What’s the difference between eating insects and a learning marathon?

Daniel Ford
Huddlecraft
Published in
6 min readOct 24, 2016

Admittedly, this sounds like the beginning of a bad joke. But, alas, it’s not.

You might think that eating insects is a bit disgusting. You may even think that starting a learning marathon is a bit disgusting. Personally, I think neither are disgusting.

But I do think there are similarities when it comes to the behaviours you need to change and why play might offer some pointers for the transition.

This is what generally happens when I offer people food containing crickets:

1) Usually a bit disgusted, they ask whether I’m joking.

2) After being assured that I’m not, they approach cautiously.

3) They look around to see whether anybody else is trying it, still worried it’s some sort of joke.

4) They ask a lot of questions, all of which I answer impeccably with very rational reasons why you might want to eat crickets.

5) They either make the leap or they don’t. But most do.

Now, it’s not exactly the same with a learning marathon, but it’s not not exactly the same either.

When we started Enrol Yourself (EY), it was, on my part at least, definitely filled with an element of trepidity and I felt like I approached cautiously. I didn’t ask Zahra and Rox whether it was a joke, that would have just been rude. And there definitely wasn’t the same level of disgust.** However, it definitely had similarities in the manner of which people approach something new. Something experimental. It required a similar leap, a similar level of collective validity.

An obvious difference is that the Enrol Yourself pilot group wasn’t just plucked off the street, there was a level of vetting and due diligence that took place to make sure we wouldn’t run a mile at the very thought of it, and there isn’t the same cultural barrier to lifelong learning as there is to eating insects. But my mission on this journey is to attempt to better understand behaviours around both learning and eating insects, so here’s a shot at looking at both through the lens of behaviour change.

The governmental Behavioural Insights Team has a sort of behaviour change 101. It’s that, if you want to harness behavioural psychology effectively to get people to do something that they’re not used to doing, you’d do well to abide by 4 principles. Make it:

1.EASY

2.ATTRACTIVE

3.TIMELY

4.SOCIAL

( I f you haven’t heard about

N udge theory, then this is a really crude example of it. It aims to

S lip things into peoples’ unconscious brain,

E ffecting behaviour and hopefully leading to

C hange

T hat

S tays at the subconscious level, but leads to lasting behaviour change. Like spelling ‘eats insects’ down the side of a blog article. )

Unfortunately for both EY and insect-eating, neither are that easy on the face of it. Both, in different ways, require a level of commitment that wouldn’t pass as ‘easy’. To overcome the lack of ease, it might be suggested that we harness habits and diminish the hassle-factor. When can we fit in a bit of learning into our daily routine? Where can we add a bit of cricket powder to our current diet? How can we make it less effort to do either?

The Enrol Yourself founders, Zahra and Rox, have clearly put in a lot of time and effort to make the transition as easy as possible. Whereas I mask crickets in granola to make it an easy addition to the breakfast cohort, EY sends out ‘Content Boosters’ — personalised lists of events, resources and courses that you can cater to your own preference. This makes the transition to fitting things around your schedule bespoke and as easy as pie.

On the attractive front, I feel like EY has a head start. People know about the benefits of learning, whether for pleasure following personal passions or honing your skill set to remain relevant in a dynamic job market, or any other reasons you might want to learn. But people, generally speaking, just do not understand the benefits of eating crickets; the health and ecological incentives. Crickets do have the benefit of attracting attention, though, so my challenge is to harness that attention into understanding and action without it coming across as sensationalisation — a challenge I intend to face head on on this journey.

Make it timely. Prompt people when they’re receptive and help them bridge the gap between intention and action. EY, thus far, has been really good at keeping a constant stream of communication, encouraging us to make progress towards our goals. Each of us sits within very different contexts and time constraints, so making it timely is a challenging job. For insect-eating, it’s about finding the times when people are already changing habits or feeling experimental, but for EY it’s more of a self-directed challenge to fit it around your other responsibilities. This is where the balance of EY support and individual motivation is so important.

Finally — make it social. This, for me, is the key for both. Having a self-directed learning journey whilst creating a close-knit community is difficult, especially considering the broad nature of the group’s interests. How can you create a space that let’s people forge meaningul, reciprocal relationships whilst allowing them the freedom to explore their own journey? How can you encourage people to try something new through their social networks and peer-to-peer accountability? People care about what other people do; it influences their own actions. There’s a growing body of research that attests to the fact that the social bonds people form influence their own behaviours the most, especially when it comes to ethical behaviours.

So now we’ve got the lay of the land in terms of the challenges facing both EY and EI (eating insects), and possible behaviour change techniques, what might be a strategy to overcome some of the barriers and ease the transition to new behaviours? For me, a strong contender is the concept and practice of play. I’m a believer that games and play make it easy, attractive and social to try something new, if not always timely.

I recently watched a video of the founder of Coney (‘a collective agency making play for people’), Tassos Stevens, describing what, in his mind, makes up good play. Firstly, he’s quite clear that the game you’re playing must be worth playing in itself. It can’t just be about the reward or points at the end — it must be intrinsically valuable to the player to take part. Next he proposes a few golden rules of good play: adventure; curiosity; reciprocity and loveliness. I think these rules transpose perfectly onto the social behaviour both EY and EI need to harness if they are going to really connect people to each other through what they’re setting out to do, and thus make the change stick.

To take the example of EY, it has definitely felt like we’re setting out on an adventure together, and there’s something particularly good about it being the first one, so everyone’s still learning and testing as we go. I’ve definitely also come to it with a healthy dose of curiosity, and fascination at the other projects in the group. But how can we embed curiosity even further into the fabric of EY? Could we each have an ace card that means we have to drop everything (within reason) to follow one of the team’s spontaneous interests for the afternoon? Reciprocity and loveliness have both been designed in to the EY experience already, with skills and networks being offered by everyone for everyone. But another key aspect of reciprocity and loveliness for Tassos is the idea of gift — how can we encourage each other to surprise one another with simple gifts with no strings attached? These are questions for the group, but I think the concept of play and the fun associated with it could really enliven our collective transition towards new behaviours.

These are all themes I’m exploring in relation to EI too, and play is going to be one of my main foci (foci?), creating a game that takes these principles to heart and enraptures people in my crickety ways (not in a creepy way).

I’ll leave you with Tassos’ definition of resilience when responding to change, which has particular salience for me in relation to EY:

Dimensions of resilience when responding to change:

Agency (sense of self and that you’re actions have consequences)

Relatedness (relationships and connections with other people)

Adaptability (how you get better at the things you are good at — active learning at it’s best)

All of which are powered by Reflection (the process of seeing clearly and paying attention).

Thanks for reading.

I’d now like to pass the EY blog relay on to Chris, with thanks for sending me the Tassos video, and the question: what role does play have in education?

** there was no disgust at all

--

--

Daniel Ford
Huddlecraft

Learning Ecosystem Lead at Huddlecraft. Lifelong learning, systems change, Deep Democracy, healthy human cultures...