Alternating Forms

         I want to deal next with how to make sequences of learning-games.  Many of the ideas and tools for this have been discussed above, particularly in “The Game-Game”; but a few more general ideas are useful.  Alas, they are quite dry.

         How do people learn in ongoing groups?  To take the matter at its worst, in colleges – where the games of mass education are most highly developed – most formal learning goes on through classes whose basic process is this:  you listen to a lecture, go home to study and think; listen to a lecture, go home to study and think; and so on.  Finally you take a test or write a paper – and then repeat the whole cycle.  In a better class you may discuss in seminar, go home; discuss in seminar, go home; …; deliver an oral report for judgment, to the class or the teacher alone; and repeat the cycle.

         All this can be summarized dryly as a cyclic sequential process of the form (AAA…AM; AAA…AM; AAA…AM;…), where the basic cycle A = (a,b) = (hear Lecture, study alone) or (play Seminar, study alone), and M is a ritual of judgment on the learner.  To add homework and study-groups to this description hardly troubles its simplicity. Besides the lack of any focus on process, one basic problem with this is that focus of each cycle is only on cognitive content and interaction.  It gets to be monotonous.

         A richer and more flexible way to organize ongoing learning is to use the same overall form (BBB…BN; BBB…BN;…), but to have each cycle B = (c,d,e,f) = (design a new experience, go through it alone or together, deal with it cognitively in group and in smaller informal groups, think and study alone).  If the group is “simply” a learning-group, the ritual N can deal with evaluation of BBB…B and planning for the next such cycle.  If the group is working to organize a process of political, social, or institutional change, the ritual N can be a public action by the group or involve some other mobilization of social energy; and the sequence becomes (BBB…BNN’; BBB…BNN’; …), where now N’= (evaluation and planning).

         Such a sequential process is designed from the start to integrate experience and cognition in an organic way, each giving rise to the other, within each basic cycle.  In the more barren class process of colleges, private experience can occasionally be “made relevant” to some cycle; but there’s no deliberate place in the process for experience related to cognitive content, nor any provision for helping each to generate the other.
         All this suggests a general principle.  Our culture is troubled by the split between experience and cognitive reflection?  Very well:  work to integrate them by learning in processes which alternate them deliberately, and dynamically, each leading into the other. 

         To put a very deep matter briefly, I believe that this holds for every split that troubles our culture, our lives, and education – the splits between thought and action, the emotional and the rational, body and mind, the intimate and the public, private interest and collective good, man and woman, the secular and the spiritual, art and utility, and lord knows what else.  A considerable curriculum opens from this!  But it is no more than what should be the standard curriculum of education.  For people learn as whole beings, and each of us embodies all the polarities listed and then some.  Our schools paralyze the polarities; but a healthy educational process helps each person deal dynamically with the integral whole and the consequences of each act of learning.

         I think this principle holds also for divided domains of content.  What is a process useful for “interdisciplinary studies,” say between engineering and psychology?  By this rule, the curriculum of their synergy might involve beginning with a problem in one  domain, playing with it until it brings up a problem to play with in the other, and on and on.  Such a cyclic process might take years to bear its proper fruit.  But everything we have seen on a more modest scale, of alternating the focus of games between two contents in this way, suggests that in this way an integral knowledge, grounded in both domains and resolving them with real human flesh, begins to grow in the players.  The third example of the next section illustrates one direction of experiment within this principle.

         (Credit where credit is due:  I first learned about hybrid or alternating forms of learning while watching an SDS agit-prop theater group rehearse in 1967.  At the time, it was the most cohesive political group in Berkeley, and the only one whose members enjoyed coming to meetings.  They spent half their time just horsing around.  Half of the rest they spent in discussing ideology, and half in rehearsal, struggling to translate ideology into dramatic images with popular impact.  As compared with the usual political rap group, whose process ran in the lecture/seminar style of the university, I saw that they had come, both individually and collectively, to a different and deeper grasp of their political understanding, in order to be able to translate it into a different medium.  Conversely, their theater was grounded and enriched by the struggle of their discussion.  The periodic mobilizations of their performances were working tests, integral rituals to make their learning real; and were followed by evaluation and self-criticism.  Power is generated on every interface where different media of experience, and different ways of being, come into intimate contact.)

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