Research published by the Smithsonian Institution shows that social insects such as ants and bees aren’t the “miniature automatons with hard-wired brains and robotic behavior” many scientists assumed. In fact, they rapidly process information from their environment and experiences and adapt their behavior accordingly — to succeed as predators and survive as prey.
William Wcislo, an evolutionary biologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, spent five years lurking in the dirt near the entrances to 1,500 different underground nests of rainforest sweat bees.
He observed repeated attacks by worker ants and, in the process, discovered startling new behaviors being used by the insects to outwit each other. As the ants developed diverse predatory strategies to ambush pollen-laden bees returning to their nests, the bees started deploying new evasive maneuvers he had not seen or read about before.
Strategies the bees used included flying up to the nest in a confusing zigzag pattern and landing a short distance from the nest. When Wcislo noticed this new behavior, he saw the ants start using a counterstrategy. As a bee zigzagged, the ant quickly pirouetted, trying to take a 360-degree survey of the area surrounding the nest so it could see the bee as it landed.
Wcislo’s observations are interesting, but not unique. Scientific literature is full of similar stories that illustrate animals’ abilities to use real-life experiences to adapt valuable knowledge and self-protective behavior.
As it turns out, animals learn much the same way humans do. We encounter moments when something unique happens. We store impressions of what we experience in our brains — both the causes and the consequences — and then call up this information when we need to make a decision about how to react to a situation.
Integrating authentic, experiential learning into workforce development is one way the industry is evolving its own strategies to more effectively reconcile the way people actually learn with the way they are taught.
In this approach, computer-aided simulations and interactive games allow learners to experience situations, test their performance, practice new skills and discover the consequences of their actions without real-world risks — advantages the ants and bees would no doubt really appreciate.
A recent IDC survey indicated “by 2008 the use of simulations will quadruple … Simulations provide a parallel universe in which employees hone their skills … Innovative companies have realized this, and others will follow.”
Organizations interested in finding new and better ways to teach in the 21st century also are employing “serious games” to accelerate learning, increase comprehension and retention, and provide bottom-line benefits, such as
higher productivity and a more engaged and capable workforce. These high-powered games grab and keep the attention of players and provide a more personally relevant and meaningful experience for the participant. And that helps the learning “stick.”
A large part of the appeal of serious games is that they take place in a familiar environment for the latest generation of learners. Games are something many of these learners can relate to and understand.
Marc Prensky, a speaker, writer, educator and learning-game designer, coined the phrase “digital natives” to describe these new learners. He maintains that the thinking patterns of learners today have changed because they have experienced a radical new form of computer and video-game play, and “this new form of entertainment has shaped their preferences and abilities and offers an enormous potential for their learning, both as children and as adults.” In other words, their actual experiences have taught them new ways of learning. The only natural response to this phenomenon is for learning organizations to adapt.
As learning leaders, you should be thinking strategically about the maneuvers you’ll need to employ to assure the success and survival of learning and development initiatives in your organization. Finding creative, new ways to integrate immersive, experiential learning experiences could well be one of them.
As always, I’m anxious to hear your thoughts and experiences. Just make a beeline for my e-mail inbox.