Learning Life’s credo calls for a different understanding of education – as an ongoing practice rather than a passing period in one’s life, an incidental phenomenon as much if not more than a deliberate one, and most importantly for our purposes in this article, a process that should never be bound strictly inside school walls. This understanding directs our attention to a new frontier of public education, beyond schools, into everyday life.
In charting this new educational frontier, the challenge is both theoretical and practical. Theoretically, the challenge is in part to define what distinguishes this new frontier from previous ones. Accordingly, in the first article in this series on local learning infrastructure (LLI), I distinguished between what a citizen and a consumer learns about their community, and briefly defined LLIs as tools for developing more citizen knowledge and engagement. Practically, the task at hand is in part to figure out just what LLIs look like and how they do and could work. This article starts us on this path.
As noted in the first article, a LLI consists of the local means for informing and engaging people about all that matters to their lives, from emergencies to school programs to regional economics on a local level all the way to information about climate change, demographic trends, technological innovations and alternative ways to think and live across the world. This significant information or signia contrasts with trivia – less important information about, say, who is dating who in Hollywood, who is beating who in sports, etc. – that can be very entertaining, but that does not typically help ensure people’s safety, feed or clothe them, or otherwise assist them to better understand and shape their world.
In well functioning modern societies, LLIs commonly consist of brick-and-mortar structures like schools, libraries, town halls and community centers as well as printed or electronic means of communication, like newspapers, newsletters, leaflets, posters, email lists and websites. Some of these structures are government-run since democratic governments are charged with educating and engaging local residents. But businesses, nonprofits and voluntary associations (e.g., professional associations, universities, community foundations, political parties, advocacy groups) often also have an interest in creating, sustaining, expanding or innovating LLIs. Sometimes the information these organizations disseminate is more partial or partisan, but so long as it is signia rather than trivia, as defined above, it forms part of LLIs.
Importantly, considerable local learning infrastructure – like schools, universities, libraries, after-school educational programs and adult education classes – is largely devoted to deliberate learning, that is, signial education (learning signia rather than trivia) the learner more or less intended. But there is ample need for incidental learning, or signial education the learner does not intend, since many people learn only that signia which they are required to learn in school or at work.
Infrastructure for incidental learning already exists in many cities and towns in the form of free outdoor installations devoted to telling the community’s story, like Philadelphia’s outdoor history museums and memorials, or Boston’s pedestrian “Freedom Trail.” But many surfaces of everyday life – like napkins, placemats and cup sleeves as well as exterior building walls (for projecting important information), neighborhood bulletin boards, and electronic tickers and screens in public places – are less often used to engage people in incidental learning.
What if these everyday surfaces were used not just periodically but systematically to inform and engage people on local to global levels? Governments could install tax, sponsor or advertiser-funded e-tickers, radios or screens at popular marketplaces, parks, walkways, bus and train stops to run text, audio or video about development plans, budget debates, school issues, and upcoming events. Nonprofits and businesses could partner to create a steady stream of sponsor or advertiser-funded napkins, placemats, coasters and cup sleeves that invite people to learn about everything from local volunteer opportunities to global economic and environmental trends, and connect them to further information online as they eat or drink in restaurants, bars and cafes (Learning Life’s partner, Signia Surfaces, is currently pursuing this).
Democratic societies work better when they have more everyday citizens than periodic citizens. Periodic citizens restrict themselves more or less to voting in periodic elections. More informed citizens are more likely to become everyday citizens, and everyday citizens are more likely to report local problems as they arise (e.g., car break-ins, broken street lights, corruption and incompetence) in part because they know who to speak to and what to say. They are more likely to voice their issues and values, and do so in a tolerant and sophisticated ways. They are more likely to become involved locally to globally because they know more about local to global needs and problems, and how to address them.
Everyday surfaces can help nurture everyday citizens by spreading learning beyond the walls of traditional LLI structures like schools and libraries, to the restaurants, markets, parks and bus stops where people more often congregate. Better LLIs use everyday surfaces to nurture better citizens and stronger communities local to global.