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Prompting an Education Renaissance: A Framework for Meta Education System Thinking

We are living in remarkable times. It is not an illusion that things feel different; that the stakes have been raised, that “change”, however interpreted, is happening too quickly and too slowly all at once. Things feel different because they are different. We are immersed in something larger than ourselves. But we are also human, with a primal reaction to everything that is happening with wonderment, asking ourselves “is this actually possible?” or “is this real?”

The changes we are living with require a different way of thinking. We need to see the world now as one large system - with rapidly evolving environmental, technological, social justice, economic, and political processes that, to our detriment, we continue to interpret as separate entities. Humans have never lived through this before. Our future relies on learning and living together as one global system.

The call for educational system change is not new. However, the increasing call for educational system change or transformation is happening within the constructs of current system structures. Our view of education is almost completely synonymous with industrial-era schooling. We fail to see the opportunity of a deeper interpretation of education to bring equity and alignment through a global system lens.

A growing network of people, backed by informed evidence, is gaining momentum through critically relevant thinking about educational system change that is both logical and irrefutable. While it may feel overwhelming to the uninitiated, this is a time of great promise and opportunity; to build and sustain education at the forefront of global sustainability.

The Change in Thinking Required

Why would any person or organization continue to maintain system structures that work in contravention to what is actually necessary from the system? There are several reasons.

The first is that the person or organization may not understand or want to acknowledge that the original context in which the system was created, and continues to operate, is no longer valid or relevant. The second is that the system structures at play have become so entrenched that they work in contravention to the needs of the system.

We are witnessing both of these conditions from education today. It is an overwhelming challenge to overcome. Not only does the system need to change, but current belief structures are so embedded that people can’t see past the immediate, despite evidence to

the contrary.

We tend to think about education as an entity or discipline unto itself. This is not unlike other sectors or disciplines. We separate to create order. That is how and why our education system of schools began in the first place. They have attempted to bring order through rigid organizational structures (schools, classrooms, subject areas) and separation of professional thought from other practices and disciplines.

Education system change or transformation, while gaining resonance due to the shifts we are witnessing in global conditions, is considered from a micro perspective instead of a larger context that is necessary for global sustainability. There is little to no recognition that the context for education has changed from its industrial-era origin. Attempted system “solutions” often magnify the problems they seek to address.

Systems are complex and interconnected. They have far reaching impacts that cannot be anticipated. That is why education systems need to be viewed, not from a micro perspective, but from a meta perspective. By meta, we mean looking at education in relation the planet as one large entity - interconnected by many complex systems that impact each other in ways that cannot be predicted.

Inherent with a meta system thinking is the application of open ended process. Whereas micro system thinking seeks answers through controlled models to predict anticipated results, meta system thinking seeks the right questions – by deepening our connection together in response to the indisputable changes that are happening across multiple spectra.

An Introductory Platform for Meta System Thinking

Moving past traditional micro views of education system change requires alternative perspectives that can legitimately test the validity of industrial-era schooling systems to address the need for global sustainability. As an introductory platform to this, information and perspectives are hereby offered from three key sources that, while deeply connected to education system reform, exist outside of the formalized constructs of industrial-era education thinking.

While groundbreaking, they are not intended to act as mutually exclusive resources. Indeed, the references provided in each book are a testament to the extent to which other works are available – to assist those who already agree and believe, and those who require further evidence.

Education in a Time Between Worlds; Zachary Stein, 2019 is a seminal work that aligns the reality of global unsustainability with a philosophical and historically informed vision for education in a new world. It inspires the uninitiated to consider the potential education holds, not as a limited resource to be purchased and consumed, but as a limitless resource that can increase human potential for a global system sustainability.

"This is the task of education today: to confront the almost unimaginable design challenge of building an educational system that provides for the re-creation of civilization during a world system transition.” Stein P 87

Culture and Commitment; Margaret Mead, 1969 presents an anthropological view of the current and future world order affected by changes that will continue to happen to inter-generational culture due to global connectivity. Now 50 years old, it is amazing to consider that this book was published prior to the exponential growth in global communication that began at the end of the 20th century.

“The occurrence of a generation break, in which the younger generation, lacking experienced elders, must take their cues from one another is a process that is very old in human history and that will recur in any society as the aftermath of a break in the continuity of experience.” Mead P 66

Small Arcs of Larger Circles; Nora Bateson, 2016 challenges us to acknowledge that system thinking is not linear. It is about the questions we ask, the processes we work through, the type of information we seek and, ultimately, the relationships that are created from this work, together.

“We cannot know the systems, but we can know more. We cannot perfect the systems, but we can do better. The evolution of our own ability to understand and interact with the world around us is an increase in our ability to be sensitive to information we have previously been blind to. That is learning to learn.” Bateson, P 141

Consideration of these three important works can provide the uninitiated with an introductory platform of the need for meta-thinking in Education. To assist, the three resources are presented below as interconnected by eight common themes. Stein offers an overall foundation of the need for Education meta-thinking. Mead adds context through the reality of inter-generational changes that are happening globally. Bateson offers a way forward by challenging us to reconsider how the world around us works in relation to complex systems.

Theme 1: We are in a Unique Period of Planetary System Change

The term “globalization” is now familiar and mainstream. A Google search defines globalization as “the word used to describe the growing interdependence of the world's economies, cultures, and populations, brought about by cross-border trade in goods and services, technology, and flows of investment, people, and information.” However, globalization as a concept is incomplete and misleading. It fails to account for the world as a finite resource.

Stein provides a name and definition for this unique period of time; Anthropocene. “From the Greek roots anthropo, meaning “human,” and –cene, meaning “new,” this term is now being used to mark a formal unit of ecological time suggesting that humanity has so impacted the Earth’s basic physical constituents (especially its atmosphere and chemical composition) that our age constitutes a new geological phase of planetary development.” Stein P 67

There are limits to which the earth can sustain economic growth that doesn’t account for the impact of resource extraction and environmental damage on global populations and overall sustainability. Ongoing efforts to remediate the increasingly overwhelming impacts of globalization largely fail to acknowledge how unique this period of time is. In doing so, we remain susceptible to “solutions” through modifications to the same system structures that are causing the problems we need to address. It is therefore necessary to recognize the uniqueness of this time period to advance the type of system thinking that can support planetary sustainability.

From an anthropological perspective, Mead is also explicit in identifying the uniqueness of this evolutionary period. Family and societal cultures have historical roots that can be attributed to the inter-generational relationships between children, parents, and grandparents. The most historically longstanding cultures have been “postfigurative” whereby children learn primarily from their forebears.

However, with technological advancements that began in the twentieth century, western societies in particular began to develop “configurative” cultures whereby “a close relationship to the grandparents was no longer expected of grandchildren, and parents, as they lost their position of dominance, handed over to children the task of setting their own standards.” Mead P 83

What is unique now is the fact that global technological advancements are happening so quickly that parents now need to learn from their children. Mead refers to this new era as “prefiguration”.

“I believe a new cultural form is emerging; I have called it a prefiguration. As I see it, children today face a future that is so deeply unknown that it cannot be handled, as we are currently attempting to do, as a generation change with configuration within a stable, elder-controlled and parentally modelled culture in which many postfigurative elements are incorporated.” Mead P 87

Furthermore, the “primary evidence that our present situation is unique, without any parallel in the past, is that the generation gap is worldwide.” Mead P 92

In an Anthropocene world, the micro view of systems that we have relied upon to address change no longer works. This is where the work of Bateson is valuable for clarifying that everything is connected and that nothing is truly predictable.

"Systems as we know them are in transformation. Ecological, economic, political, and cultural diagrams are washing off the page. Like martial arts masters, to be in this transformation calls for increasing sensitivity and responsiveness within the momentum and chaos of this era.” Bateson, P 137

The logical mind recognizes that economic growth, unaccountable to the earth as a living unit, is not sustainable. Continuing to take too much water from the well causes the well to run dry. We know that the devastating impact of climate change will continue to cause upheaval. A world in transition will have inevitable shifts in human populations to accommodate - on a larger scale than is already happening. This will be difficult if we continue to maintain communication platforms that propagate hate and misinformation. Recognizing that we are in the midst of a unique time period is critical to the advancement of meta education system thinking.

Theme 2: Learning vs Education vs Schooling

Learning is a natural state; a continuous and lifelong process. It can be intentional or unintentional, conscious or unconscious. To live is to learn.

“Your mind does not need to be coerced to learn – learning is its natural state.” Stein P 19

“Learning is the key. Once the child learns how to interact with the stove without getting hurt, the child is free – until a new learning arises. Caution may manifest as a process of learning to learn. With learning comes the capacity to learn again.” Bateson P 116

“What is the difference between learning and life? None. When is something living not learning? Never.” Bateson P 170

In comparison, Education seeks to frame learning in a manner that can assist the development of abilities, attitudes and behaviors that society deems valuable and necessary. We need education systems that can support learning as a natural state; that optimize human potential by helping people to learn what, when, why, and where they learn with whom.

“The all too common idea that learning is something that requires professional guidance and state-sanctioned materials is profoundly misguided.” Stein P 19

“We are scrambling for solutions to an educational crisis involving profound inequalities of learning opportunities between the haves and have-nots, based entirely on the idea that there is only so much education to go around, only so many opportunities to learn.” Stein P. 20

“Competition-based educational systems are the result of seeing education through the lens of reductive human capital theory, where the idea that one buys and owns a degree (and thus gains access to a job) dominates thinking about the purpose of schooling.” Stein P 97

Schooling is the education system most familiar to our world. With schooling comes a range of embedded interpretations about what educations is, instead of what education could be, formulated across generations since the beginning of the industrial era.

“For now I simply note the pervasiveness (and familiarity) of a certain kind of educational configuration that is built around a false sense of the abstract individual who pursues an equally abstract, singular, and fixed learning outcome.” Stein P 280

“Theorists who emphasize the parallels between past and present in their interpretation of the generation gap ignore the irreversibility of the changes that have taken place since the beginning of the industrial revolution. This is especially striking in their handling of modern technological development, which they treat as comparable in its effects to the changes that occurred as one civilization in the past took over from another such techniques as agriculture, script, navigation, or the organization of labour and law.” Mead P 91

Our current education system of schools was developed as an organized response to colonialization and industrial-era economics. Micro system application was the result. Now we need education system structures that can work in a new era. It is education, not schooling, that must be reengaged.

“What is important to teach the young coming into a society? Well, that depends on the society, doesn’t it? So, the education that has been chosen is fitted into what has been decreed as valuable information for our way of life. Yet, we seek to live differently than those who have come before.” Bateson, P 27

“Those preoccupied with “fixing” the existing system of schools do not stop to ask questions about what schools are for, who they serve, and what kind of civilization they perpetuate.” Stein P 86

Theme 3: School Systems Will Become Increasingly Ineffective

Systems work, until they don’t, for a variety of complex reasons. It can be difficult to watch as our school systems try to maintain balance in an Anthropocene world because it is a no-win proposition.

There is an important distinction to be made here. When considering education system effectiveness vs ineffectiveness, meta system thinking does not relate to the specific personal or professional capacity of people associated with those systems. In fact, it is extraordinary to consider the degree to which efforts are undertaken by people to align themselves with school systems that offer little in return; be it strategic vision, relevant professional support, timely and appropriate personalized service - all because the assumptions made to affect improvement are developed from the micro context of existing system structures.

“In a world that is defined by constant change, significant effort is needed to hold up any particular aspect of a system in a static pattern.” Bateson P 133

“It is astonishing to see how readily a belief in change can be integrated with a belief in changelessness, even in cultures whose members have access to voluminous historical records and who agree that history consists not merely of currently desirable constructs but of verifiable facts.” Mead P 86

Education is perceived as schooling. System structures are maintained by people that are knowledgeable and familiar with them. It is generational. Almost everyone has gone to school at some point. Teachers from previous generations pass the torch to their children and grandchildren. Media glorification of school, as we have known it for hundreds of years, maintains perpetual and unchallenged imagery of happiness and success. Political action requires socially accepted alternatives which are not currently seen to exist. Children’s day-to-day lives do not resemble what happens at school. The system is stuck.

“[W]hen social systems are in periods of rapid transformation the role of schools becomes contradictory. They teach knowledge that is no longer relevant, socialize individuals into roles that no longer exist, and provide the mindsets needed to continue ways of life that are rapidly disappearing.” Stein P 85

“As this decades-old system lumbers into the twenty-first century, it grows increasingly inefficient and expensive. Eventually it will reach a crisis of legitimacy because of its own dysfunction, if it has not already. When this happens schools will no longer be seen as providers of opportunities and repositories of hope as they have been for so long. Instead, they will come to be seen as burdensome, arbitrary, and unjust, as encoding upon the self the norms and differences of a stratified society, and as providing opportunities for some at the expense of opportunities for others. Such a switch in perspective toward schooling signifies a loss of trust and faith in schools as public institutions.” Stein P 79

“[W]hen the children of agricultural and handicraft workers entered the first factories, this marked the beginning of an irreversible change. But the fact that accommodation to this new way of living was slow, since it was spread out over several generations, meant that the changes were not necessarily perceived to be more drastic than those experienced by the people who were incorporated by conquest into the Roman Empire.” Mead P 92

“The trouble is that even the advocates for peace and justice, the ecologists, and the dedicated teachers, the therapists, and the philanthropists, are still thinking in terms of parts and wholes. Even the ones that use the language of “systems””. Bateson P 188

“So pervasive is the habit of applying the problem-solving methods of the engineer that the language of the entire body of systems and complexity theory has become a container for slightly higher order reductionist thinking.” Bateson P 188

Theme 4: A New Relational Contract Between Children and Adults

To teach is to promote the active process of learning. But learning is a natural state. What does adult participation look like in an Anthropocene world that needs to promote learning between generations? Our current school systems, built upon structure, authority and compliance, do not align with a rapidly changing world where adults and children need to learn together.

“[A]s long as any adult thinks that he, like the parents and teachers of old, can become introspective, invoke his own youth to understand the youth before him, then he is lost.” Mead P 104

“We still hold the seats of power and command the resources and the skills necessary to keep order and organize the kinds of societies we know about. We control the educational systems, the apprenticeship systems, the career ladders up which the young must climb, step by step. The elders in the advanced countries control the resources needed by the young and less advanced countries for their development. Nevertheless, we have passed the point of no return.” Mead P 99

“Adults often abuse their authority by presuming their right to be right, and believe they should not be questioned, doubted or proven wrong under any circumstances.” Bateson P67

“The secure belief that those who knew had authority over those who did not has been shaken.” Mead P 19

We need education systems that can equalize the relational contract between children and adults. Proponents of self-directed learning often suggest that a minimal to negligible degree of involvement from adults is necessary for children to learn. But this concept, like the structure of school systems they reject, is based upon micro system thinking. Adult involvement in the learning process is not an all or nothing proposition. Children require guidance from adults. Of consideration is what this supervision could look like from a meta-system perspective.

“The conversation about education that is needed starts with the relationship between the generations: a sacred territory between present, future, and past.” Bateson P 64

“Normally the first break with the parental style comes about in connection with education, when parents elect a different type of education and a new occupational goal for their children. The outcome, however, is determined by the situation. When the number of such young people is large, they become models for one another and, rejecting the behavior models of adults in the new environment, treat teachers and administrators as opposition forces to be outwitted, not followed.” Mead P 68

“The crux of the problem is that not everyone knows what is good for them (usually because what is good for them is absent, has been occluded, or is misunderstood). The implication of this fact is that at times we have a responsibility to exercise teacherly authority; those with greater knowledge and capacity often ought to act so as to raise others into the fullness of their capacities.” Stein P 36

“The ambiguity we need is unacceptable to the requirements of notions such as ‘authority’, ‘credibility’, and ’expertise’.” Bateson, P 67

“[A] good teacher, and a real expert, know that they are in a process of learning themselves. They are not leaders. They are not making the seeds grow……They are fertilizer, tending to the soil.” Bateson P 87

“I suggest that we ought to move toward a view in which educators are understood as environmental stewards tasked with nourishing the complex and evolving ecosystem that is

the human mind”. Stein P 49

A micro system view based upon industrial-era schools uses linear system thinking to maintain adult control. A meta view sees education as a way to promote mutual learning through an open-ended process with balanced relationships between children and adults.

Theme 5: A New Moral Focus

Education systems are extremely important. They provide equity that, left solely to the individual, remain out of reach for many. There is an implicit societal element to consider as well. Our Anthropocene world requires that we maximize everyone’s potential to participate in a sustainable world. Education systems need to promote a deep shift in moral values, inner attunement with the world as a singular entity, and human potential to address large problems.

“The evidence is clear that human potential includes capacities like world-centric morality, universal compassion, meta-paradigmatic thinking, and a whole slew of others. Evidence also suggests that these capacities are not now, nor have they ever been, connected to the purposes of schooling.” Stein P 44

“Crises of culture, consciousness, and personality demand a reconstruction of academic knowledge and a release from the hidden curriculum of schools which foster outdated modes of socialization and limiting forms of self-understanding.” Stein P 73

“[T]he vast majority of humans on the planet are below the critical levels of capability that enable world-centric identity formation and reflective and democratic civic participation.” Stein P 45

“We must create new models for adults who can teach their children not what to learn, but how to learn and not what they should be committed to, but the value of commitment.” Mead P 115

“So the question now is not “what is better than democracy?” but “how can epistemological frames adjust to everything we know as normal melting into new opportunities to be better humans?” Bateson P 137

“Educational systems are inseparable from the cultural, social, and economic systems that surround them. This must be remembered when thinking about what an educational system ought to be like.” Stein P 202

Theme 6: Participation and Commitment from Everyone

The system of education needs to be integrated as a community-wide entity that aligns with the abilities of interests of all people. Central to this educational (r)evolution is the fact that inter-generational mutual learning can be treated as a valuable resource for sustainable growth. A meta-view of education systems seeks to align the participation of many community adults. Stein has a word for this: Paideia

“A well-functioning paideia is a community drawn together by commitment to an explicit philosophy of the good life and a related praxis of education. A paideia is a community that is focused on the creation of a certain kind of virtuous human, a community in which economics and politics are subordinate to an explicitly educational vision.” Stein p 1

“Being part of a system requires knowing that whatever happens is an expression of the patterns that entire system is involved in – that means, there is no fault, and everyone is responsible.” Bateson, P 84

“And I now believe that one of the essential elements in escape from an infinitely greater threat is the willingness to use – each one of us – what we know now, always acknowledging that what we know is not enough.” Mead P 23

“The question now is not whether we can handle rapid culture change as our ecology, economy, and national and international political structures transform. The question is how to get better at it, together.” Bateson P 195

The Paideia vision supports local solidarity, to the extreme, that can also connect globally. Every community is unique in size, scope and influence. Thinking and acting locally to connect globally must account for local conditions. People like to become involved in causes that address local issues for the betterment of their community and the world as a whole.

Theme 7: The Economy of Education

The system of Education is linked with the drive for personal success. It is to be expected that parents want the best for their children. But what does “the best” look like from system structures that continue to provide education from a competitive and micro perspective of limited supply? How can people seek something different when they don’t know what the future holds and how education in a rapidly changing world will relate to their livelihood and interests?

“Competition-based educational systems are the result of seeing education through the lens of reductive human capital theory, where the idea that one buys and owns a degree (and thus gains access to a job) dominates thinking about the purpose of schooling.” Stein P 97

“The education system desperately needs to change in order to provide coming generations with support for their future, but the job market needs professionals who have individual skills, specialized in fragmented subjects.” Bateson P 192

“It is the adults who still believe that there is a safe and socially approved road to a kind of life they themselves have not experienced who react with the greatest anger and bitterness to the discovery that what they had hoped for no longer exists for their children.” Mead p 115

It is probable, due to the profit and power opportunities associated with changing educational needs, that business and privatized influence will play an increasing role in public education systems. In many respects, this is associated with technical advancements that could be valuable from a meta perspective, but continue to exist in micro context.

“This is a pattern that continues to this day, perhaps best exemplified by current trends in educational “reform,” where in the United States billionaires who never set foot in a public school growing up (and who send their own children to private schools) swayed federal legislation toward the creation of a vast technologically intensive testing infrastructure that now dominates the entire public school system.” Stein P 151

“New approaches to schooling inspired by human capital theory are aiming to leverage many of the technological trends listed above, including customization, scaffolding, and large-scale databasing. But they are mostly looking to carry out old forms of schooling using new technological instruments.” Stein P 89

As school systems become increasingly ineffective (Theme 3), it is also probable that the demand for micro system alternatives such as homeschooling, unschooling, online platforms and other privatized options will continue to expand. These alternatives are micro because they tend to view education from the perspective of the individual alone or from the context of their specific and unique system structures.

Alternatives are important. They provide choice to consumers of education that are unsatisfied with the offerings of publicly funded systems. It is reasonable to suggest that there will always be a call for alternatives. But it is also significant to consider the implications associated with the demise of publicly funded education, given the impending incapacity of current structures to meet future needs. Meta thinking understands that alternative is not the same as substitution. When and how does alternative become mainstream? If everyone has alternatives, then we have a new system. We need system substitutions. We need publicly funded meta-focused education systems. The new economy of education can be an energizing prospect - once education is understood and systematically structured as a globally available resource.

“The greatest benefit of reversing the relation between the educational system and the structure of the broader economy would be the resulting liberation of human potential.” Stein P 135

“The future can produce a breathtaking proliferation of human potentials; innovator, polymaths, and artists may abound. Parents, teachers, and caregivers may emerge in the contexts of plenitude, the de-alienated heroes and creators of tomorrow.” Stein P 237

Theme 8: A Process – Guided by the Right Questions

There was a time when micro education system thinking was necessary to inform and guide the intentions of industrial-era education school systems. Those days are gone. We need a meta-view of education that can promote both public education and global sustainability. At what point do we recognize that our education system structures are controlling us instead of us controlling them?

“The idea of orderly, developmental change is lost for this generation of young, who cannot take over the past from their elders, but can only repudiate what their elders are doing right now.” Mead P 108

“Too many futurists are simplistic techno-optimists, “biologists and engineers intoxicated by science fiction. They do not show any sensitivity or sophistication concerning the educational, socio-cultural, economic, and political realities that must be in place for a world with these kinds of technologies to be humane in any reasonable sense of the word.” Stein P 239

The challenge before us is new and large. We need people to think less about system change, and more about what system change means. Until now, system thinking has been linear. Disciplines and system elements are categorized and separated from each other. Information is focused on the quantifiable, aligned with objectives that are isolated from other interconnected systems. System inputs and outputs are simplified to develop models with misunderstood and unanticipated results.

“Education, media, and social structures present overlapping patterns of compartmentalization.” Bateson P 19

“As uncomfortable as it is, the lens of contextualizing leadership reveals that the responsibility we would like to hold our institutions to, does not in fact lie inside the institutions, but between them.” Bateson, P 84

“Multinational corporate business, climate change, and war/terror are manifesting largescale people movement, poverty, and trauma. The approach to these painful situations is of paramount importance.

One approach:

1. Define a polarity

2. Add trauma and drama

3. Panic in search of a solution while the situation blooms into cascading and overlapping destruction

4. Define a solution within another polarity

5. Repeat steps 2-5 indefinitely

When things get too painful and repetitive we might try this approach:

1. Allow complexity

2. Pause the impulse to find cause

3. Increase mutual learning within the situation

4. Previously un-seeable possibilities appear

5. Repeat steps 1-5 indefinitely” Bateson P 116

This is not linear. It is an open-ended process. We don’t know the answers. We only know that we have to change. But people don’t even understand what the change is that is required. Developing the right questions can guide a different way for us to think about how things are interconnected and where we need to get to as a global system. As such, Education isn’t just a means to empower learning. Education becomes a leading conduit for global sustainability through meta-system thinking and application.

“[T]he problem with problem-solving is the idea that a solution is an endpoint. There are no endpoints in complex systems, only tendrils that diffuse and reorganize situations…compensations come in crooked streams and don’t end up where you thought they would.” Bateson P 40

“Learning, which is based on human dependency, is relatively simple. But human capacities for creating elaborate teachable systems, for understanding and utilizing the resources of the natural world, and for governing society and creating imaginary worlds, all of these are very complex.” Mead P 114

“And I now believe that one of the essential elements in escape from an infinitely greater threat is the willingness to use – each one of us – what we know now, always acknowledging that what we know is not enough.” Mead P 23

The Pandemic Has Demonstrated Education System Micro Thinking

We have witnessed, with the pandemic, one of the greatest disruptions to industrial-era education since its earliest beginnings. The pandemic has also exposed our education school systems as inflexible structures from another era. There was an opportunity for the pandemic to be used in a constructive way to advance beyond the inequities and inefficiencies of current system structures. However, micro system thinking has dominated each wave. As we (hopefully) reach an end point, school systems remain focused on a “return to normal” that no longer exists and is unable to meet the needs of families and the staff and volunteers that keep our public education systems afloat.

Virtually every country in the world has had to employ a pandemic emergency system response. This has largely occurred through remote/distance learning that, under a mirage of loosely defined terminologies, seeks to maintain traditional school system structures – over distance. The Province of Ontario, Canada, referenced in earlier Edushift posts, is a proxy that can be used to exemplify the micro school system thinking that has occurred. There is little to no timely data on remote/distance learning. The valuable perspectives of people doing new things is largely lost knowledge, unavailable for meta-system application. The focus on a return to in-classroom instruction has become a mantra for status quo operations, disguised as an appropriate response to the socialization needs of children and youth.

The pandemic has demonstrated the extent to which micro thinking is embedded in current educational system structures. Nonetheless, in the wake of this extraordinary global upheaval of industrial-era education, is an opportunity to initiate meta-thinking with the support of those who recognize the need for post-pandemic change.

Prompting a New Education Renaissance

Micro thinking will continue as our education school systems become increasingly unmanageable in an Anthropocene world. As such, the move to meta thinking must involve raising awareness, recognizing and supporting detractors from current system structures and creating opportunities for meta system connections and dialogue. This will need to be framed through the lens of opportunity it represents.

“Who will take the trouble to warn of the doom to come unless some preferred future alternative is offered, either in steps that will avert that doom or in preparation for a next world? As doomsday is preached more vigorously, the more one is committed to a better world.” Mead P 22

“The practice of stance not strategy is next. While the tendency is to contemplate replacement forms of order, it may be more appropriate now to consider how to prepare to be in chaos more creatively.” Bateson P 137

The introduction of industrial-era school systems allowed Education to became available to generations of people that would never have had that possibility before. An educational renaissance was the result; prompted by raising human capital on a trajectory that aligned with industrial era economic growth. Now we need to prompt a new education renaissance that will support global sustainability. Current structures are so entrenched, the view to new alternatives so limited, that this may appear out of reach. But there is a growing number of meta thinkers who see the future and recognize the inevitable demise of current structures. The question right now is how these and more people can be mobilized and supported to prompt a new education renaissance.

“There are depths at which ideas of how the world is put together are so integrated into life that they have become invisible. Those are the ones to watch out for. They sustain other ideas, and ideas about ideas. They seem unchangeable. But, pull a single thread loose and the whole tapestry can be reorganized.” Bateson P 22

There are all sorts of prompts that could be used to help to initiate this process. From an Edushift perspective, several elements from Stein and Bateson are notable for their potential alignment with a starting point for meta-system thinking. One relates to measurement. The other relates to art.


Measurement is a tool that is used to assist system progress. Measurement in Education currently aligns with longstanding industrial-era education structures. Standardized testing has become the most obvious example of this; it has been used to demonstrate system effectiveness defined by a competitive and human capital interpretation of Education.

Standardized testing is being met with increasing resistance because it is a measurement that is out of sync with current needs. However, the distrust of standardized testing and related measurements has led to a misunderstanding of measurements and their overall relationship with system thinking.

The point here is not about standardized testing specifically, but to demonstrate that measurement matters. It is human to measure. The history of mankind is intertwined with what has been agreed upon to measure. It is critical to understand that Educational systems need measurements.

As the Anthropocene world continues to unfold, we can expect to see a need for new ways to measure. But right now, measurement in education continues to be used from a micro-perspective; to perpetrate corrective measures that maintain industrial-era system structures.

“A measurement crisis occurs when society loses touch with reality because it has institutionalized a systematically distorted measurement infrastructure.” P 147

“[A]s the climate crisis deepens there will be a proliferation of standards and measures related to sustainable ecological accounting and environmental law.” Stein P 173

We need to measure new and invigorating things from a meta-system perspective. The way that we think about measurement can act as a prompt for meta-thinking; to engage a conversation about what education is, what education could be, and how we can use all types of information. The process is not linear. It is an all-encompassing process of inquiry and mutual learning.

Looking around at how things are measured and quantified can reveal a society’s dominant and often implicit (or unarticulated) meta theories.” Stein P 147

“Measures and standards are implicated in social justice because they quite literally structure our lives in profound ways, impacting the ways that we understand ourselves, the social world, and the nature of reality itself.” Stein P 151

“The future of measurement must go from the linear and simple to the non-linear and complex.” Stein P 179

What could measurement look like to inform system capacity, not for human capital, but for human potential? How could we initiate this type of dialogue from a community-wide perspective to promote meta-system thinking?

“To redesign measures would be to rearrange the basic structures by which we live and work.” Stein P 153


Where measurement could be interpreted as the rational mind of Education meta system thinking, Art feeds the soul that must be nourished. Everyone is an artist.

Micro thinking applies Art as an extravagance; a separate discipline, area of study or, from an economic perspective, something to be sold or purchased. In comparison, meta thinking recognizes Art as inseparable from human existence. When everything else appears lost, art remains steadfast.

“[A]rt allows us to perceive from multiple perspectives simultaneously. In order for science to really work with complexity we need art to help inform science about forming an approach to perceiving.” Bateson P 92

“At the core of systems work is a search not just for details, but for patterns. This is not an easy task within the epistemological limits of western culture, where the habit of applying notions of cause and effect has been rewarded over several centuries of cultural, technological, and theological development. Systems thinking requires us to see past those old scripts and into the world of interrelations.” Bateson P 157

Art can help to prompt an education renaissance. It can act as an enabler for personal involvement in complex systems. It can also provide contextual and relational information that would otherwise be lost or misinterpreted. It can be used in new ways to engage, communicate and enable mutual learning between generations. Art and artists can tell the stories that people need for both the mind and the soul.

“Communication is a precarious cliff climbing through theme and variation. Even when it seems like the same language is being spoken, there are a million possible interpretations of the words used.” Bateson P 44

“[W]e need art to help give scientists a more developed capacity to perceive context, one that includes all the disciplines, emotions, cultural symbols, and personal memories.” Bateson, P 103

“Art does not ask for proof; it directs us to look for patterns.” Bateson, P 102

“There are levels of communication that only art can reach. For me, this is where hope waits.” Bateson P 89

In Summary

Most people would agree that it is not logical to maintain Education systems that support an unsustainable future. But that is what is happening right now. Education systems continue to be seen through a micro view. We only see them for what they have been, instead of what they now need to be.

Momentum is growing for Education to be seen from a meta lens; to be understood in relation to the critical change in world order that is now upon us and the complexity of interconnected systems.

Meta system thinking extends beyond the increasingly popularized topic of education transformation. Before education can be “transformed”, we need to understand the context in which Education systems now exist. That is the biggest challenge and opportunity of the limited time before us.

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