Confessions of an informal learner who’s learning in school

I have a confession to make. I’m learning. In school. No joke. I frame this as a confession because I’m someone who’s generally pretty hard on institutionalized education, and especially schools, and now I might have to go and revisit my stance a bit.

First, some background. I’m not one of those people that looks back on their school experiences, even those in higher ed, and feels like I was inspired, or particularly well equipped, to scale new intellectual, personal or professional heights. There are some small exceptions of course and probably some very positive aggregate effects, but looking back there are no teachers that really stand out as changing my trajectory, no courses that shook the foundations of what I thought my place was in the world. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t have any “bad” experiences in school beyond feeling like high school sucked on a social level (but hey, who didn’t have that experience?), but I when I look at the other places that I’ve really learned in my life, it doesn’t really stack up in comparison.

When I think about the kind of learning in my life that was foundational and life changing on the intellectual, personal and professional level, I look outside of school. I look to life experiences of the informal variety. As I look back on my adult life, three places in particular strike me as the ones where I’ve learned the most: my meditation practice, my time living abroad in India, and my time working at the youth development organization Global Kids. And as I reflect on these experiences, I can see why I’m in a situation here in graduate school where I’m learning – in each of these areas I can see some quality that I’m now finding in my current experience.

I starting meditating when I was about 18. For me this has been part of a spiritual journey that I won’t go deeply into here (feel free to explore some other writings if you’re curious), but one that I will say has been meaningful and important for my development as a (at least somewhat) reflective, mindful and conscientious adult. This development has been grounded in the exploration of a practice; a continual refinement and commitment to a particular technique that has stayed with me through most of my adult life, evolving with me. Directly engaging in a practice, learning from others about how they practice, paying close attention to the contours of this particular practice, and, importantly, persistently applying the practice in new contexts and integrating new insights into it has unquestionably been one of the deepest (and at ten years, most ongoing) learning experiences I’ve had in my life.

I lived in India twice over the course of about two years, the first time more related to some of the interests I just mentioned, the second more related to my professional life (again, if curious, you can read the old blog I kept while living in Bombay). Beyond the particulars of first the study abroad program and then the NGO-based fellowship that I participated in, the big learning experience for me here was about cultural immersion. One of the unique things about living abroad is that it makes visible the taken for granted mechanisms of culture by exposing you to mechanisms wholly different from your own. In immersing myself in the drastically different culture of India, I came to see more clearly the contours of my own culture back home in the US. More generally, I learned how to experience and interpret the world through the lens of culture and see the critical role it plays in the learning process – how a given culture both structures our lives but also provides the basis for our own agency.

As my first extended professional experience, my time working at Global Kids has so many things that I can say about it in terms of my own learning to be a professional (and I have, if you’re again curious), but I’ll limit myself here. What I’d really like to focus on in terms of that experience is my immersion in work and a field that I feel passionately about. I came to Global Kids coming off of my second trip to India, with a deep commitment to working on issues related to human rights, though not really knowing very much about that area as a field. And Global Kids was an interesting place in terms of that – it isn’t a classic human rights organization like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. It’s a youth development organization that does education about human rights, and works with teens to foster their own identities as global citizens. Even more than that, my place within the organization, in it’s Online Leadership Program, put me in a position where I was exploring the question of how youth can be civically engaged through the lens of new media. This led me to become deeply engaged in the emerging field of Digital Media & Learning, and over the course of my time at Global Kids I became more immersed in that space through work on collaborative projects, presentation at conferences and development of a network of colleagues whose worked I respected. In this experience I came to understand what an impact working in a field that I’m passionate about has one my own learning, motivation and development.

Circling back – here I am in graduate school, and looking around me, I see practices, I see culture, and I see a field that I’m passionate about. And I see how these three components are intertwined in a way that supports my learning. I’m developing a set of distinct practices related to the investigation of questions of learning – they involve the application of theory, utilization of research methodologies, and development of analytic and argumentation techniques all used to produce new knowledge about the world. I’m surrounded by a productive culture that’s supportive of my development – one that’s inquisitive, innovative, experimental and rigorous in the ways that it engages with the questions it cares about. And I’m able to work on the things that I’m passionate about through the work I do in my courses, through the work I do in my lab, and through the interactions I have with the community around me.

I share all of this because I’m surprised. I’m surprised at the ways that I’m developing and learning in a formal education context and how different it feels from all of my other encounters with the formal educational system. I’m sharing my own experience as a learning scientist who’s researching informal learning spaces and technologies because he believes in their potential to help inspire new educational innovations, but finding, suddenly and surprisingly, that it’s wholly possible to have a robust learning experience in formal learning context that contains all the markers of the most effective informal learning I’ve experienced. The irony is not lost on me here.

In one sense the implications of this realization feel daunting – how can I look to my own positive experience with school and integrate that into my work as someone looking to transform education? Is it even possible to have a learning experience like this in an educational space that currently looks so drastically different, with classrooms that are increasingly under pressure from standardized tests, schools that look increasingly like prisons, and students who haven’t been encouraged to pursue their passions? In another sense, this insight it feels validating and empowering – it is possible to have a schooling experience that’s personally meaningful and robust in terms of learning. And I’ll just have to do the work to figure out what it means for my work as someone dedicated to good learning for all youth.

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2 Responses to “Confessions of an informal learner who’s learning in school”


  1. 1 Kirk November 15, 2011 at 10:04 am

    Interesting thoughts. I had similar experiences in grade school and high school but when I attended college where my focus of study was illustration I excelled. I feel that the reason was partly motivation since I was paying for it and felt it was my “one shot” and the other part was the informal nature of my studies. We had no real tests, everything was based on critique and meaningful output (paintings, illustrations etc…). I was also physically moving around a lot and engaging with educators and fellow students with similar interests.

    In the working world I’ve also seen parallels having great experiences working with small start-ups where everyone cared (positive) and large entities where many people were just showing up for a pay-cheque (not so positive).

    Overall I think the social context is very important and fosters a learning atmosphere. Maybe this is what you are experiencing. Regretfully, K-12 can be a bit like a prison where the most meaningful learning takes place in the extra-curricular activities and dialogue with peers when the teacher is able to get the kids “pumped” about a particular subject which is rare given the constraints that educators have.

    • 2 Rafi Santo November 19, 2011 at 3:54 pm

      Yes, I think a lot of what this is about is the social context of learning, as you mentioned. I think that studio models in the art world do this well, bringing together people that are passionate about something, engaging in deep practice, and having a culture of response and critique. I think these things are also possible in big corporate environments, as well as K12 schooling, but that we just need to be thinking and designing from a cultural standpoint in order for them to occur.


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Hi there.

Rafi in thailand, smiling

If you're reading this, then you've reached the web log of Rafi Santo. This is my little slice of the internet where I can share my passion (or whatever) with the world.

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