27 August 2005

Village Bootstrap

I was recently invited to sit in with a group of Port Townsend (PT) movers and shakers who want to create a support system for ensuring that PT remains a vital artistic community and moves in the direction of sustainable economic development, as well. My friend Walter Dill played host to this group of people he recognizes as having different pieces of the puzzle. After the meeting I was very excited about the possibilities that could arise, but the group was struggling to come up with a concise description of what it is and what it would accomplish.

Another important quality of the group was that while it mainly consisted of people who are successful in various ares such as business, art, crafts, community organizing and education. There was a very clear intent to utilize the entrepreneurial energy that most of us have demonstrated for the greater good, in the form of a cross fertilization of the for-profit and non-profit ways of thinking. It was a couple days after the meeting that I awoke with the following idea:

The Problem- The image of the solo Bootstrapper

We are in the habit of behaving as if our success is a by-product of our ability to act independently when, in fact, our success is really a by-product of the interdependent web of relationships within which our acts take place. Our society consistently points to the independence of actors in telling stories of success. The heroes own bravery, intelligence, quick wits, and feelings of loyalty are portrayed as the most important causal factors in the drama. As a consequence we have developed deeply ingrained habits that reinforce our perceptions of independence. We tend to value the qualities of personality and leadership that reflect independence from, rather than interdependence with others. Our culture has a phrase that elegantly sums up in one image this idea—when someone has succeeded on his own terms then he is said to have “pulled himself up by his own bootstraps.” And now it has become summed up in the term “bootstrapping.” We can imagine someone who is clinging to his own bootstraps and magically levitating or we can be more literal about it by picturing a fellow with a rope rigged over a pulley and tied to his bootstraps. What this popular image hides is that there is more at work than just the bootstrapper’s own efforts.

The Solution- The Village Bootstrap

Taking the bootstrapper image as a starting point we can see that one way or another there is something missing for it to be an accurate portrayal of reality. If we see the bootstrapper with a rope then in order to discover the whole story behind this scene we have to discover how he came by the rope, what’s supporting the rig and how did he put it all together. If we are literal then the mystery is only a matter of investigation, but the truth is that many of us are more imaginative and not quite so literally minded.

If we see a levitating bootstrapper then he seems to be defying a fundamental quality of our universe, thus in order to explain such a phenomenon we have to find a subtlety of the universe to fully understand how such an event could, in fact, happen. Fortunately, the only quality that he needs is an appropriate web of relationships. This is what magicians regularly rely on to accomplish the seemingly impossible. The subtlety of the universe is that the bootstrapper has discovered a basic magic trick, he has given us the impression of being levitated against the known laws of our universe because he put himself at the center of a set of relationships that we are not yet perceiving. Instead of drawing a large and obvious line from his boots to a mechanism he has utilized a large number of insignificant lines to accomplish the same feat. You can take this either the literalist way, such that he has devised a clever mechanism that we are not seeing (like fine, yet very strong threads, or you can take it more imaginatively such that he has simply tapped into subtle universal energies.) Either way, the bootstrapper is successfully giving off the impression that his efforts have elevated him from mundane reality into a more elite realm. The fact is that no matter what the causal factors are, it is true that he has achieved a significant feat, no matter how he accomplished it, because the average person will never levitate by any means.

What we are trying to accomplish as a group is to create a process whereby levitation in the realm of creating a sustainable community becomes the norm rather than the exception. We see that we have a wealth of talents that have individually levitated and we want to not only tap into the subtlety of the universe for our collective levitation but also create a system for passing the skill of levitation on indefinitely into the future. We know that our individual successes are the result of our skillful positioning within the web of interdependencies and our challenge is to reliably guide ourselves and others into the right position time and time again.

The web of relationships that we live in is a dynamically changing environment. Sustainability in a web of interdependency is achieved by having the stresses and strains of change occur such that the connections remain intact throughout the process. Failure and breakdown occurs when the stresses are either so traumatic that the connections are immediately broken or else the stresses become static loads that eventually wear out the connections. We know that we have the talents to accomplish near about anything we commit ourselves to create, but what we do not know for sure is how to transform our current mostly independent ways into the ways of interdependence. We have become a group of reluctant independents and came together to discover how to become intentional interdependents. For me the personal question is whether I can overcome my habits of independence and surrender myself to interdependence? I don’t know yet, but I’m willing to give it a go.

This twelve pointed figure is an image that has fascinated Walter because unlike the standard dodechahedral star in which the lines each cross only nine other lines, when the figure is drawn with these particular curves then each line crosses twelve other lines. This figure is the metaphorical representation of what we are trying to create in community, how to use a subtle variation on how we organize our efforts to achieve a result that positively influences everyone else in the community. It is a good image for what a village bootstrap might look like.

22 August 2005

What are schools?

In order to understand how the full diversity of stuff I post on this blog relates to the mission set forth above (Passionate teachers teaching enthusiastic students in joyful schools) it is necessary to understand what I mean by the term 'school'. There are three key meanings that I generally use for the term and in the context of my mission I am referring to the broadest most inclusive sense.

To start with the narrowest sense, 'schools' are the buildings and related infrastructure in which teachers and students are housed. The middle range of meaning refers to teachers and students regardless of where they conduct their affairs. The broadest sense of 'school' is essentially all-inclusive of environments in which learning takes place without necessarily referring the roles of student and teacher.

This blog is a glimpse into my schooling, meaning any and all of the places in which I am learning, even when I am not taking advantage of infrastructure designed for the purpose nor in the traditional roles that are associated with that task. So far I have posted glimpses into only a few of the many areas in which I am actively learning.

In my book Attitude First (available from Trafford) I mentioned that I am not interested in trying to start a school, but that is only true of the most narrow sense of the word. The truth is that I am actually quite actively pursuing several projects that are aimed at creating schools in the broader senses of the word.

[For a more recent exploration of the idea of schools check out this page on the topic at my new website.]

18 August 2005

More Dock Wandering Photos

Today I was wandering out of the Otter Crossing Cafe and onto the docks at Point Hudson . It was a rather low tide and revealed some rather interesting features. These are the best five out of about 20 shots.

FYI on the my photos- I am using my Treo 650 to take the shots then I open them in Photoshop and use the auto levels image adjustment to enhance the contrast and color intensity. I think I have published every photo exactly as composed, otherwise.

17 August 2005

Refining my concept of Blogging

I am currently reading the book Who Let The Blogs Out? by Biz Stone. As is evident from the frequency of my posting, so far I am not yet taking full advantage of this Blog. I have recently created the site http://www.SchoolOfConscience.org which will be a more effective repository for my extensive reflections on the deeper issues that occupy my mind than trying to fit them into blog entries.

We'll see where I end up.

02 August 2005

Choosing Schools

This post is a response to a posting on a private discussion group that was inquiring about how to select an appropriate pre-school.


I wanted to chime in on the topic of educating your little ones. I am not a parent, but have worked with children for over 15 years in a variety of settings. My first job after I left college, in response to my realization that working with children was more fulfilling than anything I could conceive of getting a degree in, was as a pre-school teacher for 3-4 year olds.

In the intervening years I have pursued not only great ways of educating young ones, but also the stories we tell each other about what it is we think we are doing when we educate children. Those stories are more academically known as educational philosophy. Everyone of you tells yourself, and anyone who will listen, a story about what it means to be a parent, how to be a good parent, how to avoid being a bad parent, and why it is that you do not buy into different ideas about those same issues. Those stories you tell are a parenting philosophy. (Isn’t it odd that there is a whole discipline of educational philosophy, but there isn’t a discipline of parenting philosophy?)

In educational philosophy there are two long standing traditional positions that appear to be fundamentally opposed and two more recently developed positions that are both attempts to overcome the limitations of the traditional opposites. The opposite positions are most easily understood as the teacher-centric and the learner-centric perspectives on learning. The first attempt to overcome the limitations of opposing these roles was to blend them into a single whole, the relationship-centric perspective. And finally, the most recent attempt is one that takes an even wider view where even the relationship is embedded in a context that has significant influence on the learning process and might be called the context-centric view. More academic names for some of these views would include behaviorism, constructivism, and situated cognition.

Personally, I favor an inclusive view. Everyone is right, to some degree. My challenge is to figure out how to communicate my understanding of how they all fit together in a way that will help, and not merely confuse, parents. I believe that if you can understand how those philosophical ideas really relate to each other and reality then you will be better able to get through the confusing mass of information that you will inevitably gather in your conscientious search for the RIGHT school.

I also like to make pictures in primary colors (that pre-school influence, I guess) and so I created a little drawing to illustrate how those different views mentioned above all fit together.

The method behind my madness in this particular illustration is to group the academic disciplines into their respective philosophical views: Behaviorists opposite the Progressivists, the Blended Constructivists including both, then all three being engulfed by the Situated Cognitionists. The extension of each of these views beyond the bounds of the philosophical framework in which they were developed leads to the diversity of rhetoric that you see in the promotional literature of schools. The problem with using philosophical positioning as a way to market and sell schools is that if you assert one position you are forced to distinguish that position from all the others, therefore, the tendency is to talk about your own position as if it is in opposition to the other views, as if the others are lacking something that you have. Thus, each of the philosophical positions leads to a distinct kind of schooling rhetoric that appears to bear no meaningful relationship to the other rhetorical approaches.

Every good parent is sooner or later inundated by information about schooling. The question is how to make sense of it all. With that challenge in mind I drew the universal players matrix (click on the image to see a larger version):

In this illustration I take the colors from the first picture to show what part of reality each of the philosophical positions was primarily drawing on to gain their valuable insights. The external constructivists/ behaviorists were looking at catalyst’s role in learning, the internal constructivists/ Progressivists were looking at agent’s role in learning, blended constructivists were looking at the school context’s role in learning, and the situated cognitionists were looking at the community’s role in learning. The teacher centric philosophers (in red) were looking at how the catalysts of the learning process influence the learning process. Their mistake, in my view, was to confuse the vitally important catalytic function with the most common role that we think of fulfilling that function, the teacher. In reality the catalytic function is served by many people who may have many different roles, some of which have nothing to do with teaching as it is normally meant.

“So,” you ask, “how does all this help me make sense of the piles of school promos and make the RIGHT choice for my child?” First, the most important thing is to understand that schooling, through the lens of educational philosophy, may sound complex, but it is not rocket science. The truth is that it always boils down to your child having some kind of relationships with those people and things that surround them. No matter where they go they are an agent of their own learning process, and you can’t do anything about that. Sometimes they will find people and things that catalyze their enthusiasm, and sometimes they might be their own catalyst. Your influence in this area is limited to creating catalytic opportunities and hoping for the best. The area you have the most influence, and a fundamental responsibility as a parent, is in the area of context.

The idea of a school is to create a context within which education is more assured as an outcome than if the children were not in that context. The question of the quality of a school entirely rests on the quality of the relationships they will develop there. The only way to predict the nature of the relationships that are available in a given context is to begin relating to that context. The practical reality is that you have to meet the teachers, the administrators, the other parents, and the kids. The more you can relate to them, the more accurately you can assess the kind of relationships that seem most likely to develop. The fact is that you have to follow your gut instinct and choose a school in which both you and your child will be supported to be the kind of people you most want to be.

Now, the question is, why was it necessary to go through so much falderal to arrive at the simple truth of following your gut? Because, in case you haven’t noticed, your gut is directly connected to your brain. If, as you listen to some schoolman selling you on the tremendous value of his school, you can filter the technical jargon into the simpler categories of agent, catalyst and context, then you can hopefully discern how this teacher thinks he is supposed to relate to you and your child. Then you can compare:
1. his opinion of how he is supposed to relate
2. your experiences of how he actually relates to you and yours, and
3. the stories of how he has related to other parents and children.

It really makes little difference what he thinks about what he does, but what does make a difference is whether he acts according to how he thinks about what he does. This is known as integrity. If he is making promises about parent involvement and the other parents are not involved, then something is not right. If he is promising democratic decision making and consistently acts as the dictator then something might be amiss.

The right questions to ask of the school people are things like;
How do you practice respect for children with different learning abilities?
How do you transition children from dependence on adults to resourceful self-reliance?
How do you help children balance their need to develop self-reliance with the fact that they are part of the community?
How do you handle emergencies, like injuries and public tragedies?
How do you balance your responsibility for protecting my child with his/her need for independence?
Tell me about some of the more challenging students you have had?
How do you balance the needs of the outwardly energetic children with the needs of those who are more inwardly energetic? (I’ve never met a child who was not energetic.)

Some of these questions may not be your typical interview fare, but part of the point is to get them to tell you personal stories about the difficult situations they have handled. If you have gotten an earful of their philosophy, then frame the question so that it challenges their favored perspective. For instance, if the teacher is espousing a learner-centric philosophy, ask them questions about how the events in the outside world are dealt with in their class, or how they handle situations that clearly call for adult interventions. The challenges that you pose could give you an insight into how they might handle a future situation in which you feel obligated to challenge a decision they made about your child. The more you can get them to tell you stories, the more personally you will get to know them and the better possibility for building positive and engaging relationships that will better serve the children. Or for discovering that you are not comfortable with them and moving on.