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Rethinking Education in Light of Great Change

by S. J. Goerner

The goal is not so much to see that which no one has seen, but to see that which everyone sees, in a totally different way. -- Arthur Schopenhauer

The problems in education are not only complex and multidimensional, most of them get their start outside the walls of schools. Ironically, realizing that the problems in education are not solely problems of education, clarifies the situation. Today's educational difficulties are actually part of a larger cultural change affecting western and perhaps global civilization. Before parents and educators can settle on what needs to be done in schools, they must first understand what needs to be done in the larger whole.

The Rise of Integral Society and the Web View of the World

The contour of this larger change is already easy to see. Cultural sea changes are marked by a shift in the underlying metaphor the society uses to explain "how the world works" and today our metaphor is migrating from "machine" to "web" (interconnectedness). The emerging web view is witnessed by everything from environmental awareness and holistic alternatives in health to the global economy and the World Wide Web. The reasons for this restructuring are also obvious. The crisis in education is but one of a growing list of threats to social well-being that includes environmental degradation, community disintegration, economic inequity (and instability) and democratic processes dominated by moneyed interests. Ominous signs floating in from many directions over many years has built a huge pool of pressure. Most people say they are struggling to create a sustainable civilization, but the official name for this stage of civilization is integral society (Ray, 1996).

Contours, however, are not enough to build a new society. The best way to understand integral needs is through the comprehensive new science which is rising alongside the new society. Thanks to the popular press, many people know one or more pieces of web science, say Gaia, chaos, complexity, quantum mechanics or system theory. To unify web discoveries, however, one needs a scientifically sound story of why various facets and ideas connect. The only story capable of making such connections is a story of evolution. The best way to form an intelligible picture out of many scientific pieces, therefore, is to use the broad new story of evolution (dynamic evolution) rising with the new science (Goerner, 1999).

Dynamic Evolution as a Unifying Thread and a Framework for Understanding

The new story of evolution shows how pieces connect and why civilizations change. It suggests, not only that we are bound up with everything else on earth, but that human beings and all living and non-living systems are partners in a encompassing process of self-organizing development and change (evolution). The whole process is driven and linked by energy flow. It follows regular patterns.

The new story of evolution also leads to a scientifically sound, but radically new vision of the human condition. In particular, it shows how the three main threads of evolution?organization, collaboration and intelligence?lead to both the cultural situation we now face and the tapestry of human history that we already know.

The backbone of evolution, the "organization" thread (structure), describes how energy pushes systems to emerge, grow and then develop toward increasing "intricacy" (that is, toward a tight, lacework of organizational fabric.) The overall process follows three basic themes:

Self-organization. Organization arises and develops as a result of pressure lighting upon some naturally-occurring difference (diversity) and driving it into a new pattern of organization. See Figure 1.

The S-curve. Once a system forms, the developmental process is cyclical. Systems start small and delicate. With more infrastructure and back-up reserves, they become robust and adaptive. More growth, however, makes the system slow, unresponsive and eventually fragile (as bonds stretch and then break). At the top of an S-curve, a system must either reorganize more intricately than before or it will of necessity collapse (or at least regress). See Figure 2.

The Importance of Intricacy. The "structural" aspect of evolution, then is all about staying connected and developing great intricacy as growth demands. Like a lace tablecloth, strength, resilience and adaptability comes from keeping small circles bound in a ever-growing meshwork of connective tissue. See Figure 3.

Figure 1 Boiling Water as an Example of Self-organization and Increasing Intricacy

Energy's penchant for creating organization and driving developmental change can be seen clearly in a simple fluid experiment called the Benard cell - or more colloquially, boiling water. So, imagine a container with water in it. When you turn up the heat, the water molecules begin moving faster. They keep moving faster until they quite literally cannot go any faster in their current pattern (random collisions). Since, heat (pressure) still pushes for more, an invisible crisis sets in. The system becomes unstable and the context becomes ripe for change. Small, naturally-occurring in homogeneities (diversity) in the system begin to have a new effect. In this case, little pockets of relatively hotter molecules have been randomly coming together and moving apart. These little pockets are a type of "diversity," because they have unique characteristics which nature soon puts to use. (In this case, hot collections are lighter and more buoyant than their cooler surroundings.) Now pockets of hot molecules begin to float upward. Eventually one pocket rises all the way to the top, loses its heat and sinks back down pulling other molecules in its wake. This triggers a comprehensive "reorganization." Suddenly, the entire region erupts into a coherent, circular motion. The name for this process is "self-organization." Still, the story isn't over. If the heat continues, the whole process will repeat. Molecules will move faster in the new circular motion until they can go no faster. The system becomes unstable. Naturally occurring diversity will seed a new, faster cycle. The system will reorganize itself into a more "intricate" pattern, something like a figure '8.' It is more intricate in that it consists of smaller, tighter, inter-linked circles.

Figure 2 The S-Curve.

If the horizontal axis is time and the vertical is speed of energy flow, then one can also think of a newly "self-organized" circle (seen in Figure 1c) as following a standard cycle of development which leads either to a new more "intricate" organization which can handle new pressures or else regression or collapse ensues. Super-purified fluid demonstrate the calamitous alternative. When you purify a liquid, you remove all the "diversity" along with the "impurities." Then, when the system reaches a crisis point, it explodes instead of reorganizing. In the case of human systems, there are three alternatives: (a) Increase intricacy?reorganize into a new pattern which answers the new demands while also restoring the strength of internal bonds; (b) Recede to a safe niche?find a less pressured environment, where the system can get by in its current pattern; (c) Regression or collapse?if the system fails to do (a) or (b), it must either shrink in size or it will collapse.



Figure 3: The Embryo: An Example of Increasing Intricacy

A developing embryo provides a perfect example of how intricacy evolves. An embryo starts as a single cell that gets bigger. As the cell grows, however, the forces holding it together get stretched thinner. Nature's solution, seen in the embryo, is to divide into two smaller cells that then stick to each other. The process then repeats. Each cell grows, reaches its limits, divides and rejoins its fellows, now for a total of four cells?then eight, sixteen, and so forth. After each round of dividing, the embryo is made up of more cells and smaller ones. The system is now stronger because each cell is smaller and thus stronger in itself. Linking together then gives the strength of "many bound as one."

One can see these organizational themes playing out in the co-evolution of the other two threads, intelligence and collaboration.

The Co-evolution of Intelligence and Collaborative Communities

Intelligence started when the first single-celled organisms began responding to little patterned trails of energy which led to food. In doing so, they were responding appropriately to "information." Over time, living organisms also became more complex, primarily by forming collaborative communities based on the principle of "specialize and integrate." Like everything else in evolution, collaborative enclaves were driven into being by pressure, this time to work together so everyone could survive better. The end result was multi-cellular organisms (like ourselves) whose cells take on specialist tasks (lung, gut, leg, etc.) to create a more complex whole.

Having many cells, however, made intelligence more difficult. Multi-cellular organisms still needed to respond to information to get their food (survive), but to do so they also had to circulate information (signals) inside to stay in sync. As multi-cellulars got bigger, however, they grew apart (internally) and information circulation broke down. This created evolutionary pressure to restore internal coherence and collaborative communication. The result was first nerves and then brains. (See Figure 4.)


Figure 4: Growth Crises: From Multi-cellular Clusters to Nerve Cells

Though nerves and brains were mainly mechanisms to stay collaboratively connected, the result was ever-increasing intelligence and behavioral complexity. In short, living organisms became more and more amazing?from planaria to human beings?because of the way intelligence, collaboration, and organizational growth blend together.

Growth brings recurrent pressures to stay intelligent by staying collaboratively connected. We are the cutting edge of this evolutionary process. It is basically a universal learning process, as well as one of developmental change.

Humankind as a Collaborative Learning System that Still Faces Growth Crises

Dynamic evolution gives educators a great gift: a scientifically sound explanation of why human societies are collaborative learning systems (a "society of mind" in scientific terms). Because we now have a better understanding of the basic principles which drive organization and change, we also have a better understanding of what makes our collaborative learning systems flourish or fail. The list of implications is long. For example, we now see why we must nurture diversity if we hope to evolve seamlessly, without catastrophe in between. We see more clearly why well-knit community fabric is crucial to social intelligence. We also learn that punctuated change is nature's way and that context and timing play a huge role in all that exists. No theory or mental map will last forever. If we collaborate well, however, our maps will get better.

To understand the particularly large crisis in our own time, we need to understand how these same principles play out in the evolution of human societies. It is actually easy to see:

Periodically growth pulls social fabric apart and human collaborations begin to fail. The resulting pressure has led to a succession of developmental stages with accompanying social (behavioral), economic and organizational shifts. Covering nearly a million years of evolution, these stages are: 1) loose foraging pods, 2) organized hunting bands, 3) agricultural villages, and 4) war-centered hierarchical civilization. New stages rise on the shoulders of older patterns which never completely go away. See Figure 5.

The last big organizational shift 5000 years ago, brought hierarchies. Hierarchies were crucial when they first arose because they added coherence and the ability to mobilize group resources and energies in focused ways. Now, however, the pace of change and level of complexity of a 21st century world is too much for this ancient command-and-control system. Bonds break vertically and absurdity is common. Various kinds of exploitation and abuse of power are also common because the culture which arose with hierarchy was based on imperialism (war for profit, power and empire-building). This culture may or may not have been necessary, but it is now clearly behind many (perhaps most) of the convoluted calamities we now face: from materialism, inequity and environmental degradation to democratic processes dominated by monied interests.

It appears, therefore, that war-centered hierarchies have reached their limit. The slowness and rigidity of this organizational structure and the many calamities that the accompanying culture brings are now generating huge pressures and a vast number of upstart alternatives (a bubbling pot of diversity). If these bubbles of reform do coalesce, civilization as a whole will start changing much faster and more coherently than before. It will do so because blocked energy will be surging through the new paths, driving momentum toward a new pattern.


Figure 5: Growth Stages: From Loose Band to Hierarchical Civilization

Table 5:

Foraging Bands ~ 1.5 million BC 100,000 BCC --Hominid groups began as loose bands of individuals who foraged to survive. Few in number, these early groups would have developed shared meanings easily, in the course of constant contact (even though they did not yet have speech per se).

Organized Hunting Bands ~ 75,000 BC - 20,000 BC -- From Neanderthal through Cro-Magnon, speech, cooperative behaviors and tools all began evolving rapidly. Human groups developed more complicated interactions, the most notable being the organized hunting bands. Like wolf packs., human beings began to work together to capture their prey. Unlike wolves, humans made increasingly elaborate plans such as herding animals over cliffs or into traps.

Agrarian Villages ~ 18,000 BC 4,000 BC --By 18,000 BC, human groups in Old Europe, the Indus valley, and the Near East began to settle down in one spot and grow their own food. This "agricultural revolution" produced the first villages and the first domesticated animals. Staying in one place also allowed crafts -- pottery, weaving, metallurgy, etc., -- to emerge along with such new technologies as boats and the wheel. New social specialties from policeman to priest emerged along with governance handled by councils.

Anthropologist Riane Eisler (1988) describes these as partnership societies. She lists their main characteristics as:

Social Relationships were cooperative and there was a solid sense of being in the world together. Roles differed but they were definitely more egalitarian than exploitative.

Since everyone worked, the fruits of the Earth were seen as belonging to all. Land and major means of production were held in common.

Social power was viewed as a responsibility, a trusteeship used for the benefit of all.
People worshipped the life force at work in the world.

War-centered Hierarchical Civilization~3,000 BC to 2000 AD--Somewhere around 4,000 BC, partnership culture was subsumed by the hierarchical system we use today. Early city-states like Sumer, which had one operated on partnership principles, also became increasingly devoted to war as a means of empire-building. The entire structure of society changed in suit. Historian Christopher Brinton describes the result as follows:

"Each of the great valley states was ruled by a despot: a king who was also a priest, if not actually considered a God. He ruled through a privileged class of nobles and priests who commanded a professional army. His subjects had no appeal from his decisions. They obeyed orders and turned over much of their crops as taxes to support the bureaucracy. Bureaucrats included such experts as engineers, clerks who kept tax records, lawyers to argue disputes, and judges to settle them. After these very great innovations of urban civilization, these societies apparently changed very slowly." (1964, p. 8)

Eisler calls this dominator culture. She lists its main characteristics as:

A hierarchical social structure dominated by strongman elites.
A central focus on war and militarism.
Private ownership of land and means of production: Accumulation of wealth for status.
Coercive social power including slavery, human sacrifice and the reduction of women and children to the property of men.
The worship of violent, vengeful Gods, usually through a bureaucratic priesthood directed by an autocratic head, often the king himself.

The pattern of growing apart and then finding new ways to stay coherent and in sync has also played a major role in the evolution of human social systems. Since human social systems are a type of society of mind, the kind of culture also evolves in step. Economic patterns, political systems, religious systems and general culture all evolve in conjunction with the main organizational structure.

The rise of integral civilization, therefore, is not just another small S-curve; it represents the beginning of a major new stage of development. It will include major new cultural patterns, economic systems and organizational structures. Even the briefest of examinations suggest that the next system of civilization must be:

More networked (intricate) than hierarchical

More collaborative and equitable than coercive and exploitative

More flexible and creative than rigid and controlled.

Some of the needed infrastructure is already in place. Computer networks, of course, allow grassroots citizenry across the globe to connect and self-organize like at no other time in history. There is also another side to this same trend. Information-age economics is creating huge pressures for a new kind of worker and with it a new kind of citizen. Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich (1991), for example, points out that the digital age is part of a larger economic switch from what he calls "high-volume" to "high-value" economics. The greatest profits are no longer made in the mass-production of uniform goods (high-volume industrialism), but in the high-quality customization of goods and services (high-value economics). The highest profits in software, for instance, come from customizing products to particular business needs and the fastest-growing truck, rail, and air freight businesses meet specialized needs for pickups and deliveries worldwide. Whether the industry is old or high-tech, service or manufacturing, the pattern is the same.

The hidden significance of a high-value economy is that it requires citizen-workers who, like the new society, must be more collaborative, creative, flexible and equitable (less self-centered). In 19th-century industrial days, companies needed factory workers whose chief characteristics were the ability to read and follow directions. The schools of the time served these needs well. They stuffed facts into young brains and taught the discipline, independence and competition that was thought to make all things good. Customization, on the other hand, requires people who can rapidly envision and build new things. Teamwork is essential as is the ability to think "outside the box" and to make connections across fields. Commitment to one another is often the saving virtue of a team and the saving virtue of a high-value leader is the knack of helping others be successful. Today, therefore, the irresistible needs of the high-value world are meeting the immovable object of modern education with an audible crash.

Educational Movements Already Aimed at the Integral Age

Obviously, K-12 education will play a pivotal role in the success of the new society. Four existing reform movements are already heading in the right direction: cooperative learning, service learning, community integration, and brain-based learning.

Cooperative learning-teaches the collaborative habits and skills which we so desperately need and have so largely lost.

Service learning-gives children guided experience in the real world of community, work and life. This helps them develop meaning, motivation and direction and gives them a reality hook upon which to hang the theories and abstractions they learn in school. It also helps them learn to wrestle with reality, a game which a learning society desperately needs all its citizens to play.

Community reintegration-A resilient, learning society requires intricate social fabric and a strong community commitment. Schools are a good place to start rebuilding community and social fabric now that a hundred years of modernity has boxed and streamlined us out of both.

Brain-based learning-shows us how to make learning easy and powerful by taking advantage of the way the human brain works. Since the human brain reflects the outcome of two million years of evolutionary cycles and pressures, it too reflects the importance of sociability, diversity, meaning, authenticity, warmth plus challenge and many dimensions plus many talents. Brain-based learning also helps us see why many traditional practices such as ranking tests, fragmentation of subjects, separation from community, excessive focus on competition (and too little on collaboration) all contribute to the decline in schools.

We all face the challenge of building an integral civilization because we will all pay the price[i] if we fail. There is a great deal to learn and even more to be worked out in the process of trial-and-error attempts. The sweet knowledge that gives wings to our feet, however, is that what integral society needs to become has much in common with the original tough-minded, free-but-compassionate, egalitarian, committed, creative, hardworking, democratic enlightenment dream that Americans in particular call their own. In short, pressure is building to become the kind of society that generations huddled masses have sought. Now we have a better light to see our way through the maze and more pressure to push our cause.


Goerner, S. (1999). After the Clockwork Universe: The Emerging Science and Culture of Integral Society. Edinburgh, Scotland: Floris Publishers.

Ray, P. (1996). The Rise of Integral Culture. Noetic Sciences Review. Vol. 37, Spring 1996, Sausalito, CA: The Institute of Noetic Sciences.


[i] Evolutionary pressures from inside and out make social reorganization a matter of "when" (not if). Transformation is also a matter of "or else." At major junctions, failure to reorganize leads a spiraling slide into multiple, major calamities.

About the Author

Dr. Sally Goerner is director of the Integral Science Institute and past president of the Society for Chaos Theory in the Life Sciences. She has advanced degrees in computer science, psychology, and nonlinear dynamics, and is one of the leaders of the international movement to integrate and apply the dynamics of Chaos and Complexity Theory to human systems and social change. She is author of After the Clockwork Universe: The Emerging Science and Culture of Integral Society, and Chaos and the Evolving Ecological Universe. Dr. Goerner's email address is

Copyright July 2000

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