Lets talk about learning

After an interesting day at the Scottish Parliament discussing how Scotland might turn into a learning nation, I am left with a feeling that learning means some very different things to different people. Neither am I convinced that if we all remain friends that learning will advance itself.

As a motivating story, consider an Amazonian tribe still remote from contact with the western (or eastern) world. As noticed by the charity Survival we easily attach epithets such as primitive and backward. Which would have to mean they had not learned: after all they are the same as they were many thousands of years ago to the best of our knowledge. But there is another view. This tribe have achieved a near-perfect equilibrium with their environment, They understand in depth how to sustain their existence through the generations. They learn naturally and completely about changes, and if they did not they would not be there.

The contrast with the rise and fall of empires ( and the eurozone) is dramatic. There seems to be a different mode of human learning at once more abstract and more social that can propagate itself until it cannot. This has more of a feel of Kuhn’s paradigms but at a level so deep that the results of collapse are often catastrophic. We already have prominent critics of education in the Unreasonable Leaners: for instance John Raven is very clear that education as we know it is socially dysfunctional. So we have clues that what we regard as learning is part of collapse, not part of sustainability.

It seems to me that we are unreasonably attached to fairness amd unreasonably attached to consensus. What is actually the problem with “let a thousand flowers bloom”? We have an attitude to children that is forever admonishing them and instilling fear of what the future holds for them. This fosters a learning mode allied to crafty individual survival, to people who learn how to play the game and in the limit are feral. The messages we give to young learners foster the very outcome we warn them of. How many of us as parents can stand back from persuading our kids to do their homework?

When Jung interviewed a Native American chief, the sage told him that white people didn’t know what they wanted and that it made them really angry. My own experience of consulting to organisations is that senior management teams do not know what they are trying to do, certainly not at a level of making space for others to make a contribution. Our strategies are default, are things that fill the vacuum not the working out of why we are in the world.

So my plea is not for new ideas but for the freedom to work out how to play our part in the wider world. What people need in order to learn is much more about disciplining the queue of professionals who wants to tell people what is good for them than it is about another programme in that queue. Like Mike McCarron learning from long term drug users how to deal with the drugs problem.