Beginning to Climb
Examining Education in 2020: Part 2
In part one of this series, we used the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic to examine the essence of the Student from four Levels of Paradigm and what that might reveal to us about education outcomes in the new reality of 2020.
If a pandemic can be called useful, it is in the disruption that breaks us out of our loops. We are forced, by the vital energy of survival, to reexamine long-held beliefs. We have an opportunity in that disruption to seek a higher paradigm. Or we can spend our energy returning to our loops as rapidly as possible, to seek the comfort of a “blue pill” like Cypher did in The Matrix, the harshness of the real world too overwhelming for him. Disruption, then, is a paradigm inflection point, providing sufficient altitude above the fog of our daily routines that we can now see a higher peak to climb. And, since the pandemic has disrupted everyone, we have an opportunity to make a shift while everyone is thrown into a common field, receptive to shifting themselves and the larger systems they serve. After all, survival is a community effort, the pandemic exposing the deep connectedness of modern society and highlighting the value produced by farm laborers, warehouse packers, delivery drivers, and, of course, teachers. Undoubtedly, the next set of parent/teacher conferences will have a totally different quality, the parents including, perhaps, a nice bottle of wine or whiskey as a small token of thanks for teaching their child. “How do you do it?”, they wonder. The educator just smiles, thinking, well, yes, Mr. Anderson, your child is a handful. And yet, they might be the one that changes the world. And that’s why they are educators, truly, at their core — to make a contribution to the success of another human being, best when recognized, but even when not, to know, with certainty, the role they played in their student’s success and to share in it.
Essence of the Educator
In The Regenerative Life, Carol Sanford goes into great detail about what it means to be a Regenerative Educator. Like the Student, the role of Educator is not about profession, but a part that we step into and out of when called. However, examining the role of Educator from the lower levels of paradigm can help us separate what is distinct in each level, so that they don’t collapse together and obscure the insights that an ordering framework like the Levels of Paradigm can provide. As a mental framework, it functions as a rubric for self-assessment, allowing the Educator to remain in integrity, should they notice an unintended collapse to a lower paradigm — to see if they’ve descended into the fog of mundane minutiae, triggered by pressures from the education system above them or from their Students operating from a different level of paradigm than they are. Recognizing this allows the Educator to disrupt themselves and break free from loops trapping them in lower paradigms.
From Value Return
At the level of Value Return, the Educator is looking for a return on their investment of educating the Student. Their core process for instruction is to dictate the behavior and actions of the student; learning is tightly scripted by Educator. This gives them a strong sense of personal agency at the expense of the Student’s own agency. Their purpose, then, is to exploit the agency of the Student for the Educator’s benefit, either directly or often indirectly, as the return on the Educator’s investment in teaching. The Educator’s scope of considering1 is largely internal; any caring for the Student extends only so far as it directly benefits the Educator. This can be as simple as being paid, equitably for their efforts, or it could take the form of the Student applying their learning for the benefit of the Educator. The core value at this level is a scaling of effort from the combined actions of the now trained Students. What should be clear is the near incompatibility of the Educator and the Student both operating from Value Return. At this level, the Educator sees learning as the responsibility of the Student, while the Student sees it as the responsibility of the Educator. While the Student might be able to fulfill their purpose to retain knowledge when the Educator is also working from Value Return, the Student has insufficient agency over that knowledge to successfully navigate what’s known. This leads to a mixed sense of locus of control for the Educator — internal locus of control when learning is successful, but external locus of control when learning fails; they accept responsibility for the progress, but not for the stumbles.
From Arrest Disorder
Ascending to Arrest Disorder, the mindset of the Educator shifts to viewing the Student as lacking knowledge that would make them complete and functional in society. It’s a mindset that sees Students as largely fixed in capability and their role as an Educator is then to do the best that they can with the vessel in front of them. Compared to Value Return, the Educator’s scope of considering shifts to be slightly more external; they are still primarily concerned with their own needs to ensure knowledge transfer, but now engage with kindness for the Student. This manifests into a belief that Students can be separated into groups based on the size and quality of that vessel, influencing the Educator’s core process to share their knowledge so that the gaps in the mind of the Student might be filled. The “better” vessels get deeper, more complex knowledge; the “lesser” vessels get basic functional knowledge. The Educator’s purpose is to prevent the loss of that knowledge, which they see as valuable and themselves as stewards for ensuring its continual transmission, using assessments to gauge success. This shifts their sense of locus of control to be more fully internal, accepting now responsibility for both learning successes and failures. But for the Student, agency and locus of control are still largely external, relying on the Educator to direct and assess their studies. The value produced is an ability in the Student to prioritize and solve the problems that are seen as restraining the “right” functioning of the world.
Unlike at Value Return, when the Educator and the Student both operate from Arrest Disorder, the needs of both can be met. The Educator shares knowledge that the Student uses to close gaps. The Student’s purpose to perfect themselves prevents the loss of knowledge from the Educator. And the value of the Educator to produce an ability to solve problems allows the Student to sustain modern life. The stability of this paradigm, however, is its trap. As Sanford remarks: “It’s no accident that this paradigm and the problem-solving approaches it fosters are enormously popular in our culture.”2 The compatibility of the Educator/Student relationship from within the Arrest Disorder paradigm attenuates the will of both to shift to a higher paradigm. Or if the will to rise is summoned, Arrest Disorder is frightfully easy to collapse back into, often without even realizing it’s happened. The effect of operating from Arrest Disorder is that no meaningful progress occurs for anyone, except functional competence increases for the Student and perhaps improvements in teaching efficiency for the Educator. Again, to be clear, knowledge transfer is valuable on its own merits, but when used as the vehicle for development of the mind of the Student it become invaluable.
From Do Good
From the level of Do Good, the core process of the Educator shifts away from the largely functional approaches used in Arrest Disorder and Value Return. Instead, they seek to engage the thinking of the Student, to move beyond simple knowledge transfer towards an internalized understanding of that knowledge in the Student. Doing so requires a mental shift to touch the Student’s inner state — their being — where empathy resides. Their core purpose is to enable growth in the Student, showing a shift in mindset that sees the Student now as a source of potential, rather than as a source of defects. From this growth flows the Educator’s core value to expand opportunity both for the Student and themselves. The shift in the Educator’s scope of considering begun in Arrest Disorder continues to be more external; the empathy they seek to touch in the Student is now present in their level of caring for the Student, raising the Student’s needs ahead of their own. What’s more is that the Educator’s shift towards more external considering creates space for the Student to shift their own sense of locus of control and agency to be more internal; they become more active in their own learning and accept responsibility for its success.
The Educator/Student relationship from within Do Good is also stable, assuming they share a common belief about what is “good”, but it can be nudged easily back into Arrest Disorder.
The Student can become frustrated with the Educator’s process to engage their thinking and seek the comfort of “right” answers and “feedback” collapsing to Arrest Disorder. Or the Educator can become frustrated with questions from the Student that challenge their knowledge and understanding. That causes the Educator to collapse to Arrest Disorder’s mindset that their knowledge is “right”, wanting the Student to ask fewer questions and focus instead on replicating the Educator’s knowledge. Once the relationship collapses to Arrest Disorder, small movements towards Do Good will be insufficient to shift paradigms; it will require sustained effort from the Educator and the Student to rise again. Maintaining a stable relationship within Do Good requires work from both the Educator and the Student to manage their own emotions — their own reactivity — when frustrated or otherwise under stress. It’s that frustration — often triggered by a perceived lack of internal locus of control — that gives rise to a feeling of stuckness, of thinking everything would be great if only the other person would change. This highlights a second fundamental truth, that change, ultimately, comes from within. When we realize this, we can see that my internal locus of control need not come at the expense of yours. Internal locus of control arises not because we have power or dominion over others, but because we have power and dominion over ourselves, that we can manage our actions and reactions to keep ourselves aimed at our higher purpose.
From Regenerate Life
Finally, we arrive at the Regenerative Educator. “In the case of the regenerative educator”, Sanford explains, “the core process is to develop intelligence, the core purpose is to transform value-adding processes, and the core value is to coevolve self and systems.”3 Similar to Do Good, the relationship between the Educator and Student is stable from within Regenerate Life, but it suffers the same risk of collapse. What’s more is that when collapse happens, it quickly bypasses Do Good and falls all the way to Arrest Disorder. Successfully holding the relationship within Regenerate Life requires consciousness from both the Educator and the Student.
The Educator must remember that the Student has accountability for their own learning and the freedom to direct their studies; that can be challenging when the Educator feels pressure from the larger system to improve test scores through knowledge transfer. Forgetting this erodes the Student’s agency and places the needs of the Educator as primary to those of the Student. When the Student’s agency is lost, self-accountability quickly follows, and the Educator wastes energy bringing the Student back into the lesson. On the other hand, the Educator that remains always passive risks disconnecting from the relationship entirely, leaving the Student to sink or swim on their own merits.
Meanwhile the Student must, at times, yield to the greater knowledge and wisdom of the Educator. Failure to do this limits their growth and effectively shatters the relationship — the Student who will not, at times, be led is no longer a student. In yielding, the Student’s risk is one of complacency such that they become habituated to being led by the Educator, collapsing to Arrest Disorder. The Student’s freedom to be self-directing is not some banal liberty, to wander aimlessly, their actions rippling out and disrupting learning for others. No, it’s a freedom that comes with the responsibility to direct themselves usefully, purposefully towards their own and others’ evolution.
Dynamic stability of the system requires more than the Educator and the Student; a third force is required to reconcile the tension between them. It takes the form of their external considering to serve the larger systems in which they are both nested. This keeps the dynamism between the Educator and the Student vibrant, allowing agency to flow back and forth naturally between them, like two skis working alternately to advance. It’s the higher purpose to which both are aligned that provides the guardrails to maintain the relationship inside Regenerate Life.
It’s here, at level of Regenerate Life, that the Educator’s scope of considering becomes fully external. Their level of caring for the Student rises beyond empathy towards true caring about the unique essence of each Student and working as an agent to develop that Student to better travel their own path. Caring doesn’t even stop with the Student but now extends to the education systems as a whole and the larger governing systems, healthcare systems, and economic systems that nest them. Those systems are similarly alive, dynamic, disrupted. The Regenerative Educator cares as much about the vitality of those larger systems, of enabling the evolution of those systems as they do about the Student. In fact, it’s from caring about the larger systems and their nestedness that pulls them to care for the Students who will become agents of change in those systems.
What’s more, is that Educator and Student both can simultaneously hold internal locus of control, external considering, and personal agency4 when working from Regenerate Life. None of the lower paradigms can achieve that.
Discerning the difference between Do Good and Regenerate Life can be tricky, and it’s easy to fool ourselves that we’re working regeneratively. And compared to Arrest Disorder and Value Return, both seem fairly good. It’s fair to ask, when Educators are already struggling, why bother shifting up? First, implicit in that question is that working from Regenerate Life is more work. It’s not. It’s actually less work. But it is very different work. It’s work that is energy efficient, such that the energy the Educator puts into the system works to improve the system, rather than working to correct perceived defects in the system. Working regeneratively means working from what Sanford calls the seven first principles of regeneration — wholes, potential, essence, development, nestedness, nodes, and fields.5 In the context of the Educator, this requires them to see the Student as a living, dynamic whole with a unique essence and unlimited potential to become an agent for beneficial change in the world. It means eschewing best practices and generic offerings and instead turning their mind to developing each Student holistically — competence, character, motivation — by creating the conditions by which the Student can best direct themselves and their learning. That can seem overwhelming; that such an approach cannot possibly scale to meet the needs of 80 million students in the US alone. And you’d be right — it doesn’t scale. But scaling isn’t the point, itself being a product of the Value Return mindset. The point is to work precisely, nodally, and recognize that the fields6 in which the work occurs and the nestedness of the systems will let those precise interventions ripple out into the larger systems. It requires the Student to take on more responsibility for their own learning, and for the Educator, not to take less responsibility, but to shift their responsibility towards creating the best conditions in which learning can happen. And that’s the prize — that’s the value of working regeneratively — putting those 80 million minds to work on evolving living systems instead of cranking out new parts to replace an aging workforce.
The ancient code of the Knights Radiant says “journey before destination.” Some may call it a simple platitude, but it is far more. A journey will have pain and failure. It is not only the steps forward that we must accept. It is the stumbles. The trials. The knowledge that we will fail. That we will hurt those around us. But if we stop, if we accept the person we are when we fall, the journey ends. That failure becomes our destination. To love the journey is to accept no such end. I have found, through painful experience, that the most important step a person can take is always the next one.7
When already stressed, taking the next step — continuing the climb — is hard work, and nearly impossible to do alone. It requires community. But when working from the level of Regenerate Life, it’s a community that is committed not to any particular direction but to a pedagogy that prioritizes development of internal locus of control, external considering, and personal agency in everyone — a community that values the journey far more than the destination. Within community we can reawaken our spirit to continue together, to be a resource to each other when we stumble. It’s a community committed to disruption both for their students and for themselves. Disruption is at the heart of education, inviting self-reflection and through that to summon the will to change and be transformed.
How will you use this moment of disruption? Where will it take you? What will it require of you to continue the journey?
In part three of this series, we’ll examine the essence of education systems and their nestedness with other living systems.
Thank you to my beta readers: Max, Myriam, and Peter. And special thanks to Carol Sanford, of course.
Originally published on Medium.
For a good introduction to scope of considering, as originally formulated by G. I. Gurdjieff, see Sanford’s Why Psychological Safety is the Wrong Goal for Business. And bad for Democracy!
Sanford, Carol. The Regenerative Life (p. 37). Quercus. Kindle Edition.
Sanford, Carol. The Regenerative Life (p. 175). Quercus. Kindle Edition.
Sanford, Carol. No More Feedback: Cultivate Consciousness at Work. InterOctave. Kindle Edition. Excerpts from the book can be found on Medium: Part 0 | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5. See also Sanford’s Why Psychological Safety is the Wrong Goal for Business. And bad for Democracy! for a summary of the three core capacities.
Sanford, Carol. The Regenerative Life (pp. 45–50). Quercus. Kindle Edition.
Fields, in this context, refers to the “energy” field in which work is done, rather than, e.g. a field of study. You can think of fields as the vibe or mood you might sense when you enter a room with other people.
Sanderson, Brandon. Oathbringer: Book Three of the Stormlight Archive (pp. 1227–1228). Tom Doherty Associates. Kindle Edition.