A Community of Individuals Approach to Education: This is the Dawning of the Me/We Integration

As human beings, we are social animals and as such are simultaneously semi-autonomous individuals capable of functioning on our own, and members of communities somewhat interdependent on each other for survival.

Communities are systems. And as systems they are “greater than the sum of their parts” and can perform beyond the abilities of their members. For example, you can ride a bicycle but you can’t ride any or all of the parts of a bicycle unless they’re put together in a particular way. Like bicycles, communities gain their increased abilities by imposing limits on their members. A bicycle chain can be bent into all kinds of creative shapes and could serve many functions (from door jam to paperweight) but when assembled as a part of a bicycle has its bendability severely limited and can no longer perform many of the functions it could perform alone.

These limits create a tension between individuals and their communities. While these tensions have always existed, the degree to which we have seen ourselves as independent individuals versus interdependent parts of a community seems to have gone, and continues to go, through three distinct phases in terms of people’s story of the world (collectively held beliefs about the world) with humanity currently poised between its second and third stage.

As you will soon see, I wrote this piece from the point of view of the third story.

Community First: The needs of the community are primary.  People sharing this story see themselves as interdependent parts of a community. “We” is such a dominant concept that many cultures sharing this story had no word for me.

Individuals First: The needs of individuals are primary. People sharing this story see themselves primarily as semi-autonomous wholes in and of themselves. This story might be called the “Me” story or the story of separation.

Community of Individuals: When people see themselves as semi-autonomous wholes that are also interdependent parts of communities of individuals their needs and the needs of their communities can be met with kindness and compassion. Some have called this story the story of Interbeing. It is also a holarchical point of view. The focus of this point of view is finding the sweet spots, and managing the sour spots between me and we. The sweet spots are ways in which two or more folk can meet their needs mutually (synergistically). Managing the sour spots includes compromising (negotiating incompatibilities) and agreeing to disagree (which in the extreme case can include separation).

I see co-creation of a learning culture based on this third story as our central goal as learning facilitators. This goal includes two complimentary sub-goals:

  1. Our individual goal is that each of us learns how to create our own paths through life.
  2. Our community goal is that each of us learns how to put our different points of views that result from our unique paths, together to form mutually beneficial relationships.

Adventures in the Negotiation Zone

Putting Our Differences Together

At The Farm School our goal to put our differences together includes two sub-goals: the first is focused on each student as a wonderfully unique individual—our “me” goal, the second is focused on all of us as a community—our “we” goal.

  • Our “me” goal is for each of us to learn how to create our own paths through life.
  • Our “we” goal is for each of us to learn how to put our differences together to our mutual benefit.

We see a natural tension between these two goals. Sometimes each of us dancing to the beat of our own drummer can result in collisions with others dancing to the beat of their own drummer. We believe it is possible for all of us to learn how to find win-win sweet spots between our “me” and “we” goals. These sweet spots are not static but instead vary from context to context, from moment to moment. Thus, finding these sweet spots requires all of us reflecting on the tensions that exist between each of us as individuals and between each of us and our school community as a whole. We call the act of finding these sweet spots, bumping into each other with style. For us, there is nothing more important for each of our wellbeing or the well-being of our planet.

Our approach has much in common with child-centered approaches to education including Free Schools and the Unschooling movement. These approaches have as their main goal giving students as much freedom to make their own choices as is possible, leaving them unfettered by what the adults want them to do. As an adult who was subjected to do-as-I-say teaching as a child, I resonate with this orientation towards child-centered learning and would pick it over schools designed to produce passive and standardized workers and consumers any day! But our approach avoids picking sides on this dichotomous dimension. We are not focused on children being “free” with minimal intervention as a goal.

Our goal is to meet each other in the negotiation zone where young learners and adult facilitators can make decisions together. We focus our attention on the dynamic process of finding win-win sweet spots in order to put our differences together in productive ways. Rather than minimizing intervention we seek to maximize negotiation and shared decision-making. For this to happen each of us must be skilled at interacting with each other and our planet in ways that benefit us all and at building mutual relationships.

This distinction is subtle and maybe partially a matter of semantics. In later blogs, I intend to present many examples of our adventures in the negotiation zone and hopefully make clear why I think there is an important distinction between free child-centered schools, standards-based schools and our negotiation/agreement school, but for now one example might help.

Earlier this winter, I took our seven-to-nine year-olds (all four of them that attended that day) on a woods walk. My plan was for each of us to focus our attention on looking for things turning into other things (e.g., fallen trees turning into dirt). And a fine plan it was. I also had a number of important concepts that I wanted to talk about with the kids while we were walking: decomposition and synthesis, material cycles and the conservation of matter. About sixty seconds into our walk one of the kids asked me if they could play their wolf game during our walk. I started to say “no,” even though I know better by now, but then slid my not yet fully formed “no” into a request for more information. What is your wolf game? They told me that they were a wolf pack and that each of them had a special job, one would look for bones, another for geodes, the third for edible plants and the fourth for mushrooms. I grinned and said, “of course we can play the wolf game” and off we went for fun and learning filled hour of searching and collecting and discussing our finds.

If our focus were minimizing interventions I probably wouldn’t have headed out on a woods walk with a predefined plan for focusing our activity on a particular set of concepts I wanted to explore. If our focus were students doing as they were told, I probably wouldn’t have thrown my mental lesson plan out the metaphorical window in response to a request by a child[1]. Focusing on negotiation is not just a matter of picking when to let kids do what they want versus what we want them to do, although that certainly is a part of the process. In this case our focus on negotiation manifested as students being comfortable making a request, me hearing their request and asking for more information to help me make a decision, me making a decision that met all of our needs and all of us getting to do something we valued.

[1] Times like this when one of us has started to say “no” and changed our mind are almost a hallmark of our approach.

Putting Our Differences Together

Most modern human social, cultural, political and economic institutions including schools are based on a fundamental belief about the nature of reality. Philosopher, Charles Eisenstein calls this belief the story of separation and in his wonderful … [Continue reading]