First published on November 2011.
Over the last three years we’ve been showing clients like Glyndebourne, the Barbican and the English National Opera YouTube clips of a young Spanish man, Achokarlos, sitting alone in his bedroom playing along to extreme heavy metal by the likes of Meshuggah and Deicide.
Now really, why would we do that?
We think that the approach to learning that the 14-year-old Achokarlos embarked upon three or four years ago tells us a lot about how we should approach our learning-based work.
Great learning environments have a feedback loop at the heart of them; powerful personal motivators such as the desire to improve oneself or the curiosity to discover new ideas kick-start the process. These motivations are then amplified if a social space exists in which that new-found knowledge or advanced technique can be shared. In turn, the responses garnered from that ‘audience’ to one’s sharing can help the learner quickly assess their thinking or playing style; the ‘student’ makes improvements, which of course gives rise to the possibility of sharing that improved expression all over again.
A major benefit to this circular style of learning is that it not only allows failure and imperfection into the process, it makes that failure a positive and instructive lesson.
Pay attention to the comments thread on any given shred clip. OK, so the language is somewhat robust, not to mention profane, but look closely and you’ll see that there’s a real encouragement going on, albeit a challenging, competitive one. Do the ‘dudes’ in this ad hoc community consider themselves peer mentors? Of course not, but the results of their commenting are compelling; we’ve watched kids progress at a rapid pace in this environment – faster than many of them would have done in a conventional learning environment. What teacher would possibly use the kind of language being used here? But then what teacher would endorse showing off so enthusiastically?
Showing off is often shunned in our culture as a selfish act, an essential practice of ‘me’ culture, but we think its role needs reconsidering. We think that the best kind of showing off is the social activity that can amplify our own desire to learn, and that the right kind of showing off allows us to convert our private pleasure, curiosity and desire for self-improvement into a powerful social currency.
Achokarlos’ mission is to advance his shredding technique. For those out of that particular loop, shredding is the art of extreme showing off in guitar music. While it has antecedents in music as diverse as bluegrass and Hindustani raga, it is now most closely associated with metal, itself the most exacting, precise and virtuosic music ever conceived in the name of entertainment. Shredding is more circus than art. As such, shredding on one’s own is pointless; it requires an audience. And YouTube has provided an international platform for bedroom shredders.
Learning as circus; learning as bear pit. It may not suit everyone, but then neither does school. For what it’s worth, we’ve seen Achokarlos progress exponentially through the last three or four years. He’s moved from proficient covers through to online collaboration with peers, creating his own material, embracing his own role as online teacher, and finally forming a band characterised by his own staggeringly virtuosic, exuberant and very personal style.
This style of learning uses much more of ourselves than the solitary reading of a text on a given subject. It often happens in the format of a conversation or collaboration. It is often referred to as embodied learning; it works best when the body and brain become part learner, part teacher, part analytical tool, part emotional response system.
Instead of learning from a source that doesn’t require interaction, embodied learning requires us to use all that we have in order to develop, pay attention to others, learn from our mistakes, filter feedback and create constructive responses. Achokarlos’ videos work as a documentary of embodied learning; they form a public conversation in sound, music, physical technique and text. They require the critical assessment of the audience and call for useful responses that will be responded to – not necessarily in text but often with a new practice video.
It used to be that the web, by dint of the constraining effects of bandwidth, was a place only for the written part of our thinking. To learn from the web one had to read; that wouldn’t help bedroom shredders much. In a highly textual culture like ours it is easy for us to forget just how inappropriate the written word can be for many learning experiences.
But now that bandwidth has opened right up, so also has the web’s facility to become the storehouse and connective tissue of non-written expression. We need to make use of that full capability when we plan to use the web as a learning tool that can do something entirely different and often in parallel with formal learning.
OK, so how can we make use of any of this? Well, the lessons learned from Achokarlos and his fellow travellers have led us to ask some of the following questions when interrogating the learning projects and strategies on which we work:
How can we build on the natural pleasures this learning situation presents?
How can we facilitate an enjoyable platform for showing off?
What is the quickest route to learning in this situation?
How can we make failure a very useful feature for all?
How can we use competitive motivations to strengthen ideas exchange?
How can we make use of non-written thinking and expression in this project?
How can we make participants’ own curiosity and desire for self-improvement the driving forces of the project?
How can we convert private curiosity into something that can be publicly traded?
How can we create an environment in which it’s socially acceptable to improve each other’s ideas?
Illustrations by Paul Davis - http://copyrightdavis.blogspot.com/