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Learning to Learn

Richard Schutte
9 min readAug 13, 2020





denoting a pronoun that refers back to the subject of the clause in which it is used, e.g. myself, themselves

“Life itself consists of phases in which the organism falls out of step with the march of surrounding things and then recovers unison with it — either through effort or by some happy chance. And, in a growing life, the recovery is never mere return to a prior state, for it is enriched by the state of disparity and resistance through which it has successfully passed. If the gap between organism and environment is too wide, the creature dies. If its activity is not enhanced by the temporary alienation, it merely subsists. Life grows when a temporary falling out is a transition to a more extensive balance of the energies of the organism with those of the conditions under which it lives”…

- John Dewey

“Human nature exists and operates in an environment. And it is not ‘in’ that environment as coins are in a box, but as a plant is in the sunlight and soil”…

- John Dewey

“We do not learn from experience; we learn by reflecting on experience”…

- John Dewey

“Should one name one central concept, a first principle, of cybernetics, it would be circularity.”…

— Heinz von Foerster

One of the most prominent American philosophers and thinkers of the first half of the 20th Century was John Dewey [1].

His work was anchored in how pragmatism — experiential learning, active participation ( inquiry, collaboration, and reflection), real world problem solving, inclusive participatory decision-making within communities that foster open dialogue, diversity of thought, exchange of ideas — could be applied to education, civil society and social change.

“Every response, whether it be an act directed towards the outside world or an act internalised as thought, takes the form of an adaptation or, better, of a re-adaptation”…
Jean Piaget,

A Dyadic Relationship Primacy of Existence and Primacy of Human Consciousness

A recognition of the dynamic complex evolving nature of the fitness landscape.

Dewey’s thinking was highly influential in maintaining a vibrant liberal democracy that could evolve and adapt to change over time.

Through collective action and the exchange of ideas in the Public Sphere [2] — engagement and communication amongst citizens, experts and politicians — public opinion is shaped (a process of Collective Sensemaking [2]).

His ideas on the nature of education and learning were transformational.

Dewey believed education and civil society were the bedrock of a well-functioning democracy.

One that encouraged social change through the day-to-day practice of solving problems and harnessing collective action, pursuing open-inquiry and undertaking reflexive thought.

“Dewey has been to our age what Aristotle was to the later Middle Ages, not a philosopher, but the philosopher”…

— Hilda Neatby [3], Historian & Educator

In Logic and the Theory of Inquiry [4], he challenged contemporary logical theory and asked whether this formalistic and statistic form of abstraction is sufficient for the unfolding dynamic nature of reality.

“Man is not logical, and his intellectual history is a record of mental reserves and compromises. He hangs on to what he can in his old beliefs even when he is compelled to surrender their logical basis”…

— John Dewey

His critique of Logic was directed at the limits of Cartesian mathematical abstraction, Aristotelian term logic and a fixed set of rules in how we navigate and act in an emergent complex World.

He believed we also needed to incorporate our observations & experiences of reality — blending contextualisation & action with abstraction & reductionism.

An instrumentalism that recognises the embodied nature of reason.

Dewey was a prominent educational reformer of the 20th Century.

His theories were outlined in a series of key publications from 1897 to 1938, and a reoccurring theme throughout his work was the interactive and social learning process.

“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”

― John Dewey

He viewed education as a dynamic collective social process.

A means where one not only gains content knowledge but also learns how to live.

“Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results” …

― John Dewey

Human learning, according to Dewey, was more than a mechanistic Reflex Arc Concept [9] where an arc was formed from an external stimulus of the sense organs (a Stimulus) to a response from the internal workings of our brain (a Response).

He believed this was overly simplistic and mechanistic.

Learning was a dynamic continuous process shaped by an individuals interaction with the environment.

We are entangled in the World.

“Every time we teach a child something, we keep him from inventing it himself. On the other hand that which we allow him to discover by himself will remain with him visibly for the rest of his life”…
Jean Piaget

Learning as an active and dynamic process that involves the integration of experiences, reflection and problem-solving.

Context mattered and included past experiences, the broader environment and the level of engagement.

His pragmatic Theory of Truth [10] was anchored in the process of constant discovery — the experimental (trial & error) — and creative capacities of the human experience.

Metaphysical Idealism and Epistemological Realism

The process of Learning to Learn (cultivating a disposition ) to produce predictable and dependable outcomes.

“What does reason know? Reason only knows what it has succeeded in learning”…

— Fyodor Dostoevsky

A practice of competent inquiry.

Dewey’s insights were way ahead of their time — extending beyond the limits of Logic [5] combining practical actions with reflective thought and inquiry — [5] — a human agency with the metaphysical [11] — the semantic [6] with the algorithmic — the importance of the lived experience context, relationships, reflection & meaning — all mattered to the process of learning.

It was a fundamental shift in the nature of philosophy and our understanding of reality.

From a model of inquiry and a view of the nature of knowledge where the mind is attempting to mirror the World via an internal abstract Model of the World.

An Age of Reason.

Towards a Monism

To a view of the World where we are in the World ( human agency).

It’s through our practical actions and experience that we navigate reality.

Knowledge is practice.

An Age of Entanglement.

As outlined In search of Ground Truths [13] and the work of Austrian American Scientist Heinz von Foerster Second-Order Cybernetic Systems can self-reflect.

Our ability to be aware of not only the World around us but ourselves, our beliefs, and context is an innate human superpower in our capacity to navigate complexity and uncertainty.

In a recent August 2020 podcast — Artificial Intelligence with Lex Friedman [14] — An interview with intersectional neuroscience and artificial intelligence researcher Dileep George — they discuss the human brain's composition and “wiring”.

Through recent advances in understanding the biological brain, Dileep suggests in the discussion that “there may be more feedback connections than feed-forward connections”.

He then goes on to explain why this might be the case, an abbreviated quote from the interview:

…“This fits into a very beautiful picture of how the brain works… …Our brain is building a model of the World… our visual system is building a model of how objects behave in the World, and we are constantly projecting that model back to the World. So what we are seeing is not just a feed-forward thing that just gets interpreted. We are constantly projecting our expectations onto the World, and the final percept is a combination of what we project onto the World combined with the actually sensory input…

[Lex Friedman — “almost like trying to calculate the difference and then trying to interpret the difference?”…]

…I wouldn’t put it as calculating the difference; it’s more like what is the best explanation for the input stimulus based on the model of the World I have?”…

A never-ending OODA Loop.

“To doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the necessity of reflection.”…

— Jules Henri Poincare

A shift beyond ideology or as outlined in our February 2019 post — The Age of Entanglement [16]:

“ From a binary world anchored in scientific reason and post-modern relativism to a quantum world anchored in human fallibility and system complexity”…

One that requires a profound shift in how we perceive reality.

“ Our lens of the world will need to shift focus from one anchored in the ego-state, certainty, control and ideology to one anchored in humility, uncertainty, collaboration, ideas, creativity, problem-solving and cognitive diversity”…

Visionary Finnish Sociologist Esko Kilpi sadly passed away earlier this year.

He was a leading thinker in laying the intellectual foundations for the nature of work in a Post-Industrial Society.

In a February 2019 article titled — How to scale up learning [17] — he outlines a vision for creating work for human beings in this new and demanding environment.

It’s an inspiring alternative vision to the emerging algorithmic automation narrative explored in our recent August 2020 post — Alchemy [18].

A concluding quote from the article:

“Work starts from problems, and learning starts from questions.

Work is creating value, and learning is creating knowledge.

Both work and learning require the same things: interaction and engagement.

Scientists have discovered that learning is learnable.

With the help of modern tools, we can create ways for many people to become learners.

But learning itself has changed; it is not first acquiring skills and then utilising them at work.

Post-industrial work is learning.

It is figuring out how to solve a particular problem and then scaling up what has been learned — both with technology and other people”…

In the Age of Entanglement [16], will we leverage our Human superpowers of Human Agency, Semantic Abstraction, Inquiry, Problem Solving, Reflexivity, Collaboration [19], Learning to Learn (cultivating a disposition) and integrate Deductive, Inductive & Abductive Reasoning [20]?

“Times of crisis, of disruption or constructive change, are not only predictable but desirable. They mean growth. Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most”…

— Fyodor Dostoevsky

Combining the lived experience with reflective thought and open inquirythe qualitative with the quantitative — abstraction with experience.

As John Dewey articulated over a century ago, the future of our children, education and society is at stake.

“Life is what matters, life alone — the continuous, eternal process of discovering life — and not the discovery itself”…

— Fyodor Dostoevsky


[1] John Dewey — dewey

[2] The Public Sphere — — and — Collective Sensemaking —

[3]Hilda Neatby -

[4] Logic and the theory of Inquiry —

[5]The Limits of Logic —

[6] The Semantic Mind —

[7] The Complexity Void —

[8] To live is to Flow —

[9] Reflex Arc Concept —

[10] Theory of Truth —

[11] What is MetaPhysics? —

[12] Humility is Truth — humility-is-truth-and-the-sea-of-ignorance-c289112cbd57

[13] In Search for Ground Truths —

[14] Lex Friedman Podcast — Brain Inspired Ai – Dileep George –

[15] The Reality Gap —

[16] The Age of Entanglement —

[17] How to scale up learning —

[18] Alchemy —

[19] The Beetle Paradox —

[20] Why Philosophy matters more than ever in the Age of Entanglement?… —

[21]Re-Imagining Organisations for the 21st Century… —

[22] The implausibility of intelligence explosion —

“Intelligence [22] is not simply generated through abstraction. Intelligence is embodied. It requires agency and a problem to be solved — a response to the environment and context. There are no solutions without problems”…

— The Complexity Void



Richard Schutte

Innovation, Intrapreneurship, Entrepreneurship, Complexity, Leadership & Community Twitter: @complexityvoid