"Only education is capable of saving our societies from possible collapse, whether violent, or gradual”.
This PDF critically analyses the concept of "Engaged Learning", situating it within the context of a capitalist education system and outlining an alternative form of engagement that respects cultural difference and is grounded upon principles of democratic citizenship.
The term “Engaged Learning” has significant currency value in academic circles at the moment. A Google search reveals at least eight, top-of-page educational institutions, both public and private that profess to specialize in Engaged Learning. In almost all of these institutions, the term is taken to mean or describe an educational process in which the learners take an active part in their own learning. For instance:
“What does engaged learning look like? Successful, engaged learners are responsible for their own learning. These students are self-regulated and able to define their own learning goals and evaluate their own achievement. They are also energized by their learning; their joy of learning leads to a lifelong passion for solving problems, understanding, and taking the next step in their thinking. These learners are strategic in that they know how to learn and are able to transfer knowledge to solve problems creatively.”
In other words, engaged learners are characterized by their ability to control their own learning experience, to search out meaningful ways of addressing the problems they confront, to contextualize their knowledge and to become self-directed. This whole characterization has been referred to as “self authorship” – engaged learners are first and foremost, “self-authors”. While I see nothing to disagree with in this definition, for me it remains incomplete, and I am led to ask the question what kind of “self” might emerge from an engaged learning process. I can envision, for instance, that an engaged learner might emerge as a self-engaged, not to say, self-indulgent individual if he or she has not, in the context of their learning, also engaged with significant others, and this in specific ways. Many of the descriptions of engaged learning offered by institutions mention an ability to work collaboratively as another hallmark of an engaged learner. Thus:
"Engaged Learning also involves being collaborative - that is, valuing and having the skills to work with others."
Yet the western capitalist education system is grounded on principles of individualism and competition and the students who have spent most of their lives engaged therein cannot be expected to simply and easily eschew a lifetime of conditioning to uncritically embrace collaborative work. They are likely to have neither the inclination nor the skills to do so. Collaborative skills, like other skills, must be learned and the education system ill-prepares young people for cooperative decision-making and work. I believe thatit is therefore necessary for the pedagogy of engaged learners to be framed within a collaborative context - that is, in the context of cooperative learning and decision-making.
There is a further aspect of the social and cultural contextualisation of engaged learning that needs to be stated and that has to do with the broader social context. An engaged learner may very well acquire collaborative skills yet still be deficient in a further important requirement that is deeply implicated in the future world that he or she is likely to encounter and work in – a world requiring enormous commitments to sustainability at the economic, environmental and social and cultural spheres. In a world of finite and diminishing resources, rapidly increasing populations and imminent environmental crises, our students must be able to play their part in achieving global sustainability.
This task will require them to have the skills that Chris Argyris and Donald Schön have described. In their study of professional effectiveness they have distinguished between espoused theories of action as opposed to theories in use. Argyris and Schon suggest that espoused theories of action are often incongruent with theories in use within the professions, and that this incongruity can lead to substantial difficulties within the educational framework as well as in the emotional and intellectual adjustments which graduates must make in the transition from theory to practice, as well as in the professional client relationships that they develop in their careers. They also note that addressing these inconsistencies in the practice of education can lead to significant improvements in the quality and effectiveness of the educational as well as the professional practice enterprise.
What this suggests is that the theoretical knowledge acquired in formal education might better be integrated with a direct form of practical experience outside of the institution. I am not speaking here of a service learning component in which students take jobs with minimal responsibility in community agencies as a way of testing theories in application after the theories have already been absorbed in school. Rather, I am suggesting that students need to learn their theories in the context of their application in the world of everyday life, and this suggests a very different form of education than the one we presently espouse and practice. It also suggests a very different form of relationship between the realm of education and the realm of everyday life. It may be no accident that the recent melt down of the economy has taken place over a period when Business Schools nationwide have dispensed with Business Ethics courses and have universally closeted their students in highly theoretical enclaves totally separated from the real world. Nor is it coincidental that they are now, after the financial collapse, reinstating courses in social relevance and responsibility. 
What this further suggests is a new form of education in which the sharp historical distinctions between "Town" and "Gown" begin to diminish and where students in every level of every course engage in decision-making that will affect their world and the world of the community in which they live and work. This, of course, is not an entirely new idea and has been tried in numerous individual instances. But it is an idea whose time has come - that has never been more pressing and has never been implemented on the scale that our world situation now demands.
Such a form of education is at odds with the normative developmental model in which students are exposed to the realities of public engagement and critical decision-making only after they have acquired a "sufficiently" sound theoretical base upon which to test and ground their practice. This mkodel emphasizes a hidden (spatial) curriculum which presumes that intellectual freedom must be controlled and made available in limited incremental degrees from childhood (primary school) through adolescence (high school) and early adulthood (undergraduate education) to adulthood (postgraduate) before the postdoctoral individual can be legitimated as a competent and responsible citizen/professional.
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 North Central Regional Education Laboratory, http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/engaged.htm
 Argyris, C., and Schön, D. A., Theory in Practice, Jossey-Bass Pub., San Francisco, 1974, pp. 174-176.
 Sloan, A., “Why Main Street hates Wall Street”, in: Time Magazine, Nov. 9th 2009, pp. 24-29.
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