Learning and Education: Their Breadth and Depth

‘Learning’ is bigger than education. Humans are born with an innate capacity to learn, and over the span of a lifetime learning never stops.

Learning simply happens as people engage with each other, interact with the natural world and move about in the world they have constructed. Indeed, one of the things that makes us distinctively human is our enormous capacity to learn. Other species learn, too, from the tiniest of insects to the smartest of chimpanzees. But none has practices of pedagogy or institutions of education. As a consequence, the main way in which other species develop over time is through the incremental, biological adaptations of evolution. Change is natural. It is slow.

Education makes human learning unlike the learning of any other creature. Learning allows humans to escape the strict determinations of nature. It gives humans the resources with which to understand themselves and their world, and to transform their conditions of living, for better or for worse.

Education is a peculiarly human capacity to nurture learning in a conscious way, and to create social contexts that have been specially designed for that purpose: the institutions of education. Everyday learning happens naturally, everywhere and all the time. Education – encompassing institutions, its curricula and its pedagogies – is learning by design.

The Art and Science of Teaching

Teaching and learning are integral to our nature as humans.

Teaching happens everywhere. Many people are naturally quite good at teaching. They explain things clearly. They are patient. And they have the knack of explaining just enough, but not too much, so the learner gains a sense that they are gradually mastering something, albeit with a more knowledgeable person’s support. You can find the practice of teaching in action everywhere in everyday life. In fact, it is impossible to imagine everyday life without it.

Teaching is also a vocation, a profession. People in the business of teaching are good at their job when they have developed and apply the dispositions and sensibilities of the person who is a good teacher in everyday life.

But there is much more to the teaching profession than having a natural knack, however well practiced. There is also a science to education, which adds method and reflexivity to the art of teaching, and is backed up by a body of specialist knowledge. This science asks and attempts to answer fundamental and searching questions. How does learning happen? How do we organize teaching so it is most effective? What works for learners? And when it works, how do we know it has worked? The science of education attempts to answer these questions in a well thought-through and soundly analyzed way.

Learning Practices

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. Knowing entails doing—experiencing, conceptualizing, analyzing or applying, for instance.

A learner brings their own person to the act of knowing, their subjectivity. When engagement occurs, they become a more or less transformed person. Their horizons of knowing and acting have been expanded.

Learning can be analyzed at three levels: ‘pedagogy’, or the microdynamics of moments of teaching and learning; ‘curriculum ’, or the learning designs for particular areas of knowledge; and ‘education’ or the overall institutional setting in which pedagogy and curriculum are located.

Pedagogy is a planned and deliberate process whereby one person helps another to learn. This is what First Peoples did through various formalized rites of passage, from child to adult to elder – learning law, spirituality and nature. It is also how teachers in the era of modern, mass, institutionalized education have organized the learners in their classrooms and their learning. Pedagogy is the science and practice of the dynamics of knowing. Assessment is the measure of pedagogy: interpreting the shape and extent of the knower’s transformation.

Curriculum is the substantive content of learning and its organization into subjects and topics – mathematics, history, physical education and the like. In places of formal and systematic teaching and learning, pedagogy occurs within these larger frameworks in which the processes of engagement are given structure and order. These often defined by specific contents and methodologies, hence the distinctive ‘disciplines’. 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?

Education has traditionally been used with reference formal learning communities, the institutions of school, college and university that first appeared along with the emergence of writing as a tool for public administration (to train, for instance, ‘mandarins’ or public officials in imperial China, or the writers of cuneiform in ancient Mesopotamia/Iraq); to support religions founded on sacred texts (the Islamic madrasa , or the Christian monastery); and to transmit formally developed knowledge and wisdom (the Academy of ancient Athens, or Confucian teaching in China).

Learning happens everywhere and all the time. It is an intrinsic part of our human natures. Education, however 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.

Towards a Science of Education

What is this overarching institution, ‘education’?

In its most visible manifestation it consists of its institutional forms: schools, colleges and universities. But, more broadly conceived, education is a social process, a relationship of teaching and learning. As a professional practice, it is a discipline.

The science of education analyzes pedagogy, curriculum and educational institutions. It is a discipline or body of knowledge about learning and teaching – about how these practices are conceived and realized.

‘Science’ or ‘discipline’ refers to a privileged kind of knowledge, created by people with special skills who mostly work in research, academic or teaching jobs. It involves careful experimentation and focused observation. Scientists systematically explore phenomena, discover facts and patterns and gradually build these into theories that describe the world. Over time, we come to trust these and ascribe to them the authority of science.

In this spirit, we might create a science of education that focuses on the brain as a biological entity and the mind as a source of behaviors (cognitive science). Or we might set up experiments in which we carefully explore the facts of learning in order to prove what works or doesn’t work. Like the medical scientist, we might give some learners a dosage of a certain kind of educational medicine and others a placebo, to see whether a particular intervention produces better test results—such are the formal experimental methods of randomized, controlled trials.

Often, however, we need to know more. It is indeed helpful to know something of how the mind works, but what of the cultural conditions that also form the thinking person? We need good proofs of which kinds of educational interventions work, but what if the research questions we are asking or the tests we are using to evaluate results can only measure a narrow range of capacities and knowledge? What if the tests can prove that the intervention works – scores are going up – but some learners are not engaged by a curriculum that has been retrofitted to the tests? What if the tests only succeed in measuring recall of the facts that the tests expect the learners to have acquired – simple, multiple-choice or yes/no answers? A critic of such ‘standardized testing’ may ask, what’s the use of this in a world in which facts can always be looked up, but problem solving and creativity are now more sought-after capacities, and there can be more than one valid and useful answer to most of the more important questions? For these reasons, we also need to work with a broader understanding of the discipline of education, based on a broader definition of science than experimental methods.

An Interdisciplinary Science

The discipline of education is grounded in the science of learning, or how people come to know.

It is a science that explores what knowing is. It focuses on how babies, then young people, then adults, learn. Education-as-science is a specially focused form of knowing: knowing how knowing happens and how capacities to know develop. It is, in a sense, the science of all sciences. It is also concerned with the organization of teaching that supports systematic, formal learning and the institutions in which that learning occurs.

Too often, education is regarded as a poor cousin of other disciplines in the university – the natural sciences, the humanities and the other professions, for instance. It is regarded as something that enables other disciplines, rather than being a discipline in its own right. This is often reflected in reduced levels of research funding, lower student entry requirements and the destination salaries of graduates. Education seems to be less rigorous and derivative. Its disciplinary base borrowed from other, apparently more foundational disciplines – sociology, history, psychology, cognitive science, linguistics, philosophy – and the substantive knowledge of various subject areas, such as literature, science and mathematics.

For sure, education is broader-ranging and more eclectic than other disciplines. Education draws on a number of disciplinary strands – the philosophy of knowledge (epistemology), the cognitive science of perception and learning, developmental psychology, the history of modern institutions, the sociology of diverse communities, the linguistics and semiotics of meaning – to name just a few of education’s disciplinary perspectives. These and other strands come together to make the discipline of education. In this sense, education is more than a discipline – it is an extraordinarily interdisciplinary endeavor.

Education as the Science of Sciences

Education is also the soil in which all the other disciplines grow.

You can’t do any of the other disciplines in a university or college except through the medium of education. No other discipline exists except through its learning. A novice can only enter a discipline – physics, or law, or history, or literature – through education, learning the accumulated knowledge that has become that discipline. In this sense, education is more than just interdisciplinary. It does more than just stitch together other disciplines. It is a metadiscipline, essential as the practical grounding of all disciplines. Education is the discipline of disciplines.

Education is the systematic investigation of how humans come to know. It focuses on formal, institutionalized learning at all its levels from preschool to school, college and university. Education is also concerned with the processes of informal learning – how babies learn to speak at home, or how children and adults learn to use an interface or play a game. It is concerned with how organizations and groups learn, collecting and acquiring knowledge that is applied in their communities, professions and workplaces. In fact, as knowledge is needed and used everywhere, learning happens everywhere. There is no part of our lives to where the discipline of education cannot provide a useful perspective.

Maybe, then, education is more than just an interdisciplinary place that ties together shreds and patches from other disciplines – a bit of psychology here, a bit of sociology there, a bit of management there. Education should be regarded as the metadisciplinary foundation of all disciplines. Its focus is the science of knowing, no less.

The metadiscipline of education inquires into learning, or how we come to know and be. Education-as-metadiscipline explores knowing and being. It analyzes how people and groups learn and come to be what they are. As such, it is an especially expansive exploration of knowing. It is interested to know how knowing happens and how capacities to know develop.

Education is the New Philosophy

What if we were to think of education in these more expansive and more ambitious ways?

If we are to think in these terms, then the intellectual and practical agenda of education is no less than to explore the bases and pragmatics of human knowledge, becoming and identity. Education asks this ur -disciplinary question: How is it that we come to know and be, as individuals and collectively? If this is education’s central question, surely, then, we can argue that it is the source of all other disciplines? It is the means by which all other disciplines come into being.

Philosophy used to claim a metadisciplinary position like this. It was the discipline where students not only thought, but thought about thinking. However, for decades, philosophy has been making itself less relevant. It has become too word-bound, too obscure, too formal and too disconnected from practical, lived experience.

But philosophy’s metaquestions still need to be asked. Education should perhaps take the former position of philosophy as the discipline of disciplines, and do it more engagingly and relevantly than philosophy ever did. Education is the new philosophy.

Investing in Education for a ‘Knowledge Society’

Add to these expanded intellectual ambitions, widened ambitions for education in public discourse and everyday social reality—and these should be good times to be an educator.

Politicians and captains of industry alike tell us that knowledge is now a key factor of production, a fundamental basis of competitiveness – at the personal, enterprise and national levels. And as knowledge is a product of learning, education is more important than ever. This is why education has become such a prominent topic in the public discourse of social promise.

The expectations of education have been ratcheted up. More than ever before, people are saying that education is pivotal to social and economic progress. This does not necessarily translate immediately into greater public investment in education (a businesslike approach, one would think). But today’s rhetoric about the importance of education does give educators greater leverage in the public discourse than we had until recently.

Stated simply, in a knowledge economy in which more and more jobs require greater depths of knowledge, schools must do what they can to bridge the knowledge gaps. If they can achieve this, they are at least doing something to ameliorate the worst systemic material inequalities. Schools, in other words, have a new opportunity, a new responsibility and a new challenge to build societies that are more inclusive of social classes whose access to material resources was historically limited.

Despite this, educators struggle to find the resources to meet increasing expectations, despite all talk of a ‘knowledge society’ and ‘new economy’. We may have listened to this rhetoric with a great deal of skepticism given the struggles we educators face. Nevertheless, 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. 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. It is our role as educators to advocate for education, to make a claim for the allocation of the social resources required in order to meet expanding expectations.

Designs for Social Futures: Towards ‘New Learning’

How might we imagine a better society which locates education at the heart of things?

This heart may well be economic in the sense that it is bound to material self-improvement or personal ambition. Equally, however, education is a space to re-imagine and try out a new and better world which delivers improved material, environmental and cultural outcomes for all. Education must surely 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.

If we were to choose a single word to characterize the agenda of the New Learning, it is to be ‘transformative’. New Learning is thus not simply based on a reading of change. It is also grounded in an optimistic agenda in which we educators can constructively contribute to change. If knowledge is indeed as pivotal in contemporary society as the ‘new economy’ commentators and politicians claim, then educators should seize the agenda and position themselves as forces of change. We have a professional responsibility to be change agents who design the education for the future and who, in so doing, also help design the future.

You might see this as a sensible conservatism, sensible for being realistic about the contemporary forces of technology, globalization and cultural change. Or you could see it to be an emancipatory agenda that aspires to make a future that is different from the present by addressing its many crises – of poverty, environment, cultural difference and existential meaning, for instance. In other words, the transformation may be pragmatic (enabling learners to do their best in the given social conditions) or it may be emancipatory (making the world a better place) or it may be both.

At its best, transformative New Learning embodies a realistic view of contemporary society, or the kinds of knowledge and capacities for knowing that children need to develop in order to be good workers in a ‘knowledge economy’; participating citizens in a globalized, cosmopolitan society; and balanced personalities in a society that affords a range of life choices that at times feels overwhelming. It nurtures the social sensibilities of a kind of person who understands that they determine the world by their actions as much as they are determined by that world. It creates a person who understands how their individual needs are inextricably linked with their responsibility to work for the common good as we become more and more closely connected into ever-expanding and overlapping social networks.

The issue is not merely one of quantity. It is not simply a matter of providing more education for more people. While many nations persevere with educational structures founded in the 19th century or earlier, the knowledge economy demands different and creative approaches to learning. Schools, at least in their traditional form, may not dominate the educational landscape of the 21st century. Neat segregations of the past may crumble. Givens may give.

Learner Diversity

No learning exists without learners, in all their diversity.

It is a distinctive feature of the New Learning to recognize the enormous variability of lifeworld circumstances that learners bring to learning. The demographics are insistent: material (class, locale, family circumstances), corporeal (age, race, sex and sexuality, and physical and mental characteristics) and symbolic (culture, language, gender, affinity and persona). This conceptual starting point 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 the raw demographics would at first glance suggest. Learning succeeds or fails to the extent that it engages the varied identities and subjectivities of learners. Engagement produces opportunity, equity and participation. Failure to engage produces failure, disadvantage and inequality.

The questions we face as educators today are big, the challenges sometimes daunting. How do we, for instance, ensure that education fulfills its democratic mission, through quality teaching, a transformative curriculum and dedicated programs that address inequality? Targeting groups who are disadvantaged and ‘at risk’ is an essential responsibility of educators, not on the basis of moral arguments alone but also because of the economic and social dangers of allowing individuals and groups to be excluded.

Education’s Agendas

Professional educators of tomorrow will not be people who simply enact received systems, standards, organizational structures and professional ethics.

In this time of extraordinary social transformation and uncertainty, educators need to consider themselves to be designers of social futures, to search out new ways to address the learning needs of our society, and in so doing to position education at an inarguably central place in society.

Indeed, powerful educational ideas – about how people act and build knowledge in context and in collaboration with others, for instance – could well become leading social ideas in currently more privileged areas of endeavor, such as business and technology. Perhaps, if we can succeed at putting education at the heart of the designs for society’s future, we might even be able to succeed in our various campaigns to ensure that education is innovative, empowering, just and adequately resourced.

Education in all its aspects is in a moment of transition today. The idea of ‘New Learning’ contrasts what education has been like in the past, with the changes we are experiencing today, with an imaginative view of the possible features of learning environments in the near future. What will learning be like, and what will teachers’ jobs be like? Are we educators well enough equipped to answer the questions we encounter and address the challenges we face? Does our discipline provide us with the intellectual wherewithal to face changes of these proportions? It could, but only if we conceive education to be a science as rigorous in its methods and as ambitious in its scope as any other.

Education’s agenda is intellectually expansive and practically ambitious. It is learner-transformative, enabling productive workers, participating citizens and fulfilled persons. And it is world-transformative as we interrogate the human nature of learning and its role in imagining and enacting new ways of being human and living socially: shaping our identities, framing our ways of belonging, using technologies, representing meanings in new ways and through new media, building participatory spaces and collaborating to build and rebuild the world. These are enormous intellectual and practical challenges.

Transformative education is an act of imagination for the future of learning and an attempt to find practical ways to develop aspects of this future in the educational practices of the present. It is an open-ended struggle rather than a clear destination, a process rather than a formula for action. It is a work-in-progress.

The science of education is a domain of social imagination, experimentation, invention and action. It’s big. It’s ambitious. And it’s determinedly practical.

The Learning Conference, journals, book imprint and online network provide a forum for dialogue about the nature and future of 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.