Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Festival of Learning

Do you see differences in your organization as an opportunity or a problem?

The Media Lab is an antidisciplinary organization packed with inventive doers. We cultivate a positive ethos of creative difference. How do we find strength in what many organizations fear? As a first-year research assistant, I'm still learning our culture. But at last weekend's Festival of Learning, I think I found the answer.

Over two days, the Festival of Learning invited anyone in our buildings to learn, teach, and do things together. It included students, staff and faculty across the Media Lab, Comparative Media Studies, the GAMBIT Game Lab, and MIT's Program in Art, Culture and Technology.

Our wonderfully diverse range of sessions (list here) included Making Mochi, Winter Survival Tips from a New Englander, Media Lab Research Methods 101, How to Release a Free Software / Open Source Project, Cardboard Forts, and hacking a disco office lighting system.

As coordinator of the festival and part of the organizing team, I ran out of exclamation marks very quickly.

Skill-sharing across hundreds of people is a remarkable act of courage and faith for any organization. To faciliate that two-month planning process, we prototyped a LEGO Ideas Board, designed a skill-share web app, and distributed a video trailer through every possible mailing list. I think our personal conversations were the most effective. Face-to-face encouragement is a wonderful way to build everyone's confidence and nurture genuine trust.

The seeds for the Media Lab's Festival of Learning were planted in the orientation weekend that every new Media Lab student experiences. Mitch Resnick asks everyone to write something they can teach onto a whiteboard. After each student chooses what we want to learn, we meet up later for a learning session, report back, and share with each other what we learned. We also reflect as a group on the process of teaching and learning. In this small skill-share, we learn to respect each other for our diversity and to see each other as more than just our research topic.

Many life-defining learning experiences come from unexpected corners—sports, films, toys, music. We expect this for children, but somehow many adults lose the plot, and our passions become private. At the Festival of Learning, Joi Ito taught us about leadership using MMORPGs, Charlie Nesson taught strategic thinking via poker, and Joe Paradiso and Ian Condry led us to explore Japanese culture through Hip Hop and Extreme Rock. Scott Nicholson showed us how to overcome shyness through face painting. Ethan Zuckerman trained us to be CEOs (certified effervescence operators).

At the Festival of Learning, we set out to transform our everyday working space into a place for new possibilities. We turned the atrium into a picnic area. We filled a room with balloons. Media Lab sponsor LEGO donated a suitcase of minifigures, including Lego Friends, for us to design our own characters. On Saturday, a floating shark swam around the festival.

So how can an organization find strength within creative difference? Share our differences with each other. The all-volunteer Festival of Learning was motivated by love, inspiration, and delight. It required a lot of good faith by everyone. I'm delighted to see that faith rewarded by such a wonderful learning experience—a festival that reflects the true strength and diversity of the Media Lab and our neighbor groups at MIT.

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