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Tinkering, Playing, and Learning

John Seely Brown is visited the BYU Campus today and gave a compelling talk about Homo sapiens, Homo faber, and Homo ludens.

Essentially, he argues that the formal education focuses almost exclusively on the Homo sapiens notion of “man as knowledge,” attempting to fill students with information and facts. This is gradually, in some quarters, giving way to Homo faber, or “man as maker,” students as creators of new knowledge and ideas represented in learning artifacts. But what Brown argues is almost completely missing is the notion of Homo ludens, or “man as player,” students as tinkerers, playing with ideas, concepts, trying new ways to put things together to express ideas solve problems.

While this is somewhat akin to what Gee has said about learning through playing games, Brown is suggesting, I think something deeper and more profound. When we play and tinker, he says, we get into systems and figure out how they work, why they work, and what the rules are that underlie various systems. Having done so, we can begin hacking them, changing conditions in the system to get results we want but for which the system wasn’t explicitly designed to produce. (This is a process Paul Buchheit richly terms “applied philosophy.”)

Playing and tinkering can be casual, simply messing around. But when we move (and help our students move) to deep tinkering, we “soak and poke” around systems to see what can be pushed around, what can be rearranged, what can be repurposed, and what can be modified to what result. This yields what Brown terms and “intimate familiarity” with material at hand and an “embodied immersion” in a system. Deep tinkering results in the sort of deeply situated understanding Polyani calls “indwelling”.

This kind of knowing and learning facilitates the transformation from learning to know, to learning to be, to learning to become. And becoming requires repeated effort, frequently followed by failure, followed by refined effort, followed by incrementally improved performance. Over time, this process of failing, over and over and over again, yields success (and even, in many instances, perfect performance).

So how do we get to this kind of learning in our schools?

Brown offers two suggestions. The first is that we need to strike the right balance between Homo sapiens, Homo faber, and Homo ludens with a sense of awe and zest for life at the core. This directly leads to the next suggestion—dramatically improving learning will require more institutional innovation than it will technological innovation. Technological affordances already outstrip practice. What we need to do now is rethink the ways we organize to facilitate learning—authentic, deeply situated learning—and use the technology available to us to make authentic differences in the lives of our students.

This reminds me, once again, that while the technology is important, dramatically improving teaching and learning practice is at least as much a cultural challenge as it is an technological undertaking.

  • hello friend i look this and i think your idea is good!

  • Given your background as a political scientist, how do you think Brown's celebration of tinkering informs or possibly debunks the oppositions that Arendt makes between statecraft and craftmanship? Apropo of this see Sennett's recent intro to his book The Craftsman: http://yalepress.yale.edu/y.... Can tinkerers keep (as you phrase it) "the end in mind"? Or do we also need to celebrate other types of activities in the university? I'm sorry I missed this talk.

  • nilspeterson

    I agree, we don't need more technology, we need other elements of the system to change. If we are moving from educating Homo Sapiens to educating our other selves we also need to talk about assessment changing. Does the learning of Homo Ludens suggest the same kind assessment as historically used for Homo Sapiens?

    A place that some of that conversation might be unfolding is over in HASTAC http://www.hastac.org/forum...

    They are trying to look at grading/assessment/evaluation in a digital/web 2.0 world

  • I love this phrasing: "Technological affordances already outstrip practice. What we need to do now is rethink the ways we organize to facilitate learning—authentic, deeply situated learning—and use the technology available to us to make authentic differences in the lives of our students."

    I'm all for technology that facilitates new pedagogies, but Brown has a point: we've got lots of technology that we haven't really tapped.

  • A propos: http://www.ted.com/talks/ge...

    And, this sounds a lot like the Hacker's Ethic.

    There is actually a wealth of research on play out there. Karen Hutchison, a colleague of mine, is a certified play therapist (yes, a real certificate). Rochester is home to the National Museum of Play, which is much more than a childrens museum.

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