In my previous post, Learning vs Development, I connected Cook-Greuter’s bidirectional view of development to the two sides of the L&D equation: horizontal growth representing the “L” and vertical transformation representing the “D”.
While the former refers to the traditional notion of learning as the acquisition of knowledge and skills, the latter is a more powerful concept. According to Cook-Greuter, “it refers to how we see the world through new eyes, how we change our interpretations of experience and how we transform our views of reality. It describes increases in what we are aware of, or what we can pay attention to, and therefore what we can influence and integrate.”
This reminds me of ecological psychology. When I was studying this subject at university, I found its core concepts such as umwelt abstract and vague. Although I eventually got my head around it well enough to get through, I was never fully satisfied with my depth of understanding.
Then I read The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant.
Now, this book isn’t a high-brow treatise of epistemology, but rather a fascinating story of tiger poaching in the wilds of far-eastern Russia. From this unlikely source I obtained a wonderfully simple explanation of umwelt…
In 1909, an Estonian-born baron-turned-psychologist named Jakob von Uexkull introduced the concept of Umwelt to the world. Uexkull is considered one of the fathers of ethology, which is also known as behavioural ecology. It is a young discipline whose goal is to study behaviour and social organization through a biological lens. “To do so,” wrote Uexkull in “A Stroll through the Worlds of Animals and Men,” “we must first blow, in a fancy, a soap bubble around each creature to represent its own world, filled with the perceptions which it alone knows. When we ourselves then step into one of those bubbles, the familiar is transformed.” Uexkull called this bubble the umwelt, a German word that he applied to a given animal’s subjective or “self-centered” world.
An individual’s umwelt exists side by side with the Umgebung – the term Uexkull used to describe the objective environment, a place that exists in theory but that none of us can truly know given the inherent limitations of our respective umwelten. In addition to being delightful words to say, umwelt and umgebung offer a framework for exploring and describing the experience of other creatures.
In the umgebung of a city sidewalk, for example, a dog owner’s umwelt would differ greatly from her dog’s in that, while she might be keenly aware of a SALE sign in a window, a policeman coming toward her, or a broken bottle in her path, the dog would focus on the gust of cooked meat emanating from a restaurant’s exhaust fan, the urine on a fire hydrant, and the doughnut crumbs next to the broken bottle.
Objectively, these two creatures inhabit the same umgebung, but their individual umwelten give them radically different experiences of it. And yet these parallel universes have many features in common: both dog and mistress must be careful crossing the street, and both will pay close attention to other dogs, if not for the same reasons.
Vaillant then goes on to explain how the success of hunting depends on how well the hunter can step inside the umwelt of his prey and see the world through its eyes.
What’s this got to do with e-learning?
Of course, ecological psychology isn’t new to edtech. Its principles have been applied to video games, online forums and the semantic web, for instance.
However while the screen-based umwelt is obviously important in the modern workplace, I’m also interested in the world around us. And this is where I think technology-assisted games have much to offer.
While the pedagogical benefits of games are well documented in terms of motivation and engagement, their potential to complement authentic umwelts is probably under appreciated.
Take airport security for example: consider an augmented reality app designed to train a customs officer to recognise the tell-tale signs of a passenger who is concealing drugs. The officer holds up her device (such as an iPad) to a real checkpoint, over which virtual passengers stream through.
The objective of the officer is to select the passengers whom she suspects of carrying drugs. Each selection prompts an explanation of whether she is right or wrong, and reinforces the reasons why. Combine this with a points system and competition among her colleagues, and she’ll become a mule-busting expert in no time!
Another example context is environmental science: consider a treasure hunt designed to train a biologist to identify the major vegetation types in a forest.
QR codes are placed on indicator species (such as trees and ferns) along a trail, but out of plain sight.
An initial clue is provided – perhaps descriptions and photos of several plants typically found in a rainforest.
The objective of the biologist is to walk along the trail until he reaches the rainforest gully, find the QR code in the vicinity, scan it with his iPhone, and study the new clue which points him to the next vegetation type. The game is not complete until he finds all the codes and hence familiarises himself with all the vegetation.
In neither of the cases above was the learner’s workplace simulated on screen. The setting was real.
The corollary, then, is that when a person’s performance on the job is highly dependent on their umwelt, a technology-assisted game can help them acquire the “eye of the tiger” in that context.