Successful societies have always respected what the the wise can teach us. But it’s not easy to learn directly from people whose grasp of any subject well exceeds our own, in part because person-to-person learning is easily supplanted by online engagement.
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. Real learning is like 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, 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 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. Museums, libraries, colleges and universities, cultural and ethnic organizations, recreational centers, and plenty of other places in your neighborhood are brimming with great workshops and classes for adults as well as kids.
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. A steel drum company owner welcomed our group for a visit. He explained the history and science of drum-making, talked about the rewards and risks of entrepreneurship, then encouraged us to play the drums displayed there. A NASA engineer took us through a testing facility and showed us how materials are developed for the space program. A potter talked to us 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.
We’ve spent days with woodworkers, architects, chemists, archaeologists, stagehands, chefs, paramedics, and many others. Despite offers of barter or pay, 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. (Ask them to share their interests, not “teach” to get a positive response!) And don’t forget to look close to home. You might master pinochle while spending time with your brother-in-law, learn coding from your niece, gain new appreciation for fly fishing from your dad’s business partner, go bird-watching with your neighbor, and as we all know, learn more from your own kids than you’d ever imagined. I call these knowledge networks. Here’s how to activate yours.
Of course, there are plenty of platforms promoting person-to-person wisdom. Here are a few.
DIY and Maker movements have opened all sorts of avenues, with Maker Faires happening in more and more places. (Not in your area? 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 area? Here’s how.
The Amazings offer non-traditional workshops and classes set up by ”amazings,” people over 50 with a passion to share what they know. Their site explains, “We want to make learning more fun, more friendly, more social, and more personal.” So far they have 45 people offering expertise in areas such as bookbinding, perfume making, foraging, carpentry, jazz guitar, philosophy, and corset making. The first branch is based in London, but they’re open to starting more around the world.
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 Ithica, Santa Cruz, and dozens of other cities in the U.S., Canada, and U.K. Check out piece in Yes! about what to consider when setting up a FreeSkool.
Skillshare is like the eBay of localized education. You can learn what you want from someone in your community as well as teach others what you know. Some of the classes offered right now are Building Mobile Apps for Android Devices, Rock Poster Design from Concept to Execution, and Launch Your Startup for Less than $1,000. There’s a fee and many of these classes aren’t taught in person, but online.
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 Be Creative and Finding a Job You Love. Bibliotherapy: basically book prescriptions custom-designed with your reading history, dilemmas, and desires in mind. 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. Oh, and what they call Utopian Feasts. So far there’s one in London with a branch opening in Australia. Not in London or Sydney? Start up something similar in your community.
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.
(un)classes are casual ways to meet and learn from local people. So far the idea has taken root in the San Francisco area. Any fees go to a designated charity and participants walk away with new knowledge as well as new connections. A recent class taught how to make gnocchi while benefiting the area food bank while another taught documentary photography while benefiting a scholarship program.
School of Everything, based in the U.K., connects those who want to learn with those who can share what they know. In Glasgow, for example, you can find instructors to teach you Mandarin, classical piano, acting audition techniques, hypnosis, and the tango. Some instructors charge for classes, others do not.
Go ahead. Get your hands right in that dirt, clay, dough, or paint as you build your expertise. Feel the spark. There’s else nothing like it.