Chapter 3, Decentralized Networks of Learning as Biomimicry

This article was published on Intrepid Ed News on 12 May 2022.

I ended the previous chapter with a teaser, one that I promised in this installment to explore: Can we really have learner-centered and competency-based education in our current education system? The thing is, this might be the wrong question to ask because it suggests that both learner-centered and competency-based education are final destinations. Both are steps in the right direction (away from traditional instruction), but if we’re not careful, we might forget that better is the enemy of best. I’ll focus briefly on the question’s three elements, one by one while keeping an eye on the bigger picture.

The current education system is for my purposes the one we typically think of, the one created from Cartesian-Newtonian models. It values things like age-related standards, university readiness, fixed curricula delivered through structured teaching, and individual achievement using external metrics. There are, of course, variations within the system. Some schools have innovated by integrating SEL or PBL programs as alternate means of achieving their goals. These programs often still have college in mind and a set of content to deliver. They’re not quite free of the demands of the traditional system, but they have acted to mitigate its dominant forces. For the purpose of simplicity, I will place the schools that have chosen different sets of values outside the current system. Ulcca Joshi Hansen refers to them as liberatory schools, and they remain few in number.

Systems reveal themselves and their values as patterns over a period of time. In other words, what are the stories the systems tell and what are the conditions that make them thrive?

Competency-based education can provide multiple routes for learners to demonstrate and hone their abilities, thereby releasing some of the pressures for standardization. Yet when we assess competencies, we look for actions to justify the ways in which we achieve levels of competency. “Sally has demonstrated strong collaboration skills when she did x.” This is backward. I’ve written elsewhere that competency-based education should be put at the service of a greater good. We need a set of ethics to guide these competencies, otherwise, we might be doing more harm than good. For example, launching wars, organizing labor camps, and finding new ways to extract natural resources demand high levels of creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication. 

Lastly, learner-centered education. I have written previously about how learner-centered promotes anthropocentric mindsets based on ego rather than eco. “Learner” is a noun, an entity, and by centering on the entities, we lose sight of the relationships between them. This perpetuates a fragmented view of the universe. By focusing on the learner rather than direct instruction, learner-centered approaches might create bio-diverse environments by appreciating that we all grow in different directions and at different rates, but they do so by looking at each plant rather than how the forest grows. When we create systems that cater to the needs of the learner (e.g. individual assessment, personal learning plans, individualized master transcripts), we continue to see the world as separateness. This is not a binary, of course, and it does happen that we consider the collective, but until we appreciate that each learner, each group of learners, is a nested whole within a larger whole, then we will continue to see the world through mechanistic models. Centering on the learner makes it difficult to emerge into larger wholes.

Can we really have learner-centered and competency-based education in our current education system? may be the wrong question because it continues to fetter us to the notion of entities, not relationships. By using the language of fragmentation, we remain dualistic in our approach. There is no center if we understand the world as a nested whole. Moreover, by breaking down people into sets of competencies, we don’t take into account the essence of the person; we try to break them down into parts.

In the quantum world, relationships are the basis of everything. Relationships are the energy that is the web of the universe, a universe that is wholeness. Nothing exists on its own, everything is interconnected, interacting with everything every 5.391247×10-44 seconds (Planck time). There is nothing to hold onto in this flow. There is just energy. This is why we are not entities; we are potential, we are possibilities—like energy, and our actions transform that energy instantly. When we act, we do not do so alone, but as part of a dynamic interaction with our environment*.

(I have to pause here to acknowledge that some learner-centered education models do focus on relationships rather than individuals. They are based on action and, in this case, these models should re-name themselves because the learner is a form, not a process, an entity, not a relationship, a being, not a becoming.)

We need a new lexicon for a new narrative. Let’s leave the word school behind as it keeps us stuck in the old mental models. It is too laden with old values and limits our imagination through the meaning the word holds. We now speak of places of becoming to signal that we are helping create a new system, with new values. Similarly, we move beyond the term learner-centered and its emphasis on entities, on the individual, on an understanding of the universe as fragmented**. Instead, we embrace an approach to learning that replicates the way life thrives, the way the universe is self-organized.

Places of becoming will comprise of decentralized networks of learning. Networks of learning are biomimicry. They are an approach based on how everything in nature self-organizes within an interconnected system, with which it interacts at every moment. Networks that thrive are biodiverse, circular in how they generate energy, and resilient. So are networks of learning.

Life is an infinite number of networks of relationships. Mycelia are complex networks of fungal pipelines made up of fused microscopic hyphae. They have been called the “neurological network of nature,” and are everywhere in nature, sometimes accounting for 90% of the biomass of a forest. They are vital to all life on earth as they allow the distribution of nutrients throughout their environment and help regulate carbon levels in the atmosphere. Another example is our bodies, which comprise countless interconnected networks: our veins, our nervous system, and our brains, all acting as one. Lastly, as if you needed another example, pollinators, predators, and 180,000 different types of plants create a network that ensures that living things have food, oxygen, and soil.

Nothing exists on its own. Everything is interconnected, part of a web of life. Networks of learning are patterned on life itself.

Concretely, what does a network of learning look like? (I write about the ideas in the next three paragraphs and in Chapter 1 and Chapter 2.)

It’s important to understand that while networks have never disappeared, we are now experiencing a complementary and reinforcing tension between two worlds. On the one hand, our virtual world is infinitely large and our concept of time and space are altered by our new emerging powers: teleportation, time travel, and telepathy. We can now communicate with anyone, anywhere, using technology. Within less than a few decades, in the Metaverse, we will create our own realities, with sensory experiences that will stimulate our brains in such ways as to alter reality because our interpretation of the sensory experiences will alter our consciousness. (If my brain interprets signals as real, is my experience not real?)

At the same time, the climate and extinction crisis will force us to re-think our relationships and connections in the physical world. In order to have a chance to survive, we will need to reduce our physical spaces and create local, circular economies and systems, replacing extensive travel and transportation.

In both the infinite virtual and the reduced physical worlds, how we value relationships will change. We will have the space to connect with those who share our interests, passions, and purposes anywhere in the world, virtually. We will have the time to connect with our immediate area and with every living thing in our bio-locality (that physical area around us that we share with all forms of life) because we won’t be going to faraway places so frequently. We will know our neighbors, be they humans, animals, or plants.

A network of learning is like a cell: able to evolve, aware of its purpose, capable of utilizing energy, and produce more than itself. It is also semi-permeable. A network of learning is like life itself.

Since we can communicate with anyone in the world through technological tools, there are few limitations on our abilities to cooperate. Learners are no longer bound to the small groups within their immediate physical space (the classroom or the school building). They can be in the same virtual space as other learners who share the same interests, abilities, and purpose as they do. If a learner is really passionate about Japanese feudal warfare, they can come together with other learners who have the same passion. A knowledgeable pedagogue in a virtual space could be the guide and bring together, at the right time, different academics, craftsmen, authors, and storytellers who can take the learning deeper and broader by contributing their expertise. While a community is created on one side of the headset or screen, an adult learner is always present physically to provide guidance and a caring, supportive hand when it’s time to be present in the physical space. This adult learner, this sherpa† of sorts, takes responsibility for the learning community in the physical space.

Learners will also be able to collaborate on projects in different ways. Imagine a team of learners in Ohio looking to re-home stray cats. They work in the community with veterinarians, shelters, and pet supplies stores. What they can’t yet do as effectively as they’d like is to build a website to get the word out about the cats. They just don’t have the time or the skills. This team could put out a request for contributions from learners “out there” to help. Someone from Oregon could provide that expertise and build the website. The cat re-homing team can now make a greater impact through a re-designed website and the website developer can add this project to their portfolio, developing their design, project management, and client relationship skills in the process.

Anything is possible. A network of learning is decentralized, has a purpose, and is self-organizing, like life itself. It is highly contextual and fluid.

Returning to this idea of semi-permeability, a network of learning is open to outside connections, but it is also a community within the physical space (hence when it is impermeable). Sherpas are there physically to steward the community, take responsibility for the group, and guide learners. The adult in the room used to be called a teacher, but now they are a sherpa. Just like everyone else in the space, because kids can be sherpas too. They also steward the community, take responsibility for the group, and guide learners. They sherpa other learners through what they bring back from their expeditions in the virtual world. The community in the physical space is sacred. It creates the conditions for thriving, for a healthful set of connections with oneself, others, and the physical community. The networks support each other socio-emotionally, intellectually, and naturally.

Networks of learning are also semi-permeable when it comes to going outside into the community. These networks of learning thrive on relationships with our bio-locality, with all life forms in our immediate area, because the circular economies we create forge networks in themselves, allowing us to reconsider our relationships with all our neighbors, finding new values so that a new system can thrive. Learners of all ages working with the community, exchanging ideas, getting to know each other, developing empathy, making decisions that contribute to the welfare of the bio-collective—when we are closer to our community, when we feel a sense of belonging, how can we make decisions that will hurt others? That would be hurting ourselves. There is no separation, only wholeness.

The team of learners who re-home stray cats goes into the virtual world to collaborate on a website, but their work is very much local. They utilize the infinite virtual world to be able to have a greater impact within their physical community. The two worlds are synergistic. Another team of learners works with a local organic farm to provide nutritious food to the cafeteria and scale the business in other areas, generating ideas in a virtual session with another team hundreds of miles away who had success last year doing something similar. Another team whose members love to play basketball organize a tournament and practice their skills on the court before going into the virtual world to create a line of jerseys that will become NFTs used for avatars.

These examples of networks of learning are able to evolve, be aware of their purpose, and self-organize. They are also semi-permeable. Each of these examples of networks of learning is like life itself.

This is the vision of what learning, intergenerational learning, might look like as we work through the tension between the infinite virtual world and the ever-smaller physical world, as the incipient system emerges through the energy of the Metaverse and a burning planet.

This vision is not beyond our reach. It is not impossible. It mimics life (it is biomimicry). Decentralized networks of learning are modeled on the universe.

There is one challenge, one shift that decentralized networks of learning require that might be a barrier for many because it destroys our mental models. If we pull the curtain, this shift isn’t so big because it also mimics life. In order for decentralized networks of learning to thrive, we will need to re-think assessment as an individual experience and embrace learning as a socially constructed experience through action. This is all part of the shift in consciousness away from separation toward the whole and it will be addressed in the next installment, which will ask: How does the notion of “smaller physical worlds (bio-locality)” extend to broader educational and social endeavors such as climate action, sustainability/regeneration, and human happiness? 

* Remember that according to the quantum theory, every element is like Janus, it has two faces. It is both a wave and a particle. The wave is the potential because it is energy dispersed over a finite area. Matter takes the form of a particle only when it is observed, that is, when it interacts with something else, when the wave function collapses. Before this interaction, there are infinite possibilities. This is the Principle of Complementarity.

** The word heutagogy is making the rounds, but this “new” word is just more of the same emphasis on “entities.” This article explains that in heutagogy, “learners are highly autonomous and self-determined and emphasis is placed on the development of learner capacity and capability with the goal of producing learners who are well-prepared for the complexities of today’s workplace.” The emphasis is not on actions that contribute to thriving or to relationships. Even collaboration is understood as a means to share knowledge and “to reflect and think about how [students] learned and how to apply it in practice.” Much better than “stand and deliver” pedagogy! …but we are still talking about the individual, not the relationship.

† I owe the use of sherpa to David Hollands.

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