Kalantzis and Cope on the Conditions of Learning

A transformative, inclusive, reflexive New Learning starts with the facts of diversity. It allows you to be yourself. But it also creates conditions in which you can become more than yourself. Here, two fundamental conditions of learning come into play: belonging and transformation.

Belonging occurs in an educational setting when formal learning engages with the learner’s lifeworld experience, when their learning interacts with the learner’s identity. Such learning builds on their knowledge, experiences, interests and motivations. In any learning community, the range of differences is broad, and this is because the everyday lifeworlds from which students come are always varied. Successful engagement must recognise difference and actively take account of the diverse identities of learners.

Learning Condition 1: BELONGING—A learner will not learn unless they ‘belong’ in that learning.

Our challenge as educators is to identify the kinds of educational environments in which these conditions of learning are met. In order to learn, the learner has to feel that the learning is for them. The learner has to feel a sense of belonging in the content, and that they belong in the community or learning setting; they have to feel at home with that kind of learning or way of getting to know the world. In other words, the learner’s subjectivity and identity must be engaged. Learners have to be motivated by what they are learning. They need to be involved as interested parties. They have to feel as though that learning is for them. The learning has to include them. And if they are learning in a formal educational setting such as a school, they also have to feel a sense of belonging in that social and institutional context. The more a learner ‘belongs’ in all these senses, the more thet are likely to learn.

Belonging to learning is founded on three things: the learning ways, the learning content and the learning community. From the learner’s point of view, the ‘learning ways’ question is: ‘Do I feel comfortable with this way of knowing the world?’ (Or, do I feel at home with this style of thinking or way of acting? Do I feel it can work for me? Do I know it can help me know or do more?). The learning content question is: ‘Do I already know enough about an area of content to want to know more?’ (‘Do I already know so much about something that I naturally want to know more?’ Or ‘Has my appetite been sufficiently whetted by what little I already know to want to know more?’). And the learning community question is: ‘Do I feel at home in this learning environment?’ (Or ‘Do I feel sufficiently motivated to take on the learning tasks required by this environment as my own and feel safe enough in this space to be able to risk moving into new domains of knowledge and action?’)

The learner’s subjectivity, however, is always particular, and it is this particularity that must be engaged. Here, the concept of ‘difference’ is helpful because it highlights some dimensions of learner particularity. Differences arise from the everyday lived experience that the learner brings to a learning setting. It is the person they have has become through the influence of family, local community, friends, peers and the particular slices of popular or domestic culture with which he or she identifies. It is a place in which the learner’s everyday understandings and actions seem to work, and so much so that their active participation is almost instinctive – something that requires not too much conscious or reflective thought. The lifeworld is what has shaped the learner. It is what has made the learner who they are. It is what they like and unreflectively dislike. It is who they are.

The underlying attributes of lifeworld difference form the basis of identity and subjectivity. These attributes are the fundamental bases of a learner’s sense of belonging in an everyday or formal learning setting, and their levels of engagement. We are creatures of subjectivity, identity and motivation – intuitive, instinctive and deeply felt. The lifeworld is the ground of our existence, the already learned and continuously being-learnt experience of everyday life. This lifeworld is deeply permeated by difference; in fact, we live in a myriad of diverging and interacting lifeworlds. The individual is uniquely formed at the intersection of many group identities; they are is a unique concatenation of many group identities, and lives in and through multiple or multilayered identities.

In all its variability, the lifeworld is the first site of learning, not only in the chronological sense (babies and young children), but also in the extended sense that it is always prior to, or the foundation of, any education in the formal sense, or learning by design. It is from the start and always remains a place of deep learning, albeit in primarily amorphous, unorganised and endogenous ways. The lifeworld is the ground of all learning, including the secondary processes of learning by design. As learning occurs through engagement, that engagement must be with learners in their lifeworld reality, a reality that is marked by extraordinary difference.

Education, however, is not simply about recognising and affirming difference. There’s much more to effective education-for-diversity than that. Staying where you are is not education. Education is a journey away from the learner’s comfort zone, away from the narrowness and limitations of the lifeworld. As much as education needs to affirm identity and create a sense of belonging, it is also a process of travelling away from the familiar, everyday world of experience. This journey is one of personal and cultural transformation. Education takes the learner into new places, and along this journey acts as an agent of personal and cultural transformation.

Learning Condition 2: TRANSFORMATION—Learning takes the learner into new places, and along the this journey, acts as an agent of personal and cultural transformation.

Transformation occurs when a learner’s engagement is such that it broadens their horizons of knowledge and capability. Effective learning takes the learner on a journey into new and unfamiliar terrains. However, in order for learning to occur, the journey into the unfamiliar needs to remain within a zone of intelligibility and safety. At each step, it needs to travel just the right distance from the learner’s lifeworld starting point.

This educational journey takes two paths, along two axes. Both of these journeys are away from who you are, and sometimes in unsettling ways. The first is a depth axis, or learning what’s not immediately or intuitively obvious from the perspective of everyday lived experience. This may challenge everyday assumptions – that the Earth is flat, for instance, or that certain unreflectively held values such as racism or sexism are socially sustainable. The second is a breadth axis, by which you travel to unfamiliar places in the mind and perhaps also in reality. This is a kind of cross-cultural journey, and deeply so because it involves a genuine crossover. The place to which you travel becomes part of you, an addition to your repertoire of life experience, indeed another aspect of your identity.

These journeys can be understood as narratives of sorts. They are life narratives of self-transformation and growth. But they are only that when the learner is safely and securely in the centre of the story. Retrospectively, the learning story runs like this: who the learner was, where they went, the things they encountered, and what, as a consequence of their learning, the learner has (knowingly) become. In this story, learning is the key thread in what turns out to be a kind of cultural journey.

If the lifeworld is the place of belonging, the place from which learners depart, the new world of knowledge might be called the ‘transcendental’ – a place above and beyond the commonsense assumptions of the lifeworld.The learning journey from the lifeworld to the transcendental takes the learner into realms that are necessarily unfamiliar but never too unsettling in their unfamiliarity. Education will not result in learning if the landscape is unseeable, unthinkable, incomprehensible, unintelligible, unachievable. Learners must travel into cultural territories that take them outside of their comfort zones, but never to the point at any particular stage of the journey where the learner finds themself in places that are so strange as to be alienating. The journey will involve risk, but the risk can only be productive if the learning environment feels safe, if it is a place in which the learner feels they still belong, even if only as a traveller. The learner needs scaffolds – learning prompts or support – which reassure them as the learner faces the risks of alienation and failure in the realm of the unfamiliar. Vygotsky calls this the ‘zone of proximal development’.

Educational settings ideally scaffold or provide support as learners move into a zone of partial but as-yet-incomplete intelligibility. With all the motivation in the world to learn Chinese, there’s no point for a beginner to start in the third year of the program, or for an aspiring mathematician to try to learn calculus before arithmetic. This brings us back to the first learning condition, the need to engage with identity. The second learning condition, transformation, now tells us that this engagement has to be achievable as well as aspirational. It also reminds us of the necessity to engage with the complex particularity of different learners, as well as the educational necessity to a journey into strange places, adding something genuinely new to that particularity. For every student in every learning setting, the comfort zone of proximal development is going to be different. Herein lies the key dilemma of the whole educational project.

Those who succeed best in a particular learning setting will do so because that setting is right for people like them. The level of risk in moving into a new area of learning is one they are comfortable to take. Those who do not succeed so well, find that they struggle when the distance between who they are and what they are learning is too great, when they don’t feel they belong in the content or the setting and when the risks of failure outweigh the benefits of engagement.

All too often, however, learning seems to gel for some kinds of students (such as the ‘mainstream’ learner, attuned to dominant educational values) and not for others. The challenge for educators – learning designers – is how to make learning gel for each and every student.

And why do we need to learn? What is the role of formal, institutionalised learning? Why is the educational project so important to us? Why do we bother with learning by design when the lifeworld is already so profoundly a site of learning? The answers to these questions are as much practical as they are idealistic. Education can transport you into new lifeworlds. It provides access to material resources in the form of better-paid employment; it affords an enhanced capacity to participate in civic life; it promises personal growth. Upon education rests one of the key promises of modern societies. The world is tragically unequal, and for practical purposes people much of the time regard this inequality as inevitable. Education, however, assures us equity. Inequality, in this limited view, is not unjust because education affords all people equivalent chances.

There is no equity in education, however, unless the two learning conditions are met. Learning has to engage with students’ identities, and these identities must be recognised as different. It must take people into unfamiliar places, and at each stage in the journey these places have to be unfamiliar in just the right measure. That measure can only be based on precisely who the learner is – all the lifeworld attributes combine to define who they are as an individual. Success is achieved when the measure of distance is appropriate to the learner. Failure occurs when the measure of distance is inappropriate to the learner. If the distance between the lifeworld and the learning designs is too great, the educational effort will be misdirected, compromised or ineffectual. And if there is no distance between the lifeworld and what is to be learnt, learning will be diminished or illusionary. The distance between the lifeworld and what is to be learnt must be productive.

Belonging is a generalised condition of learning, whether learning is endogenous to the everyday lifeworld, or whether it is by conscious design. In the case of the former, belonging usually comes easily. In the case of learning by design, belonging needs to be a conscious endeavour. Spaces of formal learning are strangely not of the world, and for some learners at some times, they prove just too strange.

Transformation, of course, is not the exclusive preserve of education. It may occur in the lifeworld when, for instance, surroundings radically change. Migration is a case in point, as are other willed or unwilled, traumatic or relief-giving changes in lifeworld circumstances. Transformational learning in these cases is incidental to circumstantial change.


Adapted from: Kalantzis, Mary and Bill Cope. 2005. Learning by Design. Melbourne: Victorian Schools Innovation Commission.


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