Learning in networks. A sketch of the future of learning
We do not only need new visions, but people who are capable of developing them. That’s why we reinvent education and learning. Not by sort of „new school”, but by something radically different. I call it the „Learning Network“. An idea, that is already realized in many places. Now it’s time to link them. As an alternative to an education system that at least was unable to prevent the planetary catastrophe.
by Christoph Schmitt
Graffiti in Lisbon. Photo by Christoph Schmitt
A vision of education requires a vision of society. An idea of how we as a community of people want to live together (or against each other or side by side) – and how we shape it. This is also about organizing – but not only. At the end it’s all about learning.
Our societies have started to change radically. This is indicated by all observations, analyzes, researches and personal experience. These changes are economic, cultural and social. At the same time, we’re running out of natural resources – through your and my actions.
Facing these global urgencies, famous thinkers have called for new ways of thinking and acting. For example Albert Einstein: „You can not solve a problem with the same parameters by which it was caused.“ So the way we organize education and learning to this day is part of the problem – not its solution.
A vision of education requires first a vision of society
How do we come to a sustainable vision of our future that – at the same time – makes those, who share the vision, sustainable? This duplication of sustainability is a key feature of the vision sought: it will not be designed by the few for the many and then “somehow transferred”, that is, re-taught. It will be a vision that consists of many visions, of people who organize themselves in networks around the world for the purpose of saving our natural resources, to conquer the historical, political and economic restrictions and blockages, that prohibit the invention of much needed solutions until this moment.
It will be a vision developed jointly by all those who just live and share it in their place. Most importantly, the atmosphere in which this vision is developed, will already breathe its spirit as it arises. The design of such approaching has been superbly articulated by David Bohm, within his highly up-to-date essay on dialogue, by Carolin Emckes writings on basic civilization, by Rutger Bregmans „Utopien für Realisten“ or by Carlos Strengers „Zivilisierte Verachtung”. These and many other writings are primarily about cultural issues: How do we want and need to talk to each other, how will we treat each other?
Only learning helps
This is where our human core competence is joining the game: learning. The ability – as an individual as well as a collective – not to react to radical demands with “more stupid things”, but to respond with creative solutions: learning.
The fact that we are only just starting to use our creative potential is mainly due to the fact that there are still too many people (actually men) who are convinced that creativity leads to „children dancing about their names“ at Rudolf-Steiner-Schools.
On the contrary, creativity is one of the most important bundles of competence at all: individually as well as collectively – in order to counteract the complex challenges of the present days. We will only be able to handle complexity through creativity, not any more by reducing it.
We will only reach the next cultural stage of humanity if we work together to find solutions for our ecological and anthropological resources – in no other way than through a radical reorganization of our learning – as individuals with our enormous learning potential as well as collectives with our enormous cultural resources.
How to start rethinking
First, we take societies, cultures and “their” people as are learning systems. Therefore, we give back the responsibility and organization of all learning to these learning systems.
Second, we finally say goodbye to teaching. That’s a pretty big deal.
What are we going to do instead? The visionary architect and designer Richard Buckminster Fuller has worded a principle of successful future work, which has gained worldwide recognition: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” (Google it). That means: Neither criticism of existing education systems nor the innumerable attempts to reform schools and their didactics lead to changes that meet the challenges we face. What we need is “the new model” that fortunately already exists in many places.
There are world-wide fascinating alternatives not only to traditional ideas of education and learning. At present, concepts are also being developed for how our resources can be rescued with the help of appropriate research, the networking of highly committed people and the continuous creation of new solutions for ecological, social and economic challenges.
The movie “Tomorrow” gives a fascinating insight into these initiatives, which are almost without exception “grassroot-movements” – and these movements can also benefit from a radically reconsidering and developing of the learning of people. I have featured some of these initiatives over the last two years in my blog posts on linkedIn (google it).
One of the most important features of Learning Networks is that they are always need-based and need-focused: Learning seeks its networks because people of all ages find themselves constantly in situations in which they have a current “need for solutions” that makes them using a network. The wonderful thing about this is that all people involved with such needs & tasks continue to develop towards mutually responsible solutions. By need or demand I mean on the one hand a precise cause in the life and work of people, and on the other hand the drive to do everything to solve the case – and to develop appropriate competencies and strategies – by using the Learning Network.
And what’s new about the “new learning”?
Graffiti in Lisbon. Photo by Christoph Schmitt
In the future, learning will be what it has always been: self-organized and self-directed – and not just by those whom we now refer to as pupils and students, but also by those who support them. Learning affects all parties involved. The more we let learning power take effect in the future, the less teaching power will be needed. People who accompany each other on these tracks are no longer state-trained, certified and employed teachers, but everyone & everything else.
Learning, be it children or adolescents, students or people who are continuing their education, will no longer take place in schools but decentralised. People will not go to any school for the purpose of any kind of learning, but will learn where they live, where they work. They will deal with issues and problems that directly affect them. The novelty of new learning goes even further. Organization and support of this learning is no longer delivered by schooling. The pedagogical-didactic construct of institutionalized learning no longer occurs in the future of learning. Schooling as a paradigm has had its day. Instead, we will be learning in networks throughout our lives, just as we are already on our way in networks in many cultural areas: communicating, producing, trading and forming all sizes of interest groups to solve specific problems.
The modeling and implementation of learning networks is an answer to the needs of future people as well as future living and working environments, which otherwise can not be controlled and organized any more than by self-organized learning and working networks. In this respect, the ideas painted here for learning in networks are above all a response to the needs of future generations and their worlds of life.
“Learing Network” means: Everyone learns and everything learns
Learning cannot be devided into learners here and people being responsible for learning over there. Although schools exactly work this way: While students “learn” and teachers teach, it’s teachers responsibility how and what students learn. That’s bizarre but still commonplace. The truth ist: “To learn” is something that is the responsibility of everyone involved into learning – not into teaching.
Our education system is conditioning people in a different direction: My / your / our learning and its organization has always to be organized by any kind of teacher. Therefore, e.g. “Digital Transformation” in educational contexts ist without exception (!) understood in a way – be it affirmative or negative, favorable or fearful – that teachers and their functions could be “replaced” by digital media and artificial intelligence (“learning analytics”).
In contrast, the idea and culture of Learning Networks is convinced that the responsibility for learning of any kind is currently not delegated. Neither to a teaching profession, nor to intelligent machines. Both are no longer needed in a Learning Network. The idea of the Learning Network leaves the responsibility in the hands of learners, because in my notion of Larning Network there are only learners.
As long as we define education and learning as events, whose organization we equate and confuse with institutionalized organization, we are unable to grasp or make the crucial difference. Today, when we use terms such as “self-organization” and “self-organized learning” in the context of education and schooling, we are primarily targeting pupils, students, and people involved in further education. We focus on learners as a target group of teaching action. We do not include schools or related systems such as teaching professions, school administrations or services from the housekeeping up to the business managementas as learners. Nor do we incorporate the “home systems” of pupils and students into our idea of self-organized learning: families, circles of friends, the fields of profession.
Teaching systems consider “self-organized learning” as a method provided by the school system, as a possible way alongside other pedagogically-didactically organized approaches. Why? Because learning, which comes into view in the context of school, is always related to and dependent on teaching activities. It’s always the learning of those who are educated and taught by a school system. Hence we are always talking about learning that is constructed and organized using the parameters of pedagogical-didactic paradigms.
To this day, in our view of learning, we always refer to seemingly limited target groups of “learners” and hide the systems within they are learning. As if learning from people could take place independently of the systems in which it is embedded – and without consequences for those systems. This idea of learning is wrong and it still forms the basis of all schooling activities.
Graffiti in Lisbon. Photo by Christoph Schmitt
But it is always systems that learn. Learning is not an isolated activity of individuals. Learning always leads to changes in systems that are always coupled with other systems. Therefore, the results and impacts of learning can not be controlled at all – unless the teaching systems shut off learning. And even then, “scholastic learning” affects family systems – and vice versa. As soon as children become compulsory, families as systems start to change fundamentally – especially with regard to the way they organize themselves. The same applies to schools: If they are located in so-called “social hotspots” or if they take in a particularly large number of learners from refugee families, they organize themselves differently than schools that are mostly visited by learners who share a so-called wealthy and “domestic” background.
A systemically widening concept of learning shows how all participants in learning operations are affected by learning. Those who speak of “self-organized learning” must realize that they are talking about “learning in systems” as well as about “learning systems”; and he or she is actually saying that this and all learning is self-organized – and not in an isolated sense, as if every single pupil “would somehow learn to himself.”
How Learning Networks organize
Learning Networks as successors to traditional education systems are conceivably simple ways of organization. They make use of the phenomenon of self-organization at a high level, as has been demonstrated for many years in a great deal of research on this topic. Evidence can be found again in the writings of Felix Frei (Switzerland), Frederic Laloux (Belgium) and Noah Juval Harari (google it).
The ideal organization of learning is a Network, a Learning Network. Learning explicitly understood as a specific form of linking the known and the unknown through a learning individual. Such a individual can be a human being, a group of people or an organization, which also consists of people and their communications.
Learning is about deliberately controlled and reflected creating, discovering, rejecting, using and linking of resources of any origin and nature in order to solve identified problems – and to identify them as such. What happens in any case is firstly networking and secondly education (“formation”). When I look at learning and education as a “networking thing”, the ideal place of learning is not a “school” but a “node” in a network. The ideal place for/of learning is a network node.
This place gets its quality for learning people mainly by the density of the network he represents – which means nothing else than this: The place of learning is a network node. It receives its quality for learning people through the node with as many as possible connecting lines (Processes and communications), with as many as possible other nodes in the network. So a network node is not simply “connected to others or not”. Networks are not static but highly dynamic (see Gerald Hüther and Manfred Spitzer for more informations): “What fires together, wires together”.
Unlike traditional notions of scholastic learning organization, where learners are primarily “cared for”, Learning Networks are real communities in which networking exists solely through the activity of the linked and the linking ones which are the same. This difference is very important for using the network metaphor: I do not “have” a network other than that I and each individual network partner “fires” it by using, curating, developing, feeding and expanding it. Networking is not a “state” but a qualified and qualifying process of networking. Learning Networks maintain stability by being in motion. And this movement is called learning.
So a Learning Network is not something that others could set up and manage for me as a service. It is a way of self-organization. Learning Networks construct and organize their learning architectures themselves. A learning location (“spot”) is independent of preprogrammed, classical teaching-learning infrastructures. Every “learning spot” does not derive his quality from the geographical spot where a learning person or organization is situated, but rather this way:
The quality & quantity of being linked within a Learning Network, realized and condensed in any geographical location, makes this & every place a learning space.
This is an reversal of the omnipresence of our classical conceptions of institutional “learning places”. In the conception of Learning Networks learning can only be as good as the network and its quality, which is a matter and concern of everyone.
Learning and its organizing in the future means designing and strengthening Learning Networks, which are at the same time learning networks by themselves. Everyone involved in a learning system perceives him- und herselve as an important part of this network, where there are no teachers but only learners. Teaching as a knowledge-transferring function is no longer needed in the Learning Network.
Learning Networks are colearning-spaces based on the culture of coworking and makerspaces, which are fundamentally defined by the sharing of resources (keyword: “sharing economy”): knowledge, experience, time, material, financial resources, human attention etc. “Learning” is above all organized as sharing resources and needs.
What benefits does this new way of learning bring?
Learning cannot be taught (Klaus Holzkamp), as little as knowledge or knowledge content can be taught (Rolf Arnold). Everything that people in Learning Networks need to support their learning, they will explore by themselves from an appropriate environment that is maximally geared to support discovery learning. This applies to primary school children based on their opportunities and needs, as well as to adults who are continuously educating themselves.
Prater-Ferris-Wheel, Vienna Photo by Christoph Schmitt
The consistent self-organization of learning and education inside Learning Networks frees up enormous human and physical resources that have hitherto been bonded to the organization, implementation and control of state-mandated educational procedures. In Learning Networks, instead, learning is an act of those who share & shape life and working contexts.
When learning no longer occurs at tightly timed indoor beat in purpose-built buildings, no longer conforming to superior plans that substitute learner’s potential and needs with learning content and learning objectives; when learning becomes aware of its capabilities and needs and conditions, the input of enormous resources for logistics, mobility, organization in families, and for coordination with gainful employment is no longer necessary.
There will be completely new ways in which we organize our own learning, the learning of children, adolescents and adults, so that it takes place either directly in the contexts in which we live or in low-threshold organized “learning communities”, forming and dissolving unspectacular and spontaneous. Every neighborly, cooperative, club or corporate-organized “colearning space” offers livelier, more creative and situational opportunities for learning than school-based learning inspired by a culture of assessment and selection.
Such Learning Networks expand in terms of needs and solutions to include further dimensions of society and economy. There are – depending on need – other players in the educational game: craftsmen, companies, social and cultural institutions from the Meatspace as well as from cyberspace.
Learning Networks are therefore intensive (“active”) and closely linked with actors from science and research. Not in the sense of “teaching”, but in the sense of encounter, exchange, networking and condensation. People who accompany other people in these learning contexts at their own request are, above all, experts in learning: for the unfolding of learning and life processes. They are not experts in teaching, testing and grading.
The Broken Globe, by Karl Anton Wolf. Vienna: Sigmund-Freud-Park. Photo by Christoph Schmitt
Anyone who prepares or develops a profession will draw on resources in various areas of society, which are part of the Learning Network: from the farmer to the architect, from the nutritionist to the development worker to the representatives of the trades, the Arts and the broad field of digital technologies. The “Neue Oberstufe” concept, which is currently being successfully developed at ESBZ in Berlin and is linked from there across Europe, is a practical and successful example of this. (google it)
Learning Networks are on the one hand designed as linked learning places in the Meatspace, that is to say in a physical space of life. They settle in places where learning people live. These are e.g. Neighborhoods, studios (“Ateliers”) in the sense I outlined in my book “Digitalisieung für Nachzügler”, networks of entrepreneurs, sole proprietors or classic SMEs – or places where people stop in transit: Digital Nomads, Digital Expads, Families or even people learning on the(ir) way.
On the other hand, these networks are shaped by a dense digital networking of local learning spots (“colearning spaces”): together with cultural and media professionals, (innovators from the) craft, industry and social organizations. One of the reasons why Learning Networks are connected to social and economic contexts is because they are part of the network. Therefore, Learning Networks are not alternatives or opposites to places of vocational education. They have what it takes to replace traditional education systems.
Such Learning Networks may be supported by parent initiatives that wire together for this purpose. As initiators, however, all bearers of social (not necessarily governmental) responsibility are conceivable to organize such Learning Networks – in diverse composition and with completely different interests, which have at least one thing in common: they link together for the purpose of intensive and sustainable learning.
Last but not least, learning in Learning Networks organizes itself quite naturally and successively in the digital space, which is not a counterpart and no alternative to the analogue space, but its supportive extension and consistent network.
What need does this movement respond to?
It responds to an already increasing movement of self-organizing people and their institutions. The kind of learning that enables us to develop common solutions to the great challenges of the present day is no longer supported in traditional school systems. Too much of the demands on us and our learning have strayed from what the education system has to offer.
Therefore, learning from children and adolescents, from students or people who continue to educate themselves, seeks other paths and places. Already nowadays – increasingly supported by the Digital Space. People will stop visiting schools and colleges to learn. And the novelty of this “new learning” goes even further: The Organizing of all learning business will no longer relate to the scholastic tradition. The pedagogical-didactic construct of institutionalized learning will not occur in the future. “Schooling” as a concept has served its purpose. It’s all about networking now.
On the one hand, the upcoming of Learning Networks is already a reaction to the emergence of new ideas, practices and needs, how people organize themselves, their work, their relationships and their (self-) care. On the other hand, Learning Networks are increasingly becoming possible because of that.
Learning Networks are our answer to the increasing need to organize life ourselves – in whatever “ways”. Through learning networks we enable ourselves and each other to tackle the increasingly complex challenge called “future” in a sustainable and enjoyable way.