Thinking about Generation M and Work and Learning

I loved going to school.

Really loved it.

And it’s only as I’ve grown older that I’ve really come to appreciate the value of being encouraged to be curious, to question, to challenge and to try things out to see what happens.

In a strange kind of way, growing up in a hybrid Hindu family (father quite progressive, mother from very traditional roots) gave me something that proved to be a real treasure in later years. Learning to pick your fights. The curiosity was tempered by a clear understanding of authority and a consequent patience; this was, if anything, accentuated by my going to a Jesuit school. [And yes, I only learnt about the patience over time, I was anything but patient as a youth].

Remember, this was in Calcutta in the 1960s and 1970s. And that meant something else entered the fray. Passion. If I was allowed only one word to describe Calcutta as it was then, it would be passion. [Amartya Sen, in his delightful book The Argumentative Indian, describes, far better than I could, the essence of that culture and environment that I speak of. Go read the book, don’t let me spoil it.]

[An aside: Some time ago I was looking at the Wikipedia entry for Calcutta. And one of the sentences within it caught my eye. Calcutta is in the state of West Bengal, described in that entry as “the world’s longest-running democratically-elected Communist government“. Democratically elected Communists. An interesting concept. I can’t help but feel that, at least in part, the posters of my youth describe it well, proclaiming the existence of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Pro Lin Piao faction. Take that kind of fragmentation to an extreme and you have Hugh Macleod’s Global Microbrand. Deliciously different.]
Curiosity tempered by patience yet refuelled by passion. That is what my family and my teachers and my city gave to me as my inheritance, and I remain eternally grateful. And it’s probably a key reason for my continuing interest in education.
Now I’ve been out of academia for nearly thirty years, I live in a different culture, have different spiritual beliefs and work in an entirely different profession. And the longer I spend at work, the harder it is for me to understand the real distinctions between work and learning, between leadership and teaching. I know they exist, but at some level of abstraction I don’t know why.

Which brings me to the point of this post.

The kernel for the post is really a comment by Mark Berthelemy, suggesting that I delve into George Siemens. [Surprised? I read all comments and, even though it takes time, I get around to reading all the books and links and references that many of you provide. Part of the reason I blog, to learn from you. And I’m grateful.]

I had come across elearnspace before, but somewhere along the line I lost track, probably a bookmark transfer problem that went unnoticed. Given Mark’s prod, I went back and started reading George Siemens again, and went from there to looking at Learning Spaces, edited by Diana Oblinger. [Bill Barnett, if you’re reading this, do you know her?]

I’m still reading through the stuff, will be a while before I can make useful comments. But one thing struck me in my flypast.

In Chapter 7, Linking the Information Commons to Learning, Joan Lippincott makes the following observation:

  • Group Spaces: Another major difference between an information commons and traditional libraries is the way they accommodate groups. Traditional libraries have focused on providing quiet space for individual study. Occasionally, a few group study rooms are available, but they are considered a peripheral feature of the library. In an information commons, much of the space is configured for use by small groups of students, reflecting students’ desire for collaborative learning and combining social interaction with work.

Reflecting students’ desire for collaborative learning and combining social interaction with work. That really made me think again about Generation M and work and learning.

So we have these students with a desire for collaborative learning and a wish to combine social interaction with work. And some places of learning have cottoned on to this, and are building learning spaces. And maybe after reading Learning Spaces, there will be more such institutions.

Then the students leave academia and come to “work”. Where they are greeted by cubicles and meeting rooms. If they’re lucky, they get to stay in an “open plan” environment, with row upon row of rabbit warren desk, individually numbered and named, cubicles in all but name. Once you plan it then it isn’t open.

If we want people to collaborate and work together, then we need spaces where they can. If people have meeting rooms then guess what, they will have meetings. And we all know how useful they are.

If we provide them with working-together-spaces then they are slightly more likely to work together, don’t you think. Slightly more likely not to send an e-mail to the person in the next virtual cubicle. Slightly more likely to dry up some of the sources that Scott Adams uses for Dilbert inspiration. [I know, I know, that would be a real shame. Still…]

I think there’s more to be investigated on all this, on how people use (and sometimes misuse, to great effect) what they’re given. But that’s for another post on another day.

2 thoughts on “Thinking about Generation M and Work and Learning”

  1. JP, welcome to the physical world! Informations commons spaces have been around for a really long time, long before anyone decided to hang terminology on them! They were all over the MIT campus, and some were even part of the library facilities. More important than that, though, was that they were all over the city of Cambridge. In my day the most famous was a bar called Cronin’s; and, even if this information never found its way into Wikipedia, just about everyone knew that this was where Project Mohole was born! If this sounds too much like ancient history, Wikipedia DOES have an entry for Project Mohole at:

    Now that I live on “that other coast,” people are more likely to raise the example of the Wagon Wheel as the information commons that played a key role in the birth of Silicon Valley as we now know it. Ironically, the Wagon Wheel has NOT found its way into Wikipedia; but it IS in the Stanford Silicon Valley Archives (complete with a photograph) at:

    The point behind this eruption of nostalgia is that I really like the way you have moved the discourse from the virtual spaces of software artifacts such as collaboration tools to the physical spaces that our bodies must occupy 24-7! Furthermore, while I sympathize with your advocating providing “working-together-spaces,” the lessons to be learned from Cronin’s and the Wagon Wheel is that, more often than not, these spaces define themselves, sometimes where we least expect them to be defined! Indeed, I worked at a laboratory whose director WANTED to create one of these “working-together-spaces;” and that dog just did not hunt.

    Do you know the old joke about how Cornell University designed is landscape? It had this large green area around which many of the buildings were situated, and there was always a question of which parts of the green should be cleared away for paths. It is also located in Ithaca, New York, which gets a lot of snow (more than I ever want to see again). One year the landscapers decided that they would wait until the snow had melted and then observe where the ground had been disturbed, due to students forging their own paths through the snow. They then decided that those would be the paths across the green and refreshed the grass around those paths! So it is that people who want to work together tend to form their own paths, and the real trick is to have a working environment that allows those paths to take shape!

Let me know what you think

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