Enabling environments’ activities directly serve an intrinsically meaningful purpose

When designing an Enabling environment, it’s tempting to fixate on the skills or understandings being developed or amplified. This approach generally subverts its own aims. The most successful enabling environments comprise activities which are primarily about those skills or understandings are for. (See Powerful enabling environments usually arise as a byproduct of projects pursuing their own intrinsically meaningful purposes, Enabling environments focus on doing what’s enabled, Situated learning)

Internally-modulated learning is self-actualizing; externally-modulated learning is self-abnegating. Without an intrinsically meaningful purpose, the activities will be primarily motivated and modulated by forces external to the individuals involved.

Deep understanding requires (and is a result of) intense personal connection. Without an intrinsically meaningful purpose, that connection is unlikely.

It’s not enough for the authors to have some intrinsically meaningful motive for creating the activities, and it’s not enough for the participants alone to find the activities intrinsically meaningful. Authored activities must have intrinsically meaningful purpose for both author and participant. Ideally, those purposes align: Authored environments are significantly colored by authors’ motivations.

For example, Mathematica might contain Cognitive scaffolding, but its activities are primarily about doing math and science. Games effectively develop players’ skills, but Skill development in games is subservient to other intrinsically meaningful purposes.

Educational environments may ultimately aspire to intrinsically meaningful purposes like supporting your family or joining a professional community. Those high-level purposes often don’t translate to practical experiences in the environments. Some “educational” activities have intrinsically meaningful purposes, but in most cases, their activities are primarily about skill development, which is rarely intrinsically meaningful (Enabling environments focus on creating opportunities for growth and action, not on skill-building). For more: Educational objectives often subvert themselves.


Email with Michael Nielsen, 2019/08/23. Re: Transcending the Primer

Of course, in some sense I’m quite enamoured of goals like “enabling people” … But I’m also very suspicious of such goals. I think > 99.9% of the time they end up patronizing. The only thing I know of which consistently gets away from that failure pattern is to make the primary goal something else, something that’s intrinsically important.

E.g., if you run the Apollo program you’ll certainly be enabling people. But it’ll be secondary to getting to the moon. If you create Mathematica you’ll certainly be enabling people. But it’ll be secondary to doing kick-ass mathematics / theoretical physics. …

Situated Learning - Lave and Wenger

Last updated 2024-04-15.