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What does it mean to be learned?

4 min read


A few mornings ago, while writing code, I was following from the corner of my eye a TED video, Ze Frank’s “Web Playroom” — a series of strange and poignant stories about people making meaningful connections “… up in that weird, dense (Internet).” I was paying only partial attention until he said,

“And this is it, right?

To feel and be felt.

I hurriedly grabbed a pen and wrote the line down on a piece of paper, because it struck me as one of those short and rhythmic phrases that holds untold layers of meaning.

A few seconds later, my mind skipped a few rails, as is my nature, to the question: “What meaning might there be here for education?” Then, I jotted beneath the lines,

… this is it, right?

To learn and be learned.

When most of us think about schools and classrooms, we see students learning — that is to say, students being taught. The goal is graduates who are learned (learn’•ed), with two syllables — an adjective. To accomplish this, teachers deliver instruction while compliant students pay attention, read the assignments, watch videos and animations, and remember. Then, we test their memories at the end of the year, like so many products reaching the end of the assembly line, all meeting the same standards.

But if we change learned to a one-syllable intransitive verb, where the learner is an unstated object, then the experience starts to reflect and is reshaped by the behavior of the learner. It becomes an exchange between the learner, what has been learned, and what is to be learned, and it provokes an active and deliberate investment by the learner. It becomes personal.

In truth, our children are quite at home with this kind of investment-based learning. When we consider the variety of video games they play and master, and only rarely with the benefit of a user’s guide, it is clear that intense and effective education is taking place. It happens because the experience, in order to progress, depends on the player’s investment of time, effort and skill. And for some reason the experience is worth that investment.

As I have watched my own children learn to play their games (my son’s current passion is a sandbox game called Minecraft) and participate in their social networks, there are four qualities of those experiences that seem particularly potent.

1. The experiences are responsive. Every decision and action is responded to. It is a particularly powerful form of assessment, because the response message is not, “You got that right!” or “You got that wrong!” The message becomes, “That worked!” Or “That didn’t work!” And, as is often the case, what doesn’t work can be as instructive as what does.

2. They provoke conversation, in contrast to most notions of classroom teaching, which forbid it. Not only is it the basis for social networking, but achievement in many of these games depends on conversation and collaboration. It is where much of the learning takes place.

3. These experiences inspire personal investment, and this inspiration seems to come from three overlapping conditions. First of all, there is real value in what the player is doing and that value is often quantifiable. Learn about gold farming to understand an economic extension of this value generation. Also, there is often a reward system that is not dissimilar to grades in school. But the virtual gold, badges, experience points and levels achieved in the games become part of the language of players’ everyday conversations – and credentials for new collaborations. The third associated condition is how the player’s identity (virtual and physical) becomes part of the play, confirming their own influence over their experience and who they are.

4. These “native” learning experiences are guided by safely-made mistakes. Players make mistakes, reason through and learn from the game’s responses, and then use what was learned to adapt their strategies. How often in the adult world is this how we learn – by observing cause-and-effect?

The goal of education today is to prepare our children for an unpredictable future, and we will not accomplish this by applying more education or even technologically enhancing it. Children will learn well when the process becomes authentically responsive — learners become full partners in that process and it all becomes a lot more playful.

This will happen in retooled classrooms, with inspired teachers and learners who are free to play with their learning.

David Warlick (@dwarlick) is a 35-year educator. He has been a classroom teacher, district administrator and staff consultant with the North Carolina State Department of Public Instruction. For 15 years, Warlick has operated The Landmark Project, a consulting and innovations firm in Raleigh. He has written four books.