Sunday, May 04, 2014

Tinkering With Toys

Continuing our weekly series of excerpts from Jerry's books, today's post is taken from the Experiential Learning series, book 2, Inventing.

Tinkering with Toys is an exercise we designed to explore the relationships among design criteria, documentation difficulty, and system maintenance. It involves one team building and then documenting a device from Tinkertoys, then passing that documentation to another team that must rebuild the device. To give you an idea of the richness of the exercise, which is described in the book, we'll instead list some of the lessons participants have learned.

Each outcome is different, but over the years certain lessons emerge as common to many of the experiences with this exercise. But some of these lessons are important observations about experiential learning in general, so we’ll start the chapter with the first handful, saving the exercise-specific lessons for the end.

Can learning be fun?
Learning from structured experiences can be great fun–and that’s a problem. Many people believe learning and fun are incompatible. They believe that to learn, you must suffer. Looking at an experiential session with that attitude, you are quite likely to believe that people are wasting time, and learning is not happening.

What follows are four essential lessons people need to learn if they’re to overcome the anti-fun myth, and so can be successful participants in some sort of experiential learning session.

Just because you’re having fun doesn’t mean you aren’t learning.
Someone coming in from outside and seeing you at work with your Tinkertoys might not appreciate that you are, in fact, doing something useful. We tend, in our society, to distinguish between “work” and “play”. Part of this tendency is a kind of envy or nostalgia on the part of managers, who are no longer allowed the style of “play” we call “technical work”. (Of course, managers “play” in executive lunches and other activities which some technical people cannot recognize as useful work).

Just because you’re learning doesn’t mean you feel right about having fun.
Most of us have so internalized the work-play dichotomy that when we’re having fun, we look around to see if someone is watching. And, even if nobody is watching, we feel guilty, somehow, about what we’re doing. If only there were some way to measure what we’re accomplishing, we could free ourselves from these guilt feelings, but many of us oppose being measured, too. (And with good reason, if the measurements are not soundly based).

Just because you’re not having fun doesn’t mean you’re not learning.
When the fun is over in the first part of the Tinkertoy exercise and someone has to “pay” for it by documenting the creative mess, a lot of people think that’s the “lesson.” They’ve seen the “point” of the exercise, so why go on to the bitter end? Well, our exercises–unlike schools but much like “life”–don’t have one single “point.” There’s much to be learned in working through to the “bitter end.” For instance, sometimes we have to learn that the apparent end isn’t the end at all.

Just because you’re having fun or not having fun doesn’t mean you are learning anything.
More than anything else, what you learn from experiences depends upon the attitude with which you approach them. In some situations, we just keep repeating our old behaviors, even though they weren’t very successful in the past. In other situations, we repeat our old behavior because it was fun, not really caring if it was accomplishing anything. That view, at least, has some inner logic: you may not get the job done, but you have a good time.

The other way round has no logic at all. If you find yourself having a miserable time, then turn on your learning faculties full blast so you will learn to avoid the situation in the future. 

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