Category Archives: Education

Building a Community-Supporting Form of Advertising

The internet and social media have both powerfully stimulated and enabled more people to get noticed, get their message out, and connect with others. But in all the focus on the internet and social media, what has gone relatively neglected are the communicative opportunities the surfaces of everyday life present. So, what if we employed everyday surfaces to inform and engage more people in their communities?

Signia Surfaces logoAs a sociologist in academia, it struck me that universities and other information organizations could do a better job engaging more ordinary people with knowledge that matters to their lives, whether that be the latest health and social science research, philosophy and literature, or about the people and resources in their own communities. Rather than draw people solely to education in schools, online, or in traditional media, we can bring education to people by printing knowledge on everyday surfaces, like posters and walls, but also coasters, napkins, placemats and other materials people gaze at as they sit or stand in everyday life.

Late last year, I founded Signia Surfaces to do just that: use everyday surfaces to inform and engage more people, specifically in their own communities, starting with napkins and coasters we distribute at eateries (e.g., restaurants, bars, cafes, hotels) and events in the Washington D.C. metro area. Our first focus is on helping local nonprofits and artists, and eventually local writers and researchers, by publicizing their work free on these ad-funded napkins and coasters.

In so doing, we’re developing a better kind of advertising. Advertising will always be present in capitalist societies like ours, but why not use advertising to help advance public education and community engagement? At Signia Surfaces, our aim is to help promote our community partners and inform more people while providing advertisers with an eye-catching, community-supporting way to connect with consumers.

We’re not a cure-all. We don’t provide all the promotion our advertisers and community partners need, nor can we alone effectively inform and engage all metro area residents. But we’re taking a fresh approach that should help our advertisers while promoting community in the Washington D.C. metro area.

And so, I invite you to learn more about what we do on our website, like us on Facebook, and contact us at to help us build a better, community-supporting form of advertising in metro Washington D.C.

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.
Founder & CEO
Signia Surfaces LLC

Toward a Local Learning Infrastructure, Part 2

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.

Promoting Local Nonprofits on CoastersInfrastructure 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.

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.
Founder, Learning Life

Trivia vs. Signia: A New Word for the English Language

© Paul Lachelier 2014.  All rights reserved.

We live in what has come to be called the “Information Age.” Often though, we don’t stop to think about the purpose and quality of the information that surrounds us in abundance. Not all information is equal though, and it’s time for the English language to have a word that can help elevate significant information.

Information has always been important to human understanding, action and progress. But we now live in an Information Age in part because the long trajectory of human history charts the growing importance of information as societies become more complex, requiring more accumulated knowledge to sustain them. Imagine, for example, the accumulated knowledge early human hunter-gatherers might have depended on to gather enough food to live versus that required to operate modern, international food systems moving massive amounts of food safely and efficiently from farm to factory to table.

Knowledge2We also live in an Information Age because of the advent of the computer and internet, and the movement these technologies have helped spur toward jobs that involve the production and processing of information and symbols. Journalists, writers, scientists, artists, software developers, engineers, consultants, marketers, producers, lawyers and professors are among those who form part of this growing class of what observers like Robert Reich (1992) and Richard Florida (2003) call the “symbolic-analyst” or “creative” class.

Observers of this “creative class” don’t typically parse the information this class produces, but it ranges widely from research on cancer or international relations, to gossip about who is dating whom in Hollywood. Moreover, the creative class is pumping out more and more information as it grows and as consumers and critics implicitly or explicitly demand that they be prolific and always current. This state of affairs has created what sociologist Todd Gitlin has aptly called a “media torrent” (2007), an ever growing quantity and diversity of information that is hard to absorb, let alone digest properly.

Most consumers are not in the habit of parsing trivial from significant information in the torrent, but at least some readily recognize that a lot of the information produced is relatively trivial, whether it is about what celebrities are wearing or who they are dating, the latest entertainment releases or plot developments in popular TV shows, the twists and turns of sport seasons, or else.

Of course, more significant knowledge is always available in the Information Age – via news articles and TV shows that report on economic and political developments local to global, radio shows and infographics that help make sense of current issues, science magazines that explore nature, books that nourish our imagination or illuminate human behavior, TV history documentaries that help us better understand our past, present and future, etc. Some of these occasionally garner significant public attention, but they generally do not compete with the glitter and glitz of more trivial, fast-moving entertainment.

I love entertainment. Given two TV screens, one showing who is dating whom in Hollywood, the other showing experts discussing the state of the economy or a world disease pandemic, my eyes will gravitate to the former. Anyone in the business of making money knows this about me and most other human beings. That is why the preponderance of information in the Information Age is more trivial than significant, and why people often know more about the former than the latter. Entertaining information will always attract people and thus thrive as long as there are people and there are businesses that make money from entertainment. But the balance of trivial vs. significant information in our environments and in our minds need not be so lop-sided. We can have an Information Age that nurtures more informed citizenship and less distracted consumerism.

The first step is to recognize the difference between trivial and significant information. Curiously, but perhaps understandably, the English language has the word “trivia” to denote insignificant information, but no contrasting word for significant information. In developing Learning Life I mean to introduce not just a new approach to public education, but also a new word to the English language. “Signia” means significant information, and it purposefully plays on the look and sound of the word “trivia.”

In introducing signia I am not arguing that all information is either trivial or “signial,” but rather that there exists a continuum from the most trivial to the most signial information. What is more or less trivial or signial information is indeed up for debate, and I introduce signia in no small part in order to encourage such debate. Nonetheless, I think most people can agree that there is a difference between knowing about who is dating whom in Hollywood versus knowing about the state of our economy, government or environment, or about who’s winning or losing in sports versus where and how disease is transmitted. Modern democratic societies have a present and long-term interest in recognizing and elevating signia over trivia to nurture more informed and engaged citizens.

The second step toward a signial Information Age is to think and talk about how we can promote signia, making it a larger part of more people’s lives. Learning Life offers one approach – spreading signia on everyday surfaces, like napkins, placemats, cup sleeves and posters, and connecting those surfaces to further learning online – but it’s by no means the only approach. So I invite everyone, not just the “creative class” but all citizens of the world who care about making our world a better place, to ponder and pursue these two questions:

What do you consider trivial, and signial? And, how can we innovate to spread signia more widely?

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.

Founder, Learning Life



Florida, Richard. 2003. The Rise of the Creative Class. New York: Basic Books.

Gitlin, Todd. 2007. Media Unlimited, rev. ed. New York: Henry Holt & Company.

Reich, Robert. 1992. The Work of Nations. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Toward a Local Learning Infrastructure

© Paul Lachelier 2014.  All rights reserved.

Small businesses and volunteer associations have long been engines of the local community dynamism for which the United States is known.  In recent years though, an inchoate movement has emerged nationwide to act locally driven in no small part by growing consumer desire to eat locally.  In an age of globalization and social mobility though, this movement raises three important questions worth addressing:

1) How much do people actually know about their local communities?

2) What should they know?

3) How might local learning be nurtured?

Map.MetroDCI don’t profess to know all the answers to these questions, but as a sociologist, a long-time community organizer and the founder of Learning Life, I have some ideas.

To the first question, I suspect that most people know more about their communities as consumers than as citizens.  Consumers need and want products and services of all kinds, and businesses have a vital interest in attracting consumers.  Community non-profits and volunteer groups likewise desire to engage residents, but they don’t typically have the resources businesses have, nor do they usually so directly aim to meet people’s material needs and wants.  Thus, we are likelier to know where to find good food, clean our clothes and fix our vehicles than where to mentor and tutor children, care for the elderly, or just learn local history.  Similarly, when it comes to engaging with local government we are likelier to know where the public parks and playgrounds are, how to call the police, or get a license renewed or replaced than who our local government representatives let alone how to participate in government.

This matters because there is ample evidence linking knowledge and engagement.  That is, people who know more about a given topic are more likely to be interested and involved in that topic, be it astronomy, politics, or their local community (e.g., on the connection between political knowledge and political engagement, see, for instance, Delli Carpini & Keeter 1997, Galston 2001 and Torney-Purta et al. 2001).  Also, as I noted in a previous post, cognitive research shows that the more one knows about a given topic, the better one remembers, comprehends and problem solves on that topic.  Thus, people who know more about their local communities are more likely to be better local citizens: more active, interested, intelligent and better problem-solvers.

To the second question, accordingly, local citizens should know more about local history, avenues for government participation, and the local individuals and groups that make their communities better places to live.  Local citizens should also know more about the economy (e.g., what are the major local industries, who are the largest employers, how does local government constrain and enable the local economy?), environment (e.g., where does our water come from, what is the quality of the air we breathe, and how do business and government affect these?) and demographics of their community (e.g., what is the ethnic, racial and religious make-up of the community, what are the most common languages spoken at home, what are residents’ income and education levels?).  Such local knowledge strengthens residents’ capacities to understand, appreciate and help their communities.

To the third question, I propose that community advocates and stakeholders need to think in terms of building a local learning infrastructure (LLI).  An LLI consists of a community’s means for informing and engaging its residents about things that matter locally, from emergencies to public meetings to local history.  Currently, municipal and county governments provide much of that infrastructure with varying degrees of quality and quantity.  In many if not most localities there is plenty of room for improvement, and partnerships with local businesses and non-profits can help.

Twenty years ago, Carol A. Twigg, current President of the National Center for Academic Transformation and former Vice-President of Educom (now EDUCAUSE), declared “The Need for a National Learning Infrastructure” in an essay by that name.  Responding in part to the Clinton Administration’s call for an “information superhighway,” Twigg’s essay correctly identified a then nascent movement toward more online, networked and independent learning that is now revolutionizing higher education.  She concluded her essay with the following statement: “It is time to move beyond the walls of our individual colleges and universities to join forces with other institutions, with corporations, and with public policy makers to revitalize American higher education.”

A similar call can and should be raised in communities across the United States and the world: given the dominance of consumerism over citizenship, and the ways globalization and mobility can distance people from their local communities, it is time for governments, non-profits and businesses to work together to develop a local learning infrastructure.  LLIs can help inform and mobilize more residents to address community issues, whether these be environmental, economic, political, and/or social.

To this end, Learning Life’s partner, Signia Surfaces, is launching two practical and creative initiatives in the coming weeks in our own community of metro Washington D.C.  The first initiative is a “Weekly Learn” composed of brief, interesting and important facts on the demographics, politics, economics and history of metro D.C.  This simple, free, weekly post, released through our partner, Signia Surfaces’ Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin pages, is available to residents and others interested in learning more about the metro D.C. community, including cities and towns surrounding D.C. in Virginia and Maryland.  The second initiative is Signia Surfaces’  main project to spread information about local resources and volunteer opportunities on napkins in restaurants, bars, cafes and other eateries in metro D.C.  You can learn more about these two projects here.

Both initiatives follow my belief in the strength of “big bits,” that is, bits of information that can effectively inform and engage people (read more about the strength of big bits here). Both also advance Learning Life and Signia Surfaces’ common mission to inform and engage more people by spreading knowledge on everyday surfaces, whether these be phones, tablets and PCs, or napkins, posters and placemats.  Neither initiative is a panacea, but we hope they become part of a wider creative effort to develop a local learning infrastructure involving many individuals and organizations first in the Washington D.C. area, then beyond.

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.
Founder, Learning Life



Delli Carpini, Michael X., and Scott Keeter.  1997.  What Americans Know about Politics and Why It Matters.  New Haven: Yale University Press.

Galston, William.  2001.  “Political Knowledge, Political Engagement, and Civic Education.”  Annual Review of Political Science 4:217-234.  Available online:

Torney-Purta, Judith, Rainier Lehman, Hans Oswald and Wolfram Schulz.  2001.  Citizenship and Education in 28 Countries: Civic Knowledge and Education at Age Fourteen.  Amsterdam: International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement.  Available online:

Twigg, Carol A.  1994.  “The Need for a National Learning Infrastructure.”  Educom Review 29:4-6.  Available online:

A Manifesto for Educational Democracy

A shorter version of this article was published in the Harvard Crimson, Harvard University’s principal student newspaper, in 2005, and is available online here.  The full article is also available online at here.

© Paul Lachelier 2005.  All rights reserved.

Schools as “Leader Training Grounds”

A few years ago, I received news from Deerfield Academy, a prep school in Massachusetts and my high school alma mater, that its headmaster, Eric Widmer was to become the first headmaster of the newly formed “King’s Academy,” in Madaba, Jordan. As Deerfield’s alumni newsletter indicated, The King’s Academy aspires to be a “training ground for the region’s next generation of business, community, and government leaders.”

Sounds altogether laudable. It is, after all, perhaps the highest aspiration of ambitious schools – especially preparatory schools and many colleges and universities – to become “training grounds” for the best known “leaders” since such boosts a school’s prestige, and higher prestige brings more student and faculty applications, selectivity and funding.

But does this “leader training ground” approach to education advance the public good? Surely it does if students are selected from far and wide according to their academic merit rather than their social status, right?

Contrary to common belief, this approach fundamentally undermines the public good regardless of how meritocratic it may be. Determining what is the public good can be an endless debate, but if we as modern people maintain that democracy is a critical part of any public good there is good reason to question the “leader training ground” aspiration of most schools.

Behind the Meritocratic Mask

Many if not most well-meaning people in modern societies see education as the rightful engine for social progress. Underlying this belief is the modern conviction that merit – rather than birth, tradition, race, gender, class, religion, age, sexual orientation, etc. – should determine advancement up the social “ladder” or hierarchy.

Such meritocracy is a nice idea except for at least two problems. First, those who apply to good schools and do well in school come disproportionately from privileged families, which tend to have more time, taste and money for education. So, no matter how meritocratic the school, most of its student and faculty applicant pool hails from middle and upper class families. Second, no matter how meritocratic the school, current meritocracy rarely questions the social ladder’s height, let alone its existence. Meritocracy simply seeks to ensure free movement up and down the ladder so that those most capable rise while those least capable fall.

Accordingly, far from reducing social inequalities, meritocratic schools perpetuate and intensify inequalities. As prestige-conscious school administrators know well, a school’s prestige thrives when it attracts and produces elites, people who command the highest positions in major political, economic and cultural institutions. Schools may well seek to achieve need-blind admissions and advance knowledge for the common good, but these efforts leave intact the ways they deepen social inequalities through their taken-for-granted practices, including the following:

First, professional administrators, faculty, and members of state, national or global economic, political and cultural elites – not the whole school and surrounding community – make the vast majority of the school’s decisions.

Second, prestige-hungry schools seek to distinguish their faculty and students in significant part by professionalizing knowledge, strengthening alumni connections, and plucking the most promising youth from across the nation or world, including those from the most troubled communities.

Routinely putting decisions in the hands of a few simultaneously consolidates the power – skills, knowledge, connections, wealth, entitlement, etc. – of the few as it takes that power away from most. As political scholars note, the less most people are directly involved in the decisions that affect their lives, the less interested they are in such decisions, but also the fewer their resources.

In turn, professionalizing knowledge concentrates the production and consumption of legitimate knowledge in the hands of fewer people. Strengthening alumni connections turns putatively meritorious students into social climbing graduates who may climb as much if not more because of their connections as their merit. In turn, plucking promising youth from troubled towns may advance a school’s prestige, but this individualistic approach does little to nothing to solve community problems as it propels those youth up the social ladder, rarely to return to live in their troubled communities of origin.

Democracy Begins at Home

In educational theory, three twentieth-century classics – John Dewey’s Democracy and Education, Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society, and Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed – all make the same two crucial points: learning is a life-long process, and it occurs as much if not more outside as inside the classroom. In turn, in his book The Credential Society, sociologist Randall Collins’ provocatively argues that schools provide degrees or credentials more than education since many if not most job skills are learned on the job, and credentials serve to monopolize jobs and other resources in the hands of those credentialed.

In political studies, an important axiom is that democracy requires some level of equality. Of course, the definition of democracy and the level of equality remain ever debatable. Nonetheless, while most people may think of democracy as popularly elected representative government, democracy can also be defined in a more participatory way as making history by making everyday life, as sociologist Richard Flacks proposes in his book, Making History. In turn, while most people may think of equality as the leveling of income or wealth, equality can also mean shared life experience. These conceptions of democracy and equality both focus on everyday life activity more than material or legal power.

Given the prior-stated limitations of “leader”-training, prestige-seeking meritocratic schools, these points about education, equality and democracy inspire the following ideas to nurture rather than undermine democracy – an important component of the public good – in schools:

First, schools that practice rather than simply espouse participatory democracy do not assume a few make the decisions while the rest in the school community study physics, teach classes, clean floors, or serve meals. If democracy entails some substantial measure of sharing in the making of history or decision-making through everyday life rather than when an election rolls around, then schools need to be democratized so that all of a school’s participants – including students, teachers, administrators and custodians, cafeteria workers, etc. – participate together, routinely in school decision-making large and small. Routine and shared decision-making helps bridge the silent social divides between teachers, students, and workers while it instills some of the most significant education – about community, decision-making, and power – as a lifelong process for all rather than the province of a credentialed few.

Second, rather than pluck promising students from troubled communities to propel them up the social ladder, democratic schools build long-term partnerships with communities near and far to together address their respective needs. Such an approach engages schools in directly tackling community problems – from poverty and crime to pollution and war – rather than extricating a few from social problems, leaving the problem in place for those remaining to endure. In return, the school community gains ongoing, invaluable, hands-on education in addressing public problems.

Third, schools committed to democracy more than prestige can accordingly devote their alumni networks to sustaining students’ nurturing relationships with communities as much if not more than fundraising and social climbing.

Fourth, schools can democratize by popularizing as much if not more than professionalizing knowledge. Schools can help advance the democratization of knowledge in various ways, including:

1) Reforming education, tenure and promotion so that students and faculty are rewarded as much for communicating with ordinary citizens as with academics.

2) Moving knowledge beyond journals and books and even the bare printed word to other media more people engage with, from television, film, the internet and radio, to posters, placemats, cartoons, and popular art of all kinds.

3) Stressing the teaching of knowledge production as much as consumption to thin the dividing lines between knowledge producers and consumers.

4) Making conscious education a lifestyle rather than a passing period(s) in one’s life by moving education into activities and arenas beyond schools, proliferating reading, writing and science clubs, provocative radio debates and lectures, scholarly film festivals, and more.

Of course, these are by no means the only possible paths to a more democratic education, nor is democracy limited to schools. But if members of educational institutions support genuinely participatory democracy, we have every reason to question and start changing some of our schools’ most taken-for-granted goals and practices. Democracy begins at home.