Chapter 2: Schools as Places of Becoming: The Incipient System

This article was published in Intrepid Ed News on 14 April 2022

This is the second installment of a longer series, a long conversation (Chapter 1 can be found here). It builds on the idea that there is no one future of education because we are all on our own journeys, and that includes schools. What are the forces that are already designing a new system of education, of learning? What will it take to be part of the creation of this system? What will it take for us to shift our values to thrive in the new learning system?

When the relationships that form a system rapidly unravel, the system undergoes a critical transition from which a new state emerges, with new feedback loops that stabilize the system. This can happen when external forces make it impossible for the old system to continue or when internal forces re-design the feedback loops*. When either or both of these events happen, it is nearly impossible to go back, a phenomenon known as hysteresis. There is often a time lag between the emergence of the new system and our awareness that things have changed. One system that fits this description is education, specifically schools.

Living systems are complex because the relationships between actors are nonlinear and cannot be easily defined. I use the word actor to underscore that living systems are made up of nested wholes that can act upon the system, influencing it in different ways based on their unique essence (and of course, they are influenced by the system reciprocally). This differs from a machine, which is made up of components that work together to allow the machine to operate, but because these components are interchangeable, they do not have an essence and are not actors. This is why the relationships between the parts of a machine are linear: when x happens, you can be sure y will happen.

Kids aren’t machines, and to paraphrase Yong Zhao, the problem with education is that kids are alive.

Schools aren’t machines either. They’re living systems with their own contextualized feedback loops and nested within larger living systems such as community, government, and culture.

In 2021, I used to hear about how things will never go back to the way they were before the pandemic, how there is a new normal. Now in early 2022, it seems people are asking what we need to do to prevent things from “snapping back” to what they were, and optimism has given way to anxiety. I believe this anxiety comes from the realization that we aren’t where we want to be yet, or even where we thought we were. We can’t see clearly beyond the fuzzy horizon, which over the past couple of years has gotten a lot closer. We feel disoriented and don’t know if the road we’ve been on will get us to where we want to go, despite the signs.

Maybe we need to get off the road and create a new path, with new values for a new system.

The fact of the matter is that unless we change what we value, we will not participate in the birth of the new system. If we keep valuing scarcity, separation, and segregation, we will snap back for sure. We need to commit to the inner work to change our values (and consequently the feedback loops within the system) so we can eschew the old and start over. You can’t write a new narrative with an old lexicon.

Forces are already shaping the new system, the incipient system. For it to emerge, we need to help design it. It’s a dynamic process whereby we reinforce the system by contributing energy to its positive feedback loops. Yet we may be now in that lag time between the new system emerging and the lack of awareness that allows us to help its design. This new system is bigger than what is going on in school, but let’s spend time honing in on the living system that is school.

Significant external forces are stressing the current education system. These forces have already fractured connections within the system and are bending others to the breaking point. The forces of online school, shifts in the way we communicate and access information, climate disruption, student loans… the larger system, is immeasurably complex with countless feedback loops that affect the education system’s stability. Some of us see signs of breakage, others do not. That’s okay; there are many futures ahead of us.

Take one of these external forces; technology. (I could take any one of the other external forces and run it through the same exercise.) For the first time in history, we have a problem of overload of information rather than scarcity. No longer are jobs reserved for those who carry around the most amount of information in their heads. Almost all of human knowledge is available anywhere, anytime. We now have to learn to work alongside Artificial Intelligence, we have to learn to sift through this information overload to make sense of the world. These are revolutionary shifts whose energy creates new systems. This is the incipient system.

Technology now allows us to communicate with anyone, anywhere, anytime. The pandemic has made it socially acceptable—even normal—to contact someone out of the blue on social media and suggest a zoom**. I am theoretically able to speak or text anyone in the world (provided we both have access to the Internet, which raises equity questions that I will leave for another time). All I need is a broadband connection or a Twitter handle or email. This has never happened in the history of the world. Instant access to anyone online. Whether or not they respond doesn’t take away from the sociology-technological capability to contact them.

And just wait. The Metaverse will accelerate this process. The Metaverse will alter our sense of reality by providing experiences so immersive, that our brains will believe we are having real physical encounters. And in a way, we will be. Our eyes, ears, and touch will be stimulated in such realistic ways that our brains won’t be able to tell the difference. The parts of our brains responsible for taste and smell will also receive impulses to create “real” experiences. If your brain believes it to be happening, is this not your reality? Is this not the same neurological process that takes place when you see a sunset? Anyone who has played The Climb on a VR headset can attest to the fact that the discomfort one feels when looking down is quite real.

Imagine the possibilities. You (or a younger learner) are in a forest, listening to the birds, observing a column of ants marching up a tree. You are walking through the halls of the Louvre, passing the Romantics on your way to the Venus of Milo. You are sitting in a room with Yuval Noah Harari, discussing the evolution of language as symbology in pre-Paleolithic times with a group (small? large?) of equally fascinated peers, physically present all over the world, virtually present in one common space. Groups of learners of all ages from all over the world will be able to come together virtually, based on needs and interests, to experience this.

It won’t happen this year or next, but it will happen. When it does, the current education system will be forever broken and swept away.

We are beyond a liminal phase (the transition), we are already in an incipient system (the beginning), even though we may not realize it yet or may even try to resist it. The Metaverse will solidify the system, but it is already here and has been for years.

The technological forces that allow us to access information and communicate with anyone, anywhere, anytime… how can we pretend that the old educational system will resist them? How can a teacher delivering a curriculum from a textbook (even a digital one) compete with the content available online, with its curated videos, beautiful graphics, edited explanations from leading experts, and gripping musical scores? How can we limit kids’ learning experiences to the peers sitting in the same room when we adults are so used to collaborating and exchanging ideas with others all over the globe? They’re already collaborating with their peers all the time. How can we pretend that it’s still okay to require learners to work individually, re-inventing the wheel every time, when the world of work operates like GitHub, adapting pieces of others’ work for our context and use†?

Last weekend, I was interested in the four Battles of Kursk during World War II, so what did I do? I went on YouTube. I was able to pause, go back, skip ahead… I saw primary-source footage, dynamic maps, listened to interviews, and found other videos that were relevant, which I could decide to watch or not. That was what I needed at the time and I exercised agency. Now, why can’t students of all ages do the same in school as a matter of course? They already sift through YouTube and TikTok outside the classroom. Why isn’t learning in the classroom the same as how we learn outside? Why is school still in this lag?

Imagine what it will be like in the Metaverse where I can immerse myself in the battle by putting on a headset and a bodysuit? How will that experience transform me? This is how we build empathy, through this sensory experience. The Metaverse is not all dark.

In a world where we have information overload, the main problem is how to sort through it all, and how to make sense of it all. This is the fundamental force that has already changed the education system, this need to discriminate our use of information rather than seek to store it as we used to do.

It is for this reason that school is reaching the end of its product life cycle. Not that there won’t be a need for children to come together in one place to learn with and from each other. That has always been the case across all cultures. It’s the concept of school that is finishing, the concept as we know it, where a set curriculum is defined by a governing agent and delivered to children of the same age at more or less the same pace for the same number of years in hopes that they achieve the same outcome so that they can be sorted through a process that attaches meaning to the same symbols. When we abandon this concept and the values through which the exisiting system survives, we leave behind the word “school,” we come up with a new term to write a new narrative.

I propose these new places of becoming and they can be anywhere. They may be called something else, but on which specific name we settle matters less than that we come up with a new lexicon.

Places of becoming will be both in the infinitesimally large virtual world—where our consciousness will be free to go anywhere, anytime—and the increasingly small physical world at the same time.

(Because this is the other pressure that will create a new socio-economic system, the pressure of climate disaster, and the need, if we are to survive, to create circular economies within our local areas, based on different sets of production and consumption patterns. I’ll write about this in a subsequent chapter.)

Places of becoming will replace schools because, in these places, it will no longer be about delivering content and assessing knowledge and skills. It will not be about teachers and students separated from one another, atomized by power dynamics and competition. Places of becoming will be about the relationships that connect us. This is why we will leave the word school behind.

Relationships will be built around guiding each other in learning and growing. One seasoned learner will show the way to a younger learner, navigating through the overload of information, and building connections between ideas, subjects, and people. These relationships will be about working together, being together, and sharing spaces in both the virtual and physical worlds. In a world of abundance, there is enough to redistribute. In a world where we are all in the habit of going out to seek connections, a culture of reciprocity takes hold. Relationships will be about taking responsibility for one another’s thriving.

Because in order not to get lost in the vastness of the virtual world, we will all need a strong, caring hand in the physical world to guide us.

These relationships won’t just be between humans. We will rekindle our relationships with the earth, with all living things, with the natural world. With a much smaller physical world, we will get to know our surroundings much more closely. We will have to or else risk falling into the same patterns that got us to mass species extinction and the brink of climate disaster. (Again, I will write more about this later.)

This may seem far-fetched or a fantasy. This may seem unrealistic. That feeling you may have gets at the heart of the matter: so long as we hold onto the old values, we will not help the new system emerge. So long as we hold onto the same old values, we will not thrive in a system that is breaking or the incipient system that thrives on new conditions, with new values.

To be part of the birthing process of the new system, we need to re-design the feedback loops and adopt a new lexicon embedded with new values and understanding, in order to write a new narrative.

This is not a fantasy. This requires inner work, as individuals and as a bio-collective.

If we don’t commit with courage, we should not be surprised that we snap back, that in a decade we are having the same conversations, or that we only stop having them because the system we could not put aside has crumbled under the weight of a global catastrophe.

Let’s start with one step: let’s leave behind the word school. Let us write a new narrative with a new lexicon.

In the next installment, we will be asking, Can we really have learner-centered and competency-based education in our current education system? Will places of becoming provide a better environment for such goals?

* Living systems are nested within larger living systems and are comprised of smaller living systems nested within them. When I write about external forces, these are not separate from the system, rather, they are forces that are exerted by the larger living system. In actuality, it’s all one system. We fragment in order to make sense of the processes, but this fragmentation doesn’t represent reality. For instance, and oversimplifying, exercising helps your cardio-vascular system thrive. You exercise partly due to your will to go out running, which we conceptualize as the interaction of your mind and body, the bigger system that serves as an external force, through exercise, to contribute to the health of the cardiovascular system. That said, there is in actuality no separation between your heart and your mind and anything else; there is only nestedness and interconnection. So really, there are no external or internal forces, there is just one… but as they say, all models are wrong, but some are useful.

** When a brand name becomes a noun or a verb, it’s sometimes referred to as genericide.

† If a student was found to turn in material from a site called Students Pay Students or Students Pay Teachers, that would be grounds for disciplinary action, but it’s somehow ok to use Teachers Pay Teachers and Twinkl?

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