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VOL. 37 | NO. 25 | Friday, June 21, 2013

The power of curiosity and sociability

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Two organizations – the Miami-based One Laptop Per Child Association and the Cambridge, Mass.-based One Laptop Per Child Foundation – are nonprofit entities set up to oversee the creation of affordable educational devices for use in the developing world.

As their organizational names suggest, they focus on getting a laptop computer in the hands of every child in their targeted communities. I hope they continue to be highly successful and eventually accomplish their stated mission. However, there is a good chance they will also be successful if they can only manage to get one laptop in the hands of a community of children.

In his book “Free to Learn,” author Peter Gray tells a story that illustrates why you do not necessarily need a computer for each child. In 1999, Sugata Mitra conducted a fascinating experiment in one of the poorest slums in New Delhi; a slum primarily populated with unschooled and illiterate children who had never seen a computer. He somehow installed a single computer in the outside wall of a building facing the slums, turned it on, left it on, and told the children they could play with it.

The children began exploring the odd machine, touching things to see what happened, poking around with various things on the machine and sharing what they discovered with others in the community. According to Mitra, “Within days, without any instruction from adults, dozens of children were using the computer to play music and games, to draw with Microsoft Paint, and to do many other things that children everywhere do when they have access to a computer.”

I find this story interesting for a couple of reasons. One, it demonstrates the power of curiosity and sociability. According to Peter Gray, curiosity motivated the children to approach and manipulate the computer and sociability caused the knowledge and skills to spread like wildfire from child to child. Two, if this happens in a community of children, why wouldn’t it work in a community of adult co-workers?

Extending this logic a bit, if you want your workforce to acquire new knowledge and learn new skills, what are you doing to encourage curiosity and sociability related to the desired skills? And basically, how can you make learning seem like, or actually be, a game?

I still remember when personal computers were relatively new in the workplace (yes, I am that old). A consultant came in and had a group of us play the various roles of a computer. One person was a keyboard, another a mouse, another a hard drive, another a floppy disk drive (if you are young, ask an old person to explain floppy disk drives to you) and so forth and so on. We ran around the room “acting out our roles” and explaining how everything worked together. It was fun, it was educational, it was memorable and it worked.

When you need people to learn new things at work, promote curiosity and sociability. Maybe it will work for your workplace community.

Chris Crouch is CEO of DME Training and Consulting and author of several books on improving productivity. Contact him through www.dmetraining.com.

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