Republic of Learning Overview; It is my belief that we are naturally curious and carry within us both the desire to learn and many capabilities that enable us to learn. As a species we’ve long passed on our learning experiences mimetically, not genetically, and have had several, flawed but useful, attempts at codifying the learning process, without getting it right yet. These include Plato’s Academy, Songlines, the Liberal Arts, Native American cosmologies, Madrassa’s, Universities, Shamans, Inns, School, Mechanics Institutes, Polytechnics, Folk Clubs and the Republic of Letters to mention a few. These were all temporarily useful but perhaps, from later perspectives, somewhat eccentric in conception as they just embodied the emergent wisdom of their time whilst offering practical and workable solutions to the problems of *their* time in particular. Nonetheless everything we have done before provides us with some raw material for further reflection and from which we might usefully learn. In the main we tend to be lazy and allow whatever seems to work to remain in place, especially when they reinforce our existing prejudices.
I’d like to attempt to codify a fresh learning process, my own “temporarily useful eccentricity” based on my own slowly emerging wisdom from engaging with learning in various ways ever since my Mum made me sit in her library for a couple of hours every day when I was in a British primary school in Germany. I call it the Republic of Learning.
Heutagogy and Place
As someone involved with heutagogy (with Stewart Hase) I have been concerned with reflecting on learning and rethinking educational pedagogy using an approach concerned with self-determined learning, or heutagogy. We’ve documented many elements of that and further evolved the concept with new learning design ideas like the PAH Continuum, reflections on how we learn like “double-loop learning,” addressing practical issues on heutagogy resources for institutions, and adding a fresh thematic discussion around heutagogy each year since 2013 on World Heutagogy Day; 23rd September. This year we looked more closely at what is meant by “learner-centred learning.” Which could be a new starting point for learning design. However, overall, we have mostly looked at how heutagogy can ameliorate the faults of the education institutions that we already have. What has been missing so far, I think, is how we might design “for heutagogy” and what that might look like as a learning place. Bernard with his work on heutagogy resources and Vijaya Bhanu Kate with her work on the practice of primary school teachers have begun to address this issue to some extent.
Self-determined learning places
What we have argued for from the perspective of the individual thus far is that everyone can be a “self-determined learner”
What I want to initiate with the Republic of Learning is the idea of self-determined learning places.
I’ve recently been involved in a European Erasmus Plus project The Origin of Spaces, looking at how next-generation work-spaces might be designed, what qualities they might need, and how we can help anticipate a better CoWorking future that is ecologically-balanced and serves it’s community. This wasn’t a project about abstract, or idealised, concepts, it was based on the best practice of five existing places. The Darwin eco-systeme in Bordeaux, LX Factory in Lisboa, ZAWP in Bilbao, ROJC in Pula with the London partner, LB Lewisham, learning from them and instigating new local projects like the award-winning Place:Ladywell.
Place Design and the Origin of Spaces
I learnt a lot about “place design” as we built a Toolbox to capture and share our best practice with others, but it also made me reflect on two broader issues. Firstly the long and evolving history of “Third Places” (often coffee shops) which over 1000 years, perhaps longer in the Middle East, have been instrumental in bringing about institutional change (for lawyers, banks, insurance and much more) as they were thinking places based on conversations. As a Fellow of the RSA I am well aware that we emerged from a coffee shop 260 years ago and have just redesigned the RSA House to have more of a coffee shop atmosphere with Rawthmells.
Secondly how these third places help shape the city so that its “City-zens” might have a better “social-infrastructure” through which to live their lives. Currently we are plagued by the dead-end of so-called “Smart Cities” (which is about the remote management of the citizenry from City Hall) with its corporate focus on selling technical equipment, and the rising towers student housing (which is about establishing degrees as an exportable product) neither of which are developing a fresh social infrastructure for our times.
Self-determined places of working; What the #oosEU project showed me, as I had known in the 20th century, is that innovative social design is a bottom-up process. Each of our 4 European partners responded individually, and uniquely, to pressing local social problems. Bordeaux with the closure of the working industrial left-bank (the non-UNESCO part of the city), Lisboa with the closure of a fabulous print works in working-class Alcantara, Bilbao, with the city plan to turn Zorrazaurte into a rich-persons marina (the same problem we had faced in Deptford Creek) and Pula with its desire to rebuild Civil Society after a Civil War (as we might face post-Brexit in Britain). Each project had created self-identified solutions to local community problems and sharing their (social) learning was a key part of their self-defined identity.
Erasmus and the Republic of Letters
Working on an Erasmus Plus project for the EU leads, of course, to Erasmus. A German scholar who, arguably, initiated the Republic of Letters in the 16th century, using the memorable phrase in 1522 that “I am a Citizen of the Republic of Letters.” Serious scholars in his time, before science, were natural philosophers with no particular place to go to share their “uncharted” learning; so they wrote to each other. Effectively they were writing new works from which they learnt and shared their learning with like-minded thinkers. These letters were more like “commonplace books” and would typically including conversational responses in reply to letters received, fresh ideas and observations, rubbings, perhaps from carvings in churches, pressed plants (both with commentary) drawings and designs, perhaps maps, poems as well as the bon mots of others. These letters represented a snapshot of the thinking of the author and others worthy of commentary and they were part of a shared endeavour to better understand the world, especially nature. A second phase of evolution of the Republic of Letters were neighbourhoods, such as Lime Street in London and the still existing Royal Mile in Prague, where natural philosophers, often alchemists, lived adjacently and often hung signs revealing their interests which can still be seen in Prague (Royal Mile) and even in the City of London (Lime Street) today.
Learning in the Republic of Letters
If you visited a place which was part of the Republic of Letters four hundred years ago, you could review the Letters as discussion threads, like an online discussion thread today. From your own reading you could draw your own conclusions and then walk away to share your thoughts and fresh perspectives in conversation with others. No exam or formal assessment required only the ability that you could hold your end up in discussion with others; and your interest.
The collapse of the Republic of Letters
In the UK the Republic of Letters flourished under the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell. However the return of Charles II to the throne meant a severe curtailment on free thought and the first scientific society, the “chartered” Royal Society was hatched as a plan in 1660 (in a coffee shop) to ensure that all the developments in free thinking by alchemists during the Commonwealth would not be lost. What was lost in the creation of the Royal Society and its endorsement of a distorted peer-review model of learning, was the open, rhizomatic, self-determined model of learning that had fuelled the Republic of Letters. At the time it was a way of smuggling contemporary thinking past a repressive King, but it introduced a “great man” model of thinking where it became important to identify the one and only originator of an idea rather than recognising its genesis in collaboration and discussion. A process still perverting school-leaving examinations around the world today.
In France Diderot and d’Alembert decide to save the original discursive thinking of the Republic of Letters by creating the Encyclopedie where one individual was asked to define existing knowledge on a subject. This was different to the Republic of Letters where people were shown a series of commonplace books and allowed to make up their own minds. Both the Royal Society and the Encyclopedie are praise-worthy projects concerned with saving the breadth of thought of the original Republic of Learning, but both were simplistic travesties of the trust in the learner it represented, created to address the dogmatic limitations of the monarchy in 17th century UK and 18th Century France. Sadly our education systems have not moved on from this forelock touching denial to self-determined learning, but we can do so now.
The 21st Century Republic of Learning
So how might we use the inspiration of the Republic of Letters to open up self-determined learning in the 21st Century? Firstly recognising the process of self-determined learning, or heutagogy, is a fine start. Secondly, as I’ve been working on with the WikiQuals project, develop a rigorous process of self-determined accreditation. Thirdly create places that support self-determined learning. Fourthly let’s call that the Republic of Learning.
This is a start and I intend to evolve these criteria in discussion with others who are interested in transforming education. However these criteria will be based on the concept of self-identification in which we choose to identify ourselves, rather than be identified by others; as learners, as places and in the forms by which we choose to represent our learning. Three big issues outlined in more detail in 12 criteria as follows;
1. Everybody wants to learn
2. People’s learning choices might look eccentric but will be meaningful to them as they embody agency
3. Learning is an emergent process best realised through self-determination.
4. We all benefit by letting individuals determine their own learning paths.
5. As a species our knowledge is the sum of individual learning choices
6. We haven’t yet codified an emergent learning process, so no places exist that allow for emergence
7. We need to create self-determined places of learning
8. Each place of learning should create its own charter describing the learning process it supports and what (facilities) it will make available. A place to hold conversations is enough.
9. Everyone can choose to represent their learning however they wish;
11. History of my Learning in 10 objects (an example on xtlearn.net)
12. Self-accredited learning, such as WikiQuals, or other self-determined forms of expression
Becoming part of the Republic of Learning
1. Identify your place as part of the Republic of Learning
2. Post a sign outside (like the LeRN) image above
3. Create your own learning Charter
4. Invite people in
5. Share your learning
These ideas will be further developed and shared on this Republic of Learning blog