Learning Content is the Trivial Part of Learning

We really have it all backwards. We are completely focused on having kids and adults learn copious amounts of content as the supreme goal of education. But, such a goal is really rather trivial within the entire scope of learning. This is blasphemy in the politico-corporate controlled institutions of education, testing, and publishing, but I do believe we’ve completely gone astray. We’ve lost sight of the depth and extent of learning. We’ve lost sight of children (and adults) and all of their abilities, capabilities, characteristics, and needs. We no longer value curiosity, creativity, inquiry, play, time to ponder and process, time to make mistakes and try again, time to explore, time to talk and argue, time to negotiate.

I’m not suggesting that content knowledge is useless or irrelevant, but it is superficial knowledge compared to other kinds of learning. And, what we have done is create a world of superficiality, while thinking it’s the most sophisticated knowledge ever. It’s an extraordinary illusion. Or, rather it is an extraordinarily confused view of knowledge and what is worth knowing. A mistake that is strikingly apparent in the move to online courses and online degrees, which really amount to no more than a grand scam.

And, let me say here that while this superficial knowledge may have some importance and interest, when it stands as alone as the total package of knowledge, it is more or less meaningless, disconnected, and irrelevant. The way we package knowledge into textbooks and then test the supposed acquisition of this knowledge is just further testament to the decontextualized and disconnected approach we have developed to our relationship to knowing and knowledge. We think that all of these bits of information mean something, like money in the bank, but unlike money in the bank they are worthless without context, meaning, and relationship. On the other hand, these bits of information are money in the bank for testing companies, publishers, and politicians; and very big money at that.

But, what is misunderstood and misrepresented about learning is the big issue. Learning is dynamic and continual. We are always learning … in all situations, whether we like it or not. Learning is not an accumulation of static information in neatly packaged structures. Learning about any kind of relational information is always changing and morphing as new connections are made and lost. Learning doesn’t just happen in the brain, but is distributed throughout our bodies. And, in fact, there seems to be ample evidence that social learning is distributed among people. Look at a highly coordinated sports team where the thinking and immediacy of learning is taking place within the team and no one individual. In fact, learning seems to be distributed among individuals in coordinated contexts much more often than we ever imagined. Our bodies are comprised of more microbes than human cells. And, on top of that, we have millions of other inhabitants living in most parts of our bodies. This vast ecosystem is not just a bunch of individuals disconnected from one another, but is a community of different species living in an interdependent, coordinated way. And, this whole ecosystem has to learn together in order to survive. We are just beginning to understand how complex these interactions are, but we can get a sense that our learning is not just what some book says, but is about how we respond to, adjust to, react to, and make sense of all kinds of information with which we are confronted all the time. Most of the time, we don’t even know we’re learning or where the learning is taking place, but it is happening.

So, we have this distributed learning happening all of the time as we encounter new situations and new contexts. We walk on a new hiking trail, swim in the ocean, ski, ice skate, go to a new country or any new place, we are renegotiating the ways we do things, re-assessing our assumptions, reworking our relationships and ways of relating. These new renegotiations are new learning.

But, let’s return to what I’ve referred to as superficial textbook learning. What this textbook learning tries to address is the accumulated depth and expanse of learning that has occurred by organisms, ecosystems, and living systems of all kinds. Authors and publishers try to condense this knowledge down to discrete bits of disconnected, decontextualized, static informational strings. The vast depth and extent of interrelationships are never explored and discussed. The dynamic, changing, and uncertain nature of our knowledge is never recognized. The knowledge claims are all very clinical, dry, lifeless. We are not presented with the complexity of interacting systems that affect one another in countless ways, and that within these systems are even more relationships affecting aspects of all of the players in the systems.

In a world where the issues are increasingly intense and increasingly important to our continued survival and well-being, we and especially our children need to be learning in ways that enable us to make sense of what is happening. We need to be able to dissect out the nonsense from the sensible. We need to see the complexities and interrelationships. We have to see the faulty assumptions that we and others are making and then take appropriate actions. We can’t do this by learning lots of disconnected, superficial information. We must be learning at deeper levels of relationship and context.

For a great treatment of a different way of viewing learning, read Nora Bateson’s Symmathesy: A Word in Progress.

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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