Chapter Four

The Global Learning Commons – 

the site of the Open Revolution

There is something that connects the most innovative and successful companies, educational institutions and social collectives. Despite holding very different visions and values, they share many of the same characteristics in the way they learn. They manage to combine culture, structure, ambience and space to create exceptional learning environments.

I call it the Global Learning Commons, and it’s the place where ‘open’ can be seen at its dynamic best. It connects the local to the global, the private to the public, and the formal to the social. It also blurs the boundaries between social strata, the amateur and the professional, work and play.

It can justifiably be called a commons because, like the ‘common lands’ of the Middle Ages, there is a simple concept of ‘all that we share’ at the heart of it. Up until the 17th century, the right of English ‘commoners’ to graze livestock, build dwellings, and fish on manorial property in Britain worked to almost everyone’s satisfaction. Land was used efficiently, people shared what was tended, and the landowner was grateful that his domain was well maintained. 

Sadly, over the following three centuries, a succession of parliamentary acts, triggered by landowner greed, dramatically reduced communal access and rights of way. The so-called ‘enclosure movement’ insidiously fenced off lands in the name of greater efficiency/profit, and a way of life had begun to erode.

An historical metaphor also seems appropriate because, thanks to digital technologies, we are starting to see some ancient values and principles being revived in how we co-exist socially. There is, however, another reason for using the metaphor of the commons: the battle for the stewardship of public resources is as hotly contested today as it was in medieval Britain. The history of land use has been characterised as a struggle between those who believed in the ‘common good’ – taking only what was needed and contributing their labour and resources without the guarantee of a return – and those who believed in enclosing land, and attributing ownership of it so as to maximise production, and profit. 

The enclosure movement effectively brought market forces into agriculture. But for every person who saw this as the inevitable march of progress, there were others who, even in the 17th century, were advocating reclamation. The Diggers, for example, were a group of protesters who dug up and cultivated common land, in an effort to reclaim land grabs that had been legislated by the ruling classes. In many ways, the Occupy protesters are little more than the latest manifestation of the Diggers.

The Learning Commons in the 21st Century

The erosion of common resources happens by stealth. There is, however, increasing interest in reclaiming the concept of the commons through a current swathe of social movements. When I first used the term, Global Learning Commons, I felt sure that there would already be a well-formed set of arguments for seeing learning as a common resource. ‘On The Commons’, the most visible advocacy group for reclaiming common resources, boasts an impressive list of areas in which it’s active: information, economy, environment, food, culture, politics, health, science. 

Until very recently, however, education has been conspicuous by its absence. Perhaps the best known campaigners for bringing the commons principles to learning has been the Creative Commons movement. Founded in 2001 by Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig, Creative Commons has argued that copyright laws have become overly-restrictive, curtailing creativity and the creation of a ‘public domain’ of works. They have persuaded many writers and artists (and latterly educators) to license their work for re-use in non-commercial contexts.

Creative Commons has supported the ‘Open Educational Resources’ coalition, and an impressive list of educational institutions, including the Khan Academy and MIT, are committed to making their materials free to learners and open to adaption by teachers. 

What I mean by the Global Learning Commons, however, goes beyond the licensing of rights, important though they are, or making resources free. It encompasses the ‘ecology’ of learning: the relationships we have with each other; the creation of an hospitable habitat for learning; how we cultivate the evolution of learning in communal, social environments, to transfer it successfully to others, establishing a set of commonly-agreed principles which will make learning inclusive and innovative.

As I described earlier, ‘open’ isn’t some far-distant aspiration – it’s already happening, it’s just not evenly distributed. Of the three spaces where learning happens – in work, in education and in society – we are witnessing the most radical change in the way we learn outside our formal institutions. Why? Because outside of work, school or college, we, the learners, can be in charge, it is ‘free’ time. In the social (and increasingly virtual) spaces, learning isn’t done to us, it’s done by us. We have no compulsory training courses to attend, no national curriculum we’re forced to follow.

So, because we are learning, simply for the love of it, we create a learning commons. And because the technology allows us to, we’ve made it global. With notable exceptions (and we’ll look at them in detail later) most of the organised learning that occurs in corporations and in schools has been distorted by enclosures, separating learning into ‘subjects’ and learners into units of production. 

It’s the equivalent of erecting fences on 17th-century common land in order to make farming more efficient. Economically, it may have been effective (although some would dispute that), but the sense of common good was lost. Similarly, enclosing learning may have efficiently processed learners and served employers needs during an industrial era, but it’s now an anachronism. Allow me to give a personal illustration by way of example.

Having been led to believe that the misery I endured at school was a thing of the past, my own introduction to work-based learning, came as something of a shock to the system. I began my working life as a junior clerk in a department of the UK civil service. Admittedly, the idea of being a government bureaucrat didn’t set my pulse racing but when you were 17 in 1970s north-east England you basically had three choices: the shipyards, the mines or the office. It was the lesser of three evils. But nothing could have done a better job of deadening my soul than my induction course. 

A group of us sat in a large hall. On each desk was placed a ledger that was at least six inches thick. We were told this was ‘the Bible’ – a manual that gave instructions for every possible eventuality we would meet in our clerical duties. A trainer instructed us to open it at page one, and, for the next 3 weeks, we proceeded to work our soulless way through it. It was a scene so Dickensian that if Bob Cratchit, from A Christmas Carol, had told us to ‘buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i', none of us would have looked up.  

I’m not suggesting that we should have brainstormed a Post-It Note session on the best way to administer maternity benefit claims, but it was enough to make me realise that this was not a work culture in which I would thrive. I lasted a year before telling my line-manager that I was going to become a professional musician, to which he responded (and I promise you he actually said this to my 17-year-old self): “But what about your pension?”

Of course, I’m sure the Department of Work and Pensions is a far more creative place to work in nowadays, and it needs to be. The pace of societal change is outstripping the slow evolution of learning, so we need some new ideas in formal learning if we’re to avoid irrelevance. 

The learning, taking place in the global commons is innovative, constantly adapting to new contexts and, for those schools, universities and businesses that adopt its characteristics, it’s proving to be measurably transformative. In the chapters that follow, I’ll share some great examples of learning in each of the three spaces, but first I should identify the characteristics and principles that shape the Global Learning Commons.

Participation, Passion, and Purpose in the Global Learning Commons

Any commons is essentially a shared resource, which works through carefully balancing rights and responsibilities. As it is with air, or water, so it should be with learning. Your right of access to the knowledge and skills of others is balanced with a responsibility to share what you can offer. So, the first characteristic of the Global Learning Commons is participation. 

The most innovative learning spaces are open, reciprocal and participatory – learning doesn’t really work as a spectator sport, as any disengaged school kid will confirm. Hierarchy and status get in the way of collaborative learning, and the learning commons should have low, or no, entry barriers. Diversity is good – innovative learning environments can’t operate as knowledge country clubs, for, as author James Surowiecki demonstrated, the wisdom of crowds is dependent upon diversity, and multiple perspectives.21

Now you may be thinking that democratic participation, through rights and responsibilities, is a recipe for confusion, if not chaos. If you are, let me tell you about Valve, the company behind some of the world’s bestselling video games, including Half-Life, Portal and Counter-Strike. Had I encountered their staff manual when I was 17, I might never have become a musician. It is posted publicly and I’d urge you to download it. It’s as confoundingly counter-intuitive as it is humorous, telling newly-arrived staff that Valve is ‘flat’: 

“It’s our shorthand way of saying that we don’t have any management, and nobody “reports to” anybody else. We do have a founder/president, but even he isn’t your manager. This company is yours to steer—toward opportunities and away from risks. You have the power to green-light projects. You have the power to ship products… If you’re thinking to yourself, “Wow, that sounds like a lot of responsibility,” you’re right... Since Valve is flat, people don’t join projects because they’re told to. Instead, you’ll decide what to work on after asking yourself the right questions. Employees vote on projects with their feet (or desk wheels). Strong projects are ones in which people can see demonstrated value; they staff up easily. This means there are any number of internal recruiting efforts constantly under way.”

The clue to Valve’s success, and the glue which binds individual motives into corporate coherence, lies in its learning environment: 

“’re now surrounded by a multidisciplinary group of experts in all kinds of fields—creative, legal, financial, even psychological. Many of these people are probably sitting in the same room as you every day, so the opportunities for learning are huge. Take advantage of this fact whenever possible: the more you can learn about the mechanics, vocabulary, and analysis within other disciplines, the more valuable you become.”

Depending upon your personality, and ability to work without supervision, this could seem like work heaven, or hell. But, you can’t knock its achievements. Founded in 1996 with no venture capital, 16 years later, Valve, a non-hierarchical, apparently anarchic, certainly autonomous, group of more than 300 employees without a boss, was worth $3 billion. 

Learning commons are also characterised by the second characteristic: passion. Great learning environments aren’t afraid of passion, because of its key role in motivation. Being passionate in formal learning situations is so unexpected that it’s frequently confused with eccentricity. 

Our norms in the workplace and in school have come to faintly disapprove of such behaviour. Yet one only has to look at examples of great teaching and learning lauded on social media, to see that passion is exactly what we want to see. 

The aforementioned Walter Lewin (emeritus professor at MIT college) is possibly the most popular professor on YouTube. In most senses, his approach is precisely what disengaged students complain about – chalk and talk, with little opportunity for student discussion. 

But Prof. Lewin has three great skills: an ability to make complex ideas graspable; a flair for theatrical demonstrations (the clip of his chin just millimetres away from a wildly oscillating wrecking ball has become the stuff of legend), and great passion. The title of his last book, ‘For The Love Of Physics’, says it all.

As brilliant as he is, Lewin is something of an exception, and the covert filming of classroom life on mobile phones now offers us a glimpse of what goes on in our schools. Ordinarily, it’s the dumb or the frivolous that gets shared. But, occasionally, an uploaded video resonates because it demonstrates how lacking in passion formal learning, at its worst, can be. 

In May 2013 a student in Duncanville High School in Dallas, Texas, uploaded to YouTube footage of a fellow student, Jeff Bliss, being ejected from class. In a mere 90 seconds, Bliss offers a crushing indictment of passionless teaching, delivered passionately. Conversely, his teacher’s side of the discussion includes monotone instructions to “quit bitching”, “you’re wasting my time”, “just get out of my class”. For his part, Jeff Bliss,22 gets to the heart of the problem: 

“If you could just get up and teach ‘em, instead of handing them a frickin’ packet. There’s kids in here who don’t learn like that. They need to learn face-to-face... you want kids to get excited for this, you gotta come in here and make ‘em excited. If you want a kid to change and start doing better, you gotta touch his frickin’ heart.” 

His teacher listed her professional goal on her LinkedIn profile thus: ‘To bring quality content and experiences to enrich the lives of my students in the classroom and beyond’. I’ve no doubt that she was sincere in this aspiration. But her modus operandi, if this incident was anything to go by, was to dish out packets of notes and worksheets to students. Any teacher can have a bad day but what is shocking about the clip, viewed by millions, and the follow-up comments, and media discussion, is how routinely our young people experience such dispassionate teaching.

Is it the educational system that grinds the enthusiasm out of our teachers? Perhaps teachers now expect compliance, and therefore can’t cope if they see their students passionate about their learning? I once watched a teacher eject a student for being too excited about the task in hand. When I asked why he’d done so, he said that ‘If I allow one to get excited, they’ll all think it’s OK, and then it would be chaos!’ Gosh, a classroom full of excited learners – we can’t have that, can we?

But it isn’t just in school where we have issues with passion. The office staff training sessions have become such a rich source of parody (witness ‘The Office’ sitcom staff training episode) that they point to a deep truth: the formal learning environment doesn’t cope very well with either passionate educators or learners. Of course, there are millions of committed, passionate teachers out there in our classrooms – we just find it difficult to value them. 

Passion is also a key factor in engagement. The notion of engagement, and disengagement, in learning is so important that I have given it a section of its own, coming up shortly. One final comment on passion: one of the remarkable changes that going ‘open’ has brought about, is to simultaneously shrink the world (in terms of distance of communication) whilst expanding its complexity. It’s never been easier to tap into other people’s passions. We can Skype experts from around the world to help us solve problems on the street where we live. A learning commons allows us to think, and act, locally and globally, about things that really matter to us.

 The final Global Learning Commons characteristic is purpose. It’s surprising how often formalised learning lacks clear purpose: staff training operating ‘because we’ve always done it like this’; students covering historical events ‘because it’s on the test’; the failure of governments to articulate the purpose of compulsory schooling. In the GLC, purpose is two-fold: independence (to allow people to do things for themselves, and interdependence (to enable groups to collaborate and learn from each other). 

The African farmer we met in Chapter Two, who discovers the solution to ants destroying his potato crop recognises the interdependence of his neighbours, so pins the wood-ash treatment to the village noticeboard. In part this is out of self-interest – if his neighbours don’t also treat their crops the ants could return to his crop – but it is mainly through an implicit reciprocity. By sharing what he has learned, it is more likely that others will do the same and that he will benefit in the future. 

The internet, itself a prime example of a Global Learning Commons, is filled with like-minded groups, seeking combinations of self-sufficiency and self-determination. Human beings have always had these desires, but now they have the means. So, the act of learning itself becomes more purposeful, not simply acquiring knowledge, but putting it to good use. 

Of course, not all groups have benevolent intent, and their existence is often used as a reason to erect fences around the worldwide web. But, in the so-called ‘battle for the internet’, the fact that millions, perhaps billions, of people are collaboratively learning, in order to improve lives, is a pretty powerful argument for keeping it ‘open’.

The Industrial and The Horticultural

In the pressure-filled world inhabited by politicians and CEOs, their desire to see learning as a quasi-mechanical process is understandable. They want to see predictable outputs from a replicable input: teaching. Predictability is what we’d all like to see. Talent managers and human resources want to be able to predict the impact of company training courses. 

Publicly, we continue to describe learning as an industrial process, created by state education systems, which needed to prepare workers for the factory and the production line. Successive strategies have inevitably tried to crank the levers of teaching to increase learning outputs, variably known as examination results, or increased productivity/profits. 

From the late 20th century onwards, the language of learning has become disconcertingly industrialised. Learning isn’t nurtured – it’s ‘delivered’. Effective learning is defined as linear (like a production line) and sequential. If output falls, schools and colleges are made accountable, and the process of improvement has to be accelerated.

The trouble is, nothing about the industrial metaphor of learning is appropriate for the post-industrial age we’re living in. Apart from a small number of innovative companies, schools and colleges, we seem unable to rethink learning for the knowledge age. In part, this is because much of what is said about the process of education avoids any reference to how people actually learn. 

The Global Learning Commons recognises that a leader’s responsibility is to create the fertile conditions that support learners in their growth, but to accept that, however frustrating it might be for those who are accountable for results, learning is ultimately an act of self-determination.

How different would employee training programmes and school improvement strategies look if we incorporated some of the following Learning Commons’ principles:

1. No one can be ‘made’ to learn anything: for knowledge and understanding to stick, we have to have learner intent. The quality of one’s learning is directly related to our desire to learn. This is why progress made in learning socially, voluntarily, is invariably far greater than in the formal, compulsory context.  

2. We can’t motivate learners to learn: many teachers believe it’s their job to motivate their students. It’s not. They can only truly motivate themselves. But a great teacher helps learners see the relevance which drives self-motivation – why learning something will make a difference in their lives.

3. Engagement precedes learning: learning becomes an uphill struggle without deep absorption in a task, (what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls being ‘in the flow’ – unaware of time passing). Learning without engagement is likely to be superficial, temporary. Engaged learning has depth and ‘stickiness’.

4. When it comes to learning, informal beats formal: the organisation learning expert, Jay Cross, asserts that between 70 and 90 percent of learning in organisations is informally acquired. When surveyed, there appears to be a consensus among learning and development officers of a 70:20:10 learning ratio at play: 70 percent of learning is gained on the job, through experience; 20 percent is gained through coaching or mentoring; 10 percent is through formal, structured courses. Cross further claims that formal learning is the least efficient: ‘study after study has shown that only about 15 percent of what's learned in a formal setting is ever actually applied on the job’. Similar23 surveys conducted with young students favour informal learning. When asked ‘How do you prefer to learn?’ Most students choose ‘from friends/family’ first, followed by ‘the internet’, followed by ‘my teacher’.

5. Recalling information is not the same as knowing: industrial teaching strategies favour retention and recollection, and formulaic solutions to problems, rather than higher-order or critical-thinking skills. I can study the actions of a swimmer, recall the necessary coordination of movements, so that I could be said to know ‘about’ swimming. But I still don’t know ‘how’ to swim. That requires repeated application of such knowledge, until some level of aquatic mastery (i.e. not sinking) is acquired. Schools are under pressure to get students to ‘know about’ a large amount of content, so that it can be successfully regurgitated in an examination hall. But students subsequently progressing to university often fail to cope with the higher-order skills demanded there. 

6. An individual’s capacity to learn is constantly changing, and is affected by a wide range of personal self-perceptions: Stanford Professor Carol Dweck, in her book ‘Mindset’, powerfully argues that a learner with a fixed mindset, believing their intelligence is limited, and a product of brains and talent, rather than effort, will learn less well than a learner with a growth mindset who recognises their own potential, and capacity for improvement. How we think we learn – in the jargon, our ‘meta-cognitive’ capacity to know ourselves as learners – has a crucial bearing upon how we actually learn.

If you’ve ever wondered why you can’t remember much of what you learned in schools just a couple of years after leaving, it’s probably because most of the above list was ignored while teaching you. The process of learning is an intensely personal one and, as much as we’d like to believe that there was a simple ‘input-output’ equation, there isn’t. 

There’s one further side-effect of the industrialisation of learning: it invariably becomes a corporate activity, carried out for personal, or corporate, profit or gain. So, teachers in schools are now judged solely by their ability to improve test scores. Learning and development managers in corporations are beset by the need to prove that their learning programmes positively impact upon ‘the bottom line’. 

The industrial model of learning – be it in the college or the corporation – not only creates enclosures, it promotes isolation and risk-aversion. The Global Learning Commons matters because it restores learning to its original function: as a public act, collaboratively undertaken for civic empowerment and improvement.


I’m aware that advocating participation, passion and purpose is all very well, but it will cut no ice with those hardened by the school of ‘deliverology’ unless it can be proven to be more effective, and more efficient. Examples of great learning commons in the formal sphere may still be in the minority, but they are growing, and they are highly successful. In the next few chapters, we will see how creating a social learning environment can make a company a powerhouse of invention, how giving away your intellectual assets can restore a failing company to its former greatness and how schools can propel college and employment statistics off the charts by encouraging students to co-design their learning.


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