Today many families are facing the question: What is learning? We eavesdrop on our children’s flat and chaotic Zoom experiences and we wonder: is this learning? Hmm. We may feel they are actually learning more in activities we would have previously classed as “mere play.”
I witnessed this firsthand. My six-year-old nephew had finished his first grade Zoom “morning meeting” — an assortment of silly singsong greetings and technical problems — and was given a short break before his next “class.” This was just enough time to dive into a flow state with his elaborate Lego project — building new towers, connecting sections, dramatizing scenes between characters. As he was told he must stop and return to class, he yelled: “I hate learning! I hate learning!”
That week, I’d seen this child eagerly practice adding fractions while we were making banana muffins. He’d handwritten a sweet birthday letter for my dad. He’d begged for more time to practice his piano chords. He had thoughtfully taken in the difference between solstices and equinoxes when we discussed them over dinner and explained this to his younger brother the next morning. He’d asked questions about carbon emissions caused by cars. He was teaching his baby sister how to use a finger labyrinth. He loves learning.
His expensive private school was aware of none of these things. In the meantime, it was teaching him that learning was something completely different. Something really, really boring.
What is learning? How do our mindset and deep beliefs about learning constrain the experiences we create for our children?
The “tour-bus” metaphor
The “tour-bus” metaphor underpins our conventional understanding of how learning works. Think of the last time you were on a tour-bus — visiting a new city, or on a bus ride as part of an amusement park.
Now, think about the last class you took — either in person or online. Just like a tour-bus leader, you probably heard the teacher say:
- “Here we go!” or “Let’s get going!” at the beginning
- “Let’s move into...” “Let’s get back on track” “We need to move on” in the middle
- “We’re winding down” “We’ll stop soon” at the end
Let’s unpack the ways tour-bus rides are similar to conventional classes:
|Tour guide. They are alone and in front. They are looking at you, pointing to things outside, and using words to tell you about them. They are in charge.||The teacher. They are alone and in front. They are looking at you, pointing out things and using words to tell you about them.|
|The bus. The container for the experience. It is a closed room with wheels that is sealed off from the environment around it and powered by fossil fuels.||The classroom. The container for the experience. It is a closed room that is in motion, sealed off from the environment around it and powered by an external resource.|
|The tourists. They are seated and belted, in fixed, immovable chairs that orient them to look ahead toward the tour guide.||The students. They are seated, in fixed, immovable chairs that orient them to look ahead toward the teacher.|
|The place we are touring. The world that the tour-bus is moving through is a full, rich, layered, complex world. Our experience of it is constrained by the bus, and fully mediated by the tour guide.||The subject matter. The material we are moving through is a vast and complex territory. Our experience of is constrained by the bus, and fully mediated by the teacher.|
|One’s peers. One sits alone or beside a single peer. There may be superficial chitchat, but the focus is the inaccessible world outside and the tour guide’s commentary.||One’s peers. One sits alone or beside a single peer. There may be superficial chitchat, but the focus is the teacher’s words.|
|Other needs. A tour-bus is not oriented to meet basic human needs, such as eating and drinking, socializing, or movement.||Other needs. A classroom is not oriented to meet basic human needs, such as eating and drinking, socializing, or movement.|
|The driver. The tour is set and the driver follows the route. The bus must arrive at certain places by certain times, and be done by a certain time. The driver does not have agency to make changes.||The curriculum. The plan is set and the classroom is driven by it. The group must arrive at certain places by certain times, and be done by a certain time. Nobody has agency to make changes.|
The tour-bus metaphor is one instantiation of a deeper super-metaphor, LEARNING IS TRAVEL. Specifically, it casts learning as a form of travel in which a group is being driven in a moving vehicle. This structures our understanding of learning and how we think about it.
Have you ever worried about your kids being “behind,” wanted to be sure they were “on track,” wanted to know their learning is “going in the right direction”? The reason you think these thoughts is because of the tour-bus metaphor. Here are some of the entailments of this metaphor:
- Everyone needs to go to the same place.
- Everyone needs to get there the same way.
- Everyone needs to arrive at various stopping points at the same time.
- When or whether the next bus is coming is unclear.
- If you miss the bus, there is no way to catch up. You will miss the thing everyone is after.
The metaphor of the tour bus does daily disservice to our children, and it is incredibly pervasive. Our culture has even conceived (and named) entire pieces of legislation based on this misguided and incomplete mindset toward education, such as “no child left behind.” Because of this metaphor, parents get very worried about their kids “missing school.” Fortunately, the metaphor isn’t the reality.
There are many kinds of learning, and there may be a few for which the tour-bus provides a useful metaphor — for instance, when a group of people are seeking efficient, superficial contact with a domain that is completely new to all of them. However, many kinds of learning require deep, tactile engagement with the world and one’s peers, an individually-paced process, creativity and co-creativity, and other freedoms that the tour-bus metaphor renders invisible.
I’d like to offer an alternative metaphor that better fits my own experience of learning, both as a learner and as an educator and learning community designer.
The “dance social” metaphor
Imagine an evening of social dancing. Perhaps you’ve been to a dance club where you saw people, young and old, partnering up to dance to great music. Or maybe you’re one of the growing worldwide community for whom social dance is part of your lifestyle and identity.
At a dance social, most folks are excited, curious, connecting and questing together. I’ve been a social tango dancer for more than twenty years and I’m struck by the way a well-functioning tango community provides a model and microcosm for the kind of world I want to live in, especially when it comes to learning. Picture the flow, cyclicality, and challenges of a swirling evening of social dance. It is liberated, consensual, fueled by inspiration, expressed in co-creation — qualities young people are hungry for.
Let’s unpack the ways a dance social offers a template for inspired learning experiences:
|Dance social||Learning experience|
|The host(s). A welcoming and well-appointed environment is the responsibility of the host or hosting team. The host assumes everyone wants to be there and has the capacity to participate.||The learning facilitator(s). A welcoming and well-appointed environment is the responsibility of the learning facilitator(s). They assume everyone wants to be there and has the capacity to participate.|
|The space. The room in which the social occurs has an open space in the middle, where the primary activities take place. The empty space is surrounded by comfortable seating where people may sit, watch, talk, eat. Everyone can move freely around the space.||The space. Instead of a room filled with things, spaces for learning have an open, empty center which gets filled by the activities of people learning.|
|The community. People who have freely chosen to attend gather. They come and go as they wish, and participate in dance activity, observation, or conversation as they feel inspired. The participants are, themselves, the core activity; there are no resources for instruction or entertainment other than the people here.||The community. People who have freely chosen to attend gather. They come and go as they wish, and participate in activites, observation, or conversation as they feel inspired. The community is the curriculum; there are no resources for instruction or entertainment other than those introduced or embodied by the people.|
|The codes. Each dance community has a set of codes, or etiquette, that everyone learns and observes to co-create an enjoyable evening. These include ethical dimensions like securing consent for shared activities, and dancing in ways that do not harm others and that facilitate group flow.||The codes. Each learning community has a set of agreements and values, that everyone learns and observes to co-create a rich experience of learning. These include ethical dimensions like securing consent for shared activities, and learning/working in ways that do not harm others and that facilitate group flow.|
|Dancing activity. If there is mutual interest, participants may connect with a peer to share a dance set, or session of embodied and respectful improvised connecting. There is a mix of levels of experience in the room, from beginners to seasoned maestros.||Learning activity. If there is mutual interest, participants may connect with a peer to share a learning session, a period of embodied and respectful improvised connecting. There is a mix of ages and levels of life-experience and domain-expertise in the room.|
|Music. The music is selected by a DJ whose role is to select tracks that are likely to inspire people to connect with one another.||Zeitgeist. The “soundtrack of our times” is continuously playing, providing inspirations for us to connect with one another and learn/grow/explore together.|
|Volunteers. Most dance communities rely on the co-creative efforts of volunteers, who are also dancers, who play roles related to promotion, hosting, setup, and cleanup.||Volunteers. Most learning communities rely on the co-creative efforts of volunteers, who are also learners, who play roles related to promotion, hosting, setup, and cleanup.|
|Mood. There is an overall mood of festivity alternating with absorption, combined with awareness of the sacred experience of connecting.||Mood. There is an overall mood of festivity alternating with absorption, combined with awareness of the sacred experience of learning.|
Like the travel metaphor, the dance social metaphor LEARNING IS COMMUNAL DANCE has its own entailments, such as:
- There is no place to go
- Being here is intrinsically rewarding
- I am the author of my experience, and there are many possible choices in each moment
- I do need partners and a community to express myself fully
- Respect for myself and my partner(s) are inseparable
- Listening deeply (e.g., to music, to one another) provides inspiration and energy
- I can participate or observe as I see fit
- Increased skill gives me access to richer interpersonal experiences
- Increased skill is satisfying in its own right
Although my nephew is beholden to his Zoom-school, a decrepit tour-bus that “covers ground” in an achingly boring, slow way, he’s actually simultaneously participatory to a lively and beautiful multi-household dance social that includes three generations and many daily invitations to dance. Whether working on a Snap Circuit with his dad, practicing his Farsi writing with his grandmother, doing a PowerPoint presentation on astronomy, or building an earthen pizza oven with me, he’s flowing and having such rich experiences that the backwardness of his school can’t harm. Once you’ve danced a real Argentine tango, you know in your bones that no tour-bus through Argentina can ever be as enchanting, transformative, or growth-ful. As a culture, we’re moving to this new paradigm. The first step is seeing all the ways it’s already here.
If you are a learning experience facilitator, how would what you offer change if you let the metaphor of the dance social guide your relationship with learners and their relationship with the content, experience, and one another? Are there other metaphors you feel might better highlight what you see as the key dimensions of learning? To explore how metaphors work more deeply, I encourage you to read George Lakoff and Marc Johnson’s seminal work Metaphors We Live By; I’ve drawn from their approach in doing the above analysis.
What can parents do?
If you are a parent, can you spot the tour-buses your children are on? Seeing them, and noticing the superficial ways in which they engage, is the first part of the change process.
My nephew is resilient. He will continue to love learning, regardless of what he calls it. The pathetic video meetings that his school has been able to effortfully muster for him during COVID will quickly pass into oblivion. Although he may continue to hate “school,” he will know that learning is life, and life is learning, and he will go on to create, discover, and express himself joyfully in many ways, enriching his mind and body and those of everyone around him in the process. What makes him so resilient? I like to imagine that he, and each of us, has a relationship with a learning spirit that guides our learning paths.
What is a learning spirit?
Many parents are beginning to explore self-directed learning. Without an external system to keep things “on track” with their child’s education, parents are likely to have many doubts, questions, and needs. Understanding the concept of a learning spirit, which I believe is foundational to self-directed learning, may be the missing piece. Let’s begin by reflecting on the purpose of learning. Where was this tour-bus going, anyway?
Our culture’s illusions about the purpose of learning
We inherit an illusion that learning is organized by roles and specialties. A person is to select a specialty from a list of given options, and move into a role that represents patterned ways that that specialty has, in the past, created value. These specialties are expressed as subjects at school, then departments or concentrations in college, eventually preparing a person for a role at work. The role of our “academic advisors” or “career counsellors” has been to essentially help a person choose something from a list that will work out alright for them.
People who love us may encourage us to follow our passion, to find our calling. However, being encouraged to do that doesn’t change the underlying assumption. We still see ourselves as picking a specialty from a list of options (perhaps a larger list) and then inhabiting a role related to that speciality.
This is problematic because all those specialties are outside of you, invented for ephemeral worlds which are changing by the moment. They do not constitute a good starting point for learning, especially in the VUCA times (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) we live in. This set of assumptions interferes with the rich way souls actually magnetize their own authentic learning experiences all the time.
How our learning spirit connects us with our life purpose
Learning spirits are indwelling forces that guide the individual toward the experiences that enable them to inhabit their life purpose. The learning spirit may express itself in the form of a passionately felt interest, a dream, and intuition or longing. It may be activated by complex systems in which the person is embedded, such as a family situation, a relationship, a health challenge, a challenge within the community, an ancestor, a connection with nature, or another way.
And, when engaged with devotion, this learning spirit is likely to create a path for the individual that is utterly unique. The path may draw on the treasures of a few different disciplines; it may catalyze the individual to inhabit a range of different roles; all those disciplines and roles are likely to evolve over time as the nature of the learning spirit becomes more and more manifest.
What becomes manifest, over time, and through the most intimate dialogue with the learning spirit, is a person’s mandate. Discovering one’s mandate may happen at any time in one’s life. It is the discovery of a sacred contract that you have promised to fulfill, in your own way, in this lifetime. You will know it when you feel it. It has a depth, an urgency, a sense of high stakes. It is infinitely generative and can take many concrete forms. It is called a mandate because there is no way to avoid it; it is required. It has the power to magnetize to you those allies and contexts that can support its realization. Through it, you naturally choose to hold yourself to a higher standard that you would without it.
A learning spirit unlocks the full potential that is represented by the individual within her full life context in a manner that maximizes learning, growth, contribution, and creation. And what a world it will become as each of us — of all ages — lives this way.
How can I support my child’s relationship with her or his learning spirit?
Here is how you can support your child’s emerging relationship with her or his learning spirit:
- Observe your child in detail. Write down your observations. Journal about them. See if you can understand the logic of her or his indwelling learning spirit. What sorts of experiences does it draw them to? What are they passionately driven to explore?
- Celebrate people who don’t fit into neat roles and categories.
- Facilitate mentorship with those who embody excellence. Highlight the many ways an individual contributes to society. Contextualize the jobs people do into their larger social contribution.
- Normalize both linear/conventional and nonlinear paths for learning. Articulate the value that each offers. Explain what college is and the purposes it can fulfill, instead of presenting it as the only pathway forward.
- Don’t imply that they must decide “what they want to be when they grow up” which implies that this is a simple answer that would take the form of a narrow role.
- Don’t suggest that the “real world” is not where the child is. Make sure they know they are learning and contributing all the time in meaningful and impactful ways.
- Normalize both formal education and informal learning that takes place through action research, entrepreneurial projects, community projects, and so on.