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Learning Along the Way
By Mary Catherine Bateson
HarperCollins, 1994, 243 pages

Mary Catherine Bateson describes this as "a of book stories and reflections strung together to suggest a style of learning from experience." It is a beautifully crafted look at how we make sense of our lives, make connections between seemingly random events, and find the underlying patterns at work behind ordinary, and sometimes not so ordinary, circumstances. Bateson offers a series of original and often profound reflections on the broader implications of education and, what is perhaps most impressive, she manages to convey very complicated ideas in lucid and often quite poetic English.

The narrative travels to and from four countries: Iran, where Bateson lived in the 1970s (before the revolution) with her husband and young daughter; the Philippines, where she taught and did fieldwork; Israel, where she went to high school and later returned as a researcher; and the United States, where she has worked as an anthropologist and educator at several universities. She uses the learning from her experiences in these various settings to illustrate a central point: that our traditional understanding of education is too narrowly defined. Most of our learning in life, she says, takes place outside the settings commonly labeled as educational and include intuitive and empirical dimensions all too often overlooked in our customary approach to learning. While formal schooling is a necessary part of learning, it is only a part and should not be strictly differentiated from "real" life.

Bateson uses several metaphors to describe the ways in which we learn from experience. The first and most central of these is what she calls peripheral vision: "Sometimes change is directly visible, but sometimes it is apparent only to peripheral vision, altering the meaning of the foreground." While our society puts a premium on specialization and devotion to one pursuit at a time, narrowly focused attention tends to limit our learning and hamper our ability to make meaningful connections between different life experiences. Another central image of the book is the spiral. Always expanding, yet always circling back on itself, the spiral is a metaphor for how we learn, according to Bateson. "Spiral learning moves through complexity with partial understanding, allowing for later returns. For some people, what is ambiguous and not immediately applicable is discarded, while for others, much that is unclear is vaguely retained, taken in with peripheral vision for possible later clarification."

Bateson insists that "it a mistake to try to reform the educational system without revising our sense of ourselves as learning beings." This involves exploring the "improvisational base" of learning, how we think and make sense of the world through stories, how we learn from experience, whether we learn best through participation or through instruction and in what order these are most effective, the role of play and imagination, and a number of other questions. Above all, she believes, we must get beyond the idea that learning is a function of formal schooling. "Trying to understand learning by studying schooling is rather like trying to understand sexuality by studying bordellos."

Bateson's reflections on education and experiential learning are presented against the backdrop of what she describes as an increasingly "motley, dappled, [and] diverse" society. How we negotiate cultural differences and find coherence amid diversity is one of the keys to understanding how we learn. She stresses again and again that the confrontation with the unknown forces us to reexamine our assumptions and, in a sense, reinvent ourselves. The debate over diversity in our schools tends to miss this point by confusing "identity multiculturalism" — the yearning of many groups for their own traditions to be honored — with "adaptive multiculturalism" — an educational strategy that "enhances everyone's capacity to adapt by offering exposure to a variety of other traditions."

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This review was published under the title "Schooling Versus Learning" in the Durham Herald-Sun, October 1, 1999.