Modes of creative learning in microworlds, messyworlds, and the real world, III

The dictum that “all learning is social” is often used in education to highlight the importance of the teacher scaffolding the student’s development and the emotional aspects of change.  It can also be invoked to imply that learning should be embedded in and engaged with real-world problems.  Yet “social” can also be the spaces that parents provide their children—the secure base they can return to after venturing out for a moment into situations that seem new, uncertain and unreliable.  The social can be a container for interactions in which the learner is insulated from the complexities of real-world engagements.  There is no need to dismiss the pleasure of creation within a well-bounded container, such as is provided by the predefined elements and programming rules of Scratch or Turtle—not the least because of the sharing and mentoring that happens among children as they develop their programming skills and products.

My schema in the previous post does hint that the right end of the x-axis and the top end of the y-axis—the real world ends—are more genuinely social.  This, in turn, led me to try to define the kinds of learning and creativity that did or didn’t happen in the less-social sectors of the schema.  I now want to disavow any such connotations.  The issue for me has become not how to move to real-world-embeddedness but, instead, whatever sector of the schema learning and creativity is happening in, to a) understand the “vertical” principles that unify the creativity in that sector and from which flow all the “horizontal” possibilities of change; and b) to take stock at recurrent intervals and see what would be needed to attempt to shift to a different sector, that is, not to simply continue along previous lines.

I am not sure that this schema is helpful, but it identifies a set of elements or angles for us to tease out as we address a & b: Activity system.  In contrast, generic claims that learning is the network and the like provide no real insight into how people identify their aspirations and develop capacities.  (I think it might also rest on a confusion between the process and product senses of the word learning.  Yes—the body of knowledge is made available via the web and with the assistance of fellow websters.  But the learning referred to in the title of this post is the process, not the product.)

It seems to me that, despite my dispositions towards the lower left of the schema (=I have skills and experience in programming and I derive some relaxation from solving puzzles that have well-defined solutions), the place I can best contribute is to invite learners into the messy world spaces in the center of the schema.  There I can use the 4Rs to help them connect, probe, reflect, and perhaps then re-engage in real-world sectors.  Yes, there are definite limitations in these spaces not being embedded in real world problems, but a) learning and creativity can be experienced—perhaps disorienting at first, but eventually pleasurable—; and b) some of the tools, processes, and connections might be carried over into real-world re-engagements.  Messy world spaces demand more effort than surfing the communities around c-MOOCs, but, for, say, a Collaborative Exploration (CE), the 9 hours of inquiry and interaction over 22 days allows participants to dig deep for a delimited period then take a break until they are ready to join in again.  A sense in which this learning is social is that, during the inquiry around a messy world (e.g., through a CE or a Project-Based Learning), there is an alternation between “I want to make something on my own” and “thanks to other for your being there with me.”

P.S.  I realize that I have not moved completely beyond judgement of some kinds of learning being better than others.  Notice my comment that c-MOOCs have a lot of surfing, by which I mean not only surfing what is on the internet, but also riding shallow waves without much chance of being dumped into deeper waters.  Notice also that I look for “real insight into how people identify their aspirations and develop capacities.”  More thought is needed about what I value and why, but my first attempt would be to say that “identify[ing] aspirations and develop[ing] capacities” is something everyone wants to do once they have (re)started to do it.


About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012,

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