I have been wrestling with a question for months, looking for clues to an answer in conversations, books, podcasts, and quiet moments of reflection. I’m not the first person to have posed this question, and for centuries it has created significant, sometimes bloody, cleavages. The question is “How do new paradigms [for education] replace old ones—by starting on the fringes and eventually displacing the dominant narrative or by attacking and vanquishing existing paradigms from the core?” I put brackets around for education to highlight that this essential question applies to any paradigm.
This question is at the heart of any attempt to change schools fundamentally. I’m not talking about a tweak here, an additional program there. I mean the kind of change that alters collective consciousness so that, over the longer run, we adopt different ways of thinking of, feeling for, and acting in schools that put life, and not ego, at the center—will anything else save the planet?
Many of you will be saying “it’s not a case of either/or; it’s both/and.” That might be the case, but maybe I’m simply asking the wrong question. Maybe trying to change education for the better is the wrong approach. While we might set out with the best intentions, trying to change schools is a problem-solutions way of thinking, rooted in a mechanical-Newtonian worldview that understands that if we do x then y will happen. The problem is we don’t all agree on what x and y are anyway, which leads to more fragmentation. Moreover, if we take a step back, it’s this mechanical thinking that got us to where we are, so it’s doubtful it will get us out.
Thomas Kuhn wrote that paradigms shift (in science, but why not universalize?) when current theories can’t explain certain phenomena, and someone proposes a new theory that explains these phenomena better. Say, a community of scientists come to agree on a new theory and laypersons eventually follow and accept this new theory as truth. The shift from geocentric to heliocentric conceptualizations of the solar system is one such example. At other times, it just takes one person to initiate shifts. Christianity was a fringe sect for many years and only became the dominant paradigm as a result of Theodosius I recognizing Catholic orthodoxy as the state religion of the Roman Empire in 380AD, 68 years after Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. It is a lot easier to shift paradigms when there is one person at the top who can coerce the rest. Another means for shifting is revolutions. Most political revolutions that displaced existing paradigms were violent—or threatened violence—and they almost always start at the fringe: American, French, Russian, and Chinese are the more well-known examples, and there are many more. Even the 1989 Eastern European Revolutions were built on the almost ten year resistance of Poland’s Solidarity movement to state repression. The core doesn’t relinquish power easily.
These examples are all fragmentary. They approach change in terms of the parts that agents play: the scientific community, those in power, intellectual elites, and so forth (back to the if x then y thinking that is so divisive).
Asking whether a new education paradigm should come from the core or the fringe or both at the same time is the wrong question because it starts from the wrong understanding of living systems. The question assumes we can come close to agreeing on one (“best”) model of what the world will look like after change, based on our values of what education should be. This is a fragmentary, problem-solution approach—the if x, then y way of thinking. At worst, it can lead us to sort schools based on how close each is to our ideal, our mental models.
We should beware of models because they assume inherent replicability and that goes against how living systems operate. We shouldn’t discount models altogether since “all models are wrong, but some are useful,” but we need to season them with a pinch of salt. They’re quick and dirty and don’t describe paradigms.
When considering change, we might want to appreciate that each living system is a whole made of nested wholes. Each nested whole is unique and cannot be replicated. Each has a unique essence that has to be developed to achieve its potential and it is never fixed. Nothing exists on its own, everything (including us) is an infinite number of phenomena: the constant interaction of all the parts of the universe at every level, incessant and comprising everything.
David Bohm wrote that humans are continually developing new forms of insight, which are clear up to a point and then become unclear and from this new insights develop, and these insights become theories. The key word here is “continually” because the process is instantaneous and never-ending.
Reality itself is a process, it is not static, and recognizing that reality is a process reveals that there is no end truth* because everything flows, like the rivers described by Heraclitus, ancient wisdoms, and quantum physics. We are always changing, as our our insights, as is everything. This is why questions are more important than answers when we consider learning. There is no finality.
Let me repeat: Living systems are wholes and are themselves comprised of nested wholes. Each whole has an essence, that which makes the whole unique and is not fixed. This essence is developed through constant interactions with other wholes, but this development comes from the inside—which is why mechanical-Newtonian determinism is misguided. At the same time, the interconnectedness of all things means that the actions of one whole is an interaction with other wholes. This interaction opens or constrains channels and conditions for the development of other nested wholes and the living system they make up. This is the flow, the dynamic process that is ever-changing.
So what does this have to do with schools? We so often talk about change, about “new normals,” about “better normals,” about personalizing learning, and whatnot. We talk about replacing the old industrial model with new models for the 21st century. The risk is that we engage in the same thinking that got us here, working with models rather than essence. No more models, please. Wholes can’t be replicated because they have unique essences.
Maybe we stop talking so much about the future of education. Maybe we start appreciating that each school is its own whole, each has its own essence. Imagine talking about the future of children or the future of marshlands without considering each child as their own unique self or each marshland as its own ecosystem? Maybe we start appreciating that each school is on its own journey, each at a different point, each with different potential.
When we understand that living systems comprise of wholes—each of which has a unique essence yet is nested within a larger whole—we understand that paradigm shifts happen through the inner work of each whole and the ripples this inner work generates throughout the system as each whole interacts with the system.
The inner work is part of the flux of the whole, part of the flux of the system. The inner work is a force of becoming** because it knows no fixed point in time; it is constant evolution. Becoming opens up possibilities of re-conceptualizing ourselves from nouns to verbs, from entities to phenomena. We are forever changing; we are not who we are. We are our unique and ever changing essence, immeasurable and interconnected with all in the universe as phenomena. Again, this isn’t woo woo stuff. It’s quantum physics.
We are not beings, we are becomings. The forces of becoming are spurred by the inner work.
The forces of becoming of each school—nay, each learning ecosystem, which is a whole in itself—generate a ripple and the ripples of many wholes coalesce into a wave, then into a tsunami†. Maybe we should stop trying to change education and commit to the inner work. Less mechanical thinking, more getting in touch with our unique yet flowing essence.
Paradigm shifts can happen through inner work of the self and the synchronic coming together of the inner work of a multitude of selves (becomings!) into what is collective consciousness. Since the self is a nested whole within the larger nested wholes that are society, the human species, and life, shifts of the self and shifts of paradigm within the community are the same, just different orders of magnitude (and thus force and time required ). This is why shifting collective consciousness is the most challenging of efforts, yet also the most natural since nothing is static, everything flows††.
This brings me back to my point about letting each school work out what it needs. We cannot apply a model for change to a living systems framework where each of its nested wholes has an essence that is unique, yet this essence develops incessantly through interactions with other nested wholes and non-living things. Models replicate mechanically while essences become continually.
Instead of talking endlessly about the future of education or shouting that education has to change or bickering unproductively about what that could and should look like, what if we paused and did the inner work, both as selves and as communities, both as nested wholes and as ecosystems? This inner work will generate the forces of becoming, which create the ripples that become tsunamis.
The inner work is unique to context and to community yet it is not independent of the larger living system. Understanding this is the beginning of the inner work: we are responsible for the ripples we create throughout the living system. We may be unique wholes, but our actions are never isolated. This is the interconnectedness of which quantum physics and ancient wisdoms speak.
The inner work thus must include a set ethics if we are to direct the forces of becoming toward a better world, no matter our vision of what that world looks like, and I propose those ethics—and the actions that follow—find source one question:
How will this contribute to the healthfulness of the living system?
It is no coincidence that “health” comes from the Old English hal, which means whole, and the Latin word salvus—the root of santé, salud, and salute—comes from the Sanskrit sárva, also meaning whole.
This question not only channels our own forces of becoming, it ensures that the living system thrives. This question allows each whole to take its own journey while recognizing that it is interconnected within ever larger living systems. This will open up our thinking and feeling toward abundance, not scarcity. It sees that we are not in competition, but in cooperation because we are all part of the same living system. It understands that our actions contribute or compromise the welfare of the bio-collective—all living things that have an interest in the healthfulness of the planet. We are all part of the bio-collective.
These ethics, these principles that guide our actions based on our sense of right and wrong, go beyond what is good for the human species. They guide our actions toward all living things.
We need to do the inner work on our own, while understanding that we are all connected. This is the most difficult of all work.
Let’s stop talking about the need to change education. Or rather, let’s keep talking so we exchange ideas, help and support each other, and when it makes sense, take that journey together. But let’s respect that every self, every school, every learning ecosystem is at a different place and has different values that come from their unique essence. If we talk about changing education, let’s respect the uniqueness of each learning ecosystem.
This isn’t nihilism. This isn’t asking what’s the point. It’s a call for each whole to do the inner work to identify and decide where each wants to go. It’s a call to spur the forces of becoming in each of us. It’s a call to allow the ripples to become tsunamis.
It’s a call to channel those forces of becoming back into the living system to ensure its healthfulness. If each of us does the inner work but acts according to this ethic, the paradigm shift might just happen and open to a better world.
* I don’t mean this in a post-modern way, rather that insights, truths, and worldviews are continuously evolving—yes, even in those we might consider obstinate, fixed mindset holders of fact-free opinions.
** I use the term “becoming” in order to avoid the platonic notion of ideas, which tends to feed rationalism.
†These forces aren’t a Hegelian world spirit either because they aren’t rational consciousness. These forces exist within a bio-centric framework, which goes beyond reason.
†† I am not suggesting that it is not possible to shift paradigms in other ways, as exemplified above. I am suggesting that a shift of collective consciousness through inner work may be the most powerful shift.