Learning from children: strategy, tactics and games in times of rapid change

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Are there lessons in how children learn that might help us adults, and the organisations we run, learn from turbulent environments and make better decisions in times of change?

Watching my 9 month old child grow up, I was struck by how inventive and experimental his learning style can be.  Like all children, his life is a constant stream of novelty and change.  He has very little control, has no sense of why or how things work, yet learns quicker and more effectively than most adults and at a rate which makes organisations look positively glacial.  He also seems to enjoy it much more than most adults I know as well.

A colleague recommended reading the classic book “How Children Learn”, by John Holt.  That book is reviewed here, here and here.  I have transcribed relevant excerpts below, and interpret them in the context of organisational learning and strategic change management.

When children attack a new problem, they begin to play, almost at random.  This generates a tremendous amount of sensory data. A scientist might say that, along with his useful data, the child has collected an enormous quantity of random, useless data.  The trained scientist wants to cut all irrelevant data out of his experiment.  He is asking nature a question, he wants to cut down the noise, the static, the random information, to a minimum, so he can hear the answer.  But a child doesn’t work that way.  He is used to getting answers out of the noise.  He has, after all, grown up in a strange world where everything is noise, where can only understand and make sense of a tiny part of his experiences.  His way of attaching a problem is to produce the maximum amount of data possible, to do as many things as he can, [in as many] ways as possible.  then, as he goes along, he begins to notice regularities and patterns.  He begins to ask questions – that is, to make deliberate experiments.  But it is vital to note that until he has a great deal of data, he has no idea what questions to ask, or what questions there are to be asked.

This is a marvellous phrase, “he has no idea what questions to ask, or what questions there are to be asked.”  How many of us have felt this way, when honestly considering the complexities we face in our daily lives?

The young child, at least until his thinking has been spoiled by adults, has a great advantage in situations… where there is so much seemingly senseless data that it is impossible to tell what questions to ask.  He is much better at taking in this kind of data; he is better able to tolerate its confusion; and he is much better at picking out the patterns, hearing the faint signal amid all the noise.  Above all, he is much less likely than an adult to make hard and fast conclusions on the basis of too little data, or having made such conclusions, to refuse to consider any new data that does not support them.

Reading Holt contains excellent lessons for decision-makers faced with complex, changing landscapes.  They must first understand what kinds of problems they are facing and what kinds of questions must be asked.

This can only be done through experimentation.  But not the kind of experimentation taught to us in the science lab.  The kind of experimentation that doesn’t need to be taught, that is, through play.

But not just any kind of play.  Play doesn’t work if it isn’t fun.  Play minus fun equals labour, which doesn’t have the same learning benefits.

The spirit behind [children’s games] should be a spirit of joy, foolishness, exuberance, like the spirit behind all good games, include the game of trying to find out how the work works, which we call education.

Only through play, then – through random, iterative, and fundamentally joyful experimentation – can we begin to understand how and why the world is changing.  And only through play can we generate the notions and motivations necessary to interact successfully with it.

Surprising insights from an author who specialises in, well, children’s games.  Perhaps management strategy need not be as serious and we like to think.

UPDATE – See my similar post on “Rules for Emergent Experimentation“, which reaches similar conclusions and proposes guidelines for play in the context of organisational learning.

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