Cooking, Digital Confidence, and Play
In the Etmooc session last week Doug Belshaw proposed eight different elements as essential for digital literacies (arrayed like a periodic table).
I’ve been thinking since about the element of “confidence” (Cf on his chart). In this context, confidence represents a willingness to approach new digital technologies without knowing how (or if) they will work (the first time, or perhaps at all). Confidence is being OK with making mistakes on the way to learning a new tool or approach, and navigating the unknown undeterred. Can we learn this? At one level, it makes sense that repeated exposure, practice, and “learning” from things that didn’t work so well initially would build confidence. This made me think of my experience with cooking.
When I was six years old, my family had an old Home Comfort wood-burning cook stove. I really liked Macaroni and Cheese, and wanted to make some. I knew I needed water and macaroni, and something to make it yellow. I thought carrots might work. So I put cold water, a bunch of macaroni, and a couple carrots into a saucepan. I had been shown how to add wood to the fire, so I carefully removed the heavy stove lid with the handy lifter, and set the pan down into the hot coals (thinking it would cook faster). The room soon became smoky and I was sorely disappointed in the soggy, ash covered soup with hard carrots. My parents were more than disappointed.
I loved to help my mother cook, and she permitted me to practice whenever I wanted to. About two years after the macaroni debacle, I wanted to make a pumpkin pie. I had a pretty good idea about pie crust, so with dough prepared for two crusts, I opened a can of pumpkin (with the picture of the pie on the front), spread the pumpkin over the bottom crust and closed it all very nicely, even cutting slits in the top with a knife. Unfortunately, I assumed the pumpkin was like cherry or apple filling, and didn’t bother to read a recipe. I just wanted the pie. Disappointment again. (Think of unseasoned orange glop between two layers of not-so-flaky crust).
I learned a lot about macaroni, cooking temperatures, and pumpkin pies as a result of these early experiments, and have never stopped wanting to cook and play with food. I still have the occasional flop, but I’m confident enough to try anything that looks interesting or that someone requests, and even vary the recipe the first time if I think of something I prefer.
This sounds a lot like the confidence (Cf) Doug was describing. Cooking and digital programs are neither mysterious nor magical, though they can feel that way to beginners. What makes some of us experiment readily—with food or technical tools—while others don’t, won’t, can’t (or any number of other “nots”)? There may be something about temperament or brain wiring--and I don’t know enough about that to make any claims. What I’ve been learning about research on the importance of play offers a partial answer.
Stuart Brown, psychiatrist and pioneer in research on play, argues in his TED talk –Play is more than fun-- that play, involving exploring the world with our hands, is essential to healthy development and learning for children AND adults. He says: “The human hand, in the manipulation of objects, is a hand in search of a brain, the brain is in search of a hand, and play is the medium by which those two are linked.” Driving home his point about play and hands, he notes that NASA and Boeing consider “having worked with hands in the past” as an essential criterion when hiring top problem-solvers. In relating these ideas to my own experience, I know I am confident where I have played and used my hands (those early cooking experiments); so my expectation is that the more I play with these digital technologies “using my digits” (lame joke), the more confident I will become. It isn’t just experimenting, practicing,and repeating. I’ve tried these approaches with new technology tools, and that hasn't made me confident. Instead, I'm trying out the idea that confidence is a serious consequence of having fun. It’s about acting on the premise that a brain in search of a hand, and a hand in search of a brain, create confidence when linked together in play.