On the Proposed Superiority of Urban Learning

This morning I returned to New York City from a week-long stay in a very rural section of Washington State, and found this John Hagel Big Think video waiting for me:


Citing Tom Friedman and Richard Florida, Hagel posits that people simply learn faster in cities:

A lot of us have an intuitive sense that we’re gonna learn faster in a city surrounded by other people that have similar or complementary talents to us, that we’re gonna learn much faster in that kind of environment than we would out in some rural area even if we can plug into the network and connect virtually with anybody we want.

That notion in particular of these unexpected encounters that you have in cities — you know, walking down the street, sitting in a coffee shop, at the soccer game with your kids, talking to somebody that you never knew before but when you strike up a conversation it comes up with a really interesting insight, helps you to get through a problem you’ve been wrestling with. Those kinds of opportunities occur much more richly and frequently in cities than they do in rural areas.

The suggestion does seem intuitive—and that’s what worries me. Do the kinds of “unexpected encounters” that supposedly typify the urban experience actually prompt better or more rapid kinds of learning? How could we investigate such a claim? I, for one, am much more likely to meet like-minded (and thus presumably non-learning-fostering) individuals here in the city than out in the woods, and the experience of socioeconomically disadvantaged “urban students” living in homogeneous neighborhoods and attending underfunded and neglected schools doesn’t exactly scream educational privilege. In any case, wouldn’t my capacity to learn from such encounters depend more on my ability and willingness to actively interrogate them than on the “differences” with which I’m presented?

These questions reinforce my interest in assigning my students (and myself) a “learning journal” project, which would encourage ongoing metacognitive reflection on what experiences and practices seem to yield different kinds and qualities of learning. It’s anecdotal as can be, obviously, but even an awareness of this limitation will be a useful reflection element, and it would be instructive to cross-reference the journals with some credible research in education and cognitive psychology.

What do you think? Do you learn differently, more quickly, or better in urban or rural environments?

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2 thoughts on “On the Proposed Superiority of Urban Learning

  1. Interesting theory, but I think it is somewhat negated by the homogeneity of many people’s lives. They stay with people and things they know and avoid people and things they don’t and rarely get those kind of random encounters. Many people simply will not strike up a conversation with a random stranger in a coffee shop, and those who would are already more likely to be more open and receptive of new and different things than someone who would not. I would also posit that in rural areas you get a large degree of unexpected encounters as well, but of a very different kind.

    • Agreed. I suppose it’s possible that the unexpected urban encounters are meaningfully different in probability and kind, even given experience avoidance, but it all seems uncomfortably speculative. I’d like to see some real information on this.

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