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Community Building: Dave Pollard - A Better Way

In A Better Way Dave Pollard poses a fundamental question: What can be done by each one of us to make our communities and our world a better place, a happier place? The idea behind A Better Way is to create a living document (i.e. - a collaborative document created by a community of interested people that evolves over time) that bridges the gap between the thinking and communicating of ideas about A Better Way toward the creation of a movement in which the experiences described in the document become everyday life. One of the key ideas in a A Better Way is that learning must become something more vibrant and resilient than our tradition educational conceptions of it...

In a comment I left, I mentioned the possibility of embracing the lives of real people who have overcome obstacles in their lives that blocked a path to a better way and have reached levels of achievement that can not only serve as inspiration, but as information and knowledge - authentic content that gives A Better Way vibrancy and a deep connection to our own unique practical realities of everyday life. By this I mean that we often read or converse with people that have inspiring stories, yet there seems to be a tendency to not move these stories into what we might say is our own living document - our own authentic lifestyle - our own authentic reality. So this begs the question, "How do we learn the things we value most?"

Models, Methods, Processes

A great deal of the intellectual scaffolding we carry around in our minds is oriented toward making models, methods and/or processes that are designed to lead to a desired outcome. In other words, we try to generalize and rationalize experiences into a form that helps us to map core capacities and capabilities for learning that help us to think and do. There is, of course, value in this but at the same time these models, methods and processes that we create are abstractions. For example, if we look at various kinds of models for, say, problem solving or decision making there is a noticeable tendency not to mention the names of real people in real situations and circumstances. This is not to say that these models lack utility. Yet, I can't help but think they are something less than the wide confluence of problem solving and decision making that we experience in everyday life.

For example, I have seen numerous models that are focused on the idea of problem solving. In a sense, these models have become the source of design and are often presented as something a person or group of people should adopt and apply in their own lives in order to become better problem solvers. The value in this is that some guidance is provided to the intended recipient (often a student or trainee) that they can use and apply in their own context. If, however, the problem solving model is the source of design, it naturally leads to the idea that the intended recipients are the object of its design. In other words, abstraction is given precedence over authenticity.

The thinking skills movement in education is quite notably for creating abstract conceptions of thought processes and "teaching" them as a skill to be acquired. Sometimes I have seen this approach linked to ideas such as empowerment, relevance, and individualization. While these thinking models have benefit, I would argue that instilling them in the minds of many is not a path to empowerment, relevance or individualization. Having the same thinking models installed in the minds of many is hardly a path to a better way.

Dave's opening paragraph is quite powerful:

Many of us, living in this world of unprecedented prosperity and wealth, somehow sense that there is something terribly wrong. Everywhere we look we see conflict, deprivation, violence, waste, suffering, greed, destruction, hatred. This document is an attempt to understand why this is, and what can be done by each one of us to make our communities and our world a better place, a happier place.

He's right. There is unprecedented prosperity in the world in unison with an unprecedented sense that something is terribly wrong. It seems that the more progress we make, the more miserable we become. We might even say that our increasing ability to solve problems has had the disastrous effect of making the world a more difficult place to live in.

For many years, I have seen education systems promote things like thinking skill, problem-solving skills, decision-making skills, lateral thinking, six thinking hats, critical thinking skills, creativity thinking skills, and so on. Yet if we look out into the world as it is, can we say that we are thinking better or are more creative? If we have taught students these thinking skills, etc., then why has education shown no significant improvement and, perhaps, we may argue that in the face of unparalleled technological advancement has even regressed? Why is it that there is a general sense of unhappiness with our lifestyles in the face of the ever increasing weight of intellectual models designed to make us something called smarter?

This leads us to one of the questions Dave asked above: Why is this? I believe in the possibility that because these models, ways of thinking, methods and processes are so completely devoid of any reference to authentic living that we delude ourselves in an ever increasing spiral of abstraction. Is it possible to master these models and processes and make the world a more miserable place to be? The answer is, of course, yes. Why? We forget to talk about our lives. In other words, where are the lives of real people in all
of this intellectual scaffolding we hold on to?


One of the issues is that our means of connecting with the underlying narratives of people's lives is quite immature. I do not use the word immature as a form of criticism but do wish to suggest that we could do a lot more to bring this connection to life.

Perhaps we could turn the source of design and the object of design upside down for a moment. In other words, a person's life experiences becomes the source of design and therefore a model, method, or process, that we can learn from. With respect to the ideas above, we might ask questions like:

  • How does problem solving revel itself in this person's life?
  • What are the critical and creative capacities that inspire and inform problem solving in this person's life?
  • How does the person match (or fail to match) these capacities and capabilities in their own authentic experiences?

Of course, there are many more questions we can ask, but the point is simply that the authentic experience of problem solving (or whatever) in a person's life as a source of design is, in my opinion, far more valuable and tangible that a generic abstraction. When we connect with people's lives we see the confluence that is problem solving, and this confluence is strikingly different that the neat, clean and often sterilized understanding of problem solving we see in over-generalized models. And this is a wonderful thing for it retrieves inspiration and motivation by reminding us that an individual life something far more profound and complex than a model we desire to implement.

In an email, Dave asked me to, "tell us what names to put with each value, and tell us how to capture and pass on their stories." It's an excellent and formidable response to my comment. My initial response, really a qualification, is that I don't know the names to provide, but I can share some names of people that, for me, continue to serve as important models for living to think about in relation to my own life.

Names of People

Throughout EDN I have made an attempt to share some of my thoughts about the lives of other people I find interesting and inspiring - but not just interesting and inspiring - critical, fundamental, and necessary. In the Explore entry there is a list of names under the heading of People that I find a resonance with.

Whether or not these lives can be attached to specific values in A Better Way is, for me, uncertain. But I can say that exploring the lives of other people for me is not an act of biographical endeavor. To be honest, I have little interest in treating a person's life as a historical enterprise, a form of entertainment, or a pleasant story to be enjoyed but unapplied. When I read about other people's lives, or have the opportunity to talk with them directly, I look for how they find happiness, how they remain resilient in the face of difficult and sometimes horrific circumstances, how they use their thinking as a vehicle for taking concrete action, how they overcome the emotional burden of feeling marginalized and find their own path to re-entry, how they converse with the underlying mystery of living. This may sound somewhat analytical, but it really isn't - it's an orientation to trying to embrace people's experiences.

Now, in school, we treat biography as if it were a mere fact of history - at least that's my take on it. The fullness and depth of a person's life is often denigrated into a pursuit for facts, information and knowledge. The linkage to our own life and the community of lives in our world is often illusive if not invisible - but it is there. This is not insignificant, for if we think about having our minds and sensibilities immersed in this facade of abstraction we, in ourselves, come to be the objects of abstraction. We know, somehow, inside that how we are being educated has little to do with what we are learning. And perhaps one of the end effects of schooling, quite apart from the information proposed within it, is that we become aloof from the confluence of everyday life.

If we briefly have a look at Stephen Biko's life, we are immediately presented with a model for A Better Way. This is a better way of monumental and heroic proportions that may seem quite removed from our own reality. But it isn't, and finding ways of integrating the spirit, mind and heart of Stephen Biko into our owns lives is to pay honour to his life. What he faced, as horrific as it was, is not as far
removed from our own experience as we might think - unless we denigrate his life into historical fact.

Self-organization poses an interesting conundrum. We aspire to talk about it, develop principles for it, and create models and methods to achieve it. Yet, even here in a domain that clearly targets something called self we often see little self in it. If we use the lens of self-organization to look at the life of Stephen Biko through - we see a monumental and profound exercise in self-organization. Self-organization is something we should really be seeking to explore and discover, rather than codify and classify.

More recently, I wrote an entry called Genocide of the Mind: Resilience as Interaction that captures, for me, an important aspect of finding a better way. The writer, Kathryn Lucci-Cooper, describes her experiences trying to manage her way through unfamiliar cultural territory:

I found myself competing in world of people who could not understand the language of my thoughts. A people controlled by material wealth and enslaved by issues of time. I was compelled to conform or fail.

This captures a immersion into problem solving that defies containment by a single model. In addition, we can also see that we need not simply point toward the lives of the famous or well known as sources for design. Although Kathryn may not be as recognizable as Stephen Biko, this in no way devalues how she can help to inform us. They are equals.

People's lives as the source of design

Many of us, living in this world of unprecedented prosperity and wealth, somehow sense that there is something terribly wrong. - Dave Pollard

Perhaps we have placed too much emphasis on generalization and abstraction over the complexity and mystery of living. If we come to believe that our models can hold up under all or even most circumstances, I believe we are living a delusion. A delusion that can come back to cause discomfort and unhappiness. It is not so much that generalized models are in and of themselves a problem, but it is, perhaps, that we have become too close to them and biased by them. The very need to ask ourselves the question, "How do we capture the essential experiences of another person's life so that we can use that to build a better way for ourselves?" seems to indicate that we have already forgotten something. It is a question I continue to be interested in.

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