What is learning?
Strangely enough, after hundreds of years of research by some of the world’s greatest minds we still have no clear agreement on what learning is, or how it happens.
In a recent article, Michael Luntley (2017) makes this point rather well by proposing that learning is a ‘staging area’. In order to learn something, he argues, we first have to possess a framework or concept to help us represent the thing in our minds. But how do we learn the framework or concept in the first place?
One possible answer lies in the idea of ‘play’. In a recent podcast, creativity expert Dr. Loiz Holzman discusses the importance of play and performativity in learning and notes how children begin to learn language by playing at speaking. Holzman’s research shows how children use play to do things that they don’t know how to do, and that play enables them to learn and transform themselves. Children literally create ‘stages’ on which they play out a range of imaginary scenarios which help them develop new ways of interpreting the world around them.
Holzman also draws attention to the value of play in adult learning, and draws particular attention to the benefits of using improvisation in the classroom. For Holzman, a key problem is that much of education is set up for individual accomplishment and not for group creativity, even though the latter provides critical opportunities for discovery, exploration and learning. She points out three key aspects of improvisation that make it a valuable technique to support learning:
- Using the ‘Yes, and…’ technique that is used heavily in comedy. The aim is to always add to what someone has said. This doesn’t mean you have to accept their statement, but simply build on it by responding ‘yes, and…’ before going on to add your own contribution. This makes the ‘Yes, and…’ technique a useful tool for initiating discussion and feedback in group learning situations.
- While using ‘Yes, and…’, the idea is that you should always aim to make the other person look good. This aligns with the educational aim to create supportive and inclusive learning environments, reinforces learning through positive feedback, and helps students feel as though they belong. Improvising using the ‘Yes, and…’ technique also makes you a great listener because you have to use active listening to build the conversation through collaborative, rather than competitive, working (Vygotsky, 1978).
- Finally, Holzman observes that using improvisation is an effective way to involve everyone in an activity. The classroom is the ‘staging area’ – you don’t have to know everything about a topic, you just have to know how to use your imagination to contribute to the conversation.
Perhaps Shakespeare was right – maybe all the world really is a stage. If play is integral to learning, and is one of the key factors that distinguishes humans from most other animals, then we should be finding more ways to build play into classroom learning.
And whatever happens, it’ll certainly be fun.
Holzman, L. (2017). Using improvisation and performativity as teaching tools [podcast] Art Ed Radio, episode 095. Available at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/art-ed-radio/id1088942953?mt=2 [Accessed 6th February 2018].
Luntley, M. (2017) Forgetski Vygotsky. Educational Philosophy and Theory. 49(10), pp.957-970.
Vygotsky, L. (1978) Mind in Society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge University Press.