narrative, learning, and play

Gone GirlOn a road trip over the Christmas break my wife Cyndi and I listened to the 19-hour Audible production of Gone Girl. One half going out, and then a week and a half later the rest on the drive home. Between those installments we renewed family relationships with about a dozen people, I read some things for work, and there were movies and television. But when we got back to Gone Girl, we remembered pretty much every word.

From an educational perspective, that feat of recollection was noteworthy. And it was effortless.

It’s hard not to be impressed by how people can do that, stringing bits of information together to remember them. Even when it’s not really justified by the facts, we seem to like applying chronology and cause & effect to things that happen, making meaning as we go along.

I get it that this is useful; what’s surprising is that it’s also fun.  No one made us listen; we wanted to.


I think as brainy weaklings, we had to learn early to organize collective action, remembering who was trustworthy, perpetuating historical business arrangements, sequencing transactions, making meaning. This is our real labor. So then why on earth, at the end of a hard day leveraging relationships to gang up on the woolly mammoth, would we have looked forward to sagas around the fire? Swapping out life for vicarious life?

In a sense, doesn’t leaving the office for fiction – or interrupting professional relationships for personal ones over the holidays – amount to resting from work by doing more of it?

mammoth-huntersI think so. And I think one reason we’re such junkies for these strands of meaning is precisely because those cognitive functions have been so vital to our success.

Play for most animals bears a spooky resemblance to their work: it’s how we get our practice in. The bear cubs who grab each other’s feet grow up to fish better, and bear more bear cubs. And so we tune in to the next Homeland or Good Wife or Hunger Games to stay sharp, the way cats pretend to hunt their toys.

There’s some ferment these days about the gamification of education, trying to tap that obsessive focus and skill-burnishing of gamers for something more edifying than moving pixels. It’s intriguing, but I wonder if we’re pushing it far enough.

If we’re just adding badges and joysticks to intro chem, then we’ve lost the point of play.  But if we can also add goal orientation, collaboration, and the opportunity to contribute narrative – in a sense, to script the unscripted problem – then we’ve harnessed one of the real joys of learning.


4 thoughts on “narrative, learning, and play

  1. Of course, I loved this post. But what it triggered in my mind was that “assessment,” that onerous, seemingly pointless add-on to faculty lives, has only made real sense to me in the context of narrative, as you say, in taking “strands of meaning” and making sense of them, struggling to understand cause and effect, “to script the unscripted problem[s]” of learning and teaching. It works best collaboratively, gathered around the fire, telling the stories along with the data. Then it returns the joy of learning to those who are teaching.

  2. Great one Ken and Jean, interesting enough, you cited reading “Girl Gone” In the story, the husband immerses himself in the ordeal putting together the “stands of meaning” and finally solves his wive’s narrative puzzel.

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