November 27, 2003

Harrison Owen on High Play, Paradigm Shift and Dragons

Harrison Owen stopped by Half Moon Bay after an Open Space meeting in the San Juans, and shared his insights for Learning Friends. I showed Harrison Learning Friends' "under the hood" database, a "dynamic rationale tool" for linking theory and research to software design for children. The database is a repository for quotatations from disperate points of view from team members who are cognitive scientists, expert teachers, child development experts, graphics artists, interface designers and so forth, all contributing to LF models about how learning works, what children need and want and what's important to learn. This is a "cross-cultural" activity, because of the differences in language and habits of mind of these folks.

Harrison, author of The Power of Spirit: How Organizations Transform (Berrett-Koehler, 2000), has consulted to AT&T, IBM, the World Bank, Ikea, Proctor and Gamble, the U.S. Army and many other groups, is well known for his Open Space events, where people like Arabs and Israelis actually converse meaningfully. Sitting at a dinner table with him with time to laugh was one of those privileges you can't buy with mere wealth.

Harrison pointed out that besides making a "theory and research database" as planned, Learning Friends needs to create a Rosetta Stone for cross-comparing perspectives derived from different fields. While at NIH, Harrison said, researchers whose perspectives on Type A and B personalities were medical-physical and psychosocial both gathered data on subjects, and agreed on who fit in the Type A category. Then by testing for "hot responders" in videogames and cross-comparing physical (GSR, etc.) and social (ink blot, etc.) responses, the NIH study found that "true type A's" (who uniquely "went nuts" physically and emotionally while playing videogames), were at 4x the risk for heart disease than Type A's who responded physiologically like B's. The presence of data from two fields helped reveal "true Type A's" and allowed professionals in the two fields to share a perspective.

In response to Learning Friends intent to provide "high learning value" and "high play value" worlds, Harrison shared his work defining "high play" and the danger of true paradigm shift.

Harrison reminded us that, "Real science proceeds in jumps and glumps--Galileo almost got his head strung up by the church.

"Thomas Kuhn in his book, Structure of Scientific Revolutions. says that paradigm shifts are totally cataclysmic; total death and resurrection is involved.

Harrison says," 'high learning' (adapted from 'high science' of Kuhn)
is when 2, 3 or a dozen totally impossible ideas coalesce and you have one incandescent moment. High play is the way this stuff has to get done. The ground of reality shifts under your feet, the tendency is to tell a new likely story about what it means. A new theory is always an approximation, which always means it's in error. If it's approached in the spirit of dogmatism, we are in trouble. If we approach it with high play, we are just as willing to ramp it down. Like block play in kindergarten, when you kick the bottom block out of the pile and everyone screams with delight.

"In moments of high learning, everything you thought before disappears. Somehow you have to remake all your models in ways that make some sense. If you approach this with dead seriousness, you'll get new dogma. You'll probably kill someone over the new dogma. High play lets you test and refine it.

Harrison also talked about the three elements we need for successful Open Space, "Appropriate controls and structures is the third thing you need in Open Space. The structures and controls are emergent and therefore appropriate to the situation.

"The last normative outcome of an Open Space Meeting is community, unlike when a CEO stands up at Christmas and says, 'This is one big happy family.' Genuine community is when people from around the world who are not peaceniks genuinely hug and kiss one another.

"When this is mediated by high play, and the structures and controls manifest out of the community--you can't avoid having community-it's the natural state."

It was fantastic to put our heads together again, along with Nancy Wolfberg and Irwin Cohen, who hosted us.

Most delighful of all, in response to Miranda Dragon, the star of Learning Friends' math game, Harrison shared a tale he wrote about dragons, which begins, "Once upon a time, back when the world was new and all, the Dragon lived in the deep. Known to the Israelites as T'hom and the Babylonians as Tiamat, the Dragon was mother of all, a dark force whose dominion spread from shore to shore." The story ends with the question, "What would it mean to make friends with the Dragon?"

Posted by ann at November 27, 2003 07:05 AM | TrackBack
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