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Canadian Council On Learning: 21st Century Learning Initiative

The Canadian Council On Learning (CCL) is a national, independent, and non-profit corporation that is committed to improving learning across the country and across all walks of life. Within the CCL is the 21st Century Learning Initiative with a specific focus on engaging Canadians in dialogue about the relationship between learning and the community. Both organizations are in an early stage of development and consequently there are a number of sections on the website that are under development. Perhaps the easiest way to follow the development at this point is to subscribe to their newsletter.

At first glance, it seems that the word learning is used synonymously with education and less frequently with training. Since I was unable to find a clear definition of what CCL means by the word, a quick exploration of the site revealed the following structure...

The Canadian Council On Learning: The Six Knowledge Centres

The basic idea behind CCL is to form a network of knowledge centres in various parts of the country. At this time there are six knowledge centres in various stages of formation. Each knowledge centre is focused on a particular theme:
  1. Work and Learning: "Learning is vital to competitive ability. Learning is lifelong and the workplace should be an essential contributor to that learning process. The Work and Learning Knowledge Centre will show how the workplace can do this more effectively." [Location: Ottawa, Ontario - Canadian Labour and Business Centre]
  2. Early Childhood Learning: "Early childhood experience and learning are key to all aspects of an individual's future success in life. This Knowledge Centre focuses on maximizing every child's potential." [Location: Montreal, Quebec - Centre Of Excellence For Early Childhood Development, University of Montreal]
  3. Adult Learning: "In order to succeed in today’s knowledge-based global economy and society, Canadians must adopt a culture of lifelong learning. The Adult Learning Knowledge Centre will identify priorities for research, identify best practices, and create networks to ensure that the most current knowledge about adult learning is shared across Canada." [Location: Atlantic Canada - University of New Brunswick - College of Extended Learning]
  4. Aboriginal Learning: "The Canadian Council on Learning expects to work to demonstrate how Canada's performance in Aboriginal learning can be improved." [Location: Undetermined at this point]
  5. Health and Learning: "Learning is critical to determining health outcomes and health has a huge impact on people's ability to learn. This Knowledge Centre will work on improving both health and learning by having them work together." [Location: British Columbia - University of Victoria]
  6. Structured Learning: "CCL intends to work in partnership with the Canadian Education Statistics Council (CESC) in the area of structured learning. CESC is an important partnership between Statistics Canada and the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC)."

The purpose of each knowledge centre is to development and communication knowledge that encourages better practice in education and training. What precise impact this is intended to have, other than the creation of a network, is unclear. However, it is important to remember that Canadian Council On Learning (CCL) is in an early stage of development.

21st Century Learning Initiative

While many of us would immediately turn away from something described as 21st Century Learning, this area has a number of interesting features:

The Initiative, led by John Abbott, is a network of academics, researchers, policy makers and practitioners from numerous countries. Their goal is to facilitate the development of new approaches to learning that draw upon the most current insights into the human brain, the functioning of human societies, and learning as a community-wide activity. The Initiative brings together research from cognitive science, neurology, evolutionary biology/psychology, cultural anthropology, as well as pedagogy, conventional psychology and systems theory to encourage people to rethink current education systems and institutions.

The features I find most interesting are:

  • Numerous Countries: While the specific countries are not mentioned, the value of having as many cultural perspectives on learning is obvious and necessary. Learning cannot be properly understood outside the cultural context in which it occurs. The key will be to ensure that enough cultural diversity is present in the countries participating.
  • Current insights into the human brain: Neurologists in particular are discovering critical linkages that help to unify the mind-body continuum. Two scientists I have found to be exceptionally particularly insightful are Dr. Candace Pert and Dr. Richard Restak. In addition, I believe there is a great deal to be gained by exploring the mind-body-spirit connection. A good example of this is Dr. David Simon and his insights into vital energy.
  • Human Societies: The idea of community is quite popular today. The essential activity of any community, I believe, lies in the concept of belonging.

While the idea of "rethinking" current education systems and institutions is important, we already have an over-abundance of important thought in this area. The problem, I believe, is not a lack of "rethinking" but an inability to do something practical and systemic with that thinking. In addition, the initiative needs to do more than "bring together research" from different disciplines unless the end goal is simply to create multi-disciplinary research. If community is an essential focus, then the initiative must also serve as a bringing together of people's experiences, not just research about those experiences.

John Abbott and the 21st Century Learning Initiative

We get closest to the character and personality of the initiative through the thoughts of John Abbott:

Learning is about much more than schooling, indeed good schools alone will never be good enough to prepare young people for the economic challenges and opportunities of a knowledge society, or for the responsibilities and sacrifices required for a vibrant, democratic, civil society.
- John Abbott, 21st Century Learning Initiative

The 21st Century Learning Initiative Library is best area to become familiar with the basic direction of the program. Currently there are six papers available for download. In his paper When Will We Ever Learn? Abbott reveals keen insight into the nature of the dilemma:

The English, it seems, are increasingly in favour of institutional solutions to complex, social problems. Which is strange for a country in which, historically, individuals used to take great pride in their own, frequently perverse, often idiosyncratic, but sometimes brilliant creativity. That England should now be so enthusiastic about extending institutional schooling is even stranger, given many an Englishman’s antipathy towards schooling when they were children themselves. Stranger still when research is just starting to become available to show the critical importance of those “open learning” situations only to be found in the emotionally-supportive environment of the home, or the naturally complex, unpredictable nature of the informal community. Stranger again to an historian who knows that great inventors, politicians, and shapers of public opinion have often been “the oddballs”, the children who did not fit comfortably into any form of institutional provision...What was common to each of these, and the tens of thousands of other significant innovators, was that they found the world beyond the school fascinating, and had the time and opportunity to explore it, as have millions of other “ordinary” men and women.

I find myself in complete agreement that the world beyond the school is far more important in considering any initiative for learning. And if we choose to characterize this as something particular to the 21st century or a 21st century learning initiative then we can get past the sense of propaganda evoked by that phrase.

What is fundamentally important is that Abbot is starting his initiative from a view outside of the school, and therefore outside of education. He refers to a number of famous individuals who did not fit into the school setting yet went on to achieve huge success. I would also suggest that their be no requirement for an individual to be "famous" as a defining feature of success, especially success in the economic sense. It is far more important to discover and explore the lives of people, regardless of their fame, who have lived and are living vibrant lives - lives that serve to inspire as well as inform.

Until the current assumptions of curriculum, instruction, and evaluation are fundamentally changed, every "change" that occurs in educational institutions is mere decoration. Abbott's assumption about starting outside of school makes clear sense. He is also correct in stating that "schooling" is not in itself the problem:

Schooling is not the problem in itself; it is simply a manifestation of a much deeper problem of malfunctioning communities and collapsed families. In a curious sense this is reassuring. Malfunctioning communities and collapsed families are both things which, in our own small ways, we can each do something about.

Bryce Courtenay's novel The Power of One captures the essential spirit of how communities can be fostered through individual acts. I recall a wonderful phrase from the book that speaks to this power: A waterfall starts with a single drop of water. The movie is also an excellent interpretation of the novel. Both speak to the power of an individual to repair malfunctioning communities and collapsed families, albeit in an unusually tragic setting.

The 21st Century Learning Initiative is a project worth keeping an eye on. Neither the email newsletter or discussion forum is active at the moment, but I will look forward to following the developments here.

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