Uncertainty, Science, and Play

Inside Beau Lotto’s learning laboratory.

“Education tends to be about becoming an expert,” notes Beau Lotto, director of the Lottolab studio at University College London. “If a bus is coming at you, you don’t want to be creative; you want to be an efficient expert. We treat life like a bus is always coming at us.”

While Lotto sees a role for expertise, he believes we should teach children many different strategies, including the ability to flexibly switch between them depending on the context. Recently, Lotto created a safe space for uncertainty by moving his lab into a science museum. There, he and his colleagues created a six-day program called “I, scientist.” Lotto believes all of us are already scientists since we all learn through trial and error. He sees science as a way of being- a state of play where a person moves between various mental states, and where learning is its own reward. To facilitate this spirit, the program is intentionally left unstructured.

Still, Lotto believes it’s crucial to establish trust with the students and make sure you are speaking their language, showing them why they should care about the program. “Uncertainty is a very scary, dangerous place,” Lotto said in a recent interview. Once students feel comfortable, they engage in observation and start asking questions. Lotto believes the best questions are the ones that lead to more questions. “The good questions, when answered, create more uncertainty because it leads to understanding instead of information.”

If they are asking why a bee acts a certain way, they are encouraged to ask- why do I do that? The students are also encouraged to ask what if? and come up with ways that test their questions. Lotto believes that without realizing it, the students are engaging in the scientific method. But Lotto doesn’t say they are running “experiments.” Instead, he believes they are creating games- the combination of a state of play with rules. After designing and playing these games, the final phase in their framework is sharing, where students produce a report of their findings.

One group of 8- to 10- year olds already published their findings on bumblebees in the prestigious journal Biology Letters. As Lotto reported to the crowd at TEDGlobal, “this was the first ever peer-reviewed scientific article published in a top journal reporting a truly unique finding, in which all 25 authors are 8 year-olds…or younger.”

In his latest project, Lotto hopes to radically change the experience of school by making play, uncertainty, tolerance for ambiguity, and failure not only OK, but enjoyable. Lotto wants to create a truly ambiguous environment where all boundaries are blurred: People don’t know whether they’re walking into a lab, a nightclub, or a theater. He wants to then set up these spaces in different cities and create a buzz around them. “Imagine science is the top entertainment venue,” he said, his voice bubbling with excitement.

Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D, is a cognitive scientist who contributes to Psychology Today, The Huffington Post, and Harvard Business Review. He is Chief Science Advisor at The Future Project, an initiative to improve student engagement in U.S. schools. He is currently finishing a book, Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, to be published in 2013 by Basic Books.

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