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Meeting Learners & Strangers

Meeting Learners & Strangers

An interview with Kio Stark

A few years ago—even before I started collaborating with this magazine—one of the first projects I Kickstarted was Kio Stark’s Don’t Go Back To School, a handbook packed with insights and interviews with independent learners. When I heard her second non-fiction book, When Strangers Meet (published last September) was going to be about talking to strangers, it immediately became a no-brainer that we needed to interview Kio, since so much of her books and what E-180 believes in are serendipitously aligned. But don’t worry, this isn’t about us, it’s about a love of learning, about being more open and tolerant, about collaboration and conversation.

Patrick Tanguay—Your first nonfiction book was about learning anything and started from your realization that you don’t need school to learn. The book was your way of sharing the news, of enabling people to take charge of what they learn. Can you tell us about that first realization and how it led to writing a book on the topic?

Kio Stark— The idea that school wasn’t necessary for learning was something I’d been a proponent of all along. I went to a very hippie elementary/middle school and part of the students’ time was spent in what I’d call guided independent learning. After I dropped out of grad school and then later began teaching at NYU’s graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) as an adjunct, lots of people came to me with the question: “Should I go to grad school?” As I had conversations with them, what I heard was that they wanted to learn more, not that they wanted school. A lot of people even told me they didn’t like school at all. Among their motivations were things like professional advancement, love of learning, curiosity, and making room for focusing on an obsession. With the exception of professions that require licenses, it was clear to me that in many many cases, they were interested in learning, not school. So I’d suggest that they try it on their own, and they’d always ask how to do that. After having that conversation dozens of times, I set out to write a handbook because it was becoming obvious that something like that was needed.

I’m wondering how independent learning relates to traditional education. Perhaps an old model too adapted to the industrial era? An adaptation to today’s rapid changes? Or, more positively, a reaction to the wealth of information and options available? What are your thoughts on that relation between independent and traditional?

There’s a lot of literacy required for getting your info online. All the more reason why people learn better in collaboration.

KS— I think what you’re getting at is that in the past 5 or so years there’s been an increase in interest in independent learning both as a thing people do and as a cultural conversation about how traditional paths to education fail a lot of people and may be outmoded in some contexts. Learning outside of school got a lot more possible when the internet came into common usage because people weren’t trying to do it on their own as much. They had ways to reach out to people for collaboration and assistance. There’s still a big problem with the fact that there’s a wealth of information out there, which is that people need the skills to interrogate that information for accuracy and ideological slant, and how well it might be interpreting available data. There’s a lot of literacy required for getting your info online. All the more reason why people learn better in collaboration. Everyone can bring their skills and their expertise in evaluating different types of information.

In When Strangers Meet you challenge another thing people seem to forget they can do; engaging strangers and having conversations with random people on the street, for the joy of discovery and of opening your world to others. The habit of talking to strangers seems to be ingrained in you, why should we start doing the same and open up conversations around us?

KS— I’m not sure I’d say people forget they can talk to strangers. Many people don’t habitually do it, or actively avoid it. I’d like to get them to reconsider! My take on why people should be more open to it is that these brief interactions can be moments of real, if fleeting, intimacy, of mutual recognition of being humans, and that in that way, they matter to how we feel about ourselves and our communities. Even more significantly, perhaps, is the fact that interactions with strangers, at their best, can be political acts. When you talk with someone who is different than you–by any measure, race, age, gender, class, ethnicity, anything you think about as a differentiator between you and others–you’re forced into experiencing them as an individual, not a member of any of those categories. The more we interact with people as individuals, not categories and bodies, the more open and tolerant we become. That applies even to people who think of themselves as open and tolerant to start with.

The more we interact with people as individuals, not categories and bodies, the more open and tolerant we become.

Important to remember, especially this year; conversations leading to being more open and tolerant. Conversations are also great forms of learning; through mentorship, learning circles, communities of practice, etc. A good part of DGBTS is actually interviews, you conversing with independent learners to understand their process. What happens in conversations that can make them so powerful?

KS— Yes, this election year has really made my ideas about strangers feel so pressing and essential. It’s a great observation, the parallel here about conversations being essential to learning and to connecting in ways that can lower prejudice. Since we’re doing this interview two weeks before the election in the midst of a lot of political screeching, I’m going to pause here to define conversation as a real back and forth with listening and responding, not two people talking at each other. And that is exactly why I think they’re so powerful. Listening.

I’m especially interested in your books when taken together because I see them as two expressions of curiosity and of seeking out others. In the introduction to Don’t Go Back To School you say; “Anyone who really wants to learn without school has to find other people to learn with and from. That’s the open secret of learning outside of school. It’s a social act. Learning is something we do together.” When Strangers Meet then tries to demystify another social act; approaching strangers. Would you agree there is a common thread around curiosity?

KS— It’s an interesting question. I don’t see talking to strangers as primarily motivated by curiosity. I think it has more to do with seeking connectedness, and with a habit of seeing people, noticing them. Certainly for some of us, there is an underlying curiosity, and that gives us a more open approach to others, but it’s not the central thing. On the other hand–and I say this with a wink–one of my writing teachers long ago told us that the things readers find in your writing will often be far more interesting than what you put there on purpose.

In the early days of coworking space, we—founders and members of spaces—often spoke of “accelerated serendipity” and the fact that simply having other people around for a quick question or random discussion is very powerful. I’ve also been at many “camp” events constructed around un-scheduled discussions. In both cases the participants seemed to be rediscovering the power and usefulness of conversations. Are those just examples of geeky people rediscovering what’s always been there or did we (society) actually drift away from conversing with others, learning from them and we are just now re-connecting with that?

Strangers have an un-earned reputation for being scary, but they also have a history of being the source of new information and new ideas.

KS— Well, it sounds like the answer in your communities is that the ways you are structuring your lives and work leads to more opportunities for conversations and mutual aid. I think that’s awesome. It’s not really a useful or answerable question to talk about this at the level of society, because that assumes there is such a thing as culture that is shared by a really large polity. The degree to which connecting with people you don’t know is a common practice in any given community varies widely. Really widely. And for different reasons. Geeky people is a small and wonderful and esoteric slice of humanity. Geeky people have been connecting and helping each other out for as long as there have been any structures for doing that. Think back to BBSs and early email lists. Think way back past that. What you’re seeing, perhaps, is a new emphasis on doing that in person. But most “camp” style conferences are invitation only, and co-working spaces are similarly narrow communities. I do observe that there is less of an ethic of competition and more of collaboration these days in co-working, entrepreneurial, start-up culture. I’m not sure whether that is a cause or an effect of coworking spaces, or a little of both! And I think that within geeky communities as in the wider world, the more we seek out ways of interacting with people as individuals, the better off we are. Strangers have an un-earned reputation for being scary, but they also have a history of being the source of new information and new ideas.


The header image is a crop of the cover of When Strangers Meet, published by TED Books.

Patrick Tanguay

Editor-in-Chief for E-180 Publications. Obsessively curious transdisciplinary thinker and learner. I help connect people and ideas.