Education vs Learning

It is time to set learning free.

Over the past 24 months since we started developing Bibblio, my head has often hurt from the sheer volume of new knowledge I’ve accumulated about how we learn. I’ve read, seen and digested more than I can express in a pithy statement, but fortunately Joi Ito found an important and short maxim that’s a good place to start:

“Education is what people do to you. Learning is what you do for yourself”
Joi Ito

The quote opens a fundamental and interesting discussion about the nature of learning, and what we can do to support it. Surely learning and formal education are not entirely the same thing? But what exactly is the difference?

What I can say is that after these last two years, I have become increasingly convinced that there is a paradigm shift underway. One in which technology is acting as a catalyst for an explosion in the production and publication of free learning materials. There is a natural divide appearing — with different stops on the route to education and learning.

Here it is visually represented:

Most of us are very familiar with the left side of this graphic. We went to school, university, or some other formal education, and we are largely familiar with the rules of engagement. You listen to the teacher, stick it out, jump through the hoops and get your reward in the form of an accreditation. While many people flourish in this system, many others don’t. It remains the basis for most formal education around the world.

The current paradox is that while the price of education is rising exponentially in most countries, the cost of learning is actually trending towards zero — with millions of great learning materials freely available online. As we move forward, the process of testing against a standardised curriculum will increasingly be challenged by a new collective opportunity to learn anything we want, as well as choosing the content, time, teacher and device we want to learn with.

Here I am echoing the words of Brandon Busteed, Director of Education from Gallup. His speeches are well worth a watch, if only for the sheer wealth of empirical evidence he puts forward in favour of a more open and constructivist approach to learning in the digital age.

However, when you ask people about open and free learning, the answers you get are often very vague. Most of us intuitively feel that we learn best outside of the formal system — through work and throughout life. But how can we understand this informal learning process? And how does it work compared to a more formal educational structure? Let’s go back to the education vs learning paradigm for a definition of how they are different.

“Education is largely considered formal, a notion that shapes resources from the top down. Formalised education flows start with an institution that offers accreditation and then provides resources and groupings that meet that expressed goal. On the other hand learning starts with individuals and communities. The desire to learn, a natural desire, is often constructed as informal learning and comes from individuals or groups with interests, who may organise and access resources in pursuit of that interest.” (1)

For the vast majority of us, learning “stops” when we wave goodbye to our last educational institution. So — we then have at least 50-60 years of our lives left… not learning anything? Various commentators suggest that as much as 70% of learning might occur outside of formal educational settings, yet informal learning rarely gets mentioned and appreciated (2 & 3).

I am not in favour of spreading doom and gloom about formal education. It serves a valuable role in society, and many talented and intelligent people do passionate work every day inside the formal educational system with great outcomes — not just knowledge, but behavioural and social functions are developed which simply couldn’t be replaced by a screen.

However, the aim of this article is to argue that we can do a better job of connecting an ecosystem of content creators, educators and learners for informal learning purposes of many kinds. It is increasingly clear that the formal education system and the publishing industry surrounding it are doing a relatively poor job of recycling and distributing all the public knowledge that is being created — and we’re reaching a tipping point.

It’s not simply a case of making knowledge available, but also making it accessible.

Why am I so convinced change is near? Well, for one thing, this man:

Do you know him?

His name is Michael Stevens and his show, Vsauce, has more than seven million subscribers on YouTube. Vsauce investigates all sorts of aspects of our world together with its loyal and quickly expanding community, and they discover loads of new things. It doesn’t count towards anything, but I am convinced that for millions it is some of the best quality teaching they have experienced. In fact, thousands of them say so in the comments and my own brother is one of them.

People like Michael represent a new generation of creators and educators who make learning voluntary, free and social. It is on-demand and highly engaging for the same reason. Now, compare that to the average university lecture. Vsauce has more subscribers than all of the major US universities combined. The point is not that all of those seven million shouldn’t educate themselves in formal settings in the future, but that social learning increasingly have the power to assist a vast audience of curious individuals.

From theory to learning design

So, if we accept that learning can happen outside of educational establishments, do we know exactly what happens when we learn? Interestingly, the most progressive concepts in the history of education were actually introduced over 150 years ago. Educational pragmatism was conceived by Charles Sanders Peirce, and the idea was further developed by his student John Dewey in to a progressive view on education often called constructivism. This favours, at heart, a view on learning that is based on experience. With my own background in communication, I would add that learning is essentially what the students hear and understand — not what the teacher says.

Later, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget and Italian physician Maria Montessori pioneered how these ideas could be formalised and applied to childhood development. Montessori’s greatest insight was perhaps that everyone learns differently, at his or her own pace. We’re natural learners, she said, born with an insatiable curiosity. Other contemporary European approaches, spearheaded by such figures as Reggio Emilia and Rudolf Steiner, agree with the constructivist idea that experience is central to achieving a positive learning outcome. They value curiosity at least equal to curriculum, and they respect the emergent nature of learning.

While the Montessori principles are primarily espoused and used in childhood development, it is increasingly apparent that people of all ages can learn when their curiosity and intrinsic motivations to explore the world are sufficiently ignited.

Intrinsic motivation

Perhaps no single phenomenon reflects the positive potential of human nature as much as intrinsic motivation; the inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise one’s capacities, to explore and to learn. Developmentalists acknowledge that from the time of birth, children, in their healthiest states, are active, inquisitive, curious and playful, even in the absence of specific rewards (4).

The construct of intrinsic motivation describes our natural inclination towards assimilation, mastery, spontaneous interest and exploration that is so essential to cognitive and social development and provides vitality throughout life (5 & 6)
Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde & Ryan

Professors Jeff Dyer of Brigham Young University and Hal Gregersen of globe-spanning business school INSEAD surveyed over 3,000 executives and interviewed 500 people who had either started innovative companies or invented significant new products (7). They documented a series of very interesting results, showing a vast statistical imbalance in Montessori children that go on to become ‘outliers’ as adults. The phenomenon has even been named the “Montessori Mafia”. Could it be a coincidence that Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Jeff Bezos, Pierre Omidyar and Jimmy Wales all went through Montessori-based educations? In their own ways, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, all the four Twitter founders, and many other very successful individuals, didn’t exactly ‘fit in’ to a standard education system either.

And the list goes on.

But why hasn’t the revolution happened?

In only 15 years, the internet has delivered not just one but several landmark achievements in the aggregation and sharing of knowledge. Early digital platforms like Wikipedia and Google have already transformed how we search for information. However, it can reasonably be argued that learning is fundamentally different from search. It is only now, as the internet enters its truly semantic age, with millions of videos, slides, podcasts and advanced social tools, that we face a truly Cambrian moment in the possibilities of learning technology to set learners free.

“In a world where discovery is more important than delivery, it’s the people who find, remix and direct attention to old stuff that should be rewarded, not the people who deliver it or sit on it waiting for someone to show up.”
Joi Ito

While the initial wave of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have succeeded in scaling the reach of formal school and university curricula to a broader audience, and should be applauded for doing so, they largely stay true to the traditional form and structure. You have to go to places such as YouTube, Slideshare or Soundcloud to find significant innovation. It is outside the established institutions that the majority of new content, formats and ideas are being developed. Khan Academy and TED are obvious examples but the truth is that there are now thousands of great learning channels scattered across the web.

And it’s here that we took the inspiration for Bibblio. Put simply, the world needs a library which makes all these great things easier to find and easier to benefit from. Availability is one thing — accessibility quite another.

It’s also helped us to refine our guiding principles.

Howard Gardner, with his concept of “5 minds for the future” argues forcefully that we can and should cultivate many forms of wisdom and literacy, some which cannot easily be measured. The learning design of Bibblio is heavily inspired by Gardner. The platform aims to develop discipline, synthesis, creativity, respect and ethics among its users using a peer-to-peer learning model. This way Bibblio will become a free, vibrant and curiosity driven supplement to formal education.

Canning and Callan reported on three higher-education institutions in the UK that have used a self-determined approach to learning (8). Their research shows that it supports an individual’s control of learning, professional development, critical thinking and reflection. Reflective practice helped students to gain more control over their learning, comprehend it and apply it to practical situations. Many other studies provide similar results (9).

We have only just embarked on what is, without a doubt, more a marathon than a sprint, but Bibblio wants to develop these ideas and help set learning free. In many ways, our learning design is aligned to other digital age theories in that it places an importance on ‘learning to learn’ and sharing, rather than the hoarding of knowledge.

Ultimately, the point is strikingly simple. While the cost of education is exploding, learners are increasingly going to be able to develop and grow at their own pace.

Why don’t you try it for yourself?

by Mads Holmen, Founder

This post owes credit to some very inspiring people — Steve Wheeler, Stewart Hase, Chris Kenyon, Scot Hoffman, Fred Garnett and Lisa Marie Blaschke. Thanks for helping us so much.

Bibblio is a content recommendation platform that helps content businesses and publishers deliver more relevant and engaging discovery experiences to their users. Visit us on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.

More juicy posts by Bibblio:
Clicks vs Satisfaction
Popularity vs Diversity
Trees vs Networks
Search vs Discovery
60 YouTube Channels that will make you smarter
40 podcasts to make you smarter

(1) Research in Learning Technology, Vol 20, 2012.

(2) Dobbs, K. (2000) Simple Moments of Learning. Training, 35 (1), 52-58.

(3) Cross, J. (2006) Informal Learning: Rediscovering the natural pathways that inspire innovation and performance. London: John Wiley and Sons.

(4) Harter, S. (1978). Effectance motivation reconsidered. Towards a developmental model. Human development 1, 661-669.

(5) Csikszentmihalyi, M. & Rathunde, K. (1993). The measurement of flow in everyday life: Towards a theory of emergent motivation. J. E. Jacobs
(Ed.), Nebraska symposium on motivation, Vol.40: Developmental
perspectives on motivation,

(6) Ryan, R. M. (1995). Psychological needs and the facilitation of integrative processes. Journal of personality, 63, 450-461.

(7) Dyer, J. H., Gregersen, H. B., & Christensen, C.M. (2009). The Innovator’s DNA. Harvard Business Review, no. 12, 60-68

(8) Canning, N. & Callan, S. (2010). Heutagogy: Spirals of reflection to empower learners in higher education. Reflective Practice, 11(1), 71-82.

(9) Blaschke, L. M (2012). Heutagogy and Lifelong Learning: A Review of Heutagogical Practice and Self-Determined Learning. The review of research in open and distance learning, Vol 13, No 1. 56-71