When you look at your children running around in the yard do you congratulate yourself for hiring the best running tutors for them? Or when they build a tall tower with blocks do you feel glad that you taught them how to co-ordinate their hand and eye movements? Sure, you may have guided them a little but the skills were pretty much self-taught through trial and error or – from a child’s perspective – through exploration and discovery.

We’ve all heard the saying ‘experience is the best teacher’. This isn’t just a proverb – it’s part of our neural programming. The idea that kids learn experientially through play has been well-established by a whole host of researchers, including Piaget (Jean Piaget’s Theory of Play), Vygotsky (Play: The Work of Lev Vygotsky) and Kolb (David Kolb). Children learn to walk by experimenting with how their own legs work. They master hand-eye coordination by messing around with building blocks. This is child’s play, but it isn’t easy – it’s repetitive, and every attempt is a challenge. Kids keep at it because the challenge comes with a desirable reward: the emotion they get when they achieve the task. It is equivalent to what a gamer feels when they score an epic win. If you want to see what the joy of an epic win looks like, check out this child (The joy of stacking blocks).

The joy of stacking blocks from MadeMeSmile

Now I don’t think anyone actually taught this kid how to stack those blocks. He or she learnt how to do it through repeated effort because the reward was worthwhile. That is why we need to use the child’s natural ability to improve their skills through the joy they get from “winning”. The reward is not a badge or a sticker or points (although such extrinsic rewards do help). The true reward is intrinsic .

Kids can teach themselves through play, exploration and demonstration

Let’s accept it. Children will achieve the goals they desire without any “teacher” intervention.  Professor Sugata Mitra (Kids can teach themselves) demonstrated this in his “Hole in the Wall” experiment in 1999. In the study, a computer with an internet connection and touchpad was embedded in a wall bordering an urban slum area in New Delhi and the office of the researchers. They then observed what would happen. It turned out that within hours one young child managed to work out what buttons to click to browse the internet and was teaching a younger child what to do. This experiment was then replicated in a remote city where there was no one around that the children could ask for help or instruction and video surveillance was used. The same situation happened. One teenager through fiddling with the touch pad and accidentally clicking a button worked out how to change the screen on an internet browser. He called other kids to see what he could do and by the end of the day 70 children from the area had learnt how to browse.  Even more remarkable was the story when a computer with some CDs was placed in a remote village in India where no English was spoken and there was no internet.  When revisited three months later some children playing the games on the CDs said, “We need a faster processor and a better mouse”.  When asked how they knew these terms the children said that everything on the CDs was in English so they had to learn the language in order to know what to do.

The “Hole in the Wall” experiment shows that children know how to find ways to achieve their goals. Their instinct to seek out solutions to problem means that even the so called “language barrier” can be overcome when there is a desire to find a solution.

The more challenging the task the better the sense of achievement

So if children will learn when the desire is strong we as teachers and parents need to utilise their interests. When I wanted my Year 5/6 class to learn their times-tables I told them that we were having a competition – the goal was to be the class Idol (a TV show that was very popular at the time). They had to sing the multiplication table of their choice to a set music genre as individuals or as a team. Participation was voluntary but 90% of the class chose to compete. This was actually quite a difficult task but the results were resounding. The 7 time-tables sung to the tune of “Ode to Joy” was memorable. The team even played flutes and clarinets to accompany the song. And putting the 3 times-tables to “We Will Rock You” was audacious with the desk banging accompaniments by the rest of the class to the chorus of “3 times, 3 times tables”. But the Idol of the class was a boy who was always on the outer and generally considered clumsy and uncool. His Rap version of a medley of time-tables made him immensely popular and for a week he was giving command performances in the playground at lunch time.

The children who participated in the events described knew that their task would be difficult but they relished the challenge. In the case of the “Hole in the Wall” children, the joy of being able to play the games on the CDs was worth the trouble. For the budding class idols, the sense of achievement and kudos that came afterwards more than made up for the hard work of practising and rehearsing the times-tables lyrics.

Children remember when they see a task as being useful and feel no fear

So what did I use to make that happen? I utilised the neuro-frameworks of the learning brain.  As Dr Judy Willis explains the brain responds to stimuli in terms of whether they are useful (can I eat it or play with it?) or whether they are dangerous (can I fight it, do I take flight or do I freeze and “play dead”?). When a task is seen as useful, the brain frameworks allow the messages in and learning takes place without any need to force it. A perception of danger, fear or threat leads to rebellion or a system shutdown. If a test is seen as a threat, it would cause the brain to rebel, flee or freeze. How often do we see one of these responses when we want our children to do their homework.

To get their learning brains to attend and focus and transfer the learned skills to their Long Term Memories (LTMs) requires a more meaningful purpose. The Year 5/6 Idol worked because it changed the purpose. It turned learning multiplication facts into a real world social and cultural activity – the musical performance. The times-tables skills to be “learnt” became the means to achieve the purpose of the exercise rather than the purpose of the exercise per se. This is a huge difference.

Needless to say, the children saw the “Idol” task as very useful and their brains let the learning take place. The children relished the challenge of winning a competition. They were like the performers they watched on TV. Any fears they may have had about learning numeracy facts disappeared because the task of memorising facts was turned into learning lyrics for a song and was just something to do to achieve the Idol goal. Learning number facts was useful for the win. And it was entertaining to their classmates who forgot their own fears and this helped them learn as well.

Removing the fear factor is very important. That is why the child has to buy into the task and not have it imposed. Children choose the games they want to play. They may not like to participate in some sports but they learn about it by watching. Without the feeling of a connection to something worthwhile, the brain is less likely to accept the information. Cognitive neuroscientist and educator, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang (Mary Helen Immordino-Yang – Embodied Brains, Social Minds) talks about the neurological basis for learning through our emotions. Her findings that “we feel therefore we learn” shows that our best learning is when we connect with the experiences of others. We need to bring these social and cultural connections into the classroom.

These 3 reasons – self-discovery through experience, sense of intrinsic achievement when tackling a difficult challenge and having a non-threatening, shared real-world purpose – demonstrate  why a child’s own brain framework is a vital instrument to consider when imparting information. Good educators already know how to use this and do a wonderful job encouraging and bringing out the best in the children they teach. But there is an uneven distribution of this practice.  Potentially good teachers do not have the experience to accurately determine their students’ needs or what to do when they do know it.

To create a better way to impart information and knowledge we need to change two things: the objective of the learning – it needs to have an engaging, real world purpose – and the delivery – it needs to be equitable. Any teacher should be able to apply it to benefit any individual.

So how do we bring these engaging, real-world challenges into the classroom in an equitable way? To coin a phrase by Oscar Goldman in the Six Million Dollar Man, “We have the technology”. Access to digital devices in schools is increasing globally. Children are already using these devices to play games. So combining learning and playing we can bring the real world problems into the classroom through game-based learning,

Teachers act as guides on the side and they bring their own personal and expert skills into the mix and they too learn through play. The teacher can be anyone – a peer, a parent, a community member, a newly-trained teacher or an expert educator.

An educational problem-solving game provides the social and cultural connections that our brains need in order to make learning meaningful and desirable. This is why children are prepared to spend hours on games like Minecraft repeating actions over and over again in order to achieve their survival goals. Anything that has to be acquired to achieve that goal will be sought out and utilised. The same principal can be applied to numeracy and literacy skills. If a game requires the player to seek out and use these skills, the player will do so without needing to be asked just as was demonstrated with the children who learnt English because they needed it to play the CD games.

The game that Edu-fy is creating is called Straylings. It has a compelling story which children will readily buy into. The player is seen as the saviour and so immediately any prior feeling a player may feel that they are not good enough is negated. The game is in three (3) parts. Each of these satisfies different requirements of the learning process but together they utilise and value the power of each individual’s learning brain. Artificial Intelligence (AI) mechanics will help to personalise the learning so the game is always geared at the right challenge level for each player. The game expects players to solve the real world problems in an animated or virtual world. This expectation nurtures creative thinking and collaboration and prepares our children to be the solvers of tomorrow’s problems.

We will provide more details about Straylings in future posts.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *