Writing a New Narrative for a New System

This article was published in Education Reimagined’s Voyager on 4 May 2022.

No matter what happened during the pandemic, no matter how much we think the world may have changed, if we continue to hold the same values that make the old system thrive, nothing will change.

Someone asked me recently, “Are we prepared for sustained innovation, or will we see a ‘snap back’ to the way things were prior to COVID?” I was reminded of the aphorism: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

So, what if we started by asking a different question: What would it take for things not to snap back? This framing of the issue might encourage us to take a more systemic view and avoid peering into our crystal balls.

We first need to determine what it is we would be snapping back to. The dominant education model believes learning can be precisely measured and referenced by age, that a professional field of experts can use a defined curriculum to drive student learning, and that a diploma is the proof of success through achievement. This model is what some of us are supposedly trying to escape, yet, this seeking of something new is not new unto itself. 

We can still hear the voices of those who opposed this standardized model a hundred years ago, those of John Dewey and Maria Montessori, for instance. Their pedagogies proposed building understanding based on connections to past experiences, to others, and the world; believing learning is not filling a vessel, but lighting a fire (to borrow from Plutarch).

After all these years, we are still having the same conversation. Despite all the ink spilled on books and conference speeches, in spite of getting excited about a new or better normal, even after a global, societally shaking health pandemic, we are still concerned deep down that things will go back to the way they were.

This concern says a lot about the magnetic pull of the system. It also says a lot about our fear of change and the unfamiliar, a fear that is particularly pronounced in schools. That we still have the same debates and—despite climate disaster, social and international conflict, and our unprecedented ability to communicate through technology—still worry that we might go back to the old normal says a lot about the tenacity and resilience of the system.

Systems thrive when certain conditions are met that are particular to that system. These conditions become the system’s values. If you compromise these values, the system will go off kilter (no longer thrive) and require some kind of stimulus to re-adjust itself; or it will simply collapse.

For example, our banking system values the circulation of money, competitive markets, and profit-maximization. Those are the conditions it needs to thrive. If money stops circulating, the system can no longer function (hence why TARP was signed into law in 2008 to increase the liquidity of the market). Marriages are also systems built on sets of values—often caring, trust, and respect—and they risk ending if these values are no longer shared or if either or both partners do not live up to them.

The natural world is one of the largest of all systems, made up of countless nested systems that thrive when nature’s values of harmony, diversity, and abundance (among others) are met. If one of these is compromised, the ecosystem must adjust to re-balance or it breaks down.

No matter what happened during the pandemic, no matter how much we think the world may have changed, if we continue to hold the same values that make the old system thrive, nothing will change. Innovation is not enough: improving upon what currently exists might bring hope and excitement for a while, but it won’t change the system. We will not escape the system’s magnetic pull if we continue to value—above all else—merit, external assessments, sorting, hierarchies, competition, and learning as an individual experience.

What will it take for things not to snap back? A new set of values to re-design a new system.

This is perhaps not as daunting as it seems—if you approach it with the right understanding. It will require patience, resilience, and work; the work of the individual and the work of a collective.

Every system is a whole, comprised of smaller systems, and itself nested within larger systems. Each of these systems, small or large, is also a whole.

Take each living being. We are made of cells, some of which make up the heart, which is nested within the cardio-vascular system, which allows you to live, and you live within a community, which is one of several in your region, which itself is one of many on earth, a planet in the solar system, and so on. It is all nested in a larger whole.

We need a new set of values so that the new system of education, the re-designed system, will thrive. That starts with our local system, very local; ourselves. This is where we need to do the inner work, but it can only be called inner work when we understand our place in the world and make choices with intention. From this intention, new values emerge and, thus, a new system that will thrive under new conditions, which are its new values.

It is this emergence that allows us to write a new story for the system that is us.

We’ll notice quickly that the inner work extends outward and happens through our relationships with others, including nature. How can it be otherwise? Our values and ethics develop in relation to all that with which we interact. How can the inner work happen in isolation, separate from the whole? 

Every moment is pregnant with the interactions of everything within the implicate order. Nothing in the universe is isolated, outside of this wholeness. If it were so, there would be no time, just a static state. But this is not so; there is no static state, only perpetual change and impermanence. 

Thus, we ourselves are not static because we are the process of these interactions. Each interaction with everything changes, molds, and evolves us—through our processing of it. So, we come to realize that we are indistinguishable from the inner work for the very reason that we are processes.

If we are not static, if we are processes, then we are not beings (static), we are becomings (changing, evolving, processing).

In this way, the interconnectedness between ourselves and everything around us, the constant flux, the constant dynamic interchange between everything, the realization that we are at every moment at the nexus between past and future, are what have us emerge as becomings. This also means that the larger system within which we are nested will affect our ability to thrive. 

Whilst we can create new conditions and new values through inner work, if the larger system’s feedback loops diminish these conditions, we will not thrive. The more deeply we are nested within a larger system, the greater the influence of the latter on our thriving. The greater the influence, the more the larger system can dictate the story we write.

As we continue to do the inner work, we seek out those who are writing stories similar to ours. Like drops of mercury, we attract kindred people and their stories, creating a larger converging value system with an even greater magnetic pull. If this pull is strong enough, it can keep us nested within this new system, only peripherally connected to the old one now (we can never be completely separate, of course).

When many new stories come together, they create a new narrative, and this new narrative is that of a new system, with new sets of values and new conditions for thriving.

Yet, you cannot write new stories with an old lexicon. Language itself is value-laden. The meanings we assign to words are the wrights that make these words immovable.

We need new words for new values to allow the new system to thrive.

There are words that we must leave behind. There are words that contain such powerful stories in themselves that they will crowd out the new stories we wish to write and corrupt the new narrative.

Words such as school, curriculum, classroom, timetable, transcript, teacher, and student.

We need to leave these words behind so that we leave the values of the old system behind. Our new system, the one that emerges from the inner work, brings together new stories into a new narrative. This new narrative will rot from the inside if it carries old values. 

What will it take for things not to snap back? It will take a new system to emerge with a new magnetic pull. What will it take for a new system to emerge? New stories, a new narrative, written from new values. What will it take to write these stories? A new lexicon.

There are strong signals that this system is already emerging, even if there is a lag in our widespread awareness of this emergence. For the first time in history, technology allows us to access anything, anyone, anytime. We can access an infinite amount of information when we need it, just in time and based on our needs and interests (unless, of course, we are in a classroom that forbids us from using our phones, and then we are stuck). We can learn from anyone, we can collaborate with anyone, we can contribute to anyone, and we can benefit from the contributions of anyone. We can create ecosystems of learning that have little resemblance to schools as we conceive of them today.

We can build a system that values abundance, convergence, cycles, intergenerational learning, exploration, non-conformity, the centralization of nature, the arts, happiness, and kindness. Or, whatever value system is important to your community.  

So, why would this system make use of the word school when what we understand now as school is so fundamentally different from the values of the new system? Why would the new system have the word classroom when learning happens in so many different spaces (e.g. virtually, outdoors, in-person) in our new system? Why would curriculum still have meaning when learning experiences depend on context and need?

We will have new words. We will write a new narrative.

What will it take for things not to snap back? It will take getting rid of the attachments that snap us back: the values, the words, the narratives that keep us back. Nothing else will do because the old system values what it values. 

Do not worry, the world will not come to an end. Remember, we have new values now: our system thrives through new conditions and has new feedback loops. You can still go to university if you wish, but your admission letter will no longer be the product of 12 years of schooling; rather it will be the byproduct of becoming who you are, realizing you are a whole unto yourself, nested within larger wholes, recognizing your place within the ecosystem.

Recognizing that when we create new conditions of thriving, based on new values, we break away from the magnetic pull of the old system. This old system will continue to exist for a while, and that’s okay. So long as we remain authentic and live by our values, it can do what it wants until it is replaced. If we continue to be fettered by old values, then yes, we will snap back. 

This is not easy. It starts with the inner work.

11 thoughts on “Writing a New Narrative for a New System

  1. Thank you for sharing these thoughts that many educators can relate to. One of the biggest hurdles I have experienced is that new ideas, initiatives, policies, etc. often aren’t given the time they deserve to see success. Instead, it’s often move on to the next thing, while simultaneously being stuck in other old ways. Optimistically, I think educators are more inspired than ever to make change- as long as we aren’t too burned out.

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  2. You discuss the challenge of building and sustaining a new system in a way that both highlights the magnitude and gravity of this work AND illustrates the surprising simplicity of it. Thank you. I was particularly struck by your call for a new lexicon. Not only do we need words that reflect the new values of a new system, but since the onset of the pandemic our understanding of existing words have already been challenged like never before. It makes perfect sense to me that, if we want to build a new system with new values, our language should reflect that. However, I’m thinking about those who are comfortable maintaining the old “normal” and who could never imagine calling a classroom by any other name. I anticipate those folks (including parents) who seek a return to the status quo would present a significant challenge to the “snap back” resistance. I am inspired by this process of creating a new education system, but it is asking for a major cultural shift- a huge ask for the American people. I am hopeful that starting with inner work, finding like-minded individuals, and creating new conditions of thriving will help guide others to break away from old values.

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  3. I agree that changing language around education is a great way of generating new ways of thinking around learning. I also think that the learners are helping to redefine what education needs to be. The stress of the past few years has caused educators and counselors to hit pause and take care of students’ needs. Emphasis on relationships has to be prominent in order for students to learn. Social-emotional learning needs to be included. In addition, student centered learning helps students to engage and feel part of the decision making process in their experience.

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    1. Thank you for reading Karen. I wonder if we can go beyond SEL and make it about learning as a group, as a collective, so that we value relationships first, perhaps over the (SEL) needs of the individual.

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  4. I would add that not only do we need new values, but we need new accountability. I would say the education world has always been keen to change and take on new values, but we need new people, new accountability, and new ways of implementation in order for things to not “snap back” to the way they were. No matter the excitement or desire for change, without seeing it through, it will not occur.

    Thanks for these thoughts! It gave me a lot to think about as a teacher on the leadership team at my school.

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  5. I would add that not only do we need new values, but we need new accountability. I would say the education world has always been keen to change and new values, but we need new people, new accountability, and new ways of implementation in order for things to not “snap back” to the way they were. No matter the excitement or desire for change, without seeing it through, it will not occur.

    Thanks for these thoughts! It gave me a lot to think about as a teacher on the leadership team at my school.

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  6. I believe that education is on the evolutionary path towards greater collectivism, exploration, and creativity. However, bad habits can start out as minor but if not address, can evolve into common practice. I believe to achieve the becoming of a new system, as we do our inner work, we need to be in community with each other, practicing reflection, discourse, and collective knowing. If our inner work stays in isolation, we risk not changing the system.

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  7. Thank you for this post. I found this to be really inspirational as a teacher who definitely doesn’t want to go back to the way things were. I’m really intrigued by the “ecosystem approach” in schools and will be thinking about how to implement that in my classroom next year.

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  8. Our students deserve for the schools to adapt with the changing times. They deserve for their voices to be lifted, to have to time explore and make connections on their own, and work closely with their peers. These values listed above are what I strive for in my classroom each day, yet there are still barriers to them. Student centered learning and student led learning is so incredibly impactful, as they inspire leadership, creativity, and collaboration.

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