by Gaia University Master’s degree candidate, Tom Palmer

For most of us flung off the conveyor belt of traditional education, we enter the “real” world poorly equipped to navigate the complexities of modern life on Earth. This startling experience drives some to despair while others scramble to figure out what they really need to know. A giant gap, begging to be closed, exists between the model of education still predominant in our culture today and the dynamic context that surrounds it.

It will serve us well to gain some perspective on that model which has been in use since the 1800’s when schools were preparing students for work in an industrial economy. In that context, employers sought workers who could follow instructions and do their jobs efficiently. They had little interest in developing their big-picture and critical capacities which were seen as threats to the hierarchical power structure. Show up, do your job, and for the love of God don’t ask too many questions! Schools were set up the same way, and by the time graduation rolled around noses were well-trained to be kept close to the grindstone.

The narrative of that time went something like this: if you do what you’re supposed to do and work hard, you will have a comfortable and secure life. And for the most part that was true. Today this narrative is losing credibility as the context in which we live has been radically transformed from the simpler times of the industrial age. Technology is driving increasingly complex cultural, social and economic landscapes whose needs are less and less predictable. The linear patterns on which our systems are based are failing to meet these demands, and the time has come to embrace new patterns better equipped for complexity.

For insight into complex systems, we need to look no further than our most enduring system of education: Nature. There we struggle to find anything resembling the top-down hierarchical structures of our modern systems; rather we find a structure based on self-organization from the bottom up. The more we observe and interact with nature the more profoundly we realize that its fundamental property is an emergent one, that adaptation and evolution are informed by the feedback loops that are the basis of all relationships. Opportunities are embraced locally—nothing waits around for permission from above.

We might apply these insights by asking ourselves: what type of person does the world need now? In an environment that is always changing they can adapt, never stop learning, and have a broad perspective. They must be able to think independently and critically, knowing how to self-harvest information and discern its value. They must be creative and innovative, looking forward and imagining solutions to problems as they emerge. They must be flexible yet passionate, self-motivated with initiative. They must have access to and be able to use the tools they need to design and implement these solutions, manage them and maintain them while both leading and supporting others in dynamic roles.

Nature doesn’t demand that its constituents act accordingly. It merely gives them an opportunity. It creates the geometric structure of space and says: “go be what you can be.” A species’ longevity is related to its ability to create effective feedback loops with its environment and learn what it needs to adapt. If it fails to do so, it is replaced, and life goes on. None are entitled to anything they have not proven themselves worthy of.

So what might a system of education look like based on the principles of self-organization and emergent opportunity found in nature? First, there must be a shift of focus, from the transmission of information (sit there and behold as I impart my superior knowledge) to the integral exploration of systems and relationships (more of how to learn and make connections, less of what to learn and connect). The designers of these new systems will take a page from the natural handbook and create the spaces and structures that give learners the support they need to embrace their opportunity which is life itself.

The massive infrastructural investment of the traditional education system limits its flexibility to embrace this new paradigm. By its very design, it tends to isolate learners from the outside world. But the type of human beings the world needs now are not isolated and institutionalized. They are integral. They learn from living and creating in the real world, where communities are not forced as in a modern classroom but form naturally as like-minded individuals self-organize to co-create their vision of what they want life on Earth to be.

Technology has enabled this type of self-organization like never before, and Gaia University is a perfect example of the new learning paradigm in action. Learners living in diverse cultural, biological, climatic and socioeconomic contexts around the globe are integrating their real-world projects with an educational support structure that creates feedback loops and drives succession. They come together to share, reflect and cross-pollinate. They are supported in finding balances between thinking and doing, reflecting and experimenting, and between technology and nature.

My personal experience at Gaia U has been a very transformational one. My worldview has evolved, I have learned to use many tools that have completely changed the way I approach new knowledge and integrate it into my work, existing projects have flourished, and new, unexpected opportunities have emerged. I am far better equipped to recognize these opportunities and make the most of them than I was when I began my program just over a year ago.

I believe the future of education looks a lot like Gaia U, and I’m honored to be a part of what’s happening in this community. If you are interested in learning more I would be more than happy to share more of my experience with you, so please get in touch with me: