Resisting the Tyranny of Indicators:

Regenerating Learning Ecologies

Shilpa Jain

 World Education Reports, Human Development Reports, World Bank Reports, Country Government Reports, adorn bookshelves in international development, government, university and NGO offices all over the world.  Millions of dollars have been spent to produce and disseminate these publications, which profess to give current and accurate information on donors’ and governments’ efforts to develop and educate populations around the world.  In all cases, report after report set forth a series of indicators — in the form of statistics and graphs, narratives and case studies — to measure how far (or how short) they have come in achieving the goals of Development and Education.

 Development and Education: the two cannot exist without indicators.  How else will it be known who is “educated,” who is “developed,” and who is not?  Without indicators, how can human populations be ranked to see where they fit in the Education and Development hierarchies?  How will the design of new policies/projects, the issuing of new loans, the doling out of benefits to the poor, be decided?  How will achievements and failures on the grand march to modern Progress be demarcated?  Clearly, as these reports demonstrate, we need indicators to know where, what, and who we are.

  Or so we’ve been told.

  In this article, I argue that the indicators, which dominate mainstream Education and Development discourses, firmly obstruct the unfolding of learning societies.  It is urgent that we abandon them and begin to seek out other diverse ways of self- and collective-assessment for at least two reasons:  First, most indicators are anti-life, in the sense that they are anti-diversity and anti-human spirit. Because of this, they are contributing to the many serious crises being faced locally and globally today.  These crises range from horrific kinds of physical brutality to the spread of dangerous genetically modified foods, from the increasing concentration of wealth and power into fewer and fewer hands to ever-growing levels of mental illness, from catastrophic ecological degradation to the total extinction of languages, cultures and whole ways of living. 

  Second, today’s indicators are anti-learning. They monopolize our understandings of our Selves and put a stranglehold on our visions, by defining “reality” for us through their fragmented frameworks and assumptions. They colonize our imaginations and kill our natural creativities. Indicators fundamentally contradict the rhetoric of participation and empowerment found in Education and Development reports.

Today, if we are to nurture diverse learning societies, we must resist the tyranny of indicators.  This resistance will be complemented by the regeneration of learning ecologies.  Briefly stated, a learning ecology grows out of a locality’s self-understanding and its vision of its future. It can be visualized as a set of spaces, relationships, conditions, values, technologies, processes, etc., through and by which those living in the locality are able to interact, learn and grow together.  This ecology is co-created: by the distinct characteristics of the locality, by the contributions and convictions of its inhabitants, and by interactions with other localities.  I will further elaborate on learning ecologies, in the latter half of this essay, as well as offer some suggestions for analyzing and understanding them.

 The Tyranny of Indicators

Indicators are problematic for several reasons.  To expose how they serve the Status Quo and sabotage learning societies, we need to examine them on at least four levels: what they measure, how they measure, why they measure, and what the effects of such measurements are.  This reflective analysis will allow us to see how indicators take on an institutional life of their own and how little space exists for questioning or changing them.  It will also clarify what we will need to guard against when thinking about and assessing our own learning ecologies.

  Q: What are indicators measuring? 

A: Institutional Infiltration and Dependency

To understand what indicators are used to measure, and therefore, why they are a threat to learning societies, it will help to start with a concrete example.  The World Education Report 2000, in its opening paragraphs, states that: “Education is a human right and a vital means of promoting peace and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms generally.  It contributes to a more peaceful world.”  Several pages later, the report goes on to list the content of “fundamental education”:

-     thinking and communicating skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening, calculation);

-     vocational skills (agriculture, building, weaving, technical and commercial skills necessary for economic progress);

-     domestic skills (preparing food, child care);

-     skills used in self-expression in arts and crafts;

-     personal and community hygiene skills;

-     knowledge of physical environment and natural processes (practical science);

-     knowledge of human environment (economic and social organization, law, government);

-     knowledge of other parts of the world;

-     modern qualities (personal judgement and initiative, freedom from fear and superstition, sympathy and understanding for different perspectives);

-     spiritual and moral development. 

While the specific details may change, one finds lists like this in nearly every international, national, or organizational Education report. These lists grow out of and fuel the “human capital” or “human resources” paradigm, which sees human beings as “units,” who need certain knowledge and skills to participate in the dominant political economy. The best “human resource” is the obedient citizen, soldier and homo economicus, because they serve as cogs in the wheels of modern Progress.  Ironically, the “education” promised by such lists is exalted as the vehicle to empowerment.  But in reality, this paradigm fragments and misrepresents human learning processes, by classifying them into abstract and decontextualized skills and knowledges and reducing them to what can be “officially” monitored in the classroom.  Worse, it completely degrades the fullness of human potential and the human spirit.  It is oriented toward behaviorism, the ideology that human beings can be manipulated and controlled (like rats and dogs), if only they are offered the right balance of rewards and punishments.

  However, for the purposes of this essay, let us put aside the larger problem with such lists and just try to extrapolate one message from them: that human learning spans several areas of living.  Despite the serious deficiencies of the above framework, one would still expect this broad definition of Education to result in a number of diverse indicators — to demonstrate how, where and to what extent such skills and knowledges were being acquired in societies.  But this is simply not the case.  Instead, the following are the indicators commonly used in Education planning:

- Illiteracy and literacy rates

- Gross and net enrollment ratios, at primary, secondary, and tertiary levels

-         Dropout, retention rates

-         Population total and distribution by school ages (0-6, 7-14, 15-21..)

-         Percentage and number of out-of-school children, who are of primary school, secondary school, or tertiary school age

-         Gender breakdown, at all school levels

-          Numbers and kinds of facilities, equipment, and materials in schools

-         Percentage/number of private schools as compared to government schools

  Note that all of the above indicators are related to schooling (or school-like programming), and by extension, the State.  The assumptions seem to be (1) that schooling or literacy is the same as education, and (2) that through schooling, “fundamental education” will occur. But both assumptions are highly questionable, in light of the vast evidence on the purpose, processes and impacts of schooling.  Moreover, it is not at all apparent how one would correlate the indicators with the aspects of “fundamental education” listed above.  For example, what do gross enrollment ratios have to do with spiritual or moral development?  Or, how does one’s performance on standardized achievement tests lead to creative self-expression or personal judgement and initiative?  Indeed, these indicators seem counter-intuitive, even when set against report officials’ own problematic criteria of “fundamental education.”

  What then are these indicators measuring?  It seems that, despite all the rhetoric about diverse forms of learning and a broader meaning of education, what is being measured is the degree to which schooling has become a permanent fixture in our collective psyche and everyday life. In other words, these indicators are assessing how much schooling and literacy have come to replace any and all ideas of “learning resource,” “learning space” or “learning purpose” in our diverse localities.

 Indeed, because the majority of indicators used in Education and Development reports are linked to one or more modern institutions, I would argue that they are measuring the institutionalization of a population. A society’s ability to achieve (or to fail) in the indicator is entirely based on the extent to which it has been infiltrated by and become dependent on modern institutions, such as the Nation-State, the Global Capitalist Market, the Mass Media, and the Education System.  The more a population is dependent on these institutions, the greater its levels of monoculture and bureaucratization, and the higher its ranking in the Development hierarchy. The reach of modern institutions has been limited in “under-developing” countries, so they fail to measure up. On the other hand, a techno-industrialized-militarized country, loaded with modern institutions, sets and surpasses all Development standards.   

  The same kind of logic applies to Human Development reports, which in addition to the above Education indicators, typically measure the following:

Again, the institutional dependency cannot be missed.  To score high in these indicators, the population must be deeply entrenched in the market economy.  It must have adopted transactions of buying and selling and attaching a cash value to each and every thing.  Other processes — of sharing, of appreciating intrinsic values, of nurturing the commons, of subsistence, etc. — either have taken a backseat, have been scoffed out of existence or have been outrightly destroyed. People must have been converted into “human capital” and “human resources.”  They must utilize modern mass media and technology, must be privy to government schemes and development programs, must rely on Western medicine and hospitals to secure its health…and so on.  In other words, “human development” can be achieved in only one way: by becoming totally reliant on the tools, values and goals of modern expert-led institutions. The more these manifest themselves in peoples’ lives, the more “developed” people can be. 

  For some of the “educated” among us, this may not be a problem.  After all, they may contend, modern experts and institutions are necessary for any “civilized” society; they are the hallmarks of Progress, and so why not use such indicators? There are many ways to challenge this argument, not the least of which is to discuss the tremendous devastation wrought by these arrogant institutions — on nature, on families, on whole societies, etc.  The countries and peoples who consider themselves to be the most “civilized” are the ones who have no qualms dropping bombs on innocent people, exploiting millions for selfish gain, polluting the air, earth and water, etc.  As Rabindranath Tagore (1931) reminds us, “Progress which greedily allows Life’s field to be crowded with an excessive production of instruments, becomes a progress towards death.  For Life has its own natural rhythm, and proud Progress that rides roughshod over Life’s cadence kills it at the end.” 

  But again, let us leave aside this argument for a moment.  Say that even if one accepted that it makes sense to measure peoples’ degree of institutionalization (i.e., how much they have consumed industrial-urban-technologized Development and schooling-as-Education), wouldn’t one then need to ask why the indicators are so one-sided?  As “scientific tools,” don’t they have a responsibility to also measure and deeply analyze the downside to this model — the damage that results from “achievement” in these indicators?  Wolfgang Sachs, editor of The Development Dictionary (1992), has so aptly commented, “It is not the failure of development which has to be feared, but its success.”  If many of the indicators are used to show a failure to Develop, shouldn’t they also be used to reveal one’s “successes?”

  For example, it would be appropriate to present the unemployment rates of the educated and youth suicide rates, alongside school enrollment rates. Or to place the extinction of languages and cultures, next to so-called literacy rates.  Similarly, one could carry out this kind of balance-sheet analysis with Development.  Rajasthan, the state of India in which I live, has attempted to shed its BIMAROU10  label and develop. In the process, it has produced incomparable (and mostly irreparable) damage: polluted air, tremendous deforestation, shortage of drinkable water, horrible labor conditions, displaced indigenous peoples, higher incidences of crime and violence... 

  Of course, measuring the effects of institutionalization, and not merely the incidences or degrees of it, needs to be complemented by deeper analysis.  Even those few reports that share indicators like crime rates and divorce rates (at the end, with little publicity) rarely connect these to the other indicators, much less to the larger projects of Development and Education.  They fail to ask fundamental questions about the kinds of values, lifestyles, relationships, power structures, etc. promoted by these projects.  Instead, what little analysis exists only places the blame for any “failures” on the drop-outs, the uncivilized and the backward.  Yet, if one looks more closely, the majority of problems in society today are due to the decisions and lifestyles of the highly schooled.

  Thus, not only do we need to be concerned with what is measured, we need to ask what is not measured and why.  As even an initial effort, I feel correlating and analyzing Development “success” and “failure” would give a clearer picture of where these indicators are taking us.

  Q: How are they measuring?

A: Quantitatively, by Experts Only

Related to the above critique, we must note that the majority of indicators used in Education and Development are quantitative in nature.  That is, they measure “how much” or “how many” (never “how come?” or “so what?” or “why?”).  But several problems are associated with such quantitative measurement.  First, like qualitative analysis, it is highly biased.  This isn’t a problem in and of itself; the problem only arises because its bias is hidden from plain view.  Numbers are marketed as “objective,” “neutral,” “just the facts.” They don’t even attempt to reveal their subjective nature up-front, the way qualitative research does.  But in country after country, these indicators rely on data collected from government agents, whose research tactics (from question-framing to answer-collecting) should be scrutinized. Some researchers have found that quantitative measurements encourage a culture of lying, as money or other materials are often used as rewards and/or punishments in the course of record-keeping.11 

  Second, quantitative measurements lack context. While we know that researchers/data collectors are asking questions from their own agendas, and that those answering also have their own agendas, we never really know who said what, why, when and how.  Real people, their lives, their hopes, their concerns, are lost in the shuffle of numbers, rates and percentages; abstraction is privileged over specificity and locality; and generalizations further undermine context.12  Data itself is rarely dis-aggregated, but that too only happens according to State-defined identities, like region, caste, gender, rural/urban — never via individuals’ subjective self-defined identities, which, in a place like Rajasthan, can be quite complex and significant.13   So though data comes out of ever-changing contexts, from people who espouse multiple, intricate identities, these indicators never give us any sense of them.  At best, they are frozen snapshots of a particular moment; they cannot tell us anything about dynamic interrelationships or changes over time.

  But context is not only lost in terms of the content of the data; it is also lost in terms of the purpose of the data.  The indicators do not clarify why they chose to explore or share this particular information, what message they are being used to support, what vision of Development and Progress they are operating under (institutional dependency, or otherwise).  For example, a few years ago, the Society for International Development of Rajasthan put together a Human Development Report on the state, which incorporated many of the same indicators as UNDP’s Human Development Report. Ostensibly, its purpose was to reinforce and obey the logic of UNDP, as it came up with nearly the same analysis of Rajasthan (as ‘backward’ and “deprived”) and the same solutions (“structural reforms,” “private sector participation,” and “people’s will to develop”).  There was no effort to appreciate the specific contexts of Rajasthani peoples, their strengths, talents and potentials, nor to articulate a locally-generated vision or critique14  of “human development.”

  Third, these indicators are proxies.  That is, they approximate how much of the vision of Development and Education has been achieved.  Again, we should question how Development rhetoric like “a sustainable and equitable world for all” can be captured by indicators like GDP and household income — which rely on unsustainable lifestyles to reach Developed levels. Or how literacy rates can be equated with an intelligent, creative, caring, wise population.

  Yet when presented as statistics and facts, the data appear to be impenetrable.  They quickly move from being rough (dubious) approximations to becoming “targets” to meet, the unquestionable Truth.  This mask not only hides the static and decontextualized nature of the information, but it also conceals the assumptions embedded in the units of measurement themselves.  For example, we do not probe into the value judgements behind each indicator — such as the fact that GDP rises with more divorces, environmental catastrophes, and wars; in this economic paradigm, they are benefits.15   Nor do we ask why every aspect of Development depends on monetary resources, which Developing countries can only acquire by mortgaging their people and nature to international banks/donor agencies.  We do not challenge the framing of human beings as “capital” and of nature as “resources,” as fragmented, demeaning, or just simply wrong.16   Rather, these proxies are taken as valuable and fitting measures of Progress.

  Perhaps worst of all, these indicators help to reinforce a culture of expertism.  That is, the only people who can create the indicators, collect the data, analyze and present it, are experts or professionals.  They are bred from institutions like the government, corporations, the mass media — the very institutions we need in order to succeed in the indicators.  (Anyone smell a conspiracy here? Or, at least, a self-fulfilling prophecy?)  These experts present themselves like their statistics: objective, scientific, rational seekers of the Truth.  Under this cloak of respectability, they can hide their real motives (their profit-oriented incentives17  for perpetuating this vision of Development and Education).  Their professional stature also shields them from being questioned by us commoners, especially by the well-schooled among us, who have been taught to defer to experts over our common sense, personal feelings and experiences.

  Although calls for “participation,” Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) and Participatory Learning and Action (PLA) reverberate in Development offices all over the world, nothing suggests that this rhetoric has made a difference for the tyranny of indicators.  At best, local people are involved only in furnishing information for the experts’ pre-defined indicators; at worst, their ways of understanding and making-meaning are completely rejected in the face of the experts’ frameworks and assumptions.  Their knowledge systems never actually play a role in shaping, much less in controlling, the experts’ understanding of their “needs.”18   Indeed, embedded in the “participation” rhetoric is the belief that rural, unschooled, non-modern (a.k.a. “backward,” “illiterate,” “traditional”) peoples lack the power or capacity to analyze deeply.  This demeaning belief is demonstrated, in part, by the superficiality of most PRA/PLA tools — which, no matter what the context, all seem to produce the same images and outcomes.  Another tell-tale sign is that most “participatory” project plans repeat, or closely resemble, project documents prepared by Development functionaries from international agencies or governments.

  Q: Why are they measuring?

A: To Plan, Control and Socially Engineer

Having thus been expertly ranked and filed, we are then sentenced and condemned: Least Developed, Most Backward, Illiterate, etc.  These catchy labels are used to convince people of their own inferiority and of the “need” for The Treatment to cure themselves of that inferiority. A variety of propaganda techniques are employed, which (coincidentally!) house themselves in institutions like international agencies, governments, schools, etc.  Experts use diverse media to broadcast the diagnoses of their indicators and the sanctity of their plans. “Follow our prescriptions and you too can move from Undeveloped to Developed, Backward to Forward, Ignorant to Educated… And if our plans fail, well, that is simply your fault (the people, the poor, usually).  You didn’t implement it properly.”  With such impeccable logic, dominant institutions legitimate their reign over peoples’ lives and their livelihoods. They feel further justified in destroying local paramparas (living traditions) and forcing people to fit into the global political economy. Indicators play a dual role in this process: they are defined by experts, to corroborate the Status Quo, and they define experts’ plans, to extend the Status Quo.

  Indicators enable experts to continue their vicious cycle of “planning” unchallenged. The problem is, experts assume that they can use their mechanistic and reductionist scientific thinking to accurately predict the future and socially engineer the change they seek in the world.19   Their short-term thinking is never concerned with the long-term effects of their actions — the side-effects and impacts of the Green Revolution and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) being cases in point.  Never mind that the “problem” was most likely a result of institutional infiltration in the first place, and that the “solution” will, in all likelihood, create more problems (for which there will be more expert solutions). Never mind that these “solutions” are usually piecemeal band-aids, established out of a superficial cause-and-effect analysis.  Never mind that “expert” studies usually suffer from all the limitations — highly biased, isolated, decontextualized, faulty approximations — described above. No, this problem-solving method will not only be thoroughly exalted, it will be replicated ad nauseum all over the world as THE SOLUTION to peoples’ problems. (The World Bank’s Structural Adjustment Program provides the perfect example of the infinite replication of disaster.) Such replication is considered perfectly justifiable, when Development is regarded as an uni-dimensional and universal process.

  Once bound by indisputable “scientific” instruments like indicators, experts’ interventions become predictable.  In the case of education, experts will recommend further teacher training, new teaching aids and textbooks, more computers, more buildings and facilities, or whatever is the corporate flavor-of-the-month. Professional advocacy groups and lobbies will also rely on the indicators and support experts’ recommendations with “citizens’ calls to hold the State responsible.”  (Of course, many times, the experts, advocacy groups and lobbies are one and the same.) Thus, from start to finish, indicators help institutional experts to control the vision, execution and evaluation of Development.  It is unfortunate that most technocrats, who do this social engineering often with the best of intentions, have not realized their roles in perpetuating a global system of inhumanity and injustice.

  Q: What’s the Effect of Measuring?

A: Re-Colonization and Dehumanization

The technocratic social engineering enabled by indicators ensures that no other vision of human society can be nurtured. First, because it is assumed that no other vision of humanity exists.  There is a linear path to Progress; follow it and you will arrive at The Promised Land (which is where all “under-developed” countries should aspire to reach).  This predetermined plan effectively controls both the present and future. As Vinay Lal (1999) describes:

“…the more insidious part of the notion of development is the manner in which it colonizes our notions of time and space.  The present of the developing world is none other than the past, sometimes the very remote and mist-shrouded past, of the developed world… The future of the developing world: well, there is no future, since its future is already known to Europe and America; indeed, the developed world lives in the distant future of the developing world.”

  Second, indicators (and the plans they engender) systematically extinguish all other possible visions of humanity.  Priorities that differ from material success, profit and efficiency, wage labour; relationships that are non-competitive and don’t accord to “survival of the fittest”; learning that occurs in the absence of a teacher or expert — modern expert-led institutions have no place for these.  Instead, slowly but surely, our communications, interpretations, interactions, all come to be under the control of the State’s bureaucrats and politicians, the Market’s corporate executives, the Media’s journalists and technocrats — all products of the Education System.  The result is a dull, predictable, yet replicable, monoculture.  After all, what is the use of dynamic and creative human diversity, when Development and Education can only be achieved through specific mechanisms (markets, nation-states, mass media, schooling)? With diversity, each individual and community has different priorities — mutually agreed upon through shared reflection and dialogue — about what path of living and learning they want to pursue.  They create their own “goals” based on what matters to them.  But in a monoculture, the priorities are already set; the path to Progress is fixed.  Under such colonization, human imagination and creativity are useless, since the means and ends of Development are already pre-determined.

  With diversity thus devalued and alternative priorities thrown out the window, indicators succeed in deflating peoples’ self- and collective-esteem. By hierarchically ranking human beings and fostering institutional dependency, they further the onslaught that colonialism began.  New labels like “first generation learners”20 and fancy graphics are just added touches to a well-tuned process of degrading the Other. And indicators’ orientation towards institutionalization guarantees that peoples’ real strengths and potentials will never be valued or measured.  

I use the region of Rajasthan again as an example.  As mentioned earlier, it is called a BIMAROU (sick and backward) state because of its low literacy rates and income levels.  But the area is rich in diverse and vibrant artistic, linguistic, musical, cultural traditions (which is why it is a major foreign and domestic tourist attraction). These traditions certainly require higher-order thinking skills, solid fluency in local language, creativity and aesthetic sensibilities, rhythm and soul, but they do not have much to do with literacy (reading and writing texts).  Indeed, most of the schooled and literate of Rajasthan do not participate in this powerful creation, nor are they even well-acquainted with it, because they have been taught to view it as “backward” and “uncivilized.”  Nor are many of these traditions linked to the market or government.  Rather, this valuable diversity mainly lives in “informal” social sectors, where it is struggling to survive amidst the aggressive programs and campaigns of the formal sector.

 In sum effect, what indicators do is silence us into total submission.  They depreciate and destroy our gifts and talents; they disregard our diversity; they deny us the opportunity to set our own priorities; they colonize our present and our future.  Indicators support a culture which undermines and exterminates our own local, mutually-created measures of “success,” “the good life,” and “happiness.”  Their definitions of “reality” stifle both our interpretations and our imaginations. By assuming an aura of infallibility, indicators ensure that we do not interrogate institutional assumptions, goals, interests, etc.  This is also accomplished by having experts automatically label anyone who dares to think outside of established frameworks, as “anti-poor,” “romantic” or “utopian.”  Apparently, speaking out against injustice or even simply asking “What if?” is unacceptable to those educated for the Brave New World.  Rather, we should remain silently obedient, so that the hegemony of dominant institutions can continue unfettered…

 No. Now is the time to end our silence, to reclaim our powers and possibilities, to reject the tyranny of indicators, to begin to understand and assess learning ecologies on our own terms.

 Understanding Learning Ecologies

One can envision a learning ecology in several ways.  One way is to begin with its counterpart in nature.  There, ecology is the complex set of interrelationships among life forms — from plants and trees, to animals and insects, from air and water, to soil and sunlight — that emerge from interdependent processes and actions. Such partnerships require cooperation, self-awareness and self-regulation, resilience, conservation, flexibility, diversity and cyclical-ness (as opposed to linearity). [Although Education and Development indicators completely ignore such qualities, they are no doubt crucial for facing the serious crises before us today.]

 Another way to understand a learning ecology is to look at systems thinking.  In The Web of Life (1996), philosopher-physicist Fritjof Capra defines a system as “an integrated whole whose essential properties arise from the relationships between its parts.” Systems thinkers suggest that the essential properties of a system are the properties of the whole; to understand these properties one must understand the contexts and connectedness among the parts.  Systems also display “emergent properties” — qualities that appear at a certain level of complexity within the system, but do not exist when the system’s parts are separated from each other.

 What makes systems thinking unique is that it challenges several assumptions.  For example, traditional science posits that nature and knowledge follow an observable hierarchy, that big builds upon small, and still bigger builds upon it, and so on and so forth.  The metaphor commonly associated with this hierarchy is “building blocks.”  This thinking is readily apparent in Development beliefs like, “First a country needs roads, schools, hospitals, a certain per capita income, an entrenched market economy, technology, etc.; only after all this can it even begin to discuss something like ‘learning societies’.” Systems thinking topples these building-block hierarchies and replaces them with a concept of networks within networks. There is no “above” or “below,” “first” or “last,” neither in terms of knowledge or actions, nor in terms of human beings.  Rather, systems thinking is contextual and holistic thinking.  It respects and prioritizes networks of relationships, the spontaneous and constant interactions within themselves and amongst each other. This perspective challenges the reductionism of Education and Development indicators, as well as the simplistic analyses and piecemeal solutions they lead to.

  One can extend this understanding to many different kinds of ecologies: a social ecology, a forest ecology, a psycho-spiritual ecology, an urban ecology, etc., even while recognizing that these ecologies are also networks within networks, within ever larger networks.  To put it another way, we are each, within ourselves, a web of life.  And our relationships with each other, with the natural world, with our histories and cultures — they all grow from, are enhanced by, and continually generate deep and powerful webs of human living.  This ecology of ideas, or ecology of lived experiences, is quite powerful.  When we come together in larger collectives, such as families, we sense that these webs of stories and experiences form the life-blood of humanity as a whole.  Indeed, they are a healing towards wholeness — what we so desperately require in today’s fragmented and isolated world.  As Wendell Berry (1977) notes, “the body cannot be whole alone. Persons cannot be whole alone… Healing is impossible in loneliness… conviviality is healing.”

  The meaning of a learning ecology can also be understood in terms of its understanding of learning. I believe that the following learning principles are important to take note of:

-     Learning is rarely linear or planned; it is messy, organic and often spontaneous;

-     Learning occurs in authentic interactions and partnerships, which emerge through varied self-organizing processes;

-     Learning is unique to the person and the context; it cannot be replicated, because no two learning spaces or relationships are alike;

-     Unlearning, self-learning, co-learning are all vital and integrated aspects of a learning ecology;

-     Learning grows from a dialogue between meaningful questions and practical mistakes;

-     Learning generates and builds upon complex and diverse networks/webs of human living.

  Vision-Building for Learning Ecologies

For a learning society, understanding and assessing its learning ecology first begins with contextual vision-building. In each place, individuals and collectives would come together to co-create their vision of how they want to live and learn together, both in the present and in the future.  This vision would be based on the unique contexts of that place, the unique personalities of the people, and the unique energy and spirit that emerges when they come together in relationships. In this way, “How far have we come?” would not be the question asked by learning societies.  It would be more like: “Who are we?”; “What values are important to us?”; “Where are we going and why?”; What kind of world do we want for our children and grandchildren?  And later, “How do we get there?”

The collective vision-building process, to which each and every member of a learning society contributes, has several effects. First, it signals the downfall of experts and expertism. When “ordinary” people take conceptual control over their lives and their futures, they — not experts — are defining their assumptions and priorities; they are deciding what knowledges and activities are valuable and what need to be unlearned. Second, since the vision of a learning society is locally rooted in each place’s own environments, her-stories, knowledges, values and meanings, learning ecologies will differ from place to place. Context and diversity will not only be valued; they will be vital.  This ensures the demise of an abstract monoculture and forced conformity to it, and the end of faux “participatory” techniques.

Complex vision-building also forces societies to get beyond the “basic human needs” mentality that plagues the Development discourse today.  No one denies that clean water, nutritional food, adequate shelter and clothing are important to our health, but visioning asks us to consider:

a)   the paths that we take to achieve these material requirements: Are they wasteful, destructive and/or disempowering?  Do they cause dependency on powers beyond our reach?  Or do they lead to greater justice and balance among us, and between human beings and the natural world?

b)   what other conditions, beyond these material necessities, contribute to a learning society and the fulfillment of individual and community potential: For example, where in our vision do we place healthy families and friendships, multiple opportunities for self- and community-expression, dynamic leadership, organic decision-making systems, etc.?

What emerges out of these questioning and searching processes is a society’s own sense of its learning ecology. Indeed, a learning society’s vision and its ecology grow into and out of each other.  One cannot be properly understood without the other; they are interdependent, as each helps to define the other.  The vision of the learning society will lead it toward deciding what to “see” and value in its ecology.  While the ecology — composed of diverse actors and media, multiple interactions, and organic, interconnected process-effects — will constantly help to shape and actualize the vision and to deepen and evolve it. Moreover, neither the vision nor the ecology is static or readymade; rather, the learning society’s agents, relationships, processes, will constantly feedback to organize and re-organize the direction, balance and energy of each.


Describing Our Learning Ecologies: Mapping as an Example

A number of interesting processes exist today, which offer people meaningful ways to envision their learning societies and describe/co-create their learning ecologies.  Many of these — Study Circles, Open Space Technology, Appreciative Inquiry, Dialogue, Circles21 — have been illustrated in this and past volumes of Unfolding Learning Societies, while others, such as Ecological Footprints, Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), Resilient Communities, Global Eco-Village Sustainability, and Asset-Based Community Development, are readily available on the web.22  All of these methodologies/processes/tools serve to challenge the hegemony of indicators and the overall Development and Education discourse they grow out of. Therefore, they all are inspiring in their own right.  Moreover, I feel they all offer ways to generate the ideas, relationships, spaces and interactions of a learning ecology.

What can communities gain from using these tools or creating their own?  For one, they can discover a more holistic perspective.  This mainly occurs because obstacles/dangers are considered alongside hopes/convictions. To understand a learning ecology — in terms of spaces, relationships, processes — communities need pursue all angles.  This approach further ensures that we do not get caught up in quantitative vs. qualitative traps.  After all, both are subjective, both contain some valuable perspectives, and yet, both are only partial truths (with a small “t”).  When trying to understand our locality’s learning ecology, we will therefore need to ask ourselves, “Do numbers and percentages and rates make sense here? Or would it be more meaningful to understand this part of the ecology through stories, arts, etc.? Or are there other ways to creatively assess these areas?” 

At the same time, communities who seek to understand their learning ecologies will necessarily value and invite many different groups and groupings into their conversation: individuals, siblings, families, neighbors, neighborhoods, villages, religious groupings, work-related groupings, bio-regions, etc.  There will also be flexibility with notions of time and space, since most of the elements of the ecology will likely emerge and evolve over varying periods of time. 

The following table offers a few convictions/values that might manifest in a locality’s vision of its learning society and describes some of the aspects of the learning ecology that corresponds to them.  It is not meant to be exhaustive, but should simply jump-start our imaginations out of the stupor of Education indicators.23 It is also not meant to suggest an index for learning societies to measure themselves against — as that would endorse exactly what I critique about indicators: expert-led abstraction, generalization and control over a diverse, contextual process.  As we say in Mewari, the local language of Udaipur: Seekh sareera upajeh/ Dida lageh dahm.24  Rather, it is just meant to give a sense of the breadth and depth of understandings and possibilities that can emerge when communities reject indicators.


Elements to Map in the Ecology


Elements to Map in the Ecology


-          Convivial Tools

-          Local Currency

-          Local Banking

-          Small Businesses

-          Apprenticeships

-          Alternative Energies

-          Organic, Local Food

External Control

-     Dependency on High Technology/Media

-     Intake of ‘Foreign’ Products and Loans

-     MNCs/Industries

-     Oil Dependency

-     Chemical, GE Food


-  Families/Friends/ Neighbors

-  Consensus Building

-  Self-Organized Citizen Groups


-          Migration Patterns

-          Voting/Lobbies

-          Corrupt Leadership

-          Criminal Activities

-          Distribution of Wealth


-          Voluntary Simplicity

-          Recycling/Sharing

-          Public Transportation

-          Flora/Fauna/Air/ Water/Forest

-          Appreciation of/ Access to Nature


-          Consumerism

-          Garbage Dumps

-          Private Cars

-          Nuclear/Air/Water/ Ground Pollution

-          Urban Sprawl

-          Isolation/Alienation


In trying to understand and describe our locality’s learning ecology, we aren’t simply making diagrams or collecting information.  Rather, we are using a variety of tools and processes to encourage deeper dialogue and reflection on what matters in our communities, on what exists and what could be imagined, on where we want to go and why.  Our individual priorities and our common ones will emerge both from our vision and convictions of a learning society, as well as the contexts and possibilities of our local learning ecology.  Therefore, our learning ecology will never be static, abstract or “objective” the way indicators are, since each actor/relationship/process will play an important role in co-creating it. 

 Over the past two years, we have tried to explore our own learning ecology as part of the Udaipur as a Learning City (ULC) process-project.25 What we value in ULC is the diversity of realities for learning in Udaipur, and the capacity of each human being living here to reshape these realities and create new possibilities for the future. We have discovered that the learning ecology of Udaipur (like that of many other places) has several dimensions to it.  For example, just taking one of ULC’s convictions, that of diverse human expressions, and beginning to describe the learning ecology around it, has led us into a number of areas (and the obstacles/threats to them): manual, meaningful work (vs. mechanized, dead-end work); local creations and performance arts (vs. mass media); interaction with nature (vs. destruction of nature); Mewari language (vs. its extinction).   The following mind-map helps to illustrate some of the specificities of these aspects of Udaipur’s learning ecology.


Re-affirming and energizing in this process has been how our understanding of Udaipur’s learning ecology has grown, as our interaction with individuals, families, work environments, natural spaces, etc., has grown.  For example, an exploration of storytelling in Mewari led to the recognition of Mewari dohas (poetic verses), kevtas (proverbs) and pahelias (riddles) as powerful points of local knowledge and resistance.  The gathering and sharing of these then led to communication with a number of different caste communities in and around Udaipur, which has consequently opened ULC up to a diversity of local festivals, rituals, and media.  These, in turn, will no doubt further expand the realities and possibilities of the learning ecology of Udaipur.

 I have only offered a few examples of what any learning society may chose to look at in its learning ecology, which can clearly be further expanded and layered upon with additional actors, spaces, relationships, technologies and processes.  Indeed, the process of generating Udaipur’s full ecology can only occur when people of all ages, of all socio-economic backgrounds, of all “schooling” levels, come together at various moments and in various spaces — not just once, but again and again — to understand themselves and each other as co-creators of their city and society. This implies their valuing of the mini-ecologies in specific neighborhoods and families, as well as their seeing the whole ecology — the linkages at all levels, across all spheres of life. We feel our varied and multidimensional work with children, youth, families and adults in Udaipur as a Learning City is a step in this direction.

 Challenges and Possibilities: Seeing Each Other With New Eyes

Rejecting the tyranny of Education and Development indicators, in order to see, assess and nurture learning ecologies, has tremendous implications for current policymaking and project-planning efforts, particularly for the Education for All (EFA) global initiative. Not only does it break open the box that “learning” has been put in — where, when, and how it can happen, who controls it and for what purposes it takes place — but it also necessitates a rethinking or broadening of priorities.  Individuals and communities who see themselves integrated in a larger web of learning (and of life) are unlikely to be satisfied with one-shot solutions, like vocational training, value education, or computers in every school.  Nor will they accept that “every child in a good school” constitutes a healthy learning ecology. In fact, as living and learning become synonymous again, it will be excruciatingly evident to all of us that no single institution or policy can ever capture the fullness, dynamism and diversity of the human spirit — no matter how creative or flexible it is. This means educationists, service providers, government officials, etc., will no longer be able to operate in a vacuum, but will have to re-conceive and enlarge their senses of “what matters” for the human condition and for human learning: nature, media, economies, families, languages, wisdom... 

 I can anticipate that one reaction to what I have written might be, “What you are describing is only possible for Rich, Developed and Educated countries and peoples.  Poor, Backward and Illiterate people first need to achieve some basic standards in these mainstream indicators, before they can start discussing their visions of their learning ecologies.” I feel this arrogance could be shattered very quickly, if such critics stop and consider that many of the values (self-reliance, conservation, cooperation, expressions) and spaces of learning ecologies still abound in Poor countries — although they are subdued and often stigmatized because of Development and Education. It seems to me far easier to generate innovative visions and actions in these “poor” contexts, than in highly techno-militarized-industrialized-institutionalized countries, where wastefulness, competition and thought-control dominate.

This is not to say that regenerating learning ecologies is not possible in both situations. The commitments and experiences articulated in numerous articles in this series make clear that it is. However, it will take time and space, constant opportunities for diversity, creativity and failing and trying again.  And for all of us, it will require serious efforts towards decolonizing the mind, body and spirit. This means:

-     rejecting the scarcity-making and expert-controlled frameworks of Development and Education as manipulative, unjust and violent;

-     renouncing the limitations, divisions and fragmentation promoted by modernity and its institutions of social engineering; and reconnecting with holistic and convivial webs of life and living. 

The second common accusation leveled at me, I suspect, will be a continuation of the first.  That is to say that I am not concerned with poverty, with malnutrition, with social justice, with violations of peoples’ lives and liberties.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, I have written this indictment against indicators precisely because I am concerned with dehumanization at all levels.  I would argue like many others — from Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore to Ivan Illich and Wendell Berry — that human beings are in such dire circumstances directly as a result of the policies, values and goals of modern expert institutions.  If we desire an end to cruelty, hunger, suffering and injustice, then we should seek an end to these types of institutions, not an expansion of them.  The rejection of indicators and experts is one step in this direction.

However, evolving diverse learning ecologies in learning societies will not be without challenges.  The intense power and privilege of State and Corporate institutions, and the enormous consequences of their actions on peoples’ lives, guarantee that obstacles abound.  These will range from the commodification of peoples’ learning spaces, to the decontextualized planning of State and international experts, to relentless indoctrination via television and textbooks. After all, the values at the center of institutions today not only contradict those of learning societies, but in effect crush all other possibilities for living and learning.

Yet, as examples all over the world have demonstrated, stronger and deeper learning ecologies can emerge from struggle and resistance, as much as they can from hope, faith and friendship.  Indeed, assessing our ecologies can show us how to reconfigure these obstacles into opportunities for unlearning, self-learning and co-learning. It can reveal to us the multiple tools of dissent and spaces of resistance that exist among the so-called “weak” today and how to link these spaces and tools together to nurture and re-energize learning societies.  To begin, we just need, in the words of Malcolm X, “to change our own minds, to change our minds about each other, to see each other with new eyes.”


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About the Author

Shilpa Jain <> is a learning activist with Shikshantar and one of the editors of Vimukt Shiksha. Through her work at Shikshantar and previous experiences with international development organizations in Washington, DC, she has conducted research in several areas of education and development: globalization, local languages, life expressions, ecology, democratic living, creativity, conflict transformation, gender, decentralization, community participation, and systemic change. Shilpa also loves learning with/from youth and children and has extensive experience doing so around the issues of self-esteem, creativity, collaboration, identity and conflict resolution. Her other interests include pottery, dance, and organic farming. Shilpa is also in the serious process of unlearning many things from her formal schooling (thought-control) and from her many years of living in the US.