Lost in Translation?


“What is all this learning for”, asked one of the youngest delegates, “Is there a hidden agenda here?  Does this mean that someone, somewhere, thinks we’re not learning enough?  I, for one, feel exhausted with everything I’m supposed to be learning already.  Is this what life is going to be all about?  Are Learning Communities just another way of increasing the pressure?  Who decides just what are my needs if it’s not myself?”


Thinking back now, three days after the conference, I don’t think this young woman’s questions were answered.


There are three words which are much used by those of us involved professionally in education that we assume are easy to define, but which are frequently ambiguous, and often cause confusion.  The first is ‘Learning’, and the second is ‘Community’.  Even now, after several decades of trying to define the difference, learning is often confused with teaching, and education, and all too often assumed to be the natural consequence of formal instruction.  Try as we may too many people still see learning and schooling as synonymous.  They most certainly are not.  Humans were learning ─ and learning very well ─ long before anyone invented schools, and the human brain in all its glorious complexity evolved to enable people to learn powerfully from trying to understand their own experiences.  We humans know how to self-organize.

It was Peter Senge who best described this nearly twenty years ago: “Real learning gets to the heart of what it means to be human.  Through learning we recreate ourselves.  Through learning we become able to do something we were never able to do before.  Through learning we ‘re-perceive’ the world and our relationship to it.  Through learning we extend our capacity to create, to be part of the generation process of life”.  Learning is what gives us our liveliness.


The second word, Community, is an even more slippery concept.  While it’s a biological and anthropological truism that we humans are a small group, collaborative species whose very strength comes from our ability to solve problems through working together, the simple truth is that we don’t always ‘like’ our neighbours.  Often we want to get away from people who don’t think like ourselves.  With increased opportunities for cheap travel over recent decades the traditional meaning of community as a geographic entity has been partly replaced by what we call “communities of common interest”.  We search out the people who are like us.  We may no longer have cause to know our next door neighbour, but we know scores of like-minded people around the world whom we can not only visit in a temporal sense (cheap air travel), but with whom we can now electronically network with them 24/7 at the touch of a few keys.  While we may yearn, nostalgically, for the traditional cosiness of a European market place where we can sip our cappuccinos, and talk long into the evening confident that the eyes of many adults are watching the well-being of their and our children as they play together in the market square, we actually go ahead and build the most enormous housing estates of thousands of identical units with absolutely no common social space.  I read the headlines of today’s Globe and Mail quoting a recent arrival in the Toronto suburbs of Markham as saying, dejectedly, “In Sri Lanka we were living within people, here we are living within walls.”  No one looks out for other people in such suburbs.  Shopping malls with their attendant parking lots are increasingly taking over the old ‘social spaces’.  There are few opportunities for the young, especially, ‘to hang out’.


The third word is even more confusing:  It is a recent construct, made by running the first two words together as if there were common agreement as to its meaning ─ Learningcommunity’.  By using this word promiscuously, and failing to define what it means, we feel safe in doing this because it’s what everyone else does… but very few people really do know what it could mean and so the concept has the consistency of fog; we get lost in it, and don’t see which way to go.  We must have, we keep telling each other, with a big gulp, ‘learningcommunities’.


Would the provision of more electronic technology make the Toronto suburbs of Markham a better ‘learningcommunity’?  I think not.  I doubt if more schools, either, would make much of a difference.  What would make a difference is what Jane Jacobs and Robert Pultman call ‘social capital’… the design of physical space which allows people to socialise in ways which are most natural to the human race.  We need to cross and re-cross each others’ paths, we need to ‘bump into each other’, we need to talk to each other and above all we need to talk with each other more.  There needs to be a very human core to a ‘learning community’ which is not the same as networks of common interest.


We have allowed ourselves to become so confused as to what community actually is that we have turned the whole thing into such an abstract concept that we lose ourselves, and confuse other people.  We spoke about this need ‘to map’ British Columbia as a ‘learningcommunity’ as if we were giving birth to a new entity that needed organising.  That is to miss the point.  A province made up of people who see that as learners they quite automatically extend their capacity to create, would be the most wonderful place in which to live: it would be dynamic, so self-organising that any “map” would be out of date before it was even printed.


We have to be far clearer about the essential meaning of both ‘Learning’ and ‘Community’.  Only then will we be able to get our minds around a substantial definition of a ‘Learning Community’ un-joined up.


Over recent years we have all read many books, and attended many conferences (perhaps too many), about how the human brain has emerged as the planet’s pre-eminent learning species.  Humans are born inquisitive.  we just have to ask questions, and only our own answers really make sense to us; we are innately skeptical of solutions proposed by someone else and then passed on to us as ‘truth’.  It’s what the young woman said at the conference: “Who decides just what are my needs if it’s not myself?”  In this lies the secret of our survival.  Each of us has to relate to the challenges around us in ways that maximise our strengths and minimise our limitations.  No two of us are alike; we learn in different ways, and have different expectations.


We have learnt much about the malleability of the young brain and the critical importance of emotional support.  We know about the need for multiple, real-life challenges.  All this thinking about experiential learning has gone deep into the practices of elementary education right back to the time of the Hall-Dennis Report in the late 1960s.  We are largely pleased with the results.  It has been a true revolution.  At the elementary level we accept the need for learning to go ‘with the grain of the brain’.


For long years we have recognized that adolescents are more than just ‘bigger’ elementary pupils.  Bigger they certainly are, but it’s the way that their brains seem to work in a significantly different manner to just a few years earlier that makes them such a challenge.  And this challenge is made all the greater by the way in which the adolescent’s life within the greater community beyond the school has become even less challenging, stimulating and satisfying and ever more limited as society-at-large has, in the words of one of the conference delegates, tries to ‘warehouse’ adolescents ─ to put them, as it were, in a safe place where they can hardly intrude on the busy, frantic adult world.  In the absence of ‘real life’ experience in the community, society has sought to provide more institutional solutions that might satisfy the needs of adolescents.


Within the last five years research into the biological changes taking place in the adolescent brain are starting to explain in bio-medical terms what our ancestors of a hundred or more years ago understood better than us, namely, that the adolescent needs a hefty dose of real life experience if they are to make any sense of academic study.


This was brilliantly expressed by the Victorian, Samuel Smiles, in what was probably the first ever practical guide to self-improvement, which he named appropriately “Self Help”.  “Daily experience shows that it is energetic individualism which produces the most powerful effects upon the life and actions of others, and really constitutes the best practical education.  Schools, academies and colleges give but the merest beginnings of culture in comparison with it.  Far more influential is the life-education daily given in our homes, in the streets, behind counters, in work shops, at the loom and the plough, in counting houses and manufactories, and in the busy haunts of men”.  More than a quarter of a million copies of that book were published in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and no doubt many were the copies that accompanied the homesteaders as they travelled west.  Sixty years ago the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University argued vehemently that schools could never be separated from directly learning through experience: “without theory, practice is unintelligent; without practice, theory is not understood”, he wrote.


The adolescent brain, in the recent words of Barbara Strauch (2005), is ‘crazy by design’.  “The changes dictated by our deep evolutionary history compel every new generation to go beyond the expectations (and limitations) of their parents’ generation.  Who would, honestly, want to be a clone of their parent, or who would want their child to be a clone of them?”  Having been near-perfect students in their pre-pubescent years ready to take at face value everything that a teacher can give them, Humanity’s very survival has depended ─ possibly for the last sixty thousand years since we found it necessary to move away from the savannah of Africa ─ on the adolescent resolutely refusing simply to be lectured, and to insist on ‘getting out and doing it for him or herself/itself’.  This refusal to sit still has been seen, until very recently (and still is in many places), as an aberration; something that is unfortunate and from whose unpredictable implications youngsters are best protected by being given so much to do in the isolated ‘warehouses’ that they have little opportunity to do this one thing.


Until a hundred years ago the very design of communities reflected the fact that when most people wanted to get around they had to do so, as we have done since the beginning of evolutionary time on foot and at four miles an hour.  Lewis and Clarke could go no faster than their staff and their packhorses could walk; that, of course, was at the same speed as Julius Caesar, or one of the pharaohs.


In 1900 the average American walked three miles a day.  Towns were full of boardwalks, and paths reflected the quickest way between A and B.  Children, who were naturally able to walk as fast as an adult, were not squeezed out of the adult world ─ they were there all the time.  It’s been the car, and the availability of cheap fuel, that has changed all that.  The average American now walks one-quarter mile a day (and is prone to diabetes), and often spends an hour or more each day going to and from work, after sitting in splendid isolation in an air-conditioned car listening to the radio.  It is only their children below an age to have a driver’s permit, who have to walk… this they will try to minimize as the streets are now so empty of people, and so full of cars, that children no longer think in terms of walking, or going by bike, and simply wait around for someone to offer them a lift.

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I deliberately entitled my talk (which had to be significantly reduced in length and content at the last moment) “Before the lights begin to dim” as I wanted to draw these two issues ─ human learning and community ─ together in the most powerful way I could.  Some people apparently saw my starting point as depressing.  That was not my intention.  I was challenging all of us to be realistic.  Modern society has been in denial for too long.  The way of life we have developed over the past forty years is attractive but it’s also toxic.  That it is toxic at an environmental level is now becoming better understood, though I’m not sure if people really accept how quickly, and radically, we are going to have to change.


But it is especially toxic at a social level because cheap transportation has undermined the essential nature of community.  This is doing irreparable damage to our children whose experience of seeing how adults work together to solve problems, and support each other is much reduced and so they are forced to live increasingly in a world of simulated reality.  It means that adults have got used simply to leaving the children behind.


But the main reason I entitled my tale “Before the lights begin to dim” is that I see this “dose of reality” can do nothing but good in forcing us to come to our senses far quicker than some of us might wish.

And where does this link up with education, and especially the learning of entire communities?  I think it’s pretty straightforward.  The kinds of changes that will have to be made in Canada, as in every other country in the world, will be resolutely resisted by people who just can’t understand what the issue is all about, until it’s too late, in which case they will simply panic, and perish.  Remember that I quoted Professor Sir Martin Rees, the British Astronomer Royal, as saying, back in the year 2000, that he could only give the world a fifty/fifty chance of surviving the next hundred years “because our technological knowledge has gone ahead far more rapidly than our human wisdom to know what to do with it”.


So, I think many of you will now see the way my mind is working, and the connections I am seeking to make.  We need vast numbers of people within a democracy so able to work these issues out for themselves that they, too, will see this challenge as a ‘wake-up’ call, not simply a threat.  And it is this which takes us right back to the issue of Adolescence.  If people like Ronald Wright (“A Short History of Progress”) are correct, world society has twenty, thirty or at the most forty years to turn all this around.  It’s not long, and it’s going to call for exceptional leadership, imagination and courage.


Here is the important point.  It won’t be today’s adults who will then be in the “hot seat”… it will be today’s adolescents ─ by then grown up ─ who will by then be in control.  They will have to be far better guardians of the entire ecosystem, and of our cultural traditions, than we have been and, it seems, currently are.  Fortunately (for us) they have more of a vested interest in getting this right than we older people… quite simply they don’t want to be around if the lights do, eventually, go out.


So, it comes back to what we mean by learning.  How can British Columbia so fashion an appropriate understanding of what a community of learners can do to give a lead, not only the rest of Canada, but also to the world?  How can this province pioneer a way in which the sum of the intellectual genius of your people create a way of life which both goes with the grain of the brain, but exists comfortably within the constraints of the ecosystem?


Many important strategies will no doubt be advanced.  I add my own suggestion.  Let the open spirit of experiential learning that works so well with younger age groups now start to permeate post-primary education.  Breathe the practical spirit of Subsidiarity.  (It is wrong for a superior to retain the right of making a decision for which an inferior is already qualified to make for itself).  As a province, take what is now known about the enormous opportunities that are there in the adolescent brain, and put them at the very core of your community’s life ─ forget about the paternalistic “warehouse” model, just realize that “adolescent craziness” could be our salvation.


After three days of discussing this topic with nearly two hundred members of the community in Fort St John in the north of British Columbia a week ago one sixteen-year-old girl said she could sum it all up in a single sentence, “When we started to think about all this I was simply focusing on ME; now I’m thinking about WE”.


There you have it.