Cultivating New Cultures of Learning

Last week I had the opportunity to engage in Grantmakers for Education’s 2014 Education Grantmakers Institute at the Harvard School of Education, which aimed to “get all of us thinking about how education and our learners are changing, and, as result, how our organizations need to change to have the kind of impact our missions demand.”

The conversation ended on a broad note, with emphasis on the need to cultivate large-scale systemic change to help the current education system transform into a vibrant node within the expanded learning ecosystem that our forecast on the future of learning projects. Of course I was pleased to hear this call, as I’ve been speaking and writing for some time now about how we’re facing much greater disruption, and much greater need, than incremental improvements within the existing educational paradigm can address.

But the conversation when beyond emphasizing the striking need to redesign our education structures to focus on learning for and in a world of anytime, anywhere access to knowledge and the continuous remaking of the conditions in which we live and work. It also explored the equally strong imperative to create new cultures of learning. Without them, my fellow participants observed, people operating in new structures will risk simply rubber banding back to the cultures we have always known.

The need to cultivate new cultures of learning has arisen in other recent conversations as well. In collaborating to design Grantmakers for Education’s June 30 event, “Transforming the Learning Ecosystem: Putting Personalized Learning Within Reach for All Learners,” I learned of Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown’s A New Culture of Learning. It argues that we need to design learning – even more flexible learning experiences than characterize today’s typical public school – not around specific learning objectives but around a process of inquiry that fuels a broader set of skills and dispositions for lifelong learning.

During a tour of MIT’s Media Lab, Mitch Resnick, who leads their Lifelong Kindergarten group, described that group’s focus on fostering creative learning for the world. In so doing, they create learning cultures characterized by projects, peers, passion, and play. As he put it, “Learning particular content is not the answer; people need to find creative solutions to the problems we know they’ll encounter.” Within our current education system, he said, kindergarten comes the closest to embodying this kind of learning, although it is increasingly becoming more regimented and more like the rest of the school system.

I hope we can reverse that kind of trend and strengthen the trends that are opening up learning to include many more possibilities for how, when, and what young people learn. That we can open ourselves to exploring fully not just new structures for learning such as competency education but also new cultures for learning that can support truly personalized learning. Learning that is not just paced to the individual but which is driven by his or her interests in meaningful collaborative contexts.

Katherine Prince

Written by: Katherine Prince

Katherine Prince is the Senior Director of Strategic Foresight at KnowledgeWorks. She is excited about the future of learning, transformative leadership, and building resilient solutions for a sustainable world.

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