Tom Palmer

About Tom Palmer

Tom is Founder and lead Learning Architect at Wired Roots. His main interest is in the place where learning design and sustainable development meet. Tom spends most of the year on his family farm in central Chile with his wife and daughter.

Regenerative Organizational Storytelling

It’s a strange phenomenon to see a mainstream acceptance of the sustainability movement, and at the same time to see large extractive and degenerative practices amplified in our globalized economy.

The term sustainability has been adopted across just about every industry — even Monsanto is using it to describe their approach to food systems development.

Yet it doesn’t take too much imaginative stretch to see how the concept has been corrupted and used to reinforce the status quo.

To sustain is to hold on, to maintain and to survive. It is embodied by the pattern of the circle, which promises that if we use just enough renewable resources and we recycle a bit that we’ll be alright.

It’s not exactly the inspiring narrative that will push us to reach our full potential as a species and to truly thrive here on Earth.

In contrast, when we look to nature we don’t find static circles — we don’t find life merely looking to hold on. Life in every form is continuously evolving. Energy is circling around, but it is also pushing forward toward higher forms of intelligence, abundance and diversity. It is more of a spiral than a circle. It is more regenerative than sustainable.

There are elements of guilt and shame in our quest to minimize the damage we cause to the planet. They likely come from a deep-seeded belief that we are inherently flawed, that we somehow don’t really belong here.

Until these beliefs are challenged, we will never evolve into the species we are capable of becoming — the species that has the potential to not only survive on this planet but to thrive deep into the future.

Screen Shot 2017-02-22 at 12.46.46 PMThe stories that we tell as organizations is where this shift begins. They must embrace the regenerative narrative — one in which the organization is supporting a holistic range of stakeholders to evolve toward their unique potential, to in turn support the evolution of the living systems to which they belong.

This includes the individuals, families, teams, communities and ecosystems that are all connected to the organization in interdependent relationships. How is your organization helping these systems to process tensions, embrace their unique essence and co-evolve toward their own inherent potential? That is the story to be crafted, lived and told.

By | February 22nd, 2017|Daily Blog, Organizational Storytelling|0 Comments

Emergence & Learning

Screen Shot 2017-02-20 at 1.13.33 PMEmergence is a fascinating property of living systems.

When we say “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” emergence is that part that makes it greater.

It is the substance of unique relationship, and is often impossible to predict — what emerges may contain properties that are not found in any of the system’s interacting parts.

Take water for example. There is nothing “watery” about hydrogen or oxygen. Yet when they interact in the right way, water emerges.

We hold many beliefs about learning & development that were instilled through our own experiences being educated. Namely, that both learners and the learning environment must be strictly controlled. Sound familiar?

This belief in control does not prepare us to recognize and adapt to what is emerging in a complex world. It’s no wonder that we struggle like we do out in “the real world” after finishing our schooling.

When learning is designed to embrace emergence, we see that the most important aspects of it happen in real time.

Creating knowledge becomes less about cramming information into short-term memory and more about bringing together diverse perspectives, letting those perspective interact with one another, and positioning ourselves to harvest, reflect and adapt to what emerges.

The results are the flexible, resilient, and agile learners and organizations that this increasingly complex world is demanding.

It becomes less about what you know, and more about how you are learning right now.

By | February 20th, 2017|Daily Blog, Emergence, Living Systems|0 Comments

Complex Challenges and Learning through Dialogue

Most of us possess some degree of the belief that a quick, miraculous fix is on its way. That it’s only a matter of time before some new technology makes our complex problems go away.

It’s not too difficult to see how and why this belief is perpetuated and reinforced by marketing campaigns, driving the consumer lifestyle.

Yet more often than not (and on some level, always) this hope leads to disappointment. The product didn’t deliver the results it promised. Or, even if some small challenge is overcome, another unexpectedly pops up in its place.

Building solutions to these types of problems is relatively easy — it’s also very lucrative, as it produces an endless supply of customer needs. A clear example is the ‘health’ industry with its ever-expanding volumes of diseases and drugs.

Yet how many of us truly believe that a magic pill will come along and make us genuinely healthy — a pill that will allow us to go on with our unhealthy lifestyles?

Clearly health is not achieved with a purchase. It is a process in which decisions are made differently and ways of thinking are changed. Ultimately, it is a learning process — we create small experiments and adjust as we begin to receive feedback from our bodies.

The same is true for organizational health. As with an individual, the change begins when we start listening and responding to what the system is telling us. It is fundamentally the engagement in dialogue that drives the system’s evolution toward greater states of well being.

We can see our complex challenges as products of unhealthy relationships, or relationships that lack healthy dialogue. Physicist David Bohm writes of the type of dialogue that’s needed:

arrows-796133_960_720“Dialogue is really aimed at going into the whole thought process and changing the way the thought process occurs collectively. We haven’t really paid much attention to thought as a process. we have engaged in thoughts, but we have only paid attention to the content, not to the process.”

The shift that is underway in learning, and must be accelerated, is away from one-way exchanges of content and toward the facilitation of dialogue in which the thinking on both sides is transformed.

Away from a magical information dump that will suddenly give employees what they need to solve problems, toward a continuous process of thinking and seeing problems differently.

Like the individual making the decision to live a healthy lifestyle, turning their attention to listening, experimenting and learning, so does the organization looking to thrive in the 21st century.

By | February 15th, 2017|Complexity, Daily Blog, Dialogue, Problem Solving|0 Comments

3 Brains are Better than 1

Heart BrainWe tend to think of learning as something that happens in our heads. Yet when we are faced with a difficult decision, we might find ourselves ‘trusting our gut’ or ‘following our heart.’

Modern neuroscience is catching up with what we’ve instinctually recognized for a long time. It’s showing that both the heart and the gut possess independent neural networks that could be considered ‘brains’ in their own right.

We rely on these systems of neurons to help us make decisions that our head brain (our intellect) cannot make alone.

In their recent book mBraining: Using Your Multiple Brains to do Cool Stuff, authors Grant Soosalu and Marvin Oka identify 3 prime functions of each brain:

Heart Brain: Emoting (emotional processing), Values (processing what’s important to you, priorities), and Relational Affect (your felt connection with others). The highest expression of the heart brain is compassion.

Gut Brain: Core Identity (a deep and visceral sense of core self), Self Preservation (protection of self, boundaries, safety, hungers and aversions), and Mobilization (motility, impulse for action, courage and the will to act). The highest expression of the gut brain is courage.

Head Brain: Cognitive Perception (cognition, perception, pattern recognition, etc.), Thinking (reasoning, abstraction, analysis, synthesis, meta-cognition, etc.), and Meaning Making (semantic processing, languaging, narrative, metaphor, etc.). The highest expression of the head brain is creativity.

See the full article from the authors here.

This research has important implications for how we approach learning & development, which has largely been focused on our head brains.

The key to making better decisions may very well lie in our ability to think in a more integrative way, consciously activating the several cognitive systems throughout our bodies to consider the best course of action.

How do we learn to do this better?


By | February 14th, 2017|Cognitive Science, Daily Blog|0 Comments

Re-Patterning Organizations, Guided by Nature

August 10, 2016

I recall as a young student being presented with a diagram, depicting humans on the top of a pyramid representing the food chain. At the bottom were the microorganisms, the fungi, bacteria, etc.

Even then I can remember wondering, “don’t bacteria eat everything? Why are they at the bottom?”

The linear, top-down pattern of the pyramid diagram didn’t match up with my experience, which suggested it was more complex than that.

Here’s a graphic that sums up this difference pretty well:

Screen Shot 2016-08-10 at 9.01.21 AM

The hierarchical structure named ‘ego’ by the artist reflects a certain mental model or worldview. It sees the human being as a dominator of nature, set apart and ultimately alone. ‘Nature’ shows us different — a complex and dynamic web of interdependent relationships.

This anthropocentric view, representing the ego of the human collective, permeates into other realms of our activity. It is reflected in the way we organize and make decisions:

Screen Shot 2016-08-10 at 9.01.34 AM

Here we can see how the belief that we as a species are set apart creates a mental model that, often unconsciously, affects how we design our communities and organizations. The collective ego translates into the individual ego, where we become not merely dominators of other species, but dominators of one another fighting for power and control.

We can also see how this produces a vicious cycle — seeing ourselves above the rest of nature, we do not look to it for insights on how to act. Therefore the patterns that we have invented and forcefully imposed persist, the result being an exploitative, extractive civilization that has severely degenerated the resource base on which it depends for survival while dis-empowering the vast majority to serve a select few.

As things change at a faster and faster rate, creating higher degrees of complexity, these mental models that do not correspond to natural patterns begin to quickly fail. Organizations with top-down power structures are finding it hard to adapt to these changes — they do not allow for decisions to be made quickly enough to keep up.

The challenges are not few moving forward. Existing organizational leadership will have to be willing to analyze their existing mental models and be open to transforming them. This will not be effective as a superficial process — it will require deep questioning and a relinquishing of the desire for overarching power and control. Some leaders are sure to resist the shift, to their own detriment and that of their organization.

As organizations with leadership who are unwilling to question their mental models begin to fail, new ones will need to emerge guided by new models.

This shift, though still in its infancy, is clearly underway. Frederic LaLoux’s book Reinventing Organizations paints a clear picture of the evolution of the organization out of a rigid, pyramidal pattern and into ‘complex adaptive systems’ with distributed authority, self-managing and self organizing structures that allow for the emergence of natural hierarchies as found in nature.

These ‘teal’ organizations empower individuals on all levels to think and act locally, creating an agile network that can quickly respond to changes in the environment as they emerge.

‘Dynamic governance’ frameworks such as Sociocracy 3.0 and Holocracy have been highly influential in the re-patterning process within such orgs. In both, a fundamental pattern is one of nested ‘circles’. It looks something like this:

Screen Shot 2016-08-10 at 9.07.14 AM


Here highly autonomous teams are formed around different functions of the organization. While they are largely empowered to make decisions locally, they are also ‘nested’ inside larger circles (groups of representatives from other smaller circles) to support the decision-making process in various ways.

In place of ‘hierarchy’, the term ‘holarchy’ has been used to describe this pattern of nested communities, where each unit is seen as both being autonomous and connected to the larger whole. This is in fact how nature functions, from atoms to molecules to cells, organisms, communities and ecosystems — each both a unique individual and at the same time an inseparable part of the larger systems in which they are nested.

The ways in which these components interact with one another and across borders with other systems to co-evolve is of principal interest. How we structure our communities and organizations must be ever-more informed by our understanding of how natural systems function to learn, adapt and evolve with the changing times.

By | August 10th, 2016|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Learning, Makerspaces, and Resilient Communities

July 14, 2016

There was a time, not long ago, when communities produced most of what they needed locally. The blacksmith, the tailor, the shoemaker and the woodworker crafted their products with care as they were likely to end up in familiar hands (or on familiar feet). Through their work local relationships were formed and nurtured, creating tight-knit and resilient communities.

Many modern communities have lost these relationship-forming roles. Products are shipped in from across the world, made by those who the user will never know. The community weakens as relationships become superficial — no longer based on the interdependence of local production. Neighbors become strangers with vague professions.

The Village, or Township, is a fundamental pattern in human habitation. It has been said that “it takes a village to raise a child.” So what happens when the bonds on which a strong community are degraded?

I’d argue that we do not fully understand the implications and the symptoms of such an event. Could our epidemics in depression, anxiety, suicide, and drug abuse be related to losing our sense of community — sense of belonging? There are some studies that suggest this is exactly the case.

While support groups and social clubs can help to alleviate this to a certain degree, they rarely provide the deep-rooted sense of belonging that comes from local productivity. The benefits of such interactions are often intangible. But when I create something for someone else, when I hand it to them personally, when I get to see them use it or I get to ask them about how they liked it the next day, the relationship feels more tangible — more real.

Not to mention the environmental benefits of keeping resources local, decreasing the waste produced by moving products around and creating a sense of accountability for the means of production. When things are produced “way over there” we tend to lower our standards and look the other way when corners are cut. When they are produced locally, we pay more attention.

The good news is that we are starting to head back in that direction, though there is much work to be done. One particular technology that is helping to push this movement is the 3D printer. Incredible powers of production have been suddenly granted us. Much of what we are currently importing from afar can again be created locally.

Spaces for local collaboration and production, or makerspaces, are popping up in communities around the globe. Here locals can gain access to 3D printers and other equipment for designing and creating their products.

How might this work to regenerate those relationship-cultivating roles of local production? How do we get there?

We may find clues to that second question in initiatives like this:

While 3D printers and other productive technologies are now being used in some mainstream educational systems, they are also creating systems of their own. They are helping to shift the learning paradigm toward learner-centered environments where students can explore, create and collaborate. Here opportunities are discovered for using these technologies to solve real-world, community-level problems, to form enterprises, and to produce locally.

It will likely be the tech-savvy youth who will transform these fringe initiatives into mainstream practices. The reason is simple: it is a process of learning, of shifting perspective and of embracing new ways of thinking and doing. Young people have the mental agility to do this well. Their conditioning is more superficial — the roots of the old ways have not yet penetrated the cores of their still-forming worldviews.

With our growing awareness of this, we have an opportunity to support them to embrace this emerging future full of possibilities — for creating strong and more resilient communities, for taking better care of the Earth and each other, for living higher-quality lives.

It will require that we work to break from our own conditioning around the ways we are expected to educate younger generations. That is, seeing that we don’t have all the answers for them, that those answers they will have to discover themselves. Our role is shifting. One way to articulate this shift, common in some educational circles, is from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side.” We look for ways to empower and support rather than indoctrinate and control.

Designing and creating the environments and support structures to facilitate this type of discovery becomes a critical focal point. What does the future learning environment look like? One thing is for certain — it doesn’t look like this:

We are all affected by the degradation of community-level relationships, brought on by the fact that we depend on each other less than we used to for our day-to-day livelihoods. Regenerating those bonds, and the community as whole, will come from re-establishing a sense of interdependence. New technologies such as 3D printing and others can facilitate this, but not without an effort made to flex our mindsets and embrace new ways of thinking and learning.

By | July 14th, 2016|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Augmented Reality and Regenerative Design

May 18, 2016

Augmented Reality combines digital elements with the real world. If you’re familiar with Google Glass you probably have a handle on the concept. Or you might find yourself thinking of a scene from one of the Terminator films.

Like virtual reality and artificial intelligence, augmented reality promises to be a massively impactful technology for mainstream culture in the developed world and beyond.

Many are (reasonably) concerned that this will amount to a further disconnect from the natural world. For many it likely will.

However I would argue that these tools, if used wisely, can be powerful and transformative in positive ways as well. One example is how they might affect how we design our lives and the spaces that we occupy.

Check out this short demo of an augmented reality program used for interior design:

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It’s easy to imagine how this could play out for designing other types of things such as products, buildings, landscapes, communities and cities.

It’s worthwhile to note that the technology is still in its infancy. Developers are currently working on new ideas such as embedding it into contact lenses.

Let’s think for a moment what it might be like to look out at your backyard and experiment with different arrangements of trees, ponds, gardens, etc. Programs could be built to provide automated feedback on selections based on soil type, climate, or proximity to other elements.

Maybe it is connected to a network of seed or seedling providers that you can order from based on your location. Lot’s of possibilities.

One advantage relates to an important aspect of modern design – creating cycles of rapid prototypes that can be shared and that generate feedback. Virtual communities can be created that support designers by sharing ideas and perspectives.

Related is the way this is affecting design education (or even broader, the role of design in education).

A recent study conducted with students in a university sustainable design program compared the process of redesigning a building wall with paper vs designing with an augmented reality app.

The results are interesting, showing that students who completed the design activity using the app:

  • all completed multiple design iterations in the designated time (compared to 17 and 30% using paper).
  • were able to consider between 8 and 10 times more design iterations than those using paper.
  • considered using close to 3 times as many materials.
  • felt less rushed and enjoyed the activity more.

It’s worth mentioning too that the app was brand new for all participants, so we can imagine these numbers would only increase as they moved through the learning curve.

The big challenge with these new technologies will be in creating a sense of balance. As they get better and better, so does that challenge.

And whether we want them to or not, they are not only coming – they are already here. I tend to agree with thinkers like Noam Chomsky who see technology as neutral. A tool like any other, as valuable as the ways in which it is used.

Can these new tools be used to connect us to our environment rather than separate us from it? That depends on how we decide to embrace them.



By | May 18th, 2016|Uncategorized|1 Comment

How Patterns, Systems & Design Will Drive Education Futures

May 11, 2016

The human being’s capacity for pattern recognition is extraordinary. Through observation of the patterns found in nature, we have come to understand much about our place in the universe and its interworking. Yet our systems of education and learning are largely organized into separated disciplines taught in states of isolation. We have lost much of our sense for what it is that connects and integrates these various fields of human interest — the universal patterns and the forces that shape them.

A powerful insight into these fundamental forces comes from cymatics — the study of the effect of sound on matter. “Sound” in this sense meaning vibrational frequencies, some of which are audible to the human ear and some of which are not.

“If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.” — Nikola Tesla

A common and easily repeatable cymatic experiment is done by sprinkling sand onto a metal plate, which is then vibrated at distinct frequencies. With the vibration the sand self-organizes into intricate patterns, changing in fluid motion with the applied frequency.

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More recently a device called a cymascope has been developed that does the same with water droplets, recording the beautiful and dynamic imagery.

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What’s perhaps even more interesting is that the patterns found in these experiments are also found throughout the natural universe — from the geometric structures formed by the relationships between stars to those between molecular elements and atomic particles. They are found in coastlines and mountain ranges, plants, animals, and the human body. It shows us how energy flows and is organized in the universe.

Educated in the public school system in the United States, I don’t recall being introduced to anything resembling this fascinating subject at any point in the (estimated) 14,580 hours I spent in the classroom.

The truth is, I feel cheated.

This should be a fundamental part of our education. Not only is it key to understanding ourselves and our dynamic relationships within the nested systems of which are an inseparable part, but it provides pathways to practical action.  Many (if not all) of our problems relate to the fact that we have created systems that do not fit with natural patterns and energy flows. Rather they work against them, creating waste and degradation.

We must learn how to discover these patterns and then transform systems to harness their innate ability to create beauty and abundance.

A good place to start is by developing our capacity for systems thinking. A system is a group of elements that form interdependent relationships that produce a collective function. That could be anything from an atom (protons, electrons, neutrons) to a chair (wood, screws, glue, fabric) to a forest (plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, nutrients, etc.) to an entire planet, solar system, galaxy, and beyond.

Each system is both made up of of smaller systems as well as being an integral part of larger systems. Take a human being for example. We are made up of atoms which make up molecules which make up bacteria, nutrients, blood, water, skin, bones, organs, etc. Each of these is a system in itself as well as a subsystem of the human body, which is also a system in itself. The human body is then part of familial, organizational, communal, societal, ecological, bioregional, and planetary systems.

Ok, lots of systems. There are a couple of important points: none exist in isolation (they all trade elements and interact with bordering systems) and they are all patterns. They have geometric structures that shift and transform with interactions and adaptations. These geometries, as we know from cymatics, self-organize — guided by vibrational frequencies.

We also know that each atomic element found in the universe vibrates at a specific frequency. When these atoms organize into systems, the frequencies combine to form what is known as a resonant frequency. Everything — and everyone — has one. Through resonant frequency each component is participating in the self-organization of the systems to which it is connected (which is all systems). The ripple effect is universal.

Getting back to practical applications. The second focal point for education futures is in design thinking. Through observation of patterns/systems, we can begin to identify where we want to take action to manipulate existing structures for a desired outcome. As patterns/systems are based on relationships, so too are the interventions that we choose to make.

For example, let’s say that an opportunity has been identified in a local community where there is a degraded riparian ecosystem. A group of students will design and develop a project to regenerate the system. To do so they must first survey and analyze the problem — what has caused it? What is its current state? What is the pattern that is trying to naturally emerge and what is preventing it from doing so? This might include talking to local people, researching riparian ecology, local plants and wildlife etc.

They will then design an intervention to transform the pattern. This would include identifying, finding and allocating resources, cultivating stakeholders, forming organizational processes and assigning tasks, and developing a plan for implementation and continued maintenance. Finally they would implement their plan.

Clearly such a project would amount to a very rich learning experience, integrating many relevant real-world skills. It would also be a useful and rewarding venture both for the student and the community.

Perhaps more importantly, this type of education focuses on building and nurturing mutually beneficial relationships — amongst learners, between learners and members of local communities, between learners and the places they live, etc. Systems thinking promotes the awareness of these relationships, while design thinking promotes the intentional development of mutual benefit.

A shift toward this type of project-based learning, supported by integrative instruction in pattern recognition, systems and design, may be essential for our adaptation and survival as a species. With current trends towards increased standardization and debt-producing learning pathways, it is a challenge that will require bold action and community-level support.

Institutions like Gaia University are leading the way in higher education. What are some other initiatives pushing for a more systems- and design-based approach to learning that you’ve come across? Share in the comments below.

By | May 11th, 2016|Uncategorized|0 Comments

7 Key Edges for Effective Learning Through Project Work

April 20, 2016

Life can be seen as a series of overlapping projects. These projects are all powerful learning experiences — however, when they are consciously approached as such the growth intensifies as does the quality of the work. Becoming an effective project designer and developer is to become an effective designer and developer of life itself. Here are 7 key edges to consider as you look to evolve your own processes:

1) Design Thinking

Adopting the mindset of a designer is about recognizing your ability to transform reality — to imagine something other than what is and put into motion the process of creation. With project work you evolve your design skills through the use of design models and frameworks that guide activity. While these models vary, most follow a sequence of stages in which specific actions are carried out. One example is that of SADIM — Survey, Analysis, Design, Implementation, Maintenance.

Check out: Design Thinking… What is That?

2) Systems Thinking

Much of traditional education relies on linear thinking — subject does x to y, which results in z. Yet in the real world things are usually more complex. Cause and effect is not always so near or clear. Systems thinking entails seeing webs of relationships and making connections between elements. Projects can facilitates this as they often contain the dynamic complexity of real-world activity, encouraging you to see the big picture with an awareness of context. They can be framed as interventions within existing systems — promoting high-level cognitive processes and strategic thinking.

Check out: An Overview of Systems Thinking

3) Independent Research

Being able to effectively find the information we need and apply it to our work is one of the most useful skills we could possess in the modern world. In developing a project of any kind, research is almost always required. This is an edge that can pushed by incorporating new tools and techniques (such as highlighting PDFs, creating mind maps, etc.), learning how to properly cite others’ work and evaluating resources critically.

Check out: 10 Tips for Smarter, More Efficient Internet Searching

4) Active Experimentation

Creating new knowledge is an active process — it is not about memorizing information. Learning through projects is extremely effective because it allows us to apply new information in our unique context to discover what works and what doesn’t. Failure is valued for the knowledge that it generates (as opposed to being feared), and project designers/developers are encouraged to push boundaries and to think outside the box.

Check out: The Top Rapid Prototyping Programs and Techniques for Designers

5) Cultivating Stakeholders

Projects typically involve multiple people, including those working to develop it as well as those who may interact with it or be affected by it in some way. All of these people could be considered stakeholders, and evolving the soft skills required to establish and nurture these relationships is a powerful edge. This involves networking, communication, following up on commitments (or renegotiating), and other inter/intrapersonal skills.

Check out: 7 Tips for Networking

6) Creating Feedback Loops

Feedback is what ultimately drives the learning process. Designing projects in a way that creates feedback loops and prepares the team to learn throughout the development process — to continually adapt and improve — is critical and empowering. Techniques such as prototyping, interviewing and creating experiments are often used to facilitate feedback in this way.

Check out: Designing Great Feedback Loops

7) Reflection

As a complex, active and interactive process, designing and developing a project can result in learning about many different things. Reflecting on the experience helps to synthesize the diverse insights that tend to emerge. Reflection is also an important component of knowledge building, helping to ground new information in experience and highlight the often nuanced lessons to be learned. A common technique is to carry out a reflective journaling process throughout the development process, as well a a more in-depth reflection at the end (or at the end of each stage).

Check out: Tips for Effective Reflection

While we have only briefly touched on each topic here, I hope reading this post has given you some incentive for digging in deeper to each of these powerful edges. Project development is in essence a learning process — organizing projects as learning experiences will help you grow holistically and better prepare you for an increasingly complex future.

By | April 20th, 2016|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Developing Multiple Intelligences & The Superficiality of the Modern Diversity Movement

February 2, 2016

A resilient natural system, say an old-growth forest for example, is so because it is highly diverse. A wide range of individual lifeforms have been able to thrive there—allowed to do what they do best as complex, mutually beneficial relationships are formed and perpetually evolved.

As a whole we’ve come around to recognize this link between resilience and diversity, but its application in modern human systems—at least in a mainstream sense—is largely superficial. Advertisements meeting ethnic quotas with global, multi-cultural tones mask a persistent pattern of mono-cultural industrialism. In the name of diversity, it serves only to absorb those unique patterns and conform them to a system designed for the concentration of power and influence.

Two glaring examples of this are found in agriculture and education. In this article we will touch on the former and look more closely at the latter, exploring how the theory of multiple intelligences might provide guidance for alternatives.

The vast (vast, vast) majority of the food we consume on a daily basis is produced as mono-crops—in fields with one singular type of plant. Completely lacking diversity and therefore resilience, these systems are propped up by chemicals and artificial fertilizers that in time destroy themselves. Abundant forest systems are transformed into deserts. Water is wasted and polluted. Animals are displaced and die in massive numbers.

Where is our demand for diversity there?

In education the mainstream movement has been toward standardization. Curricula are designed to prepare all students for the same test, by which their value to society and their fate is largely decided. A minority do well in such an environment, while most never develop the unique abilities that lead them to the fulfillment of their potential. They end up spending the majority of their time and energy doing something arbitrary to make a living, working for those that did better on the test.

Some might have you believe that a school following this standardized model of education, if filled with students of different skin colors and cultural backgrounds, is diverse. I will argue here that it is the exact opposite of that—it is destroying diversity just as the developer who clear cuts an old-growth forest to plant soybeans does.

One consequence of this is stifled creativity (and therefore problem-solving skills), making us as an entire species less adaptable. The faster things change, the more we struggle to keep up and the more our problems linger unsolved. As these problems become ever more dire and even threatening to our survival, the more we need individuals capable of challenging existing paradigms and forming unique perspectives.

If we are to truly value diversity as not just a superficial fad but as a scientifically sound characteristic of a resilient and sustainable (adaptable) system, we must create alternative systems that reflect that value.

In agriculture we can look to movements like Permaculture for fresh thinking.

In education we might take a look at the theory of multiple intelligences—coined by developmental psychologist Howard Gardner with his 1983 book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Rather than seeing “intelligence” as a singular phenomenon, he maps a range of distinct types of intelligences. According to Gardner, everyone possesses a unique blend of each:

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What would a system of education look like that supported learners to embrace their unique balance of natural intelligences? The question is bigger than any existing answer—this is our challenge that we must face together.

One institution that I have drawn much inspiration from—and through which I have evolved my own thinking considerably I believe—is Gaia University, whose mission is to do just that. There is no doubt that organizational leaders, educators (and self-educators) around the world can learn much from them about how to support learners in their unique journey to discovering their natural intelligence and passion—and transforming their energy into what they refer to as “right livelihood.”

In other words doing what you love, what you’re good at, and what the rest of us need you to do more than anything else.

A few characteristics of Gaia U to consider for developing your—or supporting others others to develop their— natural (unique blend of multiple) intelligences:

– Supporting learners to design and develop their own pathways

– Project/solution based approach (action oriented)

– Encouraging experimentation, learning from failure not fearing it

– Blurring the line between student and professional — learning based around real-life experiences in the real world

– “Guide on the Side” over “Sage on the Stage”

– Encouraging journaling throughout the process and creating opportunities for reflection

– Creating opportunities for self-reviews and peer-reviews of work

– Learning at your own pace / flexible structures that develop self-management skills

– Learners are supported to choose much of the content & materials / develop independent research skills

– Learning is documented and arranged creatively in a portfolio

– Emphasis on worldviews, systems thinking, design thinking, leadership and critical thinking

– A developed sense of responsibility for sharing learning and co-creating the knowledge commons

There are probably other characteristics I could add to this list, but you start to get a picture of something very different from the model of standardization so commonly found today in mainstream education. What is the result?

From my experience interacting with this type of approach as both a student and administrator, the result is very inspiring. Many of the most interesting, authentic, passionate, creative, and naturally intelligent people I have known in this life have carved out their niches in such a support system.

Not to mention it is a way of learning that doesn’t stop at graduation. These patterns of development only evolve with time and are taken into any environment—the workplace, the home, relationships, travels, new challenges.

At the end of the day we are not meant to be stalks in a cornfield. We are meant to be big trees in an old growth forest, unique in the ways we reach up for the light, wiser every year as we give to and take from the lifeforms around us.

It’s probably for the best if we cast off the notion that we have achieved some level of diversity in our culture as a whole. Most of it is superficial, or even counter to real diversity. Real diversity is not just about skin color or socioeconomic background—it is about allowing everyone to grow into the one-of-a-kind individual that they truly are. To embrace the gift in whichever unique form it has taken within, and to use it well.

Check out the Gaia University site here.

For more on the theory of multiple intelligences, click here.

By | February 2nd, 2016|Uncategorized|0 Comments
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