Experiential Learning

by Bruce Kasanoff on October 24, 2010

I was fascinated to read Jaron Lainer’s article in yesterday’s WSJ, in which he wrote about the possibility of teaching science by turning students “into the things they were studying… some were turned into molecules, dancing and squirming to dock with other molecules.”

Lanier, a partner architect at Microsoft Research, wrote this in the context of explaining “somatic cognition,” or cognition of the body. He can explain this much better than I, but his article highlighted the possibility of letting people control avatars whose shape and form is quite different than the human body.

Much as I love science, it often seems too abstract to me, especially when presented in a dry textbook or scientific paper. But imagine being able to experience what it is like to be a virus attempting to spread through a body or across a population? You’d be fighting for dominance – or survival – and you would be highly motivated to learn the rules, and fast.

Neither Lanier nor I is claiming that students will be literally diving into science anytime soon. But he cites “homuncular flexbility,” and explains that our brains can map – and control – body shapes that are not our own.

As a squash player, I already knew this. When I walk onto the court, I often consciously take a second to remind myself that my right arm is now two feet longer and has a bulbous shape (the racquet head) at the end of it. This works like magic, and my brain instantly seems to remap my body.

Sometimes I can’t get my head in the game, and this occasionally results in me whacking my own knee with the racquet. At such times, again I stop and “map” how long my “arm” is, and where the rest of my body is. This always works; I never do it twice.

I’m pretty certain that when the next generation says “experiential learning,” they are going to mean something far different than backpacking through the woods.

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