The Call for Educational Transformation

Image by Ben McLeod via Unsplash

On 7 September 2021, we launched the publication of the r3.0 Educational Transformation Blueprint, for which I served as the lead author, and co-authored with Bill Baue and Ralph Thurm. This ninth Blueprint in the r3.0 work ecosystem of Blueprints includes 7 Transformative Learning Perspectives for Regeneration and Thrivability. The Blueprint also shares the stories, perspectives, and suggestions of an eclectic group of educators, economists, evolutionary scientists, transformation facilitators, and system designers, who met over a period of 9 months from February-July 2021.

Through this Blueprint, we hope to inspire and empower the necessary inner and outer learning shifts that can move us towards trajectories of regeneration, and ultimately thrivability. Such shifts require a major transformation in the way learning is currently taking place (and envisioned) as well as new ways for initiating and inspiring the kind of transformative learning that leads to the necessary behavioural change.

These inner and outer shifts will also require a major commitment, individually and collectively, to address the root causes of the multiple crises we are in. Although this collective challenge requires that we each play our role and responsibility to bring forth this necessary shift, it is also important to realize how the burden of inaction and the cost of harm continues to fall on those most vulnerable, including our planet.

At the forefront of the larger trajectory shifts that the r3.0 Blueprints advocate are necessary inner shifts in terms of our personal and collective consciousness. These consciousness shifts will not come about through a predominantly intellectual or goal-oriented process, not even the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

What we mean by Regeneration and Thrivability

Regeneration is the act of healing, improving, and enhancing a place, system, or relationship with the healthy flows and thrivable conditions for life. Life as a whole, and most natural living systems and organisms, are regenerative by design and in behaviour. Yet our dominant economic systems are decoupled from these regenerative operating principles, as such creating impacts that are not regenerative, and thus also not sustainable. Regeneration is an unfolding dynamic process and a journey that reconnects our humanity with the larger web of life and the universe.

Regeneration is a critical and key responsibility for our species at this tipping point of life on earth, which begins by acknowledging the extensive damage and imbalances that our human actions have caused and are costing life on earth. Regeneration and learning for regeneration should become a primary concern of education, yet in many places and institutions, it is not. Regeneration as a focus also implies and places upon us ethics of care and stewardship, as an unfolding dialectic of inner and outer transformation.

Thrivability includes regeneration and yet expands this further by also focussing on new conditions for our future evolution. Thrivability, i.e. our ability to thrive, has many different meanings and associations and can serve as both a vision and a promise. Although thrivability is commonly associated with our ability to flourish, be happy, and fulfilled, we consider thrivability as systemic and intrinsic to life.

Thrivability as a developmental process focuses on learning how to create systemic capacities and conditions for becoming future creative, life-affirming, and possibility increasing. Thrivability as an evolutionary learning process not only restores, regenerates, and heals what has become injured, weakened or damaged but also creates the conditions for the emergence of new possibilities and futures.

Our focus is on developing the awareness, understanding, and capacities for regeneration and thrivability. We consider this to be the essence of what education should be about and for. To prepare us to mature and wisen as a regenerative and thrivable species by empowering us with the capacities and awareness for becoming better stewards of our planet, our commons, and our shared future wellbeing.

Summary of the 7 Transformative Learning Perspectives

These seven transformative perspectives can be applied to curriculum redesign, as part of transformative learning conversations, and most importantly for creating the learning spaces that invite reflection and inquiry through which emerge new levels and ways of understanding and action.

It is our hope that by developing and deepening the context and possibilities for learning through these seven perspectives, that learning can become more meaningful, experiential, relevant, and thus also more transformative for this time of significant change.

Source: r3.0 Educational Transformation Blueprint (BP9).

The 7 Transformative Learning Perspectives are explored through 21 topics over 7 chapters that offer an in-depth exploration of the multi-dimensional nature of systemic transformational change for regeneration and thrivability. These perspectives and topics are briefly summarized here below:

1. Learning as Context — The Anthropocene, the Noosphere, and A New Renaissance.

  • Provides essential conditions and attractors for transformative learning and for inspiring our personal and societal development towards regeneration and thrivability.

2. Learning as Life — Three Evolutionary Principles of Life, Five Stages of Transformational Change, and Five Syntony Spheres of Evolutionary Learning Ecosystems.

  • Provides necessary foundations for developing our ecological literacies and ecosystemic capacities for regeneration and thrivability.

3. Learning as Future — Cosmology of Futures, Imaginal Capacities, Futures Literacies.

  • Provides necessary foundations for developing our future literacies and imaginal capacities for regeneration and thrivability.

4. Learning as Agency — Transformative Agency, Bildung as Stewardship, and the Governance of Agency.

  • Provides necessary foundations for developing our agency capacities for stewarding regeneration and thrivability.

5. Learning as Connection — Learning as a Connective Pattern, Digital connections and the role of AI and VR, and Learning Feedback.

  • Provides essential inquiries for developing our digital literacies, connective capacities, and regenerative feedback systems for creating thrivable learning systems.

6. Learning as Story — Learning as Story in Place, the Mythic Structures of Learning, and how to create New Stories of Learning.

  • Provide necessary foundations for developing conscious communication, depth perception, and sense-making capacities and for becoming the story creators for regeneration and thrivability.

7. Learning as Community — Becoming a Global Learning Community, Bioregional Learning Communities, Weaving the Mycelia Networks of Future Education.

  • Provides the necessary foundations for developing community based global consciousness that is life centered and future inspired, as well as for the development of collaborative capacities to become caretakers and stewards of our commons — our world and future.

The Why of Educational Transformation

This is a critical time to be alive on Earth where our actions and inactions have far-reaching consequences for decades to come. Now more than ever we need to develop our collaborative learning capacities and push the edge of what education can become.

Our own evolution as a species is hinging on the intersection of multiple crossroads, which raises the critical question of whether mainstream education is able to prepare us for who we are to become in order to address the enormous challenges now upon us. It further raises the following questions:

  • How does what we learn and how we learn catalyze the required personal as well as collective transformations of our assumptions, habits, attitudes, and actions
  • And how does formal and informal education support and prepare people to access and develop their future potentials of a new kind of civilization that is life-centered and ecological by design?
  • Is education inviting us to explore what it means to consciously influence how we evolve as a species during this time of unprecedented changes?

The ‘why’ of ‘educational transformation’ is directly related to our societal change and development, and in particular, the mechanistic growth archetypes that have become so dominant. Although many societal changes have brought a greater quality of life to many more people with access to facilities and technologies that have helped to improve their standard of living, there are also consequences to these mechanistic growth models that cannot be ignored.

Collectively, our societal growth and development exceed the carrying capacities (planetary boundaries) of our planet, and furthermore, more than fifty percent of our biodiversity has been destroyed in less than 5 decades, which has now resulted in a “code red” climate and biodiversity emergency. Our future has become less secure and safe as a result of these extractive and mechanistic growth models for developing our societies and lives.

For hundreds of years, this predominantly western capitalist agenda has prioritized economic growth over wellbeing, and sought progress and success in quantitative ways, at the cost of our planetary health and biodiversity. This is turning our planet into a commodity, and at best a natural capital, rather than valuing our planet as a living being and the conditions for us to thrive together with our planet. As explained eloquently by economist Hazel Henderson:

“Clearly, economics has always been about power, control over others and natural resources, influencing human relationships, culture, politics and laws in most societies. It has produced the narrow globalization of markets and today’s global financial casino still inflicting daily damage on global ecosystems and local communities. Economic theories see efficient societies as those where market completion means almost every human transaction is conducted in money and tracked by macroeconomic statistics. This is almost as insane as communist goals of having governments own all the means of production! It’s time to get beyond the last century’s Cold War between capitalism, communism, socialism, libertarianism and all these over-simplifying ideologies of “left” and “right”.” ~ Hazel Henderson (2021).

Despite an increase in formal literacies and access to schools worldwide, humanity continues to exceed the carrying capacities of our planet, moving more deeply into trajectories of collapse. Even more so when education follows a similar doctrine as the narrow economics that Hazel Henderson described above.

Our mainstream economic archetypes of unlimited and extractive economic growth are the result of many combined and often unquestioned choices, priorities, expectations, and assumptions about life that result from a long historical process of normalization (Thurm, 2021). This process of ‘normalization’ and ‘habituation’ is often summarized under the concept of a ‘worldview’, ‘gestalt’, or ‘mindset’. However, by naming this as ‘a worldview’, ‘gestalt’ or ‘mindset’, we risk creating yet another ‘it’ to which we attribute the power to significantly influence the way we make decisions and direct our lives.

For centuries economic goals and interests have been driving the goals, priorities, and resources of what education can and should be focusing on. The transformation of education requires the transformation of our economic systems as part of a common strategy and commitment. Our current sustainability crisis reveals starkly how free-market mechanisms cannot provide the course directions for moving away from the current collapse trajectories (Fullerton, 2019). In other words, the whole notion of a free market is not free at all and has brought compounding ecological debts and biodiversity costs, as well as tremendous suffering and costs to indigenous societies.

Despite knowing the issues, there is inadequate global leadership to address politically and economically what is required for securing our planetary and future wellbeing. This also raises the following questions concerning educational transformation:

  1. Is the future possibility of a regenerative and thrivable world sufficiently appealing and realizable for engaging people on a personal and collective learning journey for regeneration and thrivability?
  2. How can education become an attractor and enabling condition for the inner and outer shifts towards regeneration and thriving?
  3. What are we teaching new learners about the ways of life on planet Earth and the modus operandi for their and our success and wellbeing?

The trajectories of collapse have a long history of many unintended consequences and persistent denial of alternative options. Almost every sphere of life has become economized and monetized, as well as the places in which we live, meet, and learn. Many schools have been reduced to learning factories, with focus on standardized testing, ranking, and rigid learning outcomes and methods (Christopher Chase, 2014).

Learning for regeneration and thriving requires both new ways of learning as well as new ways for engaging learning, and in particular learning processes for developing a holistic awareness and systemic capacities. This also includes learning from emerging futures, instead of using only reflective hindsight and focus on behaviour modification. In particular, learning how to sense the dynamics of the systems we form part of and learning how to sense what is seeking to be born. Becoming aware of the underlying unity within our growing complexity and how to work with the nonlinearity of complexity (Smitsman, 2019).

The Purpose of Education

EARTHwise Thrivability Education— Ecological literacy with Anneloes Smitsman

We hold the view that the core purpose of education is to facilitate our human development as a regenerative and future creative process of life, by:

  1. Developing our awareness, understanding, and capacities for regeneration and thrivability.
  2. Honouring the earth as the home we share and by learning from the feedback of life.
  3. Becoming the systems, cultures, and civilizations for a thrivable world and future.

This educational context applies to our personal as well as the larger collective spheres of learning that include our societies, organizations, cultures, and communities. Learning and development are essentially transformative processes, whether this takes place at the nano-level of a group of cells, the roots systems of plants, our human journey, or the cosmic level of galaxies. We are life and the nature of life is change and transformation through learning and development.

Unfortunately, mainstream education has become stifled in so many places by the mechanistic economic goals we have imposed on it, which run contrary to the processes and rhythms of life. These mechanistic goals are turning schools into learning factories with standardized curricula and tests.

When mechanistic economic goals direct the purpose of education, learning becomes monetized and trapped in paradigms, worldviews, and norms that inhibit our ecological development. This also raises the question of whether education in its current forms, and with the pressures and expectations we have imposed upon it, can act in a transformative capacity. Perhaps, a starting point is to free education from needing to be the solution and answer to all our problems.

Telling a person they “must” transform and “become the solution” isn’t helping their transformation; if anything it hinders it. There has been so much talk and focus on the transformation of education and the education of transformation that many well-intended transformative initiatives have become the very barriers for the required and desired transformations. It appears education has itself become entangled in the constrictive dynamics and forces that hinder our world from becoming all it can be. In the words of Stephen Sterling:

“If education is to be an agent of change, it has itself to be the subject of change. […]. While a new discourse on repurposing education is arising in some circles, a dangerous disconnect remains between Westernized formal education systems and the dynamic social learning needed in this watershed moment. The world of institutions, concerned largely with income and status in a competitive market, is on a collision course with the larger world, which faces an existential threat to human survival and the integrity of the biosphere underpinning all life. How do we rapidly recalibrate education so that it serves rather than undermines the future?” ~ Stephen Sterling (2021)

If the purpose of education is to become the heart that fuels our transformation and serves our future, it is essential that we understand what connects and disconnects us through this process. In Africa it is said that it takes a whole village to raise a child, equally it takes a whole global learning community to raise humans with the capacities, understanding, and commitment to become regenerative people of thrivable worlds.

Exploring the Enabling Role of Education

Education that enables the required transformative learning of self, community, and society also requires narratives that can engage this process. Words such as interdependence, right relationship, stewardship, collective responsibility, planetary boundaries, ecosystemic health, wisdom, unity in diversity, and inclusiveness are starting to emerge in education curricula. Especially in educational programs that nurture a spiritual appreciation of nature, and include practices for imagination, art, play, and creativity.

Education that enables also requires learning processes that can shift behavior. This requires first of all a deeper understanding of the trajectories we are currently on, and how our perspectives and experiences of that journey may differ.

Furthermore, the transformative capacities of education have been severely constrained by the same cultures and growth archetypes that are at the root of our sustainability crises (Smitsman, 2021). ‘Success and progress’ in the current setting of our mainstream economic paradigm are still largely defined in terms of wealth or income (i.e., GDP) and not in terms of well-being. These models drive our world to the edge of collapse by pursuing unsustainable growth archetypes that drive patterns of profit maximization for companies, and wealth maximization for individuals.

The journey towards regeneration and thrivability requires a radical redefinition of success, and the development of whole new growth archetypes that are embedded within the planetary and social threshold boundaries that serve our thrivability. A redesign of curricula and educational systems of schools and universities is only the beginning step for empowering lasting transformative change. In particular where this relates to persistent harmful economic and political pursuits of unlimited growth that endanger the carrying capacities of our planet and future wellbeing.

The harmful and unsustainable economic growth archetypes are based on exponential growth through extractive production and unlimited consumption, which have also become the growth archetypes for many educational organizations and programs. Living systems grow and develop through intricate feedback loops that regulate and adjust essential systemic functions and boundaries. These boundaries and feedback loops are largely missing in our economic, educational, and governance systems.

The ‘why’ of educational transformation is not only about our sustainability or climate crisis, there is a deeper and even mythic dimension at play as well. In Myths, heros and heroines are often confronted with major challenges for which new capacities have to be developed. There is usually a scene of danger in the form of a beast or a life-challenging situation to challenge the transformation of the learner through which new and sometimes dormant capacities and perspectives emerge and develop.

Multiple scenarios of danger and challenges have now become manifest; the COVID-19 pandemic, our climate crisis, biodiversity loss, radicalization and polarization of our political and social lives, breakdown of old institutions and norms, and so forth. Yet, could it be that underlying all this it is time for humanity to also evolve the mythic archetypes and patterns for how we have been learning, growing, developing and evolving?

What will be the new mythic patterns, codes, and archetypes of future civilizations who are regenerative by design and have learned how to thrive with our planet? What can become possible when we shift our predominant focus on individual heros and heroines to the ‘heroism’ of the collective? Shifting from ‘me’ to ‘we’ and ‘us’ and becoming more diversely inclusive of the myriad of identities, backgrounds, cultures, and narratives, is essential for becoming thrivable civilisations (Smitsman and Houston, 2021).

Furthermore, the mythic patterns of humanity’s dominant cultures have mostly centred around fighting ‘the beast’ (or enemy) rather than transforming it by facing our inner demons and resolving our inner projections. This dualistic mythic pattern continues to dominate the mainstream narratives in the media, politics, and in the stories children learn and watch.

The so-called beast of our ‘sustainability crisis’ is not outside of us. Declaring war on climate change or the coronavirus crisis, as if often narrated in the media, is not going to help us find and develop the new capacities for this time. What is called for now is one of the deepest learning processes we have ever had to embark on, namely our maturation as a species.

Corona Lessons and Impacts on Education

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted each of our lives and continues to do so. It has also impacted on educational opportunities for so many learners around the world. While some students were fortunate to have access to distance learning, many did not, which has taken the digital divide to whole new levels. Especially for learners with disabilities and developmental challenges, the impact of this coronavirus crisis is felt most severely. The coronavirus crisis is far from over and also reveals deeper learning issues that go to the root of our sustainability crisis, such as:

  1. Collective commitment — The issues at hand require collective commitments towards our shared responsibilities for resolving the multiple challenges we are faced with, and with awareness and responsibility for how this impacts the most vulnerable.
  2. Cooperative innovation — Finding lasting cures for all people is the only solution, not merely for a subset of a few. Long-term cooperation and a collaborative focus are required; especially within the business and investment community. Economizing life by prioritizing short-term economic gains over systemic health and wellbeing is symptomatic of the root causes of our sustainability crises.
  3. Transformation embraces uncertainty — A crisis always brings uncertainty, the question is how we can work with this uncertainty to let go of old habits, embracing the unknown, and make space for the emergence of new possibilities through trial and error and experimentation. Seeking to secure or eliminate perceived threats limits our transformative capacities and blocks learning.
  4. Future preparedness begins now — The COVID pandemic reveals how unprepared we are to resolve the much greater crises of runaway climate change and irreversible biodiversity loss. Until we develop the required capacities for becoming ‘future-creative’, the default learning pattern will be one of learning by crisis rather than learning how to avoid creating crises.

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Source: Extracts from the executive summary and chapter 1 of the r3.0 Educational Transformation Blueprint.

Citation: Smitsman, A., Baue, B., and Thurm, R. (2021). Blueprint 9. Educational Transformation –7 Transformative Learning Perspectives for Regeneration and Thrivability. r3.0

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Anneloes Smitsman, PhD

Anneloes Smitsman, PhD

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Futurist, systems scientist, award-winning author, coach, CEO & founder EARTHwise Centre