Successful societies have always respected what the wise can teach us. But it’s not easy to learn from people whose grasp of any subject is well beyond our own, in part because our culture doesn’t emphasize the extraordinary benefits of person-to-person education.
I spend plenty of time staring at screens, yet I know from years of facilitating non-violence workshops that something important happens as we discuss, practice, and hone our skills together. Passion for a subject becomes a spark transferred. Going online is practically a reflex for us, but if our learning is confined there, what’s lost is rich perspective and valuable hands-on experience.
If you know where to look you can find sculptors, farmers, astronomers, welders, storytellers, clock repair experts, and cartoonists right in your community. Let’s take my hometown of Cleveland as an example. I can learn glass blowing at the Glass Bubble Project, eviscerate and stuff a rat to look like a tiny tie-wearing butler during a taxidermy workshop at Sweet Not Salty, apply Brian Swimme’s cosmology to my life direction at River’s Edge, make pasta by hand at Loretta Paganini School of Cooking, march with the Red Hackle Pipes & Drums band as I learn to play bagpipes from a former Pipe Major of Scotland’s Black Watch, let my kids partner with working scientists at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s future scientist program, volunteer to rehabilitate injured birds at the Medina Raptor Center, and learn to make handmade books at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Libraries, colleges and universities, museums, cultural and ethnic organizations, recreational centers, and plenty of other places in your neighborhood are brimming with great workshops and classes too.
This can happen more informally as well. As homeschoolers, we’ve found it doesn’t hurt to ask people to share a little of what they know.
- The owner of a steel drum company explained the history and science of drum-making, talked about the rewards and risks of entrepreneurship, then encouraged us to play the drums crafted there.
- A NASA engineer took us through a testing facility and showed us how materials are developed for the space program.
- A potter shared his thoughts about the nature of clay, taught us how to form vessels on a wheel, then invited us back for the opening of his kiln to see our creations emerge.
- An archaeologist invited us to spend the day at a dig where we worked along with a team of grad students.
We’ve spent days with woodworkers, architects, chemists, stagehands, chefs, paramedics, and many others. Surprisingly, we’ve gotten all this expert instruction for free. People rarely turn us down when we request the chance to learn from them. Perhaps the desire to pass along wisdom and experience to the next generation is encoded in our genes.
If someone possesses knowledge or abilities you’d like to gain, try asking. And don’t forget to look close to home. Your own contact list is also a knowledge network just waiting to be activated. You might master pinochle while spending time with your brother-in-law, learn cake decorating from your sister the caterer, gain new appreciation for fly fishing from your dad’s business partner, pick up horse-racing lingo from your neighbor, and as we all know, learn more from your own kids than you’d ever imagined.
Of course, there are all sorts of platforms promoting person-to-person wisdom. Here are a few.
DIY and Maker movements along with Maker Faires are popping up in more and more places. (Not in your area yet? Check out the Mini Maker Faire Starter Kit.) Find hackerspaces like Noisebridge, Pumping Station One, NYC Resistor, TechShops, and Artisan’s Asylum. Or start your own hackerspace.
Trade School is a barter-based learning space, meaning you don’t have to pay to learn. You might barter for a class with a homemade pie or art supplies or research help. The founders describe it as “a global movement for community, connection, and educational justice.” The first Trade School was started by three friends in a NYC storefront in 2010. Now self-organized Trade Schools are opening up or running in places like Milan, Cologne, Virginia, Oakland, Singapore, New Delhi, and Paris. Want to start one in your community? Here’s how.
FreeSkools are created by participants. There’s no central organizing manifesto on one site or in one book. Some are informal gatherings to share knowledge, others are active networks meeting in parks, living rooms, and community centers. All are devoted to learning freely. You’ll find them in Ithaca, Santa Cruz, and dozens of other cities in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. Check out piece in Shareable about how to set up a FreeSkool.
Skillshares are similar to FreeSkools, built around the experience and skill offered by people in the community. They may be set up as a one-time session, an annual event, or ongoing program. Here’s how to start one.
The School of Life is teeming with great stuff. They feature secular sermons with big thinkers talking about big ideas. Classes by experts with titles like How to Have Better Conversations, and Finding a Job You Love. The place is also teeming with activity beyond the sit-still-and-think variety. There are engaging programs with transformative potential and weekend adventures developed by scientists, artists, and others. So far there are eight locations including London, Melbourne, Paris, and Amsterdam.
Citizen Circles are small groups of people who meet to learn together for a limited period of time with an emphasis on collective learning and action. There’s no fee. Some Citizen Circle topics have included women as social innovators, systems dynamics, exploring indigenous knowledge, and design thinking. There’s plenty of information to help you start your own.
In addition, there are all sorts of inspiring methods you can use to construct a more hands-on DIY education—many of them free. If you know of other resources, share it in the comments.
Now go ahead. Get your hands right in that dirt, clay, or car engine as you build your expertise. Feel the spark. There’s else nothing like it.