Why we need to learn fast

No money

Comment on a sugar cane field building, Jamaica, 2009

In accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, Al Gore used the occasion to warn us:

“We, the human race, are confronting a planetary emergency—a threat to the survival of our civilization that is gathering ominous and destructive potential even as we gather here. The Earth has a fever, and the fever is rising. The experts have told us it is not a passing affliction that will heal by itself.  We are what is wrong, and we must make it right.”

Our noösphere is dis-eased. There are places in the noösphere where interactions are thin and lacking dimension.  The connections between agents are sparse. An example occurs with large-scale organization which are not accountable to any civic entity, such as:

  • transnational corporations which compete with each other for scarce resources, especially in Eurasia where extreme population growth makes massive demands on technological advance
  • transnational churches
  • some institutions of global governance, such as the World Bank

These are unaccountable organizations — agents with power which exceeds that of municipalities, provinces and nations. There are no standards for their behavior, and no way that any individual, or any existing civic entity can make it accountable.  To use Benjamin Barber‘s language, these organizations are not interdependent with the rest of us.  As a result, the energetic flow between these agents and the rest of us is compromised.   The overall result is insufficiency in stewardship and distribution of physical resources, and longstanding global conflicts around those issues.

I invite you to visualize, however, a healthy noösphere which regulates the biosphere so that our planet can be sustained.  Because I like the Earth, and I want it to be around in good shape for those who come after me.

How can we change those thin and flat interactions in some parts of the noösphere so that they become rich, juicy and lively?

We will have to learn, fast.

But will our current ways of learning support us?

Etienne Wenger argues passionately in his prospectus for Learning for a Small Planet, “Our current ways of learning have fallen behind; they are not up to the task. We need new models about how to proceed and new visions of what is possible. Learning how to learn is a key to taking our problems into our hands and solving them. We need a new blueprint for learning how to learn—as individuals, communities, organizations, nations, and as an interconnected world.”

Fundamental is changing our systems of formal education.  Broadly speaking, young people are run through a linear, factory system to prepare them to work in linear, factory systems. Around the world, the design of educational systems reflects the theories of learning available at the time they were built—behaviorism, cognitivism, even the relatively conscious approach of constructivism.  These educational systems, however, were not designed with an understanding of how human and non-human agents are interconnected and interdependent parts of the biosphere. In today’s educational systems, uneven or no consideration is given to many of the agents involved in learning, such as collective agents, analytical software, databases, feeds, and user interfaces. Reflecting a materialistic world view, knowledge is viewed as a thing that can transferred from head to head – not as a system or a process that involves the whole person and the whole network, or as described by George Siemens’ book, Knowing Knowledge.

Distance education researcher Stephen Downes has commented that distance education is at the crossroads: “On the one hand, we have developed tools and systems intended to support traditional classroom based learning. On the other hand, we could (should?) be developing tools and systems to support immersive learning. We should be developing for dynamic, immersive, living systems.”

We will have to make basic changes to our learning systems,  in order to be able to  grow thick connections in our own neural networks, or between persons and in our larger networks.

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