Education at the Edge of Possibility (Part I)
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that education is a key component of most systemic solutions for the world’s problems, the educational system itself is outdated and plagued with dysfunctionalities.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.