Monday, June 16, 2008

The Pedagogy of Propinquity

The pedagogy of propinquity means the study of learning that happens along the way to learning other things. The dictionary definition of propinquity is nearness, in space, in time, in relationship. So two things that may not be related take on relationship by simple virtue of their nearness to each other.

There a number of concepts that are consistent with a pedagogy based in propinquity. Serendipitous learning, accidental learning, self-learning, informal learning, tacit learning all describe critical learning processes that occur outside of institutional formalized learning.

Neuropsychology provides some evidence of propinquity as a necessary condition of learning. A distinction made between declarative(explicit learning and memory) and non-declarative memory and learning with the latter being the most important and least understood.

“These nondeclarative or implicit forms of learning and memory are generally characterized as acquired fluency of perceptual and motor performance (e.g.,Roediger, 1990). Nondeclarative memory reveals itself in habits, procedural knowledge, perceptual priming, simple sequence learning, single-discriminant forms of classical and operant conditioning, and path-based route Learning.Such effects suggest that the more information is associated, the more accessible the information may be, even under varied recall conditions."


Learning through propinquity is a major feature of using the Internet. When searching for a specific piece of information even the most refined search returns an incredible number of hits. In the process of narrowing things down you look at a lot of false leads. Though they may be false leads for the initial search they often yield interesting and useful information. There maybe a necessary mindset that allows people to not see this as frustration but as a potential goldmine of leaning. I think I even read an article a while ago extolling the virtues of goofing off on the web and the incredibly powerful learning that can happen when you least expect it. Kind of a Zen like attention/non attention thing. Like you have to relax to see one of those magic eye puzzles.

One dimension of serendipitous learning that has interested (alarmed) educators for sometime is the concept of learning without teachers. (Tough, 1967) This seminal work described the activities of adults who pursued learning through informal means. The type of learning that Tough investigated was learning that was available through formal channels and delivered by a professional teacher in a educational institution, but where the learners had chosen to study the same subject matter but without enrolling in a formal course. The project tracked the learning strategies that adult self-teachers used.

Ethnographic and anthropological studies have examined the way that learning occurs in communities of practice. The apprenticeship model has been found in all societies at all stages of development from midwives in preliterate cultures to Naval midshipmen on modern ocean going vessels. The studies indicated that most practical learning occurred withing a community of practice and there were definite stages in the learning process. The initial stage was describe as the legitimate peripheral participant, which essentially meant that novice workers were allowed to be in the presence of the oldtimers as they performed their community role as experts. Novices gradually assumed more responsibility for minor parts in the performance before becoming aspiring experts and finally old timers in their own right. (Lave and Wenger,1991)
Another ethnographic study of an occupational learning community determined that the greater part of the practical learning that took place was through the apprenticeship model even though the practitioners were subjected to large amounts of formal training. In fact the formal training was an impediment to actual learning. (Orr, 1996) Tacit learning has been determined to be the critical and predominant required learning, far exceeding explicit knowledge. The knowledge transfer for tacit learning is non-formal by definition all though it can be mediated by social networking and ICT. (Bowles, 2005)

A project in the slums of Calcuta amply illustrated the amazing power of the innate desire to learn. Slum children were given unrestricted access to indestructible computer terminals and were observed to organize themselves and teach themselves the use of the computer, the internet and many other essential skills including English language acquisition. The research extrapolated a theory of Minimally Invasive Teaching and suggested that the more independence you can foster, encourage, and require in the learner the better the learning. (Mitra, 2005)

Ivan Illich reactor-core.org/deschooling

Illich repeatedly uses the term “treatment” to refer to education providing an interesting metaphor where lack of schooling is seen as an illness, a defect that can be corrected with the proper treatment. This goes with other similar euphemisms such as calling sickness care, health care.

Illich lamented the loss of the innate desire to learn and self-educate. He felt that we had become entirely to dependent on schools for learning and that schools had undermined our confidence in our ability to learn. (Illich, 1971)

Illich called for research

“We need research on the possible use of technology to create institutions which serve personal, creative, and autonomous interaction and the emergence of values which cannot be substantially controlled by technocrats. We need counterfoil research to current futurology.”
We know that technology has indeed created the institutions of Illich’s vision, both open and technocratic.

Illich points out the unwanted and unintended consequences of over reliance on institutions . One of these effects is that the poor get further victimized by an intervention that was ostensibly to help them.

“The increasing reliance on institutional care adds a new dimension to their helplessness: psychological impotence, the inability to fend for themselves.”



Illich calls into question the motivation of the so-called helpers and suggests that the institutions are largely self serving with ….

“….the discovery that no amount of dollars can remove the inherent destructiveness of welfare institutions, once the professional hierarchies of these institutions have convinced society that their ministrations are morally necessary.”


Creates an unrealistic metric for comparing the worth of citizens.

“Obligatory schooling inevitably polarizes a society; it also grades the nations of the world according to an international caste system. Countries are rated like castes whose educational dignity is determined by the average years of schooling of its citizens, a rating which is closely related to per capita gross national product, and much more painful.”


Some pretty intrusive solutions have been envisaged to make sure that the poor can benefit from increase spending on education but any equitable system of distribution will benefit rich kids more because they can better profit from improvement.

One suggestion was draconian.

“…preventive concentration camps for predelinquents would be a logical improvement over the school system.”


Other mistaken perceptions that Illich points out .

“Equal educational opportunity is, indeed, both a desirable and a feasible goal, but to equate this with obligatory schooling is to confuse salvation with the Church”

The existing system gives a premium to the credential that institutions grant although the credential is a false indicator of comparative worth. To over come this illusion Illich recommends

“…a law forbidding discrimination in hiring, voting, or admission to centers of learning based on previous attendance at some curriculum.”


Creeping credentialism is even more of a problem and advanced degrees are merely screening tools for employers. There is no reason to require that a flight attendant have a BA. Students start recognizing and gaming the system.

“A second major illusion on which the school system rests is that most learning is the result of teaching... most people acquire most of their knowledge outside school, and school… has become their place of confinement during an increasing part of their lives.”


Teaching and learning are normal human activities and basic social processes. Institutionalizing teach and learning into education has created a lot of anomalies.

“… those using skills which are in demand and do require a human teacher are discouraged from sharing these skills with others. This is done either by teachers who monopolize the licenses or by unions which protect their trade interests.”


Actually becoming a professional teacher may alienate a person from the natural human propensity to teach.

Illich has some prescriptions for better teaching.

* “Matching partners for educational purposes
* helps the pupil to formulate his puzzlement
* The most radical alternative to school would be a network or service which gave each man the same opportunity to share his current concern with others motivated by the same concern.

It looks like we may be moving to an era where the internet provides the means for us to be self-educating sharing our concerns and resources with others and creating our own networks and systems for learning. Learning will return to is more natural form rather than being locked up in educational structures that more and more threaten to inhibit more than support learning. The pedagogy of propinquity describes one of the ways that this might happen. Rather than being stuck following an institutionally mandated, state sanctioned curriculum, people will be able to learn more in the way that nature intends.

Fayard and Weeks (2007) talk about the way that people in office or work setting use "watercooler or photocopier" conversations to harness the possibilities of learning through propinquity. The same argument is being made for the use of online social media at work. People use the tools they have to learn and to accomplish the things they must. Seems it is a basic social process that benefits communities and institutions.

Bowles, M. S. (2005). Learning to E-learn Project:Rediscovering the Benefits of Elearning. . Malaysian Online Journal of Instructional Technology, 2(1).

Greene, A., Spellman, B., Dusek, J., Eichenbaum, H., & Levy, W. Relational learning with and without awareness: Transitive inference using nonverbal stimuli in humans.

Gritton , J. (2007). Of Serendipity, free association and aimless browsing: Do they Lead to Serendipitous learning.

Fayard, A.-L. (2007). Photocopiers and Water-coolers: The Affordances of Informal Interaction. Organization Studies, 28(5). doi:10.1177/0170840606068310 http://crocodoc.com/5fxWBo2


Illich, I. (1971). Deschooling society. Harper & Row New York.



Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning Legitimate Peripheral Participation . New York: Cambridge University Press.


Mitra, S., Dangwal, T., Chattergee, S., Jha, S., Bisht, R., & Kapur, P. (2005). Acquisition of Computer Literacy Skills on Shared Public Computers: Children and the "Hole in the Wall" . Australasian Journal of Educational Technology. , 21(3), 407-426.


Orr, J. E. (1996). Talking About Machines: An Ethnography of a Modern Job. Cornell University Press.


Tough, A. (1967). Learning Without a Teacher, Educational Research Series. Totonto, Canada: Ontario Institute of Studies in Education.

3 comments:

Eva said...

I red your post once, but undergoing the expierence of PLENK2010 I understand the item now. The "pedagogy of propinquity" is your article, isn't it? I would like to translate it and place it in my blog. Would you give me the permission to do so?
Yours sincerely Eva

Glen Gatin said...

Hi Eva, I would be happy to have you translate this entry. All I ask is that you give me credit and include a link to my original article.

Cris said...

I remembered that you referenced the pedagogy of propinquity in a PLENK 2010 session, Glen. I added propinquity to my vocabulary and am now pleased to add "the pedagogy of propinquity" to my thinking about my role as a professional teacher and even more dangerous -- a teacher educator. As Postman said, "teaching should be a subversive activity" and it's great to be reminded so well why.