Interconnected Learning: A Contextual Experience | Benjamin Freud, Ph.D. | 13 Min Read

When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

Max Planck, Quantum Theorist and Nobel Laureate

This is less an article than it is a call for us to collaborate on developing this idea of learning as a social experience, or as a personal experience that can only happen through our interactions: learning as interconnection. This is a call to re-think assessment, re-think learning in social contexts, not individual terms, re-think learning as a means to contribute. Putting our minds together will show what we can do, together, as a bio-collective. 

Here is a story to illustrate my point. A man once needed to cross a wide river to get to his home. He searched for a boat or a bridge but found neither so he constructed a raft out of branches and rope. He used the raft to cross the river and, once on the other side, the man asked himself how he could transport the raft he so painstakingly built. The Buddha approached the man and told him that he should leave the raft there. He no longer needed it.

Most interpretations of the story posit that the raft represents the Dharma (Buddhist teachings) and the river’s other shore enlightenment. Once we cross the river to reach enlightenment, we can let go of the Dharma; it has served its purpose. 

Student-centered learning and self-directed learning are branches of the raft that takes us to the other side of the river. The far shore is where we recognize our interconnectedness with all things, where we see learning as a collective experience that takes place dynamically with and through all parts of the living system, almost instantly. Once we get to the other side, we can leave the raft behind and progress beyond strictly student-centered & self-directed learning to step onto the shores of interconnected learning. 

What is interconnected learning? It is not some new concept but is the awareness that a quantum view of learning may be more useful than the mechanistic and reductionist approaches that emerged from the Scientific Revolution. Mechanistic approaches try to understand the parts of the whole by breaking them up into ever so smaller parts. These approaches want to measure everything. They believe our minds are separate from our bodies (Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am”) and that “knowing” is something that happens only in our brain. These approaches focus almost exclusively on what Jeremy Lent calls conceptual intelligence (reason, logic, thinking), to the detriment of animate intelligence (earth wisdom, vitality, recognizing essence). Both are important when used appropriately. Who would have predicted that the current circumstances in the United States would result in a population division that appears similar to the split between conceptual intelligence (rooted in science) and animate intelligence (rooted in belief)?

Interconnected learning is an understanding of the world rooted in quantum theory and ancient wisdom: we are mere phenomena, not permanent entities operating independently of the whole.  Phenomena have no intrinsic existence (that is, they are immaterial) because their nature is that of dependence on other phenomena: they are the constant interaction of all things, neither appearing nor disappearing, but rather changing all the time. I have written more about this here

Since we do not exist independently of the universe and since all things in the universe are interconnected (as phenomena—this is the crux of living systems theory), the process of learning takes place through the interaction of parts within a greater whole. Just as your large intestine is whole in itself, it is also a part of you. You would always think of the intestine as something in itself (whole) which is at the same time part of the human digestive system and part of the human body. Just like you can assess an individual’s skills in isolation, you cannot forget that they are part of a larger living system (context) and do not exist in isolation. This means that we can emerge onto higher levels of interconnected learning from the individual onto the group, the species, life.

It might be relevant here for me to provide my definition of learning: Learning is when one experience changes our behavior in a subsequent experience. Experiences consist of connected and sequential stimuli (phenomena of which our consciousness or subconsciousness are aware, through our five senses and most likely more) with which we interact through our interpretation and action/reaction to the stimuli. If we act/react differently to certain stimuli based on the outcome of a previous experience, that is learning—behavior consisting of the pattern of repetition of action/reaction, however small. 

On the Coconut Thinking podcast, I systematically ask all my guests the same question: “How do you define learning?” No two guests have ever given me the same answer. You may have your own definition of learning, but I would wager it’s not so different from mine. I also want to highlight that learning doesn’t have to be a big thing, it can happen at the micro-level so long as our consciousness and subconsciousness interpret stimuli, and behaviors change as a result of the interaction with the stimuli. Simply stated, if there is no interpretation, there is no change in action/reaction and thus no learning. The opposite is also true.

Let me spend just one more moment on this idea. We cannot learn without interacting with people or things outside ourselves (our consciousness) and what we learn from these experiences, from these interactions, depends on how our consciousness and subconsciousness interpret the stimuli. Note that I am treating consciousness as taking place within the mind, body, and spirit, and even interpersonally (and maybe as an interspecies dynamic). 

What does this mean concretely? Learning is contextual. It is wholly dependent on and sparked by factors (phenomena) outside ourselves.* What we learn and the quality of our learning is influenced by everything from our socio-economic environment, to whether we ate a good breakfast that day, to the combination of countless phenomena that make up the context of our experiences (temperature, light, sound, and everything else you can imagine and more). Let me stress that these phenomena happen at the smallest (Planck) time scale and our learning is the result of our interactions with all phenomena that we interpret and act/react to (stimuli). Through all this, we should take into account all the complexities that people who share our experiences contribute to the context. They’re interpreting stimuli too, sometimes the same, sometimes differently. Imagine how this paradigm might influence learning research.

There is an important social dimension here. Simply put, I learn through my interactions with you. At the exact same time, you’re learning from me. Learning happens simultaneously as we interact with one another.** This is what Otto Scharmer calls the social field, and learning happens in this social field if we are tuned to it and within it. In fact, Scharmer also says that social fields are collective behavior patterns, and so if learning implies a change in behavior, then it forcibly has a social/collective component.

Much of our brain activity is spent interpreting others’ intentions because we attribute agency to other people recognizing that they have wants, wills, and needs and can act autonomously to act or react to meet these. We are constantly—consciously or subconsciously—trying to predict what the other will do and adjust accordingly to ensure that our wants, wills, and needs are met. This doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game of course and in precious circumstances, these wants, wills, and needs become one. Either way, we recognize (since we understand that we too have agency) that our actions and thoughts have consequences and that adjusting our behaviors brings us closer to or farther from success (meeting wants, wills, and needs). We learn to repeat these actions that bring us success and this is learning. What worked once may not work the second time, but this does not discount the process of learning.

Learning also happens as the interpretation of feedback and this takes place almost instantly within an interaction. Feedback, after all, is nothing more than a series of stimuli produced from the action/reactions that came from the interpretation of another series of stimuli. If I say something and see your face scrunch up as you take a step back, folding your arms, I am likely to interpret this feedback as you reacting negatively to my comment and the learning is that you do not agree—and are maybe upset—by my comment (so long as my behavior changes in a subsequent experience as a result of this experience). It is learning if I become aware of this possibility and adjust my actions (in some way) based on this experience. My adjustments will further inform future decisions based on the feedback I receive. This is learning. 

I don’t mean to make this sound like we are machines, because we are using all our senses to interpret the stimuli. Machines can’t do that because it requires a (sub-)consciousness.

Take a toddler who figures out that if they cry at the supermarket check-out line, the parent will buy them a sweet. That toddler is learning from that experience and every time they are successful, the learning is reinforced. Similarly, the parent is learning that giving the toddler a sweet is an effective way in the short run to quiet the child down. The learning happens almost instantly and it doesn’t always have to be for good.

Another example: I decide to bring my wife Charlotte a cup of tea at her desk. She looks up and smiles, her face opening up as she thanks me. It was just a little thing, but I learn (if I change my behavior) from her feedback that these small gestures might go a long way. Charlotte, at that same moment, learns (through reinforcement) that I care. As long as I interpret her gestures in the manner that she intends them, the feedback loop works fine and the story has a happy ending. The feedback loop happens at every instant and I am adjusting my behavior (learning) through the feedback. Of course, maybe I don’t adjust my behavior, but that is either because I am interpreting feedback as what I am doing is right (stay the course, reinforcement) or because I am not in tune with the feedback, and therefore not learning. 

Interconnected learning understands that learning takes place within a context and that learning happens simultaneously for all conscious beings that interact within these contexts. The learning might be similar or more likely different for each person within a given context because the interpretation of stimuli is personal (that’s the experience), but learning takes place nonetheless only as part of the interactions that make up these personal experiences. Learning happens as synchronous individual experiences, not one shared experience because our interpretation of the stimuli is forcibly different. I am standing somewhere different from you and using my unique schemata to interpret—perceive—what is going on. Yet we still learn at the same time through context and need each other for the learning to occur.

When we change our behaviors as a society and ride pushbikes instead of cars, that is social learning. When we adopt new values that move us away from torture or discrimination, that too is social learning. We learn individually and as a collective, even a bio-collective. This is where we appreciate that we are both wholes and parts of a greater whole (holons).

Interconnected learning opens the door to organizing and evidencing learning experiences in completely different ways. If learning happens within the dynamic of our interactions with others, and it also happens at a higher level, then we can move beyond personal learning and look at how we learn and produce as a pair, a team, a collective, a bio-collective. We can start to think about learning in terms of contribution, in terms of coming together to make the world a better place, to improve the lives of others, to act in kindness. Learning is no longer subject to reductionist measures and can be seen as part of a greater whole, a greater building of consciousness. 

In this paradigm, there is no primacy of assessment of individual skills, there is no need to rank individuals, or drag learners through academic rigor because, by golly, they need discipline and they need to show what they can do come exam time and this will prepare them for work where you don’t get a second chance, etc. In the paradigm of interconnected learning, we seek value in what we produce—be it ideas or products—together, and we feel joy and work through obstacles together. In this paradigm, we are all learners, pulling together for a common purpose. We all contribute our uniqueness to the whole. Whether you’re 7, 14, or 47, you are a learner and you learn from others, who learn from you. We all bring skills and knowledge to the table. We all acquire skills and knowledge together or separately. We all have our roles to play and no matter what our age, we have the courage to be open to learning from everyone; we have the courage to be vulnerable.

This is what happens in industry. We contribute based on our specialty and let others do the same. What we produce is a team effort. We are judged based on the final product, not the individual contribution. No one who buys a good or pays for a service cares which specific individual did what to deliver the final outcome. Why can’t we have the same approach in schools?

Sure, we can look at learning as a personal experience. Sure, we can think about how and when learning takes place at the individual level, and how interconnected learning can best stimulate individual learning. It’s when we fail to recognize that the individual is part of a larger whole of interconnected parts that we revert to mechanistic, reductionist thinking. 

Joanne McEachen says that “purpose and meaning are the new wealth and contribution is the only way to acquire it.” Contribution can be individual or as a group. Importantly, contribution also brings in the person or thing to which we contribute, connecting them to the act that becomes contribution. It’s not just about us as individuals or as a group doing or making something, it’s about how that contribution is received by another (impact). There is a dynamic at play here which extends the notion of interconnected learning. 

Interconnected learning recognizes dynamic play and appreciates that we never learn in isolation so therefore it makes no sense to be solely assessed on reductionist, granular levels. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t assess learners as individuals, but we can emerge onto another level, one that also assesses what we do and can do together, one that considers contribution to be a collective effort for others and that the latter also has a role to play in this dynamic. Maybe the highest level takes us to assess our contributions by and for the bio-collective—every living thing that has an interest in the healthfulness of the planet.

This is where we can build portfolios of impact or contribution. This is where we can start to think about how we participate in making the world a better place, as individuals, as a team, as a bio-collective. This is where we make learning a social experience for economic, social, political, cultural, and ecological outcomes. This is where we can consider ourselves as part of a whole that goes beyond the human, beyond our anthropocentric lenses.


* We could go further to explain this… Phenomena follow the laws of cause and effect of countless interdependencies and reciprocities that exist beyond time, because if they were subject to time—that is, existing for even an instant—they would be static in that instant and therefore not be subject to change in that instant, which is impossible since change is constant. So learning cannot take place outside of interactions because learning involves change.

** This is why there is no one reality. Our interpretation of the world depends on how we process stimuli, which is personal and even on a species level. Humans are trichromatic, that is, we see three color cones: red, green, and blue. Most mammals are dichromatic, that is, they only see two color cones. Birds see four color cones, including ultraviolet. How different is a bird’s reality from a dog’s? Our interpretation of reality depends on how we see the world, literally.

Benjamin Freud, Ph.D.

Benjamin Freud, Ph.D. is the co-founder of Coconut Thinking, which creates learning and action experiences where all learners have a common purpose; positive impact on the welfare of the bio-collective — any living thing, sentient or plant, that has an interest in the healthfulness of the planet. Benjamin also works as the Whole School Leader of Learning and Teaching at an International School in Thailand. He was the Academic Coordinator at Misk Schools, which, as the school of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is the most prestigious and high profile school in the kingdom. In 2018-2019, he was also the Head of Upper Primary and Middle School at Misk. Prior to this, he was Vice Principal of the Middle School and High School at the Harbour School in Hong Kong. He holds a Ph.D. in History, an MSc in Education, an MBA, an MA in International Relations, and a BA in International Affairs. Benjamin was born and grew up in Paris, France. He moved to the U.S. when he was 15 and spent 11 years there in different cities, before living in the U.K., Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, and now Thailand. He started his career in consulting for Internet start-ups in Silicon Valley in the late 1990s, working with people whose ambitions were no less than to change the world. This experience had a profound effect on Benjamin’s outlook on education, innovation, and entrepreneurialism.

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