Monday, 31 October 2011

Learning By Playing

For the past week I've been at MIT Sloan Executive Education to learn. I'm not yet exactly sure about what, but I have an idea that it's about learning to learn, so I thought I'd share with you some of my observations and impressions of what I'm experiencing.

Now, being in MIT is an awe-inspiring experience in itself. The place is the seat of learning for just about the smartest people in the world: a pantheon of scientists, inventors, innovators, thinkers, Nobel prize winners and individuals instrumental in shaping the world as it is. I have in my notebook a leaf of an apple tree that is a descendant of that famous apple tree where Sir Isaac Newton sat when he discovered the theory of gravity.

It is also a place with some quirky-looking buildings designed by star architect Frank Gehry and students known for their ability to push practical jokes, called hacks, to an art form. There is a building called the Media Lab, an incubator of ideas and the birth place of creative inventions, laid out more in the spirit of a playroom rather than a research lab, complete with a Lego pit, a pingpong table and a seating area where people can doodle on and draw graffiti.

Fun is the first thing that comes to mind as my colleagues and I, a bunch of somewhat sceptical and world weary participants with little clue as what to expect, take in our surroundings and turn our eyes to our professor in the classroom. Those who come with the expectation of being taught and provided with answers to their problems, soon realise that this is not the kind of learning they will get. The professors, Otto Scharmer and Peter Senge, rather than teach, facilitate and prod us to see and think in different ways through asking questions and paying close attention to the responses in a way that is both humble and respectful. It is as if they are holding the door of learning open for us but it is entirely up to us whether to enter and what our intention is.
Because lesson number one, learning is a journey. It is an experience. A process with intention and attention. Of deep observation, of deep listening and of deep reflection. Not quite the idea of learning we get at school, of right and wrong answers, of grading and of passing tests.

According to Peter Senge school is a system of socialisation, not education. Certain things and skills are taught but in an environment that does not allow differences. This is because originally the concept of school was created to produce factory workers to work on assembly lines during the industrial age. The system was set up for efficiency, productivity and standardisation and uniformity. To produce workers who could do whatever task they were assigned to in a particular way and with a particular result. Somehow the system is carried over until today, where educational institutions still focus on standardisation, on test results and the right way of doing things.

But this is not real learning. Real learning is what children do and what we do when we are still open to it. It is doing and making mistakes. Peter gives the example of the way that children learn to walk. They don't need to be put in a class, taught how to stand up and move their foot one in front another, corrected, tested and then told that they now can walk. They just do. After a lot of falling and stumbling around. You know the child can walk without the need for testing. Soon the child is running and jumping around. Or talking and telling stories.
Every child has a natural capacity for real learning. Every child has a natural curiosity. Every child is different in character and in what he or she likes to do. No child is afraid of trying things out or making mistakes.

It is only when they are at school that they start to lose their capacity and love for real learning. When they are graded, tested and have to conform. When they are taught to avoid mistakes and give the wrong answers even though they cannot make much sense of the question or the point of the answer. Because school is a place where they are socialised and taught to know certain things, behave in certain ways and be a certain type of person. School is an assembly line of individuals that are ranked by their grades, an A grade student, a B grade student or a hopeless F grade student with little prospects for the future. That is, a future of a workforce based on factory assembly line type of organisation where innovation, creativity and uniqueness are neither required nor welcome.

This for me is a real eye opener. To think that the greater part of our formative years are spent in classrooms not to undergo any meaningful learning journey of discovery and creating things, but to be graded and tested on subjects that are soon forgotten and have little relevance to our lives and what we want to do as people, is quite depressing. Indeed for a lot of children now, the real learning that they do is during those limited times when they are allowed to play, do extra curricular activities, take up hobbies and hang out with their friends to do and create things together. Even now, the best memory I have of school is not the fascinating topics I learned from textbooks in the classroom and the good grades that I got, but writing short stories, making a magazine with a bunch of classmates and performing a school play. All without fear of criticism, of judgement and of failure.

Imagine the amount of energy, creativity, inventiveness, skills and ingenuity that could be tapped and harvested during those developing years, instead of waiting for certain individuals to become scientists and conduct research and experiments in their university years. Because every child is a potential inventor, a dreamer, an explorer and a creator of new ideas whose imagination has no boundaries. Every child can make a rocket, a robot and a spaceship out of Lego. And I imagine every child can dream up of innovative ways to take care of the planet and solve the world's many problems.
What strikes me most about my brief MIT experience is the approach to learning which takes us back to our natural childlike capability. Learning by observing, doing, coming up with ideas, making things with sticky notes, coloured pens and rubber bands. All the while keeping our mind open, our thoughts free of judgement and our hearts free of the fear of failure.

(Desi Anwar: First Published in The Jakarta Globe)

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