Category Archives: Education

America Needs Democracy Learning Communities

This co-authored op-ed was published in The Fulcrum (August 24, 2021), and picked up by other online venues including Gulf Today (August 25), The Marietta Daily Journal (August 25), Salem News (August 25), and The Post Bulletin (August 27).

Cancel culture, immigration reform, Black Lives Matter, congressional gridlock, the Jan. 6 riot: What do these seemingly disparate national phenomena have in common? Democratic dysfunction. Yet when many Americans think of democracy, they think less of themselves than of politicians, less of community and lifestyle than of government and elections. Our narrow concept needs widening, our democracy needs learning and community. There is no better place to start than at the grassroots level by forming democracy learning communities all across America, in urban and rural areas, suburbs and exurbs.

We come to this conclusion from long careers, domestic and foreign. Paul is a political sociologist who has studied and engaged in grassroots citizen activism in the United States for over 30 years. Mike is a former State Department diplomat who worked for 35 years to support democracy abroad in countries ranging from Russia to Iraq to South Sudan. From these different vantage points, we have learned that democracy is fragile and demands wide, constructive citizen engagement. This engagement can produce valuable public goods such as mutual trust, better health and lasting peace. In South Sudan’s long civil war, Mike witnessed first-hand how stalled peace talks between the government and rebels advanced only after youth, women, and community and religious leaders were given a seat at the negotiating table. In Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Florida, Virginia and Washington, D.C., Paul experienced how active citizens tend to be more informed and confident about their civic power. Research shows such citizen qualities can nurture more responsive government.

Citizens are not born, they are made. The best making is sustained, not episodic. Yet for most Americans, the practice of democracy is at best episodic and narrow: voting every few years, then watching in consternation from afar as paid activists, lobbyists, and elected officials run the show. All Americans are affected by democratic dysfunction, so we need sustained, inclusive ways for citizens to connect, learn and collaborate about democracy.

We can start by learning about human behavior and its interaction with larger forces shaping American life. First, abundant research shows humans tend to favor and gravitate toward people like themselves. Second, this tendency fuels a variety of cognitive biases that make it harder for humans to understand and get along with people unlike them. These include going along with our group to get along, seeking and trusting information that confirms our group’s views, and seeing members of outside groups as more alike and those of our in-group as more diverse. Third, when these human biases face new conditions — daily absorption in electronic media, media algorithms that feed us what we like and believe, and communities more segregated by class and political affiliation — our biases are magnified in ways that aggravate democratic dysfunction.

How can Americans meet these social and structural challenges and strengthen our democracy? One way is to create democracy learning communities. DLCs enable us to tap into two powerful human traits that have helped us survive and thrive as a species: our capacity to learn, and our inclination toward sociability.

The concept of a learning community is most discussed and practiced in higher education, where structured, residential learning communities have been shown to improve student grades and graduation rates. Yet in our complex, interdependent and rapidly changing world, learning communities can and should be cultivated throughout society. This would help people intelligently, collaboratively tackle problems, and fulfill their needs for belonging and purpose.

Democracy learning communities can bring people together across political, class, race and religious divides to learn about their commonalities and differences as well as the complexities, challenges and possibilities of democracy. Further, when organized municipally or regionally, DLCs can bring people together in-person as well as online, on an on-going rather than episodic basis, to nurture greater trust and collaboration. Clearly, bringing people together across lines of difference is not easy, and can spur conflict rather than collaboration. But effective learning communities uphold rules of engagement and foster long-term relationships through regular, curated activities — like networking socials, issue deliberations, and collaboration workshops — that engender learning and cooperation.

Democracy demands informed, skilled and caring citizens. Good citizens are neither born nor made through the status quo of episodic democracy. Democracy can and should be a lifestyle as much as a governance system. Municipal and regional DLCs can cultivate more good citizens and help Americans overcome political dysfunction. There is no better place to start than in your own town, city or region.

Paul Lachelier is the founder of Learning Life, a nonprofit lab devoted to innovating education and citizen engagement. Mike Morrow is a former U.S. diplomat and current senior democracy strategist with Learning Life.

Open Letter to Learning Life Families

(c) Paul Lachelier 2019

This letter is meant for the lower-income parents and guardians Learning Life work with in Washington, DC, but is posted publicly to help make clear why Learning Life engages lower-income families. 

Dear parents and guardians,

I am writing to you to explain why Learning Life wants to engage your family in world learning.  In explaining, I’m going to  focus on four terms: globalization, segregation, global citizenship, and family diplomacy.

Family Diplomacy

Some of you may wonder why we don’t instead focus on basics, like math, science or reading.  We focus on world learning because schools focus more on math, science and reading, and because our world is globalizing.  Globalization means that our world is getting smaller, that improvements in transportation and communication technologies are making it faster and easier for people, information, goods and services to move from one country to another.  This is why the juice we drink may be made of fruit coming from Florida as well as Mexico, Brazil and India; why we eat Mexican burritos and Chinese fried rice, not just burgers and fries; why our cell phones are made from minerals mined in Canada, Turkey, Russia, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo; and why cars made in the USA have parts coming from all over the world.  Our lives are richer, and we have many more things to buy pretty cheaply because of globalization.  At the same time, globalization means that issues like joblessness, climate change (extreme weather, including more frequent and powerful hurricanes, warmer winters, hotter summers, etc.), terrorism and disease increasingly affect more than one country.

While our world is globalizing, it is also deeply segregated by wealth and race.  Segregation means that all around the Earth, rich and poor, and whiter and darker-skinned people often live in separate neighborhoods, even when they live in the same towns and cities.  This is very much the case in Washington, DC.  (For a stark look at the differences between the richest and poorest neighborhoods or wards of Washington, DC, click here.)  Segregation is bad because it shuts poorer people out of many opportunities they would have if their neighborhoods had more of a mix of people of different races and wealth levels, and more of a common spirit of sharing rather than hoarding resources (money, jobs, good schools, decent homes, etc.). So, we live in a strange world because globalization is connecting people, but segregation keeps us apart, not just locally but also globally.  We affect each other, but we usually don’t see how we affect each other, for better or worse.

That’s why learning about and connecting with the world is so important.  The more we learn about the world, the better we understand how we are all connected, how we affect each other, and what we can do to improve our world, especially for those people that have less.  The more we connect with people around the world, the more familiar and less strange they become, and the more we may come to trust and help each other. That’s where global citizenship comes in.  We’re used to thinking of citizenship as “I am a citizen of the USA,” with all the rights (to vote, run for public office, religion, public schooling, etc.), and responsibilities (paying taxes, jury duty, military service in times of war, etc.) that comes with.  But because of globalization we are also more and more citizens of the world.  Being a global citizen means caring about people outside the USA not only because what people do outside the USA affects us as Americans, but because we are all human beings who think, feel, laugh, love and cry.  Being a global citizen means not only enjoying the fruits of globalization — the cheaper and more varied food, cell phones, cars, and other goods we get from the world — but helping to make our world a better place for everyone by together tackling problems like climate change, poverty, disease, terrorism and war. Our world is a complicated place, so it can easily seem too difficult to understand, let alone address its problems.  However, the problems aren’t going to go away if we just ignore them.

Moreover, there is such an exciting, beautiful world out there to explore, and so many different, interesting people to meet!  That’s why Learning Life is developing family diplomacy.  Diplomacy — the management of relationships between countries — has for most of human history been controlled by rich and powerful people, but globalization, especially the internet and cell phones, is allowing ordinary people like you and me to connect and cooperate with ordinary people in other countries.  Family diplomacy in part means connecting families in different countries so that they can learn from each other about the world: about our families, cultures, communities and countries, about our joys, sorrows, fears and triumphs.  Family diplomacy can help make the world seem less strange and complicated because most people have a family and value it.  Family diplomacy may also help make the world a more caring place because families, at their best, are about loving and caring for each other.

So, if globalization connects us all in ways we often don’t see, and segregation pulls us apart by wealth and race, global citizenship can open our eyes, and family diplomacy can connect our hearts.  Perhaps best of all, you don’t have to be rich to engage in global citizenship and family diplomacy.  All you need is an internet-connected cell phone or laptop, and some caring volunteers to guide you.  That’s where Learning Life comes in. We look forward to helping your family connect with the world!

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.
Founder & Director, Learning Life

If You Hear Old, You’ll Walk Old: Building on the Psychology of Priming

The developing research on “priming” is fascinating and important for anyone who wants to improve human behavior and the world.

“Priming” refers to prompts or primes intended to influence people’s thinking and/or actions, and since the 1990s, social scientists have uncovered many ways that people respond to primes. In an earlier and now classic priming study, psychologists found that people primed with words associated with the elderly (e.g., retirement), walked more slowly upon leaving the experiment than those who had not been so primed (Bargh, Chen & Burrows 1996). In a different study, students primed with professor stereotypes answered more questions correctly on a knowledge test than those primed with supermodel stereotypes (Dijksterhuis et al. 1998). Another experiment found that visitors of an online auto market who had been primed on money with a green site background featuring pennies looked at pricing information longer than those who had been primed about safety (Mandel & Johnson 2002). In a more recent and troubling case, children and adults exposed to food advertising ate more, and in the kids’ case significantly (45%) more (Harris, Bargh & Brownell 2009).

PrimingFor better or worse then, priming influences people. This generally holds true even for those who claim to be immune to priming because they are more informed or self-aware. The point though is not to deplore priming or people’s manipulability. Humans tend to be sensitive to contextual cues, consciously or not, and have always sought to influence each other, subtly or not. The fact that humans are responsive to priming is not an inherently good or bad thing. Much depends on whether priming is done to encourage good or bad behavior.

And the good news is that priming has been shown to encourage good thinking and behavior. In one experiment, subjects who heard music that urged helping others (e.g., the Beatles’ Help, USA for Africa’s We are the World, Michael Jackson’s Heal the World) were more willing to donate money to a nonprofit than those who had not heard such music (Greitemeyer 2009). In another study, restaurant customers who received the short quote “a good turn never goes amiss” printed at the bottom of their bill on average left larger tips than those who got the neutral quote “He who writes reads twice,” or no quote at all (Jacob & Gueguen 2012). And most recently, an experiment showed that consumers who ate an apple before shopping bought 25% more produce than those who did not eat an apple, and 28% more than those who ate a cookie (Tal & Wansink 2015).

This research suggests that there is promise in efforts to prime acts of kindness, civic engagement, voting, learning, saving, exercise, healthier eating, and a host of other good behaviors. There are questions about how long priming effects last, especially in the real world where people are exposed to so many and sometimes conflicting primes, rather than the carefully controlled experimental labs where most priming studies thus far have been done. The experience of real-world marketers focused on priming consumerism may hold at least some of the answer: it takes repeated, widespread and varied priming to yield the greatest impact on thinking or behavior. That, in turn, takes time and money, which most organizations have in quite short supply.

Still, for organizations interested in promoting particular good behaviors, the research on priming recommends developing and testing effective ways to prime people in everyday life. The evidence from marketing, in turn, recommends that organizations interested in nurturing the same good behaviors collaborate to enhance their capacity to carry out sustained, widespread and varied priming campaigns.

For the many business, nonprofit, academic and government organizations directly or indirectly interested in cultivating a wider culture of learning, a good first step may be to come together regularly to talk about what they are doing, and could be doing together to prime learning not just in schools, but in everyday life beyond schools. Monthly city, state, national or even international tele- or video-dialogues, for instance, may go a long way toward nurturing – and modeling – learning and collaboration in the service of better behavior, better communities, and better societies.

(c) 2015  Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.


Bargh, John A., Mark Chen and Lara Burrows. 1996. “Automaticity of Social Behavior: Direct Effects of Trait Construct and Stereotype Activation on Action.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 71:2:230-244.

Dijksterhuis, Ap, Russell Spears, Tom Postmes, Diederik Stapel, Willem Koomen, Ad van Knippenberg and Daan Scheepers. 1998. “Seeing One Thing and Doing Another: Contrast Effects in Automatic Behavior.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 75:4:862-871.

Greitemeyer, Tobias. 2009. “Effects of Songs with Prosocial Lyrics on Prosocial Behavior: Further Evidence and a Mediating Mechanism.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 35:11:1500-1511.

Harris, Jennifer L., John A. Bargh and Kelly D. Brownell. 2009. “Priming Effects of Television Food Advertising on Eating Behavior.” Health Psychology 28:4:404-413.

Jacob, Celine and Nicolas Gueguen. 2012. “Exposition to Altruism Quotes and Helping Behavior: A Field Experiment on Tipping in a Restaurant.” Annals of Tourism Research 39:3:1694-1698.

Mandel, Naomi and Eric J. Johnson. 2002. “When Web Pages Influence Choice: Effects of Visual Primes on Experts and Novices.” Journal of Consumer Research 29(2):235-245.

Tal, Aner and Brian Wansink. 2015. “An Apple a Day Brings More Apples Your Way: Healthy Samples Prime Healthier Choices.” Psychology & Marketing 32:5:575-584.

Recommended further readings related to priming:

Bargh, John A. 2006. “What Have We Been Priming All These Years? On the Development, Mechanisms and Ecology of Nonconscious Social Behavior.” European Journal of Social Psychology 36:2:147-168.

Kahneman, Daniel. 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.  

Thaler, Richard H., and Cass R. Sunstein. 2009. Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. New York: Penguin Books.

New Report: Most U.S. Students Fail Civics, History & Geography

The majority of American 8th graders failed a nationwide test of proficiency in civics, history and geography in 2014, according to a recent report released by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The report underscores the need for creative approaches to nurture a culture of learning in everyday life.

More than 29,000 8th graders in public and private schools nationwide participated in the 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The students answered multiple choice and open-ended questions on the following themes:

  • Geography: space and place, environment and society, spatial dynamics and connections
  • S. Civics: defining politics, government and civic life, U.S. political system, government embodiment of American democracy, U.S. relationship to other nations, and role of citizens
  • S. History: democracy, culture, technology and world role

The results show that 27% of 8th graders scored proficient or advanced in geography, 23% scored so in civics, and just 18% did in U.S. history. Further, the vast majority of these students scored proficient; only 3%, 2% and 1% of all students tested scored advanced in geography, civics and history, respectively. The remaining majority of students demonstrated basic or below-basic knowledge:

  • Geography: 48% basic, 25% below basic
  • S. Civics: 51% basic, 26% below basic
  • S. History: 53% basic, 29% below basic

The good news is that overall student scores have improved slightly in civics (from 150 to 154 out of 300 points), and history (from 259 to 267 out of 500 points) from 1994 to 2014, with the lowest performing students showing some of the strongest gains in all three subject areas. The bad news is that the improvements overall over the last twenty years have indeed been slight, and that most students still fail to attain proficiency.

The NAEP is the largest nationally representative and ongoing test of U.S. students’ knowledge in math, science, reading, writing, the arts, civics, geography, economics, American history, and since 2014, in technology and engineering. The first national assessments were conducted in 1969, and have since occurred every two to four years. The NAEP tests students at critical 4th, 8th and 12th grade junctures, and provides a rich, long-term measure of educational proficiency and progress.

I suspect that if NAEP tested the same students’ knowledge of major league sports, video games, movies and television entertainment alongside geography, civics, history and the other subjects it tests, their scores would be higher on the former. I say this less to denigrate students for what they are drawn to. Afterall, most if not all human beings, not just young students, tend to be more attracted to entertainment than education, especially because popular entertainment is typically more visual, fast, simple, emotional, attractive and/or extraordinary while learning is typically slow, complex, rational and challenging.

For these reasons, for most kids most if not all their education happens in schools, where children are required or feel compelled to go. Outside of school though, now perhaps more than ever, children lead very different lives. With intensifying educational and job competition plus rising income and wealth inequality, upper and upper-middle class parents are investing more money and time into after-school and weekend enrichment – tutoring, test prep, music, arts, travel, etc. – (not to mention better schools) for their kids (Lareau 2003, Putnam 2015). In contrast, lower-income parents often don’t have the resources or wherewithal for such investment so their kids are more likely to play on their own, naturally gravitating to video games, TV, and other alluring entertainment.

Of course, much can still be done in schools to improve student learning, but a lot of public discourse on education pays insufficient attention to what happens outside of school. There is, no doubt, much and longstanding interest in how families, nonprofits and governments can nurture children’s development (e.g., see Cotton & Wikelund 1989, Carter 2002, Harvard Family Research Project 2012). But there is less attention paid to developing new ways to nurture a wider culture of learning to counter the pervasive entertainment industry. Educational video games are proliferating, yet still constitute a small fraction of video game sales.

Learning Life’s approach to nurturing a wider culture of learning is different. By spreading knowledge (e.g., facts, questions, comparisons) on important public topics from food psychology to terrorism through everyday surfaces – napkins, placemats, fortune cookies as well as PCs, tablets and phones via our website and social media pages – we’re working to develop not deliberate learning, but incidental learning: the unplanned occasions for learning in everyday life. Using everyday surfaces to spur incidental learning is not a panacea, but it is a largely undeveloped tool for nurturing a wider culture of learning, especially among the too many students failing knowledge tests like NAEP.


Carter, Susanne. 2002. “The Impact of Parent/Family Involvement on Student Outcomes.” Eugene, OR: Direction Service.

Cotton, Kathleen, and Karen Reed Wikelund. 1989. “Parental Involvement in Education.”   Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Research & Improvement.

Harvard Family Research Project. 2012. “Family Engagement in Early Childhood.” Cambridge, MA: Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Lareau, Annette. 2003. Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

National Assessment of Educational Progress. 2015. “New Results Show Eighth-Graders’ Knowledge of U.S. History, Geography, and Civics.”

Putnam, Robert D. 2015. Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Information, Knowledge & Inequality in Modern Societies

On some basic level, all human societies no matter how old, simple or small, depend on information and knowledge. But information and knowledge are far more developed and central to life in modern societies, even as they become more unequally distributed.

The line between “information” and “knowledge” is frequently blurred in ordinary conversation, but it is worth delineating the two terms. Information may be simply defined as data, and data includes facts, concepts and theory, with theory used to connect and lend coherence to what can otherwise be a disconnected jumble of facts and concepts.   Knowledge, in turn, can be understood as the varying levels of personal or collective mastery of information. While information is stored on paper or computers, knowledge is stored in people’s minds. One may certainly argue with the way I differentiate knowledge and information here, but the distinction has the benefit of highlighting that (a) individuals and societies vary in their knowledge, and (b) data is in people’s heads and/or out there in the world.

Individuals and societies’ knowledge depends in no small part on how freely available information is. Early human hunter-gatherer groups had relatively small stocks of knowledge that were transmitted mostly orally from generation to generation. Knowledge in such societies was not very unequally distributed because there was not much of it, and that which existed – on how to hunt or gather and prepare food, create clothes, weapons and shelter, make sense of their environment – was often widely shared to help ensure material and cultural survival.

However, as humans settled, developed agriculture, print and industry, the stock of information and knowledge grew substantially, as did the division of labor. As Adam Smith, widely considered the founder of modern economics, long ago noted in his classic study, The Wealth of Nations (1776), division of labor is vital to increasing the efficiency and wealth that mark modern societies. As labor and tools became more sophisticated, it made sense to make people specialize their labor, so they could each get better by focusing, and together, they could produce so much more.

Yet Smith also recognized that the division of labor increases inequality. As people specialize their work, some get menial labor that limits their capacities, including their knowledge, while others get substantive work that expands their capacities. Of course, people can and sometimes do pursue knowledge off the job, but the very unequal status, work and resources different jobs afford make for enormous differences not just in income, but in knowledge accumulation over years. Worse, people tend to pass on their unequal capacities and resources to their children, as numerous social scientists have documented (e.g., Bourdieu 1984, Lareau 2003, Murray 2012, Putnam 2015).

Just as there are sharp (and growing) income and wealth inequalities in the contemporary world (see Piketty 2014), so too are there sharp inequalities in education and knowledge. Inequality has existed in all human societies, but its extent varies widely depending in part on the extent of division of labor and the distribution of power, that is, who does what work and who controls what resources.

What economists call “information asymmetry” – situations in which one or more individuals have more or better information than others – is especially common in modern societies, where specialized information is essential to everything we own and do, from smart phones and laptops to cars and homes to stocks and bonds, and from eating and exercising to commuting, working, even playing. It’s not difficult to think of many common situations in modern societies in which people rely on those with more or better knowledge – teachers, coaches, doctors, tour guides, salespeople, repair-people, financial advisors – some if not all of whom have interests that do not align with those they are advising or guiding. Those who know more have an interest in withholding what they know, especially when that knowledge is power.

Information asymmetry and knowledge inequality are inescapable problems in part because of such withholding, and because division of labor is necessary to the complex operation and productivity of modern societies.

Furthermore, the modern world has become flooded with information, and not all that information is equal in value. As I have argued elsewhere, it is well worth distinguishing between trivial information – like who’s dating who in Hollywood, who’s winning at what sport, what are the latest fashions – and significant information (the latter I call signia – how to cook safely, administer first aid, operate a smart phone, get a job, or how governments, economies and ecologies work. Just as there is junk food and healthy food, in the world of information, there is trivia and there is signia. As easy, exciting and profitable as trivial information can be, often the most boring or complicated information is the most important (e.g., think economics).

Pervasive trivia, information asymmetry, and knowledge inequality are all common features of modern societies. And yet, modern democratic societies have an interest in more knowledgeable citizens because knowledge helps people make better decisions, whether as workers, parents, voters, consumers, or else. Accordingly, it behooves governments, nonprofits and others interested in nurturing citizens’ capacities to think of creative ways to spread signia and reduce knowledge inequalities.

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Lareau, Annette. 2003. Unequal Childhoods. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Murray, Charles. 2012. Coming Apart. New York: Crown Forum.
Piketty, Thomas. 2014. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
Putnam, Robert. 2015. Our Kids. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Smith, Adam. 1937 (1776). An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. New York: Random House.