Enabling environments focus on doing what’s enabled

In a good Enabling environment like a strong corporation or Minecraft, the activities mostly comprise doing what those environments enable.

By contrast, most books (even executable books) don’t involve doing what they’re about. These environments’ activities are about what they’re about—reading about basketball, not playing basketball. They’re at a remove from the action, and that makes them less able to enable their participants.

This is a natural byproduct of the higher-level observations described in Powerful enabling environments usually arise as a byproduct of projects pursuing their own intrinsically meaningful purposes and Enabling environments focus on creating opportunities for growth and action, not on skill-building.

A focus on action keeps environment authors honest. It forces them to focus on the elements which meaningfully enable action. That keeps the activities centered around intrinsically meaningful purposes (Enabling environments’ activities directly serve an intrinsically meaningful purpose), rather than more abstract goals.

Activities doing what’s being enabled will generally create more personal connection than activities about what’s being enabled. That connection’s important: Deep understanding requires (and is a result of) intense personal connection.

Social enabling environments can expand participants’ reach by helping them build on each others’ ideas. That effect will be limited if the social activity is only about what’s being enabled. A lunchtime discussion with a colleague might be quite helpful, but if you find his ideas striking, you’ll probably find a collaboration with the colleague much more enabling.

One challenge here is that Novices in enabling environments often can’t do what’s enabled. In fact, that’s part of what keeps novices novices. Once novices can participate to some extent, then the environment can integrate powerful dynamic scaffolds to enable them further (see Metacognitive supports require dynamic, participatory environments). For instance, a coach might suggest which exercises might best help an athlete achieve his goals on a given day (Metacognitive supports as cognitive scaffolding). Minecraft’s single-player experience builds players’ construction skills by hiding increasingly complex materials in locations which require progressive mastery to reach.

For a counter-argument to extreme versions of this idea (e.g. Situated learning), see Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75–86.


Situated Learning - Lave and Wenger

It is thus necessary to refine our distinction between talking about and talking within a practice. Talking within itself includes both talking within (e.g., exchanging information necessary to the progress of ongoing activities) and talking about (e.g., stories, community lore). Inside the shared practice, both forms of talk fulfill specific functions: engaging, focusing, and shifting attention, bringing about coordination, etc., on the one hand; and supporting communal forms of memory and reflection, as well as signaling membership, on the other. (And, similarly, talking about includes both forms of talk once it becomes part of a practice of its own, usually sequestered in some respects.) For newcomers then the purpose is not to learn from talk as a substitute for legitimate peripheral participation; it is to learn to talk as a key to legitimate peripheral participation.

When the process of increasing participation is not the primary motivation for learning, it is often because "didactic caretakers" assume responsibility for motivating newcomers. In such circumstances, the focus of attention shifts from coparticipating in practice to acting upon the person-to-be-changed.

Second, where there is no cultural identity encompassing the activity in which newcomers participate and no field of mature practice for what is being learned, exchange value replaces the use value of increasing participation. The commoditization of learning engenders a fundamental contradiction between the use and exchange values of the outcome of learning, which manifests itself in conflicts between learning to know and learning to display knowledge for evaluation. Testing in schools and trade schools (unnecessary in situations of apprenticeship learning) is perhaps the most pervasive and salient example of a way of establishing the exchange value of knowledge. Test taking then becomes a new parasitic practice, the goal of which is to increase the exchange value of learning independently of it use value.

Last updated 2024-04-03.