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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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Alan Alda: the Play’s the Thing

At an event held at the University of Southern California, actor and Scientific American Frontiers host Alan Alda spoke to students about the relationships between the arts, science and communication. He probably didn’t realize it, but he also managed to highlight some of the very things I find most compelling about education - opportunities for engaging constructivist practice in the classroom. I just wonder if any of it can be replicated online as well.

Alan Alda @ USCFirst of all, let me set the stage. I happened to be in LA for several days attending a retreat organized by NPR. During the final session on Wednesday, the screen in the back of the room was switched to its default setting - the USC homepage. I didn’t pay much attention to it until near the end of the retreat, when I noticed that there was a picture of Alan Alda. He was going to be speaking on campus later that afternoon. So as everyone wrapped up the meeting and went on their way, I made a beeline to the USC Bing Theatre, eager to see what Alda would have to say.

Over the course of an hour, Alda covered an amazing variety of topics - feel free to check out the post on my personal blog if you want a more complete blow-by-blow - but there were several threads in the conversation that really struck me.

For example, time and again, Alda made the connection between scientific discovery and play. Even the simple act of manipulating Tinker Toys, he said, can be enlightening. “You can steep yourself in it so much, back off, then mess with it, put it in different positions,” he said. “For example, I play a word game on my iPhone…. If I hit a button that puts them in a different order, I see more words.”

But the person who personified the relationship between scientific inquiry and play better than anyone else - in Alda’s mind at least - was the late Nobel-winning scientist, Richard Feynman. Alda, who produced and starred in a play about the scientist, told a story about how Feynman first made the connection between the two ideas:

After he worked on the atomic bomb, and after they set it off and he realized the destructive power…. he became very depressed. And he was teaching at Cornell, and he got so depressed he couldn’t do his work: ‘What happened? It used to be fun. I want to get back at it and have fun.’ And soon after he said that to himself, he was in the cafeteria and he saw a kid, a student, playing with a plate, and he could see the Cornell symbol on the plate go around and wobble. ‘I wonder if there’s a relationship between the spin and the wobble. That would be fun.’

So he went home and started doing calculations - a month of them. He started to see there was a two-to-one relationship, and he went to [fellow atomic scientist] Hans Betha, but Betha said, ‘Fine, but how is that important? It has no importance!’ But from that point onwards, he only did things that were both interesting and fun…. Those calculations he did on that plate led to … the work he did to get him his Nobel prize. That’s play - that’s pure play.

He also noted an observation once made by Feynman about teaching. “Somebody at Caltech asked Feynman to give a talk on quantum mechanics, but to a freshman class,” he recalled. “He came back after a few days and said he didn’t know how to do it, ‘That must mean we must not really understand it,’ he said. If he couldn’t explain it to a freshman class, he really didn’t get it.”

Alda then went on to describe how he spent the previous evening with a group of USC engineering students exploring how improvisational games might help them improve their communications skills, particularly when it came to translating their own research for a layperson to understand.

We had a wonderful session; it was an attempt to see if we could make the process of communicating science more vivid. The essence of the [improv] games is that they take your attention off of yourself and put them on to other actors. You have to observe them very carefully. The rules of these games require you to be aware of what’s happening. Because you’re not watching yourself, stuff comes out of you that you didn’t know was there. Your real voice comes out. Your body becomes more available to you. And you can see their faces get flushed with the exertion of playing the game, and moving away of thinking of themselves. That lack of consciousness lets the unconscious out…. All of this stuff that’s being worked on at an unconscious level comes out, and it’s shocking to see how interesting it is.

At the end of playing these games, everyone who’d spoken was asked to give their presentation again,” he continued. “What was amazing was every single one of them was elevated. There was so much true animation in the way they spoke. There was the sound of their own real voice - not the voice of someone lecturing - talking in a pure, intimate way, directly to you…. You heard them deep in your head because they were warmed to you; they were human.

Throughout the conversation, I couldn’t help but wonder to myself if Alda was familiar with constructivist educational practices. He seemed utterly fascinated with certain themes - that play and undirected exploration can lead to understanding and discovery; that your ability to communicate a complex idea clearly demonstrates a deeper understanding of that very idea. These themes can be seen again and again when you look at classrooms where the teacher encourages the students to hypothesize, experiment and teach their peers what they learned. By treating students as scholars and researchers capable of their own discovery and teaching rather than mere lecture receptacles, these educators help them acquire a greater understanding and sensitivity to knowledge that would otherwise be impossible through simple rote.

I wonder if there’s an Internet equivalent of what Alda described, with students interjecting improvisation and play into their work as a way of improving their own comprehension of a subject. Does anything come to mind? I keep envisioning a group of young people improvising in Second Life, for example. Then again, perhaps there isn’t an exact online analogue to Alda’s exercise. Either way, I sure would love to see someone try. -andy

Filed under : People



You said that Alda kept making the association between play and scientific discovery. One of the strong points of simulations used in Serious Games is that they can be an environment for experimentation with trying different strategies. Some will be successful and others will fail. I think the learning community will find a way to use the gaming platform to teach real world skills.

Just today I came across an article “America’s Army Player uses In-Game Medic Training to Help Save Life” at http://www.mcvuk.com/press-releases/34455/Americas-Army-Player-uses-In-Game-Medic-Training-to-Help-Save-Life
Where a civilian that plays America’s Army as a medic (part of the prerequisites of playing online is completing virtual medical training based on real training for Army medics)was the first to arrive at the scene of an accident where he performed first aid on the victims. One of the victims had lost two fingers in the accident and the other had minor cuts and abrasions.

There is still hope in creating effective learning experiences online. The web is not the only tool in the box, but it can be an useful one.


I have always advocated play, but some of the best playgrounds are blocked by web filters.

Such a delight to read about Alan Alda’s presentation and constructivist learning.
The challenge and the opportunity I try to give my 9th grade Earth & Space science classes here at Sandwich High School is called “Mission to Mars”.

Students research specific areas of Mars and how JPL and NASA hass been successful in accomplishing the mission in the past.

We have Rover design engineering teams (are given a striped down 4×4 remote truck body toy and whatever broken toy parts from home and recycled materials including one clear two liter soda bottle), Landing choices and mapping teams, Public Relations and Information teams, a Space Control Center who write a script for the class to follow.

It comes down to the sound of giggles and a serious lesson in astronomy and technology. Many students have commented in their Reflective Journal, that this was the best thing they have done ever in science. The beauty of hands-on learning and creating an moving, vivid experience about Mars is what they remember

If you can build it, whether it worked or not, we learn from hypothesis that prove out, and , from the ones that do not. So when not getting it right is recognized as not a failure, but, a satisfying experience we learn from.

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