Schools Must be Grounded in Thriving Relationships: New Narratives I

This article was published on Intrepid Ed News on 27 July 2022.

Quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg wrote, “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” I think the same can be said about what we look for in our students; it’s all about the questions we ask.

When you pose the question “What are the skills and mindsets that students need to thrive in our ever-changing world?” you’ve already framed the answers. I’ve gone through the portraits of a graduate of dozens of schools and it seems like they all drew from the same hat of fewer than 20 words. A graduate should be some combination of resilient, adaptable, responsible, a learner, an effective communicator, innovative, collaborative, creative, a critical thinker, ethical, a global citizen, etc. I’m sure these schools all went through a rigorous process of engaging community members in discussion to come up with their vision of which “knowledge, skills, mindsets, and literacies [are] essential for 21st-century student success.” So did all the schools that have portraits but don’t call them such, schools that want to cultivate the 4, 5, or 6 Cs that are just the same story. I use the term portrait as a catch-all for competencies and characteristics sought out in this vein.

Several things strike me about creating a portrait. First, a portrait is fixed. It doesn’t take into account what happens the moment a student leaves school. A portrait is static and draws on the past, not the present. It tells us nothing more than what we want to believe is permanent but is not.  A portrait doesn’t consider that humans are becomings, that is, that our futures lie ahead of us and we flow into them. Of course, we can make predictions based on patterns of the past, but patterns and portraits are different things. All the more so when we seek to make everyone look the same by making one portrait for everyone.

Second, many of the skills that a portrait paints feel like they’re about getting students “work ready.” I’m not suggesting that this isn’t important, I’m just noticing and asking myself whether making sure kids are prepared for the professional world should be the main purpose of schools. You could make the argument that each of these skills is important in day-to-day life, but if we zoom back, we notice a pattern that most of these mindsets and skills are great food for the corporate machine. Just look at how they’re framed: knowledge, skills, mindsets, and literacies…

After all, and this is my third point, very few portraits (or competencies) I have seen include life-affirmingwords such as happy, thriving, caring, generous, giving, connected, and at one with the natural world. (I did see serves, builds positive relationships, is empathetic, and pursues life balance, which is encouraging.) No matter which words we use (fourth point), it’s the portrait of a graduate, framed in an atomizing way, that is, stressing individual skills: even “collaborative” and “effective communicator” are personal characteristics that happen to involve others but are not about the group. There is no concept of the social, of the collective.

The hidden curriculum lies within the narrative that schools should prepare young learners with the skills and mindsets for success in the 21st century. Being adaptable, responsible, a critical thinker, resilient, an effective communicator, innovative, collaborative, and so forth have always been important traits for people to have throughout history, probably even more so when humans were hunter-gatherers and many things were a matter of life and death. The only explanation for re-considering these competencies as special for the 21st century is that they are designed to fit well into the world of work since 2000, into the changing landscape of capitalism that itself needs to respond to the VUCA world it created.

Again, whether it’s the portrait of a graduate or some other list of competencies, there isn’t much difference. These can play out wonderfully, but in most cases, they’re words from a narrative of separation, consumerism, and extraction. They continue to tell the story that the purpose of education is to make sure young adults fit into and contribute to the dominant system by being good producers and consumers.

Words don’t create the narrative; the narrative chooses the words that tell the story. Words exist within the boundaries of the narrative and we believe in the story of the narrative because it gives richer meaning and more weight to some words than others. These chosen words then stand out from the rest and reinforce the values from which they came.[1]

Language fits conceptual frames and metaphors, which means when language is accepted, ideas and frameworks are accepted, even though ideas come first. Worldviews use language to advance their causes. This is why language is the map, not the territory. This is why when we call something student-centered, agentic, empowering, or personalized, we infuse meaning into the words to fit the framework of our values. So long as we continue to value measuring, sorting, standardizing, and labeling, it won’t matter what words we use. So long as we continue to value atomization, separation, and scarcity, any word we use will tell the same story. How can you personalize an experience so students meet a standard? How can you speak of agency when the teacher or the head office decides the curriculum? How can you begin to have a conversation about empowerment when you exist in a system where certain groups are born on third base while others never get to bat? Words take on different meanings when spoken from the mouth of someone with different values.

Margaret Wheatley writes “Freeing ourselves from an emergent culture is an act of conscious rebellion. We know we cannot change what’s emerged, so we walk out of it to begin again. What will emerge as we reclaim life-affirming identities? What new culture will form in ourselves, our families, and our organizations? It all depends on the values we embed at the start.”

When we do the inner work as individuals and as a collective, we go through a process to understand ourselves better as individuals and as a collective: what is important to us? what kinds of people do we want to become? what kind of world do we want to bring forth? what kinds of relationships do we want to have with ourselves, others, and the planet?

For some of us, this process is the chrysalis from which a new narrative might emerge and from which a new story might be told, using words infused with different meanings. This new narrative would extend our identities beyond “I” and into “we,” beyond “we” and perhaps into identifying with nature. We are nature.

When we expand the self to identify with nature, we practice deep ecology, according to Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess. From there, we can move from individualistic, self-assertive values and actions to collective, integrative ones. Naess explains that, just as you need no morals to breathe, if you see yourself in a wider sense, embracing another being, many species, and the planet, you care for them as you would care for yourself and do not need moral exhortation. Love for the bio-collective becomes self-love and harm to the planet self-harm.

I am not pretending this is easy. This takes overcoming the culture of ease over effort that has contributed to overconsumption, ignorance, and extraction. There is no magic pill.

Every moment is an opportunity to be at one with all. Every decision we make can contribute to our collective shift. Maybe we start with taking the courageous step of speaking against the practice of measuring, sorting, standardizing, and labeling. This wouldn’t be the first step on the road to justice and liberation. Michael Sandel says that meritocracy is the last form of socially acceptable discrimination. If we believe this, then the fight against the meritocratic system is no different from the fight against patriarchy, racism, economic injustice, and climate crisis. These struggles share the same roots of domination, extraction, and separation.

Henry Giroux, another giant of critical pedagogy, said that language is always situated within ideology and power relations. When we adopt a new narrative, we adopt a new vocabulary with which to ask new questions. We need a new method of questioning from which to ask new questions.

Systems theorist Fritjof Capra writes that in nature there are no natural hierarchies, “there are only networks nesting within other networks.” He continues by stating “understanding ecological interdependence means understanding relationships. It requires the shifts of perception that are characteristic of systems thinking—from the parts to the whole, from objects to relationships, and from contents to patterns. A sustainable human community is aware of the multiple relationships among its members. Nourishing the community means nourishing the relationships.”

What if we valued relationships above all else, relationships with ourselves, others, and the planet? What if we recognized that we are not static beings that can be measured, sorted, standardized, and labeled, but rather we are dynamic becomings that emerge from all of our relationships? This would find coherence in ancient wisdoms and quantum physics, systems thinking, and biology. Thinkers and writers from different eras and disciplines realize that objects are just networks of relationships, that relationships are primary.[2]

What if schools’ primary purpose was to nurture thriving relationships? (This is a reductionist way of honing in on schools for simplicity’s sake, but, nurturing thriving relationships above all else requires we do so constantly and everywhere, not just in school.)

What if instead of “creating, implementing, and measuring” the portrait of a graduate we created the context for individual and collective fields to emerge and envelop us? These fields would have tendencies rather than fixed characteristics, and the contexts we would create would be favorable for certain tendencies to unfold: kindness, happiness, connections, caring, responsibility to one another and the Earth, support, reciprocity, togetherness, understanding, redistribution, and capacity building. Contexts we create are like a river bed and we are like the flowing river that takes its form from everything it encounters as it flows: rocks, banks, fish, and slopes.

There might be a field of caring, connections, support, and so forth…  Rather than paint the fixed portrait of an individual’s skills and mindsets (that should be the same for all), schools would recognize that relationships are primary and create contexts so that learners can navigate between fields. Schools would be places where, rather than valuing evidence of an individual’s past as a way to judge their present, we would value the ability to navigate fields in the moment, not just as individuals, but as a collective. How do we show we are responsible to others, caring, kind, and connected, as one and as many, at the same time?

What if schools were grounded in relationships and everything about them—everything—was about nurturing thriving relationships so that we could move within these fields? Schools might name these fields based on their contexts, but this matters little because there is just one field, and showing caring always means showing respect and responsibility to others as well as kindness, compassion, and support. None of the fields we can name would exist on its own. Names would be like those of landmarks on a map, but the map is not the territory, the map is an incomplete model we use to help us navigate. Ultimately, there is only one field, the field of love, and when we extend our identity beyond ourselves, we love all because we can love ourselves.

Of course, we want our children and our students to come out of school with the tools and skills to be successful in the workplace, but what does success mean? Is it prestige? salary? power? balance? happiness? challenge? doing good? What if we had to prioritize? How do we draw from our values? Are we ready to “own” what we come up with, with all the rewards and risks that ensue?

Do we want anything else for our children, beyond success in the workplace? Do we want them to have caring, supportive relationships with themselves, others, and the planet? Do we want them to be kind, generous, and responsible to others, to act with reciprocity and respect, to stand up for justice and engage in thinking and actions that are life-affirming, that contribute to the thriving the bio-collective?

What if we redefined success in the workplace as all these things, instead of a job title or the size of a paycheck? What if success in the workplace was as valued as the success of the community? What if we needed to achieve both to achieve either?

New values bring about new intentions and these intentions guide our actions. Schools with new values can take different actions, not as individuals, but as a collective. As the pioneer of critical pedagogy Paolo Freire writes, “one cannot speak of an actor, nor simply of actors, but rather actors in intercommunication,” which means interdependence where self-realization is both that of the group and the individual, because they are the same. We thus move from ego to eco, in the words of MIT professor Otto Scharmer.

From new values co-emerges a new narrative, from these new questions ensue new actions, collective actions to bring forth the conditions for a thriving world. This is a seismic shift from what happens in schools because we would no longer value measuring, standardizing, sorting, and labeling learning and learners. Instead, we would value relationships and take collective action based on love for ourselves, others, and the planet, which are all the same as we extend our identities.

That is the alpha and the omega. Everything else will fall into place because taking care of ourselves is the same as taking care of each other and vice versa. Our understanding of what it takes to thrive in the world is no longer about competition and scarcity, but about cooperation and abundance. We will still learn to read, count, experiment, analyze, create, design, and all those wonderful things, but they all not be ends in themselves (receiving an “A” for analyzing a poem) but rather supplies to equip us on our journey toward a thriving ecological civilization (see Jeremy Lent’s article).

Everything else will fall into place because we won’t let each other down, won’t let each other suffer, and won’t cause self-harm. We will still learn and grow and develop our embodied minds, and some will still do better than others at certain things. But like there are no hierarchies in nature, only networks, our ecological civilization could exist through these networks of relationships and diversity.

Footnotes

↑1Take the word progress. Progress in its figurative sense of moving toward something better does not appear as a concept in any culture until the 17th century. Development did not take on its modern, figurative use until the 18th century. These words (in their figurative senses) emerged in the linearity of the Scientific Revolution and are now associated with humanist goodness. If we’re not careful, we might even take them seriously.
↑2Biologists and philosophers Maturana and Varela propose that our self does not have an independent existence, but rather is the result of our structural coupling, which is what happens when a living system interacts with its environment, responding to its environment by changing structurally. They continue by offering that this ability to change is determined by the living system, not caused by the environment, which is an act of cognition. Living systems, therefore, have three characteristics (which are rolled into the concept of autopoiesis): structure, relationships, and cognition. For our purposes, we expand our notion of the living system to include more than the individual self, our ego. The living system becomes the collective through thriving relationships.

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