Learning with fluidity (and play)

I’ve summarized a bit of the stuff I’ve read over the years about learning and education. The metaphorical notion of fluidity points to where the future may be headed for online learning.

Learning vs. education

Learning is a natural process of life. Education provides a means for enabling it to happen more effectively. While learning is personal (inside-out), education is institutional (outside-in).

Education involves systems of learning, facilitated by teachers who apply creative processes and structures. Learning is a lifelong affair that is usually triggered in response to change. When a learner in the midst of change turns to teachers and systems, education happens.

We usually quit actively learning after school. Maybe it’s because we settle down, hiding from change to feel safe in a career. Education is what teachers do to change your point of view, sometimes to help get a job where you can make ‘a living’. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Life happens. We attain a vocation and start families. We try to pay off debts. We settle for familiar perspectives that make us comfortable with groups who think like us, denying diversity, but also forgetting what once gave us joy as children — an openness triggered by awe and wonder.

My perspective on learning has less to do with education systems, of which I’m rather critical. I prefer to focus on technologies that act as teacher, as change facilitator. Digital tools can help us to learn in fun ways, both as children and as adults. Mobile devices continue to augment our learning experiences and ability to remember, at our workplaces and at school.

Sensemaking and imagining

A couple of subsets of learning are Sensemaking and Imagining. 

Sensemaking relies on cognitive processes that drum up answers in our minds to questions such as, “What or who is it?,” “What are its implications; what does it mean?,” and “How should I respond?” (Stanley, 1994). Our cognitive processes are taught to us, or are products of our imagination.

Imagining happens when we lack an exact process to understanding something, but we have an intuitive idea of how to combine cognitive processes in less structured ways. In other ways, we connect the dots with fluidity.

The ‘brainpicker’, Maria Popova, curated some great points from the book A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, which she points to …

a compelling case for a new kind of learning, one growing synchronously and fluidly with technology rather than resisting it with restless anxiety — a vision that falls somewhere between Sir Ken Robinson’s call for creativity in education paradigms and Clay Shirky’s notion of “congitive surplus.”

I agree with the view that “we need more brainstorming, not memorization; more individuality, not standardization.” Simply put, education without creativity isn’t enough. If anything, a bit of reverie to call things into question. Creativity and Imagination are what help us to make sense of the strange new world around us.

As we begin our lives as children, we live in a world of weirdness. Becoming like children again is part of the challenge we face as lifelong learners. Educator and fellow nemetician, Sean Grainger, writes:

Children live in a visceral and fascinating world inside their heads that allows them to see the world they believe; not believe the world they see… the world of their dreams, and I think there is tremendous possibility in extending this perspective beyond childhood along the growth spectrum; even into adulthood.  At some point we lose our dreams, and that’s just profoundly sad because losing our dreams in adult terms is synonymous with lost purpose and possibility.

When something makes little sense, that’s the perfect opportunity to learn. You could Hack your Brain with Lynch & Kafka because, you see, exposure to surrealism can enhance the cognitive mechanisms that oversee implicit learning functions. Seriously.

“The idea is that when you’re exposed to a meaning threat –– something that fundamentally does not make sense –– your brain is going to respond by looking for some other kind of structure within your environment,” said Travis Proulx.

Yet how often do we avoid threats to preexisting meanings with a kind of distrust. Sensemaking with the fluidity of imagination is what helps us bridge the gaps in our understanding. When we rely on the shape of existing processes that have been handed to us, we may fail to learn from change.

Learning with the spirit of technology

These days, technology is of massive significance to learning  and in some ways it is a critical component of The World Mind. There is a ‘spiritual’ value to learning, in that it shapes the individual’s deeper understanding of self, other, and reality.  The Spiritual Importance of Twitter  explains that the speed of learning is being enhanced, allowing new ideas to propagate rapidly. It is as if social technologies make the pursuit of understanding and truth happen to us through what the author refers to as “ambient intimacy”:

For the first time, a communication medium allows us to keep our finger on the pulse of the thoughts and feelings of thousands of people in a way that is intimate without being intrusive.

Life: A school of play

It seems that we can’t escape learning unless we decide to isolate ourselves from others and the technologies that facilitate connections. It is as if the Internet is infusing itself into reality, turning life into a school. Play is also a subset of learning with fluidity, and so much of the technology that we end up learning through these days is both social and fun.  Jesse Schell might even say that we’re Doomed to Play in a gamified world in which we earn points for good-behavior.  His view of the future fascinates me. It goes without saying, today’s youth are heavily engaged by gaming – a subset of play.

Machines have also begun learning alongside us, albeit without any consciousness, these Robo-brains exist in our environment, undertaking surveillance. It is my hope that we’ll eventually get access to what they learn about us as individuals, but that’s a whole other topic.


I’m into the idea that learning in virtual game-like environments can drive innovation. I synthesized some material about that, here (incorporates keywords: content analysis,  collective ideation, behavioral contagions, motivation, global intelligence.)

Education, in the fullest sense, is a process engaged in with others (teachers & fellow students), but learning is unique to the individual — a matter of personal motives and interests. With motivation in mind, learning has significant overlap with Psychology and more particularly: control and fun. As you’ll see here,  our unique learning motivations are interwoven in the encompassing social fabric of the Economy itself, (learning fuels the economy) along with the incentives it offers us:

Human brains—not capital—are becoming the primary drivers of business success. So how can we engage people’s best efforts? How can we make work more fun [and] give people more control over what they do? The framework [by Collective Intelligence expert Tom Malone] highlights three important features of highly motivating environments like video games: challenge, fantasy, and curiosity.

Education: A  serious game worth changing

Education is not just an industry, but a means of achieving learning outcomes through structures that serve adults in professional development contexts.

Learning is what happens through interactions between our minds and the world. In Karl Popper’s philosophical theory of reality, there are three interacting worlds: the physical world, the mental world, and world 3: George Djorgovski, co-director of the Center for Advanced Computing Research at Caltech, has suggested that soon the Internet, which is he says is a representation of “world 3″/mind will be an immersive 3D virtual reality that  revolutionizes education by replacing traditional lectures with experiences in virtual learning environments. Could it become something similar to the world described in Ernest Cline‘s  Ready Player One? I try to pay attention to innovative voices that would like to see education transformed.

To Will Richardson [the author of Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms ], the word “reform” is inadequate in describing what needs to happen in education. [He prefers “transformation” — as do I.]

Learning is transformative, as Marcia Conner, author of The New Social Learning: A Guide to Transforming Organizations Through Social Media, points out:

“We define learning as the transformative process of taking in information that, when internalized and mixed with what we have experienced, changes what we know and builds on what we can do. It’s based on input, process, and reflection. It is what changes us.”

G. Stolyarov II, the champion of reason, rights and progress, writes:

If billions of humans could become “addicted” to learning in the same way that some are said to be “addicted” to computer games, our civilization would experience a rapid transformation in a mere few years.

What’s now accepted wisdom in education, is that learning is ACTIVE — and lectures don’t do the trick!

Active learning engages students in the process of learning through activities and/or discussion in class, as opposed to passively listening to an expert. It emphasizes higher-order thinking and often involves group work.

Exchanging information and experiences]

The greatest impact of technology upon education is that it can help us learn how we learnas individuals, groups, and societies.  No, it’s not just about content, but about experiences that we share.  We exchange our ideas to build trust, to innovate together, and to collaborate in openness. Peter Senge, of the Center for Organizational Learning and MIT Sloan School of Management, says:

Sharing knowledge is not about giving people something, or getting something from them. That is only valid for information sharing. Sharing knowledge occurs when people are genuinely interested in helping one another develop new capacities for action; it is about creating learning processes.

Certainly, each of us as individuals have particular strengths in how we learn and help each other. Virtual environments could play to our strengths, providing the scaffolding for us to interact around our different strengths. I like this creative work on the Database of the self (people w/in structures) which suggests that information literacy can be a collective endeavor, enabling each of us to learn faster within groups, each with our respective roles. With respect to learning experiences, you’ll see here that I noted:

Dr. James Paul Gee advocates educational video games and says “the best kind of learning comes as a result of well-designed experiences.” 

Fitting in Malone’s framework

The sense of challenge can be addressed through “Quests” as organizing principles, combined with methods such as Project Based Learning (PBL):

In PBL, students investigate intriguing questions that lead them to learn important academic content. They apply their learning to create something new, demonstrate their understanding, or teach others about the issue they have explored.

The sense of fantasy can be explored in the very places where our culture reside, but adding the layers of an “other world” where we can transcend limiting systems. The biggest influences upon culture are its media, and increasingly our mediated experiences are game-like, permitting fantasy to overlap with reality. Some say we’ve entered an era of games:

When information is put at play, game-like experiences replace linear media. Media and culture in the Ludic Century is increasingly systemic, modular, customisable, and participatory.

The sense of curiosity can be triggered at any place, at any time. For example, one advantage of augmented reality is that our mobile devices can provide windows into the history of a place that we can interact and play within.

The interactionist view of game-based pedagogies holds a situated learner plays with their own understandings, identities, and questions, and through interaction with the game system, develop along trajectories toward more expert performance.

The Brain: Where neurons play and rest

Social networks, in some ways, mirror the function of the brain.  It has been said that “Neurons that fire together, wire together,” but I like to believe that there is no fire without play — the ultimate byproduct of curiosity, fantasy, and challenge. I’m not expert in neuroscience, but the brain has always filled me with awe and wonder. Our brains reside uniquely within our selves. The Identity and sense of selfhood reside in our brains — the core of learning, sensemaking, and play. For me, the Brain is a subset of Consciousness, which is the ultimate mystery that I find myself continually exploring.  Our brains are constantly learning, even when we’re asleep (let the integration begin).

We need frequent breaks, too–so learn in bursts! Giving ourselves space to sleep and shift gears is especially import if we hope to remember what we’re learning. Without memory, the neurons won’t keep playing together in productive ways that make us happy!  We’re steadily getting a grip on the technology to monitor our own cognitive play, or more specifically, our brainwaves. Mediation can improve how we learn and clear out the distractions. David Levy, author of Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age, and a professor at the Information School at the University of Washington, believes the challenges of multitasking present us with an opportunity to take control of the situation, starting at a young age. In one study he conducted…

… Those taught to meditate showed longer periods of time on specific tasks. “Something about their training caused them to change their strategy,” Levy said. “They decided to focus on tasks and ignore what they thought wasn’t important.”

It’s worth remembering that while ideas of identity tend to motivate the mind to learn, you are, paradoxically, not your mind:

The ability to focus the mind or stop its activities in accordance with your willpower awakens the understanding that you are not your mind, and this is a great step toward self-realization.

Be a good citizen by being a better learner

Students of the future will engage in interdependence by focusing on the challenges that face their society and planet.  Cultivating “civic intelligence”, according to Douglas Schuler of the Public Sphere Project involves focusing on on the betterment of society as a whole – not just on individual aggrandizement.  Learning together as citizens will form a Smarter Society, or what the people at Cisco Systems once referred to as a The Learner Society:

Their big idea is this: Education can no longer be isolated from the rest of society. Learning is no longer confined to the hours of the school day, the walls of the school building, or even the duration of our time “in school.” It’s everywhere, all the time, involves everyone from all walks of life, and requires constant tinkering and improvement.

As citizens, we learn where we live.  Our cities are hubs of learning, which Marilyn at IntegralCity should act as..

… a life-long learning system that optimizes human potential with appropriate attention and intention. Developing our citizen intelligences will determine the extent to which our cities will be sustainable.

The most significant lessons may come too late, after cities have reached their breaking point and citizenship is required to restore community. Such has been the case in Detroit, where “everything is in your face” (the following is taken from Margaret Wheatley’s invitation to the learning journey):

Like abandoned citizens everywhere, when people realize that no one is coming to help, the possibility of community arises. As people stop looking outside themselves and turn to one another, they discover the richness of resources to be found within themselves, their cultures and their land. Nowhere in the Western world is this discovery of community-as-resource more vibrant than in Detroit.”

In the dirt and in the networks

I’ve read that Early Experiences in the Natural World [may] Help Shape Children’s Brain Architecture. While urban areas are not without nature, it is important to find your way to the park with your pets and kids:

Studies suggest that nearby nature can also stimulate learning abilities and reduce the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and we know that therapies using gardening or animal companions do improve psychological health.

When you’re outside, don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. My friend Brenda Erickson at the @counterpane Montessori school writes:

There is so much power in a spot of dirt, sand, rocks, or debris for a child. It is as large a space for their minds as the world is to ours. How free they are to explore, manipulate, design, and build impacts their developing brain. It is their moment, their learning, their tomorrow they are building.

Teachers are also getting their hands into the networks to help students make meaningful connections:

There’s a flurry of activity among teachers and administrators looking to connect through Twitter and other social media to advance their learning, especially as a new school year looms.

The so-called digital natives are particularly keen to harness the power of networks and the great outdoors to pursue their own Interests and self-organize in entrepreneurial ways. Might it be possible that someday artificial intelligence software (AI) that understands how we think will help learners develop their talents? Po Chi Wu Ph.D. thinks that “AI Mentors” may one day challenge our assumptions and encourage divergent thinking.

I’ll keep mulling on these matters. My intention: to move us toward social evolution via the transformation of education with personally relevant learning technologies.


Learning with fluidity (and play)

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