Why learn about learning?

paulo freire

Paulo Freire

The learning process is human, organic, and complex, in that each individual, unique in his experiences, identity, as well as socio-historical context, transforms the act of learning into an absolutely personal and self-transformational experience. However, for that process to be a truly transformational one, both of the learner and of the world surrounding him, it is necessary that the learner engages the object of study, as well as the act of studying itself, in a critical manner. For Paulo Freire, it is this critical stance facing one’s object of study, and throughout the act of studying, which propitiates the fundamental goal of education, that of creating, re-creating, and co-creating knowledge, ultimately re-creating and reinventing the world around us. This is the critical stance in face of the search for knowledge which realizes the full potential of education, which is to bring about change.

If we are to understand the act of studying, of searching for knowledge, as a process of (re)creation, then we need to admit that the process is dynamic in its nature. Critically engaging a given text is establishing a dialog with its author. It is by means of this dialog, of this questioning, and this critical vision that knowledge can be reinvented, rewritten, and recreated. For it to be so, it is necessary that the learner has a heightened sense of agency, that is, that the learner sees himself as being the agent of his education; that he acts as subject in his search for knowledge, in his learning journey. The attitude of letting oneself be domesticated or indoctrinated does not lend itself to the critical posture advocated by Freire. The subject must penetrate the text, imbued with a sense of curiosity, fearless of letting himself become problematized by his dialog with the text.

The act of letting oneself become problematized is an act of surrender to the dynamic and organic process which is learning. Being open to learning is embracing uncertainty, for the act of learning critically presupposes an engagement with the text with an open and inquisitive mind. It means to venture into the unknown. The journey of learning becomes even more revealing if we let ourselves be humbled in face of the search. Being humble is being critical, in that learning is a challenge that requires hard and systematic work, and that many times may demand more than what we are capable of responding in a given moment. We must, therefore, persist and look to become better equipped to return to the text/object of study ready to understand it, to establish a fruitful dialog with it.

It is the duty of every educator to search for self-knowledge and self-reflection as a learner. Living the experience of learning first-hand opens up a channel for important insights into the learning process which may result in disruptions necessary for the refinement of our teaching approaches, methods, and techniques, for our being/becoming educators with the full potential to foster the kind of learning experiences which will instill our learners` curiosity and critical engagement with their own education, as well as the world around them.

In the words of Paulo Freire:

“Studying is not an act of taking in ideas, but of creating and recreating them.”

FREIRE, Paulo in Considerations regarding the Act of Studying (1968)


  1. Having encountered many people who see learning as a finite decision on the world–and seeing how they flourish in their little tree houses I’d have to say there is no defensible logic beyond pure foolishness that drives the urge to constantly take things apart. That’s why Freire was always in trouble–and probably didn’t mind at all.

    Learning itself is pretty safe. It’s the questions that go along with it that upset people.

    1. I guess that the inquisitive mind itself simply does not conform, or accept things as given. You have a point, Scott, when you talk about the trouble Freire got into… Especially in face of the establishment. They wanna look like they are doing something to change Education, but they just want to stay in power, hence Freirean concept of banking education. How do you mean learning itself is pretty safe?

    2. Clarissa, most of the learning I’ve done never really gave me cause to ask for change. I suppose it did give me a voice to express doubt when I detected falsehood or could smell hypocrisy. Remember taking a philosophy course that featured The One Dimensional Man by Marcuse and flunked because the urge of education at the time was to reduce all passions and injustices to a flat lifeless board game of no consequence.

      Could this have been because I attended college in the US? Is education more vital and alive in Brazil? More important to the life of the culture there?

    3. I’d say there’s more vitality in higher education in Brazil, at least in the fed universities, where best scholars and thinkers usually are. It’s a chaotic mosaic down here. Brazil lacks in quality education for all. Education here is an expensive commodity allowed to the middle class. I am reminded of a recent conversation with my pedagogue mom about Freire (again). We were musing together on his revolutionary thoughts and she said “The public schools in Brazil would undergo a definitive change in quality if all of the middle-class families decided to enroll their children in public schools. Now that would be the catalyst for real change.” Wow, so many aspects of that statement could be explored. Point down here in Brazil is: political agenda. Keeping the masses addicted to watching TV, providing them with good old ‘panis et circenses’ and putting on an act that they mean to implement real change in education seems to have worked so far. There has been a wind of change breezing around here. Some people said “the giant is no longer asleep”refering to the popular demonstrations that have gone down recently, but no solid and renewed political leaderships have yet arisen from any of that. I think the ‘giant’ still sleeps in ‘splendid craddle'(deitado eternamente em berço esplêndido > national anthem bit) anyway… Thank you for this awesome conversation, Scott.

  2. Thanks for this post Clarissa. It is making me think about what criticality means for different #rhizo14 participants.
    “However, for that process to be a truly transformational one, both of the learner and of the world surrounding him, it is necessary that the learner engages the object of study, as well as the act of studying itself, in a critical manner. ” I am wondering on #rhizo14 if we had different ‘objects of study’ – some were looking at rhizomatic learning as the object of study, whereas some might be focused on transforming their practice and so their current acts of study become the focus of critical attention.

    1. Frances, interesting line of inquiry about rhizoers’ ‘objects of study’. I have felt very ‘lab-ratty’ at many different moments during rhizo14, and I mean that in a good way, and also in a critical way, meaning that I was aware that I was taking part in an experiment, a learning experiment. Having said that, yeah, I do agree with you that some of us might have taken rhizomatic learning itself as their ‘object of study’ (Dave, for one). For me, it was a journey within myself and how I function as a learner. I let myself be the ‘lab rat’, so to speak, to then take a step back and observe the big picture of the paths/directions I/rhizomes chose to follow/sprout towards, and that includes the people with which I most densely connected with and read and engaged most often.
      The whole experience of rhizo14 was in way comparable to that of an ethnographer/anthropologist in his participant observations of an indigenous tribe. Allowing yourself to be fully imbued with the culture, living it as if belonging to it, yet managing your ever-present condition of outsider/foreigner. You become a stranger to yourself so that you can later think yourself in strange terms… you can work some relativization in order to attain deeper self-knowledge… Participant observation aims at problematizing the cultural self of the ethnographer. That’s what I’ve experienced. Qualitative research of self, resulting in an estrangement of self, going through turmoil of relativization, to finally moving on to the next stage of it, where I find myself and my (teaching/learning) practice metamorphosed… to a point of no return.
      Thank you for the inspiration for this reply, Frances.
      Yet another awesome conversation!

    2. @Clarissa – I am replying to my own post because there is no reply button on your post and I am hoping this will go below your reply (in context as it were). Your post suggested to me that different objects of study might be a useful avenue to pursue in the exploration of a feeling that I often had that I was talking about the ‘wrong thing’ on rhizo14;) Initially I was wondering about participants’ initial expectations but this idea that transformational experience (or not) was a potential factor is very interesting. What was really interesting to me about your comment was that I read it just after I had been reading and puzzling about participant observation in relation to the rhizo14 research I am currently working on (PO is an element of this).
      You said ” Participant observation aims at problematizing the cultural self of the ethnographer. That’s what I’ve experienced. Qualitative research of self, resulting in an estrangement of self, going through turmoil of relativization, to finally moving on to the next stage of it, where I find myself and my (teaching/learning) practice metamorphosed…” I could relate to that myself – but in terms of my own learning and later research on rhizo14 rather than teaching- probably because I retired from full-time teaching a year ago.
      So thanks again for the ‘object of study’ angle, and for your ideas on PO.

    3. Frances, thank you for coming back and sharing your insights with us. I am full of feelings myself, and they’re still boiling within me. This boiling has been arising in all shapes and sizes, as well as oozing in every direction. I am currently fully engaged in qualitative research of myself, but I found that this self of mine has been thrown in this state of awe and strange admiration in/due to my very connections with others/otherness during my rhizo14 experience. I guess that’s what I meant when a while ago I wrote in reply to one of Dave’s posts on the FB group that learning breathes in the connections among us. It is a living organism nurtured by the density of energy of our connections. Our conversation has given me a clearer sense of what was it that I really meant there.
      Thank you so much for this amazing conversation, Frances.
      Best, C.

  3. Clarissa, your Mom mentioning the middle class made me think that education is and isn’t about equity. Years ago in the logging and mining camps on Vancouver Island, west coast of Canada union organizers would offer literacy courses to the workers. Their message in a practical way was that educated people naturally deserved better wages. Education brought them above work animals and they would, of course, need better standards of living. I guess it was a valuation formula–not challenging.

    Ideally, the message told was not about money, but choice. An educated person is much harder to push around, makes decisions from rational choice and, hopefully, doesn’t believe to much BS in an average day:-) The power to make decisions removes you from the helplessness of fate and it also makes you responsible. You are a person to contend with.

    What I find hard is people I know who give up choice for comfort. They are educated, well paid and seem thoughtful, but when bravery is needed like challenging authority or defending friends they turn off their humanity and act like robots. So if people only learn for the goodies of middle class then all they’ve done is made themselves vulnerable by accumulating things they don’t want to lose. This learning makes them less human or at least as powerless as they were when they had nothing. So they go from knowing nothing to being ignorant of certain things at certain times.

    1. Education was (and for a larger part still is) a part of the complete industrialization of the western society. At least that’s how Ken Robinson puts it.

      Our whole system has to change if we want to change education truely.

      Now we learn to get a better job, a better job gives more money, more wealth, more depency on this wealth once you get used to all the luxuries.
      We invest time and money into education expecting to have a positive return in money.

      It’s how our capitalistic society now works.

      Yet, more and more jobs become obsolete. What to do when (as in Greece or Spain) large parts of the population are without work simply because there’s no work?

      Somehow (I don’t know the answers) we have to find another way of distributing wealth, free time, education in a new way. A honost way (what ever that may be), a fair way (what ever fair may mean).

      I’ve got the gutt feeling that the whole old system is slowly coming to an end.

  4. Clarissa, for me this post captures much about rhizomatic learning, especially the critical stance. It seems to have sparked Frances’ imagination as well. I take the critical stance to suggest all-in engagement rather than intellectual analysis, though I may be quibbling with terms here. All-in engagement suggests to me critical engagement not just with the object under question, as in traditional intellectual inquiry, but with oneself and then with ones community, with ones context, and with the context of the object.

    And as you note, this engagement is risky: we open ourselves to connections far beyond ourselves, but how are we to know what anything means if we do not pursue its context, its web of interconnections, and our own contexts and web of interconnections now part of the object?

    I thought of this as I listened to the hangout between you and Simon, and I came to realize what is wrong with so much of language teaching (I teach writing): our focus is on the thing to the exclusion of context, the interconnections that make a language (or math, especially math) meaningful and engaging and exciting. If I learn or, worse, if I teach a phrase or a formula, I’ve learned/taught so little if students don’t find a way to interconnect, to embed, that phrase or formula into a context that is meaningful.

    This may be part of the secret of rhizomatic education: freedom of context. Traditional education too often strips the context from the object of instruction (language, math, science, history, etc.). At best, traditional ed may try to supply a one-size-fits-all context that students must find a way to fit into. Rhizomatic classes, on the other hand, encourage students to bring their own context (BYOC) to the class and to find their own meaning. Those students, or participants, who manage to do so find the MOOC engaging and rewarding. They find meaning within their own contexts, and then they find a way to enlarge their contexts by engaging the other participants with their contexts and meanings. There is a dynamic here that I will have to think about some more, with the help of my rhizomatic community of course. Thanks.

    1. Keith, I hear you in the all-in engagement thing… you not only learn via intellect, but you also acquire via every cell in your organism… so learning/acquisition. All-in engagement is also all-out expression of the resulting alchemy of the outside world/subject of study/context/subjectivity/self boiling juices, and, yes, that is very risky. Yes, you put your finger on the process of becoming a stranger to oneself in order to have a deeper understanding of oneself and one’s context. It’s like breathing a different kind of air for a while, and then coming back to the air you breathe every day and finding nuances in it that you hadn’t yet sensed…
      Freedom of context and BYOC. I love that. I’ll be mulling over this, for sure…
      Thanks, Keith!

    2. Hey Keith, Frances, Scott and Clarissa, as always your writing makes me think. I can’t write it all out right now but some quick points:

      I just realized that at some point u started approaching every learning situation as an ethnographer. It was not intentional or explicit unil I noticed it a few days ago and your posts here gave it a name

      I also love therl BYOC (Bring ur own context) term. I realize I teach that way as often as I can (and def agree not enough of it is done in math and also languages) – but I also realize now why I am not liking other MOOCs I am takibg now: they do too little (if any) inviting of local contexts, and that jist doesn’t work for me anymore esp after #rhizo14

      I love Clarissa’s mom’s idea about middle class going to public school! Brilliant. So much to think about there

      And Scott: I hear u about giving up choice (or anything valuable that needs fighting for) for comfort. I too have a passionate heart that cannot fathom how ppl continue to do this (even when they are aware of what os wrong rathercthan blinded by hegemonic discourse)

      Gears turning in my head. Thanks for thw stimulation

    3. @Keith rhizomatic learning was initially my object of study, and particularly its links to rhizomatic thinking but it became clear that this was not the curriculum of the emerging community so I just had to put up with it. I had great hopes that we could extend the context beyond school/formal education to informal learning but in the emerging curriculum this seemed to be restricted to using multimedia/ learning by doing within a formal educational setting or informal learning about one’s role as a teacher . Although I tried hard to adopt the emerging cultural norms of using poetry, multimedia, I found I couldn’t achieve ‘all-in engagement’ as you put it. I was interested in your separation of intellectual analysis from the critical stance, as one of the things I admire about your posts is their intellectual analysis;)
      Regarding what you say about freedom of context, that made me think about Barry Dyck’s descriptions of how he applied rhizomatic learning, and also two important areas of my teaching in recent years. Context was a hugely important aspect of a masters module I taught on the application of IT in organisations for 2 reasons. Students who had been taught at undergraduate level from a perspective of technological determinism ‘social outcomes derive primarily from the material characteristics of a technology, regardless of users’ intentions’ (Markus, 1994, p. 121) really struggle to appreciate the importance of context. As students came from a range of cultural backgrounds and prior experiences, we were able to realise their own contextual experiences in exploring the ideas.
      As informal learners we can make our own decisions about investment of time and energy. As a teacher of masters students, I found my challenge was to offer and support learning activities that encouraged learners to combine theory and practice in a context-rich approach. Constraints did exist in terms of a defined curriculum/ assessment regime (that I had developed within a team setting), student time and students’ desires to achieve good grades. However, constraints can provoke creativity – experience with Twitter and some academic research support this.
      The second area of teaching was on a large first-year module that did involve a lot of hands-on learning using multimedia and SNS – here’s a flavour of the module in case anyone is interested (it’s a presentation for module choice from 2011) http://www.slideshare.net/francesbell/aboutemtech

  5. Btw I just googled BYOC coz I love the idea and wanted to use the term in a workshop

    Apparently the acronym covers
    Build your own clone
    Build your own curriculum (not bad)
    Bring your own ccomputer

    I like Keith’s acronym tho so will cite him then. 🙂 workshop on authentic assessment so BYOC very apt the way Keith used it

  6. What a rich discussion here. I like the idea of learning as an act of surrender, of “letting oneself become problematized,” embracing uncertainty and disequilibrium (Piaget). Creating and recreating ideas involves dialogue with self and others.

    If learning is transformational, then something and/or someone must change. Taking a critical stance and asking questions, from my own experiences, has been a sure way to conflict and I’m okay with that. If I’m like an “ethnographer/anthropologist in his participant observations” allowing myself to be fully imbued within a context (as much as that’s possible), I will be able to create knowledge-in-action (Applebee). How I can share my active knowledge with others in another context is the challenge. I’ve worked with rhizomatic learning for the last four years, and after being a participant in this course, I still find it difficult to share my lived understanding of rhizomatic learning with others who may lack a context with which to connect rhizomatic ideas.

    I agree with Keith that context is mostly stripped from knowledge and I really like the idea of BYOC. Rhizomatic learning and freedom of context is also a powerful idea that I’ll have to mull over a bit longer. We talk about the necessity of activating background knowledge for learning, but we also need to activate contexts. In connecting we ask, how does my understanding of this idea compare and contrast to others? Why do I think that, where did that idea come from?

    I love how this rhizo community continues to thrive. I value the ongoing conversations as I bring them back to my teaching context and personal learning.

    1. Barry, how great to see you join us here!
      Interestingly enough, what you said about “sharing your active knowledge with others in another context” is just the biggest challenge the ethnographer/anthropologist may face. It is the turning point of his craft/science. That may be done by a mixture of telling stories and operating (de)constructions with the support of sound theoretical frameworks. If the ethnographer succeeds at that, he may have achieved his goal of bringing about deeper self-knowledge on humanity. What is it that makes us different? What is it that makes us the same? Why does that matter?
      Yes, Barry, you’re so right. It is absolutely wonderful that it is thriving and ongoing. Thank you for being a part of it. And thank you for another awesome conversation.

    2. Barry – I am really curious to know what you mean by “others who may lack a context with which to connect rhizomatic ideas”. Can you give an example on rhizo14?

  7. Knowledge stripped of context brings to mind the idea of cyborg minds having no “history” or experience. Hard to imagine something so pure and free of life’s pushing and pulling could be of use. How would an ethnographer approach the study of a composite being that exists outside context? That’s kind of science fiction’ish but I wonder if a form knowing only from input from, for instance, textbooks might result in an incomplete being?

    Years ago during the first MacKenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, First Peoples of the region were given status to intervene by special order. Even though they had no written record of ownership or treaty rights the people had stories tied to local natural features and agreement on place names. They were bound to the land by their “use” of it. Or should it be the land’s knowledge of their being on and the marks they left? Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry

    What bothers me about modern education is the student leaves no marks of their passing through the landscape beyond those selected as approved by the keepers. Keepers of things not theirs to own and trade. I think Freire knew education to be transformative by the sign it left on us as well as the marks we made to it.

    1. Not just #rhizo14 that keeps going – but this wonderful conversation! I’ve enjoyed the re-visiting – and there’s much I will take away: naming the teaching/learning process as a form of transformative auto-ethnography (oh yes!) – those last wonderful lines from Scott! …

  8. This conversation keeps expanding and deepening. Nice.

    Frances, I reread my comments and realize that my distinction between “critical stance” and “intellectual analysis” is unclear. I do not want to suggest that I dismiss or diminish intellectual analysis. Obviously, I like intellectual analysis and have some success with it, and I think intellectual analysis has been of immeasurable benefit to society, but as I read more and more into complexity, I am convinced that classical intellectual analysis born of the Enlightenment has serious limitations. As Edgar Morin argues, it reveals the facts and leaves us blind to truth. Thus, I am working hard with myself to expand my field of vision to include global and circular causalities as well as local causality. In my comment above, I was casting intellectual analysis, perhaps unfairly, as the classical, left-brained, reductionist, rationalist, discrete, Cartesian method that removes the individual observer from the systems observed and removes the observed systems from their contexts (writing teachers will forbid students to use first-person “I” or “we” in their papers, for instance). An all-in critical stance, on the other hand, puts the observer back into the observed system and both back into their contexts, restoring “I” and “we” to the English language and to academic discourse. I’m working hard, then, to expand analysis beyond the simple, reductionist domain into the complex, global domain, or as Clarissa says, into every into every cell in my organism and, I’ll add, into every node in my network. I think that makes me an ethnographer, or so Baha says.

    And Baha and Barry, please use BYOC. I think I just made it up, but if I didn’t, I should have. I will find a way to use it as well. I think it has legs, and it fits nicely with my conviction that the value in the rhizomatic class cannot come only from the teacher or the textbook, but must come equally from the students. That value requires their contexts. It’s the only way I know to add value. This, of course, greatly expands the curriculum in a most rhizomatic fashion. So be it.

  9. @francesbell I’m not sure I can find an example within rhizo14 for my comment that “others who may lack a context with which to connect rhizomatic ideas.” Because my thesis was about rhizomatic ideas and because I try to explain the concept of the learning I experienced in a pilot learning (and ongoing) project, I find myself spending great effort trying to explain to people what my job is. I can’t use the word “teacher” anymore. “I work in a rhizome.” That sounds pretty odd. Fact is, I let my students go after pretty much any topic they are interested in. I was going to write my thesis as an ethnography. I had it all written up and it just didn’t work. So I attacked it again through a rhizomatic lens (I wish I had Bonnie Stewart’s language for this back then). At my defense, I tried to explain that the rhizome wasn’t a metaphor, that it was a way of thinking differently about learning and knowledge. How does one write rhizomatically in a print document?!

    Keith, I missed the Twitter chat–though a scanned through it on Storify–I like the idea of figuring out a rhizo rhetoric, but I’m thinking at the moment that the rhizome defies it. Is it our supposed rational minds that seek a kind of order in complexity and chaos? If we’re embracing uncertainty as a way, if we’re accepting that “I” is many “MEs” (and many contexts), then we must leave behind “being” (and all that classical, reductionist…) and accept “becoming” even though that means that we may never “arrive.” So, at the moment, that’s my OC that I bring.

    1. Thanks Barry, I read this and reread your http://blogs.hsd.ca/barrydyck/2014/01/27/mapping-lines-of-flight/ blog post with interest- so (please correct me if I am wrong) I think that you were talking about using the rhizome as a lens with which to view your reflective writing on your work in developing an alternative learning environment for a group of high school students. So the ‘others who lack a context’ may be your thesis examiners or others looking at what you are doing in the classroom and how you were able to think about yours and students’ becoming over time. I think that was what attracted me to your writing at the time (I even took a look at your thesis) was that you had a very rich context (developed over time) to which you had applied a rhizomatic lens. You had great experience of mapping lines of very different flights in your students’ learning experiences (each with their own context too).
      It’s beginning to make me wonder if education ‘on the edge’ might be a fruitful ground for applying rhizomatic learning (Peter Shukie might have something to say here) where education administration/ institutions may be more willing to tolerate ‘risks’. At the beginning of rhizo14, the two areas that appealed to me were the links between formal and informal learning (past, present and future); and a ‘bigger picture’ critique of commercial implications of disruptive technology in education. I can see why the second didn’t float people’s boats (though I’ll definitely pursue it in due course) but I have been surprised that I couldn’t detect much interest in learners’ lines of flight beyond the classroom into learning about things that might capture their imagination (eg a passionate interest in their life like craft or motor cycles or ….)
      Thanks Barry, this exchange has taken me forward. It’s also quite relevant to a discussion on FB around an article I shared today http://educationstudies.org.uk/?post_type=journal&p=555 as I think about your use of the ‘theory’ of rhizomatic learning.

    2. @Barry
      My gutt feeling tells me that writing down the rhizomatic experience, is a way of reifying it.
      “The medium is the message” (McLuhan)

      By writing it down, publishing it as text, it looses the rhizomatic properties. The written medium enforces order upon the rhizome.

      Maybe linked websites with images, texts, videos, blogs, moving gifs, etc. is as close as one can get to share the rhizomatic experiences with others.

      By following one’s own path through all these links, a unique personal path develops.

      If you’ve been on tracks where others haven’t been, it can be difficult or impossible to share your experience.

      On the other hand, if you travel enough, take the time for it, you’ll meet a lot of people on your journey, people you wouldn’t have met when you’d have planned your journey ahead.

      That’s when and where you share your experience. It’s transient, not lasting, yet true and purely human.

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