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Learning invisibly: The value of unstructured expe...

Learning invisibly: The value of unstructured experiences

When Cristóbal Cobo and I set out to write the book Aprendizaje Invisible (“Invisible learning”) nearly six years ago, we sought to take a 360° and 3D view of the educational landscape—with an eye toward the future. We found that, yes, technologies provide us with new opportunities, but the gap between formal learning and informal and non-formal modes of learning is becoming increasingly apparent.

Evidence is mounting that technologies are better at enhancing learning outside of the classroom rather than inside of it. This has come at a great cost to governments that have invested heavily in educational technologies, but have not seen the returns they expected vis-à-vis academic performance. This was spectacularly evident in Uruguay, where they invested heavily in an initiative to provide a laptop and network resources for every primary-level student. The hope was that they would help to raise test scores in reading and math, but there was no real, measured impact. The devices, in this case OLPC laptops, were mostly used for recreational purposes—or unstructured play.

We initially structured invisible learning as a metatheory recognizing that most of the learning we do is “invisible” —that is, it is through informal, non-formal, and serendipitous experiences rather than through formal instruction. We learn alone, or in a group, through individual and shared experiences. We learn more through experimentation and through enabling, through making room for serendipity.

We learn more through experimentation and through enabling, through making room for serendipity.

Removing structures of control opens possibilities. The end outcomes or goals of an experience are neither dictated nor determined from the start, but instead emerge as learning develops.

In this sense, invisible learning is the end product of a theory which predicts that learning blossoms when we eliminate authoritarian control of a learning experience by an “other” (i.e., teacher). In this approach, we reflect the work of John Dewey, John Holt, Ivan Illich, Lev Vygotsky, and Ikujiro Nonaka & Hirotaka Takeuchi, among others, but we look at these ideas together from an integrated approach that is connected with the realities of the 21st century.

One key reality is that the jobs that schools typically prepare us for—work as factory workers, bureaucrats, or soldiers—are disappearing. They are being replaced with knowledge—and innovation—based work which requires people to function contextually, working almost anytime, anywhere, and with nearly anybody. These emerging workers are knowmads, and they apply their individual knowledge across different “gigs” or contingent engagements to create new value. By the year 2020, we project 45% of the workforce in the U.S. will be knowmadic. This is a huge shift considering that only 6% of the population in the U.S. was self-employed, contingent, or some sort of contract worker in 1989.

The challenge for schools and learning programs is now to enable individuals to thrive in a world that needs more imaginative, creative, and innovative talent, not generic workers that can fill seats at an office or factory. We believe the pathway to meeting this requirement is through the development of schooling environments and professional learning settings that foster invisible learning.

How can we make invisible learning visible? We need to tend to pedagogical approaches that are focused on building personal knowledge, and place trust in students that they are following suit, participating and actually learning. We need to manage less and spend more time on actually helping students learn.

We identified a growing ecology of approaches, which include problem-based learning, socially-connected laboratories and idea incubators, learning communities that are decentered from top-down pedagogies, and building direct connections between tacit and explicit knowledge. Together, these form the foundation in developing sound personal knowledge, which is crucial for success in a knowmad society.

But personal knowledge is not enough, soft skills are also growing in importance. They include cooperation, empathy, and critical thinking. Given the accelerating rate of change in the world, if we do not have the specific knowledge necessary for a particular job, it is important to be well versed in soft skills to make it through the job interview.

As we build personal knowledge and soft skills, we also share our experiences, and create new (social) knowledge as a result. We must focus on the ability of individuals to navigate this space and make connections on their own, discovering how their unique knowledge and talents can be contextualized to solve new problems.

Educational technologies present us with many opportunities, but too often we use them to do the same old stuff we have always been doing. We need to shift toward the development of personal knowledge and soft skills. Operating in the context of the theory for invisible learning, this means that learning technologies must deviate from linear, planned, and structured experiences toward tools that inspire and support curiosity. Since the end result of the learning cannot be planned, the greatest opportunities for growth reside in what can be gained from non-formal learning and the development of soft skills.

We need to teach to share experience and ask questions, not simply to repeat answers.

Building for the unplanned and unstructured requires a tremendous amount of trust. We simply cannot measure one’s knowledge. When we talk about knowledge and innovation, we frequently commingle or confuse the concepts with data and information instead. Too often, we fool ourselves into thinking that we give kids knowledge, when we are just managing their experience and testing them for what information they can repeat. The moment we try to measure an individual’s knowledge, we degrade it back to information. To build students’ personal knowledge and soft skills, schools need to trust that learning happens without top-down control. We need to teach to share experience and ask questions, not simply to repeat answers.

I do not believe there is a master template for how this can be accomplished. Rather, we need to support the development of an ecology of options where individuals can find their own ways. For some, the Sudbury approach of democratic schooling would work. For others, “edupunk” activities in a traditional school environment would work. And, for others, organizations that manifest themselves as social technologies such as e-180,, or the Shibuya University Network can make this happen.

Beyond formal experiences, individuals can always enhance their learning by taking measures to enable serendipity. Among the most powerful are intercultural experiences. What is it like to live and learn abroad for a period of time? How does your thinking shift when you learn another language? How do you grow when you learn how to navigate in a new culture, where the social structures you’ve relied on previously are transformed or absent?

Whether in formal organizations or individually, the key component is that these experiences and approaches remove the rigidity of top-down structures of control, and place trust in learners. Thus Invisible learning is made visible.

Header image by inbal marilli on Unsplash.

John Moravec

Knowmad, founder of Education Futures, researcher, writer, and speaker. Working to evolve learning and work.