What kind of education can give us hope for the future? As an experiential educator for the past 20 years who focused my doctoral research on school exclusion, this is a question close to my heart.
Over 20 years ago, environmentalist David Orr stated in in his seminal essay What Is Education For? that the worth of education must now be measured against the standards of decency and human survival. He said:
“It is not education, but education of a certain kind that will save us.”
We need education that can bridge divides, foster relationships and connect us to what matters most for ourselves and our communities.
Recent experience and research has given me a glimpse of what that education might look like for university undergraduates. And it isn’t a new course or program.
Rather, I would like to propose these students could regularly attend a learning space and form a small, continuous community where people connect with each other and, together, make sense of what they are learning.
Can community save us?
Think of a more sophisticated version of the high school “homeroom”: That’s the first class that students attend every day. But such a “homeroom” would be about more than teachers marking attendance and sharing key announcements. Instead, groups of learners would come together regularly during the year to review and reflect on learning, and clarify goals and intentions. Most importantly, they would do this in dialogue with others.
We already know from existing research that learning in community is linked to overall satisfaction with higher education; it’s linked to enhanced academic performance and gains in skill as well as with gains in competence and knowledge.
In more depth, what makes a learning community really work for people? Research I recently carried out on a learning platform developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) suggests a more nuanced understanding. The platform, called u.lab, is an “online-to-offline” learning process. That means participants read, watch videos and take part in exercises online. They can then choose to come together to practice what they learned.
Part of what u.lab participants are doing is bringing something new into being through mindful listening. This is captured in what u.lab founder Otto Scharmer calls presencing: learning from the emerging future.
Facing deadly conversations
I recently partnered with a colleague in Scotland to understand the u.lab experience more deeply through research. Over the past three years the the Scottish Government has developed u.lab Scotland to support local, decentralised social change.
For example, in the face of an addictions crisis in Scotland, members of the Scottish Recovery Consortium, a non-profit agency, came together with health policy makers and leaders to use u.lab methods for a series of “deadly conversations.” The executive director of the consortium said:
What really surfaced is we need a lot more compassion. We need to include actively performing drug users in our circle of concern without requesting that they give up… That was a new perspective for me, using these tools to bring in people from the furthest margins.
But addictions is just one social issue tackled through the Scottish u.lab. People across Scotland and across sectors take part in the course. Some enroll as individual learners, others join group learning in their sector or area of concern.
In our research, people from health, business, education and the non-profit sector who had taken part in u.lab were asked to share their stories in video interviews. We then analyzed their responses to tease out what made it powerful.
Constellation of factors
Our findings indicate a particular constellation of three key factors that make the Scotland u.lab learning work: strong, compelling content that has personal relevance and meaning; experiential processes that foster relationships and communities; a significant degree of choice that enables learners to shape the experience to meet their own needs.
I can’t help wondering what these factors might look like if applied to higher education as a whole?
It would require a transformation, but it doesn’t need to involve tearing down buildings and over-turning program curricula.
It isn’t so much that we need to change the content of what we teach in courses and programs. Rather we need to change the way we connect that content to other content, to the world, and to our own experiences and passions.
Many social innovations build on what already exists. A transformation of undergraduate education could be achieved by adding a connecting mechanism, or meta-framework, to the university experience.
Students from a variety of programs become part of a learning cohort that meets at regular intervals throughout their degree for workshops that support and help to shape their learning journey.
The cohort becomes a “holding space” where students come together to clarify their educational intentions. The students could review their learning and make connections between various courses and how it connects with current challenges in society. Meaningful relationships are integral to this vision as a source of inspiration, creativity and, perhaps above all else, joy.
The learning community becomes a space where students learn to connect with the issues that matter most to them. They develop the capacity to work collaboratively inside and outside the university, to self-manage as individuals and groups, to see their specific area of interest in a wider context and to move from idea to action.
Over time, and with each other, students begin to access what it is they most want to do and bring into the world.
What might be the benefits, even beyond “world-and-job-readiness,” of an education that emphasises passion and purpose, relationship and meaning? Could having a “homeroom” like this lower students’ rates of depression and anxiety? Could ongoing participation in a small community combat social isolation?
Research suggests that it might. One study found that students who feel satisfied with their education have lower rates of depression, anxiety and stress.
If we seek to educate for meaning and community, rather than merely a degree, we have the potential to change the conversation around undergraduate learning. The focus shifts towards one that emphasises human connection to one another, to the planet and, not least of all, to ourselves as the core of the experience.
Perhaps this is “the education of a certain kind that will save us.”