Interconnected Learning: Contributing as a Bio-Collective

When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change—Max Planck, Quantum Theorist and Nobel Laureate

This is less a blog than it is a call for us to collaborate on developing this idea of learning as a social experience, as a personal experience that can only happen through our interactions: Learning as interconnection. This is a call to re-think assessment, re-think learning in social, not individual terms, re-thinking learning as a means to contribute. Putting our minds together will show what we can do, together, as a bio-collective. 

Note after weeks of reflection: I also want to let the reader know that the word “part” can, and maybe should, be substituted with “nested whole.” Parts as a word is problematic because it is associated with mechanisms ad machines. Nester wholes connotes essence in itself. That said, I will leave this as an issue of semantics rather than definitions. Alfred Korzybski, founder of General Semantics, explained that semantics is about learning to image in the mind what happens as you think and use a language, less about defining. I’ll trust the reader will go with that.

I recently came across a piece that proposed there were three different kinds of learning: teacher-centered, student-centered, and self-determined (which the article referred to as the process of heutagogy). Since then, my antennae are up and I seem to come across the term heutagogy much more often these days—or maybe the term is just picking up speed. Any approach that takes us away from standardized, grade-addicted, passive schooling is a positive, but I can’t help but think self-determined learning/heutagogy is just another marker along the road and not a final destination. It is a marker that lies beyond that of student-centered, which anyhow for many schools is far off in the distance. I’ve written elsewhere that we need to move beyond student-centered approaches to learning, and even if we call this self-determined learning, the problem remains: it’s still about the self and it still fails to recognize that, while we may be wholes in ourselves, we are parts within a greater whole (we are part of a holarchy).

It’s not a bad thing, but it’s just not the end goal.

Here is a story to illustrate my point. A man once needed to cross a wide river to get to his home. He searched for a boat or a bridge but found neither so he constructed a raft out of branches and rope. He used the raft to cross the river and, once on the other side, the man asked himself how he could transport the raft he so painstakingly built. The Buddha approached the man and told him that he should leave the raft there. He no longer needed it.

Most interpretations of the story posit that the raft represents the Dharma (Buddhist teachings) and the river’s other shore enlightenment. Once we cross the river to reach enlightenment, we can let go of the Dharma; it has served its purpose. 

Student-centered learning and self-directed learning are branches of the raft that takes us to the other side of the river. The far shore is where we recognize our interconnectedness with all things, where we see learning as a collective experience that takes place dynamically with and through all parts of the living system, almost instantly. Once we get to the other side, we can leave the raft behind and go beyond student-centered & self-directed learning to step onto the shores of interconnected learning. 

Until then, we hold onto the raft, but let us appreciate that it is just a means to an end. The raft lies within the Overton Window, that is, within the frame of acceptable discourse. Much like the Sustainable Development Goals, student-centered and self-directed learning are safe enough places that might even push some of us a bit and might seem new (only a few years old) and trendy, but they don’t take us to where we need to go to overcome the ecological, socio-economic, and spiritual divide: a place where we are conscious of our interconnectedness, inspired by a bio-centric, regenerative framework. It is at this point we go beyond the self and understand learning takes place because our experiences are shared. 

(It will take a longer conversation to go over why I don’t believe the SDGs go far enough, but let’s start with the fact that the word “nature” doesn’t appear once under Quality Education, continue by highlighting that Decent Work and Economic Growth don’t seem compatible with Sustainability and rather promote conditions for cheap labor, and end with the problem-solution nature of the goals, which continue to be mechanistic/Newtonian.)

What is interconnected learning? Interconnected learning is not some new concept, it is the awareness that a quantum view of learning may be more useful than the mechanistic and reductionist approaches that emerged from the Scientific Revolution. Mechanistic approaches try to understand the parts of the whole by breaking them up into ever so smaller parts. These approaches want to measure everything. They believe our minds are separate from our bodies (Descartes’s “I think, therefore I am”) and that knowing is something that happens only in our brain. These approaches focus almost exclusively on what Jeremy Lent calls conceptual intelligence (reason, logic, thinking), to the detriment of animate intelligence (earth wisdom, vitality, recognizing essence).

Interconnected learning is an understanding of the world rooted in quantum theory and ancient wisdoms: we are mere phenomena, not permanent entities operating independently of the whole.  Phenomena have no intrinsic existence (that is, they are immaterial) because their nature is that of dependence on other phenomena: they are the constant interaction of all things, neither appearing nor disappearing, but rather changing all the time. I have written more about this here.

Since we do not exist independently of the universe and since all things in the universe are interconnected (as phenomena—this is the crux of living systems theory), the process of learning takes place through the interaction of parts within a greater whole. We can focus on an individual’s learning by abstracting that individual from the greater whole, but this should only happen with the understanding that if the individual is a whole in themselves, they remain at the same time a part of another greater whole from which we extracted the individual (the concept of holon).  Just as your large intestine is whole in itself, it is also a part of you. You would always think the intestine as something in itself (whole) which is at the same time part of the human digestive system and part of the human body. Just like you can assess an individual’s skills in isolation, you cannot forget that they are part of a larger living system and do not exist in isolation. This means that we can emerge onto higher levels of interconnected learning from the individual onto the group, the species, life.

It might be relevant here for me to provide my definition of learning: Learning is when one experience changes our behavior in a subsequent experience. Experiences consist of connected and sequential stimuli (phenomena of which our consciousness or subconsciousness are aware, through our five senses and most likely more) with which we interact through our interpretation and action/reaction to the stimuli. If we act/react differently to certain stimuli based on the outcome of a previous experience, that is learning—behavior consisting of the pattern of repetition of action/reaction, however small. 

On the Coconut Thinking podcast, I systematically ask all my guests the same question: “How do you define learning?” No two guests have ever given me the same answer. You may have your own definition of learning, but I would wager it’s not so different from mine. I also want to highlight that learning doesn’t have to be a big thing, it can happen at the microlevel so long as our consciousness and subconsciousness interpret stimuli, and behaviors change as a result of the interaction with the stimuli. Simply stated, if there is no interpretation, there is no change in action/reaction and thus no learning. The opposite is true. (Of course, this doesn’t explain how plants and non-sentient beings learn, which science suggests they can… this is a whole other discussion, so I am abstracting here for sentient beings.)

Let me spend just one more moment on this idea. We cannot learn without interacting with people or things outside ourselves (our consciousness) and what we learn from these experiences, from these interactions depends on how our consciousness and subconsciousness interpret the stimuli. Note that I am treating consciousness as taking place within the mind, body, and spirit, and even interpersonally (and maybe as an interspecies dynamic). 

What does this mean concretely? Learning is contextual. It is wholly dependent on and sparked by factors (phenomena) outside ourselves*. What we learn and the quality of our learning is influenced by everything from our socio-economic environment, to whether we ate a good breakfast that day, to the combination of countless phenomena that make up the context of our experiences (temperature, light, sound, and everything else you can imagine and more). Let me stress that these phenomena happen at the smallest (Planck) time scale and our learning is the result of our interactions with all phenomena that we interpret and act/react to (stimuli). Through all this, we should take into account all the complexities that people who share our experiences contribute to the context. They’re interpreting stimuli too, sometimes the same, sometimes different. They too have agency (see below).

Every instant is made up of an infinite number of phenomena and the stimuli that follow provide the context for learning if they are interpreted and acted/reacted upon by our consciousness and subconsciousness. When Robert Frost took the road less travelled, he experienced different phenomena from those he would have had he taken the one with the better claim. His learning was the result of his consciousness’ interpretation of and action/reaction to the stimuli within this specific context (as such, the learning was not caused by the choice to take that road, but by the phenomena that took place in this context).

There is an important social dimension here. This means that we learn from each other because each of us provides stimuli for another. We are phenomena, but we become stimuli when others’ consciousness and subconsciousness interpret the phenomena that we are as stimuli. Simply put, I learn through my interactions with you. At the exact same time, you’re learning from me. Learning happens simultaneously as we interact with one another**. This is what Otto Scharmer calls the social field and learning happens in this social field if we are tuned to it and within it. In fact, Scharmer also says that social fields are collective behavior patterns, and so if learning implies a change in behavior, then it forcibly has a social/collective component.

Much of our brain activity is spent interpreting others’ intentions because we attribute agency to other people recognizing that they have wants, wills, and needs and can act autonomously to act or react to meet these. We are constantly—consciously or subconsciously—trying to predict what the other will do and adjust accordingly to ensure that our wants, wills, and needs are met. This doesn’t have to be a zero sum game of course and in precious circumstances, these wants, wills, and needs become one. Either way, we recognize (since we understand that we too have agency) that our actions and thoughts have consequences and that adjusting our behaviors brings us closer or farther to success (meeting wants, wills, and needs). We learn to repeat these actions that bring us success and this is learning. What worked once may not work the second time, but this does not discount the process of learning.

Learning also happens as interpretation of feedback and this takes place almost instantly within an interaction. Feedback, after all, is nothing more than a series of stimuli produced from the action/reactions that came from the interpretation of another series of stimuli. If I say something and see your face scrunch up as you take a step back, folding your arms, I am likely to interpret this feedback as you reacting negatively to my comment and the learning is that you do not agree—and are maybe upset—by my comment (so long as my behavior changes in a subsequent experience as a result of this experience). It is learning if I become aware of this possibility and adjust my actions (in some way) based on this experience. My adjustments will further inform future decisions based on the feedback I receive. This is learning

I don’t mean to make this sound like we are machines, because we are using all our senses to interpret the stimuli. Machines can’t do that because it requires a (sub-)consciousness.

Take a toddler who figures out that if they cry at the supermarket check out line, the parent will buy them a sweet. That toddler is learning from that experience and every time they are successful, the learning is reinforced. Similarly, the parent is learning that giving the toddler a sweet is an effective way in the short run to quiet the child down. The learning happens almost instantly and it doesn’t always have to be for good.

Another example: I decide to bring my wife Charlotte a cup of tea at her desk. She looks up and smiles, her face opening up as she thanks me. It was just a little thing, but I learn (if I change my behavior) from her feedback that this small gestures might go a long way. Charlotte, at that same moment, learns (through reinforcement) that I care. Hey! Since it’s my story, I can choose to give it this mellifluous—for some saccharine—ending!

The feedback loop happens at every instant and I am adjusting my behavior (learning) through the feedback. Of course, maybe I don’t adjust my behavior, but that is either because I am interpreting feedback as what I am doing is right (stay the course, reinforcement) or because I am not in tune with the feedback, and therefore not learning. 

Interconnected learning understands that learning takes place within a context and that learning happens simultaneously for all conscious beings that interact within this context. The learning might be similar or (probably) different for each person within a given context because interpretation of stimuli is personal (that’s the experience), but learning takes place nonetheless only as part of the interactions that make up these personal experiences. Learning happens as synchronous individual experiences, not one shared experience, because our interpretation of the stimuli is forcibly different. I am standing somewhere different from you and using my unique schemata to interpret—perceive—what is going on. Yet we still learn at the same time through context.

That mean that we can’t learn as a collective, we just need to emerge to a higher level. When we change our behaviors as a society and ride push bikes over cars, that is social learning. When we adopt new values that move us away from torture or discrimination, that too is social learning. We learn individually and as a collective, even a bio-collective. This is where we appreciate that we are both wholes and parts of a greater whole (holons).

Interconnected learning opens the door to organizing and evidencing learning experiences and in completely different ways. If learning happens within the dynamic of our interactions with others, and it also happens at a higher level, then we can move beyond personal learning and look at how we learn and produce as a pair, a team, a collective, a bio-collective. We can start to think about learning in terms of contribution, in terms of coming together to make the world a better place, to improve the lives of others, to act in kindness. Learning is no longer subject to reductionist measures and can be seen as part of a greater whole, a greater building of consciousness. 

In this paradigm, there is no primacy of assessment of individual skills, there is no need rank individuals, or drag learners through academic rigor because, by golly, they need discipline and they need to show what they can do come exam time and this will prepare them for work where you don’t get a second chance, etc. In this paradigm, in the paradigm of interconnected learning, we seek value in what we produce—be it ideas or products—together and we feel joy and work through obstacles together. In this paradigm, we are all learners, pulling together for a common purpose. We all contribute our uniqueness to the whole. Whether you’re 7, 14 or 47, you are a learner and you learn from others, who learn from you. We all bring skills and knowledge to the table. We all acquire skills and knowledge together or separately. We all have our roles to play and no matter what our age, we have the courage to be open to learning from everyone; we have the courage to be vulnerable.

This is what happens in industry. We contribute based on our specialty and let others do the same. What we produce is a team effort. We are judged based on the final product, not the individual contribution. No one who buys a good or pays for a service cares which specific individual did what to deliver the final outcome. Why can’t we have the same approach in schools?

Sure, we can look at learning as a personal experience. Sure, we can think about how and when learning takes place at the individual level. It’s when we fail to recognize that the individual is part of a larger whole or interconnected parts that we revert to mechanistic, reductionist thinking. 

Joanne McEachen says that “purpose and meaning are the new wealth and contribution is the only way to acquire it.” Contribution can be individual or as a group. Importantly, contribution also brings in the person or thing to which we contribute, connecting them to the act that becomes contribution. It’s not just about us as individuals or as a group doing or making something, it’s about how that contribution is received by another (impact). There is a dynamic at play here which extends the notion of interconnected learning. 

Interconnected learning recognizes dynamic play and appreciates that we never learn in isolation so therefore it makes no sense to be assessed solely on reductionist, granular levels. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t assess learners as individuals, but we can emerge onto another level, one that also assesses what we do and can do together, one that considers contribution to be a collective effort for others and that the latter also have a role to play in this dynamic. Maybe the highest level takes us to assessing our contributions by and for the bio-collective—every living thing that has an interest in the healthfulness of the planet.

This is where we can build portfolios of impact or contribution. This is where we can start to think about how we participate in making the world a better place, as individuals, as a team, as a bio-collective. This is where we make learning a social experience for economic, social, political, cultural, and ecological outcomes. This is where we can consider ourselves as part of a whole that goes beyond the human, beyond our anthropocentric lenses.

This is where we start to think about our place in the world as part of a greater whole, as interconnected with all things.

* We could go further to explain this… Phenomena follow the laws of cause and effect of countless interdependencies and reciprocities that exist beyond time, because if they were subject to time—that is, existing for even an instant—they would be static in that instant and therefore not be subject to change in that instant, which is impossible since change is constant. So learning cannot take place outside of interactions because learning involves change.

** This is why there is no one reality. Our interpretation of the world depends on how we process stimuli, which is personal and even on a species level. Humans are trichromatic, that is, we see three color cones: red, green, and blue. Most mammals are dichromatic, that is, they only see two color cones. Birds see four color cones, including ultraviolet. How different is a bird’s reality from a dog’s? Our interpretation of reality depends on how we see the world, literally. 

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