The success of lifelong learning will depend on learning becoming an activity that we seek out not only for the intellectual growth it promises but also for the joy we experience in its pursuit.
Our image of learning
The image we have of learning – and what it takes to achieve it – is not always one of joy. The reality is that many of us equate learning with going to school, and that brings back memories of long hours of solitary study and homework. With its brute-force learning imperative, formal education has taken much of the fun out of learning.
As humans, we are all born with a natural urge to discover the world around us. We see the joy and wonder of that urge in the eyes of pre-schoolers as they playfully learn about that world. When they start their formal schooling, that natural process of discovery runs into a wall of disciplined and imposed learning regimes. Those regimes take a lot of the fun out of learning because we are no longer given the freedom to build knowledge in the way we would like to and enjoy. No wonder that so many of us feel ecstatic when we finally graduate from school!
As we contemplate a future of lifelong learning, the specific image we carry of learning and the learning process is important. If that image in one of suffering, lifelong learning will be an uphill battle that can only be lost. To be effective, lifelong learning has to be internally-motivated, and for that to be the case, it has to be an activity we look forward to for the joy it provides.
Pre-schoolers don’t see learning as a chore. They naturally enjoy it and want to experience it repeatedly. Facing up to lifelong learning, we have to get back to that image and mindset. In other words, we need to put the fun back into learning and the process of learning. Child play can inspire us how to do that.
How can we make learning more fun?
The answer to this question lies in understanding how kids play and what excites them in their play. If a game is expansive and provides room to playfully explore, they will enjoy it and will want to prolong that joy. The key is to understand that playing becomes fun when there is room to play. In fact, as I will discuss below, many children toys limit play because their design provides neither room for play nor encouragement for discovery. No wonder kids drop them before their birthday party is over.
Similarly, learning occurs when there is room to learn. For that reason, learning has to be expansive as well, and provide room and freedom for further discovery. After all, learning is building knowledge and not just recording knowledge. Learning is a process that requires thought and reflection. For such a process to be enjoyable, it has to be liberating, inspiring, and rewarding.
Room to play, room to learn
Just like playing with a toy, learning is fun when it opens up avenues to explore and discover new things. Learning is not just one step but a journey that starts with one step. That first step is crucial in that it has to open up new horizons, and invite us to explore all of them to our hearts delight.
Just think of the things that kids like to play with the most. It is typically not the many toys we as parents buy them. Most toys are just no fun to play with because they provide no room for play; i.e., room for experimentation, creation, and discovery. In fact, if you watch carefully, kids often get a kick out of playing with a toy in a way it was not designed for at all. They do not want to be told how to play with it; they want to do it their way and learn for themselves.
Just consider the “toys” that kids like to play with the most. They tend to be mundane objects that they see as a toy because of it unlimited play potential. They enjoy objects such as a piece of string, a cardboard box, a tube, or a puddle of water or mud. Kids can play with these for hours because none constrain them to play in any particular way. They come with a freedom that lets kids play any way they desire to. How can that not be fun?
If you give a boy a battery-operated Lambo, what is he going to do? He will drive it, show it off to his friends, and then get bored with it because there is nothing else he can do with it. It does not provide any room for play.
Teaching with room for learning
In my bestselling book, Rough Diamonds. Rethinking How We Educate Future Generations (https://geni.us/RoughDiamonds), I criticise the move in many disciplines towards recipe teaching. Recipe teaching is where the teacher first defines a problem and then introduces a solution to that problem. It reduces a field of knowledge to a cookbook and learning to a mechanical process of matching problems with solutions. This matching does not involve any independent thinking about the problem and the context it occurred. It also does not trigger any creative reflection on how to construct solutions to problems.
The real problem with recipe teaching is that it does not enable or encourage much understanding, because it lacks active thinking and reflection every step of the way. The latter are exactly what is needed to build knowledge. Being trained to match problems with solutions is not building any knowledge. In fact, teaching solutions deprives students from learning how to solve problems and handicaps them in a reality where new problems pop up constantly. As I write in my book, Rough Diamonds, it also makes them easily replaceable in a reality where intelligent systems are trained to do precisely that.
To illustrate the shortcomings of recipe teaching and the lack of depth in learning it entails, I describe in my book two ways on how to learn cooking skills. I describe the recipe approach (which I called the top-down teaching approach) and contrast it with a bottom-up teaching approach. Both will make you a better cook, but the nature and depth of learning they provide differs. That difference has consequences for what one will be able to do with what one has learned.
In the top-down approach, a teacher introduces recipes which students then cook at independent cooking stations. When done, they taste each others dishes and the teacher makes comments on what each student prepared. This top-down approach teaches recipes and you basically learn the mechanics of cooking. There is little thinking involved beyond remembering the ingredients that are necessary, and the sequence and nature of the steps that need to be taken to execute the recipes.
The bottom-up approach creates much more room for learning, and treats the mechanics of cooking as tangential. The focus is not only on learning how to cook but also on learning and appreciating the art of cooking. In the bottom-up approach, you go with a renowned cook to a local market early in the morning to see what is fresh and in season. The cook introduces you to what is available and how it could be combined into tasty meals. Accordingly, the focus is on ingredients and how they could be combined creatively. After a selection from what is on offer, the cook and you set off for the kitchen to prepare a tasty meal.
The fundamental difference between the two approaches to learn cooking skills is in how much room is left for the student to learn. In the top-down approach, there is very little room as you are tied down by particular recipes. In contrast, the bottom-up approach is all about the flexibility you have in creating recipes based on what is available in the market.
Both approaches will make you a better cook but only one will make you a three-star Michelin chef. The room to explore, experiment, and discover is very different, and that is why the nature and depth of the learning will be different. As with kids play, most of us would enjoy the bottom-up approach more, precisely because of the room it gives us to experiment and discover. In contrast to just learning the mechanics, we learn the art and joy of cooking.
Learning is building knowledge
Learning is a process, a journey of discovery. For that journey to provide joy, it has to be expansive, inviting, and engaging. Expansive means that it gives us room for exploration and avenues for experimentation and creativity. Inviting means that it entices us to go farther and dig deeper. Engaging means that we feel a sense of control and ownership as we embark on a journey of discovery and learning.
Learning is like opening a bottle of wine: once we pull out the cork and pour the wine into a glass, its appearance, aroma, in-mouth sensation, and finish invite us to not only learn about but also enjoy the wine’s complexity and character.