The Shaman’s Body

photo by ronniedankelman flickr

“I believe that the individual of the future, like the individual today, faces the lonely task of transforming himself with or without the agreement and understanding of those around him.

He needs only to know transforming himself means coming up against internalized cultural edges (beliefs that are not his in origin). If this is to occur, he will have to disturb the status quo of the world around him as well.”

Arnold Mindell, The Shaman’s Body


Where Does Joy In Learning Come From?

When I was 7 years old, I read my first Laura Ingalls Wilder books.  I remember struggling with many of the words, like “soddie” and “half-pint” and the sense of danger that “Mr. Hanson” represented, but so extraordinarily captivating was the drama of these books that I persisted in sorting out the words, voraciously devouring them often when I didn’t really understand them.

Heroic adventure lay here, in the little sod house beneath the bank on Plum Creek.  It was the 1870s.  A family had come to an end in one place and needed to make a start in another one.  They had nothing.  They had each other.  For a seven-year-old girl growing up in a family that wasn’t very safe, in which Mom and Dad didn’t take very good care of the kids, in which love was inconstant and attention could be punishing or shaming, a story about relying on your wits, on your own good sense, and most especially your sisters, a dog, and Ma and Pa, was archetypally attractive.  I persisted with the words.

Page 1, On The Banks of Plum Creek

I found exemplars on every page.  From the bulldog Jack, who taught me the grace and magical presence of animals in our lives, and the way we human beings learn from them and are transported and reconfigured by them;

                                    Laura milking

To the father who recognized competence in a 7-year-old, and took her feelings and thoughts seriously;

To the mother who was thoughtful and wise, and who protected and treasured little girls;

To the little family who had to make it on their own…


To the illustrations by Garth Williams, who told an interviewer that he believed that “books, given or read, to children, can have a profound influence.”  For that reason he used his illustrations to try to, “awaken something of importance, humor, responsibility, respect for others, interest in the world at large.”

To the magic of a prairie, and flowers that sang their glory, morning glories, on the roof of the little house.

“All around that door green vines were growing out of the grassy bank, and they were full of flowers. Red and rosy pink…and wide open as if they were singing glory to the morning. They were morning-glory flowers.”  –On The Banks of Plum Creek  

The pages filled me with lust for adventure, and longing for what I did not have.  Without realizing it at all then, and not until many decades later, this story became the narrative of my life, and has become the story of my life, calling out to me archetypally in ways that I did not understand at all, but was drawn to with incredible power.

Later, as a feminist critic and reappraiser, I read critiques of gender roles and nationalism embodied in these pages…

-Anita Clair Fellman, Little House, Long Shadow: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Impact On Amerian Culture (2008)

But to me then, the books were simply captivating.

And so my friend Audrey and I, the girl next door and my best friend, spent the next several years creating our own soddie house on the banks of the creek where we lived.

We worked tirelessly.

We transformed a mulberry bush into our sod house, and created a whole camp of white-washed walls and pretend fire places.

We made a dam in the stream and raked and “planted” our fields.


We went from suburban middle class girls, to Ma and Pa passionately creating a new life on the prairie.

We become Pa and Ma.

It was one of the most joyful and passionate learning experiences of my life, and the years we spent devoting ourselves to this project, and reading avidly about prairie life and the lives of Laura, Alamanzo and all the Ingalls clan, became a template for passionate research on attractive and obscure topics of great emotional and spiritual resonance.

During this early learning adventure, we were never supervised by an adult, had no learning goals attached to our reading or knowing, and our activities rarely had productive outcomes.  We were obsessed, productive, happy.

Where does joy in learning come from?

The Inevitable Revolution

The revolution is here.  Bring on the revolution!

In what may be one of the most comprehensive, balanced, clear-eyed descriptions of the educational revolution we are currently slashing through, Allan Collins’ and Richard Halverson’s Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology (Teachers College Press 2009), based on the authors’ history of education reform course they taught together at Northwestern, describes better than almost any book I’ve read what the new world of education–as opposed to schoolingmay look like in the future.  Miguel and Rosa, a Mexican American couple in LA who are concerned about the negative environment of their local elementary school, decide to homeschool their two girls using inexpensive laptops, neighborhood networks, and a curriculum devised by a Mexican American educational association; high school students get the credits and coursework they need from Colorado Online Learning or Florida Virtual School, without ever setting foot in a conventional high school building (as hundreds of thousands are now doing); Media Bridges, a community media center in Cincinnati provides access to online media for the neighborhood and acts a learning center for adults of all ages.

Without the usual sense of personal vitriol and working through their own issues, the authors lay out a straightforward, compelling case that we are involved in an educational transformation the likes of which we have not seen since the last educational revolt in the mid-nineteenth century, when Horace Mann traipsed around New England on horseback proselytizing for common, compulsory schooling for all.


Not requiring horseback proselytizing, the KNOWLEDGE REVOLUTION is happening before our eyes, right now, whether we recognize it or not.

“People around the world are taking their education out of school and into homes, libraries, internet cafes, workplaces where they can decide what they want to learn, when they want  to learn, and how they want to learn.  These stories challenge our traditional model of education as learning classrooms.  These new learning niches use technologies to enable people of all ages to pursue learning on their own terms”  (p. 3).

With the clarity and attention to the evidence that only years of teaching a course on the subject can give you, Collins and Halverson describe the inevitability of the new era, a revolution brought on by the invention of new tools. “[The internet] and computer…greatly extend the power of the ordinary mind in the same way the power tools of the Industrial Revolution extended the power of the ordinary body” (p. 11).  As personalized, customized, just-in-time, interactive education become the new model for learning for citizens and students, the decoupling of education from schooling transforms the landscape.  It changes just about everything.

If a customized local learning network offers a viable alternative to the neighborhood elementary school; high school students can get credit for coursework without attending high school; and exorbitantly expensive, four-year residential colleges and universities no longer guarantee high-status employment and advancement, then why are we in the game?  Regular citizens, non-revolutionary folks, plain-thinking sensible people are increasingly wondering whether the hierarchical, batch processing, mass production, certified-at-school industrial model actually makes sense in our new world.  Signs of the revolution are everywhere, and cracks in the foundation of the mass production model of education grow more glaring everyday.


This presents terrible dilemmas for the conventional schools, which are built on a model of information scarcity, and their legitimacy to certify knowing.  With our new networking tools, and new access to information, who defines knowledge, how it is produced, and who is authorized to certify it, are increasingly up for grabs.  (The book describes a 15-year-old boy who becomes one of the most popular legal advisors at an online law site because of the clarity and straightforwardness of his answers to legal questions.)  New ways of knowing–interactive, networked, organized by communities of interest, are constantly changing.  Fluid, lifelong learning poses fundamental threat to modal classroom practice in the Industrial model.  Information abundance is the enemy of control.

Back in the classroom, with these new tools come new assertions of independence from learners, who simply don’t need old-fashioned kinds of command and control classrooms and teachers, and who are skeptical about the paradigms of knowledge built into hieracrichcal model. “Young people are becoming less and less willing to learn what somebody else thinks is best.  They want to decide what is of value to them.  They are beginning to demand that they decide what they need to learn.  [Technological] enthusiasts believe that the ultimate effect of customization technologies will be to break the lockstep of school curricula”  (p. 17).   As education decouples from schooling, and the learner, along with his or her community, “design” the courses of instruction, instead of being imposed by the state, formerly docile consumers will walk away from the old schoolhouse, no matter how attractively it is reconfigured, and no matter how classroom instruction is tarted up for more appeal.


This loss of control poses terrible dilemmas for educational institutions, but is especially difficult for teachers. “Schooling is built on the notion that the teacher is an expert, whose job is to pass on his or her expertise to students.  The legitimacy of traditional classroom instruction rests on the teacher’s expertise as the source of legitimate knowledge…Computers act to dilute the authority that teachers have in classrooms, especially the authority over what constitutes legitimate knowledge” (p. 44, 41).  Because teachers have been rewarded and expected to, “share their expertise, in environments where technology is used heavily…there are strong institutional and professional pressures that make giving up this control feel like dereliction of duty” (p. 42).  “Teachers need this authority in order to justify why schoolwork is important for student to succeed in life.  Computers can only serve to undermine their authority further.” As the authors reflect, “There are deep incompatibilities between the demands of the new technologies and the traditional school” (p. 6) that cannot be easily or superficially resolved.  We are at a crossroads,  whether we acknowledge it or not.

Those dependent on the institution for employment as a way of life cannot help but react with panic, condemnation, and pain.  Or as one teacher at a conference I recently attended asked:  “What will we do with all the teachers we don’t need anymore?  What are they going to do?”

While the book is quick to say that great teachers do much more than simply command and control, the problem of how the teaching profession redefines itself, and understands new lifeways and new definitions of the work, is increasingly the talk of forward-thinking practitioners.

But the challenge to the very heart of the insitution remains strong, vigorous, constant.  It is not going away.


Schools have repelled revolutions before of course; their structures are especially designed for it.  The K-12 institution of schooling is particularly robust, an accreted set of interlocking, self-sustaining practices, structures and beliefs that have managed to repulse threats in the past.  “When complex systems are in equilibrium, changing one part of the system usually results in other parts pushing back to restore the initial balance” (p. 34).  The usual responses to innovation in school have been condemnation of the new technology, to defang and co-op it; or to marginalize or “boutique” it–all responses to the changing world of the learner that can be witnessed in education blogs everyday.  But the profound cultural and social incompatibilities between the old world of knowledge and learning and the new one, make simple co-opting of the technology, or marginalization of it, difficult, Collins and Halverson emphasize.  The skills teachers had and have are less desirable, and the environments in which they exercise them more poorly adapted to contemporary culture.

In a last gasp of empire, educational policy makers, state boards of education, teachers unions, and other authorizing bodies have responded to these threats by tightening definitions of what it does–ironically just as technology has OPENED the world to the learner.  “The standards movement can be seen as a conservative check on rampant customization” (p. 94) this text notes.  The wind shear for learners is intense, as one student recently commented to me, “More and more of what I have to do in school looks nothing like what I’ll be asked to do when I’m working.”

More rigidly codifying standardized bodies of knowledge, more intensive and punitive standardized testing, more arduous graduation requirements, and more insistence on school-based certification, are desperate responses by an imperiled insitution, one that fears for the very heart of its legitimacy.    Like the clueless British Parliament passing the Stamp Act on weary colonists, the standards movement is an attempt to narrow options for teaching and presentations of learning, and to measure learning through standardized tests, just as consumers have begun to figure out that they can get what they need in terms of learning without schooling.  “To the degree that technology encourages students to go off on their own direction, it is in direct conflict with the standardized assessment…So it in the interest of schools to strictly limit the use of computers…” (p. 45).  Learners of all kinds are simply going to walk away from the institution as we know it, as empire clings more vociferously to old definitions of what it does.


Although a little schizophrenic on whether or not schools are going to continue to exist for much  longer in their present form (the book suffers from two-author- syndrome, in which the authors contradict themselves on critical points), overall they say that we are stumbling and hurtling forward in a revolution that will increasingly dislocate education from schooling as we know it.

What will the revolutionized institution look like? Will it be an institution at all?  While we have glimmerings here, the real value of this book is describing where we are NOW:  the deep cultural and structural tensions between the old and new eras; the ways in which those associated with the institution cannot help but react with panic, condemnation, and pain; and how NCLB and the movement towards standards may be a last gasp of empire, an attempt to control what has fundamentally become uncontrollable–the way people learn.

Who will benefit from the revolution?  The authors don’t want to go on record too much about that, although at least they address this issue, unlike many technologists who can only see the upside of a new personalized learning era.  They describe the differentials in access to technology that are deeply a part of American society, and the construction of cultural capital as it relates educational attainment, and the tendency towards commercialization of educational options that ultimately tend to serve those who are most privileged and already connected to American culture.  They briefly unpack the vision of wholly personalized learning, which may overemphasize careerism and individualism, but given the highly competitive nature of most American classrooms, it is hard to see how serious a claim individualism is.  (Also, the new vision of education rests on interactivity and finding and creating communities of interest.)

Read this book.  It obviates the need to grind through many previous arguments about what is happening in education now, and is a platform to talk about what should happen next–what to do given the changing conditions for learning.

What are the new metaphors for schooling we need now?  How can we create a new story about education that can help people in the business make the transition?

That’s what I’m thinking about now.

Tweeting As Book Writing: 3 Books That Are Not Books

Dan Pink writes too much while waiting for his next plane?

I’m a huge Chris Brogan fan, and a Dan Pink admirer so when Chris did his video review of Dan Pink’s new book Drive I had to order it.  I’m always out talking about Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind.  So what’s not to like here?

Okay, so I ordered Dan’s “A great man is a sentence,” in hardback no less. (I was in an abundant, expansive mood.)  I also made the FATAL AMAZON ERROR of looking at “people who ordered” recommendations, and ended up ponying up for Seth Godin’s Tribes and Lynchpin.

Little, little book...

Okay, now I know am an English major from way back, and may have read a few too many 19th century novels.  But what the hell happened to writing a BOOK?

While Drive does rest on research, mostly well-known and rehashed from other places, at is heart is a really, really simple message:  we work harder at things that matter to us, and when we can measure our own progress and see we’re getting better.  There are old-school ways to “motivate,” through control and compliance, and there are new-school ways, that offer choice, mastery, and meaning. You got that?  Rise, repeat.  Throw in some anecdotes, sprinkled in abundantly to add pages, about “great” entrepreneurs and business leaders who are motivating in NEW AND DIFFERENT ways, fold in resources (basically annotated bibliographies of folks who form pillars of Pink’s thought), and you got the whole damn thing.  This is a book written in an airport waiting lounge, with an editor texting Pink about his overdue set of chapters.  This is proof to me that no matter how fluent and well-lubricated a bunch of thoughts-on-a-napkin can be, this kind of writing, and thinking, takes you only so far.  Pink needs to get off the road and gestate a little.

But that book’s the heavy stuff.  Pink’s Drive is a positive telephone book of detail and theory in comparison to Seth Godin’s Tribes and Lynchpin.  The chapters are LITE in the extreme, scaled to a 15-second YouTube attention span,  not even extensive blog posts, but little puffs of thinking, somewhat enigmatically  and mysteriously arrayed.  YOU CAN BE A LEADER in the brave new world of social marketing.  Don’t think you’re a cog in the wheels of the machine.  Reject the industrial model.  Lead!  There’s a them and there’s an us, and we are us.  Be us.

While the underlying message is seemly populist, there’s a bit of the king in Godin’s persona.  He is master of a dual message:  I’m better than you, but every little scared soul out there can be a leader.  (Just like me!  I’m a lynchpin!)  He’s simultaneously aloof and populist, selling timeworn ideas in seemingly new-thinking packages.  He puts us down while he tantalizes, chastising while building you up.   “Twenty percent of the population now uses Facebook.  Many of those users have the false impression that joining a group somehow matters.  It doesn’t.”  You better listen to me, he says, because–wait for it–human beings want, and need to belong to tribes.  We create them.  You should lead yours.  I’m leading mine.  151 very lightly filled, condensed, small-trim-size pages of about becoming the leader you were meant to be.

It’s not a book, it’s a latte.  And that would be non-fat, tall, with lots of Sweet N Low.

Buy me, join my tribe.

Lynchpin (2010), Tribe’s sequal, by Seth Godin can be condensed to this: don’t follow the rules and you will be indispensible.  Table of Contents can be read in lieu of this book.

Tweeting as book writing.  How short can you be?

In some ways it is a mindfulness, ancient wisdom approach to social marketing business advice.  Say something with sufficient brevity, and grounded in such profound common sense, with a little pinch of enigma, the riddle, and a bit of a slap, and you’re golden.

The message is YOU matter.  Godin seems to say it in a way that American marketers and entrepreneurs find irresistible.

And if I bought these books, I am, by definition, part of the Tribe.  No more sheepwalking for me.

But should I have paid close to $15 bucks for these books?  I could have watched YouTube.  But being a tribe member, I was lead to it…