Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Cultures and contexts of (formal) learning

I have just finished my first reading of Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown's fascinating book A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change. It is a stimulating read, and I especially enjoyed the way they related the distinction between 'What' and 'Where' approaches to/models of learning to the difference they observed between the 20th century as a period of relative stability and slow-paced change (although, heaven knows, there was a fair bit of the unstable and quick pace, relatively speaking) and the present century (or, at least this part of it and in many places) as a time of radical instability marked by fast and constant change.

Beyond the actual content and message of the book, which I found interesting in exactly the same way that I find much of the work about 'the new learning' interesting, what the book did was to prompt me yet again to reflect on some aspects of the question about how we get from where we are to where we think we should be going in formal education. For it is clear that having an ideal of/for learning is in many ways the least part of pursuing educational change.

The larger contextual stuff around the politics and economics of mainstream life is crucial. And most work on the new learning does not really address this dimension. My guess is that for most politicians and their constituents the primary question is "how do we keep formal education in some kind of sync with the rest of the social order?" Adults implicitly ask part of this question when they think about education in terms of their children's futures: how will their education help them to survive in the world? The more uncertain the times the more conservative the preferences seem to be; the more that learning seems to be 'sensibly' connected to shoring up abiding things, rather than preparing for change.

In many ways, I think, one of the messages of books like A New Culture of Learning is that embracing a new culture of learning will much better serve today's young people for living tomorrow than our present formal culture of learning does. And I believe that this message is as true as anything can be. But truth does not carry the day here. It will not carry the day.

I suspect that there are some pretty good ideas around about what some typical concrete scenarios of life might well look like for different groups of people in, say, 20 years time. It matters less how accurate the details turn out to be than that they be plausible, and that they can be expressed in terms that everyday citizens can understand. These would be scenarios about concrete people and concrete places and concrete circumstances within anticipated social orders. Clearly expressed in terms of how certain kinds of people -- like our kids -- are likely to be variously living out key dimensions of their daily lives.

With such 'scenarios' in place, it might then be possible to connect up what we are wanting to say about new cultures of learning to what we think we know about new cultures of living. I don't think it is enough to just say that we are in a time of constant change and we need learning cultures that can cope with this. At one level that is self-evidently true. But that is an abstract level. Everyday concerns of everyday people are rarely appeased or reasonably informed by the abstract.

I am looking forward to reading something that brings these points together in a way that can hope to win some hearts and minds.

Meanwhile, I will press on with reading Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen on The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, seeking out any clues that might lurk there.

All the while remaining aware that my concern concedes way too much to what Nassim Taleb -- in Anti-fragile: How to Live in a World We Don't Understand -- identifies as an orientation toward the fragile (thanks, cj, for the heads up).

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