From ‘Connected Learning’ to ‘Learning Lives’

It’s too late now but having worked with the Connected Learning Research Network for some time now, I wonder whether the concept of connected learning should really have been called connecting learning on the basis that our interest is about forging links, crossovers and travel across and between the activity of learning rather than thinking of learning as a static body (or bodies) of knowledge. Finding ways to capture and theorise the linking process or activity is, of course, not easy.

At the same time, as I have worked with the Connected Learning Research Network, I have been involved in a project in Norway which followed children and young people at home, in their families, with their friends, engaging in peer-led activities, at work, in their communities, and, of course, at school. Our focus was on examining the different ways that young people learn in these different contexts, and how the “learning identities” that they develop over time “travel” with them across different social situations.

We used the phrase “learning lives” as a way of capturing these two interconnected approaches. On the one hand, we examined learning as a 24/7 phenomenon. Learning is clearly something we do all of the time, but whether we learn differently in different social situations, and how we reconcile, ignore, and integrate both the knowledge and the meta-learning processes from all these different situations is not the usual focus for much educational literature, which commonly revolves around school. But, learning is not merely a cognitive matter or something that exists in people’s heads — it has potentialities for the kinds of lives we lead in all sorts of ways, from opening up employment prospects to implications for family life, personal relationships, and civic identity. These two dimensions are brought together as learning in our lives and for our lives. This project has just been published as a book.

A learning lives (and actually a connected learning) perspective depends on three areas for investigation. First of all is the challenge of how to capture, theorise and describe the travel and trajectories if researchers are truly to “follow” learners through, around and in their learning across everyday life. Disentangling the quotidian and faithfully describing movements across timescales and social places is complex, expensive and takes time: it is not necessarily calculated to appeal to current education research funding regimes. Secondly, it means refusing what seem to be the most apparent levers of change, namely media and technology. Whilst this might sound slightly perverse, especially on this blog, I’d argue that a key problem for those of us interested in technology is precisely to find a way not to overstate its importance and to continue to find ways to show how it brings into play wider social and political questions of power and meaning. And thirdly, learning lives approach needs to address the pedagogicization of everyday life and the schooled society — the seepage of formal ways of learning and of disciplinary knowledge from the school into informal sites and spaces. Learning lives and connected learning approaches helps us see the changing place of the meaning of education and institutional pedagogies across all the nooks and crannies of everyday life. Here, paying attention to the changing discourses of learning, the new and ever more homogenising “folk theories” across our societies is necessary if we want to show how young people make sense of their experiences of education and learn how to be, how to live, in an increasingly unjust and unfair world.

Following Learners Across Sites (Making the Connections)

Yet, for all of this new attention to a language of movement and of travel and ways of highlighting connected learning, I’d also be concerned that our approaches don’t become yet another set of clothes to dress up a fundamental understanding of learning as a form of transfer, of taking from one place and applying in another. Whilst the concept of transfer has received a considerable amount of critical attention and is highly contested, I do want to open up the idea that the metaphor of mapping and tracing learning journeys does carry within a residue of such a deeply held apparently common-sense principle of educational theory, that as we follow learners or trace their learning, we are in some sense explicating learning as a kind of “crossing-over.”

The etymology of the word, education contains within it a concept of movement, given it means literally “to lead out.” Traditionally, philosophers of education have concentrated on what has been led out, where it comes from where it goes (and which power or agent does the leading). My argument here is that we are on the brink of developing increasingly complex forms of representation of learning that depend significantly on forms of narration, the filmic gaze and a visual frame (that itself is emerging from the social uses of big data), all of which appear to make the concept of a “learning journey” and its connected-ness more visible and comprehensible. Yet, the more we are capable of appearing to capture and represent complicated forms of learning in non-“educational” contexts, the more the paradigm of studying such movement is thrown into question.

At the same time, as I am inspired and intrigued by these new forms of representation (which seem an especially persuasive way of capturing out-of-school learning and, thus, implicitly and explicitly challenging the claims made for formal education — in terms of understanding how social capital de-limits possible trajectories), I am concerned that the assumption of a trajectory in and of itself biases our capacity to see what learning is in the first place. At the same time as, what I have called, “learning lives” research has given us insight into experiences and ways of learning that have hitherto existed more as assumptions or even prejudices, so I want to ask what if learning isn’t a journey? Can we conceptualise a notion of education that does not contain within it a version of a trajectory, a direction, or movement?

This is partly idle theoretical speculation in the sense that for all concepts to have validity, we must be able to imagine their opposites for them to have any meaning. It is partly a political question in that as a society we have moved from an understanding of education as the development of wisdom or virtue to a set of values reliant on instrumentality, of how education capitalizes individuals to enable them to become productive workers, and, thus, any sense that education might not result in a forward movement, in some kind of mobility, is problematic. Thus, those philosophies of learning, which stress participation in social practices rather than the acquisition of disembodied cognitive skills that might be applied or utilised in other contexts, challenge current values of what learning is.

For this reason, I am suggesting that we need to be cautious about the use of mapping as a way of describing and interpreting any kind of learning. First, we always need to be skeptical of any concept of pathway or teleology as inevitably such assumptions always bias interpretation. Secondly, we need to be cautious about the ways that mapping is in itself complicit in the desire to make any kind of learning purposeful — an inevitable consequence of the instrumentalist, human capital version of what education is. Mapping forces us to see the route rather than the journeys not taken, the redundancies, the repetitions and the activities whose ends we cannot know or even guess at. We will never escape the discourse of the map but it is one we need to use carefully and only where it takes us to where we are certain we want to go: a paradox if ever there was one.

By contrast to an idea of mapping, in my next post on this topic, I will examine how storying or narrating a learning life might offer us a better understanding of how connections over time work in practice to knit together and frame our learner identities.

Banner image credit: Randomthoughtstome