I was thinking about self-directed learning last night, and Stephen Downes' metaphors I linked to yesterday. If traditional learning is like a scripted play, and new learning is more like a game, it's almost like the difference between reading a book (sequential) and doing some net searches (open-ended, self-directed). I thought I'd share some of my experiences with my daughter Ivy, who will be turning two this month. She's loved books since she was a tiny baby, and hopefully always will, but even as a toddler she is learning the power of the web.
She currently loves snakes, and many of her books contain pictures of them ("the scariest thing in the forest is...a HISSING SNAKE!"). Interestingly enough, she doesn't seem particularly interested in entire books about snakes -- perhaps they all look the same after a while, and she loses interest. Anyway, one day this past winter, I was working on the computer when she walked in and wanted to participate. We have a few online games we sometimes play, and I didn't feel like playing them -- they're sort of pointless, so I went to the google image search and did a search for snakes. The screen immediately filled up with pictures of snakes, and Ivy was delighted. We also searched for dogs, fish, beavers, and other animals she suggested.
So, as a way to entertain a toddler with pictures on demand, it was a cool little activity. But the real power comes when you click into some of the pictures and find that the sites they're from have all kinds of related information. So a site with a cool photo of a salmon might also have a picture of a killer whale, with a video of a surfacing orca. And below that might be a picture of a loon that links to a list of birds with sound clips of their calls. She dubbed the activity "The Snake Game", and requests it instead of the Dr.Seuss games site.
We all use the web like this every day, following our own threads of interest, but it was fascinating to see Ivy make those choices at her age -- pointing at the things that caught her attention, with me as her virtual mouse. It's cool that she calls it a game. My role isn't to tell her about snakes, it's just to help facilitate her search. I can fill in the things she needs help with (like reading the captions) or give her ideas for new exploration. But she's in control, which is the magic learning ingredient missing from most formalized education. That control means she might start with a picture of a python and end up on a science site watching a video clip of a tornado sweeping through Kansas, and she loves it. What if the entire education system was set up to allow that type of exploration?