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The Underground Learning Scene

Underground Learning Scene
Whole Life Learning for Career Success is a complex and chaotic business.  Post-traditional Learners are building knowledge and skills all the time from family, community, work and educational environments and experiences.  This messy accumulation of human capital is often not recognized by either formal institutions, or even, the individuals themselves. There is in fact a sort of “underground learning scene” in 21st knowledge intensive society.  This blog aims to explore this all too human “learning scene”, understand its complexity and seek to help post-traditional learners connect the dots of life, work and learning so they can consciously value their knowledge and skills and own their career success.

Learning-Intensivity, Tinkerers and the ULS

The Underground Learning Scene is intended as a tool to help map a “learning-intensive” society.  It provides a way of understanding the flow of learning and doing that help individuals accumulate human capital, expertise and mastery.

Let me explain.  The terms “knowledge”- and/or “information”-intensive world have become commonplace in today’s intellectual and policy circles. And while those circles quite naturally link these terms to a growing demand for all individuals to have more formal education, a less discussed but related concept is that society has become more learning-intensive.  To be successful one’s roles as worker, entrepreneur, family member and citizen one needs to learn in almost real time – whether it be learning how to manage a chronic medical condition using tech-based analytics, troubleshoot a malfunctioning robot assembly line or choreographing a flash mob event for an environmental non-profit – learning and adapting knowledge to circumstances on the fly is a key to national and personal prosperity.

Increasingly, abetted by technology, this learning-intensivity is challenging the design parameters of archetypal education institutions from K12 through college including centralized buildings and campuses and knowledge accumulation followed by application of that knowledge.

The ULS is meant to provide a framework for thinking about the design elements of learning in ways that parallel real-time acquisition and application of knowledge but are institution agnostic.  Here are a few ways examples of how this works.

I recently finished reading Alec Foege’s great book, The Tinkerers, which argues that America was created, in part, by a lineage of self-taught doers/amateurs like Ben Franklin, Steve Jobs and others.  While this narrative is familiar to folks that spend time in the entrepreneur and business literature, it occurred to me that there is also metaphor in learning and education.

For instance, one of the more interesting stories in the book centers on Australian-transplant to the U.S. and sometime MIT student/PhD – Saul Griffith.  Saul created a learning path that started in New South Wales passed through MIT but also was built on tinkering on projects outside the formal education path.  In fact, he created an inexpensive device for manufacturing eye glasses for developing nations through such informal tinkering.  Moreover, upon leaving MIT he renovated an old warehouse to started Squid Labs, a think and do tank, that was as much a business incubator for software and biking products as it was an entirely new form of learning space.  In the ULS framework, Griffith would be a learning activist and Squid Labs would be Making Hub.

Another example is the Millenial Trains Project, recently featured on CNBC.  The Millenial Trains Project seeks to connect young entrepreneurs to community based challenges by creating a train journey as learning platform.  The learning experience is designed to bring together new knowledge development with real time solution formation.  In the ULS framework this project would be a Learning Hub.

By generalizing away from specific types of institutional forms, the ULS allows us to better understand and situate different types of experiences in a learning-intensive society.


Learning is central to success in today’s economy.  To wit, postsecondary education is front and center in the national discussion.  Experts at the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce estimate that  sixty-seven of all jobs will require some type of postsecondary degree, whether a certificate or degree.  This “upskilling” of the economy is reflected in public policy to improve national competitiveness, for example, the Obama Administration has set a goal of America retaking the lead in college attainment in developed countries among young people, ages 25 -34, by 2020.

This drive for more education seems straightforward enough and yet does not tell the whole story.  Increasingly employers are seeking qualified candidates, not just with book smarts but applied knowledge –the ability to work with others to create value in real world settings using what they learned in college.  Moreover, a feedback loop forms between education and real world “know-how”, in which, work experiences shape the evolution of formal education and vice-versa throughout one’s life. The feedback loop has two unique attirbutes.  The first is that it is about developing mastery –becoming an expert – the demand for expertise in the labor market is on the rise.  U.S. Department of Labor data show that one of the most in demand employee characteristics for top paying jobs is “expert thinking” – the ability to create novel solutions from an existing knowledge base be it chemistry, biology or design, etc.  The second quality is that the feedback loop of learning is not visible in college credits or diplomas and thus constitutes a type of Underground Learning Scene.

For individuals to be successful in the global economy, they must intentionally chart and navigate the different underground learning scenes in their lives.  This article presents the elements of underground learning scene as a way of helping individuals understand pathways to learning and better accumulate the knowledge and skills that will enable success in life, work and community.

Enter the Wu Tang:  An Underground Learning Scene Example

In 1993, an unknown rap group called the Wu Tang Clan from Staten Island, NY released an independent single titled, Protect Ya Neck.  The single created a cult following for the group as pioneers in the rap music industry based on their innovative use of sampling soul music, use of martial arts themes and unvarnished approach to tough social issues.

The Wu Tang’s debut album, Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers) became one of the top rap albums of all time.  Wu Tang’s founding member’s are now icons of rap music, namely:  RZA, GZA, Method Man, Rwaekwon, Ghostface Killah and Inspector Deck.

While this success is notable, for our purposes, how the success was achieved provides a real life example of an Underground Learning Scene.  The Wu Tang Clan is a Learning Co-op and, in fact, created an underground learning scene that transformed the rap music industry.

In RZA’s own words, from a 2005 MP3 interview for Daily Dose Wu Tang News, “we reinvented the way hip hop was structured, and what I mean is, you have a group signed to a label, yet the infrastructure of our deal was like anyone else’s [...] We still could negotiate with any label we wanted, like Meth went with Def Jam, Rae stayed with Loud, Ghost went with Sony, GZA went with Geffen Records, feel me? [...] And all these labels still put “Razor Sharp Records” on the credits [...] Wu Tang was a financial movement. So what do you wanna diversify…? [...] Your assets?

RZA was a Learning Activist.  In the late 1980s, RZA and GZA, rappers on the fringe of the mainstream rap scene, pulled together a group of like minded artists to form the Wu Tang Clan.  The intention behind this process was to assemble individuals with a passion for rap music that shared similar roots and leverage their diverse skills:  MCing, DJing, engineering, writing and production to create a Learning Co-op.  The Learning Co-op leveraged each others skills to develop expertise in the music industry and build a cult following.  Founded on this store of music mastery, they engaged the broader music industry as a collaborative and maximized their impact as individual artists.  As group, they learned their way into success and changed the music industry in the process.  The Wu Tang Clan created new ways for artists to maintain control of their music and bring fringe music to the mainstream in its original form.

The Wu Tang Clan constructed its own learning and achieved mastery from the experiences they assembled.  Where did they go to learn – what were their Learning Hubs?  Wu Tang’s Learning Hubs were clubs in the New York City area where they listened urban rap; radio stations that played classic soul, and indeed, the streets of Staten Island.

The Wu Tang validated their learning by doing – or making music.  Their Making Hubs were the small studios where they initially recorded and the clubs in which they played.  They experimented, learned how to improve and continued to iterate in real time.

Finally, all this activity occurred in a larger setting of the New York/Staten Island rap music scene, in which, fans and artists were connected in a community through radio play, word-of-mouth and live performances.  The Wu Tang Clan existed in a real place and was built on a foundation of people building community from shared passions.

The Wu Tang Clan’s experience has been written about in both the mainstream and music industry media from a cultural, and even, music business perspective.  Yet, not from the perspective of the formation of an intentional, if dynamic, learning community that organized a community of learners for success.  The Wu Tang Clan is emblematic of an emergent way of organizing learning, I call the Underground Learning Scene.

How To Leverage An Underground Learning Scene

An underground learning scene is made up of the people, places and tools that make learning possible.  These include Learning Activists, Learning Co-ops, Learning Hubs, Making Hubs and Community-building Tools.

A sustainable underground learning scene is also a learning economy in which learning and doing are a medium of exchange between individuals and Learning Co-ops.  There are perceived win-wins in the relationships formed around learning and resources with which to perpetuate the learning.

ULSs are emergent ecosystems, their elements are different and changing both in physical locations as well as on the web.  Connecting to a ULS is not just about networking but also about contribution and becoming a member of a learning community in a giving and receiving relationship with others.  As with the Wu Tang Clan, a ULS can accelerate learning and success for the community and the individual.

Here are three steps to learn how to leverage the ULS.

  1. Respect the Learning Scene – ULSs are not institutions to be mapped they are ecosystems to be experienced.  Learning occurs through exchange and  is measured through demonstrated competence.  In your life and work, where is learning being manifested? Where are like minded individuals self-organizing and finding resources for learning?  Go to those places.
  2. Situate Yourself –  You can play multiple roles in a ULS.  Situate yourself in the scene and identify if you are a Learning Activist, a Learning Hub guide, a Making Hub provider or a community-building facilitator.  You can play different roles at different times or at the same time.  The important thing is to understand the flow of learning and where you fit?
  3. Form a Learning Co-op – a ULS inherently about exchange, sharing and learning as  social construct.  You can’t do it alone.  Choose Co-op partners who want to experience the ULS with you.  Share their cognitive, social and financial capital to meet both individual and collaborative goals.


As society becomes more “learning-intensive”  underground learning scenes will continue to emerge as pathways to life and work success.  Embracing them takes  a willingness to be a beginner,  a tolerance for the risk of making  mistakes and , most of all, the desire to help others learn.  Can you afford not to engage?

Coming Soon

Stay tuned for exciting news from the underground learning scene!!