in learning beyond formal schooling. There is something about spending time in more informal learning communities that helps us to appreciate new ways of thinking about learning, what I sometimes to refer as “learning in the wild.” I have started to ask more people about what drew them to pursue their passions as part of their life’s work or an important knowledge-base in their work. More often than not, it seems to come down to informal and often playful or experiential formative moments. As an example, I rarely find an engineer who didn’t tinker with something in their youth. They were rarely tested, standardized, or questioned into work that aligns with their gifts, talents, abilities and passions. Instead, that seems to come from playing, experiencing, or tinkering.

Especially in this age, much of schooling is driven by standards, outcomes, goals, and assessment of student progress according to some common measure. At a time like this, comments like Skillen’s are an important balance. We have several schools of thought that help us with this.

  • Mimi Ito draws our attention to the powerful learning that happens as young people hang out, mess around and geek out; things that that tend to occur beyond the confines of the traditional school day.
  • In 2007, Jim Gee opened our eyes to the learning and new literacies that people cultivate amid the playing, experimentation and negotiated meaning-making in video games.
  • People like Jay Cross, Paul Matthews, and Saul Carliner have written about the importance of value of informal learning.
  • Authors like Stuart Brown and David Elkind remind us about the power of play.
  • Then we have Mark Hatch, David Lang, Curt Gabrielson, Karen Wilkinsen, Sylvia Martinez, and others inviting us to consider the power and possibility of creating maker spaces, places to tinker, experiment and explore apart from the drivers of standards and high stakes assessments.

All of these remind that there are limitations to the structure of a traditional curriculum, the battles over state and national standards, and the push for increased testing. They remind us that there is so more to a rich life of learning.