Adapted from a manuscript draft of Creative Systems Theory:

“To be a teacher is to be a prophet, because you are not preparing kids for the world you grew up in, nor are your preparing kids for the world of today. You are preparing kids for a world you cannot imagine.”
—Gordon Brown, MIT Dean of Engineering

Defining Questions

What is the purpose of education (an eternal question that requires fresh answers)? How might our thinking about that purpose change in a culturally mature world?

How do we best educate for the challenges and changes Cultural Maturity predicts? For example, what does it mean to teach for a world in which ongoing change means there are often more questions than good answers? In which making sense of what may lie ahead has an importance not known before? Where the critical questions most all have major ethical/moral components? Where understanding systemic relationships will necessarily be as important as understanding particulars?

How do we best understand human diversity—learning and personality style diversity, ethnic and gender diversity, age diversity. What are the implications of such diversity for how we educate and for the role of education in society’s future?

The future

Education sits center stage with regard to all of Cultural Maturity’s changes. Our success with any of them will depend our success with the future tasks of education. We can’t predict exactly what the future will bring. But if the concept of Cultural Maturity is accurate, we can say a great deal about what it might mean to educate for the best of futures, with regard both to what we teach—education as content—and how we teach—education as process.

Education’s progress thus far presents a mixed bag. Education is one of the places where we find the most heart-felt commitment to larger societal wellbeing. And innovation, much of it closely aligned with the vision of Cultural Maturity, has had an ongoing and respected place in education throughout the last century.

At the same time, education has often provided less big picture leadership than we might hope. A major piece is not the fault of schools. I would list the low priority modern culture gives the education of its children among our time’s most damning Transitional Absurdities (and given the essential role education must play in any kind of healthy future, one of the most critical to rectify quickly). The educational environments we provide for our children are often inadequate by any standards, much less the more creatively demanding requirements of culturally mature education. (The simple fact of thirty-five students for every teacher in the average public school classroom makes much of the innovation the future calls for exceedingly difficult.)

Educational tradition can also get in the way of needed changes. Education’s intellectual roots can work against the incorporation of multidisciplinary inquiry or approaches that apply multiple intelligences. And our traditional separation of moral education from public education makes it very tricky to give moral/ethical concerns the centrality of focus effectively preparing for the future will require.

Education’s Question of Referent

Education’s Question of Referent is where we must start if we want to make sense of Cultural Maturity’s implications for education.  In a sense education’s purpose has always been the same—and always will be. As T.H. White put it in The Once and Future King, the purpose of education has been to “learn how the world wags and what wags it.” Education’s eternal task is to teach the skills and sensibilities needed to live aware and productive lives. But Cultural Maturity reminds us that what an aware and productive life requires is not always the same—and certainly not the same today.

The “right and timely” referent for modern western education has been to provide the literacy required for democratic governance and the skills needed in an industrial age.  Go back farther and we find the moral bottom line of Medieval monastic education, or, even farther, the knowledge of ritual, hunting methods, and nature’s ways essential to tribal existence.  Each of these purposes was right for its time. And none are sufficient for the tasks ahead.

Cultural Maturity articulates the future purpose of education very succinctly—though in a manner that requires elaboration to be of value. The bottom line purpose of future education must be to foster the capacities needed to live in—and create—a culturally mature world.

Education’s Content

As far as content, this means as a start the acquiring of some very traditional skills. Learning that focuses on established knowledge—history, science, language arts, mathematics—should have no less a place in times ahead. Indeed we should find a depth and breadth of such knowledge increasingly essential—such is the raw stuff of mature understanding.

But it also implies the need for some very new skills and a fullness and maturity of perspective not before within our reach. Certainly it argues for bringing the future more fully into education’s picture. Education has emphasized what is and what has been.  I noted earlier that while we have all had classes on the past, few of us have had classes on what may lie ahead. If the task of our time is to assume a more conscious responsibility in the human endeavor, we need to teach in ways that better acknowledge possible future realities. Indeed, we need to make the basis for all we teach how it might affect the future. The present and the past become no less important in a culturally mature reality, but they derive their ultimate meaning through their relationships to what may lie ahead.

We should also see education giving attention to more specific, newly important understandings and skills. We can think of each of this book’s seven defining themes as contributing additional new pieces. If Cultural Maturity’s thesis is accurately, skills implied by each of our themes should in some way infuse  learning whatever the subject area,  Education for the future must prepare us to better tolerate and managing uncertainty, accept newly fundamental responsibilities, and better understand the workings of change. It must also help us develop a deep appreciation for systemic complexity, better appreciate limits, reengage aspects of ourselves that may have increasing importance in times ahead, and develop a newly conscious and sophisticated relationship to questions of truth of all sorts. These themes can be woven in age-appropriate ways into learning of every sorts—from a college class on leadership and government, to a high school English class, to a second grade segment on beetles.

New Information Technologies

Emerging information technologies have major implication for education at the level of both content and approach. At the content level, certainly education must not just draw on such technologies, it must address their use. The danger of a “digital divide” estranging major parts of populations is very real. At the level of approach, new information technologies, if used creatively and wisely, can serve as powerful catalysts for many of culturally mature education’s needed changes. We also confront that critical sense in which the digital revolution is two-edged. Education’s role with regard to media literacy will be key to a healthy use of information in the future.

The digital revolution will without question be a transforming force in education—and is already. Broad information access available with the Internet supports increasingly individualized learning. On-line education offers that any person might learn from the finest teachers in the world—and from any place in the world. And who knows what lies ahead. Present and future information technologies have the potential to turn the globe as a whole into an ever-more-vital learning (creative) system.

In the short run, this may cause some educators discomfort. In the same way that the democratizing power of the printing press challenged the church’s monopoly on knowledge and learning, the information revolution challenges formal education’s monopoly. The good news for educators is that the printing of books, rather than marking the end of religion, freed churches to do what they do best. Whether we like it or not, the future should teach us a lot—in ways both unsettling and exciting—about what formal education “does best.”

The Moral/Ethical Dimension

The new importance of the moral/ethical questions highlights another area of change with both content and process implications. It is noteworthy both because of its importance and because of the Capacitance and perspective engaging it effectively requires. Just as grappling with difficult questions of value must lie at the center of a meaningful life and a healthy future for the species, so it must lie at the core of future education. This will be a stretch for education. A strong role for ethics in education challenges the separation of moral education from intellectual education has been one of modern education’s basic tenets (a corollary to the separation of church and state).

At the least, culturally mature education requires putting questions of value forefront in any learning experience. It also means having the courage to acknowledge moral quandaries that may be beyond either teachers or students to resolve. And it requires more specific stretchings from each side of the moral divide. It stretches conservative educators to look beyond culturally-specific codes of right and wrong. And just as much it challenges more liberal teachers who might unquestionably embrace  diverse views to push for real answers that work in a real world.

New moral questions force education to be inquiry-based and responsibility-based—creative—at a level that before would not have been needed or possible.

Bridging Educational Polarities

Identifying and bridging conceptual and structural polarities helps summarize additional major pieces. Necessary bridgings extend from the mechanisms of learning to the structures of educational bureaucracy and the relationship of schooling to society.

Teacher and Student: A more mutually responsible teacher/student relationship directly encourages the kind of initiative, creativity, and responsibility future citizens will increasingly require. It also encourages an appreciation of diverse perspectives and learning styles, models Whole-Person relationship, and by supporting education as inquiry, helps make the educational process, separate from any answers, an antidote to today’s crisis of purpose.

Bridging between disciplines: That critical importance of multidisciplinary inquiry.  Education that bridges across disciplines encourages systemic thinking, stimulates contextual perspective by highlighting the different ways the same phenomenon may look from different conceptual vantages, and by encouraging big-picture thinking, brings attention to the future’s most defining questions.

Bridging intelligences: Culturally mature education is necessarily integrative not just in terms of content, but in terms of what we draw on in ourselves to address it.  The importance of drawing on multiple intelligences is gaining increasing acceptance in contemporary education. We also see the use of increasingly sophisticated hands-on, “experiential” methods. Such multi-model education supports a creative, exploratory relationship to learning—and to life, and makes learning work for a broader diversity of students (different students are most adept with different intelligences).

Bridging cognitive styles: Learning style differences present a related topic gaining new emphasis. Creative Systems Theory argues that we need to go further—to address underlying issues of temperament. The issue is not just that various learning approaches work best for different students, but that different students organize experience in specifically different ways. Learning about temperament differences is important not just for teachers, but as part of curriculum. Teaching students about learning/personality styles helps them understand their own (critical to both learning effectiveness and self-esteem) and to appreciate the richness that can come from collaboration between styles. Cultural Maturity argues for the importance of such collaboration in mature collective decision-making.

Young and Old:  The importance of “life-long learning” is increasingly recognized. When education is about learning established truths, it is appropriately for the young. When truths are in flux, and especially when education exists to serve the creating of new truths, education must be a life-long pursuit. In the end, mature education is about “learning how to learn” and applying this throughout one’s life.  Our educational resources must serve learning at all ages and provide opportunities for creative interaction between learners young and old.

Bridging school and society: We see a growing number of initiatives—such as “service learning”—that break down walls between schools and their communities.   Studies of people who end up playing significant social roles show that most experienced their greatest learning outside the classroom. This bridging links directly with that of young and old. We should see schools conceived of increasingly as community resource centers where people of all ages can go to learn and where projects benefiting the wider community are seeded and developed. A major part of how we measure the value of any social activity must be how it supports ongoing learning for society as a whole.

Traps In Educational Thinking

We need to approach any changes in education with care. Traps lie waiting even if our efforts come from the best of intentions. They can have us fall off of either side of the creative roadway. Efforts to address diverse learning and temperament styles illustrate. Critiques of standard educational approaches often argue that approaches are too rigid. A more accurate critique would note that they tend to work effectively for only a few kinds of learning—and for the twenty percent of students whose learning styles match that kind of learning. Step back and we see that the same applies to most attempts at more experiential/alternative approaches. A strong emphasis on experiential education works well for certain kinds of learning and for the twenty percent of students whose learning styles match that kind of learning. It is just a different twenty percent.

When our critiques and advocacies fall short, most often they do so because they are not adequately systemic. Historically we seen a back and forth between emphasis on more right-hand themes such “standards” and “back to basics” and more left-hand themes such as “experiential” and “student-centered” education. Culturally mature education affirms and challenges both tendencies, paints—and embodies—a larger integrative picture. With regard to whether an effort succeeds at being culturally mature, in the end (as with innovation in all spheres) we have to turn more directly to questions of how effectively it increases Capacitance and to the degree is supports culturally mature sensibilities.

Culturally Mature Education from the Get Go

In talking about predictions Cultural Maturity makes for education, I am frequently asked a question that provides both important practical guidance and further theoretical insight.  People want to know whether culturally mature approaches and content aren’t premature for young students. Might they be better reserved for graduate and post-graduate education?

The reality is almost the opposite. The pertinent maturity has less to do with personal development than evolving cultural context. Because young students are making fresh entry into that new context, their minds are often better structured to assimilate it and contribute to its creating. Personal maturity and Capacitance are obviously variables—often huge ones—but very often students are ahead of their teachers when it comes to changes in underlying cultural sensibility. For example, helping students to identify what in different situations for them seems most true (asking Questions of Referent) and noting the fact that different students may have markedly different preferences (learning to appreciate diversity and difference in perspective) can start on day one.

A Thumbnail Summary: Cultural Maturity predicts …

—that future education will combine top/down methods with approaches that emphasize student initiative and active inquiry. It will also treat learning as life-long process.

—that education will become more interdisciplinary and concern itself as much with questions of purpose, pattern, and future possibility as established knowledge.

—that education will put growing emphasis on differences in how we learn and know and the implications of both for effective decision-making.

—that education will draw increasingly on emerging information technologies while being always cognizant of the dangers as well as the possibilities such adjuncts to traditional learning present.

Thought experiments

The bottom-line purpose of future education from the perspective of Cultural Maturity is to foster the capacities needed to live in—and create—a culturally mature world. What capacities would you include?

Describe an educational environment designed to foster these capacities. Include in your description physical setting, curriculum, learning methodologies, the role of teachers and other “experts,” and relationships between learners. Does your picture change for learners of different ages, genders, cultural backgrounds, or personality styles?  Is it different for different learning content?

What happens if you make the system your learning design addresses not an individual, but a work team? What happens if you make it an organization? What happens if you make it humanity as a whole?