Saturday, November 24

The Campfire and the Sandlot

One can imagine the time in our pre-paleolithic history when formal learning consisted of two balanced parts:

During the day, people with skills would show others how to do something. "Grab the spear here," the teacher might say, taking the hands of the apprentice and putting them in the right spot. "Now practice in that sandlot over there by throwing it at that big tree. Keep doing it until you get it right. Then throw it at the smaller tree."

While at night, people around the campfire might tell of great adventures, including myths and legends. People would share ideas, and help their community expand their thinking. The best story tellers would gain bigger audiences and develop their own craft of narrative and suspense.

Then came the technology of writing. And suddenly the balance shifted. Communities were able build on the written work of the past. Written work also scaled well, where the work of one village could impact villages all around it. The disciplines of accounting and drama evolved geometrically. Meanwhile, practicing in the sandlot didn't change much. It was still a one-to-one activity.

Since the technology of writing, many subsequent discoveries have further augmented the "learning to know" skills. Paintings, theaters, printing presses and books, photographs, schools, universities, sound recordings, movies, scanners, Google (and now, the Kindle) all turned our culture into masters of linear content, enabling both great artists and our own exquisite vocabulary around such catnip as plot devices, antagonists, suspense, and the hero's journey, just to name a few. We can watch a Spielberg movie, a piece of campfire-style intellectual property that is the recipient of cumulatively trillions of dollars of investment and R&D, and evaluate it at a level of cultural sophistication that would awe citizens from a even a hundred years ago.

And yet, in the "learning to do" area, we are probably worse than our hunter-gatherer ancestors. For teaching the simplest skills, we mirror our ancestors ("put your hands here"), and for the more complicated skills, we don't have a clue. Ask a Harvard Business School professor to develop leadership (or any Big Skill) in a student and she will go into campfire mode with PowerPoint slides of grids, case studies, and so-called inspirational stories.

The advent of flight simulators and computer games, however, have introduced technology around "learning to do" that can finally scale. Today, there is a robust, if nascent, set of "sandlot" tools that is receiving a significant intellectual investment of the current community, and is able to build on the discoveries of the past. Today's "authors," often game designers, can begin to create virtual sandlots where participants can practice skills, instead of just hearing about them (the theory of nudging a pinball machine to get a better score, from a campfire perspective, is trivial; the practiced application is where it is hard).

And, correspondingly, an entirely new language is being developed. Gamers now effortlessly talk about end-of-level bosses, mapping Actions to interfaces, the attributes of on Maps, and what is good or bad level design.

During the next twenty years, the sandlot technologies (the "learning to do" through games and simulations) will successfully challenge the campfire institutions of universities, movies, and books not only for the discretionary time of the community (which we have already seen), but for help in improving their quality of life. We are already seeing glimpses of the latter through Carmen SanDiego, The Oregon Trail, Age of Empires, America's Army, Full Spectrum Warrior, Virtual Leader, and Brain Age. Will Wright, the creator of SimCity and The Sims, is the first Shakespeare or Beethoven of this medium.

In other words, people will engage in games not to play a super-hero, but to actually become more like one. And the balance between "learning to do" and "learning to know" may finally be restored.


Clark Aldrich said...

I don't love the term "sandlot." Stephen (Downes) rightfully pointed out that it is both American and is not in any way paleolithic. I do like the open-ended, practice-centric nature. Does anyone have a replacement for the term "sandlot?"

Tom King said...

I really like this post, even if it gets at scalability with a bit of an anecdotal campfire approach, but that is what made it resonate with me.

How about "the field" instead of sandlot. The connotations are open-ended from the savanna to the soccer pitch (or maybe even one's chosen "field").

By the way, maybe the scalability versus campfire approach is something to be addressed in the affective domain-- I myself am ironically less motivated by the scalable gaming/simulation approach Seems to be a personal preference either way in many people.

Clark Aldrich said...

Field was my first take. I like it as well because it is used in both sports (practice field, game field) and the military (field of battle), probably the only two places where knowledge of "learning to do" has been passed on and built upon over the years. I worry that it is not an interesting or thought provoking enough term, but again, it may well be better than Sandlot.

Maybe the African "veld"?

Scalability seems necessary for adoption, at least that is how I think about it.

Peter Isackson said...

Thanks for the campfire contribution.

In all fairness to campfire bards, they didn't have to wait for writing to build on the work of the past and the fact that it was vocal gave their work - highly interactive (gesture, music, dance, antiphonal ritual) - a much deeper dimension than writing in itself can convey. Call it the social dimension, which you refer to when you talk about helping the community "expand their thinking".

I can't decide if your version of history is Whiggish, Hegelian or Marxist (the dictatorship of the simulators) but it certainly is entertaining.

Clark Aldrich said...

There is no question that the bards were able to develop incredibly complex (and recursive) oral traditions, including the ability to tell the same story at various lengths, depending on how much the sponsors would pay. But is was still "one to few". The technology of writing was the game-changer (including, eventually, of writing music (leading to the ipods of the day, the the harpsichord/rise of the middle class/powdered wig bubble gum music), which the "learning to do" crowd only recently got themselves.
And you are right, ultimately all technology is at best two step forward and one step back.
As far as Hegel, if campfire is the thesis and sandlot is the antithesis...
I would actually rephrase the Marx bit to say that we are currently living in the dictatorship of the campfire - an intellectual prison withouth any bars (oh wait, was that Morpheus?).

Peter Isackson said...

My doubts concern the notion that one medium defines the culture of the time (in our case, learning culture), instilling the idea that it advantageously replaces the previous one (the Whiggish view). Writing may well have diminished the business base of oral story-telling and at the same time had a negative influence on its quality. But it didn't replace it. Neither did printing, which actually did force writing into the one to many mode rather than the one to few (restrictively those who worked or thought in the same area, and more generally, the literate elite).

I think you've put your finger on a key distinction: whether learning is directed at an indefinable, infinitely extendable, unknown population of learners (i.e. consumers of learning) whose interactions in no way engage or influence the discourse of the "teacher" (or instructional designer, or programmer) or whether learning is shared, experimented and acted out in a definable setting (in terms of relationship) as a socially constructive discourse. On one side we can place books, films, e-learning, simulations. On the other theater, peripatetic teaching, the art of conversation and professional collaboration. To simplify, let’s call category 1 “resources” and category 2 “cultural and discursive interaction”.

Let’s look at Shakespeare, whom you mention in passing. Printing had already been around for a century when he began writing as a performing actor and producer not to publish (a distant afterthought), but for performance. He belonged to both categories in his formal work, but we also know from the anecdotes of his contemporaries that he honed his art in a much more informal setting: the local tavern, where the pros would get together to improvise and tease each other (a bit like jazz musicians in the 30s and 40s in Kansas City or Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem). Learning – both its methods and results - is created rather than instilled.

I would suggest that Shakespeare, rather than being seen as the sacred literary icon academic Culture has made of him, should be taken as a model for communicative performance in his methods of learning and crafting his art (authorial collaboration, we now know, was the norm rather than the exception). Shakespeare used books and identified to some extent with book culture (category 1) but thrived off social interaction in the theater and tavern (and probably elsewhere).

Could it be that we still need both, not just to set one beside the other, but to have them cross-pollinate?

Clark Aldrich said...

First, yes, we definitely need both, "learning to know" and "learning to do" (and the third, "learning to be"). The point is balance, not the crushing of one (which as you point out, seldom happens (CDs crushing albums is one of the few examples).

While I agree with most of what you wrote, I happen to believe that the medium at least defines what is recorded (the cocktail of culture must also include nationalism, wealth, power, disease, blah, blah, blah). Necessarily, a country with rocks and no trees will build houses with more stone than wood. The exploration of mathematics influences religion (circle = perfect = God/heaven). For a thousand years, the church allowed only one musical instrument - the voice. Thus the knowledge around using the human voice grew dramatically while knowledge of drums stagnated.

But here is the rub. Today, take a word famous practitioner like Jack Welch. What is he doing today? Mostly the campfire activities of writing and speaking. He is probably getting better at both, learning the tricks of dramatic story telling and punchy paragraphs. There is a cultural tragedy to that, not for him, but for future managers (just as there is a tragedy of lost knowledge when it comes to George Washington and...). Someday, sooner rather than later, I would hope he would also be financially and culturally motivated to build electronic sandlots for future generations, developing situational awareness, understanding of available actions, patterns of success, conceptual dead reckoning, just to name a few.

Peter Isackson said...

Culture, of course, doesn't belong to nations only and shouldn't be thought of as being a set of features of the people of a particular country in a given physical setting. More about that later.

Corporate culture is an even more immediate concern for a lot of people and the interaction between the two (corporate, on the one hand, and national, regional, linguistic, etc., on the other)represents a major challenge for today's management.

Your example of voice is interesting but I think you're wrong to assume that "knowledge" of drums stagnated. Use of drums certainly didn't, though drums were in effect excluded in liturgical music, i.e. a highly formal setting. They existed and knowledge of drumming developed throughout the Middle Ages in informal settings, such as fairs and dances. The great composers of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance were influenced by popular music (that included drums) to the point of developing subtle rhythmic strategies even in their sacred music. A clear case of the informal feeding essential matter into the formal. And in the the following centuries dance rhythms became the foundation of much classical music, even when there were no drums in the orchestra!

Clark Aldrich said...

I believe a) the Middle Ages/Renaissance, were, by definition, the end of the thousand year church domination, and b) the sophistication of the knowledge around voice vs. drum at the point of the Middle Ages/Renaissance were worlds apart.

(I am now in this conversation because it is amusing. I bow to Peter Isackson's superior knowledge in this area!)

mindful learner said...

I enjoy these blog posts and subsequent 'comment conversations', but I can't shake the feeling we are having a lovely, cosy insular little conversation here. I see the same 8 or 9 names each time, each clearly defending/promoting their particular area of interest. There's nothing wrong with that, but I wish all of you intelligent, credible and important people were busy engaging the important community of business stakeholders and training practitioners rather than spending time on this nice, cosy insular chat around the fire. How do we bring this conversation out to a wider audience? How can we more actively engage those with the power, money, influence and need to see these ideas brought into the world. Are we as an ID community constantly preaching to the converted?


Clark Aldrich said...

On the plus side, I use books and blogs to spread ideas. I know people from the UN, schools, and corporations, both in the US and internationally, read my material. I create sims that hopefully represent the ideas written about here, including some work for the US military.
On the negative side, where do you "sell" the idea that western civilization might have lost most of the knowledge worth keeping, and that books and other campfire media are hugely insufficient? How do you make people who matter realize that the wedge between schools and corporations is not necessary? And who most cares about developing the big skills of leadership and stewardship in individuals? How do you turn "learning by doing" into a national or international priority, either at the government, academic, or corporate front? What is the specific pitch to a CEO or a President or even an individual? The vastness of the idea actually precludes investment.

mindful learner said...


Purely focusing on marketing to businesses, I believe the first step is to provide DETAILED success stories. These stories need to detail both time/money costs to an organisation and subsequent returns/benefits (not necessarily financial ROI). We also need to be able to show a simple, clear process with clear inputs required from a business (money/time, etc). We also need to show businesses stepping stones so they can 'dip their toe in'. I don't think this is an insurmountable task.

I also think it would be useful to discuss what forum would be best for these type of important discussions - what does the CEO read? The head of training? How should we best engage them?

Sorry if I sound too negative. But I read all this great stuff and I don't seem to see much of it filtering through to my day-to-day work.

In the UK, I also think we suffer from having no credible organisation to promote Instructional Design and give them a forum to talk to the outside world.

I'd also love to see more detail from you Clark. I think on this blog you've nicely promoted Simulation Learning. I don't think you have too many who'd argue against it as part of other ID methods. You are preaching to the converted. Can we get to some detail? What do you think the key challenges are moving forwards? How do we get more ID people to learn and practice and promote these methods? What areas are you still unsure about?


Clark Aldrich said...

Here is a quite detailed, multi-faceted, third-party validated list of success stories of one sim, Virtual Leader.

I adore the anecdote, but others will find the detailed analysis more credible. What do you think?

mindful learner said...

Thanks Clark,

That's very useful. However, is there a place we can put this evidence where business and L&D leaders are most likely to see and respond to it?

Can we get more evidence?

If this stuff isn't visible enough, it might as well not exist.


Clark Aldrich said...

My job was to create the simulations, make them available, and rigorously study them. I think it is Peter's job to get more of the CEO's onboard!

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