Scope and Concerns
Learning about Learning: An Agenda for Inquiry
We might have heard the talk in recent years of a ‘knowledge society’ and ‘new economy’ and listened with a great deal of scepticism, as we did to earlier talk of a new society. As educators, however, we need to grasp what is rhetorically or genuinely new in our times. We must seize the drift of contemporary public discourse, and position ourselves centrally. And how more appropriately than in an epoch that styles itself as a ‘knowledge society’? Here is our chance: the stuff of knowledge is no more and no less than the stuff of learning. Surely too, this new kind of society requires a new kind of learning and that a new social status is ascribed to education.
This is how we may come to consider the dimensions of a ‘new learning’. It is also how we might imagination of a possibly better society which locates education at the heart of things. This heart may well be economic in the sense that it is bound to personal ambition or corporate purposes. But this must surely also be a place of open possibilities, for personal growth, for social transformation and for the deepening of democracy. Such is the agenda of ‘new learning’, explicitly or implicitly. This agenda holds whether our work and thinking is expansive and philosophical or local and finely grained.
No learning exists, however, without learners, in all their diversity. It is a distinctive feature of the new learning to recognise the enormous variability of lifeworld circumstances that learners bring to learning. The demographics are insistent: material (class, locale), corporeal (age, race, sex and sexuality, and physical and mental characteristics) and symbolic (culture, language, gender, family, affinity and persona). This is a conceptual starting point which helps explain the telling patterns of educational and social outcomes.
Behind these demographics are real people, who have always already learned and whose range of learning possibilities are both boundless and circumscribed by what they have learned already and what they have become through that learning. Here we encounter the raw material diversity - of human experiences, dispositions, sensibilities, epistemologies and world views. These are always far more varied and complex than a first glance at the demographics would suggest. Learning succeeds or fails to the extent that it engages the varied subjectivities of learners. Engagement produces opportunity, equity and participation. Failure to engage produces failure, disadvantage and inequality.
And what makes for engagement? Learning is how a person or a group comes to know, and knowing consists of a variety of types of action. In learning, a knower positions themselves in relation to the knowable, and engages (by experiencing, conceptualising, analysing or applying, for instance). A learner brings their own person to the knowing, their subjectivity. When engagement occurs, they become a more or less transformed person. Their horizons of knowing and acting have been expanded. Pedagogy is the science and practice of the dynamics of knowing. And assessment is the measure of pedagogy: interpreting the shape and extent of the knower’s transformation.
In places of formal and systematic teaching and learning, pedagogy occurs within larger frameworks in which the processes of engagement are given structure and order, often defined by content and methodology, hence the distinctive ‘disciplines’. Then, well might we ask, what is the nature and future of ‘literacy’, ‘numeracy’, ‘science’, ‘history’, ‘social studies’, ‘economics’, ‘physical education’ and the like? How are they connected, with each other, and a world in a state of dynamic transformation. And how do we evaluate their effectiveness as curriculum?
Learning happens everywhere and all the time. It is an intrinsic part of our human natures. Education and is learning by design, in community settings specially designed as such—the institutions of early childhood, school, technical/vocational, university and adult education. Education also sometimes takes informal or semiformal forms within settings whose primary rationale is commercial or communal, including workplaces, community groups, households or public places.
Knowledge is the result of knowing, and learning is the business of extending the breadth of knowing.
The Learning Conference creates a forum for dialogue about the nature and future of learning and the International Journal of Learning captures knowledge about learning. They are places for presenting research and reflections on education both in general terms and through the minutiae of practice. They attempt to build an agenda for a new learning, and more ambitiously an agenda for a knowledge society which is as good as the promise of its name.