It doesn’t matter how straight-forward a task seems to the instructor when the student has never performed the task before. A verbal instruction is not an easy way for a novice to learn anything, or follow a sequence of instructions that they have not followed before. There are easier ways to learn – and not all of them involve learning alone.
In late 2000, I was working in a west London school near Wimbledon and a colleague was spending the first of a number of staff training sessions updating his staff in ‘computer studies’. He was working very hard to explain to us how to perform what seemed to be an impossibly difficult task: how to send an email attachment.
Now it seems laughable that so easy a task could have caused me such difficulties. In fact, I remember my brain positively aching with the effort to follow what I was being told.
But to consider why this seemed such a difficult task reveals something about education and the nature of learning.
It doesn’t matter how easy the instructor finds a task if the student has no expertise in it at all.
When one person is established in a learning environment as ‘the expert’ and everybody else needs to follow their instruction, without direct experience of the subject matter, learning is inefficient, slow and dull. Mistakes may be made when undertaking tasks and students can come to the painful conclusion that ‘everything’ they’d believed they’d understood was ‘wrong’.
Traditional school environments do not always lend themselves well to learning truly unfamiliar concepts. There is no way to reduce the number of students. But it is always possible to increase the number of tutors by encouraging discussion between students. If I had been given the chance to listen less to my colleague and given the option to fiddle with the tech in front of me, with friends, then the learning environment would immediately have been less intense. Any pressure would have been shared around the group.
A group of friends finds it a less painful experience to make even unsuccessful conjectures, when starting to think about a challenge, than any given individual. It’s easier to learn by experiencing how something works than in trying to imagine how it works. It’s easier to learn from a ‘hands on’ experience than from listening to an ‘expert’ who describes the same experience.
The constructivist theory of education, pioneered by the likes of Piaget, involves students being immersed in a given situation and the making of connections between what the students can already do and the challenge of a task before them.
At Adventure Labs, we provide students with the chance to explore ideas creatively and collectively whilst trying them out and seeing what works. They construct things collaboratively. Unfamiliar words can be teased out in informal discussions, explained through analogies and with reference to previous experience. Friends riff off spontaneous associations. Different students might find different solutions to the same problem.
We encourage peer mentoring, where groups share with each other what they have found out. Following reviews, students are given the chance to incorporate successful ideas from other groups’ findings into their own work.
Students create their understanding of more complex realities, rather than gulp them down without comprehension.
Any ‘failures’ can be reframed and considered as necessary and welcome steps on the road towards achieving a goal, or solving a problem. Working as part of a group, students can be encouraged to be less risk-averse and to share responsibility for their learning.
Learning is an intrinsic part of reality and problem-solving an inherently satisfying and rewarding activity.