Play is a Risky Study

It doesn't matter what you study—it matters how you study it - Michael Roth, Wesleyan president and author of Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters

In that spirit, Virgin Unite asks if play is "a serious solution to economic and social challenges."

'It’s not about doing more earlier. It’s not about teaching them to read or write earlier and earlier. It’s actually about making sure they’ve got some of the underpinning skills on which so much of the rest of their life is going to be based,' said the LEGO Foundation’s global head of research and learning, Andrew Bollington, in a recent Google+ Hangout.

Those skills include creativity, teamwork, problem-solving, and leadership. Learning through play, Bollington said, is perhaps the most developmentally appropriate way for young children to develop those capacities: 'It’s the way children learn, and want to learn, and naturally learn, unless, frankly, you stop them.'

In a quote from her web site that I've never forgotten, real-world game designer and former IdeaFestival speaker Jane McGonigal said that "the opposite of play is not work, it's depression." I think that idea goes a long way toward explaining the discomfort people intuitively feel toward the the culture of test taking that now dominates the school year, an almost ritualistic doubling down on an educational process with roots in the 19th Century. The sad result is that many children are less able to take the information that they have learned in new and novel directions, to elaborate and expand, to twist and invert, to observe what they know from a slant. Rather, their work at accumulating facts produces the tortured expertise of fault finding, of one-upsmanship and unmasking error.

It doesn't matter what one knows if the known thing doesn't change what one does. That's why play and leisure, why the openness and vulnerability needed to turn mere information into knowing, is so important long after childhood. Play is a serious solution because without it, our hands and feet are never moved. Without it, we are never changed.

Stay curious.


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Not Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Chimps Kick Butt in Game of Strategy

Perhaps it's because I've become so accustomed to looking for the hidden marketing and public relations hand in reported news, but I couldn't help but wonder, if only for a moment, if a study about the competitive smarts of chimpanzees was somehow tied to the pending release of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

In one particular game of strategic decision making called the Inspection Game, it turns out that chimps came much closer to maximizing their competitive advantage than did their human counterparts.

But why?

Chimps Outwit Humans in Games of Strategy:

There are two possible explanations that researchers currently find plausible. The first has to do with the roles of competition and cooperation in chimpanzee versus human societies; the second with the differential evolution of human and chimpanzee brains since our evolutionary paths split between 4 and 5 million years ago.

The past half-century has seen an enormous divergence of opinion as to how cooperative or competitive humans 'naturally' are, and though this debate is far from settled, it is clear that wherever humans sit on the cooperative/competitive scale, common chimpanzees are more competitive with one another than we are.

I was happy to see a nod to cooperation as a fundamental human trait. In addition to game theorists, biologists of course have long studied the extent to which cooperation is a "natural" part of human experience. I'd wager that anthropologists have a lot to say on the matter, as would behavioral economists since classical micro-economic theory is based in human exchange being determined exclusively by a conscious self-interest. And of course, the world's monotheistic traditions have long acknowledged that humans live somewhere on the cooperative/competitive scale, observing that our default behavior is to act in our own interests, to fall short of our potential, while urging upon us a deferential course of action.

There are, sadly, limits to my generosity as well. So at the moment I'm thinking that somewhere a studio executive is crying over his vodka tonic about the missed tie-in. Also: the silent video of chimps sitting at terminals with the lights flashing is just a little bit spooky.

Stay curious. And have a great weekend.


Argue Like a Teacher

Is is just me? Or are we all just shouting at one another these days?

Writing his BBC Futures column, Mindhacksblog contributor Tom Stafford suggests that a misplaced self-assurance persuades many of us to do the one thing we shouldn't when trying to win someone over to our side of a disagreement - enumerate the many reasons why we're right and they're wrong.

Throw in the easy accessibility of the social media megaphone and a few cherry picked bits of information, and those strongly held views devolve into casus belli. The problem, according to Stafford, is that we often think we understand how something works when in reality, we don't. 

The Best Way to Win an Argument:

Usually, nobody tests us and if we have any questions about them we can just take a look. Psychologists call this idea that humans have a tendency to take mental short cuts when making decisions or assessments the "cognitive miser" theory.

It's a phenomenon that will be familiar to anyone who has ever had to teach something. Usually, it only takes the first moments when you start to rehearse what you'll say to explain a topic, or worse, the first student question, for you to realise that you don't truly understand it. All over the world, teachers say to each other 'I didn't really understand this until I had to teach it'. Or as researcher and inventor Mark Changizi quipped: 'I find that no matter how badly I teach I still learn something'".

Those who can mentally slip into the role of teacher get another benefit. According to research he cites, people who "provide explanations softened their views, and reported a correspondingly larger drop in how they rated their understanding of the issues," which is helpful if thinking afresh is your goal.

There's nothing like being the teacher to demonstrate how little we really know.

But if you're not feeling so charitable, there's something devilishly satisfying about asking one's adversary to explain in some detail how something works - or might work - while patiently listening. Almost inevitably there will be a pause, a wrinkled nose, a pregnant pause.

Let it linger.

Stay curious.


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Curiosity Says "Nearly"

It doesn't matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn't matter how smart you are. If it doesn't agree with experiment, it's wrong - Richard Feynman

In the video embedded here the famed physicist Richard Feynman talks about how our eyes are optimized to detect the narrow "optical" band of the electromagnetic spectrum, and how the longer and cooler wavelengths carry information in the form of heat. These facts are useful. In the case of the infrared (long wavelength), some space borne observatories, cooled to an operating temperature just a degree or so above absolute zero, can detect objects many billions of years old by registering the faintest of temperature spikes.

We can rely on the physics because, as Feynman says, it's all "really there!" whether we're actively looking or not. That's key. The scientist and the crackpot can both be right. They can both be wrong. The difference, however, is in the quality of the answers. Because she can do more than simply point to gaps in knowledge, the scientist, thanks to characteristics of scientific method like repeatability and falsifiability, can be wrong in productive ways.

Instead of "no," her results may suggest "nearly."

That's a lot like curiosity, wouldn't you say?

Keep an eye on this page for speaker announcements, coming soon!


"By the Book" Rarely Writes a New Chapter

It's no secret that data is big. Decisions are made and projects are quashed because the numbers don't add up.

But can we rely too much on metrics? Bruce Feiler, "United States of Metrics:"

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the statistician and former options trader who wrote the best-selling book “The Black Swan,” about unexpected events, said he believes the current obsession with metrics is a seductive trap.

'The evil here is not having metrics,' he said. 'The problem is that you start trying to maximize every metric you have and reduce everything else.'

Mr. Taleb said he likes knowing how many kilograms of meat he’s buying, but if his meal is measured only by kilograms of meat and calories consumed, then dozens of other uncountable qualities, like the pleasure of the food or the quality of the conversation, go ignored.

Metrics should inform decisions, but for the decision maker they will never, alone, point to the best possible outcome, and certainly not to anything fundamentally new or innovative. That's because what's new and innovative is not fully knowable now. And if an ability to innovate or fundamentally change direction is important to you or your company, don't let anyone else tell you otherwise.

As a snapshot of the world, metrics by themselves cannot hope to match compression algorithm already in your mind, a mere 3.5 billion years in the making. Throw in an openness to experience, a widely read and well stocked attic and a tolerance for ambiguity, and that first-person thing called conscious thought already encodes for incredible possibility. That's because, unlike the numbers in a spreadsheet or model, the human mind knows the things that it knows. Its "uncountable qualities" add crucial information to the mix.

Rather than a class in statistical regression, perhaps a course in improvisation, theater or stand-up would be beneficial. Why? Like life, creative outcomes are always a work in progress. And that next step will always be a step into the unknown.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, by the way, spoke at the IdeaFestival not long after the publication of The Black Swan.

Stay curious. 


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