Being in a Learning System

Last evening, I had the pleasure of participating in the International Bateson Institute session at the October Gallery in London with a number of wonderful IBI colleagues and extraordinary guests. Our discussion skirted around the notion of how systems learn. At one point, one of the guests asked, “What is it like to be in a learning system?”

Of course, all living systems are learning systems, but I think what he meant was what is like to be in a learning system that has the characteristics of the kind that supports the learning the IBI team had just observed at a Reggio Emilia inspired nursery school a few days before. This school and schools with similar learning “systems” lack the typical authoritarian relationships between teachers and children. Children control the flow of their own learning within stimulating contexts developed by the teachers. Learning emerges, percolates, and loops back and winds its way through the day. Children follow their curiosities and interests. They share and negotiate knowledge, while developing relationships with one another and among rich conceptual contexts. They seamlessly integrate sensory and disciplinary explorations.

But, back to the question about what is it like to be is such a learning system. As I pondered this question, it struck me that I had experienced such learning systems with my dog. I, of course, took her to dog training classes, which were as much about training the owners as about training the dogs. However, much of her learning was outside of these contexts. And, some of the most powerful learning for both of us occurred on our twice daily excursions into the forest near our home. For her, she lives in a world of relationships. It’s incredibly apparent as you walk through the forest with her. She is completely engaged and paying attention to as many sights, sounds, and smells as she can handle. She watches birds and things I couldn’t see with great intensity. She followed scent trails, and listened intently. And, with all of this she kept an eye on me. She’d run off exploring and following smells, but she’d keep track of where I was. And, sometimes our communication became coordinated without any verbalization needed. Sometimes just a glance and eye contact was all that was needed to coordinate which direction to go or when we needed to stop for a drink or a snack. At one, point we were off trail and climbing up the side of a mountain. We reached a point where the only way to go was both me to crawl under a tree to reach a more open area beyond. Part way under the tree, she became very agitated and looked at me saying, “we have to leave.” My initial impulse was to push on, but I “listened” to her, and backed out, then proceeded back down the mountain. I realized, she probably knew there was a mountain lion nearby.

The only other time she acted with such intensity was after we had moved to another city and went to a new veterinarian for an ear infection. When the new veterinarian entered the exam room, she reacted as if a threatening entity had just entered the room. I controlled her, but dismissed her behavior as a weird aberration, but I shouldn’t have. She was right. The veterinarian was a genuinely nasty person, not only in her demeanor, but also in her approach to sucking as much money out of her clients as possible… $677 in this case. I will listen to my dog from now on. (A week later we went to another veterinarian for a urinary tract infection. When the vet walked in to the exam room, she greeted her as she usually does with a kind of “oh, you’re okay” greeting. It was an interesting contrast… and $77 in comparison to the previous vet.)

But, the point of this learning system between my dog and I during these outings is that they involve mutual learning based on relationships of trust and respect. In the good learning systems of children in schools, the learning systems are based on relationships of trust and respect. But, most schools blow it. They may say they value trust and respect children, but it doesn’t take long for them to undermine the very tenets they say they hold.

The minute they raise their voices or exert authoritarian control, they have undermined trust and respect. The minute they take away what the children value as important, they have undermined trust and respect. And, of course, with most schools, when children enter and are immediately subjugated by the official curriculum, codes of conduct, grading systems, and high stakes tests, we have taken away all trust and respect.

The same holds true for taking a dog and putting her into a cage, followed by harsh treatment with hitting, yelling, etc. The dog has received no respect and trust… and will not respect and trust its owner.

What other learning systems function on trust and respect?

What systems are not based on trust and respect?

About Jeff Bloom

I’m a Researcher with and am on the Advisory Board of the International Bateson Institute and am a professor emeritus with the Department of Teaching & Learning, College of Education, Northern Arizona University.

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