# 387: BOOK OF THE WEEK — “Learning as a Way of Being”

Vaill, Peter V. (1996). Learning as a Way of Being Strategies for Survival in a World of Permanent White Water.

Story behind the Book Choice

Yesterday I got a haircut. My hair dresser just started her training to become a “master” which means that she can train other hairdressers. This comes from the apprentice system of craftsmanship in Germany. But based on what she told me, not much has remained of the original idea. Not only do people start the master’s degree right after completing their first trade test, which means they have zero professional experience. They also learn based on some ancient pedagogy. “We have to sit there and copy questions from the board — please note, questions! If we had to write down the answers, that would be fine but copying stupid questions all day and sitting between plexiglass windows is pretty much pointless…. And there is more: We have to buy all this material ourselves for the exam, e.g., the hair models. I wonder how people manage to finance this, especially those who work part-time only.”

I could understand her frustration, even though what she was talking about is not confined to the realm of apprenticeship in the crafts. The academization, which the author Vaill also talks about, has done funny and quite drastic things to the education system at large and thus to the learners therein. In fact, we do not have learners anymore, we have students whom we train to become graduates soon so they can start the next degree as soon as possible and thus go back to being students again. It is insane and it has led to the culture which we now live in: a culture in which actually knowing how to do things to shape culture in a meaningful way has lost much significance — at least in the eyes of parents and students. It is not that the latter willfully bow to the academization trend. They just see no other option, it seems. Our culture seems to be suggesting that only academic degrees turn you into a whole being.

I talked about this at length and repeatedly before.

What I am going to do in this book discussion today is going to be very brief because this book was so inspiring. And whenever I am so inspired, I need to write more. But I do not want to blend things together here. There is one topic which came out of my reading today which requires attention in a separate piece. This matter is “unlearning and uncompetence.” I will write about this in another article. For now, I simply want to point out how timely this book is. It was published in 1996, almost 30 years ago, and everything the author is saying has aggravated up to now. But it has not been solved, simply because the education system has not changed in the way that Vaill suggests. Still, one cannot deny that the pressure is increasing and especially Covid, I hope, has shown the world that the “traditional” way of doing things (whatever that means) is NOT the way to continue.

One just needs to be careful about the definition of “traditional.”

Traditional probably means the past 50 to 80 years.

If we go farther back in history, to the 19th century even, we might find more valuable approaches to learning before the hype about collecting academic degrees and titles started.

1. Institutional Learning

Vaill 47

If one wanted to give a short definition of what “Learning as a Way of Being” is, one could simply say it is the opposite of what institutional learning has become (in the West). As Vaill defines learning:

“Changes a person makes in himself or herself that increase the know-why and/or the know-what and/or the know-how the person possesses with respect to a given subject.” (Vaill 21)

Of course, the entire book is about what this can mean exactly and this is also why I am not going to elaborate on this much further. What I did find striking was, however, how much I agree with the finding above. It is true that some students thrive on institutional learning, even in this “conventional” and not so interactive way. I can only say so because I would see myself in this group. I was a good student and at least in the senior grades, enjoyed learning. Obviously, I figured out the rules of this institution called school (and later university) and I even used this structural knowledge to my advantage. Retrospectively, however, I can indeed say that this triggered my life as a learning being, even though this was not intended. And I can only claim this because whenever I later ended up in institutions which did not live this philosophy, I left pretty quickly…

If we now take this as a given, that old-fashioned institutions can also “breed” learners who love learning as a way of being, that must mean that the learners have changed somehat if that is not the natural outcome anymore. Even worse, many students seem to be getting dumber and dumber and others keep complaining more and more. This change is nothing outstanding. In fact, the “white water,” which Vaill mentions in the title, already refers to just this: permanent change. Nowadays, we may call this agile or flexible or whatever. The wording does not matter much. What matters is that students and managers and all other people in institutions learn one thing: Every day you get up, things will probably not go according to some self-set plan.

This has been the illusion industrial society has been trying to build up.

In reality, it has never been that way.

But humans, especially Germans, love to believe in plans.

2. Feeling Learning

Vaill 74

One facet of Vaill’s “model” of learning is “feeling” or “affective” learning. I love that this is part of the picture. Again, remember that he wrote this almost a generation ago. This was long before the so-called “affective turn” which academics started writing about fairly recently. But to me, this aspect is key to learning, to being. But especially in university, we have completely erased this. We research about affect and some other “non-materialistic” bullshit all the time. But academics do not have the balls to actually live feelings. Yes, this is very general and I am doing injustice to all those who are emotional and live out their whole being. Just walk into a university and count how many brains on a stick trying to hide their emotions you are meeting.

See, this is what I mean!

Of course, I am biased when it comes to this. As someone who is very emotional, I first had to learn that this is actually the case. When I entered that system, I thought that being unemotional meant being academic. Today I know, this is not right. Being unemotional means not being human. That is a difference. And if you are not human, you are not a good teacher. And not being a teacher also means you are not a learner. At least, this is what it should be according to Vaill’s logic. The reality is, that teachers have become those people who represent the bucket model of learning (Popper) and then poor all this knowledge they have compiled onto the students. There is nothing touching about this. And I agree with Vaill that only when you encounter your true emotions — excitement, fear, anger — will you really grow and thus learn.

3. Systems thinking

Vaill 104

This story about systems thinking really caught my attention. Vaill talks about a scene here in which he was excited about the way that someone else explained systems theory to a group of managerial learners. But the response of the group was totally the opposite of what he had expected or experienced himself. And this is something that I have seen many times in business too, even in university: “too abstract, too complex…..” — these are usually the responses. For some time, I just thought that it was my weirdo nature which made me see things differently. But this story underlines that this is a phenomenon which many systems thinkers (and learners) might have encountered. Vaill is excited, not just about the content, also about the engaging teaching style, but no one else is…

If one asks me about the single most important thing I learned in my entire university education, it is systems theory. I can remember how I learned about this as an undergraduate in one of my media studies classes. And it made so much sense, it simply gave me a model of my own thinking. It was one of these typical moments when something so familiar and unstructured has certainly receives a name and an entire academic tradition by which you can refer to it — name it. This is what systems theory was for me. And up to now, I have never given up this connected thinking. Yes, there are those who constantly push you by saying “why do yo make it so complicated?” I just give a shit about this now. These people usually encounter the complications of their own simplicity soon enough…

I wish the “being” behind the “learning” would be taught in universities as well!

Reflection Questions

1) How do you personally interpret the phrase “learning as a way of being”?

2) What are the positive aspects about institutional learning according to your opinion/experience?

3) Do you like thinking in systems/holistically? Why (not)?



Founder & CEO of Companypoets

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