Play and Learning

JSB6_1000We’ve all heard about different “learning styles” – some people supposedly respond better to hands-on instruction, others are more visual, and some just want to read books. I always thought these models were terribly reductive, but they held sway among many who worked with me developing edutainment software in the late 90s.

I was very pleased to read a new book by two of my USC colleagues, Doug Thomas and John Seely Brown, that emphasizes the role of “play” in the process of learning. I’m a big fan of Jane McGonigal and her efforts to harness the addictive power of multiplayer games for constructive social purposes. In A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, Brown and Thomas invoke Johan Huizinga, the great philosopher of play, in order to explain why the role of play should be significantly expanded within our educational institutions. Huizinga argued that playing is crucial to the development of all human culture, both sacred and profane. Brown and Thomas claim that all systems of play are, at base, learning systems. They are ways of engaging in complicated negotiations of meaning, interaction, and competition, not only for entertainment, but also for creating meaning.

Huizinga – who said, “Let my playing be my learning, and my learning be my playing” – would no doubt agree, but, as Brown and Thomas point out, this idea is rarely acknowledged in our educational institutions, and it’s more important than ever that this be remedied. Why? Because digital technology has so rapidly transformed our world and our access to knowledge about that world that it’s essential that we develop more nimble ways of learning in order to keep up with the pace of change. Play allows learners to experiment, to mess around, to take the winding path to an unexpected solution. This epiphanic moment can be incredibly pleasurable, precisely because of the suspenseful process that preceded it.

When Brown and Thomas talked about “epiphanies,” I couldn’t help but think of Stephen Johnson’s most recent book, Where Good Ideas Come From, and the delightful book trailer that summarizes the gist of his argument. We actually played this video during a Lear Center conference last December on Creativity & Collaboration in the Academy: Johnson’s argument – that people with access to broad and diverse social networks of knowledge are far more likely to have that “Aha!” moment – fit perfectly with our interest in finding ways to encourage university faculty to connect with one another and collaborate on innovative research. It turns out, of course, that our educational institutions not only need to foster playful learning environments for students, they also need to provide some serious play-time for teachers.

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