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Learning is good and other cultural assumptions

February 3, 2016

In my last post about the institution of education, I explored institutional theory as a way to understand the institution of education. One element of an institution is the cultural-cognitive beliefs that underpin the institution. These are the deeply-held, taken for granted beliefs that make people support the institution. They are so deeply held that they seem “obvious” and are generally difficult to question. In the case of education, the belief is that “education is good”.

In that post I suggested that this assumption was not always true and that it ought to be replaced with something like: Learning is good, provided each person learns what they need to know in order to survive and thrive in the world that they find themselves in. Here I want to start to unpack this assumption. What would I want people to believe, in a future without education?

Learning is good, shifts the focus from the provision of education to the learning of each individual. I think it is hard to contest the idea that learning is good. All humans learn, from the minute they are born; they are designed to be able to learn. They learn to summon adults by crying, they learn to eat, sit, walk and eventually to talk. They learn to interact with the world around them in ever more complex ways. Lifelong learning is not taking ever more approved courses at a college; lifelong learning is an inevitable part of being human. We learn to navigate the world around us, to make friends and enemies, what makes us happy and what makes us sad. It’s hard not to learn something on any given day, even if it is only that there is a new advert on television.

So, I am arguing for a very broad understanding of the term learning. This is not just the kind of learning that takes place in schools. This is the learning of anything. I don’t think we should have a separation between stuff that is learned in schools and the other stuff we learn; the separation we have is damaging because people fail to learn a whole lot of useful things, just because schools have devalued that knowledge.

But, some learning is not good. For example, learning to be afraid of other people as a result of constant bullying is not good. Learning to call myself a failure because I repeatedly fail at the tasks set in school is not good. Learning that I must not be inquisitive, ask questions or to try to explore beyond the syllabus is not good. Hence the qualifier, provided…

The kind of learning that I think is good is what each person needs to know in order to survive and thrive in the world that they find themselves in. What kind of learning is that? Well, it’s highly individual. What I need to learn may have a lot in common with what you need to learn, but it may also be very different.

Importantly, I start with the idea of each person. I think that learning has to be specific to the individual. Each person should decide for themselves what they want to learn, when and how they want to learn it. (Even children, although I know I am going to have to put forward an argument for that, but I think it’s especially important for children to be in charge of their own learning.)

Secondly, there is context, the world that they find themselves in. For one person learning to drive a car may be important, for another learning to navigate public transport. For one person the most important health issue may be learning what water is safe to drink, while for another, learning to shun junk food might bring the biggest benefits. Learning is only good if it is relevant for the learner in the context in which they live.

Then, people should learn what they need to survive. Survival means being able to take care of oneself, and learning to communicate and relate constructively to other people. Survival also means being able to find food, water and shelter, whether that entails engaging a sophisticated banking system to borrow money to buy a house, or sourcing the materials and building a shelter yourself. People need to know how best to survive whether they live in a city or not; how to find and get a share of resources, whether by cooperatively sharing with others, or by completing extensive training to hold down a job and earn money. The learning needed may range from practical or social skills to sophisticated higher learning, but what matters for each individual will be based on their own circumstances.

Finally, learning is good if it allows us to thrive. Thriving means going beyond survival to develop ourselves, learn new things, extend our repertoire of skills and knowledge, try new things, be creative and pursue interests, just because we can.

So I would like to live in a world where:

  • learning is regarded as important and treated with great respect;
  • each person is considered a respected and successful learner, for all that they have already learned (there are no failures);
  • each person is acknowledged as the expert on what learning they should undertake next; and
  • a range of learning opportunities are valued that suit individual skill levels, strengths and weaknesses, learning styles, local circumstances, resources, etc.

This post is part of an overall arguement that we need to move beyond institutionalised education. More to come…

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From → Higher Education

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