Learning from children: strategy, tactics and games in times of rapid change

Are there lessons from how children learn that might help us adults, and the organisations we run, learn from turbulent environments and how to make better decisions in times of change?

I have a 13 month old boy (pictured above, around 9 months old) and,  like all children, he is constantly learning and experimenting.  As a baby, he has very little control and has no sense of why or how things work.  His life must be like a constant stream of novelty and change.

Despite this information overload (or perhaps because of it), I think he learns quicker and more effectively than most adults.  He also seems to enjoy it much more than most adults.  Of course I think he is special, but deep down I suspect there is a wisdom in how all children learn that might have relevance for adults.

Learning, games and experiments

After talking about this recently with a colleague, they recommended reading the classic book “How Children Learn”, by John Holt.  That book is reviewed here, here and here.

There is a lot of extremely useful ethnographic detail in that book, particularly for those of us interested in organisational learning and change.  I recommend it for anyone interested in social media, learning, and information overload or knowledge management.

Here are a few relevant excerpts below:

When children attack a new problem, they begin to play, almost at random.  This generates a tremendous amount of sensory data. A scientist might say that, along with his useful data, the child has collected an enormous quantity of random, useless data.

Sound familiar?  Think of Twitter, the tremendous amount of information we get bombarded with every day.

The trained scientist wants to cut all irrelevant data out of his experiment.  He is asking nature a question, he wants to cut down the noise, the static, the random information, to a minimum, so he can hear the answer.

But a child doesn’t work that way.  He is used to getting answers out of the noise.  He has, after all, grown up in a strange world where everything is noise, where can only understand and make sense of a tiny part of his experiences.

This too could describe

His way of attaching a problem is to produce the maximum amount of data possible, to do as many things as he can, [in as many] ways as possible.  Then, as he goes along, he begins to notice regularities and patterns.  He begins to ask questions – that is, to make deliberate experiments.

But it is vital to note that until he has a great deal of data, he has no idea what questions to ask, or what questions there are to be asked.

This is a marvellous phrase, “he has no idea what questions to ask, or what questions there are to be asked.” This could be mapped onto Snowden’s ‘Chaos’ phase of the Cynefin Framework.  Young children intuitively use a kind of strategy which helps them generate data and then form patterns and hunches based only on the thinnest wisp of a hunch or fragments of incomplete data.  I have (and others) have talked about this in previous posts about improvisational experimentation and fuzzy hypothesis formation, aka abduction.

There is a lot we could learn from this approach.

The young child, at least until his thinking has been spoiled by adults, has a great advantage in situations… where there is so much seemingly senseless data that it is impossible to tell what questions to ask.

He is much better at taking in this kind of data; he is better able to tolerate its confusion; and he is much better at picking out the patterns, hearing the faint signal amid all the noise.

Above all, he is much less likely than an adult to make hard and fast conclusions on the basis of too little data, or having made such conclusions, to refuse to consider any new data that does not support them.

Play, the best kind of experiment

Reading Holt contains excellent lessons for decision-makers faced with complex, changing landscapes.  They must first understand what kinds of problems they are facing and what kinds of questions must be asked. They must also be able to tolerate confusion, pick out patterns, and hear the faintest signal among the noise.

Holt observed hundreds of children and came to an interesting conclusion.  He found that the best learners are also the ones that are having the most fun.  The best learners are the ones that like to play with the noise around them.

Play doesn’t work if it isn’t fun, which means that learning in times of chaos and change will tend to work best when it is fun as well.  Play minus fun equals labour, which doesn’t have the same learning benefits.  My colleagues Cliff Dennet, fellow MIT DUSP buddy Eric Klopfer, and many others (including Jane McGonigal, Jim Gee, David Williamson ShafferNicola Whitton, etc.) have all written extensively on this.   But I will close with a quote from Holt to drive the point home.

The spirit behind [children’s games] should be a spirit of joy, foolishness, exuberance, like the spirit behind all good games, include the game of trying to find out how the work works, which we call education.

Only through play, then – through random, iterative, and fundamentally joyful experimentation – can we begin to understand how and why the world is changing.  And only through play can we generate the notions and motivations necessary to interact successfully with it.

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  1. By uberVU - social comments on December 28, 2009 at 8:06 pm

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by kengillgren: RT @nraford: Learning from Children: Strategy, Tactics and Games in Times of Rapid Change http://bit.ly/8lJ8WL “Play is the best experiment”…

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