Communities of Learning
A New Story of Education For a New Century


Our Current General Social Transformation

Our Current Education System

Education's Future

FAQ's on This Future of Education

Evaluating Social Systems





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Lisa Lindberg

Education's Future: A New Story of Vitality and Adaptivity --
Applying Principles of Complexity Science to the Field of Education

To offer real choice in education, we must move away from institutionally binding people into rigid, lock-step schooling. But how can we achieve this? How do we transform our educational model away from these institutions? How can we move away from a system that insists its participants adapt themselves to centrally organized, top-down decision making processes? How can we begin to make a dent in a slow-moving behemoth carrying such weighty inertia? How do we conceptualize a framework which honors and addresses life's need for both stability and flexibility - - neither at the expense of the other? How can we integrate these qualities of stability and flexibility to form a foundation for the growth of wholeness?

The first step is to closely examine the model of social organization gaining momentum in the current general societal transformation
: the voluntary community - - the complex adaptive system as applied to human social organization. The inner workings of this model resemble the neural network operations of the human mind : a multi-centered web of independent yet interconnected parts. These mental operations are capable of multi-processing - - of many different threads of activities happening simultaneously in many different areas and directions. Both this individual mental functioning and complex adaptive social systems create the great richness of human life : the constant flux of new, unanticipated styles of expression arising in countless myriad ways.

Insert Illustration: Graphic of correspondence between neural model and new social model

Correspondingly, the model of education we offer our citizens for their happiness, satisfaction, and productivity in our new era must use the social organization model
OF our new era : voluntary communities linked together in a multi-centered network structure.

A vital, transformed approach to education would focus on building learning opportunities the way nature builds complex adaptive systems : from the bottom up. An expression for this process is "growth by chunking" : building a complex adaptive system one incremental, proven, grassroots, autonomous building block at a time. "To assemble a prairie takes time - - even if you have all the pieces. Time is needed to let each part test itself against all the others. Complexity is created by assembling it incrementally from simple modules that can operate independently. Complexity must be grown from simple systems that already work." (8)

A transformed model of education would use as its fundamental modus operendi the chaordic form of organization - - the dynamic of natural law that harmoniously blends the qualities of chaos and order. A chaordic organism is a complex adaptive system capable of maintaining continual healthy viability over time.  Local participants in the distributed-intelligence model do not rely on paternalistic decision making “from the top," or “from above,” but rather have their own decision-making autonomy. These local groups would continually offer their participants opportunities to take on new, relevant challenges, self-generating potentially infinite possibilities, fluidly adapting to changing times and the continual flux of individuals' and groups' needs and preferences.

To maintain the essence of a distributed-intelligence system, the responsibility for this maintenance must itself be distributed throughout the system. The development of a distributed-intelligence system must not be waylaid by the misguided paternalism of one individual person's charismatic personality, leadership style, or vision. Such reliance breeds unhealthy dependence and mal-adaption to change.  The withdrawal or demise of this type of guidance inevitably results in organizational trauma : disruption and dysfunction. Rather, the essential nature of every aspect of the system must culture the responsibility of maintaining individual freedom. Every aspect of the system must have a built-in prevention against accumulating the rigidity of centralized authority. (24).

A New Story of Education :  Essential Steps for the Transformation

1. Core goal of learning: the process of a person forming a relationship with and an approach to Life.

2. Reconceptualize the roles of the players in the learning process: (a) teachers & students (b) administration.

3. Separate learning activities from the politics of certification.

4. Re-conceptualize the physical infrastructure of education to support a marketplace of freely chosen learning opportunities.

Details of these Essential Steps

1.   Core goal of the activity of learning: a person forming a relationship with and an approach to Life, to what it means to be alive on this planet.

As discussed in Part 2, the vital role of interpersonal relationships is now being recognized in the arena of business.  Similarly, the most significant, fundamental factor in the arena of education is people creating relationships working together in learning activities.  Transformation of education involves recognizing and honoring the primacy of the quality of human connections for the crucial role they play, then focusing attention there.  Relationships among people in the educational realm must be transformed into those freely chosen and based on mutual value, trust, and respect.

Individual people must play the primary role in the learning process by developing relationships of depth with :  


2.  Reconceptualize the roles of the players in the learning process :

Teachers and Students

Recognize and honor the primacy of the individual's role in the learning process by providing unfettered freedom and flexibility in all aspects of learning. This freedom is vital for the full functioning of the delicate but powerfully influential process of navigating through and processing new stimuli. Guiding this process wisely will result in the growth of the individual's qualities of integration and wholeness - - the key requirements for strengthening both unity and diversity in the society as a whole.

To transform the student-teacher relationship, use the conceptual analog model of clients seeking health consultation from medical doctors. Clients seek referrals from trusted friends, then freely choose doctors from among those relevant for their needs. The parties build their relationships and arrange for activities at the doctors' own offices or at local hospitals where the doctors have staff privileges. At these hospitals, the doctors are not employees, but rather self-employed, independent agents.

Illustration: doctor w/ stethescope, examining client

In a similar way, the student-teacher relationship must be formed by mutual free choice. Students have an uncannily accurate ability to recognize good teaching : good teachers exemplify the spirit of the subjects they love. Students also instinctively recognize the fact that working with teachers exposes them to those teachers' values and worldviews : “We are our stories.”  Relationships of this power must always be entered into voluntarily.

To create such a voluntary system, set up a system of instructor-initiated, student-requested course offerings, and give participants the freedom to choose the courses offered and taken, as well as their locations. To continue the earlier restaurant metaphor, this new approach will offer all participants a variety of restaurants to go to, each with a sumptuous smorgasbord of possibilities from which to freely choose, surrounded by people of all generations. Participants will decide for themselves how much digesting time to schedule into their daily routine after finishing with one meal before continuing on to the next - - which may take place at another location.

Encourage local initiatives of self-determination, self-governance, and self-organization to culture a general civic spirit of life-long learning. Create a community's curriculum
: a network of learning opportunities in the spirit of community-as-learning-laboratory / community-as-campus. Offer a marketplace of possibilities, and let free-choice dynamics reveal and reward viability.

Encourage local initiatives of self-determination, self-governance, and self-organization to culture a general civic spirit of life-long learning. Create a community's curriculum : a network of learning opportunities in the spirit of community-as-learning-laboratory / community-as-campus. Offer a marketplace of possibilities, and let free-choice dynamics reveal excellence and viability.

These measures will culture the development of grass-roots networks of free-agent teachers independent of centralized, bureaucratic institutions. All contractual and financial arrangements for courses will be between the independent instructors, the students, and the funding grantors, with no intermediary administrative bureaucracy.

In such a climate, newly budding teachers will be able to team up with more experienced teachers until they feel confidant enough to work on their own.

Administrative staff: Transform into non-intrusive, supporting roles, offering guiding advice and general assistance for the activities of the primary players - - teachers and students - - to flourish in freedom.

Recognize and legitimize the fact that the role of administrative staff is subordinate to the primacy of individual people developing relationships with each other and with Life. That is, there should be no central, paternalistic authority figure(s) dictating rules or instituting massive, sweeping changes - - even if these policies are seemingly for the good. Administrative support staff should non-intrusively provide the stable structure for individuals' development.

To conceptually transform the role of administrative staff, use the analog model of staff at local public libraries - - none of whom see their role as making sure their patrons do their assigned work. Libraries emphasize voluntary user-participation, and maintain optimal numbers of friendly, user-oriented staff, ready to guide patrons to resources they need and want.

. Separate learning activities of both teachers and students from the politics of certification - - from the requiring, conferring, or withholding of  degrees and diplomas.

Free up the learning process from the political dynamics of conferring (or withholding) diplomas and degrees. This will preserve the natural process of learning from association with oppressive obligation and often-inaccurate judgementalism. Instead, develop alternate methods for evaluating and certifying students' work. An example of this is the individual negotiation currently being carried out by independent-study students with the powers-that-be. These students work either with representatives of government agencies or of independent-students' "umbrella schools" to create programs meeting individual students' needs.

4.  Re-conceptualize the physical infrastructure of education to support a rich, city-wide marketplace of learning.

Move away from the image of school-as-enormous-edifice, of school-as-factory assembly line. This model is based the debatable notion that education can only be delivered effectively and efficiently by paternalistic bureaucracies which run single-centered, closed-system institutions. The entrenched inertia of this approach presents a graphic case against itself.

Create instead a decentralized network of freely chosen learning opportunities. Use the conceptual and physical model of the local public library system to re-organize and re-allocate funds, space, people, tools. Make this multi-centered network out of major hubs of Community Learning Centers with their multi-offerings, and also contextual settings for individual classes.

Conceptualize Community Learning Centers as local neighborhood schools reinvented for the 21st-Century. Develop them in the spirit of neighborhood schools before the school-consolidation trend of the last half of the 20th Century, and in a way which ensures both of these two crucial dynamics :

- Limited range of learning opportunities
- Too small of a “box” for free breathing - - due to the (usually implicit and unwritten) legitimizing of only one acceptable cultural worldview.

In our age of global connectivity, it is possible to accomplish both aspects of this goal.  Locally based and operated Community Learning Centers can help culture the entire range of qualities to local neighborhoods - - groundedness, expansiveness, integration, and wholeness :

- Linking and expanding points between individual family households, the wider community, and global resources
- Web-based communication system for keeping abreast of opportunities and developments across the entire network.

Set the tone of Community Learning Centers as open-system communities of voluntarily formed, self-organizing, human-scaled groups of people building relationships of mutual volution, affinity, and respect. Develop them as vibrant hubs of freely chosen activities for all ages - - infants to elders - - to connect with each other and with local and global resources. Encourage all possible variations of activity offerings :

Community Learning Centers : Details of Development


Select a central, mixed-use location with high traffic and high visibility

Illustrations: Some examples of these

  • Norseville School
  • Shop-Front schools in NYC
  • Old School Fabrics, Boonsboro
  • 8th Street Coffeehouse, Escanaba, Michigan



Neighborhood residents of all ages


Activities at the center would be instructor-initiated and student-requested.
  Independent instructors would lead formally scheduled group instruction, and would pay the Center a space-and-resource fee. To promote contextual learning, the center would also have affiliations with instructors who want to hold classes at their own space. In addition, there would be opportunities for informal, spontaneous, non-class activities requiring a minimum of assistance. In all cases, ensure flexibility to be open to innovative, relevant possibilities.

Independent instructors would offer learning opportunities in all areas of interest for people ages 1 month to 100+ years, with courses organized by interest area rather than strictly by age - - within reason. This will help remedy the artificial segregation of the "generation gap" and its unfortunate social ramifications.


Note : Anecdotal evidence points to the benefits of intergenerational learning, of adults and teenagers taking classes together.  For the younger students, the fact that adults would voluntarily subject themselves to learning about any topic was a novel - - and sobering - - concept :  in the presence of even one adult attending a class on their own volition, previous behavior problems among the teenagers evaporated.

Herds of adolescent elephants on the rampage, Time Magazine (26)

Independent instructors would offer workshops and courses in a wide range of time durations

Neighborhood residents could use Community Learning Centers as the departure points for traveling together to classes at affiliated resource satellites, and for setting off on field trips and outings.

Illustration: Meeting and departing points


Resource Coordinator - - the community’s guidance counselor or match-maker who sorts through the myriad of available learning opportunities on behalf of community members.  Does not perceive role as an autocrat ruling an empire, but rather of identifying and meeting people's needs - - and doing it with VISION.

Facility Coordinator

Independent Instructors

Resource Support Staff - - both paid and volunteer

Grant-Proposal Writer


Indoor Areas

Some possible spaces for classes, meetings, individual activities :

Some of Tim McGinty’s drawings of these places

Outdoor Areas


Tim’s drawings of these places

- UW-M PLAYGROUND dedication celebration, July 1982

- Old men playing checkers - - in cardboard slide form, I think

- Log Cabin Science - - chemistry class on porch

Where should this go?: Quotes from authors of   _______ Transformation , Benjamin Zander, conductor of Boston Philharmonic, and Rosamond ___, including quote from Martha Graham. Diane Rehm Show 2001-03-28

Next Section
: Be There Dragons? Can It Scale? FAQ's about Communities of Learning


Our Current General Social Transformation

Our Current Education

Education's Future

FAQ's on This Future

Evaluating Social Systems




Site Contents