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Learning in dissolving boundaries

Talking about changes inherent in the move to what the late Steve Jobs called the Post-PC era and the shift from being stationary to ubiquitous, Sarah Rotman Epps of Forrester wrote:

Contrast the experience of computing on a desktop PC, in one place with a clear start and finish time, to that of the anytime/anywhere computing done on a smartphone or tablet. Ubiquitous computing is also more context-aware computing, aided by sensors like accelerometers, gyroscopes, and geolocators in smartphones and tablets.  

Is not the shift from one paradigm to another evoked here echoed in the challenge to our institutions, particularly those dedicated to learning? Hitherto clear-cut boundaries to educational institutions - those that defined the very nature of schooling - are being challenged and some are becoming more permeable. The massive uptake of mobile technologies has challenged the physical boundaries of schools enabling greater and easier access to outside knowledge and potentially facilitating access to school from beyond its walls. Emphasis put on lifelong learning has led to some recognition of informal learning as contributing valuable knowledge and learning alongside book-based schooling. The massive use of social media for sharing recommendations, the exchange of experience and self-driven exploration, has reinforced the growing challenge to expert knowledge and learning piloted by experts.

Two questions spring to mind:

  • What is the impact of these dissolving boundaries on learning both within and beyond learning institutions?
  • Which alternative structuring of learning, if any, in an institutional context would be less of a barrier to cross-boundary learning?

The following text was developed from discussions that took place on the online platform L4D under the auspices of the SATW and in a dedicated group on Facebook (Future Learning).

Boundaries to schooling

The dissolution of boundaries in education was a hotly disputed subject. Some welcomed the dissolution as a promise of change. Others challenged its existence, while some saw it as a bad thing for education. It was pointed out that boundaries and divisions are necessary to make sense of the complex world we live in.

Much of the vehemence of this debate can be attributed to what is felt to be a challenge to professional identities as embedded in existing ways of working. Some confusion could also be attributed to the misleading use of key words. Schooling and learning, for example, are not necessarily synonymous. Schooling is a complex often ritualistic activity related to the organisation of learning and the handling of learners in dedicated institutions. Learning involves building new knowledge or new ways of working in any place or at any time, where newness is with respect to the individual or group developing it. Further confusion can be attributed to the ambiguity of the role of certain 'actors'. ICTs, for example, mentioned above as contributing to the dissolution of boundaries in education, can also be instrumental in reinforcing existing boundaries. The concept of Personal Learning Environments (PLEs), whether they extend control of existing learning platforms or enable the independence of learners, illustrates this ambiguity. Finally, the assessment of the impact of the dissolution of boundaries depends on individual perspectives. For example, the loss of leadership in the field of education on the part of schools was seen to be a possible impact, but whether it was good or bad for education and learning depended on the individual's role and beliefs.

One could arguably maintain that, despite its dedication to learning, the boundaries that make up schooling define it far more than any learning that goes on there. Just look at schooling in terms of the units that structure it: the class, the year, the stream, the level, the teacher, the classroom, the school, the district, the local authority, the period, the school day, the school year, the subject or discipline, the curriculum, the examining authority, the marking system, ... Such divisions appear self-evident with time and habit, and hindsight provides all manner of arguments to justify their existence. However, they are necessarily arbitrary and could quite readily have been otherwise. This fact does not imply that it would be easy to change them. Much of the 'convenience' of these structures lies in their contribution to the readability, manageability and reassurance of schooling rather than to learning itself.

Take the division in disciplines. In secondary and tertiary education, learning is structured within disciplines, reflecting a long-standing academic tradition of dividing knowledge into distinct areas of study. This discipline-based approach is further rooted in an analytical perspective and in the conception of learning as the transfer of knowledge treated as a series of objects. These disciplinary divisions are further reinforced in schooling by the fact that teachers in secondary schools are specialised in one or more of these disciplines and have a vested interest in maintaining such divisions as essential to their professional identity. From a systemic, holistic, socio-constructivist perspective, such an approach has its limits, especially in complex, fast changing situations, as learning cannot be satisfactorily understood as the transfer of objectivised knowledge. 

As a further example of a barrier to learning, it was suggested that the nature of schooling made the handling of complexity difficult if not impossible within such institutions. There was some disagreement. The teaching of complexity as a scientific and mathematical phenomenon was quoted as a counter example. In response, it was argued that it was not the ability to teach complexity as an isolated phenomenon that was pertinent, but, given the fact that significant learning necessarily emerges from complexity, what was at stake was the ability of schools as organisations to integrate this unfettered emergence of learning in their ways of working.

None of the divisions or boundaries that make up learning are essential to learning. In fact, many of these convenient divisions could prove detrimental to learning especially when it is seen as an independent activity that cuts across or lies beyond institutional boundaries.

What premises should learning be built on?

The case of the textbook illustrates the need to design organisations that enhance learning without them getting in its way. The textbook embodies the dominant educational paradigm that sees learning as a steady progression through pre-prepared content crafted by experts. The pursuit of that predetermined path is enforced by coercion (obligatory attendance, marks, exams, ... and ultimately the threat of exclusion and failure). This coercion is carried our in the name of 'equality', that is to say, the 'right' of everyone to follow the same path. Research shows, however, that the in-depth understanding necessary to respond to the complexity and fast-changing nature of the world, requires intrinsic motivation not external threats.

On what premises should institutions for learning be built such that their structure and ways of working do not ultimately hinder learning? The concept of deeper learning: a reflective practice in which knowledge is developed not in isolation, but in relationship to the world around as well as to individual or collective experience and other knowledge - offers possible indications of the educational premises being sought. Deeper learning points to two key facets of learning:

  • The necessary connectedness of learning requiring wider perspectives, peer exchange and interrelated thinking as well as greater importance granted to experience and practice;
  • The importance of intrinsic motivation stemming from the learner's needs and desires that leads to deeper learning which is more desirable in that what is learnt is more readily applicable in a wider variety of situations and in changing contexts.

Sir Ken Ken Robinson's plea for the importance of imagination and creativity also offers a rich supply of possible paths to explore. He presents the concept of divergent thinking - the capacity to see questions from various perspectives and to perceive multiple, different answers - as a main-stay of imagination. In so saying, he points to a number of possible premises for future education.

Finally, the current debate about education reform in the Canton of Vaud in Switzerland points to the key role of institutions like schools in diminishing anxiety due to complexity and fast-moving change. Schools are required to prepare young people to confront complexity and change.  The advocates of the current reform propose heightened control over education. Complexity, however, cannot be handled by control. You cannot cut up complexity into convenient, simpler segments and deal with them one at a time. In that debate, an expert rightly pointed to the importance of motivation and relationships but underestimated the importance of structures in making changes or hindering them.

A basis for a new institutional approach to learning

We have seen that many of the underlying assumptions on which existing schooling is organised, work against deeper learning rather than favouring it. As a result, schooling fails to contribute satisfactorily to preparing young people to be flexible, creative and capable independent learners. The work mentioned above points to a list of the possible premises on which to build a new institutional approach to favour deeper learning rather than hindering it: 

  • Education needs to be built on respect for the individual and the richness of diversity.
  • Education should encourage divergent thinking, non-linearity and imagination rather than conformity and standardisation.
  • People do their best when they do the thing they love, as a result education needs to foster and cater for intrinsic motivation.
  • Education should question things that are taken for granted.
  • Most good learning happens in groups so education needs to facilitate groups, communities of practice and peer exchange.
  • Education needs to be a model in the handling of change and complexity, both in its form and in its practices.
  • Education needs to emphasise and encourage a holistic, interconnected perspective.

This list is no doubt incomplete and the premises require further work, but it provides a starting point in the task of designing institutional structures that would favour learning rather than the institution that runs it.

One key question raised by the above list is that of our relationship to change and the values that underlie it and beyond that the kind of society we wish to live in. Learning is no longer only about what is or what was, but also what will be and how we deal with that emerging future. That doesn't mean systematically negating our history or culture, on the contrary, but it implies we need to discover new approaches and perspectives on the world and the tools we have available. We need to develop new ways of doing things and new tools to carry out those activities. As a result, one of the most important criteria for an institution aimed at encouraging and assisting learning is that it be able to handle change and the unpredictable. That means not just 'teaching' people about change, but being capable of handling change and innovation in its own structures and ways of working. Flexibility, creativity, innovativeness, experimentation, diversity, divergence, unpredictability are the key words. 

At the same time, assisting the emergence of the future needs to go hand in hand with questioning the values on which society and institutions are based. An institution for learning needs to take up this joint challenge: bringing together the mastery of change as an essential process in life and society and a deep questioning of values on which those changes and our activities take place.

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Created: October 21st, 2011 - Last up-dated: October 21st, 2011