A Network of Learning
We almost had it, and it's not too late.
I’m Tim Gorichanaz, and this is Ports, a newsletter about design and ethics. You’ll find this week’s article below, followed by Ports of Call, links to things I’ve been reading and pondering this week.
A blueprint for a good society. Does it sound more naive or suspicious? I wonder what it says about us that these are the first places the mind goes—rather than, say, simply wanting to see the blueprint.
Such a blueprint exists—at least I think so—in the form of Christopher Alexander’s bibliography. A mathematician and architect by training, Alexander devoted his life to understanding what sorts of structures best enable human flourishing, both individually and collectively (it’s not a trade-off)—from small spaces to buildings to towns and beyond—based on descriptive analyses and his own building projects with colleagues over decades.
Alexander passed away one year ago today, but his ideas live on in a small but still growing group of followers.
There’s an intoxicating quality to Alexander’s thought. On one hand, his ideas are immediately practicable. He will teach you how to rearrange a room in your house to make it more cozy and life-giving, or how to compose a painting, or how to work with an architect to design a new home that fits you like a glove. On the other hand, these very same ideas are, just beneath the surface, calling for a total restructuring of society—to structure things the way we used to do before we tried to structure them.
If you are interested in more about Alexander, check out this essay I wrote last year for The Conversation. It connects Alexander’s ideas to the design of digital technologies.
A Blueprint for a Network of Learning
Christopher Alexander’s most popular book—which is apparently still a bestseller over 50 years after its initial publication—is A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. The book includes a few hundred “patterns,” which provide minimum specifications for all sorts of elements of a society, from the nation state to the kitchen sink. Each one is a few pages long with a mix of prescription, evidence, provocation and inspiration. And the patterns link together, encouraging readers to construct pattern languages to guide projects of various sizes.
Today I’m thinking about Pattern #18, “A Network of Learning.” As a teacher, I think about learning a lot. Are my students doing it? How and where does it happen? And what do I have to do with it?
In our conventional understanding, the teacher teaches students by conveying facts and figures to them, which they duly absorb and then know. But if things ever work that way, the facts and figures are quickly forgotten.
Alexander’s prognosis is that in our society we have come to emphasize teaching over learning. “In a society which emphasizes teaching, children and students—and adults—become passive and unable to think or act for themselves. Creative, active individuals can only grow up in a society which emphasizes learning instead of teaching.”
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It’s interesting to me that, especially in an age that increasingly calls for flexible and creative thinking, we still emphasize teaching over learning.
Alexander envisioned a different kind of world. I’m not sure I could put it any better than him, so indulge me a few long excerpts:
Schools are designed on the assumption that there is a secret to everything in life; that the quality of life depends on knowing that secret; that secrets can be known only in orderly successions; and that only teachers can properly reveal these secrets. An individual with a schooled mind conceives of the world as a pyramid of classified packages accessible only to those who carry the proper tags. …
New educational institutions would break apart this pyramid. Their purpose must be to facilitate access for the learner: to allow him to look into the windows of the control room or the parliament, if he cannot get in the door. Moreover, such new institutions should be channels to which the learner would have access without credentials or pedigree—public spaces in which peers and elders outside his immediate horizon now become available. […]
Instead of the lock-step of compulsory schooling in a fixed place, work in piecemeal ways to decentralize the process of learning and enrich it through contact with many places and people all over the city: workshops, teachers at home or walking through the city, professionals willing to take on the young as helpers, older children teaching younger children, museums, youth groups traveling, scholarly seminars, industrial workshops, old people, and so on. Conceive of all these situations as forming the backbone of the learning process; survey all these situations, describe them, and publish them as the city’s “curriculum”; then let students, children, their families and neighborhoods weave together for themselves the situations that comprise their “school” paying as they go with standard vouchers, raised by community tax. Build new educational facilities in a way which extends and enriches this network.
In this pattern, Alexander writes of the end of credentialism, and of education being integrated throughout a town rather than locked up in the ivory tower. He envisions education that is decentralized, student- and family-led, flexible, just-in-time, practical, idealistic, leisurely, multigenerational—and he mentions a number of emerging experiments to that end.
Prospects and Obstacles
Fifty years on, how far have we come toward Alexander’s vision of a Network of Learning?
Even in his life, and even regarding the more modest aspects of his philosophies, Alexander faced no shortage of resistance to his ideas. It was an uphill battle and the hill seemed to keep growing. As I understarnd, he saw it as a matter of inertia. The bureaucratic forces particularly of the post–World War II world had already become so entrenched that it was like trying to redirect a steamship.
And so the internet came, promising to democratize and free all learning, even bringing treasures like Wikipedia into the world, providing the infrastructure to connect peer with far-flung peer, but the promise of MOOC’s never panned out, our in-person lives seem to be atrophying as we increase our screen time, and today higher education is more credentialist than ever and more costly than ever.
All this is giving me pause. As a university professor, surely I am part of the problem here. If not an agent of evil, then at least a pawn on the wrong side. Why can’t we have a Network of Learning?
I grapple with this constantly. In my own teaching, and within the rubric of the existing course and degree structure, I work to emphasize my students’ learning over my teaching in all the ways I can: igniting student interest, offering choice and agency, with life-relevant learning, by stepping away from traditional grading toward a performance review model.
But it’s worth taking stock of the bigger picture. Even though traditional educational structures still reign, maybe the internet has given us more of a network of learning than we might think. Podcasts, audiobooks, interconnected devices, digital libraries. All of these things allow people to learn what and how they want to learn. And of course there are online communities such as LessWrong and any number of learning-based subreddits and social Q&A sites and Slacks and Discords and members-only video chats. These all have some qualities of the Network of Learning.
To be sure, there’s an undeniable physicality to Alexander’s vision. One really pictures a Richard Scarry town with people out and about learning from each other, showing and doing and being out there together. Online learning doesn’t have that, but it’s better than nothing. Certainly the pyramid of secret knowledge has been broken open to a large extent. A glimmer of the Network of Learning is here right under our noses.
That’s something to appreciate, even as we grapple with the aftermath—I’m thinking of the perversity of the “Do Your Own Research” meme, of political disinformation, of the always-improving capacity to generate groundless content with AI, and so on. These things to be artifacts of the primarily digital Network of Learning we have—I don’t think they would be as severe in a more physical Network of Learning.
Where might all this go?
An Opportunity for Higher Education
If you’re in higher ed, you may have heard about the impending demographic cliff. Because of low birth rates over the past 20 years, college enrollment is predicted to begin declining in 2025 and continue for at least a decade.
Colleges and universities are on alert, cooking up plans to compete in a tighter marketplace, to attract more nontraditional students, to implement ways to get postgraduates back for more.
This is all “finite game” thinking, to use the phrase popularized by Simon Sinek. (But don’t miss the original philosophy book by James Carse—it’s amazing.) With finite thinking, organizations stick to a narrow construal of their mission, trying to find new ways to do the same old things. This is Kodak trying to entice people to keep shooting film even as digital cameras flourished. With infinite thinking, on the other hand, an organization can see their deeper mission and reorient around that in a changing world. This would be Kodak realizing they aren’t really in the film photography business, but in the memory-making and -sharing business. (Here I’m also reminded of Jonathan Lear’s book on how cultures can meaningfully adapt as the world challenges them.)
So are universities in the degree-granting business, or the learning and knowledge business? Degrees may be a flash in the pan, in the grand scheme of things, but as Aristotle began his Metaphysics: “All people by nature desire to know.” If that was true 2,400 years ago, you can bet it’ll be true 2,400 years from now.
An opportunity, then, for universities to play the infinite game rather than the finite one: to step away from degrees, rankings, credentials, etc., and to help build a Network of Learning embedded in whatever physical community they happen to find themselves, whether city or small town, inviting everyone into the project of learning.
Ports of Call
A Mystery: I’m reading my first Elena Ferrante novel at present (and kind of loving it) after hearing about her from several corners over the past few months. If you don’t know, this is the pen name of a prolific and mysterious Italian writer of many acclaimed books. She even gives public talks via actress. It seems that every few years you can find some article claiming to have discovered her identity. Trying to unmask her is, I think, kind of missing the point. But it’s fascinating to me nonetheless.
A Metaverse?: Meta is evidently no longer on the road to the metaverse, moving all its eggs into the AI basket like everyone else. This makes their name kind of awkward.
A Story: It’s the end of another quarter at my university, and there’s a folktale I often share at the end of my human-centered design class. I recorded it a while back, so if you’re in the mood for a two-minute story, on to it!
An Assassination: We just passed the anniversary of the assassination of Julius Caesar. If you’re in the mood to learn more about it, The Rest Is History had a great episode on it recently. (And I would also recommend all of their other episodes!)