Opportunities to Learn
The human need to learn refers to every individuals' quest to better understand themselves and the world around them, and the need of family and community cultures to accumulate and pass on their languages and other ways of knowing about the world and how to live in it, as the natural repository and way of passing on human culture that all can live more fulfilled lives. Here it does not mainly refer to the need of social institutions such as businesses, governments, religious establishments and the like to have employees, customers, clients, citizens, or parishioners trained in particular ways to serve them, but more the reverse, so that individuals can be given all the opportunity those institutions can also provide. Learning can't be institutionalized and reduced to a curriculum, then, and primarily needs to convey our culture's curiosity about the world and offer people ways of discovering what they really want or need to know, to make their own path of learning.
Context within NORA
Relationships to Other Needs
We learn from the moment we are born, which is when we learn to breathe air through our lungs rather than obtaining oxygen via our umbilical cords. We learn how to handle water so that it remains clean and gets to where we need it, we learn how to recognize and consume food, we learn how to be mobile beginning with our first crawling movements. We get to know our own body/mind, which is basic to healthy living. These are all basic aspects of living, without which we would not be able to function.
We also learn to manipulate things, to use tools and machines, for all kinds of purposes, whether for the needs already cited or for others, such as shelter and clothing. These are various kinds of technical knowledge, or know-how. Such knowledge is backed up by theoretical knowledge about patterns, causes and effects in the physical world around us.
We confront a different level of complexity when we engage with our existence as social beings – when we learn to cooperate with others to fulfill our needs, and learn how to connect with other human beings because that is itself one of our fundamental needs. Social learning is essential to form supportive relationships with other people, which are in turn essential for real security and a sense of being at home. It is also essential for successful participation in collective decision-making.
Yet another type of learning is involved in a person's individuation and self-expression, in answering questions of meaning and purpose, and how one relates to the larger world. Although this learning involves the individual in relationship with others (and is thereby social), it also often involves withdrawal from others while looking inward. This type of learning is needed when it comes to finding a meaningful livelihood, and seeking contemplative/spiritual connection. This is also the kind of learning that requires the most time.
We tend to be most receptive to new knowledge when we do not have to worry about immediate survival. Hence, if we lack basic security and food, we are less likely to concern ourselves much with the intricacies of the arts and sciences. The more we lack the basic necessities of life, the more our learning gets constricted to whatever we need to know in order to survive another day.
Relationships to Organizational Forms
Most fundamentally, learning occurs through self-provisioning, in that people must themselves actively process what they observe or what is told them in order to learn. However, we do learn from each other (which is what makes humans a cultural species), and can do so in a variety of contexts, including in contexts of community solidarity (the most time-honored way), and in schools, which in NORA are classified in the committed sales or service cluster.
The free knowledge cluster of organizational forms aims at making it easier for people to learn by removing institutional constraints that limit the flow of information and knowledge. However, learning can also be facilitated by the individual sales cluster (for example, bookstores that sell books) and the sharing/renting cluster (for example, libraries).
Relationships to Resources
Learning refers to the acquisition of information and knowledge, usually facilitated by trust in the people from whom one learns, and often motivated by love for people, other living things, or the things about which one is learning. It is thus most closely related to the intangible resources.
In order to provide optimal conditions for learning, material resources are required as well. So, for example, repositories of knowledge (libraries, museums, archives etc.) are needed in order for us to take advantage of the knowledge accumulated in the past, and communication and information infrastructures are needed in order for us to exchange knowledge across distance and among large groups of people. These assets themselves depend on all the other material resources for their existence.
Understanding current patterns of abundance and scarcity
Knowledge scarcity or abundance
Opportunities to learn are potentially enormously abundant – not only because we can absorb new information about the world around us through our senses whenever we are in a state of awareness, but also because we can learn form each other, and knowledge shared is knowledge multiplied – instead of only one person knowing something, several people now know it! Unfortunately, however, various barriers stand in the way of such abundance of knowledge and learning.
A major barrier results from the fact that withholding knowledge from others, or releasing it only in highly controlled ways, can serve as an instrument of power. It is thus often in the interest of those who possess certain kinds of knowledge not to share it with others. One form that such power can take is the ability to charge money either for sharing the knowledge itself, or for selling the products of that knowledge (for example, patents allow their owners a monopoly over the sales of items produced using that patented knowledge). In order to obtain this kind of power, knowledge, and thus the opportunity to learn, is often made artificially scarce. Abundant knowledge does not allow for such power; instead it empowers all people who can make use of that knowledge either for their own benefit or the benefit of others. For example, when only few people were able read and write, scribes were in a powerful position; but when everyone is literate, the mere ability to write gives no special status, yet everyone (including people who might otherwise be scribes) can potentially communicate with far more people through writing. Scarce knowledge can provide relative advantages for a few, but abundant knowledge can provide advantages for entire societies.
This is not to say that there can be no good reasons to keep certain kinds of knowledge confidential. It is important to maintain confidentiality of personal information about individuals that they shared with selected other people or institutions on the basis of trust; with good reason, this restricts others' ability to learn this information. Open access such cases has less priority than the privacy of the affected individuals (especially since this information may be taken out of context). In order to successfully protect endangered species, it may be a good idea not to freely share knowledge about where they can be hunted. Certain kinds of knowledge may be meaningless if not shared within a specific cultural context; for example, transmission of koans within the Zen tradition. Members of many indigenous communities may not want important parts of their traditional knowledge about their culture, medicine, spirituality etc. to be shared with people who have not been initiated into the ways of their culture, and who are therefore likely to alienate it from its original context. If such knowledge is written down and published, there can be no control over how it may be used (including against the ethnic group from which it originated). Arguments for withholding knowledge from wider dissemination should not, however, be used as a smokescreen that protects the power of some narrow elite.
All knowledge is situated, and so are the opportunities to learn. We learn almost no matter what happens to us, but what we learn varies dramatically according to our situations.
We learn from our life experiences – learning probably already begins inside the womb, and most certainly by the moment of birth. We learn about the social behavior of others, and how we must behave in order to get along with them, or to get our way. We learn the language, the spoken language and the body language, the visual language and the unspoken language, of the people around us. We learn the culture, the ways of eating, the mores and habits, the life-ways of all the people with whom we interact on a regular basis. All this shapes our very personalities throughout our lives, for better or worse. This kind of learning is beyond central control, though parents, teachers, priests and other authority figures may try to control what the children under their care learn.
There are also more directed but still informal efforts to teach infants, children, and also adults. Toilet-training a kid, correcting a kid's speech, teaching a kid how to ride a bike, all occur informally, but are directed toward clear goals, and may involve setting aside some time for the purpose. This can occur in adulthood too, as in instructing somebody how to prepare a particular dish or how to use a computer software program. Such learning always conveys cultural expectations as well, about how one is supposed to behave and think as a member of one's community (such as a family, an ethnic or religious community, a nation, the community of environmentalists, or a community of radical activists). This greatly affects what one learns, and what one is allowed to learn (e.g., based on gender expectations).
In a culture with all-pervasive mass media, we also learn from the broadcast and print media, from what we read, see, hear on the Internet, from videos and movies, etc. Much of this is not meant for education but rather entertainment or advertising, usually with little concern for what people might learn from it, and what kinds of thoughts and behavior it may promote. The main concern for commercial producers is whether their products sell, or whether their ads help sell the products they advertise. What we learn through these channels can be highly problematic from the point of view of creating a culture of abundance, though it is also these very same channels through which transformative messages can be conveyed. Whether or not we believe with Marshall McLuhan that the medium is the message, we need to concern ourselves both with the forms and contents of the messages conveyed through the media if we wish to affect what learning opportunities are available to people.
Informal learning tends to promote abundance where learners (everyone, but especially children who are in dependent relationships) are able to explore for themselves, to ask questions and seek to answer them without fear, but where they also get the support that they need, to feel safe and secure, trusting that they will be loved even if they make mistakes, and that the people they love will prevent them from making truly dangerous or destructive mistakes. Informal learning also promotes abundance where learners can encounter many different people with different experiences from whom to learn, where no one group controls who learns what and from whom. On the other hand, where social and cultural constraints prevent such freedom to learn, learning can be greatly curtailed and pushed into narrow limits.
Formal education in schools is supposed to overcome the limitations of informal learning. Formal education has been historically and is still promoted by hierarchically organized institutions, such as the church and the state, for their own purposes – which burden formal education with many problems. Despite these burdens, there can be benefits of this model of education, in which typically students are taught in groups, and progress from one level to another, with exams or assignments to periodically assess their progress, until they are awarded a degree to certify how well they have learned the material taught. Or, in case of failure, they do not get a degree.
Classroom instruction can provide the opportunity to convey a large amount of systematically related information, which may not be very useful to students until after they have grasped the entire system of knowledge. The classroom discipline may push students through the onerous task of slogging through all this material until they achieve a sense of mastery that can serve as a reward. Or more positively, the teacher's enthusiasm for the subject may entice the students to master the material, even if they see no immediate use for it. Classrooms can provide a setting for disciplined inquiry, delving deeply into a subject. Further, schools can make specialized tools available for the specific purposes of teaching and learning, which are not ordinarily available in other settings (ranging from simple blackboards to laboratories, libraries, and athletic facilities). The fact that one teacher can teach a large number of students means that relatively few people in the older generation are needed to convey knowledge to the younger generation, which is especially important in the case of new and rapidly evolving areas of knowledge. This allows specialization, such that a teacher can obtain advanced expertise in a specific subject area. Schools can enable students to learn from people who are outside their normal circles of social interaction, which can afford them important opportunities for social advancement (in particular where schools of high quality serve poor or marginalized populations). And school students do not just learn from the teachers; they also learn from each other, both about the content they are supposed to learn, and things they aren't supposed to learn (e.g., how to get through school without having to try too hard, social relationships with peers, peers' ideas about sexuality).
Despite these advantages, schools can and do limit students' learning in radical ways. Their curriculum is determined by whoever controls the school, whether it be state authorities, religious institutions, or secular non-profit organizations. These institutions may be more interested in perpetuating their own power and influence than in helping the students to flourish as human beings. In extreme cases, schools can serve positively nefarious purposes (e.g., in the United States, Canada and Australia, the children of indigenous peoples were separated from their parents and put in boarding schools, where very many of them died, and the survivors were taught to forget or renounce their cultural heritage). Even where the expressed values of the curriculum are supportive of a free exploration of ideas and a broad education that fosters the personal growth of students, a substantial amount of what is taught may not be relevant to students' life needs but simply represent old traditions of what needs to be taught. Some of the learning may serve no other purpose than to demonstrate that the successful graduate has knowledge that others lack, serving as a status symbol without any practical utility. Demonstrating such knowledge may be useful for getting and retaining a job, but it will not help in actually doing that job well.
Western knowledge constructs in formal education
School education has spread across the globe with modernization and Westernization, and thus the curricula tend to reflect modern Western ideas about knowledge. That tends to privilege theoretical knowledge with claims to universal validity, no matter how dubious those claims may be. For example, a lot of social scientific theory has been based on observations on contemporary Europeans. If people in other parts of the world were found to be different, the theory was not changed; instead, those other people were seen as deviating from the general “human” norm. Despite the obvious fallacy of such reasoning, Eurocentric beliefs continue to dominate many of the social sciences.
The privileging of “universal” theories also tends to devalue the knowledge needed in order to successfully address real-life situations, which can never be fully grasped by general theories. Ancient Greeks referred to such practical knowledge as “phronesis,” but this term now seems to be known only by professional philosophers; its value is not adequately recognized (see Flyvbjerg reference below).
Modern Western knowledge traditions instead believe firmly in formal logic and rationality, including the rather problematical notion that reasoning depends on mutually exclusive definitions (A is A, B is B, A is not B, and something cannot be A and B at the same time). Such reasoning finds it very hard to address change, fluidity, and transformation, or the fact that some phenomena may not be grasped fully by either one of two opposite concepts (such as the well-known phenomenon that light can behave like waves or like particles, depending on the method of observation). Since life consists of transformation, fluidity and change, such logic finds it very difficult to come to terms with life processes, whether of organisms, societies or ecosystems. It is no wonder, then, that modern science is finding it very hard to understand how humans are disrupting the life systems of the planet.
Finally, modern Western thought traditions privilege knowledge acquired by rational thought over all other kinds of knowledge, including intuitive and bodily knowledge, empathy, or even the knowledge obtained through smell or touch rather than through vision and hearing. There is a pervasive distrust in one's feelings, regarding them as misleading. This attitude fails to recognize that rationality not guided by intuition and empathy leads to the worst crimes against humanity and nature (such as the rational organization of the holocaust). If we try to suppress our feelings, they come back to haunt us in perverted form; only if we come to be at peace with ourselves can we develop an integrated personality where both our feelings and our thoughts will guide us well.
There is no inherent reason why schools must embrace the assumptions summarized above, but they very often do as a result of their historical evolution. There are in addition further assumptions that are built into the curriculum but are not implied rather than explicitly stated. They are instead seen – or taken for granted – as the preconditions for learning, and thus constitute a “hidden curriculum.” This includes the rules students need to observe: they have to submit papers on time, meet certain format and grammatical requirements in their written work, observe rules of behavior and of speech, and accept certain tenets accepted as true within a discipline. This is perhaps the training that is more important for their future performance as employees than the things that they learn for tests, which they often forget soon thereafter. Because abiding by the hidden curriculum is essential for making it through school, while merely rudimentary understanding of the formal curriculum may get you through (even if only with a low grade), all students internalize the hidden curriculum by the time they are done with school.
The hidden curriculum impacts teachers as well as students. The very structure of most schools divides knowledge into those packets taught by different teachers – the packet of math taught by the math teacher, the packet of history taught by the history teacher, and so on. It is considered an inefficient use of teachers' time if more than one teacher meets one group of students at the same time. Bureaucratically, this is seen as equivalent to reducing class size by half, you have to pay more teachers to teach the same number of students. And thus, knowledge is compartmentalized, and it is that which is taught by a single teacher to a large number of students, rather than what emerges through discussion among people of diverse life experiences and backgrounds. It is also the teacher who determines whether the students have learned something through some sort of test, meaning that knowledge is that which is validated as correct by the teacher in a hierarchical setting, not that which is validated by testing against an external or internal reality.
In addition, schools act as gatekeepers to many high-status positions in society. They can only serve this role if only a limited number of students manage to pass successfully and receive their degrees. In order to have value, the degrees the schools give must be scarce (the actual knowledge may be fairly widespread, but the certification of having the knowledge must be scarce). This means that the point of schooling is not necessarily to disseminate knowledge to more people, but to keep it among a relatively small group and to serve as control point limiting the number of people who will be considered qualified for certain kinds of jobs. The knowledge itself can be made more esoteric to ensure that ordinary mortals find it impenetrable (for example, by the use of excessive jargon). There is an enforced scarcity of “knowledge” where only the best grades are considered proof of having learned, and the number of best grades on offer is kept strictly limited. In schools that serve such a gatekeeper role, the premium is not on teachers who successfully convey knowledge to all their students, but on teachers who weed out a maximum number of students before they reach the next level.
Costs of formal education
Costs of the schools can be very high, thus excluding those of the lower classes. Public education, which is now offered in virtually all countries, is supposed to provide opportunities for all, and is justified as a public investment which will create a more educated labor force that is internationally competitive, and that can produce innovations that advance the country's industry. Furthermore, public education in democratic countries is supposed to produce an informed citizenry that can take responsibility in public affairs and force the government to be accountable to the people. However, where the quality or reputation of public schools is low, and only costly private education provides avenues for social advancement, only the upper classes can take advantage of such educational opportunities, creating a two (or more) tier system. Where costs of public education increase because of declining government support, a process of creeping privatization can achieve the same result (i.e., students or their families have to shoulder an increasing share of the costs). Costs can be direct costs such as tuition and fees, indirect costs such as costs of books and school uniforms, and opportunity costs of not working while attending school; in all cases, they can make the attendance of (good) schools a privilege reserved to a relative few.
Students who incur debt in order to attend school are then committed to repay that debt, which may take decades of their lives. This forces them to look for jobs that pay sufficiently well, reducing their freedom to use their knowledge as they see fit.
The problems mentioned in the previous paragraphs have long been recognized by educational reformers. Reforms of formal education may focus on what is taught in schools and how (more integral education, internships, service learning, discussions instead of or in addition to lecture, team-teaching, interdisciplinary courses, study abroad…), or on making existing forms of schooling available to larger numbers of people (e.g., the state paying for universal education up to a certain level, sometimes including university, scholarships, financial aid, etc.). Some models do only one of these but not the other, e.g., private reform schools that cost a lot of tuition. Reforms can also concern themselves with governance, allowing more voice for teachers/faculty, students, and/or the staff.
Critiques of formal education have also led to a home schooling movement – though different home schoolers respond to different perceived problems. For example, some parents turn to home schooling because they object to a secular education in public schools and wish to control the religious views to which their children are exposed; this purpose of home schooling conflicts with the children's need for opportunities to learn by meeting people of diverse views. Apart form this, a major limitation of home schooling is that parents have to know what they teach; their teaching is thus limited by their knowledge. Also, home schooling is not allowed in all countries, and where it is allowed, it may be difficult for the children to obtain recognition for what they have learned. Finally, there may be conflict between the children and their parents – parents' “freedom” to home school their kids is not the same as the kids' freedom to choose what kind of schooling they want (it should be noted, however, that parent's “freedom” to choose a particular school for their children also differs from kids' freedom to choose what kind of schooling they want). In order to promote abundance, home schooling needs to address these challenges; the Holistic Education resources listed below help to do this.
Learning is a lifelong endeavor, while schooling is not. Learning networks can facilitate learning outside of schools. The advancement of academic knowledge occurs through learning networks, communicating via symposia, conferences, informal conversations, presentations, books, journal articles, and a proliferation of electronic forms of communications. Any “community of practice” acts as a learning network, within which practitioners learn from each other. Students forming study groups create informal learning networks. The Internet acts as a huge learning network, though not very intentional (one can learn almost anything on it, from meditation to how to build a bomb with a pressure cooker). Wikipedia is an example of a more intentional learning network, that tries to obtain a certain level of objectivity. CAN itself aims to be a learning network, one among a growing array of learning networks aimed at creating a better world. The defining feature of a learning network is that diverse people contribute new information or knowledge, comment on it, improve on it, learn from it. Everyone is a teacher and a student at once, and everyone capable of listening can gain much more than they could learn through isolated study.
Each learning network generates a shared culture and way of understanding the world. Unfortunately, some networks can be highly insular and closed off against new knowledge from outside, choking off innovation and adaptation to new realities. This is a huge problem today as the economic growth model devised in the late nineteenth century (itself based on a 500-year old colonialist mindset) is reaching its limits; neither the social nor the natural sciences have yet managed to adequately grapple with this situation. Learning networks that are closed off against new knowledge also place great restraints on the thinking that may be expressed by their members, inhibiting freedom of thought and expression.
More open learning networks can offer great intellectual freedom however. They also allow individuals to decide for themselves how much they wish to participate and learn, responsive to their own needs. To critics, it may appear that this allows the freedom to remain ignorant which will lead to reduced learning, but open learning networks tend to maximize the intrinsic rewards of learning – the satisfaction, and indeed the fun, of having learned the answer to a burning question – and thus increase the average level of learning within a network compared to most other institutional settings.
Individuals can of course also opt for periods of self-directed, intentional learning, in which they are relatively isolated from others. This can be highly useful for thinking through a set of problems systematically from start to finish, without distractions. Despite its solitary nature, such learning tends to depend greatly on capabilities the learner has developed earlier either through schooling or involvement in a learning network. It may also depend on access to repositories of knowledge.
Repositories of knowledge
Repositories of knowledge – libraries, museums, archives, paper or electronic databases etc. – are created as learning resources, both for formal schools and in other settings (e.g., public libraries). They can make knowledge, and thus opportunities to learn, available to everyone with the requisite skills, such as literacy, and with the necessary entry requirements (public libraries are open to anyone, but archives, for example, may require proof that one is pursuing a scholarly purpose in order to make use of their holdings). They can make opportunities to learn greatly abundant, but one must always remember that there may be formal or informal barriers to access that may restrict that abundance.
Besides the repositories of knowledge that are intentionally constructed, we can also see repositories of knowledge or information in nature and our cultural heritage – for example, geological strata and fossils provide us with a huge store of information about the past of the earth and its inhabitants, ice strata in glaciers and the ice caps of Antarctica and Greenland provide us with stores of information about the climate history of the earth, the DNA sequences of organisms provide us with data that can be used to reconstruct evolutionary pathways, and archaeological remains and historic structures provide us with information about our past as humans. Although there is an abundance of such sources of knowledge, each one of them is unique, and many of our development activities may destroy particular sources of knowledge forever, as when a species is extinguished or a dam inundates a historical site.
Generating abundant opportunities to learn thus requires proper care for repositories of knowledge as well as careful attention to maintaining the openness and vibrancy of learning networks, and assuring that much of the spirit of such learning networks pervades the more institutionalized settings of schools.
Approaches to creating greater abundance
Uses of informal means of teaching/learning in an open society
- pluralistic media
- media in the hands of small non-profit groups, of independent companies
- media in the public interest
- public airwaves accessible to the public (e.g., small radio or TV broadcasting stations)
- learning networks, peeragogy, communities of practice
Approaches in the context of formal education
- flexible teaching formats, encouraging discussion, reflection, critical thinking etc.
- service learning
- study abroad
- interdisciplinary programs/classes/collaborations
- co-curricular initiatives
- integral teaching/learning that includes exploration of the inner self, meditation, contemplation, the arts, intuition, body/mind connection etc.
- Shared governance structures that allow faculty and students a prominent voice
- Free or subsidized public education
- Barefoot College (addresses both of above concerns)
- Reform schools, e.g. Waldorf schools
- Home schooling and support structures for home schooling
- Cooperative Schools owned by the teachers, or by a combination of teachers, students, and other stakeholders
Repositories of knowledge – libraries, museums, archives, the internet, databases
- Scientific Commons
- Preserving historical sites, biological species, significant geological sites, etc.
- Creating learning environments (nature trails with information tablets; same thing for landmarks or historical sites in cities, Stolpersteine…)
Cross-cutting educational programs
Links and Stories
Design for Change: 25 million children saying "I can." Empowering school children to make a difference and learn in the process.
Education Commons Side Event at the Economics of the Commons Conference, Berlin, May 22, 2013
Free Knowledge Institute (note this June 8, 2013 blog entry by Wouter Tebbens, EC Foresight Workshop on Open Higher Education & Research)
Learning for Change (Global Action Plan International: Marilyn Mehlmann and André Benaim)
Member Links and Publications
Bagdikian, Ben. 2004. The New Media Monopoly. Boston: Beacon Press.
Illich, Ivan. 1972. Deschooling Society. New York: Harper & Row.
Journal of Science Communication. Autumn-Winter 2013. Special Issue: Listening and Empowering: Children and Science Communication.
Flyvbjerg, Bent. 2001. Making Social Science Matter: Why social inquiry fails and how it can succeed again. Oxford: Cambridge University Press.
Livingstone, David. 2003. Putting Science in its Place: Geographies of Scientific Knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
McChesney, R. 2004. The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communication Politics in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Miller, Ron. 2000. Creating Learning Communities: Models, Resources, and New Ways of Thinking about Teaching and Learning. Brandon, VT: The Foundation for Educational Renewal.
Paths of Learning: Books by Ron Miller
Palmer, Parker, and Arthur Zayonc, with Megan Scribner. 2010. The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
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