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Philosophical Meanderings

Learning? Yes, of course. Education? No, thanks.

Education teaches us that our native abilities for learning are inadequate, that they must be developed and improved upon by submitting to or even seeking out pedagogical management of some sort. ~ Aaron Falbel, a free-lance writer, editor, philosopher, and musician

I was recently introduced to Aaron Falbel, who had the great privilege to have known and be friends with the late John Holt — who should be familiar to many as an educational and social critic and a great advocate for homeschooling and unschooling, as well as the late Ivan Illich — another important critic of education, probably most famous for his influential Deschooling Society.

In an article in the now non-existent Growing Without Schooling magazine, Falbel asks an important question that I think reflects my own thoughts as I am struggling to choose what is the best way to support my two daughters in their learning.

Schooling and education are modern concepts. They tend to mean shaping young people according to the wishes of adults to fit into modern society. What if you are a parent who is not happy with modern society, who does not want your child to ‘fit in’, who does not want to shape your child at all?

I think the following excerpt from Matt Hern’s Deschooling Our Lives — in turn based on an article Falbel wrote for Growing Without Schooling — is a great thought-provoking answer that deserves careful reading and consideration. I would like to  include it in full in a hope to illicit feedback from the readers of this blog!

Many people use the words “learning” and “education” more or less interchangeably. But a moment’s reflection reveals that they are not at all the same. I invite you to take this moment and reflect with me on this idea.

Learning is like breathing. It is a natural, human activity: it is part of being alive. A person who is active, curious, who explores the world using all his or her senses, who meets life with energy and enthusiasm—as all babies do—is learning. Our ability to learn, like our ability to breathe, does not need to be improved or tampered with. It is utter nonsense, not to mention deeply insulting, to say that people need to be taught how to learn or how to think. We are horn knowing how to do these things. All that is needed is an interesting, accessible, intelligible world, and a chance to play a meaningful part in it.

If the air is polluted, then it can become difficult to breathe. We cough, wheeze, and gasp for air. Similarly, if our social environment is polluted, it can become difficult to learn. Today our social environment is thoroughly polluted by education—a designed process in which one group of people (educators, social engineers, people shapers) tries to make another group (those who are to be “educated”) learn something, usually without their consent, because they  (the “educators”) think it will be good for them. In other words, education is forced, seduced or coerced learning—except that you can’t really make another person learn something that he or she doesn’t want to learn, which is why education doesn’t work and has never worked. People have always learned things, but education is a relatively recent innovation, and a deeply destructive one at that.

It is ironic that education, carried out by well-meaning people hoping to produce or enhance learning, ends up attacking learning. But this is precisely what happens, despite all the good intentions. In the climate of education, learning is cut off and disembedded from active life. It is divorced from personal curiosity and is thus profoundly denatured. Learning shrivels as it becomes the result of a process controlled, manipulated and governed by others. It deteriorates into empty actions done under the presure of bribe and threat, greed and fear. We all know this to be true from our own “educational” experiences.

When I speak of education, I am not referring only to that which goes on in schools. Today “education” takes place in many guises and settings: through the mass media, in the workplace and in the home. We adopt the educative stance when we feel it is our right and duty to manipulate others for their own good.

Let me be clear: I am not against all forms of teaching. It is a privilege and a joy to help someone do something he or she has freely chosen to do, provided that we are invited to help. I am against unasked-for, I’m-doing-this-for-your-own-good teaching.

I do have a problem with professional teachers—people who try to turn whatever knowledge they might have into capital, into a commodity. I want to live in a society where casual, asked-for teaching is a matter of courtesy, not a quick way to make a buck. Sure, there are times when it is proper to compensate a teacher for his or her time and effort. But the new educational supermarkets, which offer courses (for a fee) on everything from breastfeeding to sensitivity training are a step in the wrong direction. Though such courses are not compulsory they end up convincing people that learning through living is inferior to instruction. For instance, why learn to diaper a baby by watching Granny do it when you can receive “parental education” from – a professional parental instructor?

Most of us have forgotten what it was like to follow our own noses, to ask our own questions and find our own answers. Years of educational treatment have convinced us that learning is, and can only be, the result of teaching. We grow up into adults who insist that our children “receive” an education. We trust neither ourselves nor our children to learn.

The last thing I want to do is improve education: rather I want to escape its noxious fumes, to offer my help to anyone seeking similar detoxification, and to clean up the environment where I can. If you are interested in joining me, there are some steps that you and I can take that will help clear the air of “education” and create a cleaner social environment supportive of learning.

First, let us rid our own minds of the prejudice that views others who opt out of educational treatment as “delinquents,” “failures,” or “dropouts.” Let us view them instead as wise refuseniks, as conscientious objectors to a crippling and dehumanizing process. Let us act in a way that removes the stigma currently hanging over the heads of educational underconsumers.

Second, if we agree that children are good at learning, let our attitude and dealings with young people bear this out. Let us resist the temptation to become educators, to rub the noses of the young in our greater experience by adopting the roles of teacher, helper, and instructor at the drop of a hat. Let us trust people to figure things out for themselves, unless they specifically ask for our help. (As it turns out, they ask frequently. Small children, whose curiosity has not been deadened by education, are usually brimming over with questions.) The nature of the toxicity inherent in education is precisely that so much of the teaching that goes on is unasked for. Let us endeavor to rid our own behavior of unasked-for help.

Third, let us not discriminate against the uncertified when it comes to the matter of employment. Several landmark studies have shown that there is no correlation between educational training and performance on the job. (See especially Ivar Berg’s The Great Training Robbery, Beacon Press, 1971.) If we must assess competence for a given job, let us assess it as directly as we can, and not conflate competence with length of sitting done in educational institutions. We can also deflate the value of educational currency by refusing to talk about our own educational credentials. Take them off your resume! Demand that others judge you by your actual talents and accomplishments, as you would judge others.

Fourth, let us do our own part to create a more open and accessible society, where knowledge and tools are not locked up in institutions or hoarded as closely guarded secrets, by offering (not imposing) to share our skills with others. Take on an apprentice. Hang a shingle outside your home describing what you do. Let your friends and neighbors know that you are making such an offer to any serious and committed person

Fifth, let us outlaw exploitative labor, not child labor, the prohibition of which currently denies many forms of meaningful participation to the young. This will help end the policy of age discrimination, which mandates that the young be taught about the world before they are allowed to learn from it by participating in it.

Sixth, let us support libraries, museums, theatres, and other voluntary, non-coercive community institutions. (Many libraries, for example, are open only during working hours. when only those with the luxury of a research stipend may use them. With more support, they could be open evenings and weekends.)

Additionally, let us create more spaces in our communities where young and old (and those in between), can get together to pursue unprogrammed activities of all sorts: arts, crafts, sorts, music, hobbies, discussion groups, etc. Let us end the policy of shunting young and old into separate institutions “for their own good.”

Finally, think up more ideas of your own! As a society that has been addicted to education for several generations, we have lost the ability to imagine what it might be like to grow up and live in a world free of pedagogical manipulation.

If you agree with this statement, or just find it provocative, make copies and discuss it with your family, friends, neighbors, and fellow workers. Send a copy to distant friends and invite them to do the same.

About kima

Organizer: Father. Agent of change. I learn for a living. Curiosity is my passion. Writing is my dream. I believe in the value of social media as a way to meet new people and love double espresso as a way to feel warm with old friends ;-)


21 thoughts on “Learning? Yes, of course. Education? No, thanks.

  1. Stuff like this always resonates with me and, like Kima, as my own two children prepare to enter the formal “system”, I am seeing many things from a slightly different set of eyes. I say “slightly different” because I’ve long held that schools aren’t necessarily the best place for kids. As a teacher, I see each day how the type of “control” imposed by school shapes, molds, socializes, and sometimes wounds (H/T Kirsten) those that walk through the front doors (if they’re permitted to walk through the front doors) for a huge part of their developing lives.

    Yesterday, in a comment to Chad, I expressed my own sense of cognitive dissonance around what public education has become in the past couple of decades. Connected with this, I am personally faced with two very different types of personal transition. First, the imminent “schooling” of my own children and, second, my own imminent retirement (2 years next week) from forma l teaching.

    I’ve been doing a great deal of thinking over the past couple of weeks about how those two realities may provide the impetus I need to take some radical steps in my personal response to the dissonance.

    But that does nothing for the reality that I leave behind if, in fact, I leave all of this behind. (Cognitive dissonance is never as simple as it initially seems!)

    As much as everything in the article provided by Kima resonates with me from a personal perspective, we are still faced with the realization that the schooling/education horse fled the barn years ago and, not only has the barn door been shut but, in many ways, the original barn has been demolished.

    But, there’s a cruel irony here, and one that I’ll carry with me today (I love coming to this site early in the morning!). While the traditional family structure (economically and socially) no longer supports the possibility of large-scale homeschooling, or even ad hoc neighbourhood learning organizations, there has never been a time in our history where the technology infrastructure of our communities is screaming, “there is another way”, more strongly.

    On the one hand, the exciting vision of learning presented in Kima’s piece has never been more possible. On the other hand, it has never been more impractical.

    I’ll stop now and anticipate some good conversation on this.


    Posted by Stephen Hurley | February 17, 2011, 6:17 am
  2. Kima, John Holt and Ivan Illich have profoundly shaped my thinking on many things. So much so I had to do my dissertation on them so I could spend more time with them.

    Whenever they’re at the table, I’m happy. I wish they were invited more.



    Posted by Kirsten | February 17, 2011, 12:26 pm
    • I knew there was a reason why your writing is always so resonant, Kirsten!


      Posted by Stephen Hurley | February 17, 2011, 12:53 pm
    • Thanks Kirsten! I started slowly reading the authors from your book and they’re already shaping my thinking too. I do try to keep an open mind and don’t quickly move into a school-hating state of mind, though. This is one reason I try to see learning as distinct from education and understand their relationship.

      In my mind, the capacity for learning is innate, and most attempts at education seem to ignore this. At the same time, the discussion below between Stephen and Patricia brought an important point about the difference between natural learning and learning naturally.

      If we all agree education is important in some form (e.g. as a way to offer channeled experiences to learners to better understand a certain topic which may not be easy to “experience” without support from someone else, whom we may or may not call a teacher), than I can see how some support structure (whether that should be a school or something else is a point for debate) may be needed to enable education if learning naturally doesn’t help the learner achieve the level of understanding required to make use of the knowledge.

      I am curious what you think about my half-lucid hypothesis about inspiration and learning @ 😉 … I know it is a kind of fantastic (as in sci-fi) thought experiment, but I hope at least some of the more lucid thoughts may be relevant to the learning vs. education discussion.

      Posted by kima | February 18, 2011, 4:58 am
  3. I find it interesting that Stephen – who has benefited from a career in ‘formal’ education and is now about to retire, is just now questioning the whole system. Why didn’t he do it before? He is part of the system- why didn’t he change it or try to change it even if this realization that the ‘system’ is not perfect only dawned when his own kids were about to be ‘educated’?

    Also – how can parents who were educated many years ago – and perhaps in a different country, know what happens in schools where they live unless they have taken the time to find out and to ask questions and discuss educational philosophy with educators?

    OK – I have a bias here. I left the ‘system’ a few years ago after teaching for over 30 years. Was I a perfect teacher? No, of course not. Did I believe in helping children learn, in promoting their innate abilities? Yes, of course.

    That I did this within the framework of a set curriculum goes without saying. The questions is – why a set curriculum, and is it a good thing to have?

    Let’s get one thing clear, teaching, and learning, and education, are of necessity intertwined and interdependent. There is no such thing as a ‘natural learner’ despite what Rousseau said – was it Rousseau? I forget. Learning means being influenced. The act of learning is a response to some influence or another. Children learn first from their parents then from society then from teachers then from research etc. etc. Children who are not influenced by their surroundings – either human or constructed – cannot learn. There is nothing for them to learn. There is nothing for them to react with and therefore nothing for them to think about. I have worked with such children and I have rarely seen such sad individuals.

    The question is not whether ‘formal’ education is good or bad, the question is whether you want your child to grow up to be able to change the world, and to change it for the better. Then, how you are going to make this, or help this, happen.

    I argue that you cannot change the world without an understanding of what the world (society) is all about. Families cannot give children an overview of the world, they are, by their very nature, insular, culturally defined, prejudiced. – Sorry folks but that is just the way it is. Children belong to the wider world – they develop this awareness of this when they enter school where they are exposed to other families’ cultures and prejudices.

    Free access to libraries just wont do it.

    While children are born to learn they are not ‘natural learners’. They do not learn in a vacuum. They only learn when they have the opportunity to do do. Formal education is one such opportunity,an opportunity that cannot be given by a family without tremendous financial and personal commitment (homeschooling).

    Not all parents are in a position to give this time and effort to helping their child learn.

    Not all schools try to stifle children’s curiosity and interests.

    Who is going to guide children through the vast amount of knowledge and information they have access to?

    Who is going to help children fit into a future that cannot be foretold?

    I agree that, before their was formal education, children learned. The question is what did they learn and did it enhance their lives and the lives of those around them?

    Thanks for reading this rant – but I think that is what you asked for when you wrote the blog post.

    Posted by Dr Patricia Porter | February 17, 2011, 1:07 pm
  4. I love it when the juices get flowing.

    I don’t think that I could imagine a society where schools did not exist. But a couple of things came to mind when I your post, Dr. Porter. The first is about the point that you made about influence and the importance of understanding that what surrounds the student provides a context for learning. I agree! I think that we are getting further and further away from that understanding in many of our communities. Kids don’t get outside much, schoolyards are removing many of the sources of that stimulus (including trees) and a walk in the woods for the students that I teach is a rare event, to be sure.

    I think that, through conversations like this, we can remind ourselves about the importance of the environments that we create for students in schools. I’m not just talking about pretty bulletin boards; I’m talking about stimulating activities, content, and approaches.

    I’m not so sure about your point that children (human beings) are not natural learners. I think that we are all born with a natural propensity to make sense of our world. I’m not ready to let go of that idea quite yet, despite the fact that you say it isn’t so. But I will think about it more.

    Finally, on a personal note, I began challenging the system of which I have been a part during my second year of teaching, some 27 years ago. And I really haven’t stopped. I have found it more valuable to remain in the system and, in my own little way, hold on to the perspectives that I’ve been able to develop. And I will continue to do that over the next 25 years, I’m sure.

    I’m not a school hater, but I do dream of a different form of school for my own children, and for their peers.

    That’s been my passion for a long time and, even though it has meant getting into some hot water over the years, the journey has been worth it.

    These conversations are also worth having, and worth having passionately!


    Posted by Stephen Hurley | February 17, 2011, 3:06 pm
  5. Stephen
    Thanks for your reply to my – hastily written – comment above.
    We are in agreement. I find myself in the difficult position of supporting the education system while trying, and hoping, to create change. I think the reason I moved into Special Education, and loved it, was because I thought that the regular classroom did not address the learning aspect of education but concentrated on the teaching side of things. Working in Special Ed meant that I could concentrate on helping kids learn, rather than teaching them ‘stuff’.

    Re- are kids natural learners? I think that everyone is, or can be, a natural learner if we define learning as trying to make sense of the world. I agree that some education stops people from doing this, and that is indefensible.

    But -learning naturally? That is what I am not so sure about, that is where I think context has an important role to play and,as you stated so beautifully, we need to keep working on that!

    Posted by Dr Patricia Porter | February 17, 2011, 3:19 pm
    • Love this conversation!! I think it is a great example that shows what distinguishes mature people from childish ones I guess 😉 … Unlike me who is just realizing the world we created for our kids, you both walked the walk and bring a balanced view!

      Reading Gatto, Holt, Illich and others is too easy to be a school hater and I personally struggle with my emotions about it, but I also believe that we should work to understand, re-invent, re-build or do whatever necessary to turn the system into a valuable environment, not just the kids but all ages … to me, opting for homeschooling for my own kids would be almost an act of cowardice … let me explain!

      I truly appreciate that the homeschooling movement was an invaluable force to raise awareness for the problems with traditional schooling! I think those parents that have done it in the past were courageous to challenge the common sense! At the same time, I think its power to bring a true change is limited today, which is why we need more people to focus on understanding the learning process and question the value of education and schooling before we converge on a solution (or many for that matter!).

      I suppose there are those who choose homeschooling as a temporary measure and continue with their efforts to understand and inspire others do the same. What we need is to bring all such challengers of the common wisdom into the discussion rather than split off into cliques and each of us preach to their own choirs!

      Bringing the learning and the values of public schools, homeschooling, unschooling, traditional cultural values, the wisdom of the community, local knowledge, parental nurture, etc. to a new kind of environment that honors learning and provides numerous activities for one to immerse into learning as a lifelong process is what I hope to see for my kids!

      Posted by kima | February 17, 2011, 3:44 pm
  6. Kima, you are correct, and the thoughtful process you describe (as opposed to the dichotomous POV stated in the excerpt within this post) points to EduKare IMO… reading this-
    “Bringing the learning and the values of public schools, homeschooling, unschooling, traditional cultural values, the wisdom of the community, local knowledge, parental nurture, etc. to a new kind of environment that honors learning and provides numerous activities for one to immerse into learning as a lifelong process is what I hope to see for my kids!”
    from you is empowering.

    Reading this-
    “Today our social environment is thoroughly polluted by education—a designed process in which one group of people (educators, social engineers, people shapers) tries to make another group (those who are to be “educated”) learn something, usually without their consent, because they (the “educators”) think it will be good for them. In other words, education is forced, seduced or coerced learning—except that you can’t really make another person learn something that he or she doesn’t want to learn, which is why education doesn’t work and has never worked. People have always learned things, but education is a relatively recent innovation, and a deeply destructive one at that. ”
    from Matt Hern is polarizing and uni-dimensional, and to me somewhat ironic considering the author also states that “all that is needed is an interesting, accessible, intelligible world, and a chance to play a meaningful part in it.” What if the school is an interesting, accessible, intelligible world to a child who chooses freely to participate within it?

    I find the excerpt to be rather naive and absolutist. The author makes absolutely no attempt to rationalize any form of good in the system that has influenced thousands of the world’s greatest thinkers, doers and dreamers who also, interestingly enough, express their gratitude routinely and often.

    Thanks Kima for your rational, tempered and intelligent perspective on this issue.

    Posted by graingered | February 17, 2011, 11:10 pm
    • Thanks for chiming in Sean — much appreciated!! I find your EduKare ideas @ to be very much aligned with some of my thoughts about the future of schooling in which value can be brought to all ages and humane education with focus on lifelong learning and democratic community involvement will be the underlying motivation for having a system in the first place.

      I understand why you view the excerpt to be naive and absolutist, but keep in mind that the original ideas were written by Falbel in issue #92 in the Growing Without Schooling magazine, which I believe dates from the early nineties (unfortunately the GWS Back Issues page stops describing the issues prior to #116, which was published in 1997, so I can’t confirm for sure). Much have changed in the past twenty years or so and, as Stephen points out “On the one hand, the exciting vision of learning presented in [the excerpt] has never been more possible. On the other hand, it has never been more impractical.” I believe homeschooling looses its value as a driving force towards change, for the same reason the ideas from the excerpt today are impractical — obviously the technology, access to information, level of interconnectedness and similar were very different when Holt started GWS or when Falbel wrote the piece quoted in the post.

      Btw, I am curious what you think about

      Posted by kima | February 18, 2011, 4:21 am
  7. This is a great conversation! I’m finding it thought-provoking and insightful. I’d just like to chip in with a few opinions of my own if I may.

    Isn’t it just that the semantic ideas of “school” and “education” that are in contention? From my understanding of the original post, education can be defined as the teaching of a curriculum, i.e. an agenda that is not decided by the learner but by the teacher. From this follows the idea of school as an establishment whose primary purpose is to provide an education (and value it above learning).

    I agree with Dr. Porter’s argument that to change the world one must understand it. However, I disagree that families cannot provide children the means to obtain that understanding (I’ve been careful with my choice of words here). Here is why I believe what I do.

    To start, I must accept the premise that families are insular, culturally defined and prejudiced; but then these are not traits that are limited to any individual or group. One cannot argue that Teachers are devoid of any prejudice (although an argument can be made that Teachers are individuals that are trained to not let any bias unduly influence the learning process. This is not an argument that I will easily buy).

    By understanding what role a teacher should play (I use a small t this time to distinguish any individual who attempts to teach from a professional), a parent, or anyone else for that matter, can do an effective job helping a child learn. However, the responsibility of what to learn must always remain with the learner. The role that I believe a teacher has to play, is to provide a means obtaining information and experiences from which opinions and views may be formed.

    Dr Porter is spot on when saying that free access to libraries just won’t do it. BUT, access to the *world* itself will. After all this is the real deal; the very thing that learners are trying to make sense of.

    Schools as they currently stand provide an overly restricted access to the world. This is one area where an un-schooled environment is better. Freed from the restrictions of a curriculum and a regimented day confined to a physical space, one is able to go out an learn by experiencing the world. One may be guided by interests that are natural and unique.

    I have just touched on what I personally believe is the differentiator between Education and Learning (and to some degree between teachers and Teachers) i.e. a curriculum. Schools generally impose what a child must learn in order to succeed in the world instead of what is required to change it (a trend reflected in the recent decline of the liberal arts and the boom in business majors). Education seems to be moving towards teaching how to build careers and not how to develop independent thought that can challenge societies norms ( I have digressed somewhat. Chris Hedges has written an interesting chapter on this in his book, Empire of Illusion, for anyone who’s interested in the idea I’m trying to convey here).

    My point is that it makes little sense to use a “fixed-menu” model for teaching children when a “buffet” model will result in adults that are more varied and interesting individuals, better able to come up with innovate approaches when tackling the challenges of our age.

    Finally I agree that it is naive to say that schools do not provide an environment in which learning is possible (Hopefully I’ve argued well enough that I just don’t agree it is the best environment the way things currently stand). We should no more do away with schools than we should do away the individuals right to choose whether to attend. Indeed there is much of the population where it is the only learning environment available. There are some great schools in our community, such as Pacific Spirit, that recognize a child’s right to take responsibility for their learning.

    If the goal is to redefine a school as an establishment where community comes together, where individuals bring along their experiences and insights to share, and where the agenda is simply to let one’s interest be the guide; then I’m all for it. I just think that we need to break away from the current establishment and come back together as a community of un-schoolers (contrary to what might be popular belief, there is a strong sense of community in un-schooling circles).

    I’ve gone on a little longer than I intended but I gratefully welcome any further thoughts on and counter-arguments to the above 🙂

    Posted by Kamaljit Longia | February 18, 2011, 6:32 am
    • Thanks Kam for joining the discussions on this blog again!

      I love your comment as you, like me, are trying to keep a balanced view when trying to figure out the differences between learning and education and the value of schools.

      I’ll try to address few points with an opinion (or questions) of my own.

      I don’t think “schools” and “education” are in as much contention as “education” and “learning” are instead. (Though “schooling” may be to blame!) Education, to me, is a form of learning — the instructional kind that assumes someone is teaching a curriculum or subject or simply delivers a body of knowledge to someone else — who may or may not have asked for that. Defined as such, I can definitely see the value it can provide. After all, instructional teaching have existed long before we formalized it as education whenever someone was teaching someone else how to use a tool, till the land, cut the woods, start fire, make bread, etc. My problem is that we’ve come to rely on education — in particular institutionalized education in schools — for learning almost anything — a tendency that has reached such proportion that not only there are so many schools offering courses on almost anything one can think of, but many larger organizations have invested in building specific departments whose sole purpose is education of their staff.

      By equating all learning to education, and because of the tendency of the institutionalized education to focus on the skills to succeed in the world instead of changing it, as you pointed out, we’re facing a risk of creating a vast group of people that can only ever do given work and never innovate or change any of the given assumptions around them. Luckily, we’re more resilient than we think so this has not reached drastic proportions, but more disconcerting to me is that accepting education as the only, or at least ultimate way to learn, we’re limiting the human mind to ignore the other learning experiences that may go unnoticed.

      I see the role of the parents — and for that matter teachers (with lower case “t”) and even the community — as one of (1) providing learning experiences outside the institutionalized education and (2) pointing out to such experiences when they occur, in case they’re not seen as such. I say outside institutionalized education, but I dream of community schools in which learning and education happen in a complementary fashion and everyone is invited to be a teacher in the sense of providing and identifying the learning opportunities, with the teaching profession growing into one of mentorship and creating learning opportunities alongside with the instructions — especially those opportunities that are more complex and require deeper knowledge and understanding of the topic to produce. I believe this is not dissimilar to your “buffet” style model.

      There is a lot that is wrong with the current schooling institutions (some worse than others), — like the coercive nature of the marks and standardized testing, valuing memorized answers over creativity, age grouping, to name but few — and we need to scratch much (if not all) of their design before we come back to put them back together to serve a role in support of any kind of learning, not just education. To do this, though, we need all groups with experiences in some form of formalized learning — traditional public schools, home-schoolers, un-schoolers, democratic schools… — to share their knowledge and stories, as only by including everyone can we create a true “buffet” of learning opportunities!

      Posted by kima | February 20, 2011, 10:21 pm
  8. The issue isn’t education versus learning. It’s not professional versus unprofessional either. It’s that the language has been hijacked by those who turned learning into a business model. They’ve more recently ruined the term “commons.” Education came from a root word meaning “to draw out.” Professional has the root word meaning “to profess.” I like when my students use the Spanish word “profe” for me. It’s pretty accurate. I’m a believer in truth and that truth is authentic education.

    I’m bothered when philosophers and reformers create false semantic dichotomies that don’t reflect the nature and reality of language. My students need learning and education, because they are so similar and so complimentary.

    Posted by johntspencer | February 18, 2011, 9:53 am
    • John, I think you nail it when you say that your “students need learning and education” but I wouldn’t say “because they are so similar”, though I would agree they are (or at least can be) complementary.

      My problem with treating learning and education as similar is that doing so almost assumes we don’t need to understand learning, but instead it is enough to compare results of various education methods to understand what works and what doesn’t. Btw, when I say understand learning, I am not talking here about the neurological basis for it — which is important to research anyway, but rather how the experience shapes what we learn and if that can be replicated in other ways — be that instructional education or something else.

      The way I see it, forms of education in the sense of instructional learning/training, are a kind of experience that shapes our learning, but there are many others which are outside education. (and many that only occur in our heads as we imagine experiences in the form of dreams or thought experiments)

      My problem with education is not that it doesn’t provide learning experiences in the sense that some other experiences outside education may do — I think it does in many cases and could do more in many others — but instead I am worried that it can replace other forms of learning by convincing us that instructional learning is the only true way of learning.

      I can’t tell you how many times was I surprised when people in some of my teams (I managed various software dev teams in my career) would say they can’t take on a responsibility without attending formal courses or allocating time for learning from a course book or similar. As someone who has done mostly learning by doing, I have hard time to understand that!

      To me, taking away my learning from my everyday life is almost as equal as stopping me to breathe!

      Posted by kima | February 20, 2011, 8:54 pm
  9. Interesting. I seem to be of two minds here, Kima. I am on-board with the exhortations at the end of the excerpt, but I’m also quite comfortable with a pretty capitalist educational marketplace of customized instructional options – or at least with an allegedly socialist one that provides me with a job, right? Would it be okay if I was out to make a slow buck, rather than a fast one, as a professional teacher? I actually don’t think the future of teaching or learning is in schools – and I appreciate the difference between experiential and instructed learning. Is there a point at which compensated mentoring becomes desirable as a fast-track to independence in a field? I’m thinking – not at all in a rhetorical way – of quantum physics and how one would discover it experientially.

    What do you say?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | February 20, 2011, 4:25 pm
    • Hey Chad, your not-so-rhetorical question intrigued me enough to chose to work backwards through the unanswered comments and start with your first 😉

      Are you familiar with William Herschel?? Unfortunately Wikipedia doesn’t do him right by saying that he was just an “astronomer, technical expert, and a composer” as his life is much more interesting than that — though in the later paragraphs one can get a sense of his versatility. His is a story of self-sacrifice, of unwavered support from his sister, of pride, of struggle… basically it is as good a story as one can find about how innovation happens (if one doesn’t want to bite into the proverbial apple that fell on Newton’s head!). What makes him particularly interesting for your question is that he was largely self-taught!

      I recommend to anyone reading this blog as the stories of discoveries and the venture into the life and the character of the people that drove the British science to conquer the world at a faster pace than the Queen’s troops were advancing in new colonies provide an important lesson about the learning vs. education question.

      I know that this period is romanticized a bit and while the book does a good job in providing a balanced view the author is still influenced by the wonders of innovation from the period. Still, I could find several commonalities for the innovators like Herschel:

      – the presence of people who are providing support and mentorship
      – an unprecedented level of curiosity to understand the physical world
      – “no fear of failure” attitude (granted, sometimes fueled by use of drugs! but I think those were still in the minorities)
      – a healthy dose of pride and persistence
      – presence of the arts in the innovator’s life (I know this may be controversial, but many of the people at that time were playing instruments, painting, writing poetry themselves or had close poet friends that influenced their work…)

      Nowhere did the formal education appeared as an underlying factor for the success of those people at the time. What’s more, many had change of heart with the initial field of interest at older age and made a switch, which ultimately led them to a discovery in the new field.

      Unfortunately, I don’t have answers and pride myself for always being able to ask questions. If I had answers I would probably not have included the excerpt above but put some thoughts on my own. Still, it is tempting to try to think how could one come up with quantum theory through experience. I believe one has to be open to dreaming and visualising worlds which may be utterly different from the physical world our senses paint in our head. I don’t really have hard time accepting that quantum theory can be experienced as one tries to imagine such worlds. Being able to speak many languages — including those of math, music, poetry — helps in the imagination of such worlds.

      Einstein gives us a fine example how the language of geometry can help imagine a world in which gravity is nothing but a distortion in an imagined geometrical spacetime. I am not too familiar with Bohr’s life and that of his contemporaries, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he landed upon metaphors that helped him visualize a world in which particles can pop out of nowhere and one can influence a particle at ridiculous distances with no direct connection to it.

      The question, then, I’d like to hear your opinion about, is if instructed learning is capable of providing such metaphors and languages that open the mind to imagine new worlds?

      Posted by kima | February 20, 2011, 8:34 pm
      • I think the best parts of “instructed learning” come from when its plans break down and two people try to find the language, metaphors, and questions that help them connect through learning. School helps gives me opportunities to model my own learning, thinking, and wondering in pursuit of helping others do the same. Insomuch as school is a place for that, I value it, but certainly there are parts of school worth much more than its current whole.

        How should a society deal with professional educators? Do we get any sort of head start from transforming schools into cultures of learning like those you cite? (I recommend The Lunar Men.)

        Do we need some kind of common experience or data set against which to push as we launch into discovery?

        What is the best way to help children master many languages – to imagine a path and follow it? To collect the habits and resources helpful to make and discover?

        I don’t think we need schools to learn – and I don’t think everyone needs formal education – but I suspect that direct instruction from expert teachers or practitioners is helpful as part of some learning endeavors. Is that too hedging an answer?


        Posted by Chad Sansing | February 21, 2011, 2:37 pm
      • I really like when you say that “the best parts of ‘instructed learning’ come from when its plans break down and two people try to find the language, metaphors, and questions that help them connect through learning.” … it is the connection that I savor when learning together with others, be that they’re called teachers, instructors or students … and it is indeed when thing don’t go as planned that true learning can happen as that creates fertile ground for failure … I see the role of the instructor as one trying to avoid the fall to be too damaging!

        I think the ultimate question is one of trust, though … when we don’t start by finding out what the students need and instead impose curriculum designed by “experts”, we mistrust them … when we don’t let the teachers choose the tempo and how they should give feedback to their students, imposing standardized bullshit on them, we mistrust them … when we don’t make the learning in the classroom transparent to the parents and don’t invite them to provide feedback or freely participate in activities, but instead send report cards home and printed notes from the school devoid of any personal touch, we mistrust them … if plans break and only the instructor scrambles to fix them, the opportunity for finding a new language is lost.

        Ultimately, it is the fear (of the parents, the teachers, the school administrators, the community) that kills the natural curiosity and creativity in the child … no trust is possible when the incentive is “if you comply, there is nothing (or at least less) to be afraid of” … change is possible only when we turn this into “if you fail, there is an opportunity to learn” … I will truly believe in education when it starts with a lesson about how to fail!

        Btw, the book you point out seems to overlap with my earlier recommendation … it seems that era is source of inspiration to many authors 😉

        Posted by kima | February 22, 2011, 3:24 am
        • I aree about trust, Kima, and I believe in learner/student-sourced curriculum. I’d be willing to accept a set of skills and concept-based standards as a curriculum and as part of a measure of me, not the kids, so long as it allowed us freedom to pursue inquiry content and to develop our own assessments/evidence.

          You might like Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle which is like a supremely-researched pulp epic of the Invisible College/Royal Academy.


          Posted by Chad Sansing | February 22, 2011, 6:47 am


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