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  • Healthy differentiation – no emotional enmeshment
  • Effective process for conflict resolution and mediation
  • Appreciation of one another’s unique abilities and gifts
  • Appropriate transparency and self-disclosure
  • Seeking healing for wounds from past interactions
  • Commitment not just out of affinity, but to serve a shared vision.

As I have moved to Seattle, and joined a new employer, I want to keep these principles in mind as I interact with a new group of people.

I am thankful to my friend Sally Schreiner Youngquist who gave me this list in a different context, as I was struggling to understand how to be a light in another sort of community.

Waves made by sound. Fox tracks. Events in the natural world create patterns, specific and literal. The designer works to distill meaning from events in the life of the mind. A trail of symbols and systems forms in the wake of her work. Examine first the imprint of the fox’s running foot, the coarse displacement of the snow. Then the eye encounters the structure of the individual flakes of snow, the blue shadows, the scintillating light. Design evokes the radiance of meanings in which it participates.

What is the meaning of color? Of a point, a line, or a plane? Of a vortex, a fractal, any sort of radial pattern? With no evidence other than the personal and anecdotal, I believe the human race is increasingly thinking in visual ways, and that persons of the highest visual evolution are increasingly able to recognize and describe common design patterns. We’ve seen this happen in many disciplines over the past few decades: art, architecture, urban planning, and programming being a few. Of course no one can argue that we daily absorb and act on great richness of visual information.

As human beings, we are naturally language makers. It makes sense that as we are beginning to communicate in a more global way, and that we are developing a language to do so. This language consists of universals, whether arbitrary or natural, of structure and form, which when completed will provide a vehicle for communicating and manipulating meaning. That this language is primarily visual also makes sense, for it derives from visual experience.

The syntax of visual language, when worked out, will be as deceptively simple as the rules which govern the flight of birds, or the workings of our dopamine cells which, it is theorized, increase or decrease their firing rates in response to errors in predictions about the world around us, predictions based on metaphorical information input to the brain: sensory input and memories of sensory states.

Yet because the radial reciprocity of the code is so complex, we haven’t yet drilled down to the matrix of energy states which underly visual phenomenon. Art and psychology, physics and metaphysics all have their theories; what we’re lacking is a Unified Field Theory of graphical/textual communication.

A few weeks ago I wrote Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, outlining some of my thoughts on the topic, What is Learning?

Here is a wrap-up of  people who’ve influenced the development of my learning theory of Relationalism.

  • Lev Vygotsky described how people use a semiotic process (language and sign systems) to mediate (external) social relationships into (internal) psychological functions. He also had quite a bit to say about the role of play in learning.
  • Benjamin Lee Whorf described the relationship between language and the rest of the culture of the society which uses the language, in his volume, Language, thought and reality
  • James Zull, professor of biology and biochemistry at Case Western Reserve, in his book, The Art of Changing the Brain describes how knowledge is situated in growing, evolving network configurations in the brain. Those neural configurations are activated in the future when presented with the same types of experiences, and apparently, they reconfigure and grow some more.
  • Ted Panitz, for example, suggests that learners create knowledge as they collaboratively and cooperatively work to understand their experiences in nature, in society and culture, growing their own meanings.
  • In his theory of connectivismGeorge Siemens situates learning in the creation of network connections. He says, “Connectivism is the integration of principles explored by chaos, network, and complexity and self-organization theories.”
  • Howard Gardner describes a cognitive architecture of multiple intelligences.
  • Cognition itself is now being seen by some as distributed, as described, for example, in James Surowiecki’s book, The Wisdom of the Crowd. These multiple intelligences belong not just to the person, but to the person’s community.
  • Paivi Hakkinen and Sanna Jarvela have found that social negotiation of meaning in an online forum is dependent on the presence of multiple articulated viewpoints, and may be tied in part to the design of the learning activity
  • Peter Checkland‘s soft systems inquiry focuses strongly on agents and agency.
  • Terry Anderson has described social learning in terms of user interfaces and technologies for distance learning and online learning. These technologies live on the Internet, World Wide Web and private networks, and are accessed through personal computers and mobile devices.
  • Jon Dron has described how increasingly complex online user interfaces provide a venue in which individuals can socially construct knowledge, from the bottom up.  If the software is well designed, the interactions are organic, self-organizing, evolutionary and stigmergic.  Learning experience designers can embed in the user interface the kind of control over the learning trajectory that a teacher role would normally take. Learners can choose whether to control their learning or to delegate that control to the group. In principle, then, social learning appears to offer the best of both worlds, assisting dependent learners through the provision of structure yet enabling autonomy at any point.

Dale Chihuly sculpture, Milwaukee Art Museum

My own theory of learning is called relationalism.

Relationalism draws a picture of learning as simultaneously personal and social.  People grow neural configurations, and groups evolve their networks, when they attend to and interact with human and non-human agents,  in complex socio-cultural and environmental contexts.

This is a bit like the constructivistsTed Panitz, for example, suggests that learners create knowledge as they collaboratively and cooperatively work to understand their experiences in nature, in society and culture, growing their own meanings.

Relationalism is similar to the learning theory of connectivism, which situates learning in the creation of network connections.  I am not even going to try to summarize the tenets of connectivism here, except to retiterate George Siemens‘ statement that “Connectivism is the integration of principles explored by chaos, network, and complexity and self-organization theories.”

Relationalism extends connectivism by:

  • being more rigorous in the definition of connections, through the development of a taxonomy of learning interactions between agents in a learning network
  • emphasizing the radical responsibility of learners for their own learning
  • understanding that learners are part of larger groups which exhibit different levels of engagement between agents. These larger groups are variously described as communities of inquiry, learning communities , community of learners, classroom community, communities of practice, group, network and collective.
  • understanding that a dependency for learning is the creation of a safe container, to create a trustworthy environment, where engaged people feel free to generate shared narrative, and play with new ideas and ways of being.
  • understanding that nothing but sheer love drives a kid to interact with the same toy over and over again. This behavior was well described by C. J. Jung, who said, “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.”

What learning is NOT:

Learning is not a process of acquiring facts.  However, I used to think differently. Back in Hillsboro High School, when I used to “cram” for a test, I assumed that I could stuff a lot of facts into my head in a hurry, the night ahead of time. Then those facts would be mine and I could haul them out at appropriate times, for example, on the test the next day. This is the cognitive approach to learning, which assumes that the purpose of learning is the individual’s acquisition of “knowledge”, which is assumed to be an entity or static state. One might call it a the triumph of industrialism: the materialistic world view which reduces knowledge to a possession. Cognitivists view learning as a process of inputs, much as occurs in computer information processing, with knowledge stored in the database of short term memory, coded in symbolic mental models for long-term recall.

Neural network model, Museum of Science, Boston

What learning IS:

Learning is the structural evolution of the brain that occurs as we engage in the world

OK, so learning is NOT the process of acquiring anything. So what is it?

Much of  my thinking about how people learn is founded on research on how learning comes from the structure and biology of the brain. These studies published in the past few decades in fields such as cognitive neuroscience, neurobiology, and neurophysiology, describe how memory traces are formed in the brain as a result of concrete experience, reflective observation, active testing and forming of abstract hypotheses.

According to this research, learning is a physiological process of growth of structures in the learner’s mind–growing new neural configurations as a response to being presented with new experiences.

The manifestation, as I understand it, of this physiological growth, is the evolution of  structures of language, thought and reality (oooh, that’s the title of Benjamin Lee Whorf‘s fabulous book. Check it out!)

James Zull, professor of biology and biochemistry at Case Western Reserve, talks about this in his book, The Art of Changing the Brain.    Knowledge is situated in the growing, evolving network configurations. Those neural configurations are activated in the future when presented with the same types of experiences, and apparently, they reconfigure and grow some more.

In the external world, outside the brain and out in the landscape of Earth, group learning is growing connections between networks. Learning occurs as learners engage in the experiences of practice and reflection, and as teachers, in whatever form, engage them in experiences of modeling and demonstrating.

As my 16-year-old son Zachary once remarked, “You can’t not learn when you’re doing something.”

One Love Obama

“So crucify the ego
Before it’s far too late
To leave behind this place so
Negative and blind and cynical

And you will come to find
That we are all one mind
Capable of all that’s
Imagined and all conceivable

Just let the light touch you
And let the words spill through
Just let them pass right through,
Bringing out our hope and reason.”

- Tool, “Reflections”

On the Winter Solstice I offer you this reflection from the contemporary music group Tool.

For our own family celebration we made our second pre-dawn trek (in rain/sleet) with the Evanston Bike Club to the Seventeenth annual 6 am Hamid Drake and Michael Zerang Annual Winter Solstice Percussion Concert at Links Hall in Chicago. This is an hour-long ritual performance that uses percussion instruments from North Africa, the Middle East and East India, as well as western orchestral instruments. This includes the dumbek, tabla, rukk, conga, djembe and tambourine, concentrating on long rhythmic cycles and structured improvisations.  It is a wonderful way to mark the turning of the seasons and the return of the light.

The photo above is from Negril, Jamaica, where we observed that Barack Obama has become a living symbol of love, light and learning for many people.

Standing Stone at Shalom Mountain Retreat and Study Center

Standing Stone at Shalom Mountain Retreat and Study Center

Shalom Mountain Retreat and Study Center has been loving crafted into a New York Catskills mountainside over a period of several decades. Climb a slope steep enough to get your heart pounding, to stand in awe, in a hidden meadow,  between four pink granite standing stones several stories high, spaced several football fields’ length apart.  Deep in the woods, you’ll encounter a yurt meditation room, a mossy labyrinth, an outdoor mud bath, many embraceable trees, and a rambling white frame retreat center where thousands of people have come over the years to learn how to become more conscious, loving and fully alive.

To provide encouragement for these retreatants in their day-to-day world after they leave the exalted moments of the retreat setting, support groups are active in many cities in the US and Canada. They offer regional retreats, potluck dinners, heart-to-heart communication, and more. Here in Chicago, I have been a part of the formation and evolution of the Shalom Heartland support group. A group of five individuals self-selected as the “Shalom Heartland Leadership Circle”.  Over the past four years I’ve observed how we coalesced, and how each one of us has manifested individual responsibility, cooperation, collaboration, and intra-organizational plasticity (one node in the network can take over work typically undertaken by another).  We have engaged with one another to think about our purpose,  and to create activities here in the Midwest, grow our Shalom Heartland membership, communicate with other support groups,  and evolve as an organization.

Fritzof Capra has said, “In nature there is no “above” or “below,” and there are no hierarchies. There are only networks nesting within other networks.”   Our Shalom Heartland Leadership Circle is one of those nested networks, within the larger network of shared leadership which is the ineffable Shalom Process.

Networks are comprised of any grouping of connected agents.  The concept of agents is nicely defined by Alvaro Moreno and Arantza Etxeberria in their paper, “Agency in Natural and Artificial Systems” ( published in Artificial Life,Vol. 11, Issue 1-2 (Jan 2005)),  as entities in a network which can interact adaptively with their context in order to contribute to their own maintenance.

In social networks, some of the agents are human. In social learning networks, the intent is learning.

Our Shalom Heartland Leadership circle is a prototypical social learning network.  It is a complex system  in that it consists of interacting units and exhibits emergent properties (properties emerge from the interaction of the parts which are not properties of the parts themselves).

Just like the human nervous structure, a network of humans interacts internally and externally by continually modulating its structure.  This includes many types of social learning networks with which we are familiar:  families, schools, businesses, faith-based organizations, non-governmental organizations, nations, and so on.

A healthy network is one that learns. A healthy network has characteristics necessary for life and growth, as well as for its adaption to the environment, and cognition. The nodes of the network are engaged with one another. This results in self-organization, or homeostasis  and synergy. As a network self-organizes, the nodes manifest individual responsibility, cooperation, collaboration, and that very desirable feature of  intra-organizational plasticity I referred to earlier. At a more complex level of engagement, the nodes in a network engage with one another in cognition, creativity and growth, distribution, and reproduction or evolution.

This, in a nutshell, is my framework for a learning theory which I call relationalism.  Relationalism is similar to George Siemens’ connectivism, which situates learning in the experiential activity of the nodes in a network.  Relationalism, however,  is a more robust, holistic and ecological view of the interactions between the learner, the educator and the complex environment in which learning occurs.

Katie Funk Wiebe and Walter Wiebe, 1947

My mother and father, Katie Funk Wiebe and Walter Wiebe, 1947

My red-haired grandmother, Anna Janzen Funk, left school after the third grade to help the family survive the Russian Revolution. During World War II, my mother, Katie Funk Wiebe, declined a scholarship to study physics and enrolled in secretarial school, partly because my grandfather knew that a physicist would support the war effort, something against the family’s pacificistic beliefs, but also because that would enable her to quickly support herself. But both my grandmother and my mother were enthusiastic life-long learners. Their context was as Ukrainian, Mennonite immigrants to northern Saskatchewan, Canada, living in close-knit small farming communities.  And that’s the socio-cultural context into which I was born, and everything I have learned in my life is meaningful within that very specific matrix of people, geography, culture, cosmology, and theology.

Every shred of meaning that I cherish is inter-subjective.

How are values, beliefs and thinking manifested? Gerry Stahl describes shared meaning as an emergent property of discourse and interaction. It is NOT  “just some kind of statistical average of individual mental meanings, an agreement among pre-existing opinions, or an overlap of internal representations. . . It is not necessarily reducible to opinions or understandings of individuals.” Socially shared meaning is made visible in the interactions of agents belonging the group. In other words, watch my behavior and conversations with my family, my co-workers at Orbitz Worldwide, and with my friends at Quaker meeting, Shalom Mountain Retreat and Study Center, Reba Place Fellowship,  and Evanston Home Educators.

In my interactions in those venues, plenty of shared meaning is emerging all the time.

No money

Comment on a sugar cane field building, Jamaica, 2009

In accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, Al Gore used the occasion to warn us:

“We, the human race, are confronting a planetary emergency—a threat to the survival of our civilization that is gathering ominous and destructive potential even as we gather here. The Earth has a fever, and the fever is rising. The experts have told us it is not a passing affliction that will heal by itself.  We are what is wrong, and we must make it right.”

Our noösphere is dis-eased. There are places in the noösphere where interactions are thin and lacking dimension.  The connections between agents are sparse. An example occurs with large-scale organization which are not accountable to any civic entity, such as:

  • transnational corporations which compete with each other for scarce resources, especially in Eurasia where extreme population growth makes massive demands on technological advance
  • transnational churches
  • some institutions of global governance, such as the World Bank

These are unaccountable organizations — agents with power which exceeds that of municipalities, provinces and nations. There are no standards for their behavior, and no way that any individual, or any existing civic entity can make it accountable.  To use Benjamin Barber‘s language, these organizations are not interdependent with the rest of us.  As a result, the energetic flow between these agents and the rest of us is compromised.   The overall result is insufficiency in stewardship and distribution of physical resources, and longstanding global conflicts around those issues.

I invite you to visualize, however, a healthy noösphere which regulates the biosphere so that our planet can be sustained.  Because I like the Earth, and I want it to be around in good shape for those who come after me.

How can we change those thin and flat interactions in some parts of the noösphere so that they become rich, juicy and lively?

We will have to learn, fast.

But will our current ways of learning support us?

Etienne Wenger argues passionately in his prospectus for Learning for a Small Planet, “Our current ways of learning have fallen behind; they are not up to the task. We need new models about how to proceed and new visions of what is possible. Learning how to learn is a key to taking our problems into our hands and solving them. We need a new blueprint for learning how to learn—as individuals, communities, organizations, nations, and as an interconnected world.”

Fundamental is changing our systems of formal education.  Broadly speaking, young people are run through a linear, factory system to prepare them to work in linear, factory systems. Around the world, the design of educational systems reflects the theories of learning available at the time they were built—behaviorism, cognitivism, even the relatively conscious approach of constructivism.  These educational systems, however, were not designed with an understanding of how human and non-human agents are interconnected and interdependent parts of the biosphere. In today’s educational systems, uneven or no consideration is given to many of the agents involved in learning, such as collective agents, analytical software, databases, feeds, and user interfaces. Reflecting a materialistic world view, knowledge is viewed as a thing that can transferred from head to head – not as a system or a process that involves the whole person and the whole network, or as described by George Siemens’ book, Knowing Knowledge.

Distance education researcher Stephen Downes has commented that distance education is at the crossroads: “On the one hand, we have developed tools and systems intended to support traditional classroom based learning. On the other hand, we could (should?) be developing tools and systems to support immersive learning. We should be developing for dynamic, immersive, living systems.”

We will have to make basic changes to our learning systems,  in order to be able to  grow thick connections in our own neural networks, or between persons and in our larger networks.

Kirkridge labyrinth

Patterns of learning: a labyrinth at Kirkridge Retreat Center

Let’s explore the fractal-like, interlaced, and multi-dimensional patterns of evolutionary cognitive behavior which comprise the global noösphere described by Tielhard de Chardin in his 1955 book, The Phenomenon of Man.  In other words, patterns of learning.

But before that, I want to establish that yes, I do believe that life is movement, and that we human folk are evolving spiritually. Here is a summary of how it is going in my own family:

  • My Wiebe and Funk grandparents had a basic faith in God which carried them from feudal Ukrainian villages, through the Russian revolution, to a bustling and prosperous involvement in Canadian prairie culture.
  • My parents caught this faith from them and buttressed it with a system of intellectual beliefs constructed from a dedicated study of contemporary Christian theology.
  • Then I came along, not a very faith-ful person, impatient with traditional religious belief systems, but eager to develop my consciousness of myself, the earth and its inhabitants, and the Mystery of this planet, this solar system, this cosmos.
  • Someday, one of my great-great-etc-grandchildren will understand humankind’s place and purpose in the universe.  So, that’s my own belief system.

This kind of evolution  of consciousness is occurring both individually and collectively everywhere around the globe.

NIN tour on Google Earth

A glimpse of the noösphere: Nine Inch Nails tour on Google Earth

The collective part is the noösphere, the layer of consciousness,  the self-organizing and evolving system of all the interacting intelligences on Earth, which includes our embodied brains as well as our cognitive artifacts, such as memes and language.

One could argue that the noösphere includes all the multiple human intelligences noted by Howard Gardner:  linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic and existential intelligence.

All living systems have agency

Another peek at the noösphere: garden plants at Catcha Falling Star, Negril, Jamaica

The noösphere also includes the intelligences of animals, plants, bacteria, rocks and water. All living systems are different sorts of knowledge working itself forward.

Non-living systems have agency, too

More agents in the noösphere: Power lines and vines on the West End, Jamaica

I also ascribe agency to non-living things, such as networked computer systems, cables, phone lines, wifi, radio frequencies, and so forth, which, (sorry, Marshall McLuhan), are not simply mechanical extensions of ourselves, but alive, too, somehow, as they intimately work with us and the rest of the biosphere in a process of continual restructuring (learning).

If a geography of the noösphere could ever be drawn,  it would be like a fractal, in that it would be recursive, and self-referential.  But somehow, at the same time there would be lots of novel bits, too.  Because when connections are made, which is learning, something new is made.


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