Learning like teens

By Simon St. Laurent
February 13, 2009

One of my favorite sessions at this week's Tools of Change conference wasn't precisely about publishing, but its lessons keep reverberating as I look through proposals and contemplate what to publish next. Youth and Creativity: Emerging Trends in Self-expression and Publishing reported on a study Adobe did to learn how teens use (and more specifically learn) their products.

While the speakers were happy to report that some teens actually paid for their products, the way that teens learned how to use them reminded me a lot of how friends and I learned to use computers back in the 1980s, when we didn't consistently pay for things and routinely worked without manuals. There are some common factors - working with a network of friends, and learning in a way that had little to do with traditional schooling, going back and forth between the computers and each other. The basics of this talk felt familiar, but the changes wrought by the scale of the Internet and the tremendously greater power of the software were also obvious in the stories.

I took notes on a slide near the end of the presentation. This isn't a perfect transcription, more a blend of what they had and how I thought of it, but among their interviews and stories they found some commonalities:

  • Expression - who I am

  • Belonging - micro-communities

  • Inspiration - emulating

  • Learning - by watching doing on the fly

  • Helping - apprenticeship

  • Co-Designing - beyond the lone designer

  • Velocity - throwaway, transient

With the possible exception of the last item, all of those items reflect styles that I've heard adults long for and praise. Somehow, though, it's been difficult to take those values and apply them to the formal structures we provide learners, especially adult learners.

It's more than the difference between top-down and bottom-up learning, too. These get deeply into why people learn, what motivates them and what keeps them motivated. Learning by doing leads to a different set of practices than learning by studying components. And most importantly (and perhaps the area I'm worst at), co-designing provides opportunities to learn both from and with each other, to have a very different emulation and apprenticeship style than comes from "learning from the master".

Now I just need to figure out how to apply these ideas to the highly structured learning tools I regularly create...

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