Self-Organized Learning: What it means and how it can work

“The premise of education is that we know what children need to know and that we can help them learn it” – Sir Ken Robinson (Ted Talks Education, 2013)

Our hope for education is always that our schools are helping people learn faster, better and the right content.  School content is designed to be the kinds of things that students might not otherwise learn on their own, but are deemed significant to life in the modern world.  Things like language literacy, math proficiency, and an understanding of the value of history, art and scientific method nearly make it on everyone’s list of what school’s should help student’s learn.

To improve student outcomes in any/all these subjects, we commonly believe, requires more and more teaching.

This premise is incomplete. 

Schools are systems. They have inputs (time, money, energy, heart, food, books) and outputs (engaged upstanding citizens, am I right?) stores of resources and information feedback loops. It’s not unlike a garden, growing under the right conditions.

All systems (schools and gardens included) land somewhere on a spectrum between rigid structure and total chaos (Fig. 1).  This is based on systems characteristics such as the rules and policies that govern the system, the purpose that it is trying to achieve, and the interplay of all individual parts (students, teachers, staff, parents, boards, etc.) within the system.

Education systems are just one type of what are sometimes also referred to as “complex adaptive systems“.  They are “complex”, with many pieces working in concert . They are “adaptive” because each individual,  the organization as a whole and the environment in which it exists, change constantly. There are similarities between how all complex adaptive systems function and change. (See Dana Meadows for more on this subject.)  

Structure Vs. Chaos
Fig. 1: All systems land somewhere on this spectrum between absolute structure and complete chaos.

The more-chaotic school models – like the Brooklyn Free School or Democratic Schools –  operate where learning is less directed and less controlled from “above” in a hierarchy or central office, and are designed to favor student-directed or teacher-directed learning.  Learning is not necessarily less expected at these schools, nor less achieved, just less standardized and regimented.

Most schools naturally fall somewhere in between the polar ends of this spectrum.  For example: the leadership in what we may consider a highly-structured school district simply cannot know or control everything that happens in every one of their classrooms everyday – how could they?  Though some may preach a level of standardization, one simply cannot achieve it absolutely in a school (any complex adaptive system, really.)

The same is true with chaos: any organization built on absolute chaos cannot function with any great value.  Direction, or a “mission” are natural principlesof organizing that provide the most basic structure. “Why does this organization exist? What is your goal?”.  This is why, in the modern age, anarchy and autocracy are both in decline in favor while democracy is on the rise.  Democracy, or similar governments designed to exist in the middle-ground between structure and chaos, is preferred because is has direction, but allows its citizens a certain amount of “self-organization” (i.e. people have the freedom to choose the direction and parameters of the system).

Enter Dr. Sugata Mitra, who is experimenting with self-organized school systems:

Moments after receiving the prestigious TED Prize, professor Sugata Mitra shared this vision for an education system where learning is not necessarily the product of more teaching, but:

“the product of … self-organization … if we allow the educational process to self-organize, then learning emerges.  It’s not about making learning happen, it’s about letting it happen” – Sugata Mitra

A school in the cloud, where people teach and learn whatever they choose.  Counter to a highly structured education system, Mitra’s self-organized system might seem too chaotic to even be called a system.  How will we know that anyone is really learning anything of significance?

Mitra’s project, whether we agree on it as a viable, mass education solution, brings us back to consider: how powerful really is the natural process of learning?  To what degree can chaotic, unregulated, student self-direction replace the rigid structure of schools, and be beneficial? Will a cloud-based school serve the students of the future as well?

Like it or not, everyday schools could consider how they might capture value from some “self-organizing”.   Consider how the business world has done the same.

The 2004 Harvard Business Review article “Get Self-Organized” opens with the sentence “A little chaos goes a long way”.   The author, David Ticoll, suggests that businesses can gain certain value by allowing certain aspects of their organizations or services self-organize.  Examples range from Linux software and the open-source movement, wikipedia’s ability to dominate the encyclopedia market, and catering products to you based on your previous purchases.  Customers have palpable control over the content these services provide for them.  They get to impact their experience in meaningful ways and that makes all the difference.

I predict a greater degree of self-organization in the school system in reaction to the failings of rigid top-down efforts for control.  Stanford education researcher Linda Darling-Hammond indicates in her book The Flat World and Education (2010, Teachers College Press) that the way to a new paradigm for education in the United states will rightly include (among many other exceptional points) a (1) reduction in enforcement of procedures and an increase in school capacity and a (2) decrease in managing for compliance with an increase in managing for improvement.  Both of these ways forward suggest a “freeing” of schools from former rigidity and structure, to embracing a new direction, with a hint of chaos.

In summary: All organizations exist on a spectrum between structure and chaos, depending on their rules and values.  Organizations that embrace chaos and self-direction – at least in select ways – have found success in adapting to a fast-changing world. Schools and businesses alike can find value in thoughtfully decreasing rigidity and increasing chaos by letting their customers, students, staff or teachers self-organize certain aspects of their work and learning.  Indeed, making the most of the natural process of learning – and allowing the systemic chaos necessary for it to work – is to create space for otherwise unseen possibilities for improvement.

A Manifesto for Environmental Education

This post originally appeared on the Blog belonging to the Minnesota Association for Environmental Education. It is reprinted here, because I’m the author. Pretty sweet, huh? – John


The Significance of the Earth and the Power of People: 

A Manifesto for Environmental Education

By: John Smith, MAEE Board of Directors, President, Advocacy Chairperson

“I’m a lumper, not a splitter” said the woman in glasses, with a ripe grin. It was Molly Phipps, an MAEE Board Member, at the Annual Retreat. We were talking about new ideas – in some cases our wildest dreams – and sorting them into categories. She explained, “some people prefer to split” ideas into detailed, unique units, where she (and I, it turns out) prefer to “lump” them together (perhaps in hopes of limiting the amount we have to memorize).

We take the retreat every year as a means to discover new possibilities for our volunteering and to rejuvenate somewhere away from the distractions of everyday life. There are so many good stories from the retreat: Making ideas rain on Callie Recknagel, delicious grass-fed beef roast from Shannon Judd, “Mapping the EE Economy”, duking it out over Settlers of Catan … this is Soul Food for environmental educators.

Since the retreat, I have realized something about myself: I am a serial-“lumper”. And the longer I teach about the environment, the further I have attempted to lump the message of my every presentation, class or program; whittling them down to the heartwood. This process led me, recently, to write two lines across an entire page in my journal: We are all connected” and “We are all powerful”.

This is what environmental education is all about.

The language of the 1977 UNESCO Tblisi Declaration is often cited as “the definition of EE” (it was written before household computers existed). It reads, in summary:

“Environmental education is a learning process that increases people’s knowledge and awareness about the environment and associated challenges, develops the necessary skills and expertise to address the challenges, and fosters attitudes, motivations, and commitments to make informed decisions and take responsible action” 

Since Tblisi, our world has continued to see greed and destruction prevail over balance and care, along with a growing struggle for the resources of life. Has this definition served us well? I’m not arguing that it hasn’t – or that a better definition would. The completeness and precision of the 
Tblisi Declaration is admirable, but useless as when you need a rallying cry; it’s rigidity fits well in a text book, but defies the very core of movement building: it doesn’t move you. I wonder, if the Tblisi Declaration had happened in 2014, what would it say? If we made afresh the perception of environmental education, what would it look like? I don’t know the answers, but I think it’s at least worth revisiting after nearly 40 years.

This kind of thinking is intimidating and scary for some (me too). But we need it now more than ever. And it’s greatly to our advantage to begin today.

What I mean by that is simple: The two core concepts of environmental education (“we are all connected” and “we are all powerful”) can put EE at the forefront of environmental and social movements. That’s because all of the different social and environmental movements are finally coming together under a “movement of movements”. And as they do this, there is a great need for inter-movement education. How do you teach new, eager social activists, concerned about environmental justice, about the realities of caring for the Earth? Or the connection between our water and our land use? Our fires and our air? And what would you learn from them in return? These questions are becoming more and more significant everyday as our issues become more and more clearly linked.

We are witnessing the great lumping – the coming together of not just ideas, but entire social movements worth of vision and direction. It is going to open up to us great resources and potential to advance environmental education. Here are two solid sources to back up this claim and I would recommend them as required reading for environmental educators:

  • In the 2013 Language and Conservation Memo from the Nature Conservancy, a national survey of 800 people, it was made clear that the future of the environmental movement is in humanizing our message – emphasizing the impacts on human communities when we pollute or deplete. Another way of looking at this is that the environmental movement is limited by the condition of society. How can we seek to protect the environment when faced with human suffering, homelessness, poverty, and more? Is not social justice an act of creating the conditions for learning and self actualization (to steal from Abraham Maslow)? The next great leap in conservation messaging and strategy will be to hitch environmental efforts and human efforts, bolstering both.
  • While at the same time, the 2013 report “More Than we Imagined”, by the Ear to the Ground Project, an in-depth interview series of over 100 social justice leaders around the country, described how the work of environmentalism, education advancement, and social justice all collide to form the fertile soil of future growth in programming and activism. What is EE for the 99%? What is Occupy EE? How do we disrupt the education system with outdoor play and nature experiences? These are some of the questions I have been asking myself.

Our work is connected to all of the great social movements happening on Earth right now. People from the Ear To The Ground Project call this the “movement of movements”. We are working to build what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “Beloved Community”, expanding our ethical arena to include new communities of people and the more-than-human, in the words of Anthony Weston. Environmental education is connected to the “Movement of movements” – because we are all connected and we are all powerful.


My vision for the future of environmental education

These are some of my predictions and dreams for the future of EE:

  • I predict that as schools and teachers get more of the freedom and support they need, they will choose to do more environmental education. Better, equitable schools, that drive teacher excellence and creativity, combined with the reduction of No Child Left Behind era standardization will bode well for our cause.
  • I predict that early childhood education will be the next great leap in environmental education – nature preschools are not entirely a new thing (where do you think the term “kindergarten” comes from?) but they have the flexibility to play and experiment with new kinds of EE that we haven’t yet imagined. 
  • I predict that increased use of screens/technology in the classroom will continue to prove themselves as barriers for environmental education in the short term. We have to lead by example in our work and home life if we really ever expect others to seek time outdoors and maintain a healthy balance between time sitting, latent, in front of a screen and time spent in the woods, backyard or pounding the pavement and playing outside. We have to hack the process of environmental education to make it the most convenient choice for how we spend our time. We have to make time outside as addicting as video games.
  • I dream about an education system free of bullying, hate, hunger and homelessness; where every child has what they need to develop holistically and to join society not only as independent people but as an interdependent unit, contributing to the health and wellness of the whole world. Environmental education can be an answer to addressing the roots of these issues in schools. Indeed it is already is widely accepted as a form of therapy, recreation, personal and group development.
  • I dream about the evolution of our organizations and political possibilities to address new challenges with new models that will out compete the hierarchies and ineffective programs of the past. Humanity has been re-imagining the organizational tools that we use in ways that consistently surprise me. What will environmental education look like in 10, 20 or 30 years? Who will be doing it? There is so much we have left to learn.
  • I dream of reclaiming environmental education and defining it to meet the needs of our changing world. It’s up to us to add to and make afresh our messaging and framing as the 21st century rolls out before us. Your definition of EE matters. Your EE experience matters. I reclaim the definition as such: We are all connected, and we are all powerful. What is yours? Let’s host a summit – “Tblisi Revisited” –   and spill all our love and care for this movement into a new declaration that fits the work of front-line environmental educators, not only politicians and academics.

What does this mean for environmental educators?

These are some guiding thoughts that may help us over the next 10 years:

  1. Draw energy and ideas from the work of others. We are not alone in building alternative models for education and trying to complete the pallet of to what children are exposed. Cross-pollinate!
  2. Stay together. Though we are connected to the greater movement, we have unique skills and unique power to contribute. Let’s continue to build a strong environmental education community in Minnesota. Let’s have fun together, learn from each other, support one another in our work for the greater good.
  3. Work for change. We have grown up as a community by delicately dancing near to advocacy and radicalism – now is the time to recognize how much good we could do, together, for the causes, organizations and society we believe in by learning from societies greatest change-makers. Nelson Mandela, one of modern history’s great agents of change, passed away in 2013. This is one of his more enduring quotes: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

What does this mean for MAEE?

The revolution starts at home. MAEE is stepping up it’s connectivity to membership with events, dinners, social media and more. Our annual conference (This year’s theme: “Rooted in Diversity”) is diving directly into the heart of the beast by exploring environmental education in a changing world. We are also:

  • Forging new partnerships (with YEP-TC and the MN Green Schools Coalition, among others). We want to form a partnership with you. Don’t you believe me? Contact us and we’ll prove
  • Experimenting with new group strategies as a Board, re-imagining our meetings, work, goals, online presence and more.
  • Innovating our heritage programming, like the Minnesota’s Environmental Education Conference, our EE news communications, and efforts to convene volunteers in service of the EE community.
  • Mapping the EE economy in Minnesota, eventually charting not only the locations of every environmental education organization in the state, but taking a census of the number of jobs in the field. Watch for this in 2014!
  • Learning. We don’t know what we’ll find on the road ahead. It’s new territory. We’re excited to be on the frontiers of this exciting movement with you!

Environmental education is a part of a more complete model for education and society. We hope you will agree. If you do, then join the movement and help us build towards this vision by contacting MAEE for volunteer opportunities, volunteering for other EE organizations in MN, or by sharing nature with someone in your life. If it is within your means, MAEE and other local EE organizations would appreciate your financial or in-kind support as well.

Sincerely, and with gratitude,


John Smith

Education Program Assistant, Will Steger Foundation

Co-Leader, The Cave after school program at Rivers Edge Academy

Blogger, BrainNation

This is my vision for MAEE and the environmental education movement. What’s your vision? I would love to hear it – and I know I’m not alone in that. Consider sharing your vision with me at: or share with Minnesota’s environmental education community as a blog post or on our Facebook and Twitter accounts with the hashtag: #Environmentaleducation

These views are my own and not necessarily shared by everyone on the Board, formally adopted as our organizations “vision” or even shared by anyone in our membership. Just so you know.

The School is Flat

A Year at Mission Hill – a series of short films about a pilot school in Boston where teachers have full autonomy – is an example of the kinds of experiments that will shape the future of education.  Find out what happens when teachers are given complete autonomy from an administration.  If you haven’t seen any of their episodes, I highly recommend starting from the beginning, here:

This school mimics experiments in other kinds of organizations to be flat, hierarchically-speaking, so as to be most nimble, democratic and transparent.  For example, check out this post and video from Huffington Post about the bossless-office: “Bossless Office? Companies Experiment with Non-Hierarchical Workplaces (VIDEO)“.

Lastly, I appreciate the insights of this fellow blogger Kim Farris-Berg at Education Evolving who wrote individual reactions and additional insight into each of the 10 videos in the series – which is soon to become a feature-length film “Good Morning Mission Hill”.

Reclaim Failure, Use it as Fuel

“That night our phone call came. They rejected us.” – Alexis Ohanian on one of his early startup efforts.

Enjoying a coffee in the lobby of the surprising ALoft Minneapolis I was suddenly forced to vandalism.  Or maybe it was robbery, it’s hard to say.  But I ripped a page out of the complimentary issue of USA Today sitting innocently next to the bar and jammed it in my pocket, avoiding eye contact with the front desk.  This article had my mind racing with connections.

Written by 30 year-old Reddit Co-Founder Alexis Ohanian, the clipping was titled “Millennials Turn Failure Into Fuel“.  The title reminded me of what the improv theater The Brave New Workshop says improvisation can teach us about incorporating imagination and change in any organization: Perceive Change as Fuel(from their book “Innovation at the Speed of Laughter: The 8 secrets to world class idea generation“.  This was idea #8.)  But there was one specific thing that Ohanian DID in the face of failure that excited me.

Ohanian described the pitfalls he and Reddit Co-Founder Steve Huffman found in the process of finding support for some early business ideas.  When it came to the idea for Reddit – one that was confronted with plenty of naysaying – he took each piece of criticism, such as “you are a rounding error compared to Yahoo!” (from a Yahoo! executive) and pinned them to his wall where he would see them everyday.  Failure was an everyday reality they could not escape.  The duo were rejected by the startup incubator Y Combinator, and then retooled their proposal, tried again, and were accepted.

He laments that coping with and deriving meaning from failure like this was not part of his schooling – nor is it exactly conventional in society.  (He seems to address this in-depth, for entrepreneurs, learners and leaders in the 21st century, in his best-selling book “Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century will be Made, Not Managed“.) I think that he is getting at a core issue with how we work and learn: the process is often as important as the product, but the product gets all the attention.  Or in his words:

“Failure should be an acceptable part of society.  This doesn’t mean failing out of school or slacking off at work.  It means doing something new, with the expectation that you’ll fail, but to persevere and keep learning along the way”. – Alexis Ohanian

I could relate. Getting an “A” was the ultimate goal of much of my school experience.  I was always focused on the “ends” and not the “means” to getting an A.  I’m beginning to learn that failure is the means to success; it is an important part of the process (especially in an iterative processes used in design-related projects).  How do we grade and build learning experiences that value a process vs. a product?

As for grading failure, there are some easy answers: Keep a focus on a student’s effort, time and energy, their change in performance over time and grade narratively (describing the process of an individual’s learning vs. simply the product) in addition to whatever letter-grading your institution already uses. (Paul Tough, acclaimed education writer of “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character“, wrote an excellent article in the NYTimes in 2011 about this very subject, attributing many success stories to character-traits and non-cognitive skills: “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?”)

Building a portfolio of work throughout an entire school year for my high-school literature and composition classes was an experience as rich in failure as any I have ever had in any school.  We wrote countless essays, critiqued each others’ and then rewrote and repeated the process. This system of self and peer critique made failure something we were all doing and sharing everyday.  It was useful.  Opening that same portfolio now, I can see the change from my early works until just later that same school year.  I won’t tell you they are phenomenal essays, but I was and am very proud of them.  I never once received full credit for my writing in this particular class – as with things in the adult world, there was always room for improvement.  The same could be true for our learning as adults and professionals.  Keep track of your portfolio!

Is failure always valuable? Or, are all types of failure the same?  Of course not.  The quickest way to fail is to do nothing. Dropping out of challenges is also a kind of failure, but it should be clear now that this is not the kind we’re getting at here.  That’s abandonment, and it has a time and place.  Failure for failure’s sake – like dropping out of “something” simply to go do “nothing” – is not recommended.  What good is it?  Where does it take you, without the tension of direction?  The value is in calculated failure – failure that results on the road to something you are striving for.  So, striving is also part of the equation too.

Failure for the sake of success is a golden idea, rich with the things that lifelong lessons are made of.  That’s what Ohanian and Huffman experienced.  And it’s not that hard to find it happening around us everyday.  For a time, I worked at a climbing wall and lead children in the process of selecting a place to climb and getting as much value out of their experience as they could.  In a single class we often would have children who could reach the top without sweating, and other who would be in tears only a few feet off the ground.  These were school groups, with parents and teachers in the crowd, who would commonly feel bad for the students who struggled and proud of those who could do it with little effort.  I asked them, quietly: which one do you think worked harder?  Which one showed more courage?  Was getting half-way to the top really a failure at all?  Was getting to the top quickly and without trouble, really that much of a success?  What if the wall went on for miles and miles and you could never reach the top – when would you consider it a success?

The answer seems to be that success is a process, not an end product alone.  It is a means of failing and striving; finding a limit and going past it; getting comfortable at a new height, and then going further than you think you can go.

By pinning harsh criticisms to his wall, Alexis Ohanian was reclaiming failure as something of value; a milestone in the road to success.  He reminds us to not let failure oppress you: pull it out of the shadows, pin it to your wall, and keep building. In the greatest growth periods of my adult life, repeated failure has been a central theme as I engaged in genuine challenges.  This was not because, as in climbing, we’re anywhere close to the top of the wall.  But because we’re on the wall and we are still moving, in our way, up.

This is broken. Now what?

Brokenness is everywhere and everything is broken for someone.  Many things are broken on purpose.  And still more are broken without our even knowing.  Seth Godin explains why, in what feels like a slightly improvised, humorous TedTalk:

Another take on brokenness, but from the architecture and design fields comes from Tom Fisher, the Dean of the College of Design at the U of MN.  Fisher’s latest book “Design to Avoid Disaster: The Nature of Fracture-Critical Design” digs into buildings and bridges that fail us and extrapolates universal lessons that are valuable for organizations, governments and beyond.  All of these things can lack resiliency and be more prone to brokenness by poor design.  Of course, this means good design can also prevent catastrophic brokenness too:

Brokenness is here and it isn’t going away.  As Seth Godin states in his blog post on brokenness:

“I did this talk about three years ago … I have to admit that very little in the way of progress has occurred as a result.” – Seth Godin

Everyone Needs a Champion

Rita Pierson believes one of the most significant things we can do as teachers is build relationships.

“Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like”

– Rita Pierson

She shares remarkable stories of student failure-turned-success and the endurance of classroom lessons, thanks to teacher-student relationships that she has witnessed.

Pierson doesn’t pretend like this is an easy thing to do.  She points out, however, to roaring applause on the TED stage, that this non-cognitive, not-testable action is what really is at the heart of the longest lasting lessons.

Not long ago, an Assistant Principal at one of Minneapolis’ public schools told me that the #1 thing he observes that teachers need more of is “connections” with students.  When asked why he thinks that is so difficult to come by he pointed to patterns of “teaching the curriculum” or “teaching to the test” as opposed to getting to know the audience and teaching them.  Could it be that “connections” are really what we are sacrificing when we push standardization and high-stakes testing too far?

Rita Pierson
Rita Pierson

This is all fine to theorize about, but, in practice, how do we make connections?  Especially when teachers at large schools see over a hundred students each day, each with a unique story, family background (just to name a few factors)?  Pierson shared a few successful examples she has witnessed:

  1. Care for their basic needs (food, hygiene, etc.)
  2. Get to know their background and family (home visits)
  3. Get to know them (listen to them)
  4. Lift them up (even if you don’t like them)

(For a few more suggestions, see this letter on building connections by professor H. Richard Milner IV of the Peabody College at Vanderbilt University)

If the human connection is as powerful as they suggest, then could it be that our biggest, best, education tool is hiding right beneath our nose: a smile?   Be the champion of others and you give them the power to give and do better for you, the community  and the world.

The Dilemma of Schools

Linda Darling Hammond is one of the most looked-to education researchers in the world.  She works at Stanford and her latest book, “The Flat World and Education” was voted by Education Next readers as the 2nd most important education book of the last decade. Here she is speaking in Sydney about education in the United States:

 (You can download her powerpoint slides here)

The Dilemma of Schools: The skills that are easiest to teach and test are also the ones that are easiest to digitize, automate and outsource.”

– Linda Darling-Hammond (3:39 in the video above)

Darling-Hammond is driving at one central point: if our schools are meant to bring about opportunities in this changing economy, they must adapt to meet the challenge.  She explains that “non-routine interactive skills and non-routine analytic skills are the two types of tasks that have risen in importance in our economy”.  Certainly these are  not the dominant skills taught in the past 100 years of American schooling – but they will be the skills necessary to be successful in the next 100.

She goes on to to add that we need to prepare people to be “motivated and self-reliant citizens; risk-taking entrepreneurs, converging and continuously emerging professions tied to globalizing contexts and technological advances”.

Linda Darling-Hammond (source:
Linda Darling-Hammond (source:

“Teach less, Learn more” is the motto in Singapore, a renowned global leader on the PISA testDarling-Hammond explains.  She continues that, in Singapore they are “clearing out the curriculum to provide more space for deep learning” where assessment happens by the teacher and allows for more collaboration, revisions and higher-order learning.

Her explanation of the PISA test results:

“The nations that are doing best in the international horse-race are those that have invested in a strong equity component … and they have made strong investments in the quality of teaching”

Whether or not you care for the horse-race,  many education advocates can find common ground caring for the future of our youth and the design of our education system as heartily as Linda Darling-Hammond.