Complexity, Kids, and Lifelong Learning: A Serendipitous Encounter with the Power of Digital Discovery

Written by Erin Branham. 

Learning is an innate human capacity.  Even knowing that as educators, we really don’t give kids (and maybe adults too) enough credit. Here’s how a trek through internet links taught me a few things today.

I’ve been a big fan of complexity theory for many, many years. Complexity theory studies complex adaptive systems, which are systems made up of many agents, all of which are capable of independently adapting in interaction with the environment. The interactions of these many agents produce emergent behaviors that do not seem to follow logically from the abilities of the individual agents.  The brain is a complex adaptive system – given what an individual neuron is capable of, being moved to tears by watching a video about how kids learn should not really be possible.  However, because there are a billion neurons in your brain interacting the emergent behavior of consciousness arises and boom!, bawling in my office over the beauty of the human capacity to learn.

This will all make sense shortly, I promise.

I had an encounter today that reminded me how lucky I am to live now, in the age that makes lifelong learning easier and more broadly-based than ever before.   One of the things digital is best at is sharing deeply interconnected layered information. I was flipping through my blog feeds this morning and encountered a great nuts’n’bolts post from Jasper Visser on 5 Online Video Tools.  An example he shares demonstrates how you can layer information onto a video using Mozilla’s Popcorn Maker, which sounds like a pretty groovy tool, because it lets you add pop up links and twitter feeds to a video.

So, I’m watching the TED Talk video of Beau Lotto and Amy O’Toole that Jasper uses to illustrate the capabilities of Popcorn Maker and discover that it is really interesting in its own right because it turns out to be about the extraordinary capacity of kids to do more than adults think they can do.  The content of the video deals with uncertainty, adaptability to change, the beauty of science and discovery, and play as learning.

While I’m watching, I’m also trying to absorb 1) the capacity of Mozilla’s Popcorn Maker to add layered information to a video and 2) the extra layers of information.  For a moment it becomes overwhelming and I think – this is what can feel so bewildering about digital teaching/ learning, too much all at once!  I was concerned that I was missing the core material of the video.  Then I realize – I can watch this video again and attend just to what Popcorn Maker is doing, and then a third time to pick up all the extra layers of information.  The infinite reproducibility and repeatability of digital information to the rescue!  I will probably, in fact, watch it several more times in order to grab the links being shared in the extra layers of information, any of which may have significance to my work as a Family Programs museum education specialist.

But here’s where things get really fun.

I was having difficulty making the embedded video of Beau and Amy’s talk on Jasper’s blog go full screen.  So I go to the site to find it and watch it there.  I notice the sidebar of this page where the customizable web has let me know that a friend and colleague of mine has recommended another TED video.  This one is Sugata Mitra describing the Hole in the Wall project, which I had heard of, but didn’t really know much about.  Because this was a friend I trust, and the video was titled The Child-driven Education, I watched it. Then I laughed.  I cheered.  I cried.


The web is a place that can create awe-inspiring serendipity.  I found this video, which has reinforced several of my core beliefs about people, learning, and digital tools because, in deciding to blog, I have taught myself how to collect and read the thoughts of others, and become a part of a network of social learning that is about idea exchange – much like the kids featured in both of the videos I happened upon. May you happen upon something on the web that inspires and teaches you today.


Featured Image from Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software by Steven Johnson.


2 thoughts on “Complexity, Kids, and Lifelong Learning: A Serendipitous Encounter with the Power of Digital Discovery

  1. Anonymous says:

    Really enjoyed this post and the video. Thanks for putting it out there – I am now self-organizing my learning with additional data 🙂


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