The modern school, at its best, is a satisfying extension of the unreality of societal perception. As we enter the conclusion of an industrializing age, I recognize that, within its walls lectures are concerned with an abstract dream of future usefulness, while life is happening between classes. Half of the time ,and half asleep, teachers and students keep each other caught in a fiction of relevance: Relevance of knowledge to our lives, relevance of the relationships to each other, and relevance to the questions of our time and to the society in which we live.
At its birth, however, the modern school emancipated millions of people out of dependency. By the start of this millennium, schooling has elevated more people out of poverty and ignorance than anything else in history using the same principles of efficiency that underlie the industrial age.
Just as the modern school of the 20th century knew its raison d’être and the role it requires of its teachers, schools in Knowmad Society need to find their place and purpose in the society they create. We know schools shape society, which, in my mind, is what education ought to be focused on. They are a primary force of personal and social change. If that is so, what is the role of teaching? Or, more specifically, how do we teach purposively for social change?
Imagine that we are staging a performance that intends to participate in the creation of our collective narrative. A dance or theatre piece that is not made simply for its own sake, but is designed to have an impact and contribute to the understanding of ourselves and the world in which we live. Video artists, soundscapers, actors, stage designers, dancers, costume makers, the director, and even the audience all participate from their perspective roles. It is an endeavor to create a work of art that supersedes each individual. Theater makers and performers know that in order to create something that matters, something that responds to an urgent and higher need of fulfillment, they will have to learn and change as they go along, and that their learning and changing is part of the art that they create. The performance piece thereby becomes a vehicle through which each person can develop and express him- or herself; and, in this state of interdependency, the group collectively evolves to make a mark. No director would merely impose a play for this to happen, but rather guide the collective process.
I see education for knowmads as such: a collective work of performance art. The action research I do for this type of education is always about looking for the kind of learning, type of structure, and appropriate interventions that actively gives form to new resilient and meaningful relationships, because it is in the nature of relationships that new societies are made.
The metaphor of choreography and directing here is not classical, but it is an approach that I have in common with the way philosopher Christopher Alexander (1979) sees architecture and urban development in The timeless way of building, or with the way Falk Richter creates and directs his performances. Born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1969, Richter is a theatre maker and director. Amongst his works are Gott ist ein DJ, Electronic city, Protect me, and Trust. In his works, text and movement flow in and out of an emerging narrative. This is true with respect to the experience of the audience, but perhaps even more so for the performers themselves, who, during the process of creation, are discovering what the piece could be as they are building it. Patterns emerge from concentrated work. What fascinates me is that, here, learning is a form of making and creating a form of learning.
In this essay, I share some of the building blocks of this creational learning process that I discovered during the research at The Learning Lab, which is a think-tank for social change. The action research I am referring to in this chapter has mainly taken place at the University of Amsterdam with four cohorts of honors students across various disciplines and nationalities. See http://www.thelearninglab.nl for more details.
I write from a place and time where I see education struggling with its place in society. I often encounter a search for meaning and direction when I help schools or universities in their transition. At the same time, I see many students and teachers struggle with the place of education in their lives. An “education” and its forms and procedures are simply taken for granted. Modern education’s objectives of emancipation and industrialization have been accomplished, and innovation in education occurs only under strict and conservative inspection. All of the above leads schools and their constituent participants to search for their story in the minor margins of freedom they still have – in small moments of aliveness between teacher and student, for instance, or the relatively unregulated space between classes.
We no longer live within the needs of an industrial society. We have moved up the hierarchy of Maslow (1943) it seems. This means that our needs and values shifted from material safety toward a need for higher-order learning: significance and self-actualization (see also Inglehart, 1990). This refers to the felt need to be creative as human beings and to actualize becoming the best “version” of ourselves.
It is no coincidence that both the institution of education and the students are on a quest to find their assignment. The context within which I speak about learning is therefore that of a quest, rather than a transfer of knowledge. It is a creative practice, and a creative inquiry. The aim of which always goes beyond the abstract goals of learning as preparation, and instead follows a definite higher purpose for which qualitative learning today is required to address and fulfill. I am not denying the need for knowledge transfer, but we have a lot of that already –and its methods are becoming ever more advanced with the rise of the digital age.
I am writing for the change makers that do not see their job as merely a means to make a living, but as a vehicle for the creative expression of their gift to society. Creativity is on everyone’s agenda, but the way I use it here is not for the generation of good ideas, it instead refers to the conscious “world making,” i.e., participating with one’s surroundings, exercising one’s character, and employing one’s enthusiasms. In short: putting their passion and agency into action. I am not talking about how to teach geography, for example, but share my experiences in helping geographers become self-directed change agents in their field. I hope, however, that content-oriented teachers take away some of the principles, and work what inspired them into an attitude or approach that makes their learning environments more “real.” This essay is, in particular, for the people who educate the system hackers of our world. “Hackers,” as I use the word, are the people who are able to move a system with elegant interventions. They know it better than anyone, and know how to avoid its constraining structures. They put themselves at stake by standing up against the community in service of the community.
In the Lab, students ask themselves what really matters to themselves in their “world.” A quest is born. An econometrics student asks why there is so little critical internal dialogue and fundamental research within his discipline. How can the econometrics that helped design the fatal financial models for the capital crisis of 2008 become self-aware and discover its responsibility. He decided he wanted to show the unreliable and purposefully obscuring foundations of his discipline. He put himself on the line for the sake of living a life in line with the person he wanted to be. Another student searches for a way to make a dance performance for which she can be simultaneously thoroughly prepared and be able to follow urgent inspiration of what emerges from her own creation. This was a very conscious project inspired by her quest to redefine her personal relationship with the world and the origin of human creativity. A quest could also be the desire of a group of students to set up a hydrogen taxi service from Schiphol Airport as not only a way to set an example, but also connect key players in society from different fields around a root issue of our exhaustive (energy) economy. It is, for students, a profound experience to wake up to the possibility that they can find and follow their quest.
In education as a quest, the question educators need to ask is not what students should learn, but how to create the conditions for movement to become meaningful. This encompasses the knowledge, opinions, and skills to join the will to create and turn them into a craft that can be extend to their communities. The quest is the domain of homo faber, the creating human being, who creates “his” world and the meaning he finds in it.
The need for The Quest is not particular to education; it is an intrinsic part of life. However, what is particular to the education I am writing about here, is the focused time of a diverse group of people in a contained space that is designed for the possibility of development in reality, including questions, actions, encounters, and decisions to become real matters of life and inner death. This is what makes The Quest so exciting, dangerous, and beautiful.
Who remembers what he or she learned in school or university? That we turned out reasonably well is a sign that it wasn’t so much the content we retained or the skills we acquired, but rather a reflection of the quest we pursued that made the difference. Perhaps most schools work despite themselves, and provide a legitimate hangout for a searching youth. My initial thought when I started to design learning environments for universities was, “why not feature the hangout in education?”
The hangout we created at The Learning Lab was The Void, but it was not empty. What Richter and Alexander have in common is that they both start from a void in which everyone involved can enter with his or her history, aspirations, inspirations, needs, and get to work. It starts with emptying out and “unlearning,” if you like, the presets that students come with. They can no longer play the role of student and have to become humans with real questions. Filling the space with these questions includes the relationships they have with what is happening in the world around them as well as the ties they have with people and places outside the room. The time and circumstances dictate the urgency and direction of “building” (Alexander, 1979). For us at the Lab, it meant that The Void was being filled with material that we the “students” and “teachers” brought in. The material we brought in was then in the form of circumstances that were important to us (i.e., news articles, scientific findings, movies, personal stories). And, we brought in our dreams, fears, and dispositions. They would all determine the direction of learning in the Lab. This is the first condition I found for learning to be alive. Like architecture or performance, learning needs to relate intimately to the questions asked by the learner.
Consequently, the time we share is about how we fill The Void with what everyone does with his or her time, and what each of us wants to emerge from our combined intentions, hopes, fears, interests, and capacities. We usually start in a place that sets the stage and context for this particular quest. In those first days, we try to find out why we are together. Though, sometimes at the end of the Lab, we serendipitously find out that where we ended up is somewhere completely different than what we thought we “signed up for.” But that is the nature of a quest. You also find what you were not looking for, and would have never found had you just planned a route from point A to point B.
In The Void, we suddenly realize that we are not “students,” but are instead people with a history and a perspective. While on The Quest, and by filling The Void, The Learning Lab becomes a choreography. This is not in the sense of “time writing” (choreography) where time and space are sculpted with bodies (much like a curriculum predefines the time and space in school), but in the sense of sculpting scripts and patterns that map the coordinates for movement, not the movement itself.
Contemporary choreographic questions fueling the performance of today are typically:
- What do we really (want to) know for this project?
- What do we really want to change?
- What would we really want to make?
- How do we really want to work?
- Who do we really want to be?
- What should be built?
- What should be researched?
Seizing the moment
I came to believe that the kind of learning I am looking for is always asserted in the present moment, and that the questions we explore need to be “hot” in the here and now. That means we have to deal with the world in the midst of change, and we have to deal with learners at a level and phase for which they are ready. Learning, from this perspective, consists of all those things for which you cannot prepare, just as the practice of teaching consists of all those things for which you cannot prepare. It is this alertness to what reality “is” that can make education more real than day-to-day life, rather than a simulation or preparation “for” life. This is also what makes it difficult to describe, teach, or accept, because it can be disturbing, unpredictable, and elusive.
For instance, a student looks back with disappointment on his failure to realize the film he wanted to make at the Lab. But, by taking that disappointment as material with which to explore the key moments of development for him, he can discover that the result was less important than the journey he took, because it had been a courageous one. This is a classic moment, but it is still impossible to prepare a class that deals with this theme because it loses its relevance the moment it is not connected to the experience being had.
Of course, there is a preparation of the conditions for learning to emerge, and there is a lot of preparation of the teacher’s capacities to design learning environments or an ability to intervene in the process of learning in appropriate ways. Building one’s alertness is probably the biggest challenge for knowmad teachers. I would say it takes more time and effort than giving a series of lectures. But, the moment of learning, the pedagogical moment, comes unexpectedly, and has to be seized in the moment.
In a knowmadic society, significance is not a given, and much less socially shared. Whereas we used to find common purpose in grand narratives of progress or religion, a post-modern wave of fragmentation has given us the opportunity to find new coherence in the individual stories we live and in the dispersed narratives we collectively build. Learning in a knowmad society therefore involves developing the capacity to take ownership over one’s own development, and the ability to give a fulfilling meaning to one’s experiences.
In education, the origin of this senselessness lies partly in our collective migration away from relevance and towards abstraction. Dewey (1929) famously warned for the “intellectual fallacy” that led Western culture to value abstraction more real than the particular and concrete. Only what is thinkable or can be put into words is real. Affections, values, intuitions and volitions are excluded from the real world and delegated to the “personal” realm in favor of abstract knowledge. What matters to us as individuals has had little or no place in schooling, which explains why schools never paid attention to how to develop in students a good sense of what matters to them.
Also, learning for obsolete, others’, and abstract standards that have very little to do with us is a major cause for rootlessness. Rootlessness is the condition describing disconnectedness from what matters most to us, and to which we cannot find a meaningful relationship. In school, the things we are asked to memorize, analyze, or creatively reproduce no longer connect us to our futures, as they used to do when an education was a highly-valued path to a highly-valued job within industrial society. But, to connect, you need to have a sense of who you are. Society forces us to be free in choosing who we want to be by challenging every answer we find for ourselves with the possibility of an alternative identity. Only by providing conditions for personal significance to arise, we move beyond a post-modern education of deconstruction.
Why we need choreography rather than a curriculum becomes clear when you realize that, as Søren Kierkegaard is attributed to have said in various ways throughout his career, “life is forwardly lived, and backwardly understood.” Learning for change makers is much less about analysis of the past than it is about designing the future. However, since no one knows the future, especially in times of fundamental systems change, we make sense of our experiences when we look back or as we go along. Artists use applied theory or methods of hypothesis testing only for their technical development, but the significance and understanding of the work comes in reverse order. First, you do something, then meaning is constructed. It would also imply a reversal of the curriculum in this respect. In the past, students would follow a prescribed curriculum, now the “curriculum” follows the student. Naturally, the meaning of what a curriculum “is” changes with it. This suggests a complete reversal of the way we think about learning. The choreographer is, first and foremost, an agent in sense-making.
In complex, unknowable environments that change rapidly, and where, for instance, even big companies do not give the security of a career as they may fall almost as quickly as a startup stands, having your own compass straight is the only thing that keeps you on a path that makes sense. Keeping ownership over your life requires something entirely different than it did some decennia ago. Feelings of ownership and self-direction used to come with a reliable job and possessing a particular expertise, but jobs and expertise change too often today to give your control. It becomes more difficult to tell a coherent story of who you are or what you are here for when your occupation changes so rapidly as it does today. This is what I learned from my mentor Richard Sennett, who described the loss of this personal coherency in his book, The corrosion of character (Sennett, 1998). For Sennett, the most vulnerable people in society are left to the whims of a perverted capitalism, and so he resists the culture of flexibility. And, whereas I also think that the form of capitalism we created poses us with this problem, I believe our best way out is through flexibility because it is part of the paradigm that we are adapting to.
Schools, alone, cannot give students the conditions for a fulfilling life, and especially not to the most vulnerable groups in society. Not everyone is nor can be a knowmad, if by that, we mean someone who can deal with fundamental uncertainty. We will have to develop new socioeconomic relationships that offer new kinds of security for the vast majority of society. This requires the art of becoming comfortable with being on a never-ending quest and choosing new dependencies that can help us deal with the uncertainties inherent in a knowmad society. A continuous learning experience, with no clear destination, but stronger and more meaningful social bonds, is related to the creation of significance that lies at the heart of learning.
All of a sudden, the relationships students built with one another and the people they met in their projects became part of their journey, and featured in the road maps they made to look back at what and how they learned. Knowing your dependencies gives you the power to turn them into relationships of reciprocity and recognition that strengthen you on your path of personal reinvention. Also looking back and becoming skillful storytellers allowed them to “connect the dots” as Steve Jobs spoke of at his commencement speech at Stanford, of their chaotic and discontinuous lives, and form a new coherence (Stanford University, 2005).
Moving from a philosophy of knowledge to a philosophy of the purposive experience of meaning means letting go of the idea that the most important thing in school is learning theories and practices that later, in real life, have to be applied. This sounds radical and so far from what we are familiar with that we may be tempted to think that it implies we would not learn skills and facts anymore. This is not what it implies, however. It only suggests we should connect knowledge and skills together to construct meaningful experiences.
When talking about specific knowledge and skills, in the beginning I thought we had to cover a lot of material, understand many concepts by dealing with them, but I discovered that the actual knowledge development comes when one idea is followed all the way down in all of its dimensions: personal, social, objective, subjective, etc. This is all needed in order to come to the essence of what the teacher/choreographer and the students are learning. It would be a great mistake, however, to take this search for “the essence” as a form of specialization. The point is not to study more divisions of the same thing, getting deeper into one facet of an idea, but it is discovering the relationships of the parts to the whole. Understanding these relationships exceeds one’s knowledge of the particular artifact, and makes it transferable to other domains. It assures that whatever it is we are studying makes sense on more than one level of understanding.
Before discussing more about the choreographer, I’d like to explore the context of this teaching form. If we divide types of learning experiences between consuming and creating experiences on one hand, and in objective and subjective experiences on the other, we can easily say from our own experiences how most teaching takes place as transfer of known knowledge, as a reflection of how the student is doing, or as an experiment, or as problem-based learning. But, unless the problems arise from a felt need in the learner, or the knowledge transferred was specifically asked for, there is only very little learning going on, much less development. All knowledge is subjective in the sense that it is always known and valued by a person.
The challenge in a knowmad society will be to find ways in assisting the creation of subjective knowledge that gives relevance to objective facts observed, the information downloaded, and what was experienced. Transfer is what a teacher, book or website conveys to the learner. The experiment is concerned with an event that can be measured and experienced, and reflection is generally the perspective a teacher can give concerning the performance of the learner. In this scheme, a created, subjective knowledge follows from a quest, and it is this quest, with a definite path and purpose, which weaves the other three learning modes into a coherent whole.
Figure 3. The learning quadrant
If we let go of the idea of a fixed curriculum as a program carefully designed by the genius of the teacher, and instead imagine a set of simple rules that define the playing field through which the building blocks of an urgent learning journey are gathered by its knowmads, then teaching becomes the mastery of process and the creative direction of the adventure. The adventure spins a new lexicon of understanding, every time again, and can never be the same nor follow the same path.
Our language, however, often keeps us from thinking beyond the patterns that we know. If we do not understand the importance of adventure, it is because we confuse it with entertainment. If we fail to understand initiation, it is because we think of distant tribes. If we do not get the meaning of a quest, it is because we lost touch with our need for truth-seeking rather than fact finding. If we believe beauty has no place in learning, it is because we mistake it for embellishment. And, if educators do not see love as the quintessence of education, it is because we think of it as romance. Learning for change makers means finding a new language, time after time, through an aesthetic experience that is so convincing that our beliefs about what we thought substantial become changeable.
In my research for the kind of process design that can contain a knowmad’s learning journey, I have tried to stay away from fixed methods, and instead tried to reinvent forms and language for every new situation. Even though it was tempting to reuse methods, or use a great method simply because I thought it was interesting (a very difficult one to suppress), the trick was to stay with THE question. THE question was either, “what do they really need me for now,” or “what am I doing?” “Am I trying to convince anyone?” “Am I really helping?” “Am I listening?” And, so on.
The matter was too complex to know in advance what needed to be done. Together with the people with whom I worked, we had to act fast, and, as I often say, “in the moment.” The foundation on which those actions were based was on the accumulated experience that we had with experiential learning, a good general training, dedicated reflected practice of past situations, and our intuition.
I found that a successful learning journey is one in which personal and group purpose lead to manifest value, and leans heavily on the “choreographer’s” ability to observe the relationships that really matter. There are countless parameters when dealing with a co-creative group dynamic, and knowing which ones do the work at a given moment turned out crucial. That means not getting bogged down in the details, but keeping key purpose and our process in mind at all times. Otherwise, you run the risk of asking things of your students that they are not ready for, for which there is no context yet, or it makes students lose sight of the bigger picture. The craft was in the observations of what makes movement, what provokes learning, and what causes the will of the learner to engage. Sometimes this means not telling what the larger context is of where you want to go as a choreographer, as it may be too overwhelming or abstract and takes focus away of what is relevant now for the learners. It is providing a guiding hand by which you discover the territory together.
The Learning Lab was intended to be as much as a laboratory for me as it was for the students. I was setting myself up for failure, but this was necessary to cultivate a clear sense of judgment. What I discovered was that the very condition of being in an experiment together enabled a special kind of learning, and a form of excitement that could not be created otherwise. In this, I refer to the kind of learning where you not only studying a subject, but also yourself. The way you learn becomes part of the study. In this regard, the research method became the “teaching” method!
Even though I may often begin from a void, designing a lab or learning quest is not completely free of structure. It is also not just a series of experiments put together. Without the boundaries of an assignment (whether self-imposed or not) there is no medium for the learning, in the same way that bedding forms a medium that allows water to flow and become a river. The other way around is also true, that without the purpose and passion of the choreographer and learner, there is nothing to grow in the medium, and nothing to flow within the bedding.
Every attempt at designing the entire experience runs into trouble, as the predictions made about what will be needed at a certain moment are invariably wrong. The program changes all the time, according to the actual needs and activities taking place. There is no perfect design, and no design is ever finished. “Everything is always in beta,” as my students used to say. To adjust and repair the program is therefore not a sign of failure, but a desired part of the process in which we ensure that we are always learning and stay true to the needs and urgency of the group.
When a group of learners gathers for the first time, it is always exciting. Many questions, doubts, and unspoken expectations fill the space and all eyes are focused on the “teacher.” In the philosophy of many education reformers today, the teacher’s task is to adjust his program to the students’ needs, as a coach without content. But, I found a very important qualification to that desire during the research. Coaching is too passive in my view, and limits itself to the development of the learner and his or her acquisition of knowledge and skills. A choreographer, by contrast, is also staging a piece. Closer to the university system, I would compare it with the scientist who builds his research with his students. I found that I was on a mission as much as they were, even if mine included finding ways to tease out theirs. Again, my capacity was not as a “teacher,” but as creator of a reality, the transformation of higher education, and the process of which I used to design learning experiences for “students.” What, in my case, emerged as an innovation in education as such could well be another teacher’s change in healthcare, or teaching English to immigrants from the community.
In my conversations with Falk Richter, I discovered how much of this role is akin to that of the director. The word “director” gives an indication of how substantial his role could be in co-designing and guiding the architecture of a learning quest. A teacher as director gains the freedom to follow his creative capacity. When framed in by imposed curricula, the teacher can only try to create his freedom. But, if we are to educate change makers, then teachers should be change makers, and be an example of what is possible in both character and capacity. The only way to develop these is by stepping up and beginning the exploration. Moreover, if the teacher is not learning, himself, he is not transferring the experience of learning.
A teacher can start with a vision of what he wants to see in the world. But, working from the void, this vision is shaped and made concrete by the material that the students bring in. The director or choreographer looks for a certain quality in the building blocks from which the journey is made –particularly that of a certain aliveness. His sense of quality depends on his own aesthetic capacity. A creative choreographer needs to reinvent himself every time, or as much as is necessary to be able to be truly interested in what he is doing. It is not enough to just do your thing. It may suffice for the transfer of knowledge, but it will not help knowmads navigate the chaos inherent in modern society. He needs to research himself all the time in order to know what he is looking for in the group of learners, what he wants to make with them, and what they want to create with him. His art is to see the invisible, as Michelangelo famously saw a finished sculpture from a block of marble. That is true for a whole quest, but also for every moment or person. He is good at seeing possibilities for development and interesting paths as they arise in the moment. These possibilities are where life resides. Something lacks life, or relevance when, as I said, if a question or action does not arrive from an actual urgency.
Over the course of the Lab, students slowly appropriate the space and will try out how far they can go. The “dance” develops under the gaze of the choreographer. In many ways, this dance is what Wittgenstein (1953) would call a “language game.” This is spontaneous and moves in flux, but, at the same time, is governed by rules developed during the performance from which the dance derives its meaning. By becoming part of the performance, the choreographer senses what is appropriate, mis-, dis-, un-, or inappropriate for this space. There are borders that the choreographer sets and on their quest students feel out where they are. The coordinating, enabling, and sometimes subversive role of the learning choreographer is that of an indirect and implicit filter. If one is too explicit about why something falls outside of the scope of appropriateness, and students will close off vast fields of possibilities and creativity just to fulfill their idea of your expectation of them. Give too little, and they cannot commit fully to your guidance. Sometimes the guidance meets with resistance because it violates the identities of the students, or their concept of what quest they are on. This violence is essential for the learning process. This is why I mirror the emergent protocol for the lab in a subversive way. The dance holds direction, but fundamentally stays the work of and keeps the identity of the performers. Students call it magic sometimes, because they have a continuous feeling of not knowing the entire picture while they do feel I have a sense of the possibilities and quality for their work in any particular time and space.
This is the subtle matter that the choreographer has to deal with in order for the learning to generate itself and for a meaningful movement to emerge from frictions and collaboration among the students and between the desires and (im)possibilities of they encounter.
The role of the choreographer is then the assistance in selecting engaging material with which the group can build upon, to tease out experiences, tap into sources of inspiration, and help compose the energy that will be the building blocks for The Quest.
Possibilities for real learning and purposive creation are those possibilities that call up people’s desires to make conscious decisions, that wake them up, and make them present-minded. They are possibilities for truth. The choreographer invites truth, which is never a consumed fact but a created reality, by first seeing what narratives want to emerge from the group or the student, and then teasing it out with an intervention. Interventions can be anything ranging from a simple question to assignments, disrupting or contributing actions, stories, or large scale operations that set a context or process. Next to the context and relationships, interventions are the main instrument of the learning choreographer. Interventions need to be systemic. That is, they need to be aimed at those acupuncture points in the living organism or “ecology” of the student that will take away what blocks development. In the same way that it takes a village to raise a child, it takes an ecology of ideas and experiences to develop a student. In education for a knowmad society, it is crucial that students are not just subject to this ecology, but they need to understand their place within the ecology and be able to act within it. The community, sources of knowledge and experience, mentorship, supportive infrastructure, social and historical context, network, situational potential, all play part in the learning ecology. I will elaborate a little further, below.
Pedagogy of resistance
In English, the word “pedagogy” seldom bares the Dutch meaning of pedagogie, or the German Bilding or Erziehung. What they point at is not a form of instruction, but the responsibility teachers take for the process by which students become a fully-developed human beings, engaged with the reality of the world. For practical reasons, however, allow me to use the word “pedagogy” here.
The interventions of the choreographer are pedagogical, and they are usually not a very comfortable set of interventions. Because taking away blockages to development are not about smoothing out the road, but often are quite the opposite. They try to organize a dialogue between the learner and the world because the main question that underlies all processes that I described in this chapter is whether you are willing to be alive or not. The principal pedagogical aim of the choreographer is to create the experience of what it means to be alive in this world. This experience challenges the prejudices, beliefs, and fantasies to which we tend to retreat in order not to feel the challenges that life poses to our being. If we accept the challenge, then we would have to change ourselves, but it would also mean that the beliefs and identity that we invested in so much are going down the drain. If we do not retreat into denial, we might attack and destroy the ideas, people, or things that challenge the comfortable images we have of ourselves. It takes courage, attentiveness, and persistence to bare the resistance of life. And, it is in that space of resistance that we truly learn, where we discover the other side of what was hidden until that moment. Taking away a block to learning means taking away the flight or fight response. To prevent over-simplistic thinking or fundamentalism, it means doing whatever it takes to keep people from fooling themselves, hiding from reality, or destroying that reality.
In a movie that was made about The Learning Lab, you can see students meeting each other for the first time at a graveyard at night to experience and reflect on what they really want to do with the time they have, both in their lives and in the Lab (see the film by van Doorn & Smit, 2010). The most uncomfortable part of that experience was not the graveyard, but the fact that they had no assignment to guide them. They were simply sent out with flashlights. In the absence of clear expectations from the teacher, it came down to the students, themselves, to decide what this could mean for them, and how they would use their time. After the initial giggling and holding on to each other, the learning stage became silent and questions would start to come up in their minds. They were different for everyone, but they had something to do with the question, “what am I doing?” This is a very confrontational question if you take it to its fullest consequences. This experience prepared the ground for deep learning in the months that would follow by opening up an attentiveness to one’s own behavior and thoughts, and the awareness that each of us is responsible for his or her own reality and initiative.
The learning ecology
As the development of change makers is as much about making as it is about forming theories, and about personal growth as it is about collective creation, an environment in which this can all happen is necessarily a rich, integrated, multi-layered whole, which I see more as an ecosystem in which students grow than a delineated course that they take.
The more we recognize the diversity in ways that people develop themselves, the less obvious it becomes that a random group of learners is thrown in a room with the teacher who happened to teach a certain subject. The less obvious also it is that there is one kind of schooling, hence the “ecologies of learning” that Moravec (in Cobo & Moravec, 2011) refers to. How these people find each other will become more important as more universities start using related practices. The reason is that students and teachers need to be able to commit their biographies to the development of personal purpose.
The learning ecology I talk about revolves, in a micro scale, around the Lab, and a very important part of it involved the people guiding the Lab. A large part in directing a creative inquiry is the assembly of the right team, and this includes the learning agents as well as the students. The right team is that group of people which can build up a context and energy strong enough to support the insecurities, questions, and aspirations of the students. The chemistry of the group is incredibly important. Whereas teachers are normally simply allocated according to the subjects they teach, we will have to look for new partnerships that support the needs of the learning team.
During the Lab, I experienced taking many different, sometimes conflicting roles, each responsible for an aspect of the internal learning ecology. Some can be united in one person, others would probably be best divided up between a team of learning agents, sometimes also including students. In the Lab we conducted in 2011, my students developed a series of ideal types that can help us understand the ecology of the creative inquiry that a quest consists of. Here are a few examples:
- The “unlearner” is the agent I most intensely use at the beginning of every quest. He helps students re-frame their realities and become free of their habitual patterns of thinking and observing. There is no predetermined method, which makes it a difficult role to fulfill. I tend to compare it to the “trickster” in mythology, who we recognize by his unconventional behavior. He breaks the normal rules and expectations and shows us that the world is not what we think it is, and that we are not who we think we are. He may give an idea about what may also be possible, beyond what we hitherto thought.
- The “collective intelligence cultivator” is the agent that makes sure that the knowledge and experiences that are scattered over the learning community are shared and that the group can build on it.
- The “Zeitgeist capturer” places learning journeys in the context of current paradigms. He connects people and initiatives to contemporary trends, or arranges the conditions under which awareness of the emergent realities of the Zeitgeist can arise.
- The “social capital connector” takes care of the relationships and dynamics of social value creation in the community. If we want to learn and create beyond what any individual is capable of by him- or herself, the social capital of the group needs to grow incredibly strong. It may take unconventional methods to make it come forth, and there is no prescribed, mechanical procedure to follow that leads a group to develop it. Hence, it possesses a specific role in the learning ecology.
- The “meaning miner” facilitates the process of meaning making and the creation of a shared language of the learning experiences. This may be the most important task of the learning agents as it is here where the knowledge is made rather than downloaded. It is also something that students cannot naturally do by themselves as the quality of significance gained depends on the awareness, depth and connectedness of the context to which the personal experiences are related. When following the idea of a life forwardly lived, and backwardly understood, the meaning comes after the experience. Industrial education believes meaning comes pre-fabricated and can be applied to a future context, whereas knowmadic education encounters unknown situations that have to be made sense of all the time.
- The “assesmentor” designs and helps design the way learning is measured and evaluated as a form of feedback that gives insight into one’s growth rather than a test for judgment. When learning pathways become personalized, and follow an unpredictable path on which new knowledge is created, assessment needs to be co-designed. Together with the student, the assesmentor determines on what terms and parameters, and in what ways measurement takes place.
Teaching in the Knowmad Society is not a regular teaching job. It is a call to bring reality back into learning. The Quest is one way. What I believe will be of profound influence on the practice of learning and schooling is the encounter with an unpredictable path. It takes a knowmad to guide one on that path. The less certainty we have about the externalities of life, which inevitably comes with a globalizing world, the more certainly we need to be able to trust on our internal lives. I believe that a pedagogy of resistance is essential is developing that trust, which means that teaching will entail a substantially larger role for Bildung. Not just Bildung expressed as cultural or intellectual self-cultivation, as Von Humboldt intended it, but also as a practical and creative engagement with the world in which students actively shape.
Orchestrating this dialogue with a not-yet-sustainable world is what teaching in a knowmad society should be about if it is to be an inhabitable society at all. The purpose of this education would be both the development of resilient futures, as well as learning to create new meaning. The ability to personally and collectively make sense and give meaning to life has become much more important at the end of the industrial era where everything can mean anything and everyone can become anyone. Creating relevance, in other words, is the major challenge. At the same time, a part of our path is dictated by the developments in the world, its changing economy, social and cultural make up, and an exhausted ecology. Much of what is relevant is determined by the need to redesign the systems in which we live, and the clues for which will emerge from a sincere engagement with these systems.
Learning choreography is thus not about teaching a subject, but creates the conditions for students to make a difference, whether they are chemists, economists, engineers, or advertising agents. It takes more than a curriculum to do that. Above all, it takes more than a teacher. It requires someone who can guide the pursuit for relevance and meaning through the necessary developments of personal capacity. This takes teaching far beyond any particular subject, and extends into whatever it takes to assist the student to find freedom and purpose in his or her personal and collective aspirations.
I want to thank our students who worked on the learning ecology, in particular: Arik Beremzon, Eva van Barneveld, Helene Damm, Iona van Dijk, Lisa Gondalatch, Maaike Boumans, Maarten van Schie, Max Geueke, Moos Hueting, Philo van Kemenade, Siri Lijfering, Vitanis Susiskas, and Zinzi Wits. I also want to thank Jack Gallegher, Falk Richter, Betul Ellialtioglu, and Gerard van de Ree for the inspiring conversations that helped shape my work and thoughts.
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