Arne Haselbach (1994)

Everyday Learning - Everyday Knowledge

// The following text is Part II of: Arne Haselbach on »Adult education, everyday learning and acquiring social competence for living in pluralist societies« (Workshop on >Adult education, democracy and development<, Council of Europe, Strasbourg, Nov 29th to Dec 1st, 1994) //

In this second part of the paper I move from the narrower field of institutional adult education to everyday learning in general.

The focus is not on education but on learning

A formulation like the one contained in Unesco's terminology of adult education, "Lifelong education comprehends both an individual's intentional and incidental learning experiences"1

- while being correct - is not at par with this change of focus. It is a formulation which cannot hide its origin within a theory of education that has been developed with the school as its focus, with the intention and its objective to pass on certain new contents to pupils or to make them master specific skills.

This implies a change of focus, a change of perspective and a change of concepts.

Following a change of focus from school education to everyday learning in general, the offer of courses, curricula, and instruction do no longer remain in the centre of attention.

It needs a different theory of learning - a theory which does not focus on and is not restricted to >education< proper but one that deals with everyday learning and everyday knowledge of people - which is what is at issue if we really want to deal with learning for democracy.

Focus on each and every learning activity

The new focus is on each and every learning process that individuals are involved in.

Such learning cannot be construed to consist only of intentional learning activities.

Neither can it be construed as involving only conscious activities.

Learning is an all life, everyday activity - and a twenty-four-hours-a-day process at that.

Psychologists say that >there are no mental contents which cannot appear in dreams<.2 The fact that we forget most of the time what we dream does not mean that it does not happen. And anyone who has seen films of brain activity during sleep will find it difficult to uphold the assumption that no processes of mental rearrangement and recomposition are going on while one is asleep.

The new focus also implies that learning is not only related to learning something new.3

Repetition is extremely important in learning. The redundancy concept used in information theory is based on a once-and-for-all assumption, i.e. it assumes that any informational content which is sent once suffices to establish the message at the reveivers end; every repetition of that informational content - in the same or in a different form - is redundant or, formulated less politely, useless, except to reduce the risk of non-arrival of the message. (That redundancy concept takes its assumptions from logic and its (ficticious) concept of identity.) Certainly, that redundancy concept does not coincide with the experiences of educators, who are only too well aware of the importance of repetition.4

Learning is not only adding of new information or new skills, it also consists in rearranging, in regrouping, already available traces of earlier experiences, notions, and valuations as well as in changing what is dominant relative to something else.5

In the new focus on learning what was called >incidental learning< in the quotation from Unesco's »Terminology of adult education« is no longer the exception but the rule.

Another part of that definition, i.e. that adult education consists of >specific opportunities for continuing, purposive and sequential learning (that) each person needs<6

- and therefore seeks - is also not applicable. In everyday learning we are living in the situations in which and from which we learn. We are, thus, confronted with sequences of learning of a modular type, i.e. we learn in bits and pieces which we pick up here or there, now or then, and which link-up with already available knowledge at the moment of learning or at a later stage - whenever context and/or intention allows that to happen.

Such learning is a process in which all the senses and emotions are involved - not only words (let alone concepts) and their meaning. The result of such learning is everyday knowledge with its cognitive part and the respective emotional loads.

It is this everyday knowledge and the processes by which it develops that lead to the social construction of reality that we recognize as cultural patterns of behaviour and of thought, that make for the development and change of Zeitgeist.

The development of apathy among the unemployed and the excluded

To corroborate the few components of a learning theory just mentioned - that not only new things are learned, the importance of non-intentional learning, of non-conscious learning, of 24-hour learning, of repetition, and of the respective emotional load - let me refer to the classical sociological study of the 1930ies under the title »The unemployed of Marienthal«7

and its findings. One essential aspect brought to the fore by that study was the development of apathy among unem ployed workers.

The development of apathy by workers that have become redundant demonstrates that all those aspects of learning are at work. Starting with the moment when one becomes aware that the possibility of redundancy is no longer only for others but that one might loose one's own job, one tries to escape that fate. Once the job lost one tries many things during daytime with little or no success. It is during the periods in daytime when nothing is in sight that one can plausibly do to improve the situation as well as during the nights that the processes of mental and emotional recomposition and readaptation take place further strengthening and engraining apathy.

>Scientific knowledge< and everyday learning

Let me now come to the rôle of scientific knowledge in everyday learning, since the rôle that scientific knowledge plays in learning is widely misunderstood.

It is not theories, theoretical constructs, or definitions of terms as originally created and later corroborated by other scientists that are being learned by people from other walks of life in their everyday learning processes, but it is a few selected words with the meaning individuals retain - which may come more or less close to the >scientific< meaning of the terms - but which will, in any event, differ therefrom.

It is, thus, the processes of reception into individual knowledge which lead to everyday knowledge of science, insofar as people who are not specialists (knowers and appliers) in the field are concerned. Processes of reception of information are processes in which links between notions created by these informations and (a number of) notions already available are established and in which, possibly, rearrangements of the relations of such notions among each other take place.

Processes of reception are always processes of - at least partial - transformation. What results is not >scientific knowledge<, but >everyday knowledge of science<.

Plausibility and certainty

This leads me to confront an issue which is one of the preponderant views on the rôle of scientific knowledge and goes to its base, i.e. the assumption that truth will automatically carry the day in learning.

In everyday learning - whether we like it or not - the attainment of certainty has little direct, and in any case no necessary, link with truth. A case in point is the continued belief in the geocentric world model which lasted for many centuries after it had been discovered that the earth is rotating around the sun and not vice-versa.

What is relevant in everyday learning is not (the unreachable objective of) truth, but what makes people believe that >something is like that< or >will behave like that<, i.e. it is plausibility, confidence, certainty, and the resulting feeling of security in judgment and action that matter.8

With regard to social learning in everyday life - given the difficulty to understand the complex, criss-crossing, and interwoven chains of cause and effect in today's societies and economies - it is those among the varying interpretations given by others that are repeated time and again and that are not (strongly) dissonant with one's own knowledge and experiences that one accepts as plausible explanations.

Take the present-day spread of xenophobic attitudes. Experiences individuals make in contact with people of other cultures vary widely. They include the wide range of polite interaction, of being in the same situation without any real contact as well as situations where there is non-understanding, uneasiness, or even conflict. Whatever the situation may be, comments of others are often negative. Since the traces of experiences of such contacts which have earlier been established within oneself cover the full range from positive via indifferent to negative reactions, such comments will meet with both dissonance and consonance. The repeated experiences of negative valuations by others and of the mental constructs they use function as modular learning sequences and - step by step - combine to increase the plausibility of the negative valuation and the plausibility of the (imagined) negative characteristics one assigns to them.9

This also shows that the critique adult educators are often confronted with, i.e. that part of the courses on civics are doing nothing useful since they are >preaching to the already converted<, is based on wrong assumptions. If one adopts a learning theory as the one sketched here, >reaching the converted and reinforcing their values< is a process of extremely high importance.

Everyday learning and the agenda of adult education

Once the focus has been shifted to everyday learning adult education has to position itself anew.

When we talk, inter alia, about education for democracy, education for intercultural understanding or, inversely, about reduced participation in public affairs, about the rise of xenophobia, we ought to be concerned about processes involving repetition, plausibility, the appeal of short-term and direct versus medium-term and indirect benefits, and the ensuing rearticulation of linkages and changes in the relative dominance of notions in everyday knowledge as well as confidence and certainty achieved in such ways.

And it is such processes that we ought to equip ourselves to deal with and use ourselves in adult education - with a wide variety of means, working in a multitude of settings, and pursuing the objective from any angle that we can think of as having a potential for what we are aiming at.

© Arne Haselbach 1994



1 UNESCO, »Terminology of adult education«, Unesco, Paris 1979, p. 29

2 See, inter alia, Erich Fromm, »Märchen, Mythen, Träume - Eine Einführung in das Verständnis einer vergessenen Sprache«, Rowohlt, Reinbek 1991, S. 27

3 In the definition of >adult learning< contained in the »Terminology of adult education« the idea of newness is an essential aspect of such learning as indicated by the following wording: >The acquiring of new knowledge and skills, the development of new attitudes ..<. op. cit., p. 34

4 Two aspects should be stressed here: first, that repetitions are never identical and, second, that it is as much the slight difference in the repetition as the repetition itself that make repetition such an important learning mechanism.

5 See, inter alia, Henri Bergson, »Sur les données immédiates de la conscience« and Ludwig Wittgenstein, »Philosophische Untersuchungen«.

6 UNESCO, op. cit, p. 29

7 Paul Lazarsfeld, Maria Jahoda and Hans Zeisel, »Die Arbeitslosen von Marienthal«, Leipzig 1933

8 The development of Ludwig Wittgenstein's thinking from his early work with the high importance given to the issue of truth in the »Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung«, better known as »Tractatus logico-philosophicus«, to his efforts towards the end of his life published under the title »On certainty« may be taken to be extremely indicative of this problematique.

9 The thinking processes involved are well described in the following quotation by the American social psychologist, Otto Klineberg: «Ce ne sont pas les caractéristiques des immigrants qui sont cause de l'antipathie à leur égard, mais on leur attribue plutôt des caractéristiques qui justifient en apparence cette antipathie.« in: «Psychologie sociale», p.591. Quote taken from: Jean-René Ladmiral & Edmond Marc Lipiansky, <La communication interculturelle>, Armand Colin, Paris 1989, p. 139