Saturday, February 04, 2006

Feral learning

Yesterday I wrote a brief contribution to an online discussion (conducted at on 'feral learning,' a term apparently coined by Ted Nunan in a paper on Flexible Delivery - What is it and why is it a part of current educational debate?. The term 'feral' can refer to the state of being wild, untamed, non domesticated; it can also refer to having become free of domestication. According to the Wikipedia, a feral animal is "one that has reverted from the domesticated state to a stable condition more or less resembling the wild."

Below follows an adapted version for this blog of what I wrote.

I think that the innate resourcefulness of learners is generally poorly recognized by those who feel they are responsible for other people's learning. While he term feral learning was unknown to me before I joined the above mentioned online discussion, the reality of feral learning has been known to me from almost the earliest moment - now more than 40 years ago - when I started teaching.

Reflecting on my own learning history, I am clearly able to identify instances when I escaped from the domestication by the formal learning systems of which I was part, going my own way, sometimes in the company of others, and discovering vistas I would have never seen had I stayed within the bounds of what was being offered to me. This happened long before I started teaching myself. I recognize, though, that I owe a number of these diversions to prompts I received from being part of formal environments, which is to say that I am not 'in principle' against formal learning structures (at least not as long as they don't become suffocating).

Over time, I've been involved in plain ordinary face-to-face teaching, traditional distance education from before the time when online communication became a major dimension of it, as well as in the current reality of interacting with students online. In all cases I've found that those who learn best are those who are best able to beat the system. By 'learning best' I do not mean 'getting the highest grades' (though normally the class of people I refer to does make good, and sometimes the best, grades). What I mean is that such people show the greatest promise of continually transcending themselves. With more than 40 years of experience I am now able to look back at what initially were mere assumptions and perceptions about those in whose learning I got involved. What I then, long ago, felt to be the case, I now know, based on longitudinal observation and experience, is the case.

In other words, as someone who occasionally gets involved in teaching other people's programs, I feel perfectly comfortable with taking the 'risks' (if that is the right word) involved in not slavishly following prescribed programs and curricula, attaching great value to the creativity of my students. I would even go as far as deliberately creating, wherever I could, the conditions in which my students' creativity would be optimally stimulated, thus complicating my life as a teacher as such creativity would continually force me to reassess the reasonableness of what I am doing.

Assessment (which was the topic under discussion in the referred online dialogue), particularly when it takes the form of attributing grades and issuing degrees, certificates, and the like, often interferes adversely with the kind of openness that feral learning assumes. There is thus a great need to reassess assessment practices in the light of the kind of learning that must be developed for citizens of the 21st century. Few people ask themselves deep questions about what learning for the Knowledge Age really means more than that it has something to do with the pervasive presence of computer tools in our daily life. Readers of this blog may want to do a search for the writings of Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia (often in collaborative partnership) who explore this area. An activists' approach to what should be done in terms of "healing ourselves from the diploma disease" can be found at Debate on what should be expected of learners in our rapidly changing learning landscape is available at

Finally, the following question was asked in the post I was reacting to: "Are your learners frustrated in their learning space?" My answer to that question is: Learners ought to be frustrated in their learning space if that space is a closed space.

1 comment:

Yusra Visser said...

I love the term "feral" in the learning context. You bring up an interesting point with "feral" also referring to going from domestication into being wild. There are aspects of wilderness that intuitively attract all animals, whether they are domesticated or not. It is thus that you have your domesticated cat carefully drop a mangled bird on your doorstep. Few domesticated animals, however, will fare well in the wilderness if all their safeguards are removed. On the other hand, zebras are literally incapable of surviving in captivity. And yet other animals (like pandas) can function in captivity, but cannot reproduce.

Why think about the experiences of each of these animals? Well, it brings to mind the situation that is faced with many learners who are conditioned to function under prescribed learning conditions. (Note: what follows comes from the instructional designer in me). Simply changing the expectations placed on the learner (such as when a learner goes from classroom-based to distance learning instruction) can so overwhelm the learner that he/she cannot continue to function. Dropping those learners into a completely "wild" learning environment might, I would argue, be a disaster. Yet for other learners the wilderness is the saving grace after years of being placed in a "domesticated" situation that they could not tolerate.

In my classes I tell learners at the beginning of the semester that I have certain expectations in terms of their interaction with the course. Among the expectations are: flexibility, ability to engage with ambiguity, and trust. I also tell them they should expect frustration, and that frustration is an essential part of the learning equation. Never has a student expressed any concerns with those expectations. Yet when the ambiguity, challenge and frustration appear, there is overwhelming evidence of a lack of flexibility and trust. Overcoming these monumental concerns over the period of a semester is to me - as the instructor - something of a frustration, and something that requires the same flexibility, trust, and tolerance for ambiguity that I expect of others.