Studies in Philosophy and Education

, Volume 27, Issue 4, pp 253–266

Meaning and Learning in a World of Instability and Multiplicity


    • School of Culture, Language and Communication, Institute of Education University of London

DOI: 10.1007/s11217-007-9070-2

Cite this article as:
Kress, G. Stud Philos Educ (2008) 27: 253. doi:10.1007/s11217-007-9070-2


Globalization impacts on education everywhere; it is impossible to consider issues of curriculum or pedagogy without bearing in mind the effects of globalization. Here I consider to what extent it is possible to imagine curricula and pedagogies which could function at a global level? I do so from an anglo-phone perspective, from within the UK (and similar societies) in the early part of the 21st century. The challenge is to develop means of analysis which allow distanced reflection on local issues and at the same time facilitate descriptions at a global level, relatively free of the ‘skew’ of the local. The article deals with four issues: dominantmyths which still govern contemporary thinking about education; addressing the transitional generation, a generation which straddles the shifts produced by the fault-lines in present social and political transitions of arrangements of power and authority; the characteristics and effects of present and likely future environments of learning, distinct historically and geographically; and the urgent need to develop apt theories of learning, that is, theories of learning which are apt for these new givens. What unites all these is the commonality of the experience of learning in a world of instability and multiplicity of meaning.


GlobalizationMeaning and learningGlobal curriculumGlobal pedagogy


The issues around globalization and education are many and varied. They are inescapably present and effective—even if in distinct ways—anywhere on the globe, and certainly so in all the societies and cultures which fall into the ambit of, for want of a better term, the ‘developed world’. By that I mean that the effects of globalization have impacts everywhere, and in nearly all domains of the public and the private. In my view it is not plausible to consider issues of curriculum (or, to a somewhat lesser extent, of pedagogy) in societies such as the ones in which I have worked and lived—in Europe, in Australia, or as a visitor in the US or in East Asia—without bearing in mind, at every point, the effects and demands of globalization (Kress 1999). Here, in this article I wish to consider a specific instance of the issue, namely the question ‘to what extent is it possible or necessary to imagine or to construct global curricula (or global pedagogies), that is, curricula and pedagogies which have relevance at a global level?’

Points of Reference for a ‘Global Curriculum’ and a ‘Global Pedagogy’

Inevitably, in considering the ‘globalization of education’ one has to do so from a specific position: in my case from a ‘Western’, and more specifically, an anglo-phone perspective, that of the UK (and similar societies) in the early part of the 21st century. It is essential to stress that at the very beginning. The challenge is to develop means of description and analysis which are general enough to allow distanced reflection on ‘local’ issues, which at the same time facilitate descriptions at a global level, relatively free of the ‘skew’ of the local. While there are the traditions and insights of the discipline of Comparative Education to draw on, it itself embodies ‘Western’ conceptions, particularly those of ‘education systems’ in the context of the 19th century nation-state. With a weakening of the nation-state and the more or less rapid dismantling of national ‘education systems’, there is a limit to the use of its insights given the new conditions.

But to start at a somewhat different point: One profound effect of ‘the local’ is that of language and therefore that of the naming and conception of the issues. With that comes the (usually) implicit cultural freight that attaches to whatever terms are available and chosen. As one instance, what meanings/concepts attach to that simple word ‘education’, compared, let us say, to the words ‘teaching’ or ‘learning’? What is the effect in the substance of the debate if we move from “Education in global environments” to “learning in global environments”? Even in the relatively narrow frame of Europe we have debates around the German ‘Bildung’—never mind ‘Erziehung’ or the French ‘formation’, nor the plethora of wordings and namings in languages around the world, all saturated with their cultural histories. I will return to this issue briefly at the end of this article.

I consider four issues: (1) the effect of continuing and still dominant myths deriving from conditions of an already quite distant past which nevertheless still govern contemporary thinking about education; (2) the question of how to address what I call the transitional generation, a generation (or maybe, better, several generations) which straddles the shifts produced by the highly active fault-lines in present social and political transitions of arrangements of power and authority, as well as equally profound and everywhere related changes in economic arrangements; (3) the characteristics and effects of present and likely future environments of learning, distinct and different both historically from those of the ideologically still active past and geographically from those of the different social, cultural and economic environments of different parts of the globe; and, arising out of these, (4), the urgent need to develop apt theories of learning, that is, theories of learning which are apt for these new givens. What unites all these is the commonality of the experience of learning in a world of instability and multiplicity of meaning.

In themselves, these four may not look like the core issues dealing with education in a globalizing environment, or indeed issues of global education. That however is my point: at one level, what applies to education or to learning or to teaching in a global frame, applies to education, learning, teaching always and everywhere, though in specific forms. Hence this new concern leads us to ask old and persistent questions again, now in a newly configured frame. From these four issues—dominant myths, the transitional generation, the characteristics of environments of learning and apt theories of learning—we might derive principles which will lead us away from the assumption that our local situation is common to all places and times, and away therefore from the past error of mistaking the specific for the general. The need is to understand the demands of the new givens as well as the conditions of learning at any time. Not included here however is what may be the most important issue of all: a concern with social and ethical navigational principles, that is, with values and ethics rather than mere functionality and pragmatics: the question not just of ‘what works?’ but a concern with how it works, in whose interest and to whose benefit or detriment.

In educational practices and thinking there exists a commonsense that curriculum is founded on and is the expression of those characteristics of a society which are deemed essential to ‘transmit’ to the next generation—whether as knowledge or as skill, as dispositions or as naturalized values. In Foreign Language Teaching, for instance, it is now assumed not to be sensible—or possible even—to teach a language without at the same time teaching (about) salient aspects of ‘the’ culture. In other words, a curriculum of ‘knowledge of a language’ is seen as necessarily culture-specific, and cannot therefore plausibly be taught without some understanding of the culture which sustains that language. In the case of English, the question arises: when we teach the English of the US, of England or of Australia, do we teach American or English or Australian culture? (ignoring, of course, the ideologically motivated fiction of a construct such as “the English of the US”, “... of England” etc). What is the case with language-teaching is no less so for most other areas of a school curriculum. We can generalize this point and ask: if culture and curriculum necessarily form a tightly connected entity, then which culture or cultures are to be the points of reference for a global curriculum?

The question is no easier with Pedagogy. In its very many uses, the term ‘pedagogy’ tends to point to the social relations between those who shape and ‘present’ the curriculum, policy makers, teachers, and those who are asked to engage with it as learners—whether as ‘transmission’ or as ‘facilitation’; whether with an emphasis on authority in teaching or with an emphasis on ‘shared power’ in learning: between those who occupy a position as students, apprentices or novices or those who are ‘experts’ (Bernstein 1996).

Just as curriculum embodies the meanings, knowledge, values held important in a society/culture, so pedagogy is in every way connected to, derived from and homologous with specific, valued forms of social relations in the society which constitutes the environment of the school. Pedagogy is always socially specific. Hence the same question poses itself here too: which society can serve as a point of reference for a globally relevant pedagogy?

The questions then are: ‘what culture, what society corresponds, gives rise to, is embodied in a global curriculum and pedagogy?’ We can turn this around and ask whether it is sensible even to ask such questions? Maybe the only plausible response would be to say from the beginning that this simply makes no sense. But the debate exists and maybe not without reason. Globalization, however vague and varied the meaning given to that term, is a reality. Provisionally, I would say that the question needs to be (re)formulated so that we see it, always, as an abbreviation of a highly complex set of questions around contemporary conditions of learning.

Although my perspective is from that of ‘Western’ societies, I hope that readers from societies and cultures elsewhere can make useable translations from their perspectives to their environments, in some parts at least. My four points are derived from features of contemporary environments of education in ‘developed (Western) societies’. The first point, that of dominant myths, draws attention to the continuing effect, through such myths, of a past which was differently organized to the present, socially and economically (Wallerstein 2001). A globally conceived education system will need to focus on the meanings and force of such metaphors and myths. In the ‘West’ two of the most profound of these myths, in my view, are those of ‘stability’ and of ‘uniformity’/‘singularity’/‘homogeneity’; each has its effects everywhere in educational thinking and environments. ‘Stability’ leads to assumptions about predictability; while ‘singularity’ (or ‘uniformity’/‘homogeneity’) leads to assumptions about the homogeneity of the audience of education as much as to consequent assumptions about the ontological/epistemological security of “knowledge” and the general assent to ethical principles founded on such homogeneity. But ‘stability’ has given way, decisively, to instability; instability provides no basis for predictability. ‘Singularity’ has given way to ‘multiplicity’ and ‘diversity’, which paves the way to ontological and epistemological insecurity and relativism. While the consequences for educational thinking, policies and practices are enormous, it is reasonable to say that we are at the earliest beginnings of a thoroughgoing reassessment.

With my second point I attempt to draw attention to the fact that in the transition from conditions of stability to those of instability and from uniformity/singularity to multiplicity and diversity, educators will need to devise means of engaging, of paying the fullest attention to the transitional generation, the generation(s) which straddle(s) the present shifts in power and authority, as well as its accompanying social, economic, political and technological changes. This is other than the usual difficulties inherent in generational succession (and here especially it is essential to be conscious of cultural difference: not every culture has developed an Oedipus myth!). Rather it describes a situation where, with the disappearance of large sectors of the economy, the previously established linking structures of school and work no longer exist. This leaves the school without its legitimating purposes, while, at the same time, the value-systems of the society have collapsed and disappeared, depriving the school of that foundation and legitimation. New structures of relative stability have not (yet) emerged (see e.g. Barnett 2003). This intensely difficult situation is not made easier by the insistent appeal to the myths deriving from the older social givens.

My third point concerns the need to theorize, describe, analyze and come to terms with environments of learning which are distinctly different to those which had shaped past conceptions of teaching and learning. Here I am thinking not so much of the appearance and effects of the usually-mentioned ‘new’ or ‘digital media’ (though they play a central role), but of a searching reflection on ‘what is to be learned’ on the one hand, in conditions marked by profound challenges to structures of authority on the other. The emblematic sign of that change is the shift of emphasis in educational rhetoric from teaching to learning. Much as the ‘Reformation’ in Western Europe had freed the individual believer from the authority of the church (and implicitly from secular authority), to ‘set them free’ into a new, direct relation to God, so now the learner has been ‘set free’ (with the provisos just made, of the real as well as the ideologically contradictory position of the school, for younger learners) from the various authorities in relation to knowledge (‘what is to be learned’) and power (‘whose decision and whose interest is to count’). The agency and responsibility of the learner is one of the most significant aspects of the new environments of learning.

This entails my fourth point, the development of an apt theory of learning for the conditions of the present, one which will at the same time provide a plausible account of learning generally and everywhere. On the one hand this theory will exist in a situation in which there may not be an institution which regulates what is to be learned, that is, where a clear curriculum exists, with rules and metrics of success in relation to the learner’s adaptation/assimilation to or integration of that curriculum but where, on the other hand, the learner constructs knowledge needed by her or him from their principles and culturally available resources. Instead of a curriculum of stable knowledge—devised by an extraneous authority—knowledge is made by learners in relation to their needs, as tools to solve problems encountered by them in their life-worlds (Boeck 2004). It is a theory of learning where the interests, principles and the agency of the learner have replaced those of an extraneous authority.

In this respect it is, for me, important to maintain an absolute distinction between currently fashionable notions of ‘personalized learning’, that is learning individualistically in the absence of a knowledge of and acceptance of communal (including ethical) social resources, versus the agency of the learner in an awareness, an understanding and acceptance of such resources. The one entails an abandonment of notions of community and sociality, the other insists on awareness and assent.

Myths of Stability and Homogeneity

In Western Europe the world is changing at a rate more pronounced than at any time for at least 800 years. This may seem wildly overstated, given the nearly two and a half centuries of the Industrial Revolution and its effects, and given the cataclysmic events of two world wars. And yet, in the countryside and villages of Central Europe in the 1950s, the shape of the fields, the tools in use, the practices, were entirely those one can recognize in a Breughel painting from 400 years earlier: the wooden carts with their iron rims, forged in the village smithy, drawn by oxen. The tools to work the fields were those used four centuries earlier: the scythes, rakes, forks, ploughs, made of wood largely and using iron only where that was essential. In the twenty, thirty years following, all that was swept aside, earlier in the north and west of Europe and later in the south, where that era persisted well into the 1970s. I imagine that similar stories can be told about parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

My point is that the present period is the culmination of two cycles: one, the agricultural, of more than a thousand years’ duration; the other, the industrial, of some two and a half centuries. Potent myths and metaphors arose out of and as responses to the conditions of those two long-lasting, distinct and yet connected cycles. They continue to shape the imagination and the practices of the present, even though those conditions no longer exist. One of the most profound and persistently dominant conceptions (as myth or as metaphor) which comes out of that long period is that of stability. The myth of stability is amyth involving time, a myth of an eternal present, an eternal ‘now’. It fosters the assumption, a relative certainty that—whatever cataclysmic events, natural or social—might befall, the world tomorrow would recognizably and in all essential ways be much as the world of yesterday had been.

The other is that of (at least relative) singularity (homogeneity/unity/uniformity). It is amyth involving place, of location. It fosters the assumption that the place where I am is like all other (relevant) places, that all significant social and cultural entities in my place belong to the one culture, that all members of my social group are, in relevant respects, the same. It is a myth born out of the absence of mobility. When, on my first ever visit to Spain, in 1968, I saw elderly women sickle grass along the road verges on the edge of villages, gather it together in a large cloth, to carry it back as fodder for smaller domestic animals, it was a practice I recognized at once as ‘the same’ as one I had known as a child in ‘my’ village in lower Franconia, some 20 years earlier. Similarly, the aim of the nation-state had been to foster that sense of ‘being the same’, of uniformity. The young men called up into the national army for the period of compulsory military service could come from any region in the country, speaking often mutually incomprehensible dialects yet be treated and see themselves as ‘the same’ with respect to their participation in this duty, to their values, their ‘essential’ German-ness, French-ness, and so on.

The myths of stability and uniformity are mutually sustaining. They confirm to me that what my father and my mother have known is the relevant knowledge; how they have done things is the way to do things now. Translated into the domain of education, they provided the mythically generative material for the education systems of western nation states of the last two centuries.

Of course both the notion of stability and that of uniformity had always been mythic, ideological: there had been the ‘Reformation’, the ‘Renaissance’, the ‘Enlightenment’, the development of mercantile capitalism, the development of the ‘modern’ nation state. The plaintive lines by the 17th century English poet John Donne, that “the new philosophy/casts all in doubt”—a reference to the profoundly disturbing pronouncements of then contemporary astronomy—show that the intellectual as well as the religious foundations of that world were being shaken to their core. Yet while these ultimately had the most profound effects on notions of authority and on the relation of the individual to power—secular or divine—the deeper metaphors remained intact enough to be useable still as points of reference and ‘appeal’.

The present, however, is marked by a new revolution, in the meanings, effects and uses of time and space: for information of all kinds, the ruling sense of time now is that of the speed of light; the relevant unit of space that of the globe. The effect of these two together, in political, social, economic and cultural terms, in terms of the impact of technologies, whether of transport of information or of people, has been to unmake all former framings and with that of all former certainties, in all domains. That is so whether it has been the frame of the nation state, with its designs for a homogeneous citizenry (in Western Europe), with its nationally controlled economy and its local labour force; with its then intact authority and authorized individuals in different domains—whether the political, the social, the ethical, the intellectual, the economic; with strong framings around knowledge; stability in forms, means and control of communication; and, by no means last, control of the domain of the personal/individual.

The school of the ‘West’ was conceived in and remains the heir of that history, a history, roughly speaking, co-extensive with the cycle of industrialization. It was established in response to the needs of that period: from a social and political perspective to produce ‘citizens’; economically, to produce the nation’s labour force, with a tight link between the needs of the state and its economy and the expectations held of and fostered by the school. The tight framings of the society in all its forms were also the framings for the school, and both together provided a tight, close, relatively well-functioning—and from the perspective of power ‘from above’—entirely motivated fit. Curriculum could be founded on authoritative knowledge, and on the utility of that knowledge in relation to the social and economic givens. Pedagogies, as the instantiation of social forms, relations and processes in the classroom, could make appeal to stable frames of ethical, political and social authority. Conceptions of the individual, of subjectivity, of the extent, possibilities and limits of agency, but also of duties, obligations and responsibilities, could be derived from that stable and known ethical social, economic and political environment. These conceptions underpinned, gave meaning and legitimation to the structures, processes and practices of education systems, to both teaching and learning. In many ways they are still expected to do so, even though the underpinning structures have disappeared, so that they now can function only in purely ideological form.

Educating the Transitional Generation

The alienation of a significant proportion of the young from school and from what it has to offer is a major problem in many countries of the ‘West’. Boys tend to be more represented in that group than girls; other social factors play their part, though not in a straightforward way. The present form of alienation is not that of the ‘generation gap’ of the past, where the impatience and energy of the young had come up hard against the established interests, inertia and power of the preceding generation. Nor is it the alienation of an underclass from the values of a socially and culturally dominant middle class with its values and practices alien to ‘working class’ children—the situation so clearly described in Paul Willis’ Learning to labour (Willis 1978). It is alienation based on the gap between what the school promises, what it can still supply and legitimately promise and what the alienated young judge to be of relevance to and in the world as they experience it. In that light, what the school actually offers is by and large no longer of interest to members of that group, which has had to deal with, and still is, the transitions brought about by the factors collected together by the term ‘globalization’; has had to deal with the rupture of the former link between school, economy and society, a break in judgements about knowledge, values, work and rewards in school and in the world around the school. It is a transition of the widest and most profound kinds: from a world in which ‘acquisition’ of skills and knowledge in school provided entry onto a clear path to work and the professions, and to social structures more widely, to a world in which that path has collapsed and disappeared, and the responsibility for these things has fallen to the young themselves.

For school and students, the biggest challenge has been the transition from the authority of the State to the all-pervasive power of the market; from a former ethics of work, duty and obligation to the seductive promises by the market of immediate gratification through consumption. School is the site in which the educational effects of this transition are most intensely felt. It is not, however, the only educational site where these transitions are active. They have their effects throughout society, in work and in the professions; hence the new watch-words of life-long and life-wide education, themselves markers of the instability of economic arrangements in various localities. There are, too, the transitions across cultural spaces and their effects, as life-trajectories now cross geographical, social and cultural spaces.

Given the myths of stability (a myth about time) and singularity (a myth about space), the transitions are felt wherever former arrangements of time and space have been altered, lost or destroyed. Where formerly education was temporally bounded—the period of (compulsory) schooling for all, or the period of education encompassing school and further and higher education—that boundary no longer exists. Nor do the other former temporal boundaries: of the school day, of the lesson, of the school term or year, etc. All these had previously meshed with the forms, contents, values and, above all, the temporal rhythms of the wider society.

It is still clear that conventional power lies in the school. At the same time it is becoming increasingly clear where alternative power is beginning to assemble: in forms of often outright refusal, and avoidance of school(ing), of truancy, of alternative routes to knowledge and so on. There is a deep problem of ‘recognition’: the generation now undergoing schooling simply does not ‘recognize’ the accounts about the present or the future given by those who belong to preceding generations, for whom ‘now’ represents loss. To the young in school, the present is not loss, it is what is; it is not some changed condition, with lesser potentials and possibilities, a constant cause for nostalgia. It is what it is, and it is taken as what it is. From that perspective, worries about instability and change are perplexing; what is needed from that perspective are resources of dealing with the problems of now and of the future. In other words, it becomes more important than ever before to ask: ‘Whose problems, whose perceptions are these?’ ‘Do they belong to my generation or to theirs?’

There is one other, temporary but severe problem of ‘generation’, which will be with us for another 20 years or so. Everyone over the age of 35, more or less, went to school before the real impact of the digital technologies and of the multiple factors of globalization had begun to bite in irrefutable ways. For anyone whose schooling started sometime between the mid-1980s and the early 1990s, these are quite simply how things are. Yet it is the former generation that fashions the curricula and the regimes of policing them via the metrics of assessment, while the generation which is the most affected in its educational experience, ostensibly powerless, has no real say in the formulation of either.

This is not the place to attempt any answer to the question how to engage the transitional generation. Yet one can say with certainty that a necessary starting point entails ditching the old, dysfunctional myths.

New Environments of Learning: Characteristics and Effects

What is clear is that ‘stability’ and ‘singularity’ no longer characterize environments of learning; ‘instability’ and ‘multiplicity’ do. Given that predictability is not possible, curricula founded on the passing on of knowledge cannot be a solution. Given the collapse of former structures of authority and power, distinct both historically from those of the ideologically still active past and geographically from those of the different social, cultural and economic environments of different parts of the globe; pedagogies too need to respond to that new situation.

In other words, ‘reproduction’, whether of society and its culture(s)—producing the young in the image of that society, with its relevant, valued knowledges and values—is no longer a possible agenda for education, whether in a specific locality or as a possibility for a globally oriented form of education. Grasping what the new conditions of learning are, requires a profound understanding of the characteristics of contemporary, changing environments, both in specific localities and beyond them. Out of such understanding it may become possible to design curricula and pedagogies which are suited for a future which we may guess at but cannot know.

The educational effects of the shift from stability to instability are clear: in conditions of stability it is possible to predict. That is not the case now. Different and distinct (curricular, conceptual, social and ethical) resources are required to deal with each. The effect of the shift from homogeneity to diversity is different, and pertinent immediately both locally and to the issue of a global curriculum. Before, those who constructed curricula could anchor them to the stable givens of ‘their’ society today, certain that they would ‘fit’ the society of tomorrow. That is no longer the case. Locally, where before one could assume that one knew the society, understood and shared its values and needs and therefore knew the ‘audience’ of a curriculum or the participants in a pedagogy, that is absolutely not the case now. Neither locally nor globally can it be clear who the audience for a curriculum is or will be and what its characteristics are.

To list some other potent differences of the environments of learning: ‘then’ work and leisure were distinct in site; in time; in tools, ‘now’ these are blurred, they flow into each other. ‘Then’ transport (crucially for education) whether of information (cultural or economic) or of a material, physical kind was slow; ‘now’ it is fast, and often—in finance for instance, as with much cultural information—(near) instantaneous. Speed and the mobility of information have contradictory effects. On the one hand they have a homogenizing effect, in making everywhere like anywhere else; and making all time into ‘now’—conditions which should favour a globally relevant curriculum. On the other hand speed and mobility intensify diversity and difference, so that neither knowledge nor values are secure. ‘Then’ the major institutions of the state—social, economic, political—were stable; ‘now’ they are unstable, often they are ad hoc and short-term, institutions formed by highly local communities. ‘Then’ the state and its demands—producing citizens and a labour force for a local economy—were clear; now the state’s aims and requirements have been displaced by those of an increasingly transnationally controlled and ordered market. Markets are interested in consumers, not in citizens; the market is not interested in production but in consumption, and not interested therefore either in the development or the characteristics of a labour-force, local or global.

The ethics of state and market were (and still are, in some respects, differently in different places) distinct. Now however, in many places, the state is fast becoming the servant, more or less directly, of the requirements of the market, with the orientation of state and market becoming increasingly merged as the expression of the needs, requirements and values of the market. An economy based on production has been displaced by an economy based on consumption (in all this I am speaking about the UK; the situation is not the same in different parts of Europe; with the neo-liberal state/society/economy of the UK one of the most ‘advanced’ in that respect) (see for instance Gee et al. 1996; Kress 1996, 1997, 2000, 2003). The larger point here is that an economy based on consumption has an entirely different relation to an ‘education system’ than one that is based on production.

So far I have not directly addressed the most significant aspects of any environment of learning, namely power and authority. Until quite recently, questions of the kind: whose power? whose authority? in what domains? how exercised? had a clear answer. The school provided the environment for engagement with a curriculum which had general assent and legitimacy socially and which provided ethical, intellectual and conceptual principles for navigating that world. The school, as the agent of state power had responsibility for the essential characteristics of the environment of learning: what social relations were imagined and projected in the pedagogies enacted in classrooms; what role power played in relation to knowledge; what value was given to correctness (a social issue, linked to convention) as against accuracy (an ethical issue, linked to truth); what modes for representation were admitted and which were marginalized or banished; and so on. The school is still expected to fulfil this role and these functions, though now without the essential support of functioning social structures and frames.

All my argument so far suggest that the school’s focus—and indeed those of anyone involved in (relatively) formal teaching/learning environments—must change so that the interests of the students and their transformative work are at the centre of educational attention. This is, in no way, to ask the school to abandon a clear sense of the importance of the culture’s knowledge and values; quite to the contrary. The school needs to value that knowledge and those values, and show them as the result of the principled, transformative work on the world by the many members of a culture over long periods of time. The real and difficult task is to convey not only a sense of value but a means of showing its significance in ways that connect with the lives of the young. Learning happens in many other sites; though when it does, it happens in environments constituted with different authority, principles, power and values. These are sites that range from workplaces to leisure centres, from the play-station and the laptop at home to visits to museums with or without mobile technologies, amusement parks, the supermarket as much as the art gallery, clubs and discos, and so on. In each case the relevant questions are: whose interests, whose agency, whose power is active, and whose power constitutes the curriculum (implicitly or explicitly) and determines the pedagogy? Who decides, here, what is to be learned, but also, who decides here—or anywhere—how that is to be learned? The market has its seductive strategies for encouraging learning (Gee 2004) as does the supermarket: both using notions of pleasure rather than work.

Two features of the new media may serve a guiding metaphor in this respect. Both focus on users as interactive. One is directionality of power; the other is ordering of material. With the media of the page the direction of power has been from author to reader; and while the reader may do many things with the text, from outright rejection and refusal to engage, to opposition, to transformative engagement, to full ‘alignment’, it is nevertheless difficult for the reader to ‘write back’ to the author; real (as against an ‘internal’) dialogue is hardly possible. With the media of the screen the direction is nearly always two-way: a reader can write back. Most genres used by the young encourage ‘writing back’. This has entirely changed the authority of authorship. Significantly, it is what is now normal for the young and is rapidly becoming normal for all. By ordering I refer to the phenomenon that in contemporary multimodal (and not only screen-based) texts, it is the reader who decides in which order (s)he wishes to read the text and therefore in what order they will engage with the materials put forward in the text. In the ‘older’ text, the reader was obliged both by the form of the text and by convention to read the text and engage with its materials in the order set out by the author. Now it is the reader’s interest which fixes the order of reading. In that sense all readers have become author/designers of the texts with which they engage.

These two principles taken together have the profoundest effects on arrangements of power in all domains. These are factors which are reshaping environments of learning. They ensure that all curricula are in effect and inevitably becoming personalized curricula, leading to personal learning. I have no doubt that these principles will prove crucial in the thinking and development around global curricula and pedagogies.

Apt Theories of Learning

In that former context, theories of learning had been founded on conceptions of subjectivity derived from the power of the state and its institutions vis-a-vis the citizen, or ‘subject’. Theories of learning had rested on the authority of teachers (as the agent of the state) and learners (seen, proleptically, as subjects/citizens of the state and as members of the labour force) (Bernstein 1996). They had failed to recognize human transformative action. Now theories of learning can, in any case, no longer be derived from these now absent structures and frames. So if we now ask about apt theories of learning, two issues pose themselves simultaneously: the first is the centrality of the agentive and transformative role of learners. The second forces us to ask “what do we mean by learning?” (Kress et al. 2001, 2007). For both we need to refer to the specific community in whose historical, social, cultural, economic, and political environment we find ourselves: the ‘locations’ of such communities may be real or ‘virtual’ along any one of these dimensions, highly localized or global.

The shift in focus from teaching to learning is one of the most significant indicators of the many changes that have overtaken institutionalized education. It points to changes in power and authority. We need to establish what follows from such theories of learning. Crucially, we need to develop apt forms of assessment, metrics of learning which are appropriate both to the new theories and the new demands for a recognition of dispositions.

An apt theory of learning requires the rethinking of sites of learning. The stablesitesof learning of the last century and a half in the industrialized ‘West’, had tended to be tied to a specific place, the site of the school, or the university: physical spaces shaped by social organization and structures. Practices had accreted around such sites which, over time, settled into often highly elaborate and rigid ritual (Wulf 2005, 2006). Hence time has been an equally significant factor. On the one hand schooling was closely tied to socio-cultural definitions of chronological age—childhood, adolescence/youth, and adulthood, with formal education linked with one of these; on the other hand schooling was closely regulated by cultural and social time: lessons, in the school day; the weeks of schooling in an equally regulated school year over the years of schooling. These units of time themselves derived their meaning from a range of social features: ‘vacations’ were linked to the social and economic calendar (I remember, in my schooling, fourteen days of ‘potato holidays’, where children were expected to help in that harvest); the school day derived its rhythms from those of the working day. Childhood had economic as well as pedagogic and curricular implications, as did the ‘development’ into adolescence.

These units and organizations were socially and culturally shaped, as will the new units and organizations now developing. The new sites of learning have moved beyond specifc spaces such as the school (-building): they are a part of the ‘home’ nearly as much as of the school; in the workplace as much as in the Further Education College; and portable technologies mean that wherever these are carried becomes a site of learning: on the bus, in the train, on the underground, in the park, in the museum. When a technology for learning can be anywhere, then everywhere is a site of learning, and another boundary has thereby been obliterated (Lankshear and Knobel 2003; Kress 2007Pedagogies).

In such sites—transient or stable—there needs to be no official, pre-existing curriculum, no overt pedagogy, and no overt assessment. The curriculum that is present—if we wanted, still, to use that term—is of the learners’ own making, arising (explicitly or implicitly) out of their own interest. There needs to be no overt teaching; and without that no visible metric of success, unless the learner wishes to construct and apply such a metric.

The question ‘what has been learned’ is as relevant as before. Now however the focus has shifted to an attempt to describe and understand the principles of the learner’s interest. A plausible account of learning is one which provides a description of the relation between the object/phenomenon with which the learner engaged and the results of that engagement. This process is not best described as assessment. It differs fundamentally from previous conceptions. There, attention had centred on the degree of ‘fit’ between the phenomenon/object and a focus on salient features of the object supplied by authority, the learner’s engaged with it under conditions of extraneous power and the results of that engagement. That process was aptly described as assessment.

In the new approach, learning is seen as the ceaseless, constant engagement with the world, taking place irrespective of the presence of formal curricula or formal teaching, the world engaged with framed instead by the learner’s interest. In as far as it is impossible to be in the world and not to engage with aspects of it, constantly, learning is ceaseless. At times its outcomes are visible, at other times not, but it and its effects are always there. In that perspective a description of learning is ‘the change produced in the learners’ resources as a result of their active transformative engagement, on the basis of principles that the learner brings to that engagement, with that aspect of the world which is in focus’.

The process of learning is one of transformation: first, of the learner’s resources; second, of the world with which the learner had engaged; and third, of the principles which the learner had applied in their engagement with the world. ‘Learning’ and ‘semiosis’ are different names for the same process, seen in each case from a different epistemological and pragmatic perspective. ‘Learning’ names a focus more on the change to the learner’s ‘inner’ resources—the first and third points above. ‘Semiosis’ names a focus more on the change of the world as a result of a remaking of the individual’s resources for making meaning. The absence of an explicit curriculum or pedagogy impedes neither ongoing semiosis nor continuous learning, both as the continuous inner transformative work (Kress 1997; Kress in Göhlich 2007).

Has the School become superfluous in learning? Quite to the contrary, I believe, that the school’s (or the pedagogue’s) task remains essential: but fundamentally changed by comparison to the earlier task. What remains constant is that both School/pedagogue remain the agent of culture and society, with the task to ‘propose’ what is to be learned. Relations of power have changes, hence relations of pedagogy and forms through or in which curriculum is presented. The pedagogic institution has the task to offer phenomena for engagement and resources with which to engage with these, including ‘navigational aids’ The students’ task in response is to make use of the resources that have been made available for further semiotic work, to ‘take it further’, though on the basis of their interests. The question of the student’s task needs fine-tuning in relation to what it is that is presented to be learned: learners engaged in practices of key-hole surgery and those engaged with practices of cultural enquiry need to attend differentially, with varying forms of metrics; yet the pedagogic principles at issue are the same in each case.

This re-allocates tasks and roles differently to school and learner: the school proposes its curriculum—what is to be learned—and students, in their engagement, transform those materials on the basis of their interest. Taken together, this allocation of different and complementary tasks can constitute a useful starting principle for a newly conceived role for any pedagogic environment/institution, with its resources, for teachers and their expertise, and for learners as agentive in their own interests. Proposing ‘what is to be learned’ offers a continuing crucially significant function for the school in any society that wishes to maintain a sense of social and cultural cohesion, using a core of shared knowledge, of values and dispositions as one form of ‘social cement’.

The school selects these materials according to criteria of cultural and social relevance and significance that can be established—at the level of a local community, or of larger level organizations as socially/culturally legitimate and as essential. This acknowledges the value of past and of present cultural work, gives value to the expertise of those engaged in that and to the concerns of the social group for the maintenance of grounds and principles for continued sociality. It also acknowledges that in conditions of instability and diversity quite new conceptions of routes and resources need to be developed. Given a definition of learning as a change in my inner, conceptual resources as a result of my active transformative engagement with an aspect of the world, it also acknowledges the real agency of learners.

There are consequences of a profound kind for authority and power: who decides what is to be learned? In the past it was the power of society, vested in the school. Now with social power much more in question, and with a wide gap between the world as it appears in the school, and as it appears to those who are students in the school with their experience of that world, there is a need for searching debate, for a reconsideration of power, for the recognition and affirmation of the interests of the students. The compromise that might be reached would affirm both the school’s expertise and the students’ interest. It would be based on a transformative view of learning, in which the values and the knowledge of a culture would receive full acknowledgement, while students’ agency would be in the centre.


The question posed earlier ‘to what extent is it possible or necessary to imagine or to construct global curricula (or global pedagogies), that is, curricula and pedagogies which have relevance at a global level?’ remains valid and urgent. Yet as observed earlier, without a society and cultures which act as ‘points of reference’ without knowable economic organizations, in the presence of intense diversity, there can be no authoritative knowledge nor the shared values, no agreed curriculum nor a sense of necessary pedagogy. This poses one major question for attempts at producing a global(ised) curriculum. We also know that wherever social and economic factors are involved we know that culture is implicated; that acts as a constant reminder that while global forces are at work, local factors will be at work in often equal measure. In other words arrempts at constructing globally relevant curricula require a simultaneous account of the ‘communities’ and their cultural ‘shapes’ for whom such curricula are needed.

At the moment it is possible to think in terms of two forms of (elite) global education: One developed and provided for the elites of Western societies, and still sought avidly by members of other societies for its value as cultural and ‘real’ epistemological capital, that is, the cultural capital of the ‘leading’ societies globally. That form of education often is highly traditional and remains so quite deliberately, as a mark of ‘distinction’. The other is to attempt, as I have been doing here, to conceptualize forms of education for an increasingly global environment. My attempt has been to foreground principles of such pedagogic forms, knowledges and practices which might have global relevance.

Wherever social and economic factors are involved we know that culture is implicated. On the one hand it forces us to ask questions about new and emerging cultures, global in reach and constitution, and about their characteristics. On the other hand it acts as a constant reminder that while global forces are at work, local factors will be at work in often equal measure. The process is not unidirectional (Kress 1996).

Above all I have attempted to the need for reconceptualization of learning founded on recognition of new social, economic, political and cultural givens and the consequent redistributions and contestations around power. Notions and conceptions of an assessment in all of its forms—as the policing of theories of learning and thereby of conceptions of the social—is at the heart of any attempt to bring about change. Assessment is both a metric of ‘achievement’ defined by power and the site and the process of policing of social practices around learning (and others). My argument here poses a general question about apt forms of assessment of learning. Is it to be—as it has been—a metric of ‘acquisition’ as conformity to the authority of the curriculum, or is it a metric of principles of transformation of the materials engaged with on the basis of the evidence of signs of learning. In my view, only the latter opens up a newly essential window on learning. This is especially so if we ask other currently topical and crucial questions: which view of learning responds to conceptions of creativity, of diversity, of change; which view is apt for the givens and demands of the contemporary world. And from this position another bothersome question arises for me: what is not learning? When is there not learning? Who, in this beckoning new age of freedom will have the power to recognize what counts as learning? All this ignores the crucial political, epistemological, cultural issue: if the resources of representation are always the bearers of the freight of the histories of specific cultures, then what language shall we use in which to formulate our new globally relevant curricula?

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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008