Learning to learn (and unlearn) through play

Workers at every level and in every function and industry have the potential to become learners and in so doing, help themselves and their organizations.

If I download a design for a chess piece from Thingiverse and print it on a 3D printer, am I a Maker?

This question came to mind the other day as the team here at the Deloitte Center for the Edge began exploring the new Cube desktop 3D printers that had just been delivered. Everyone was familiar with the Maker movement. Some knew a lot about 3D printers and other types of tools and manufacturing, having spent time in their professional and personal lives following new developments. Yet, as they clustered around the printer watching a neon green ghost with impressive draping take shape, they were already learning more about additive printing than they had in months of reading.

Are they Makers? No, not yet. But they are learners. From setting up the machine to configuring the software and locating repositories of designs appropriate to the particular system and material, suddenly concepts like “overhang” leapt to life. It is one thing to know that the product design must suit the means of production; it is another to see it playing out. Watching the machine extrude filament back-and-forth, back-and-forth yields ample opportunity for reflection on what else the technology might, or might not, be capable of.

The team noted the fuzziness in the eye holes and experimented with an Exacto knife and a file to clean up the filaments at the bottom. Ghost in hand, team members were already considering what to print next, challenging themselves to devise a small but meaningful memento that visitors could personalize and print. Amid the exchange of ideas, some jumped on the computer to browse design libraries, while others loaded 3D modeling software to begin creating their own designs. An hour later, prototype in hand, they considered other options. “What if you changed the orientation?” “Could we make the pedestal flush?” “Would a more stylized E droop less?” Print again. Regroup. “How many could we print at one time?” “Can we use other materials?” A quick online search revealed that acetone could smooth the edges, and by the end of the day, someone had drawn up an idea for a desktop acetone bath to accompany the desktop printers.

Printing plastic gewgaws, admittedly, is not the work of the Center. Still, throughout the day, team members were drawn to check in on the progress, share ideas, reflect on what they thought they knew, and reconcile it with the physical experience. They were excited and having fun. And they were learning.

This type of playful learning is especially absent in the work environment. How often do we expose employees to new things, to the opportunity to play and practice with the new thing, to interact and connect with others around the new experience and compare notes and build on each other’s understanding? My partner in leading the Center for the Edge, John Seely Brown, has written extensively on the importance of imagination and play as the fuel that will sustain learning (see, for example, the book he co-authored with Doug Thomas—A New Culture of Learning).

There’s growing concern about the skills gap in the American workforce and much debate about whether our institutions of education are doing enough to prepare the workforce for the jobs of the 21st century. We’ve posited before, and believe even more strongly based on the results of our most recent worker passion survey, that the real gap is in workers’ desire and ability to continuously learn. Workers at every level and in every function and industry have the potential to become learners and in so doing, help themselves and their organizations.

How can we inject playful learning into our own and our employees’ lives? If work is typically cerebral, provide an opportunity to make something by hand. Or, experiment with artificial constraints. Think of the “Iron Chef” ingredient in cooking. Workers of all levels and types, especially as teams, can be challenged to find a better way to do something within set constraints. Play doesn’t have to be physical. Writers play through the artificial constraint of writing prompts and poetry. Software coders play when they gather for hacking challenges. Musicians riff. Others might find a playful learning mindset through creating videos on YouTube, or experimenting with digital photography.

One of the keys, often overlooked, to fostering a culture of learning and teaching people to learn, is making it easy at the outset. It is much more motivating to be able to achieve something you’ve never done before, even at a small scale, than to face a task that is too daunting before you have the skills or expertise to approach it. Hence, the experience of the 3D printers was fun and approachable because the participants could use one of four pre-loaded designs for the printer’s maiden voyage, so they were only learning one thing—how to run the physical machine—at first. Having mastered the basics of the equipment, they turned to identifying other sources for designs to download. After a few iterations with those pre-set designs, they turned to software to modify the designs and then to create their own designs. It is unlikely they would have been as enthusiastic, or even stuck with the process, if they’d had to figure out design principles, design software, and the printing equipment on the first attempt. Small successes bring people into the learning process where they may gradually work their way into larger and more complex projects that challenge their skills and understanding.

We’ve said before that the learning mindset and practice need to be part of our daily work, not something separate. In the best case, we can bring the sense of play into our work as well. But finding the play within our daily work may not be obvious at first. That’s why taking opportunities to play at the edges—with things related, or tangentially related, to our daily work—may begin to open up that sense of playful learning without feeling threatening to our expertise.