Learning about Learning: An Agenda for Inquiry

The Learning Conference and The Learner Collection set out to foster inquiry, invite dialogue and build a body of knowledge on the nature and future of learning.

New Learning
We might have heard the recent talk of a ‘new economy’ and listened with a great deal of scepticism, as we did to earlier talk of a new society. As educators, however, we need to grasp what is rhetorically or genuinely new in our times. We must seize the drift of contemporary public discourse, and position ourselves centrally. And how more appropriately than in a ‘new economy’ that also styles itself as a ‘knowledge economy’? Or even a ‘knowledge society’ which speaks more broadly of future possibilities? Either way, the stuff of knowledge is no more and no less than the stuff of learning.

And so we may come to consider a "new learning", and the imagination of a possible society — a possible economy even — which locates education at the heart of things. This heart may well be economic in the sense that it is bound to personal ambition or corporate purposes. But this must surely also be a place of open possibilities, for personal growth, for social transformation and for the deepening of democracy. Such is the agenda of ‘new learning’, explicitly or implicitly. This agenda holds whether our work and thinking is expansive and philosophical or local and finely grained.

No learning exists, however, without learners, in all their diversity. It is a distinctive feature of the new learning to recognise the enormous variability of lifeworld circumstances that learners bring to learning. The demographics are insistent: socio-economic group, locale (global and regional), gender, ethnicity/race, (dis)ability. Here begins the by now familiar list, and the telling patterns of educational and social outcomes.

Behind the demographics are real people, who have always already learned and whose range of learning possibilities are both boundless and circumscribed by what they have learned already and what they have become through that learning. Here we encounter the raw material diversity - of human experiences, dispositions, sensibilities, epistemologies and world views. These are always far more varied and complex than the immediate sight of the demographics would suggest. Learning succeeds or fails to the extent that it engages the varied subjectivities of learners. Engagement produces opportunity, equity and participation. Failure to engage produces failure, disadvantage and inequality.

And what makes for engagement? Learning is a process of knowing, and knowing is a form of action. In learning, a knower positions themselves in relation to the knowable, and engages (by experiencing, conceptualising, analysing or applying, for instance). A learner brings their own person to the knowing, their subjectivity. When engagement occurs, they become a more or less transformed person. Their horizons of knowing and acting have been expanded. Pedagogy is the science and practice of the dynamics of knowing. And assessment is the measure of pedagogy: telling of the shape and extent of the knower’s transformation.

In places of formal and systematic teaching and learning, pedagogy occurs within larger frameworks in which the processes of engagement are given structure and order, often defined by content and methodology, hence the distinctive ‘disciplines’. And well might we ask, what is the nature and future of ‘literacy’, ‘numeracy’, ‘science’, ‘history’, ‘social studies’, ‘economics’, ‘physical education’ and the like? And how do we evaluate the effectiveness of curriculum?

Learning happens in community settings, sometimes specially designed as such (institutions of early childhood, school, technical/vocational, university and adult learning), and sometimes takes informal or semiformal forms within settings whose primary rationale is commercial or communal (such as workplaces, community groups, households or public places as locations of learning). And research tells us how and how well education works in a particular setting.

Knowledge is the result of knowing, and learning is the business of extending the breadth of knowing. The Learning Conference creates a forum for dialogue about the nature and future of learning and the International Journal of Learning captures knowledge about learning. They are places for presenting research and reflections on education both in general terms and through the minutiae of practice. They attempt to build an agenda for a new learning, and more ambitiously an agenda for a knowledge society which is as good as the promise of its name.