The Challenge of Change in Creating Learning Communities (3)

The notion of learning communities needs to be deepened through an analysis of institutions and how they function. If we are going to create a new model for learning, then it will have to stand the test of organizational restructuring and disciplinary redefinition. The latter will not be accomplished unless we take a long and hard look at the informal learning that is a part of everyone’s daily existence. The disciplines that have been the bedrock of education must incorporate the lessons of the informal into their purview. For example, the study of language and composition should not take place outside of the experience of popular culture. The study of the sciences cannot be divorced from ethical and philosophical issues.

If we are to take the effort seriously, then the creation of new learning communities will bring with it a transformation of what we mean by disciplines. For better or for worse, the very nature of disciplines, their function and their role within and outside of institutions has changed. The context for this change is not just the individual nature or history of one or other discipline. Rather, the social and cultural conditions for the creation and communication of ideas, artifacts, knowledge and information have been completely altered. From my point of view, this transformation has been extremely positive. It has resulted in the formation of new disciplines and new approaches to comprehending the very complex nature of Western and non-Western societies. We are still a long way from developing a holistic understanding of the implications of this transformation.

It is an irony that one of the most important of the physical sciences relating to the brain, neuroscience, has become a combination of anatomy, physiology, chemistry, biology, pharmacology and genetics with a profound concern for culture, ethics and social context. Genetics itself makes use of many different disciplines to achieve its aims. To survive in the 21st century the neurosciences will have to link all of their parts even further and bring genetics, the environment, and the socio-cultural context together in order to develop more complex models of mind. It may well be the case that no amount of research will produce a grand theory. But, as the great neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran has suggested, the most puzzling aspect of our existence is that we can ask questions about the physical and psychological nature of the brain and the mind. And we do this as if we can somehow step outside of the parameters of our own physiology and see into consciousness. Whatever the merits of this type of research, it cannot avoid the necessity of integration.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many of the disciplines in the social sciences and humanities. Although there has been an explosion of research and writing in the conjoining areas of Cultural Studies, Communications and Information Technologies, the various specializations that underlie these areas remain limited in their approach to the challenges of interdisciplinarity and learning. The reasons for this are complex. Among the most important, is the orientation that some of these disciplines follow and that is to develop their own language and culture of research and practical applications. The difficulty is that, as they grow more specialized, they cease to see or even envisage the potential connections that they have to other areas. They also disconnect themselves from the educational context that is after all a context of communications and exchange.

Most importantly, the research agendas in all disciplines will have to incorporate new approaches to culture and to the fundamental importance of popular and traditional cultures in creating the terrain for learning at all levels. This will be a huge challenge, but it is the most basic one if we are to create the conditions for learning communities and learning societies.




The Challenge of Change in Creating Learning Communities (2)

There is a simple definition of learning community that says, “This phrase describes a vision and model where a community's stakeholders come together and share resources?
Another definition is, “A “learning community? is a deliberate restructuring of the curriculum to build a community of learners among students and faculty. Learning communities generally structure their curriculum so that students are actively engaged in a sustained academic relationship with other students and faculty over a longer period of their time than is possible in traditional courses?

[Fanya had a good thought here, that I would like to quote from…]
Not as a 'comment' - just as a thought - learning institutions may be run and funded by the government - but their efficiency and status are a pride to the particular community where they function. It's not
only an interaction between the 'school' and the community - but a challenge to that community to
provide that institution with whatever it needs to succeed and thus provide the community with a source
of pride! This may be harder to examine in the larger frameworks - but you can see it here in the kibbutzim and moshavim - where the institutions are smaller and in many cases, self-run, if not self-budgeted.

The above two definitions are very broad, but they do point out the extent to which a ‘model’ of communications also surrounds every discussion of education and learning. And this crucial point links to another important issue, to what degree do the many shifting media and communications environments that now dominate the cultural landscape of most countries in the world affect notions of learning? Even in environments where the global media are weak, such as Nepal, radio is being used to teach and communicate. The same situation exists in much of East Africa. The fact that radio can play such an important role in the education of the community suggests how crucial the linkage is between learning, media and tools of communication. This is an area in desperate need of further research and development.

When one asks the question, how can a learning community be built? There is the potential that the question will not deal with the reality that learning is one of the most unpredictable activities that human beings engage in. This issue exceeds the boundaries and mandate of this article. But, anyone who has examined the vast plethora of informal learning contexts that people in communities create for themselves knows that the rules for learning cannot be predefined. This is why high schools remain an oppressive experience for most teenagers. They are at an age when they are actively involved in creating and participating in their communities of interest. High school often becomes an impediment to learning and trivializes the vast amount of education that goes on outside of its walls. This process is so unpredictable and the influences are so broad, that the question of how learning takes place cannot be reduced to locality or even community and especially to school itself.

So, we have a paradox here that defies simplification. The desire to create a learning community is very much about the need to create an institutional context for learning. We are talking here, in the most fundamental of ways, about the process of building formal strategies for the learning process. The difficulty is that building an institutional context for learning means redefining what we mean by students and it is not enough to just transform student to learner. It also means redefining what we mean by community since it is likely that any school is really made up of communities of learners. Some of these learners may be connected to each other and many may not be connected. The complexity of social interactions within a school far exceeds the complexity of the classroom, which is itself barely manageable as a learning environment.

To be continued……



Response to The Challenge of Change in Creating Learning Communities (1)

Jan responds to the previous entry:

I think it is important not to limit the idea of learning community to that of 'a community that cares for the institutions - such as schools - through which people learn,' which seems to be what you are saying in this opening piece (or do I read you incorrectly). Such a notion limits the idea of learning to what a learning individual does. In my perception that is an unnecessarily reduced meaning of learning.

Learning is what we do that allows us to enhance our constructive intercation with change. That's an abbreviated version of a more detailed and comprehensive definition of learning that I once developed and that I find useful in helping me understand the idea of learning community. Just as individuals, communities, societies, nations, regions, corporations, etc. interact with change. They produce change and they adapt to change; a complex multifaceted game. Both individual people and smaller and larger social entities become better at that game by experimenting different kinds of behavior and reflecting on such behaviors. The result settles down in the individual mind of people as much as in the collective mind of those social entities. Indeed, stories and symbolism play crucial roles in shaping the mind of the community, but it's a process more complex than what you find by adding up the learning of all the individuals that are part of the community. A learning community simply learns at a higher level of complex organization than the individuals that are part of the community.

One can extrapolate form the above relationship between learning individuals and the learning communities of which they are part (often more than one, e.g. a professional community, a religious community, a community of people who engage in a particular sport, a community in, etc.). All these (learning) communities together - and together also with the (learning) individuals that constitute them - are the complex building blocks of yet more complex social entities such as entire (learning) societies.

You say that "the claim that the linkages between learning and community mean fundamental change, ignores the fact that links of this sort have been the defining ideology of most learning environments in the 19th and 20th centuries" and I agree with your observation. Of course, we have always been learning, and so have our communities. The fact that we didn't recognize it is perhaps yet another consequence of the too narrow identification of learning with what happens inside schools.

My response:

I of course agree with you.....the challenge seems to be
in the definition of community, the boundaries and borders
of practice and learning that grow out of the experiences of working with
people (and sometimes working against them!).

People cluster together for a variety of reasons and are motivated
to continue if they feel that there will be some value to the experience.
Problem is that value tends to be seen through a very narrow lens.



The Challenge of Change in Creating Learning Communities (1)

The phrase “learning community? is suggestive of many things. It has become a catch-all for a variety of initiatives that link the learning experience to different notions of community. What are those notions? And why has it become so crucial for educational institutions to define themselves through this metaphor? If we are to answer the question, what are the key processes involved in building a learning society? then we need to examine the underlying notions of community that have encouraged people to build institutions of learning in the first place.

A community can be many things to many people. It can be the set of boundaries that a particular culture uses to distinguish itself from others and these boundaries can be physical and symbolic, as well as psychological. It can be a certain identity that has been gained over time, through historical, social and cultural processes that symbolically unite different peoples, in a shared sense of connection and interdependence.

At its most basic, community stands for common interest. But, it is not the purpose of this short piece to define the meaning of community. Rather, what is most important here, is the relationship between community and the symbols that communities use to define their activities. For example, a farming community is largely defined by a shared economic activity that is underpinned by social and cultural interaction. The people in the community don’t have to tell themselves what they share; they know what unites and divides them by virtue of their everyday lives. On a smaller scale, a kinship system brings diverse people together under the heading of family and together they form a community of interest. Some families use religion as a unifying force, as do some communities. Others may use a shared historical experience, a traumatic event or even music to bring meaning to what connects them. (See the work of Anthony P. Cohen, in particular, "The Symbolic Construction of Community.")

In other words, every social formation has a variety of communities within it and an often-unpredictable way of portraying the ways in which those communities operate. The best way to understand community is to examine people’s experiences within the communities that they share. And one of the most important activities that communities concern themselves with is learning. It doesn’t really matter what form that learning takes, or whether it is formal or informal. The important point is that learning is seen as a central activity. It is also seen as a crucial example of whether the community has the vision and organization to communicate its historical, technical and cultural knowledge to its citizens. I would strongly argue that even in those communities with highly developed formal educational institutions, learning takes place in so many different venues, that it would be wise to examine this context with great care.

How then does learning take place within a community? The most obvious example is the school system. But how does one build, nurture and sustain learning experiences that are both growth-oriented and community-based? For the most part, even traditional schools make a valiant effort to “teach? their students. Is the notion of a learning community or a learning society all that different in intention from what communities have tried to do in creating their schools and funding them? I ask this question because it is all too easy to dismiss the heritage of the last one hundred and fifty years of experimentation in education.

The claim that the linkages between learning and community mean fundamental change, ignores the fact that links of this sort have been the defining ideology of most learning environments in the 19th and 20th centuries. Although it is true that education as a system has been run by central governments in most countries, it is also important to recognize that without local help and local commitment, it is unlikely that a school could survive. Even in those countries with the most highly developed and centralized curriculums, it is not easy, and may even be perilous, to ignore the needs of the community. So, we need to extend the definition of learning community to include the broader social context within which learning institutions operate and this brings us closer and closer to the idea of learning society.

To be continued.......

Dangerous Ideas (2)


I liked your idea regarding the obliteration of
classrooms as we know them today - and this has been
an idea that has been bantered around for probably as
long as 'classrooms' have existed, but it seems that
regardless of different experiments and forms of
teaching/learning - open universities, internet
studies, and there are many new innovations that I
find amazing, the same classroom structure remains!
Only in the lowest grades do you now find a different
classroom set-up - why shouldn't it work for the
higher grades? Could the sheer number of students to
be taught be the reason? More and more people today,
and it's very popular here, are learning thru the
'open universities/high schools' and doing well - this
is a good sign of change. Also your idea of the
student input has become more popular - something that
didn't exist on such an advanced level in my day...

Dangerous Ideas (1)

Jan's comment:

I agree.

In fact, you mention of course but a few of the alternative scenarios possible. As soon as one drops the idea of the classroom, even as a metaphor, a guise in which it is, for instance, still very prominently present in online learning settings and other forms of distance education, then there is hardly a limit to the number of alternative spaces, situations, and modalities one can imagine in which one learns.

I am not sure, though, if the simple elimination of the idea of the classroom would as such alter out conceptions and pre-conceptions about learning, though I recognize that it might help.
Some tough thinking is required to rid ourselves of such ideas as that learning ought always to result in an increase in one's store of explicit knowledge or our abilities to perform particular well-defined actions at a particular level of competence. Important aspects of what one can become, such as a wiser person, have little to do with these changes. Yet, learning, in a way different than normally defined, is important for becoming wise. The fact that wisdom occurs, and often prominently so, among people whom we call illiterate, shows that important aspects of learning have neither to do with the classroom, nor with the processes that normally happen in the classroom.

I guess that the reality is that the classroom is not and never was 'the main site for learning.' The problem is rather that the classroom has become overvalued in the minds of most people as a site for learning and that therefore we do no longer see learning when it happens elsewhere.

Dangerous Ideas

For those of you that may not know about the Web Site run by John Brockman, connect here to THE EDGE, which, as its title suggests is about "edgy" thinking. At the beginning of each year, Brockman invites readers to contribute to a debate through a question that he poses. This year's question goes as follows:

"The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?"

In the spirit of Brockman's approach, I would like to pose the following question:

What dangerous idea do you have that would alter our conceptions and pre-conceptions about learning?

Keep in mind that the idea need not "realizable" but should be provocative.

Here is mine:

Lets get rid of classrooms as the main site for learning at the K-12 and Post-Secondary level. Once we do that, or before, lets redesign the architecture of schools and universities to reflect and encourage more common areas through which learners and teachers can "meet" and learn from each other. The classroom model, both physically and as a learning environment needs to be rethought. The teacher as the main source of knowledge, as the centre of attention needs profound rethinking. Another way of debating this point would be to ask, What would happen if the student were to speak from the position of the teacher? Would the student organise the material in the same way? Would she set the same goals? Would she need to make a moral judgement about what should or shouldn’t be known or understood?

And while we are at it, lets recognize the importance of auto-didactism to the process of learning. We are all auto-didacts and bring a vast heritage of learning to the schools that we attend.

Over to you! Please feel free to email me directly. Alternately, place your dangerous idea into the comments section and I will move it from there to the main page. And send me the email addresses of people who may wish to read this Blog.



Transdisciplinary Thinking and Learning

I have been an educator, administrator, writer and creative artist for over thirty-five years. During that time, most of the disciplines with which I have been involved have changed. For better or for worse, the very nature of disciplines (of both an artistic and analytic nature), their function and their role within and outside of institutions has been immeasurably altered. The context for this change is not just the individual nature or history of one or other disciplines or practices. Rather, the social and cultural conditions for the creation and communication of ideas, artifacts, knowledge and information have been transformed. From my point of view, this transformation has been extremely positive. It has resulted in the formation of new disciplines and new approaches to comprehending the very complex nature of Western Societies. However, we are still a long way from developing a holistic understanding of the implications of these social and cultural shifts.

From a cultural point of view, the impact of this process of transformation first appeared in the early 20th century when the cinema became a mass medium and accelerated with the advent of radio and then television (although there are many parallels with what happened to literature and photography in the 19th century). Networked technologies have added another layer to the changes and another level of complexity to the ways in which ideas are communicated and discussed, as well as learned. The conventions that have governed communications processes for over fifty years have been turned inside out by the Internet and this has led to some fundamental redefinitions of information, knowledge, space and time.

Time, for example, does change when the metaphors that we have available for explaining temporal shifts are no longer rooted in conventional notions of seasonal shift and measurement of incremental change. Technology plays a role, but it is not the only player in what has been a dramatic move from an industrial/agrarian society to a mixed environment that is extremely dependent on cultural activity, networks and information.

The disjunctures at work in our society and the upheavals caused by profound cultural and social change have begun to affect the orientation, direction and substance of many different academic and art-related disciplines. Some of these disciplines have been around for a long time. I would suggest that most disciplines have been under extreme stress for the better part of the 20th century.

We are very likely in the early stages of a long-term shift in direction and it may take some time yet before that shift is fully understood. One important way of understanding this shift is through the an examination of what has happened to learning in the digital age and the role that technology has played in sustaining and sometimes inhibiting changes in the way learning takes place both inside and outside institutions.

Reflections on New Media (8)

This is the first part of my presentation at the recent Refresh Conference in New Media at the Banff Centre . For those of you who have read my book, there is a wonderful discussion taking place in Professor Dene Grigar's graduate class at the Texas Woman's University

Moments in time — is that what remains of each event that the media covers? There is no giant archive in the sky or database on earth that could possibly record, organize and present the extraordinary wealth of information that now processes itself through every day, every instant, in tandem with every breath that humans take (with all due respect to Google). The flow of information is both circular and endless. To me this flow is an inherent part of what I call imagescapes and imageworlds. The challenge is how to find one or many vantage points that will facilitate analysis, interpretation and description and that will permit imageworlds and imagescapes to be understood beyond a simple phenomenological scrutiny of their surface characteristics. What methods of analysis will work best here and which methods have become less relevant? I would suggest that method (the many ways in which the analysis of phenomena is approached, analyzed and synthesized) is largely dependent on vantage point, which is a concept that is closely related to perspective and attitude. This means that not only is the phenomenon important, but also position, placement, who one is and why one has chosen one form of analysis over another (ideological, philosophical or personal) needs to be transparently visible.

The continuum that links real events with their transformation into images and media forms knows few limits. This is largely because of the power of digital media and digital mediation and is something that has been commented upon in this meeting. It is perhaps not an accident that terrorists, governments and corporations all make use of the same mediated space. We call this the Internet, but that now seems a rather quaint way of describing the multi-leveled network that connects individuals and societies with often-unpredictable outcomes. Networks, to varying degrees, have always been a characteristic of most social contexts. But, the activity of networking as an everyday experience and pursuit has never been as intense as what we have now, nor have the number of mediated experiences been so great. This may well be one of the cornerstones of the new media environment. However, new media as a term, name, or metaphor is too vague to be that useful. There are many different ways of characterizing the creative process, many different methods available to talk about the evolution of networks and technologies and the ways in which creative work is distributed, and the extraordinarily intense way in which communities and individuals look for and create connections to each other. The activities that are encapsulated by the term media are broad and extend across so many areas, that the danger is that no process of categorization may work. Typologies (of which we have been shown many at this conference) become encyclopedic so that what we end up with are lists that describe an evolving field but no vantage points to question the methodological choices being made. What distinguishes one list from another?

To understand why New Media may have been convenient for both scholars and artists one need only look at the evolution of media studies. Although humans have always used a variety of media forms to express themselves and although these forms have been an integral part of culture, and in some instances the foundation upon which certain economies have been built, the study of media only developed into a discipline in the 20th century. There are many reasons for this including and perhaps most importantly, the growth of printing from a text-based activity to the mass reproduction of images (something that has been commented on by many different theorists and practitioners). The convergence of technology and reproduction has been the subject of intense artistic scrutiny for 150 years. Yet, aside from Museums like MOMA the disciplines that we now take for granted, like film, photography, television and so on, came into being in universities only after an intense fight and the quarrel continues to this day. The arguments were not only around the value of works in these areas, (photography for example, was not bought by serious art collectors until the latter half of the 20th century which may or may not be a validation of photography’s importance), but around the legitimacy of studying various media forms given their designation as the antithesis of high culture. Film was studied in English Departments. Photography was often a part of Art History Departments. Twenty years after television started to broadcast to mass audiences in the early 1950’s there were only a handful of texts that had been written, and aside from extremely critical assertions about the negative effects of TV on an unsuspecting populace (the Postman-Chomsky phenomenon), most of the discourse was descriptive. The irony is that even Critical Theory in the 1930’s which was very concerned with media didn’t really break the scholarly iceberg that had been built around various media forms. It took the convergence of structuralism, semiotics and linguistics in the late 1960’s, a resurgence of phenomenology and a reconceptualization of the social and political role of the state to provoke a new era of media study. In Canada, this was felt most fully through the work of McLuhan and Edmond Carpenter and was brought to a head by the powerful convergence of experimentation in cinema and video combined with the work of artists in Intermedia, performance and music. Another way of thinking about this is to ask how many people were studying rock and roll in 1971? After all, rock and roll was disseminated through radio, another medium that was not studied seriously until well after its invention (sound based media have always been the step-children of visual media).

Part Nine…

Dilemmas of Learning and Teaching

In an essay written in 1982, Shoshana Felman described some paradoxical statements made by Socrates and Freud on education and learning. In the context of a discussion on pedagogy, they both talked at different times about the "radical impossibility of teaching." (Felman, 1982: 21) I would like to argue, in some agreement with Felman’s conclusions, that a recognition of the "impossibility" of teaching, enables and encourages the development of new and innovative approaches to pedagogy and learning. (Most of the discussion which follows deals with undergraduate education.) I will also link my discussion of teaching and learning with some comments on the creation of technologically mediated environments for education. My ultimate goal is to enrich the debate on technology and learning by linking innovation in education with the history and theory of classroom practice.

At the root of the claim about the impossibility of teaching is my feeling that learning never progresses along a "simple one-way road from ignorance to knowledge." (Felman, 1982: 27) In addition, teachers cannot fully anticipate the outcome of the processes of communication and interaction with their students unless the learning process is framed by a set of very narrow concerns. The balance between where students have come from and where they are headed is rarely linear and is often not clear. There is a legitimate desire on the part of teachers to structure ideas and values, as well as knowledge and content, for the purposes of presentation and discussion. What must be recognised is the role of "desire" in communication and teaching, as well as the gap between what teachers know and how well they have come to grips with what they don’t know. This profoundly affects the teacher’s capacity to create a site of learning for students. The same problems and potential solutions apply to learners.

As Felman herself suggests, "Ignorance is thus no longer simply opposed to knowledge: it is itself a radical condition, an integral part of the very structure of knowledge." (Felman, 1982: 29) For Freud, and for Socrates, knowledge is only gained through struggle and as a result of the recognition that ideas have an impact because of the dynamic interplay of words and spoken language, interpersonal communications and public discourse. It is their recognition of the importance of speech and of the balancing act between knowing and not knowing that opens up new possibilities for discussion and learning.

Ignorance is about resistance. It is about the desire to think and act in certain ways, most of which are rooted in a conscious refusal to engage with processes of inner reflection. The problem is that some pedagogical strategies try to anticipate what students need to know, as if teachers have already solved their own contradictory relationship with learning. The result is that teachers create (if not imagine) an ideal student and then make judgements about the students who are unable to attain the standards set by their instructional methods. If there is to be some equality of exchange here, then the teacher has to be learning nearly all of the time. This can then set the stage for some linkage and visibility between the foundational assumptions of the instructor and her own past, as well as her own history of learning. This may then return the teacher to a closer understanding of what it means to be a student.

The underlying presumption of most teachers is that students need to learn. There is a moral imperative to this assumption that is often linked to the overall values of a society, even if those values are themselves the site of intense struggle. Ironically, as the age of students at the undergraduate level increases, the question of who knows what drives teachers into using more and more specialised knowledge constructs.

The difficulty is that the need to learn cannot be understood in isolation from actual classroom practice. And the classroom is not necessarily a site of communication and exchange. The more specialised the teacher is, the more likely that the teaching will orient itself towards a power relationship that is results-oriented. But why should students learn in the first place? It seems almost heretical to ask that question. I ask it in the context of institutionalised forms of education that are driven by a complex set of motives, where the student is often not the primary focus. The culture of education has bred a tree of contradictions. Many of the supposed beneficiaries of the educational experience participate because they have to, not because they want to. This combination of resistance and acquiescence is framed by an increasingly complex system of assessment and evaluation. In order to fill the obvious gaps here, institutions rely on survey strategies to find out what is working and what isn’t. If the students are ambivalent about their learning experiences, their capacity, even their need to respond to survey-type questions, will be influenced by a set of impulses that are unlikely to appear in the results. This only further amplifies the difficulties in getting to know what students know.