Public Learning

Public Learning

Public Learning

When Socrates is trying to think about what education is, he proposes to Thaeatetus that perhaps teaching something new is like handing a bird over to a student that he then tucks away into his birdcage. That metaphor turns out to be yet another of the dialogue’s failed attempts at cracking the nut of knowledge, and the dialogue ends without a resolution.

But the dialogue does in passing give us Socrates’ most famous formulation of education: Socrates is a midwife, helping people give birth to their ideas. Socrates does not propose this as an answer to the question “What is education?”, but he demonstrates it while providing other answers.

The bird metaphor has not stuck. The midwifery one has, presumably because it accords the student some agency and dignity. Yet both versions of education have one thing in common: they see knowledge as a private between teacher and student, an act of primary benefit to that individual student.

We have held to that belief. We currently typically put a few dozen children into a room with a single teacher because that was the only way public education has been able to scale, but we test them individually because education aims at improving individuals. These enlightened individuals we hope and assume will go out and be good citizens, making a better society – a belief Socrates asserts when defending himself from the charge of corrupting the youth of Athens by educating them. If corrupting the youth would make the city a worse place, Socrates says, who would knowingly make where he lives worse?

But if we look where we are learning today, we see something different. Go to Stackoverflow, where software developers ask each other often highly particular questions about how to do this or that in some particular programming language. Go to Quora where people pose questions so that can answer them. Go to Facebook where people write about what they know and ask about what they don’t. Go to WikiHow where strangers have explained how to fix just about every object that can be broken. Go to YouTube and see if you can find out how to re-pack the grease that lubricates a KitchenAid mixer; there are over one thousand videos to help you. Go to the FountainPens discussion board at Reddit and ask why you have to squeeze a few drops out of a pen after you’ve filled it. Or go to the AskScience board then and ask how some planes can fly upside down if what’s keeping them up is the Bernoulli principle.

Sites like these have been making a splash because people on them provide knowledge without first showing their credentials. Often the person providing the answer is an amateur. That’s either frightening or encouraging, depending on one’s point of view.

But, least as important, each of these sites exhibits a new commitment to learning as a public event. If you learn something, it would just be selfish to keep that bird in your own private cage. Sharing what we learn is becoming the default. 

After all, learning in public used to be difficult. Even just a few years ago it would require setting up cameras in the classroom and distributing videotapes. Online, though, it is easier to keep things public than try to wall them off. As a result, we now not only see the results of what people have learned, but often see – and can participate in – the processes by which knowledge is developed: at Stackoverflow, we can watch developers argue about the best way to do things, and we can read the Talk pages at Wikipedia to see how people with different points of view got on the same page.

People engage in public learning for the same sorts of reasons humans have for doing anything, from the narcissistic to the altruistic. Just seeing this range of motivations reminds us that learning is not something to be walled off from the rest of life, but is a constant part of life.

It is even possible that learning together and sharing what we’ve learned are the most widespread forms of sharing on the Internet: not everyone posts podcasts or contributes to a blog, but lots and lots of the Earth’s citizens are on the Web publicly inquiring and responding, publicly developing ideas with others,. That a couple of billion people are learning to share the process and results of education ought to make educators, and all of us, just a little bit hopeful.