Meditations on Learning Theories: from Solitary to Collective

Kolb’s Discovery Learning theory* organizes phenomena along two orthogonal axes: the Processing continuum (active experimentation ßà reflective observation), and the Perception continuum (concrete ßà abstract). The perception continuum seems compatible with constructivism, which (as I understand it) holds that concrete experiences are organized and generalized to form abstract concepts, which then can be applied to interpret and act in new concrete experiences. However, the processing continuum as framed in the lecture seems inconsistent with studies I’ve read about game-based learning. While play alternating with reflection is reported to be effective in promoting deep learning, the reflection must be active: merely watching is not enough; the player must articulate and express questions or conclusions drawn from observation.

Following an explanation of Socio-cultural Theory, Professor Carrie Heeter asked students (in the MSU course “Theories of Games and Interaction for Design”) to consider how the social construction of learning can be fostered in game design and in structures surrounding gameplay. In thinking about the real world, it seems to me that not all knowledge requires social construction: for instance, it’s possible for someone to discover natural laws and properties, and even to figure out how to apply them in devising technology, without engaging in any social communication, as plausibly fictionalized in Robinson Crusoe and the movie Cast Away. This is also the case in many excellent single-player puzzle games (e.g. Waker, Acorn Story) that are virtually wordless. However, the use of language and social interaction enable quicker, more complex, and more effective learning, even through asynchronous communication media such as written text and video. Furthermore, human beings are fundamentally social creatures, and our neurological systems are wired to reward social interaction; the emotional payoff motivates us to persevere and helps us remember. I’ve observed first-hand the benefits of in-person and online game-based interactions involving my family members, both in-game (multiplayer role-playing, in-game chat) and around-game (my wife coaching my son from the side, or watching video walk-throughs together). I think it’s important for game designers to consider, for any sort of game, what forms of social interaction would be afforded.

Finally, collective intelligence (or “crowdsourcing”) can be a powerful dynamic: whether used in games by design for problem-solving, as in scientific research (FoldIt) or alternate-reality games (I Love Bees, Vanished); or as an emergent behavior of real-world social systems (bird flocking, the stock market, and the 2011 “Twitter revolution” in Egypt). I think it is important for people to understand this dynamic and how it may play a role in their lives; so that instead of being manipulated by collective processes, they can be empowered to choose whether and how to participate.

 * Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice Hall


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