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.
I teach at Saybrook University, a graduate institution that was founded in the 70s to disseminate a humanistic view of psychology champion by luminaries such as Rollo May, Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow and James Bungental. Today, our programs go beyond clinical and interdisciplinary psychology to include mind-body medicine, organizational leadership and transformation and human science. We are a distance learning institution, geographically dispersed around the globe, but the sense of community and connection that I have with colleagues and students is deep and real. At every commencement ceremony, the room fills with the overflowing sense of gratitude that graduates expressed to their faculty, fellow students, family, and friends. The stories shared are testimony of the transformative learning journey that their education entailed.
I have always seen learning as a powerful, lifelong process. Collaborative learning—especially when it is connected to issues of care and concern for learners—has the power to catalyze change. This is the kind of learning that I have experienced here at Saybrook. We call it humanistic education.
For me, humanistic education is about learning for life. That is, meaningful learning that is relevant and enabling for each human being to become who they truly want and need to become. It is learning that celebrates life—learning that nourishes the human spirit in ways that make it possible to love and care for each other, for all living systems, and for the planet as a whole.
Humanistic education has very little to do with transmission of established knowledge from an expert to a novice. It is not so much about “teaching others” but more about “learning with others.” Humanistic education is about partnering in learning and engaging in dialogue guided by questions that lead to deeper understanding and new possibilities. It involves critical reflection and creativity to both consider the limitations of a current situation and envision new horizons.
A learner-centered approach is the hallmark of humanistic education. But there is more. For me, a truly humanistic education for the 21st century develops a new generation of leaders with fresh ideas—leaders who are able to devise systemic solutions to the complex problems that afflict our societies.
When I speak of leaders, I do not refer to the small, but powerful elite group of individuals with authority who make decisions for others, either through political influence, economic advantage, or brute force. Rather, I mean everyday citizens who are leaders of their own lives; shapers of their collective destinies; conscious participants of society. These leaders are people from all walks of life—parents, teachers, community activists, business people—acting at all levels within all types of institutions. They respond to the call to participate in the most important task of our times: to innovate a future of peace and abundance in partnership with all the living and life support systems of Earth. From this perspective, leadership is not a privilege; it is a responsibility to serve the well-being of the whole. Because if we are successful, humanistic education will help us understand that we are not separate, but rather that we are all members of one planetary family. Instinctively, we know this to be true, but in this technological age of distraction, we must learn to remember.
There are myriad indications that our institutions are not viable. The economic, political, educational, health, and environmental crises are manifestations of an outdated and fragmented view of the world. The first step in the task of creating a different future is to remember our interconnectedness and our humanity. In this century, humanistic education is more needed than ever. As Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein penned in their famous Pugwash Manifesto of 1957: “Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.”