Visions of a Learning Society

Rick Dove, Paradigm Shift International,,

America’s National Learning Foundation envisions a time when the majority of people are life-long learners - when constant learning is a widely-practiced natural instinct motivated by joy - a joy rooted in human biology. Well beyond self-directed learning, people in this age will be self-motivated learners. Everyone will have the talent to be a knowledge worker. Notably, when this day comes all of society will be vastly different, for learning will be an integral part of societal interactions. The seeds of the Learning Society are already sown. Nothing short of a nuclear return to the dark-ages can stop it. Let’s take a peek at the future......

The year is 20xx and you are 12 years old. A long time ago you would have been in the sixth grade, and like most of your classmates, convinced that others were better cut out for that readin-ritin-rithmetic stuff. You know this because you are a history buff at the moment, and have spent most of the last month researching what a 12 year old’s life was like in the USA in the late 20th century. You’ve just about had your fill of this subject and are starting to direct your learning activity into human evolution - you’ve discovered that they are related - no change so dramatic has happened to any species on earth so quickly as the recent human evolution in learning, and its global impact on societal behavior.
   Only two decades ago marked the point when self-motivated learning became the dominant method of education globally - adding rapidly to the growing ranks of agile learners moving into the power structure. Already human society is permanently changed in unprecedented fashion: bigotry, terrorism, oppression, violent crime, war, escapism drugs, and similar old-time societal pestilence is all but gone.
   It used to be that most people lost their natural learning abilities early in life, until science showed how to keep the brain’s learning function active in everybody.
   How could things change so fast, sweeping through an entire species globally in just a few decades? You’ve found no precedent in the annals of evolution. But then, there is no other animal like the human. The distinguishing feature being the human propensity to generate, grasp, and apply knowledge - to understand what’s going on and take advantage of that understanding.
   Though this evolutionary change may appear in history as a snap-point discontinuity, this didn’t just all of a sudden come from nowhere. Knowledge grows on itself. The more there is the more gets generated - so new knowledge comes faster and faster.
   The critical mass emerged in the late 20th century when new knowledge development in physiology, psychology, genetics, information theory, and artificial intelligence combined to give insight into how the human brain functioned. All coupled with communications technology that put the whole world in touch with all of these understandings.
   When technology focused on knowledge and learning the concept of a personal computer took on real meaning. Physiological and genetic understandings illuminated the methods of learning and the differences of intelligence, and personal computers became like personal trainers. But technology didn’t cause the change in society. The real breakthrough came when people understood that the focus had to shift from teaching to learning. Somebody said teaching was like stuffing a sausage and learning was like drinking a milkshake through a straw.
   After learning how life was at the beginning of the century you feel lucky. Nobody helped kids figure out how to learn things, so most never did, even when they grew up. Your mom says they were just unlucky. She says all people are good learners inside, but back in the stuff-the-sausage days, if you were unable to learn the way your teacher taught, you felt inadequate, you started to believe that learning was too tough, and you got ignored. Pretty soon that part of the brain that liked learning gave up.
   Those kids went to a place called school everyday where they sat and listened to teachers talk about things the teachers liked. You go to a learning center sometimes, but that’s not like school was. There’s no teachers there, just learning mentors. And you don’t sit in classes, you work in study groups, or you do research in the library, or you spend time with your mentor. Sometimes the learning centers have special exposure sessions where adults talk about what they are learning where they work, or they give you a whole series of introductions to interesting subject that you might want to study, or they have an expert in some area that will answer questions, or somebody shows you new places to get information from for your own studies.
   Your learning center also has regular learning-how-to-learn sessions. Mostly they’re about learning how you learn things easy, and that’s different for everybody. You also find out how to learn things in a group where other people learn things differently than you do. You learn a lot about how your brain works, that another’s brain may function differently, and you do a lot of brain games to strengthen other learning styles.
   Right now you are in two study groups that meet once a week at the learning center. Everyone shares what they learned in the last week and you talk a lot about how you learned it. Well actually, you talk a lot because you’re strongest learning style is linguistic and auditory. In one of your groups almost everybody is like you, but in the other almost everybody is different. You get to change your study groups any time you want.
   But you don’t go to a learning center every day. Sometimes you stay at home and do research on the Internet, or build your next learning presentation for one of your groups. Other times

you go visit places, or you work with your Dad, or you work with your mom, or work with someone the learning center finds for you, or you just do anything you want to do.
   Your dad and mom are almost 40, and among the first generation of what is called agile learners. She’s a psychologist and he’s an industrial engineer. Most of your study plans come from things you find interesting when working with them.
   Like two months ago you started working in your dad’s latest innovation group - that’s what he calls it - along with three older kids. He said you’ll be part of these workshops maybe twice a year now that you’re old enough - it’s all part of how his company does their learning. This time you are spending one day a week with nine people from his company and the other three kids to find a better way to make one of their products. Your supposed to help them understand the problem they are working on. Sometimes your job is to tell them what you think they said, other times you’re supposed to ask questions if you don’t understand something. Your dad says if they can’t explain it to a 12-year old they don’t understand it themselves. But the most fun is when it’s your turn to make suggestions - especially after you’ve finished an all-kids breakout session.

Knowledge grows on itself.

   Everybody gets an assignment to do in-between workshops. You and the other three kids work together between workshops to explain why it was hard to understand something at the last workshop and how it could be easier to understand.
   Dad says they do a lot of this at his work as part of their learning program. Usually they work on real problems or real opportunities - but sometimes they make up imaginary situations in order to learn about something really different that might help them later. In a few years when you start your part-time situational-learning you want it to be at your dad’s company.
   Your mom’s been using you in her work as a guinea pig for a couple of year’s now. She develops consulting media to help people learn how to use new computer applications. From your own research you know that this used to be done with books called user manuals. Those kinds of books are hardly used at all any more, now you get on line, real time multi-media materials matched to your individual learning style.
   Yesterday you learned that instructional books were part of what they call the old teaching push paradigm. Now the emphasis is on the learning pull. Your mom invented the what-do-you-want-to-know-now concept of consultant media. She builds these consultants to communicate with every learning type. When she first started out she had a lot of the older learning-is-difficult people to reach. She says her generation of self-directed learners are more demanding, though, and that your generation of self-motivated learners is even worse.
   You’re an audio learner best, so you usually choose a vocal interaction, but sometimes you like the interactive animations if the subject is complicated. Your mom says her biggest challenge is the kinesthetic learner. They need to be physically involved with their learning. She has specialists in each type of learning working with her - and the kinesthetic people are the most fun. They’re always making up new exercises and movement games that you like to test out for them. You’ve noticed your own learning profile is changing, and you’re starting to use kinesthetic interaction more often.
   Mom does a lot of her continuation learning at the same learning center you usually go to. Sometimes they even use her as a learning expert for special sessions. She says she likes that because she always learns something even though she’s there as the expert.

"In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists." Eric Hoffer, Philosopher and longshoreman.
   That this vision is inevitable is irrefutable. All forces are aligned to make this occur. The increasing speed of knowledge generation provides both a need and a desire for an increased ability to grasp and apply knowledge. At the same time, new knowledge about how we learn is shedding light on how to increase our learning abilities -- and we have come to understand that people are born as natural learners, loosing this ability for lack of nurturing, not to the aging process and not to a bell-shaped one dimensional intelligence curve.
   So we have a dawning awareness of both the need and the means to satisfy that need. The wheels are already set in motion and some portion of our society is already becoming a conscious product of these understandings. On a macroscopic level, however, we have resistance to this change in the form of general apathy, entrenched institutions, and fear of change.
   But time marches on. Probability law says that if it can happen it will happen - eventually. Time is infinite and time is patient. We are neither. How can we hasten the coming of the learning society?

1998 RKDove - Attributed Copies Permitted
Essay #043 - Originally Published 7/98 in Automotive Manufacturing & Production, Gardner Publications

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1994-2005 Paradigm Shift International - Attributed Copies Permitted
Last modified: April 25, 2005