guest post: learning webs

I was in Thailand a month ago, chatting with my friend Shilpa Jain.

We were talking about how people learn things.

And she shared this idea of a learning web. And how there are different ways we can learn things.

As she spoke, my mind immediately raced to the relevance for business.

Learning Webs – Back to the Source

by Shilpa Jain

I’ve been working in the field of ‘alternatives’ to education for a long while now – really since I was  a young’un, running around my neighborhood, inventing my own games and art, reading books of my choice, etc. 

Though by its own measures, I did “well” in traditional public school (by which I mean, I got good grades), I never really liked school – its competitions, its limits, its labels, its random subjects disconnected from real life and real issues. 

As I got older and started learning more about the historic roots of the education system and its impacts on diverse communities over the world, I realized that my personal dislike was well-founded.  This system has been wreaking havoc on individuals and communities for a couple centuries now. 

And it’s time to stop.

Mostly, people agree on the ills of schooling.  They know it’s cutting kids off from interactions with their families and neighbors; from a sacred connection with Mother Nature; from their own bodies, hands and spirits.  And, they know it’s a rat race, and a lot of people suffer from the labels and competition imposed through schooling. 

AND, they know that it’s not helping in solving the problems we are up against – but, instead, is actually feeding them by producing more capitalistic, obedient and submissive consumers… 

But when it comes to other possibilities, people are often at a loss.  There is the endless call for ‘reforming public education’ – which for many folks means a ‘better’ version of the same thing: just smaller classrooms, better trained teachers, more technology, better textbooks, etc. 

Others are experimenting with charter schools, democratic schools, free schools – or homeschooling cooperatives, unschooling, natural learning communities….   Despite their creativity and the numerous generative possibilities they are opening up, they are usually called ‘elitist’ and dismissed on the grounds of being inapplicable to the ‘majority’.  Which is unfortunate.

I want to add a little more to this conversation in my own support of self-designed and community-supported learning:  learning webs.   

A few months ago, I was invited to host a workshop for an innovative educational experiment in Puerto Rico called Nuestra Escuela (Our School).  They are built on a mission of love.  They are committed to throwing out labels of ‘juvenile delinquent’, ‘at-risk’, ‘dropout’, ‘failure’, etc. and instead embracing the brilliance, creativity and potential of the young people (ages roughly 13-18) in their communities. 

They asked me to help support them with thinking about how to nuture deep learning and collaboration in Nuestra Escuela – something that would align with their mission and vision.

I started reflecting on the answers to the question, “What is one of the most meaningful learning experiences you have had?”  I, and the community I worked with in India, Shikshantar asked this question a lot, as we were working to generate alternatives to the education system. 

Invariably, the kinds of answers people gave had to do with one (or more) of these six relationships/opportunities:

1.     mentors – someone who inspires you, who can guide you, who gives meaningful support to you in times that matter

2.     experiments – personal and collective – little challenges that you give yourself, or that you agree to do with a group, to stretch yourself, come closer to your spirit and truth, and to live in greater alignment with your values

3.     apprenticeships/internships – longer-term commitments to deeply learn something that matters to you, usually with folks who have some kind of expertise in the field

4.     travel: journeys and visits – going to interact with people and places where what you want to learn is happening; the journey itself is often part of the learning experience

5.     self-study: looking at books, films, websites, etc. that delve into the different aspects of your interest area

6.     reflection: writing, journaling, creative expression of some kind, to digest what you’re learning, capture your understandings, and reflect them to others who can give you feedback as well

I like to image these six things as spokes coming off of a center point – which is where you put your question or the subject you want to learn.  It could be anything from ‘organic farming’, to ‘indigenous history’, to ‘how can I have a healthy relationship with my partner?’, to ‘how can I become less angry and more patient?’ 

After you have a sense of what you want, and that can be a group or collective decision too, you generate the mentors, experiments, apprenticeships, travel, self-study and reflection that can help you learn it. 

As our friends at the Berkana Institute say, “Start anywhere. Follow it everywhere.”  That’s how you grow your learning web – by being as curious as you can be and committing to learning as much as you can.  If you remember that everyone is a source/resource, with lots to share in terms of experiences, ideas, stories, and questions, there is simply an endless supply of possibilities.

There is no limit to the number and diversity of personal and collective learning webs that can be generated. It only depends on what you can balance and handle.  And, as they say in Open Space, “Be prepared to be surprised!” 

Learning webs can lead you to amazing aha!’s, wonderful relationships, and many other things that you couldn’t have known when you started.  They knit you back to the real world and to the web of life. They encourage compassion, communication, complexity and commitment.  They enliven your imagination and root you with purpose.

Most importantly, they return the power of learning to the source: you and your collectivities.  And, for me, when we harvest the power of our individual and collective wisdom, well, we’ve found what we need to build a world that works for all beings.

My reflections on this:

  • are you stuck trying to teach your content to your clients using only one strand of the learning web? What might happen if instead of doing the traditional teleseminars and workshops you were to support people in learning in other ways? Is it possible that we get so stuck on ‘giving info’ that we don’t pay enough attention to their learning?
  • if you’re stuck trying to learn something, might another approach to learning work better for you?
  • are you relying only on high priced seminars and marketing gurus for your answers when the wisdom might be right there in your own community?

 What are your thoughts? Write them below in the comments.

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