The Value of Learning

Learning is natural. We begin to learn in the womb. The wonderment of  childhood in largely because of the excitement that comes with learning. What value do we put on learning?

In a world where we are facing problems of epic proportions (climate change, ageing populations, dysfunctional democracy, energy supply) we need to harness the talent of human creativity. I am, at heart, an optimist, (although the evidence around me would suggest I am starry eyed) and I believe that we  can learn how to deal with the monumental problems that face us.

As an educator, I don’t believe that we are anywhere close to harnessing the power of the social learning mind. Creativity, critical thinking and analysis, and creative applications of thinking define the milestones of human progress. We live in an age when more people receive an education than ever before, and we have reaped the massive benefits that have arisen because of the massification of education at all age levels. However, we have now found ourselves in a state of defending the status quo because it has become one of the largest and most powerful cultural institutions in the world. We didn’t get where we are by refusing to change, we are here because a few were willing to risk everything to change the world with new and outlandish ideas.

We need to do this again, and one of the most fundamental changes that is needed is the revaluation of learning.

Although there are arguments that education is already too expensive, I believe that in order to really harness the potential of the social learning mind, the value of learning has to be increased. Not just increased, but really increased.

In much of the world, classrooms of children, teenagers and (young) adults in formal learning environments are large. As a result, much of our energies have been focused on making teaching more efficient, forcing conformity, and putting out a uniform product. How do we process so many minds at once when we are all unique.

If we look at our society today, while we strive for ever greater efficiencies in teaching, we find that fewer and fewer of our graduates find meaningful employment. Too much of what we do in our modern society can, and is, being replaced by mechanisms and algorithms. Machines and technology are doing many of the jobs we have relied on, in the past, to provide meaningful employment to millions. We are in a state of social upheaval, with our values anchored in a mercantilist past. A trader is worth a million times more than a teacher. Even though making and trading can (and has been – to a large extent) automated.

I would say that teaching can’t and shouldn’t be automated. Certainly, parts of education can be automated, but real learning of complex ideas, complex information, and complex skills are still learned in a face to face, supportive environment with very low student/teacher ratios (think PhD learning). Shaping and moulding an individual mind to reach its full potential is a customised process that can’t be achieved using factory methods.

As a society, why don’t we revalue learning. Would there need to be endless measurement if a teacher of six year olds had only five children to work with? If a middle-school teacher could really inspire a handful of young teenagers to love the beautiful simplicity of math (if that’s what the teens found interesting)? How enjoyable would the teaching and learning experience be in higher education if a teacher (wouldn’t be lecturers in this world) worked with a few eager students to help them learn as opposed to setting continuous memorisation exercises for the hundreds.

Think of the thrill of learning that has occurred in the cMOOCs as small groups of individuals (a lot of small groups) focus on learning and supporting each other in understanding complex ideas?

If we were to revalue learning, we could provide meaningful careers for millions, harness the power of human thinking and creativity, and I believe we could actually come up with solutions to the world’s most challenging problems.

 

How have we made something as exhilarating as learning, as oppressive as education?

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