Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Contextual richness, mystery and informality in learning

Earlier this week I posted a note on the Learning Circuits Blog about a powerful new communication environment and operating system (called Croquet) that may finally constitute the breakthrough we've all been waiting for to make e-learning collaborative, multimedia and contextually rich. For intercultural questions (coaching, learning, building awareness, developing perception, honing communication skills) contextual richness is the key to everything. I'm the first to admit that everything we've tried up to now has been pretty flat and lacking in mystery. This is partly because we've been dragging the culture of academe along with us in most of what we do, especially when technology is involved.

As a proponent of informal learning, I not only believe that we need to create occasions and reflexes for informal learning, but also that we need to build informality into our more formal learning experiences. One of the motivating dimensions of informality is precisely mystery. When we learn formally we slot ourselves into a pre-designed pattern where someone has taken the responsibility for deciding what we will learn. In informal learning, nothing is predictable and much of what happens can be called social "Eureka" events. Unlike the classic Eureka event, where an individual finally discovers a solution (and knows that he can take credit for it), the social Eureka event is midwived by a colleague or friend, but without any elaborate planning or preparation (apart from acquiring and deploying complex competencies over time).

Anything that is unpredictable and contains a real payoff also contains mystery and excitement. Without this affective dimension planned or programmed learning never produces significant long-term results. Now the advantage I see in an environment such as Croquet, in particular for all things intercultural, is that the environment is flexible and complex enough to represent, rather than simply to "account for" the culture being "studied". Study begins to resemble exploration rather than retention of canned knowledge. What we learn takes place within a context and the context can be used in dynamic ways to reinforce the learning, while at the same time creating the kinds of webs of association are brains are structured to crave for. Nobody ever seems to have noticed that because our brains can be aptly described as both infinitely complex networks and dynamic energy fields functioning according to holistic principles, the one thing they are NOT structured to crave for is the storing of isolated bits of knowledge. And yet traditional learning and teaching has always worked on the model of the presentation of systematised knowledge, delivered in the form of a series of utterances based on facts that are linked either by logic or rhetoric (and it's never clear which of the two is at work!).

The quick conclusion is that if we have a dynamic environment with a rich context that allows for free interaction and improvisation, we may be moving towards new ways of thinking about learning. Richness provokes an attitude of exploration and an activity of discovery. Mystery incites learners to investigate and interpret, integrating complex clues and associations along the way. And informality increases the possibilities of exchange, often of unformulated knowledge, which is often richer and more complex than the formulated knowledge presented as "curriculum".

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