Life is a journey. I have been keenly aware of that for a good portion of my life. I guess I became aware of the power of the metaphor in my early twenties when I broke away from some cultural patterns that diverted me from what a friend called “the franchised life” — that more or less predictable and predefined path for a Mexican woman, or for anyone who doesn’t question their status quo.
This summer I was for three weeks in Europe: two weeks working in Germany with The Journey Network and then one week in Patmos, Greece, co-learning with my dear friends of Good World Journeys. Without a complete ability to express what has changed, I can feel in my being that the experience was deeply transformative and I’m in a different place. Yes, it was a journey.
My mentor Bela H. Banathy used the metaphor of “the journey" to talk about evolutionary learning and design. His book Systems Design of Education has the subtitle: A journey to create the future. This is the book that helped me discover my passion for systemic change and innovation in education. This is the book that helped me clarify that I needed to do my Ph.D. and that I wanted to study with him. In a way, this book was my ticket for the next stage of my learning journey. I talked of the power of evolutionary learning in my previous blog.
Bela’s social systems design methodology involved “transcendence” – a leap into the possible future – rather than incremental change. The process of transcendence was essential: the difference that made the difference when compared to other strategic thinking processes. It is through transcending the existing system that we can envision a different future, an ideal to guide us, to pull us beyond problem solving and to inform the innovation of new, ethical social systems. Rather than focusing our energy on understanding what’s wrong with our current situation and trying to fix it, we invest our efforts in designing and experimenting with new possibilities.
Systems design is not a mechanical step-by-step process. Not at all. My way of describing it is more akin to creating the conditions for the emergence of the new system. Bela defined social systems design as a “future creating disciplined inquiry” in the same spirit of Buckminster Fuller’s idea that: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Systems design is also the evolutionary pattern captured in Otto Scharmer’s Theory U process – without the deepening at the bottom of the U, we are doomed to improve on existing patterns rather than sensing and allowing what wants and needs to emerge.
Transcendence is a way of describing the evolutionary transition from one stage to another. Evolution is a journey towards greater complexity, and complexity involves greater interconnectivity. And yet, that increase in structural complexity doesn’t necessary involve more complicatedness but it can bring greater functional simplicity.
Think of the evolution of technology: a computer used to be this clunky big machine that took up a whole room and required special temperatures and a full team of highly specialized humans to operate it, and now we have handheld devices with greater computing capacity that even a toddler can figure out. In my own words, complexity is graceful: greater efficiency and elegance, greater reciprocity and resilience, greater capacity for creativity and emergence. The more complex a system, the more beauty and mystery and awe we experience. Evolution is a quest towards more integration, increased dynamic harmony, and wholeness. Biologist Elizabeth Sahtouris says that “the evolutionary process is an awesome improvisational dance that weaves individual, communal, ecosystemic and planetary interests into a harmonious whole.”
The most important aspect of this evolutionary pattern is its non-linear nature. It is a stochastic process, a dance with rhythm consisting of periods of dynamic stability (homeostasis) followed by transitions of rapid chaotic change. It is this chaotic period where the system reconfigures itself, and leaps or transcends to a higher, more complex form of organization. Uncertainty and ambiguity are characteristics of the transitions. The system that emerges from this reconfiguration is consistent and coherent with the previous organizational stage, and yet, it’s final form could have not been predicted or controlled during the transition.
Bela used to tell the Native American story of Jumping Mouse to explain the process of transcendence. Jumping mouse is an archetypal story of the hero's journey, a story of personal evolution and an allegory to describe the process experienced by a community engaged in systems design. I have always loved the story as a reminder that life is a journey of becoming more fully who we are meant to become.
This inquiry about transcendence in systems design has been appealing and intriguing to me. There is something both in the scientific description and in the indigenous story of the pattern of an evolutionary journey that feels like a deeper truth. I recognize it in my own experience. Bela was passionate about education and human development. In his own personal story, he talked about the seven stages of his life, and in addition to the emphasis on transcendence at the group and cultural level, he recognized the importance of the evolution of consciousness as prerequisite for envisioning a new society.
What I didn’t get from Bela (due to my own developmental stage at the time) was the insights related to the emotional and psychological aspects of transcendence. I didn’t know how transcendence “felt” and how it looked in our personal lives. I made that connection through my own personal experiences, through going through the dark night of my soul, and as part of my desire and commitment to (re)connect my work to healing and indigenous knowledge. Transcendence, in many indigenous cultures, is facilitated through ceremony, initiation rituals, or rites of passage.
The metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly has become a cliché for describing transformational processes. I have always wondered if the caterpillar experiences fear of the unknown as she goes into the cocoon. I did. Inside the cocoon, all the cells of what used to be the body of the caterpillar become a mush while the imaginal cells – the cells that will become the butterfly – arise faster than the old immune system can fight, feeding from the soupy meltdown of what used to be the caterpillar’s body: the deep reconfiguration of the transcendence stage. What I didn’t know, and found fascinating, is that the only thing that remains intact in this transition is her heart. What a beautiful metaphor. Listening to our heart as the source of the deeper truth that connects our past and future self is the way to navigate the chaos and confusion of transcendence.
Who am I, really? Who are my people? Where do I belong? Why am I alive? These questions are at the core of the human experience. The search for purpose, meaning and connection is as strong as the impulse of our heart to beat and keep us alive. When we don’t find answers to these questions, or when we are not encouraged and supported to even ask them, we disconnect — from ourselves, each other, life. I grew up in a family and social context that provided a lot of emotional and psychological safety around these questions: cultural norms and religious beliefs were there as answers. In my teens, I didn’t feel the need to question those answers. On the one hand, I can see the beauty of being held in the certainty of moral beliefs. On the other, those beliefs are the ones that keep us trapped in patterns that sometimes prevent the honoring of a deeper truth and the evolution of a culture.
The role of tradition and religion in providing some of these answers connected to our sense of purpose and belonging is deteriorating. The current planetary crisis calls for a bigger, all encompassing, rite of passage from unconscious to conscious humanity, from irresponsible adolescence to responsible adulthood as a species. Our global civilization is not based on spiritual wisdom, but rather has become an out-of-control race to find “happiness” through the consumption of material goods and egotistical gratifications. Rituals to help us become useful and honorable members of our community and to be welcomed into adulthood used to be a core experience in our distant evolutionary human history, but not anymore. Are these practices relevant today?
The metaphor of the journey, the response to the invitation to embark in an evolutionary learning process of self-discovery and self-creation, is helpful when I think of what is missing in the current educational model. It is a call to transcend our (self-imposed or cultural) limitations, to go beyond the status quo of our lives, to make sense of what is going on in the world and to find our place in it. It is the quest to find that overlap between what brings joy and meaning to our life while we contribute our gifts to the healing of the world. It is a call to evolutionary learning.
Last year, I was the invocation speaker for the commencement ceremony at Saybrook University. As I was preparing my message to the graduating class, the metaphor of the journey was very present. I have witnessed (and also experienced as a student) the ordeal that these adults learners go through. It goes beyond the hurdles of an academic program. There is a pattern that I have noticed: people who come to Saybrook come not only to get a degree but to answer a deeper question that we have been carrying in our heart. Our research is intertwined with our identity, our personal healing, and higher purpose. This is not just an education for advancing our career. This is a transformative learning experience to become closer to our authentic selves and to empower ourselves to do the work that only we can do.
Mary Oliver’s poem The Journey expressed all I wanted to say. So I read it.
The beauty and paradox of that moment was the realization that there was no difference between me standing on the stage, 13 years after my own graduation, and the graduating students in the audience. We are all on a lifelong journey.
A year later, with a few more experiences, my role in supporting others in their evolutionary journeys, as I continue walking my own, is becoming clearer and clearer.
by Mary Oliver
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.
My most recent professional experiences have brought me back to think about evolving education. In my previous blog I shared a little bit of the journey that has taken me to this moment. By evolving education I mean both integrating learning into life as well as designing new learning systems. Both are necessary. The first is about supporting a culture that embraces our growth and personal development as an ongoing lifelong process. Such a culture will recognize that as human beings we are always expanding and that in our life time we go through transitions or deeper transformations that require support and acknowledgement. Indigenous societies know the importance of creating rites of passage that mark these life transitions from one stage of being into another. The second is about innovating the learning institutions (the schools and universities of the future that are needed today) to develop whole human beings capable of creating whole, peaceful cultures.
I believe that learning is an integral part of life. Learning is key to the development of our human potential and to our collective cultural evolution. This has always been the case — our capacity to learn and adapt to new situations, as well as our capacity to adapt our environment to our needs, has been intricately linked to our survival. We became so successful at this adaptation game that something happened. Something got forgotten and disconnected. We started to believe that we are separate or above nature, that we can control it, that we can do whatever we want as if the laws of nature didn't apply to us. There are good news and bad news about this misperception. The good news is that we are finally beginning to acknowledge what a silly mistake it was. We are slowly but surely beginning to remember that we are one, that our lives and well being depend on the health and well being of the planet, that our selfish and disconnected ways of living and treating other living beings has created too much destruction and too much suffering. The bad news is that we are in deep trouble. The complexity and scale of our situation translates to a life or death predicament for humanity, or more accurately, an evolve or become extinct choice. What will we choose?
The amount and access of information available today is both a blessing and a curse. Never before have we had the opportunity to know what is happening in every part of the world as it is happening. Never before could we learn anything we want, immediately, by simply Googling it. Never before could we connect and collaborate with people no matter where they are physically located. At the same time, our lives are so full and the amount of stimulation we receive is simply overwhelming. The mainstream media channels broadcast distorted messages fueled by greed. They control the masses by keeping us numb with endless material desires and in a permanent state of fear. You have to have initiative to tune into life- affirming messages and to find sources of hope and inspiration.
Shouldn't education be about developing the full potential of each human being so that they can create a better world than the one they are inheriting from us?
I say yes, absolutely.
Then why are we so concerned about standardized tests, or grades, or getting our kids to a reputable college and making sure they will be “successful” at playing the current game of our consumer society? Why do we continue to invest energy and resources into an education that continues to feed the cultural myths that got us into trouble?
Can we get to a different future through old ways of learning, doing and being? I don't think so.
Bela Banathy distinguished evolutionary learning from maintenance learning. While maintenance learning is about acquiring knowledge from the past and maintaining the status quo, evolutionary learning is about knowledge creation and cultural innovation. Evolutionary learning is guided by questions of possibility that expand the edge of what we already know in order to create what we can only imagine. Evolutionary learning is what our world needs today.
Fifteen years ago, I did my dissertation research on Evolutionary Learning Communities (ELCs). My research was a theoretical articulation of a generic pattern – a fractal, an archetype – meant to guide the design of learning systems as unique and diverse as the people who created them but with unifying principles to guide societal transformation toward a sustainable future. This research was grounded in the life experiences and real practical efforts of a group of change agents who were my learning partners and co-researchers. Their projects were like different colorful threads that I attempted to wave into a coherent tapestry. Systems design, curriculum development, teacher training, systems thinking, new sciences, alternative unschooled systems, co-housing, community building, technological innovation, organizational learning, knowledge management, leadership development, deep ecology, environmental sustainability, shamanism, cosmology and conscious evolution where some of the topics woven into the inquiry.
I defined ELC as an ideal, alternative learning system designed to catalyze the purposeful creation of a sustainable and evolutionary future. ELCs are attuned to the place, the culture, and the stories and dreams of the people who create them. And yet, there are some shared values and common intentions that create coherence despite the contextual differences. A school for children in India, a socio-ecological graduate program in Mexico, an intentional community in Northern California, or a global network of change makers and social entrepreneurs may seem on the surface like radically different institutions. But if they all share a commitment to transformative learning, to supporting the discovery of the higher purpose of each person, and to creating spaces for collaborative life-affirming learning, design and action, then these organizational systems are all ELCs.
Today, I'm not alone in the action inquiry of education as the healing and transformational journey to develop the possible human and the possible society, as Jean Houston would say. There are brave souls taking bold steps and innovating the education of the future today. These educational entrepreneurs are trailblazers of their own unconventional learning processes, visionaries committed to action, leaders willing to face their fears and show us the risk and vulnerability it takes to create something new. And yet, these radically new and different evolutionary learning systems are deeply familiar because they reconnect us to our humanity, give us a sense of belonging, and bring us back to a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives that feels like home.
I feel honored, humbled, grateful and excited to be part of an emergent global community of individuals who are saying yes to the redesign of our educational systems. This is the work of evolutionary alchemists: willing to step into the fire to transmute the old into the new, creating organizations committed to walk their talk, innovating the regenerative business models, embodying within their organizational cultures the values and practices that they teach. These are the evolutionary learning communities ready to partner with anyone ready to embrace their learning journey to become who they are meant to become and to do the work they cannot notdo.
I dedicate this blog to my friends, collaborators — pioneers in evolutionary learning — at Mycelium and The Journey Network.
Education has always been close to my heart. It is my joy for learning that has kept me connected to the educational field, even though I had some painful learning experiences in my formal education. As a mother, I see my teen daughter questioning schooling practices that are not relevant, meaningful or enjoyable. When I was a little girl, I knew that I wanted to be a teacher. I guess I was fortunate to have teachers who really loved me and who encouraged me to be my best. In the culturally accepted but premature push to define my professional career in my late teens, I went into marketing. I excelled as a business student -- because I excelled at learning. Marketing is all about identifying consumer needs and satisfying them. It was after I graduated from college that I discovered that I didn’t care about creating and "satisfying" consumer needs, in fact, I found the field deeply troubling. I didn’t want to spend my time and energy convincing people to buy more stuff which I was clear was neither making them happy nor making the world a better place. But I did care about real and deep social needs: poverty, social injustice, women’s issues, environmental degradation… For me education was the means to addressing the root of those needs.
However, I soon became aware that education was a double-edged sword: while experts, governments, and NGOs agree that education is a key component of most systemic solutions for the world’s problems, the educational system itself is outdated and plagued with dysfunctionalities. As a result, what we call formal education today, remarkably similar in most countries of the world, is vastly inadequate for the learning and human development needs of the 21st century.
My introduction to systems science was through the work of my dear mentor, Bela H. Banathy. Bela’s work at the time was primarily on the redesign of educational systems. By “redesign” he meant the complete systemic reconceptualization of education, starting from a new set of values and assumptions, in order to create an educational system that truly responds to the current human, social and environmental needs and expresses the most advanced scientific, technological and creative knowledge in service of human and planetary flourishing. His book Systems Design of Education: A journey to create the future (published by Educational Technology in 1991) had a huge impact in my thinking. This was the book that made me realize I wanted to learn from and with him and the reason I came to do my Ph.D. at Saybrook.
From the very beginning of my inquiry about education, I was attracted to explore learning systems beyond the boundaries of traditional academia. That has been my work on evolutionary learning communities that started more than 20 years ago. The concept first emerged in the collaborative work of a research team at the International Systems Institute (ISI) in 1993 where systems scholars, convened by Bela Banathy, gathered in “week-long conversations” on the redesign of educational systems at the beautiful Asilomar Conference Center in Monterey, California. In these annual conversations, I discovered adult transformative learning and the experiences struck a deep cord in me. I focused the following years on exploring the possibilities and implications of this inquiry. My dissertation research, completed in 2000, was on Creating the Conditions for the Design of Evolutionary Learning Community: A co-creative and participatory exploration of educational images for a sustainable and evolutionary future. Since then, all my work in academic institutions, organizations and communities has been informed by the vision of flexible, adaptive, evolving learning systems that truly respond to the deepest yearnings of our hearts and awaken our human capacity for conscious evolution.
When I did my Ph.D. research, I was not aware of any learning systems that were integrating all the strands that I was seeking to weave together: personal transformation, creativity, community building, integration of work and learning, sustainable living, entrepreneurship, economic renewal, environmental and cultural regeneration, social justice, sustainable development... . I was envisioning an “all-in-one” learning system that didn’t fragment learning into separate subjects branched into specializations; a system that provided more of an integrated collaborative experience in which the curiosity and passion of each individual was connected to the unique talents of the other members of the learning community to create personal, social and ecological well-being. I sought a learning system that embraced the fullness of life; a transdisciplinary, transgenerational, transcultural process that could truly respond to the complexity of our global problems but translated into simple, joyful and meaningful practices. I imagined an experience in which learning is productive and fun all at once, rather than continuing to propagate the separation of those activities we call “work” because they provide us with a livelihood, those learning activities that we call “education” because they should prepare us be “successful,” and those activities that we consider “recreation” because they are fun, relaxing and bring joy to living. What if we were to design spaces in which all of these things happen simultaneously and the experience is of being who you truly are, doing something so enjoyable and so meaningful in service of the common good that we could sustain it without feeling depleted, bored, or alienated from it?
We are in such a deep global crisis. We will only continue to see more and more effects in our lives from climate change, social inequality, environmental depletion. We are waking up to the realization that there is no economy without ecology, that we share one finite planet with all living beings, that we are one human family. Our sense of separation, from nature, from different cultures, from each other, is an illusion that is coming to an end. My hope is that rather that succumbing to fear, that we wake up to the opportunity and responsibility that we have to make a difference. We created the mess… and we have the wisdom, knowledge and tools to design new social systems. We can solve the socio-ecological problems while creating a culture of peace and thriving sustainability. All we need is the will to do so.
My work for the last 15 years expanded theoretically and focused pragmatically at the same time. The expansion went in the direction of Evolutionary Development: an inquiry on other means to catalyze socio-cultural evolution (true, systemic, sustainable development). Issues such as the evolution of business and capitalism and ethical social innovation have been part of this inquiry. In terms of my practical work, facilitating learning processes to design evolutionary learning communities showed me that one of the main limitations for actualizing the potential of ELCs was in the ability of participants to communicate and build trust, to be vulnerable in order to be creative, or to have a strong sense of self to stay humble and open to different perspectives and navigate conflict gracefully. Fear, ego, and inability to remain open to change oneself were blocks that prevented groups from to bringing their visions into reality. These observations led me to recognize that leadership development, grounded in self-awareness and personal evolution, was the basis for creating ELCs.
Facilitating learning processes has been the connecting thread in my work: teaching and facilitating within graduate schools, offering workshops and experiences to develop leadership capacities, designing and facilitating design processes to create social enterprises that seek to change the world, coaching for change makers. As a curious and passionate lifelong learner seeking to understand and contribute to cultural transformation, I have been blessed with multiple and diverse opportunities to experience and contribute to different experiments in alternative learning. As I said before, Bela was strong about the need to design new educational systems from a different set of values and assumptions. Reforming, improving, and seeking to modify the current system cannot take us to where we need to go as society. And yet, as we work to redesign our educational systems, we cannot completely depart from our current reality: these experiments are bridges between the old and the new, reflecting our best efforts at balancing the integrity of their transformative vision with the need to make these initiatives viable and relevant.
Today, there is an explosion of educational alternatives and learning experiments all around the world. It is exciting to see so many of them embracing more holistic ways and creating alternatives to conventional pathways for children and adults. Transformative learning is spreading as a useful and appropriate way of facilitating processes that are more meaningful and responsive to the diversity of learning styles, pathways and goals, than those common approaches that continue to replicate a model that sees learners as empty vessels to be filled with standardized knowledge and information. Emotional intelligence, team work, and creativity are becoming as important as more traditional hard skills connected to academic disciplines or professional fields. Clarifying these personal gifts that each individual is called to bring into service is being recognized as a cornerstone of the education that can lead us to a different future.
What is missing is the connecting narrative that shows how these experiments are weaving a new story of learning and human development. There is a big need for intentionally fostering the learning ecosystems that show the complementary relationship among diverse offerings responding to different individual or societal learning needs. It is the story of a new educational system being born. So here I am. Ready to give it a try.