Learning to Belong

The Why and How of Education

Why do we learn one thing over another? Why do we learn anything at all? It’s natural for students in today’s schools to badger teachers with these questions when they’re assigned homework or given a test.

If teachers care to respond, their explanation these days may involve listing the critical skills (4 C’s) that they’re told everyone needs to learn to succeed in today’s workforce. Why foreign languages? We need “communication” skills. Why geometry? We need to “think critically.” Apparently, these skills, along with Collaboration and Creativity, are the most valued by today’s employers. They sound reasonable enough. They’re also general enough that few would object.

But that’s part of their problem. They are too abstract. Their abstraction serves a lot of interest groups except the most important one — the learners. Whatever uses they have, skill categories have no power to motivate.

As someone who has made a living doing “communication” work, I can easily remember the transformative experiences (and learning) that led to my journalism career. Not surprisingly, all took place outside the classroom.

In 1989, two months after watching Tiananmen Square protests on CNN, I went to my university’s student-run radio station to volunteer for the news department. I soon found myself producing and anchoring real world newscasts along with other students, learning as we went with no adult supervision. We may have been amateurs and amateurish but I soon knew without a doubt that I had to abandon whatever ambitions I had in science to pursue a career in journalism. It had nothing to do with my skills. (I was a much better science student than a reporter.) Looking back, I realize it had more to do with my having found a group of likeminded individuals who I enjoyed working with — day in and day out. I felt at home at that station. I had found my tribe. The sense of belonging I felt was all the signal I needed to choose a new career path, and a new course of learning.

Educators are giving more weight these days to passion in learning. But few ever talk about belonging. In fact, it never comes up. Yet, if we look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the most pressing needs (or human motivations) after Safety are “Love and Belonging.” The need to belong comes before even Self-esteem or Self-actualization. For children and youth, this need can explain so much of why they learn what they learn. And I’ve come to believe this need to belong will determine much of what they choose to learn throughout the rest of their lives.


Modern schools were never set up to create a sense of belonging. After all, we knew where we belonged — with people who shared our lineage, our class, our faith, our land. Mass education had more practical concerns — imparting knowledge and training deemed essential to the functioning of the state or the market.

But whatever rootedness we had in the past has been eroded by industrialization, secularization, greater mobility, smaller families, broken homes, consumerism, globalization, and other forces. They’ve left a void that each of us needs to fill ourselves. So we do it through the new choices we are blessed and burdened with — of where to live, who to live with, what to believe, what to buy, and what careers to pursue, which in turn, determines what we learn. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we now need education to deliver much more than knowledge. We need answers to life’s big questions as well. Deep down, we need education to resolve the eternal mystery of “Where do I belong?”

Unfortunately, schools have a very different agenda. Their preference is for learning that is impersonal, standardized, and context-agnostic. Each school’s curriculum is similar to the next. These days, they are likely to be identical, designed by experts far away for a theoretical student, not the unique you. The result of all this impersonal learning, delivered en masse, is disheartening. As William Deresiewicz argues in his book, Excellent Sheep, students leave the best American universities with lots of “potential” but very little sense of purpose. They choose professions such as consulting and finance that keep doors open rather than commit practitioners to any particular calling. At least they know their next steps — many graduate without knowing where to begin. They remain intellectually adrift, unsure what they want to do even though they have now “grown up.” So they go back for more education.

Previous generations took comfort in the belief that once they choose a career path, a good life will be mapped out. Their employer, or their profession, will structure their adult lives. It will give them identity, a place to hang their hat, a professional tribe, if you will. But workers today don’t have the same luxury or expectation. U.S. labor statistics already show that the average worker changes jobs every 4.1 years and changes careers multiple times before they retire.

All this change sounds scary and should scare any reasonable person. Are we capable of navigating a future with so much uncertainty? The next decades will bear that out. If there’s any reason for hope, it may be in humanity’s ancient past. It so happens that we’ve inherited a brain that helped our hunter-gatherer ancestors survive a fairly nomadic existence, which some anthropologists argue, is the only stable way of life our species has ever known. Perhaps it can help us cope with today’s increasing pace of change. However, our ancestors had something more and more of us no longer have — a strong tribal identity that shaped everything they do.


It’s easy to forget that even before mass schooling, children learned — a lot. It’s the job of every species’ offspring. The same can be said of children from “primitive” societies. Anthropologists have studied many of the remaining hunter-gatherer groups that have avoided the onslaught of modernity to see what we can learn about our pre-agricultural past. From the !Kung of Africa’s Kalahari Desert to the Parakana of Brazil’s Amazon basin to the Yiwara of Australia, a common pattern of hunter-gatherer life emerges.

Children from a young age learn the ways of their culture. They learn to track and hunt many species of animals, relying on their wits rather than physical force. They also learn to identify all the countless roots, nuts, seeds, fruits, and greens suitable for consumption. And of course, they learn to make tools. In a culture where sharing is the norm and a duty, they learn to be useful to others.

In Free to Learn, a meta-analysis of today’s hunter-gatherer bands, Peter Gray writes, “The hunting-and-gathering way of life is extraordinarily knowledge- and skill-intensive, and because of the relative absence of occupational specialization, each child has to acquire essentially the whole culture, or at least that part of it appropriate to his or her gender.”

For our purposes, how they learn is more relevant than what they learn. So how do children acquire all the knowledge they need to survive? Whatever approach they follow seems to be good enough and probably has worked for hundreds of thousands of years. But beyond being good enough, it can show us how we have evolved to learn — what conditions are optimal for our brain to receive and store essential knowledge.

Gray highlights the following findings:

1) Children are free.
Hunter-gatherer tribes are mostly egalitarian. Members enjoy a great degree of autonomy and freedom, which extends to children. Children are free to do what they want and are not under constant adult supervision. They learn by choice. They’re free to engage and dis-engage.

2) Children learn by emulating adults through play.
Children like to do what adults do and they play at being adults. They learn through observation and do their best to copy. Children often pretend but they also do the real thing. They really hunt. They make real tools. They gather real food. Through play, they learn to do the things that are most valued by their tribe.

3) Children play in mixed-age groups.
Hunter-gather children are not segregated by age. Older children and younger children play together, which is how a lot of learning happens. No one is merely a learner or teacher. Everyone engages in bidirectional teaching and learning. Mixed-age learning isn’t just about transmitting knowledge and skills. It’s also how children learn to get along with one another. They learn caring and the need to resolve conflicts.

“I pay the schoolmaster, but ’tis the schoolboys that educate my son.” 
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

4) Children play and experiment with tools of the culture.
Every culture has tools that are deemed most essential. Children see adults use these tools and they’re eager to do the same. When they feel ready, the children are given access to these tools and they learn to use them mostly through experimental play rather than adult-guided instruction. However, their experimentation is usually preceded by some observation and copying. Children also show openness and enthusiasm for new tools.

5) Children are surrounded by caring adults who share what they know when asked.
Of course, children do learn from adults. They often ask adults to show them how to do something. Or they learn simply by helping adults with their work. The children learn from many different adults, not just their parents and not from designated teachers. Adults show care and responsibility for all children, not just their own.

These are some of the conditions in which children learned throughout most of human history. Gray felt compelled to write Free to Learn because these conditions are completely absent from modern schools. Children are not free in our compulsory schools. They are segregated by age, their “date of manufacture,” as Ken Robinson puts it. They are expected to learn through teacher-led instruction, not through play. The learning is increasingly abstract and theoretical, far removed from any real world application. Shop classes have disappeared from our schools. If students have access to tools at all, they are used to complete lessons, not for play. Lastly, children are cloistered in their bubble, away from community. They learn almost exclusively from teachers, not practitioners — the people doing real work in the real world.

Is it any wonder that many students, especially in high school, feel disengaged and at least one in five of them drops out.

We’ve stripped learning from its proper social context: the tribe. In so doing, we’ve stripped learning of its real meaning. In our pre-agricultural past, we learned not simply to survive but to live amongst others, to find our proper place in a particular grouping of people, to care and receive care. In short, we learned in order to belong.

Progressive educators know this. That’s why many are fighting to return learning to more natural and social contexts.

Sugata Mitra has conducted research proving that small groups of children, working and playing together, can teach themselves very advanced concepts and tools. In his most famous experiment, dubbed “Hole in the Wall,” he showed that children who have never seen a computer before can figure out what it does, even without instruction or adult guidance.

Adults have roles to play but they shouldn’t be limited to teachers. In Mitra’s experiments, he involves grandmothers (as part of a Granny Cloud) who show they can do much to encourage learning, even virtually, by being inquisitive, caring, curious, and encouraging.

The most tribe-like school I’ve personally witnessed is Brightworks in San Francisco. This private school, designed from the ground up by Gever Tully, organizes students in mixed-age groups known as “bands.” Each band can be comprised of 7 to 10 students who span three different ages. (When I visited, the senior band had a five-year age span.) They co-create their own physical band space at the school. They work on similar real world projects — writing a book, making a short film, etc. — that students tackle in their own way with their own unique interests and abilities. The school brings in different practitioners every week to give students real world perspective.

Students at Brightworks also have access to abundant tools. Children as young as six years old learn how to use circular saws. Initially, they are supervised but eventually, they are trusted to use the power tools on their own.

Would you trust your child with this much risk and responsibility? Hunter-gatherer parents do.

It’s not just progressive educators who understand the social dynamics of learning. We see similar patterns whenever and wherever learning is self-organized.

Just spend time in maker spaces where people (including children) are engaged in self-directed making.

Look online as well. YouTube is perhaps the best virtual example of tribal learning at play.

It’s a new tool. Young people are more comfortable with it than their parents. They create vast amounts of content in their own time, without guidance from teachers. They learn to do so by watching, copying, and adapting. They attach themselves to specific communities and learn each community’s customs, language, and rules. Experimentation and play are rewarded, sometimes with obscene wealth. So is teaching. And so is collaboration. YouTubers often collaborate and help drive traffic to one another’s channels. They meet offline and socialize as a distinct tribe — YouTubers.

If only schools could be more like YouTube (sans nasty comments).

For almost any interest you may have you can find people of diverse ages, backgrounds, and abilities teaching you what they know… for free. So if you’re trying to learn ukulele like I am, you can learn from across the tribe of ukulele players, not just from one teacher. Through all the different teachings and all the likes and dislikes viewers register, you can get a better sense of what techniques, styles, and songs other players like — and also, what’s on the cutting edge, the stuff schools will never teach. You’ll also learn what niche you might be able to fill should you wish to teach yourself.

So what can we do situate learning in more of a social — and tribal — context? How can we maximize children’s motivation and ability to learn by connecting their learning to belonging?

We need to rethink what education is for, what schools are about, and what role each of us plays. Here’s where we can begin:

Learners

  • Whatever you wish to learn, ask yourself, “Which groups of people value this type of learning?” What do they do with their knowledge and skills? Are they doing what you would like to do or try? Are they asking the kinds of questions you’re interested in? Are they acting from values you share?
  • Find places where you can connect with those groups both online and offline. Experience being with them. Do you like their company? Do you look forward to spending more time with them when you leave?
  • Find opportunities to learn from group members of all ages — observe what they do, copy, and adapt.
  • Find ways to share what you do with the groups, not just with one teacher.
  • Find ways to collaborate.
  • If possible, apprentice. Help someone much more advanced do their work. Don’t just collect their business cards. Work with them. Help them out. Let them take you under their wings.
  • Connect with members who are generous and eager to help. Even better, look for those who feel responsible for the well-being of others. Lack of generosity and sharing can be a bad sign.
  • Once you have found your tribes, invest yourself in those tribes. Learn what you need to contribute.

Parents

  • Allow your children to have ample free time to explore their own interests and connect with diverse tribes, voluntarily.
  • Help them gain access to “tools of the culture.” Introduce them to different tools. Support them in learning those tools through “experimental play,” not just expert-led curriculum. Simply ask, “Are they having fun?”
  • Help them connect with caring adults who recognize their spark and support their endeavors. Help but don’t direct.
  • Make sure they have at least three adults who are their “spark champions.”
  • Help them discover distinct places (away from school) in your community where they are exploring interests with others.
  • Let them proceed at their own pace.
  • Encourage collaboration and minimize competition. Stay away from groups that emphasize ranking and winning.

Teachers

  • Teach through your own learning. Show students what you’re trying to learn. Let them observe and let them help you when they feel ready to contribute.
  • Make time for experimental play, not just instruction. Let students do activities that don’t result in assessment, judgment, or ranking. Help them find joy in the activity.
  • Don’t segregate learners by age and ability. If they are segregated, help them connect with people of different ages and abilities.
  • Find ways for students to learn as well as teach.
  • Connect them with groups outside of school that value the type of learning you’re trying to impart. Can students see how their learning can be applied in the real world?
  • Connect them with opportunities (outside of school) for further learning? Do you see them pursuing those opportunities? If not, keep finding the right opportunities (and the right tribes).
  • Encourage students to share work with authentic audiences — not you. Help them engage those audiences effectively.
  • Organize students into small cohorts where they can know other members well and take interest in one another’s learning.
  • Let students “vote with their feet.” Let them disengage from the group when they want to.

Tribe Leaders

  • Create a culture that encourages sharing and collaboration, not competition. That doesn’t mean you never compete.
  • Assume equality and autonomy. No one should be forced to be there or do what they don’t want to do. Everyone should have a voice. Majority rules… but not all the time. Always find ways to accommodate minority viewpoints.
  • Encourage initiative and leadership from everyone. Encourage peer-to-peer learning.
  • Take responsibility for the learning of others, especially younger and newer members of your group.
  • Identify the values, principles, and goals that bring the group together. Articulate them well.
  • Work towards something that requires courage and commitment — a big goal that inspires and includes everyone in your group.

It’s time we all start to redesign our learning and our schools. We can begin by conducting experiments within our existing schools the way a public high school in Massachusetts gave students free rein to design their education. What did the students come up with? Something akin to a tribe.

Ten students from three different grades created the Independent Project. They spent an entire semester doing self-directed learning, not by themselves but with each other and for each other. In my documentary about their experiment, you can see a complex interplay between the individual learner and the group, the former depended on the latter for both motivation and validation. In their words, “Group dynamic was everything.”

We need schools to be tribes rather than factories not just for the sake of learning but for our children’s overall well-being. We need to validate their need to belong and help them pursue lifelong belonging as well as lifelong learning — by first seeing how the two feed off each other.

Before leaving school, they should experience the power tribes have to provide motivation, structure, and necessary care for learning to happen. Only then will they know how to seek out positive, strong tribes on their own — in the many places where they will work and live.

Much more is at stake than their careers.

As Sebastian Junger argues in his book, Tribe, “Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.” Too many of us don’t know where we belong and how we should contribute. This alienation can take a heavy psychic toll.

It will likely get worse when automation eliminates many of our jobs or erodes the quality of our work. When that happens, where will we derive our self-worth and sense of purpose?

The time has come for our schools to tackle that question head on. It’s no use asking “What should I learn?” if we don’t first ask, “Where do I belong?”

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