The Way Of Learning

What learning can, and might, become

One of the articles in The Way Of Learning (IC#6)
Originally published in Summer 1984 on page 52
Copyright (c)1984, 1997 by Context Institute

LEARNING CAN BE a great joy, yet that is not what most people experience in our educational system. The skills of learning are something that we very much need in our rapidly changing world, both individually and as a culture, yet most of us are "impoverished" compared to the potential easily within the grasp of our society. What shall we do – for our children, ourselves, and our culture – to establish a healthier and more empowering relationship to learning?

Let’s begin with children and with our educational institutions. There are a number of observations from the previous articles that stand out strongly to me. It is clear that we could be using more effective and more whole- person techniques. On the surface, these techniques do not seem to address the crucial question of freedom, but in practice they can’t avoid it. If we were truly successful in empowering children to be the best learners they can be, it would not be long before they would insist on running their own show, on being self-directed learners. Both experience and brain research verify that freedom and self-direction are essential to high quality learning. Without basic structural change, these changes in method would at best be just a sugar coating for the old authoritarianism. At worst, they could become a considerably more sophisticated form of manipulation.

On the other hand, if we go in the direction of "unschooling," what happens to the social support for education? Isn’t there the danger that any move away from public schools will put the children of the poor at a greater disadvantage? What about the "social glue" and cross cultural experiences that public schooling is supposed to provide?

Thirdly, we need to recognize that schools have always served a dual role – what Toffler described as the overt and covert curriculum. One of these roles is to impart a variety of specific skills and information – what we generally refer to as education. The other role, the covert one, is to help in the general child raising process; to train students into a particular lifestyle and worldview; to make them good Believers, good Citizens of the Republic, or well adjusted industrial workers. We talk publicly about schools in relationship to the first role, but in practice, most people are more concerned about the second.

We may bemoan this, but there is a deep and legitimate issue here. In no culture do parents bear the full responsibility for child raising. Not only are the time and emotional demands usually shared, but children need to see behaviors and values expressed by many people in order to disentangle the cultural from the personal. Families who are part of a strong community often don’t need the school to play this role, but most families in our society are much more adrift. It is part of our cultural mythology that families should be strong enough to handle it all, so people are reluctant to openly discuss their need for help, but any attempt at educational reform that fails to address this issue will simply go the way of so many previous attempts.

How do we decide between those who want better teaching and those who want less teaching, between those who want more freedom and those who want more help? While these problems may seem insurmountable, I’ve come to feel that they are perhaps more easily solved than we might suspect.

A New Model For Education

What we need is a new model, a new paradigm for learning and education – something that would satisfy all those concerns and fit meaningfully into a postindustrial humane sustainable culture. My sense is that the basic elements for that model already exist in the society around us, at least as seeds. What we need to do now is to recognize these elements, see them in a new light, and put them together into a new pattern.

I’d like to first describe the key supporting institutions for this new way of learning, and then look at how a growing child would progress along this way. Finally, we’ll consider how such a system of education could be developed.

Supporting Institutions: We already have an educational institution within our society that combines generous publicly-supported help with real freedom of choice. It’s called a library. In their present form, libraries are not sufficient to provide the full support needed for education, but their essence of active, nonjudgmental service to free learners is a clear alternative to schooling’s approach. It shows that not only is it possible to combine public support with genuine freedom, but we even do it all the time.

The current information and communications explosion offers the potential for a vast increase in the resources that even small community libraries can offer. Through connections to large data bases, and the use of low cost storage techniques from microfiche to laser disks, it is easily within our grasp for everyone to have access to a range of resources that makes the Library of Congress look small. Increasingly, the challenge for libraries (and users) will be not getting the material but selecting which material is most useful.

What present libraries lack, however, are human resources. Books, records, tapes and films can be wonderful, but often what you need are other humans to talk with, listen to, dance with, and work with. Discussion groups, studios, workshops, even lectures and classes, all contribute to the learning process. We usually think of these as things that schools provide, but in fact they don’t only exist within the framework of schooling. Most communities have a variety of public classes, events, and other educational activities, and these could be made available in the same spirit as books from the library. Schooling, which is a time-dominating total lifestyle imposed on children, uses classes as its basic elements, but the character of these classes would be fundamentally changed if – as in the library model – attendance was voluntary. This would imply, among other things, that there would be no set curriculum, but each learner would be able to chart his/her own path along the way of learning.

Yet this still does not fully address the issue of helping with child raising. We need another element – something that I would like to call mentoring. What do I mean by this? In common usage, to be a mentor is to be a wise, loyal advisor – a friend and a counselor. I’d like to expand on the common usage, and develop the concept of "mentoring" to cover all the ways that we humans non-coercively help each other to learn and grow. A particular emphasis within this would be the skills of helping children.

In its broadest meaning, mentoring is something we all do, but by giving it a name and becoming more conscious of it, we can learn to do it better. As I envision it, it would involve a good working understanding of the learning process and the developmental stages of growth; of knowing how to learn, how to communicate, and how to find information and other resources. All of the knowledge and skills that the Venezuelan Intelligence Project is making available to the people of that country would be part of mentoring.

Good parenting is an example of mentoring, but it is important that the concept be defined broadly enough so that people who are not parents can also see themselves as mentors. Aunts, uncles, friends, grandparents, employers – everyone can get into the act. By having this skill widespread through the society, people would again be able to be at ease with children, to share in the child raising process, to be at peace with the child within themselves, and to know how to continue to learn and grow as adults.

Within this broad range, there also needs to be some specialization. We need mentors who can play the role that the "consulting teacher" in the Family-Centered Learning Alternatives program does – a kind of extension agent for learning. There is also room for all kinds of teachers, counselors, facilitators, etc. as human resources available to learners. The possibilities are endless, but by putting all these under the umbrella of mentoring, we emphasize the fundamentally noncoersive spirit that needs to be at the heart of the new way of learning.

The Learning Process: How would these elements come together during the growth of a child? The process would begin before birth with programs and resources available to parents designed to help them with early parenting – just as in the Venezuelan Intelligence Project. As the child grew, the parents could at any time consult the "learning extension agent" of their choice. Programs of all sorts for young children could be available to the extent that there was a demand, but parents would also know that their children need lots of unstructured time. People would speak of the balance of the three times: time spent alone, time spent with peers, and time spent with adults and the adult world. The first seven or so years would be seen as a time to get a first immersion into all the richness of life, and to fully be a child.

At sometime around seven, a child would probably develop a specific relationship with a mentor who could help with the next stages of learning, up to about puberty. The programs offered to this age group would be more focused and demanding, but as always participation would be voluntary. In many cases, the kids themselves would be the instigating agents for various group activities. I would expect a particularly important form to be the learning circle, a combination discussion and experience group in which learners of various ages would develop their communications and self-governance skills in the process of working with their peers on topics of common interest.

After puberty, this same free-form pattern would continue, but with an increasing number of apprentice/internship activities available. The young person would probably also by now have developed a number of (increasingly adult-to-adult) mentoring relationships. Further education could take many paths, but it would be built on a solid foundation of knowing how to learn (gained through years of self-directed learning), how to communicate, and how to work cooperatively (both gained through activities like the learning circles).

Throughout this process, all kinds of testing would be available that people could use for their own purposes without central records needing to be kept. There would, however, need to be some process for verifying that a limited number of basic skills, such as reading and writing, were being developed. A general test at about age ten would give enough time for different learning styles, yet also allow enough time for special help if that were needed.

Questions: With such a free-form system, how can we be sure that kids will learn what they need? First, kids are even more desirous that they become successful adults than their parents are. Given good access to resources and genuine freedom, certainly most, and probably all kids will wisely choose what they need. That is what the "growing without schooling" evidence is showing. But the system also has a back-up in both the parents and the mentors, who will be keeping a watchful caring eye on the development of each child. By emphasizing the spread of mentoring skills throughout the society, this approach makes it much less likely that a child would be neglected.

What about the question of equal opportunity for all? This system makes its educational resources equally available to all children (and adults, too), and if needed it would also be easy to add compensating help (such as extra out-of-the- home study space in areas with crowded housing). But the deeper point is that equal opportunity is more a question of how the system is applied than of which system is used. Both "schooling" and "free learning" can be done in ways that help or that hinder equality.

How about "social glue" and cross cultural experiences? Forcing children to be in physical proximity in the compulsory school has not proven to be an effective approach to these goals. In our small, highly mobile world, most of the social glue that we’ve got (which isn’t much) comes through the media (especially TV and music), common consumer activities (like having cars), and other general cultural features. Holt addresses this question extensively in chapter 2 of Teach Your Own, and points out that real glue comes from voluntary association – which is the basis for all group activity in the system of free learning. The same considerations apply to cross cultural experiences, but in addition, the time-flexibility of free learning would make real cultural exchanges (like the trip to the Hoopa Indians described in the Mariposa article) much easier to arrange. Support for such exchanges could easily be part of a free learning system.

What use does all this make of the many wonderful new teaching techniques discussed in previous articles? Free learning is not committed to any particular teaching technique, but because it is a "free market" for learning, the most effective techniques will naturally get more use. Unlike schooling, which has shown itself to be remarkably resistant to change, with this new approach the system itself would be open to rapid learning.

Thus by shifting from the schooling paradigm to the library paradigm as our model for education, and by developing mentoring as a widespread multi-level skill throughout the society, we could develop a system of free learning that would be more effective and more appropriate to the needs of our time.

Development: How can we get there? It is already happening, although more work is certainly needed. At an individual, family, or small group level, free learning is already available through various forms of growing without schooling such as the Family-Centered Learning Alternatives. The full support system isn’t there yet to enhance this the way that it could be, but as John Holt emphasizes, there is a great deal that can be done with presently available resources. Yet while these private solutions are important steps, it is important that we deal with the whole system.

One major obstacle to the greater immediate spread of free learning is the compulsory attendance laws. While homeschoolers have found ways around these in most states, the process is often complex enough to discourage all but the most committed. The social conditions that gave rise to these laws are now thoroughly out of date, and they have become an impediment to better learning. Children need to be free, not only to be in or out of school, but also to choose what part of the school program they want to use – which means the elimination of state-mandated curricula as well as compulsory attendance. The sooner the school system, and the public, wake up to the need for this change, the easier the transition will be, and the sooner the creative energies of teachers and others will be released to develop the more relevant and effective learning programs that can survive voluntary attendance.

The other major thrust needs to go toward developing training programs and support materials for mentoring – all the way from prenatal education to work with the elderly. Building on the work of the Venezuelan Intelligence Project, brain research, and important elements from the personal growth movement, we need to put the perspectives and skills of mentoring into a form that can be quickly grasped by people throughout the society. Such a package would share what is known about: how the brain/mind works, how people learn, the stages of life, good communication skills, working with small groups, and how to access resources from the wider world. Support groups and associations need to be formed, the skills spread, and in so doing, people can regain control over their own educational destiny.

Why should this approach of free learning and mentoring succeed while so many past attempts at educational reform have failed? Partly because the time is right. Unlike 100 years ago when industrialism was getting into full swing, today’s cultural currents are moving away from the kind of uniformity and authoritarianism that is basic to schooling. Second, the major emphasis given to helping with child raising – through mentoring – also makes it more likely to succeed. Third, this approach is not trying to change the schools directly. It is simply going around them. Its success does not depend on the approval of the education establishment. It can stand on its own in a culture dominated by schooling, gradually gaining strength and experience, like a small mammal among the dinosaurs. The progress so far is encouraging. The free learning part has already proven itself as an effective educational alternative, and it is rapidly becoming a viable political alternative. If we can now add a strong mentoring component, a new era of education may well be upon us.

Transcending The Damage Of The Past

Free learning may be all very well and good for the future, but what about those of us who have already been through the system? How can we establish a more positive and fruitful relationship to learning? The answer, it seems to me, is to clean out the garbage, expand your learning skills, and then use those skills. It is never too late to start being a free learner. As a start along that direction, I would especially recommend Jean Houston’s The Possible Human. Get together with some friends and start a learning circle devoted to expanding your learning capacities. You might be amazed at the results.

Evolving The Planetary Mind

Yet the need for learning is more than just an individual or small group issue. All over the planet, those alive now will have to learn major new perceptions and behaviors if we are to continue as a species. How does the way of learning apply to whole cultures? My guess is that the key to this is to work consciously with morphogenetic fields. Spreading new behaviors requires a two pronged approach. The morphogenetic pattern for that behavior needs to be solidly established – at least within one example – by actual doing, and then people need to be informed (through normal means of communications) of the availability of this alternative.

Consider the impact from students of Aikido (a purely defensive martial art) who are learning to respond to physical threats without responding in a threatened way. Each one who truly learns this new response strengthens a vital alternative to ancient reptilian behaviors that are dangerously counter-productive in the nuclear age. They are pioneers and trail-blazers, yet just creating the alternative is not enough. The general public must also learn how to connect with that alternative. They may not have to go through as rigorous a program as the pioneers, but they need to at least be made meaningfully aware of its existence.

So what can you do to help the planet learn? You can live the patterns of a humane sustainable culture as deeply and realistically right now as you are able. You don’t have to cover the whole territory; but find at least some new behavior that is meaningful to you, and then make it real in your life. Once you are rooted in that new experience, the next step is to communicate so that others can share your gains. In so doing, you take the way of learning to a deep and powerful level.