Everyone has an idea about how learning and education should best be designed. For some, it’s about acquiring enough information to provide the widest possible range of options when time comes for solving a problem, coming up with an idea, or simply making a decision. For others, it’s about focusing on problems and challenges at hand rather than information, and creating the best environment for coming up with innovative solutions to those problems.
Today’s learning models are in a state of flux. We’re making so much progress in the humanities and sciences that we keep devising new ways to best approach our ever-shifting challenges. Our understanding of how we understand, how the brain works, how history moves, how we interact with each other, leaves us with far more questions than answers.
Even the most apparently immobile system is actually in motion. If you look at medieval education and learning, you’ll get an impression of immobility, stagnation and the greatest resistance to change. For the medievals, there was nothing worse than change, which actually meant novelty. Novelty was heresy, heterodoxy, fashion, impermanence, contingency, chaos, delusion – the antipode of order, orthodoxy, durability, truth. Reforms were about changing things back the way they once were.
Medieval learning also kept changing – forward, not back. Going to school in a 9th-century monastic school was different from attending class in a 12th-century urban cathedral school, which was even more different than going to university in the 15th century. The model changed. Curricula changed. The authorities changed. Teaching style changed.
They changed because the challenges changed, and education was designed, as it always is, to respond to challenges – intellectual, professional, economical. Sometimes, these challenges are not well-understood, and the educational vision is blurred and misguided. In the Middle Ages, education was there to serve the needs of those who were seeking it. We’re starting to understand that education is there to serve the needs of everybody, whether educated or not, and allow a ever greater number access to it.