How to find too many cool schools (SAW Challenge #1)

There must be more than 3 million schools in the world and many more educational programs, libraries, makerspaces, learning communities and other setups where learning is intentionally nurtured. We will refer to all of them as “schools”. So, if you are a learner that wants to design her own university, a learning designer, a teacher, a parent, a school principal or an entrepreneur … how do you find the schools that can be a source of inspiration and learning?

In the context of the Schools Around The World project, we have our first challenge: find too many cool schools. I’m dropping here some quick ideas for the starting the search and an invitation to help improve this.

Research online:

  • Use diigo in your research. It makes it easy (browser button) to save links, organize them in tags and share them.  Join the Schools Around the World group and/or use the #saw18 tag;
  • Use google, of course, but also …
  • Go through some articles about your specific topic and try to find examples of schools and search terms. Some nice places to start could be Edutopia or MindShift.
  • Look for books like Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education and fish for examples; (for some books on Amazon you can see the Table of Contents and Index without buying; try looking there)
  • Go to Quora, Medium, Reddit and use their search options;


  • Write a short description of what kind of “schools” you would like to find; This is a divergent phase when you would like to go wide and receive unexpected recommendations, so give specific “tags” (like: #life-skills, #science-education, #life-long-learning, #self-directed-learning) and examples (like Summerhill School) but also leave room for people to come up with whatever they know; Here is what I wrote once;
  • Directly (email) ask the people who’s projects or vision around learning you admire;
  • Try asking on popular facebook groups related to the kind of learning you are interested in. Some options: RestartEdu, Learning How To Learn, World Schoolers, The Learning Revolution, alternativestoschool, Unschooling, freeyourkids;
  • Ask everybody you meet, it is a nice conversation starter and you never know who stumbled on a fascinating school online or in real life;

A few lists as an appetizer:

Please post your suggestion as a comment.

Three ways Mexico impacted me

I landed on Mexico City on 16th of May and flew out on 22nd of October, after 160 days. The original plan was to stay for two months. I spent most of my time in 6 (/31) mexican states: Chiapas, Estado de México, Puebla, Oaxaca, Guanajuato, Mexico City. I also briefly visited Zacatecas, Michoacán and Quintana Roo. I visited six alternative universities:

I wrote about three of them here. In this article, I will look at the overall experience and the ways in which I was impacted. After five months and thousands of km, I feel that I learned, I changed and I expanded in significant ways. I got to know Mexico through the interaction with hundreds of people that generously hosted me, shared their stories and their tortillas, invited me to parties, took me on hundreads of km roadtrips, gave me directions and answered my curious questions. To them, to the awesome mexicans I met, I’m grateful for the good times I had and for leaving Mexico a different person. Here are three ways in which this experience transformed and enriched me:

(1) In the footsteps of Freire and Illich
From the beginning of my journey, there were two powerful thinkers whose traces I wanted to follow: Ivan Illich – the maverick social critic of modern institutions and Paulo Freire the creator of the pedagogy of the oppressed. I wanted to see their ideas in practice. I was delighted to find both Freire’s ideas developed and actualized in Puebla at Universidad Campesina Indígena en Red, in the form of “pedagogia del sujeto” and Illich’s radical thinking taking a concrete form in Unitierra Oaxaca and Unitierra Chiapas.

These projects work in rural and indigenous communities and are similar in their aims but slightly differ in approach. Seeing them in their context greatly enriched my thinking. I was inspired to see my future work in a rural context, creating learning environments that help people oppressed or ignored by the system build their autonomy, reclaim the dignity of their lives and defend their lands and livelihood. More than that, I see these people being able to inspire everyone else that another world is possible. I switched my focus from “learning spaces” to “being spaces” that have learning as a core process. I see myself designing a nation or a village rather than a school. I had a glimpse through Unitierra at the potential of informality and destructuring learning structures like diplomas, curriculums, professions. Through UCI Red, I came to appreciate and live the “fecundity of the encounter” and to value the idea of meeting people where they are, offering, for example, diplomas if that is what they want. I got to understand the two approaches as being beautifully complementary. And I got to see education, or better said learning, as a deeply political act.

(2) Learning Architects as models of being
I’m always in search of role-models – people that by their way of being stimulate and inspire my own becoming. Mexico was generous with role-models. I will mention a few who’s living example will nurture my process of becoming a better learning architect:

To Victoria I’m grateful for being a joyful, curious and voracious learner, a generous learning partner and inspiring in me the joy of living and learning.

Learning about medicine plants from Don Lupe.

With Victoria, learning about medicine plants from Don Lupe

To Doris & Oscar I’m grateful for being an example of choosing a life of service and generosity, looking at people with infinite kindness and cultivating a humble force.

With Oscar and Doris, at UMA in Valle de Bravo

With Oscar and Doris, at UMA in Valle de Bravo

To Benjamin I’m grateful for being a genius in disguise, searching deep in philosophy, synthesizing and creating powerful ideas at the same time with being beautifully alive and humane, funny and hospitable.

After a long drive from Puebla - Zacatecas - Michoacan - Puebla

With Benjamin and Jorge, after a long drive from Puebla – Zacatecas – Michoacan – Puebla

To Gustavo I’m grateful for the strength and dedication in keeping alive and embodying a radical thinking model that the world needs and for the clarity of the worldview from which it springs.

With the Unitierra team, at a workshop for starting a community radio

With Gustavo and Unitierra team, at a workshop for starting a community radio.

(3) Zapata vive! 
The plutocratic condition of the world walks without the mask in Mexico and I stared at its ugly face. There are everyday things like the aberrant highway fees making it so that the rich and the poor even drive on different roads, not to mention going to different schools and living in different neighbourhoods. Beyond the everyday inequality, a climate of violence came through many stories I heard, especially a brutal repression against people resisting the system. Nine people were killed in teachers protests in Oaxaca this year and two years before 43 trainee teachers were disappeared in Ayotzinapa. “It was the state” said a huge message displayed by Roger Waters in his concert in Mexico City, reflecting what most of the people I talked with think about Ayotzinapa. These two examples illustrate a general climate of brutality in which some brave people find the strength to resist and fight back. They say “Zapata vive, la lucha sigue” in the face of this brutal and out of control system. At enormous risk, with few material resources, people organize and resist. Marching with the teachers against the neoliberal reforms, hearing about the takeover and self organization of the town of Cheran, the zapatista movement, the Oaxaca commune in 2006 was like drinking from the fountain of hope and courage. After 500 years the colonization continues and the resistance is there, teaching the world to resist and to hope.


I said goodbye Mexico with gratitude and nostalgia. There is so much more to discover and learn and there are so many noble fights to fight. I hope to be back soon. Thank you Mexico for this first round!

Three Rural Universities in Mexico

My learning journey got on steroids at the end of May. I met 22 learning architects in a three day Symposium at Universidad del Medio Ambiente. The next day after the Symposium, 11 of us started a 8 day road trip of 1300 km to visit three disruptive universities in the South of Mexico.


First stop was Universidad Campesina Indígena en Red. “We are a university that has no hierarchy, no rectors, no directors. Relationships are not built on people that have knowledge and those that have not. We don’t pay the teachers and we don’t charge the students, it is a collaborative experience.” – said Benjamin Berlanga, as we started our first meeting with the team. The team had been doing this work since 1982, when a rural development center (CESDER) was founded. Aside from UCI RED they have built 15 secondary schools and helped design many rural educational projects. In the meantime, many former students joined as team members.

The meeting revealed a deep pedagogical philosophy: After 30 years we realised that the disruptive is not in the learning or teaching but it is in the relationship.


Our group with Benjamin Berlanga, co-founder of UCI RED

The fundamental question for UCI RED pedagogy is “How is life going for us?(“Como nos va en la vida?”). It is not an innocent question. It brings along what they call an epistemic displacement: “Before asking what is life, we ask how is life right now, for us. We are included” They also say that “education is the gift of time, because we are time. Education is opening spaces of conversation. Conversation is to give the ear first and then to give your word.” Because of this approach, 35% of the students give up in the first months saying “to have a conversation I can go home, here I come so others tell me how it is”.  The ones that stay say: “This is a place where we can express ourselves” and “I have learned how to rename the old labels and to resignify living life”.  


Alejandra and Udi, exploring UCI RED

We visited the shop, their agroecology lab and seedbank, a water collection project, a greenhouse and the pottery center. UCI is very much involved in local development, that is no longer understood as the neoliberal foundations advertise it (focused on having running water for example) but more like living in harmony with nature, family and community. As a former student put it “UCI taught us how to be revolutionaries in our own day to day life“.


A special moment on the road from Puebla to Oaxaca.

After 350 km and a car radio show, we reached Oaxaca City. It is a rebellious place where ten years ago the city was occupied for seven months by Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca. After ten years, when we got there, the city central square was again occupied by a few thousands teachers protesting against so called “education reform”. It was expected that after the 5th of June elections, the government repression will start. Sadly, just two weeks after we left, at least nine people were killed by police in confrontations.


In Oaxaca, after nine people were killed by police

In this troubled environment, UniTierra is a university like no other. It was founded by Gustavo Esteva, around one core principle: learning by doing. Gustavo was a good friend and collaborator of the “maverick social critic” of western institutions, Ivan Illich. He told us: “We don’t have education, we are escaping education. Accepting education equals accepting the authority of an educator. The main product of education are dropouts; it is disqualifying 60% of the people. Only 8% in Mexican universities will be able to work in their field.” They also note the destructive effect education has on indigenous culture: “You can survive as an indigenous up until university but it is almost impossible to survive after going to university. Your indigenous soul is gone.” UniTierra also rejects the idea of diplomas together with the corresponding ideas of professions and experts hidden behind them, claiming exclusive rights to manage learning, or health or justice for everybody else.

An important step for Unitierra was to go to communities. We visited two villages where a UniTierra was developed by local people.

IMG_20160603_144230 (1)

In San Bartolo Coyotepec

What one could see was some a living museum of eco techniques but what the conversation revealed was a process of community learning. In San Bartolo Coyotepec, an entire community learned to stop burning trash, collect it separately in 16 types and sell it. The learning process was a mix of rules, citizen reporting, public displays, training for adults and children and empowering children to take responsibility.


At Unitierra Huitzo, on the water tank

In San Pablo Huitzo we saw the same process in an early stage where they had built the water cistern, the buildings and the dry toilets but they were just beginning to engage the community in a collective learning process. There are more UniTierras, for example, one in the neighbouring state of Chiapas or another further away in Canada, in a chocolate factory. Here is a wonderful movie made by my friends at Enlivened Learning about Unitierra:

Re-learning Hope: A Story of Unitierra from Multi-Sense Media on Vimeo.

We left Oaxaca City to go further into the Oaxaca state, in the mountains of Mixe region. Getting to Instituto Superior Intercultural Ayuuk (ISIA) was not that easy. We had to stop for the night somewhere in a village. At ISIA we got to see the place from three different perspectives: the team, the students and the leaders of the community.

Instituto Superior Intercultural Ayuuk

This was the occasion for me to witness the uphill battle that young people in the indigenous communities are fighting. It is a struggle for their identity and for their dreams. Trapped between the glossy advertised and hard to reach city life that is alienating for their deep rooted worldview of life in community and a life in their communities that is labeled backward and poor and is seen as futureless. The university is there to re-value the indigenous language and worldview, helping students in their fight for dignity, self respect and a good life. One evening I shared the table with a student that wanted to go back to his community and create radio station and another student that had plans to develop an educational project in her village. Hearing other students clearly articulating their situation, their options and their reflections in the assembly, I had the uplifting feeling that this small rural university is succeeding in one of the most difficult learning challenges a higher education institution can have.

Meeting Don Antonio and other leaders of the community hosting ISIA, we had an insight in how they see the university, after ten years. For example, they value students participation in community events or the partnership they have for writing the recent history of the community. They also expressed that the project still has to fulfill the initial expectation that graduates will energize the rebirth of their communities.

Meeting with Don Antonio and other leaders of the community

Meeting with Don Antonio and other leaders of the community

We left ISIA on 7th of June, for the last segment of the road spent together. A big part of the journey was on the road, telling stories, getting deep into some aspects of our projects, making plans and having fun. My fellow travelers were neverending fountains of inspiration and learning. The intellectual idea of comunalidad or the friendship that Ivan Illich and Gustavo Esteva are talking about took a powerful real life incarnation in the friendship we shared in this journey. 

One month later, I realise how much this journey enriched me.

I have a collection of important words and one of questions. Both are now richer. The words profession, expert, development and education drifted further towards a negative meaning. Comunalidad and fertility of relationship gained a place on the list. I internalized the question “How is life going for us?”. It seems such a fertile starting point and the spanish version – Como nos va en la vida? – has something poetic. I’ll keep with me two other questions: “What resonates in you?” and “What do you take in your heart?. Speaking about what do I take in my heart, I take the idea that powerful learning can mean “to rename the old labels and resignify living lifeand “make revolution in our day to day life”.

The journey opened my mind to new learning possibilities. First, I experimented the power of a collective learning journey. We had enough space to get past the first conversations, to let the comfortable silence set in end then for the beautiful random topics to emerge. Some of them were not random. Now I realise that my curiosity around vision quests and ceremonies was generously attended to in long conversations with Silvia, Genaro and Victoria. A door is now opened to an entire new world.   

My idea of the learning environments I would like to design also enlarged. The involvement of Unitierra in the political struggle in Oaxaca sparked the insight that people building revolutions (in the street) are generating a collective learning process. A learning environment would ideally engage with that real time collective learning, maybe even generate it. The idea of light (un)structures generating rich learning environments was another insight. Unitierra, with its light structure seems to have spread out organically around Oaxaca City, in the neighbouring state of Chipas but also to a chocolate factory in Canada. At UCI Red nobody gets paid and students are not charged. So now I hold this question: what is the minimal structure that can generate a rich and adaptive learning environment?. 

Finally, I had a strong confirmation for an intuition I have: the base for my work as a learning architect will be in a village. I’d like to nurture knowledge systems that have synthesis as core. I believe that the knowledge system of the monoculture makes us “specialists of nothing and fools of everything else”. This fragmented view of the world keeps us dependent on the unfriendly machine that we’ve built for ourselves. I have an incredible enthusiasm for a different system that nourishes the autonomy of people and their communities and I think that the village environment is better suited as a base for this. 

Valle de Bravo Gathering of Learning Architects

I believe that reinventing higher education is one of humanity’s important milestones going forward. Here I recount my experience of a recent gathering of creators of alternatives to the mainstream university. It is one window open to the messy process of reinventing higher education and an invitation to walk through the door.

Educators Symposium, 27-29 May, Universidad del Medio Ambiente

We gathered at a Symposium held at the Universidad del Medio Ambiente, In Valle de Bravo, Mexico, from the 27-29 of May 2016. I got to Mexico City a day before to travel with Udi and Genaro to Valle. I was very curious to meet Udi. He and his wife Kelly resigned from UK academia and started a one year trip to alternative universities around the world to make a documentary. Their project is called Enlivened Learning and I wanted to know more about it. Genaro – a small farmer, in his words – just returned to Mexico from Hawaii where he learned (even more) about agroecology.  He is also the co-founder of a university called Instituto Superior Intercultural Ayuuk, formed by 11 indigenous groups of the Oaxaca mountains. When we got to Valle, Victoria was waiting with a welcoming “at last you are here” smile. Victoria is one of the co-founders of Universidad del Medio Ambiente (UMA). Before UMA, Victoria was putting her Phd in economics to work for the environment, promoting the creation of a Natural Protected Area in Valle de Bravo and setting up a Trust Fund for environmental projects. The frustration with the way projects received were researched was one of the impulses for starting UMA. Here they are, the first three learning architects I met: 

Victoria was also responsible for all of us converging there. UMA together with Un-School of Disruptive Design in New York were the institutions behind the Symposium and Victoria and Leyla – the Unschool founder – were going to be our facilitators. We arrived at our homestay, a house with a serene lake view. There we joined Liora – long time actionist and co-founder of Gaia University (Global) and Johannes – co-founder of UnaVision (Germany), an organization dedicated to learning journeys.

We sat on comfy armchairs overseeing the lake and a casual conversation started. It kept going and growing for the next three days. To organize my thoughts on it, I will answer three questions: “What?”, “So what?”, “Now what?”.

What (happened)?

Friday (27th of May) – Get to know each other

A twenty minute drive from Valle’s center, there is UMA’s beautiful campus.  We walked through a garden that opens up in a wide green pasture. The main building is composed of a central courtyard surrounded by classrooms and offices. The four corners are open, shaded by a green roof. The mustard colored bricks were made right there, from the clay of the land. The whole building has a warm and natural feel. Next to the main building, there is a kitchen and a wide porch. On that porch we sat at a rectangular table that could fit the whole group. One by one people showed up at the table and introduced themselves.

UMA Campus

UMA Campus

After breakfast, we made a circle on the grass and Victoria welcomed us and introduced the three-day flow. We would present ourselves and our work in the first day, and explore, brainstorm, prototype and plan in the next two days. A round of brief introductions followed and then we went for a silent walk around the UMA campus to get familiar with the place, gather our thoughts and intentions, and arrive. My intention was to make long-time friends and listen deeply. I also wanted help with deciding where to go next in Latin America for documenting my Break/Free from University book.

Silent walk

Silent walk

Back in the main building, each of us took 5-10 minutes for presentations. We had, in that room, a few hundred years of experience in trying to disrupt, reinvent or improve (higher) education. Here is a gallery with all 22 of us:

In between presentations we took a walk in the woods, paired up for a conversation about remembering a moment in our childhood when we felt a special connection with nature. I walked with Silvia, who used to live in big cities like London and Mexico City but now lives in a ranch in Valle that is a space designed for home-schoolers. I shared a memory of me watching ants for long stretches of time asking myself “What are they doing?”. Silvia had a similar question as a child, but much larger in scope: looking at the people in the city, going around being busy, she was asking “What are we humans doing here?”. Towards the end of the walk, all of us sat down in a circle and shared a one minute version of our partner’s story. I enjoyed this moment and the “humanizing” angle it offered on this group of rebel over-achievers.

6 - wood walk

The afternoon was the time for serious playing. My playmates Claudia, Doris, Frederico, Kirby and I, were sitting at a table outside, in the shade. The serious part was to share a learning practice we do that we consider “disruptive”. We invited Doris to start, as the elder disruptor of the group. In 1982, the year I was born, Doris was co-founding what is now Universidad Campesina Indígena in Puebla, Mexico. Doris shared how, before they start the actual learning, they nurture the transformation of the groups of new students into communities of learning. Sometimes it can take up to six months for the meaningful relationships to be formed. Then it was Claudia’s turn to share a few of the practices used in Escuela DIA (Development of Intelligence through Art). Claudia founded the organization that develops the DIA methodology in 1992, when I was already ten. In the meantime they worked with 25.000 teachers. You can read the entire list of practices shared here.

The last activity of the day was for each group to design a theater sketch representing one or several of the disruptive practices of the group. The practice that fired up the the imaginations of our small group was to integrate “pause” in the learning processes, in different shapes or forms. We decided to play with the idea of “pause” and instead of creating a theatre play, we would create moments of “pause” in between the plays of other groups.

7 - theatre

You can observe in the image how well a pause fits between (1) a chaotic group progressing from confusion to collective intelligence and (2) a teacher with his troubled pupils that discovers a more personalized, self-directed and mindful approach. The fourth play was about a controversy dialogue and mind-mapping.

Saturday (28th of May) – Ideation and Prototyping

We started our second day in a circle on the grass with Leyla as facilitator. Leyla is a star in the design  world. She designed games, installations, booklets but also the Un-School of Disruptive Design in New York. She was a fireball of energy even if she was jumping into our gathering right after a four day workshop she facilitated. She invited us to start by finding three professional connections with three other people in the group. I discovered I was connected with Gaby around using gamification and design thinking in our projects, with Udi around enjoying to facilitate learning and with Liora and Johannes around our intention to develop a meta-university.

Start of the second day

Start of the second day

We continued with connecting ideas on six flip charts with the words: Impact, Communication, Validation, Space, Pedagogy and Economics. We also had a page to write questions for each topic.

After we collectively brainstormed and filled the flip charts, we formed a group for each one. In the small groups, we came up with three ideas independently, we shared them and chose one of them to present to the larger group.

On the “Economics” table we synthesized our ideas into something named “Free University Architecture”. Its features are:

  • self organized and managed by students who do everything from cleaning to governing; 
  • the system architecture (software, knowledge) is open source, created in Wikipedia style by hundreds of learning architects around the world;
  • the experience (teachers, mentors) would be offered in a gift culture system;
  • students will be engaged in productive enterprises and projects that provide resources for expenses like rent and utilities, supplies or books.

Each of the six groups presented, all of us contributed more ideas and we ended up with this whiteboard:

10 - whiteboard with ideas

We voted, combined ideas and from the five clusters that resulted we developed five rapid prototypes:  

Theory of Change Guide/Portal

12 - theory of change prototypeEach of our learning environments aims to stir the world into a different direction and each of us has an implicit or explicit theory of what that change is and how it happens. Then there is the reality of the change we actually produce. This being so central for our work, we want to benefit from looking into the real impact we produce, sharing the raw data related to it and developing methods and tools to evaluate it. This way our theories improve, our reality gets closer to the theory and we inspire each other towards better impact. We will have an online portal to collect stories of our students successes and also of their excellent mistakes while doing their best trying to have an impact. Anyone could look into the data, match it with our theories of change, figure out patterns of change between organizations and even come up with a meta-theory of change.

The Learning Journey

The Learning Journey rapid prototypeThe learning environments in this network are incredibly diverse responses to the same reality: higher education needs to be reinvented. And we are doing this in small experiments, on different continents, inside different movements. Even if we have the common essence of rebellion, the manifestations of it are beautifully diverse ecosystems of learning, thoughtfully designed, forged in experience and fueled by love for learning and people. We are excited by the idea that some learners could self design a “meta-program” that would be a learning journey to a number of these ecosystems. This learning journey, nicely documented, will tell a powerful story of the potential in our friendship and will kindle further collaboration. 

Badges, Micro Certificates and Peer Review

13 - badgesWe recognize that certificates and diplomas are at the core of the problem of higher education. Those of us who are not prepared to abolish them completely, want to re imagine them. To that end, we see the potential in Mozilla’s open badges infrastructure. Our collaboration would have three levels: (1) designing and using a pool of (micro)badges together; each of us would aggregate them in macro(badges) in his particular way but we would share the smallest units; (2) the (macro)badges would be mutually recognized and endorsed, even going as far as creating an evaluation that is distributed in the network and awarded by the network; (3) each institution can ask to be peer evaluated and endorsed by the network. The second iteration added the flip side of the idea, where students offer badges to institutions.

Cosmovisions Exchange

14 - cosmovisionsSome of the members of the network emphasized the need to preserve indigenous knowledge systems in the face of the monoculture of thought pushed by mainstream university system worldwide. There is an awareness in our network of the urgency to create real intercultural dialogue. So we see as a distinct task for our network to develop tools that facilitate that intercultural dialogue. For this purpose, we developed a cosmovision exchange exercise. It starts with a “fishbowl setup” where four people from different environments make visible their interpretation of a piece of art and their reactions to what others perceive. Subsequently, the whole group who was watching is involved in a facilitated dialogue.

Mutual Currency

15 - mutual currencyWe imagine a near future where the circulation of people between our learning environments will be facilitated by an alternative currency. The working title is UNA. Members of our communities would earn some UNAs by hosting someone in their country and spend them by covering their participation in a program of another learning environment in the network.

In between working on these ideas, we refreshed our minds and our bodies with a treasure hunt around UMA campus and of course, with lunch. The treasure hunt was a lovely design that engaged different creative capacities and skills. We built a floating egg nest, we planted, we found our way blindfolded through a minefield and we solved word puzzles. It left me with good creative energy.

16 - treasure hunt collage

The day ended on a high energy note. So high that right after dinner Genaro and Liora started dancing salsa without music. Some music was eventually improvised and more of us joined in a joyful celebration of a fruitful day.

Sunday (29th of May) – Who does what, when?

Sunday being the final day, we had to get our ideas down to who’s going to do what and when, after we split. I got into a small group working on “the website”. We kept the “phase 1” of the project light so we could complete it in a month. But we need to have a name. We knew it is going to be hard to come up with a name that everybody would embrace. We created a few proposals for the bigger group to choose from. Then in the big group our chief disruptor Leyla seduced us with an even lighter perspective. Let’s just use the platforms that we have or that are already there (like Medium) and communicate about our network in an unstructured and decentralized fashion. We didn’t even chose a common #hashtag. Each of us will choose the #hashtags that we like and we will let time filter the few ones to converge towards. Two examples mentioned were: #ecoversities and #edhack. 

We ended up with individual commitments, things that each of us wanted to do. For example I wanted to write this article and help with online facilitation. Victoria is going to catalyze the Learning Journey prototype. Johannes will facilitate the work around our common currency. Udi and Manish will facilitate the merging of “Valle” group with the Ecoversities group that met in Tamera (Portugal) last August. Gaia U will facilitate the development of the “Badge” system with Traian as part of the team. Beyond this there are probably tens of smaller, one on one collaborations and visits that were set up.  

We kept our playing habit for the third day with a collaborative game followed by the testing of the cosmovisions exercise that one of the teams designed Saturday. We ended the day by sharing what we learned. You can see in this image some of the keywords.

17 - learnings

After we closed the formal session Manish facilitated a closing ceremony that was a deep and beautiful gift to take with us, further in our paths. For a few of us the day ended later with a couple of beers in a local bar.

So what (does it mean)?

The Symposium was a standalone gathering but I see the significance of it as part of the process of small alternative universities and un-universities getting closer. There was another meeting in Tamera, Portugal in August 2015 and there will be another one by the end of the 2016. My reflections and learnings are informed only by the Valle de Bravo Symposium but tend to refer to the dynamic of the overall process.

The (centripetal) force is strong

1 - coverAs Udi was saying at one point, these places we’ve built are fragile so we need to stay together. Actually, I see them as intrinsically powerful structures whose fragility comes from going against the current. In any case, our need to stay together is as natural as survival instinct. On the flip-side, our aspiration to steer the world into a different direction needs a much bigger army, so we are natural allies on that road. The values we share are another glue. And on top of all this, the fact that around this common essence we have a wide diversity of architectures, methods, tools, stories and metaphors is a potential treasure that we all see. So what I saw in the meeting was a genuine and strong intention to get closer and weave our small experiments into a connected ecosystem that has more impact.

Taking the time

19 - plantingOne of my main sources of learning was to experience the pace and the rhythm that is given to the growth of this network by people wiser than me. It is a slow pace that follows with patience the growth of our relationships. I know the challenges that we are taking on are felt with urgency by everyone. The impatient side of me that wanted to jump right away into massive action was now witnessing a counter-side of me, of a more recent date, that can appreciate the power of moving slowly and attune itself to it.  

An example of that was the play element in the design: the walk in the woods, the treasure hunt and the collaborative game. I think that if we can enjoy playing together and being together, then our work together can have vitality. It was refreshing to see that Victoria and Leyla artfully introduced that in the design and that the rest of us played along and extended it beyond the formal design. My feeling is that we play well together so I’m confident that we will do great work together. I am also aware that it is going to be a long and slow process before we will see the fruits of this collaboration. We are just growing our roots.  

The need to be around old-time rebel doers  

20 - rebel doersMy realization was that in this moment in my journey, I need to be around long time rebel doers. Most of the times I feel like an old-timer: for 13 years I have been investing all my creative energy towards transforming higher education. And as they say, “its not the years in your life, but the life in your years”. So I discovered I highly cherish the time  around “rebel learning architects” that have been doing this specific kind of work for even longer, some for 20 or 30 years.  My gratitude for this insight goes especially to Liora, who took the time to have long conversations with me in the breaks. (Liora, if you read this: Thank you! I am coming to California for more :-) )

Many times I can’t even ask a specific question because I’m not seeking the explicit knowledge but the tacit one. The wisdom. I realized that I just need time around experienced learning architects to absorb their way of being and seeing the world. To catch the small differences that make a big difference, the insights and the very practical habits they have. So I found myself excited and challenged by the idea of us designing a learning environment for ourselves as learning architects. That could be a strong root for everything else.

The unstructure

21 - unstructureWhen we gave up the idea of building a website, it was like a relief. It was not shying away from work but more like an instinct shared by the group. A  suspicion that traditional infrastructure of a collaboration would be too heavy and energy draining. We want to be lighter and more fluid and use the energy we have in a more free and organic way. So, we won’t spend time to decide what is strategic. It will emerge from where we choose to put our energy. Each of us will choose a way to name it and #tag it. We won’t have a central page but we will write about this in a distributed way and make various aggregations and links. Our experimenting with the “Un-structure” is one of the most exciting things to participate in, for me. Especially so as I feel it is in the direction of our instincts, right on the edge of what we know. 

Now what?

What this global group of alternative universities will do next is an interesting question. I know Manish is reminding me to translate a clip for the Ecoversities Film Festival. Udi is preparing the next Ecoversities meeting. Johannes started the mutual currency workgroup. A few of us are playing with an open badge for a recent learning journey we took. As we choose to skip the project management approach, we will have to watch this “thing” emerging from our individual actions synchronized in an uncentralized way. What is clear is that it is alive and it grows. So I invite you to leave a comment below answering the question “Now what?” or just share anything you like. As an example, here are two individual to do lists:

Traian's list:

a) research each project and ask for a visit or an interview for #breakfreebook;

b) online facilitation: enliven the space for online conversation in a way that it blends nicely with our offline meetings;

c) kick off a small, “low hanging fruit”, exchange program: with energy of writing a few emails help something like 10 people from the Alternative University travel to other places in the network and recieve 10 to spend some time in Bucharest with us; connect it with the Learning Journey and the UNA currency prototypes.

Victoria's list:

a) identifying and asking for specific mentoring from the participants that may help me strengthen the processes in UMA for self-agency development and change experience (specifically, I would like to move learners from co-designing one big change-project during the program, to experiencing several smaller change projects that feed into a lighter design of a bigger project by the end of the program;

      b) find space for experimenting the learning process designs and practices that were shared;

c) incorporate into the design of the UMA degrees, the possibility for learners to spend time in any of the network organizations – strongly for the Bachelor’s Degree we are designing.

As a more broad outlook into the future, I know I will dedicate my energy to see universities reinvented on my watch. I believe it won’t be me, or a lone genius, or a Silicon Valley “unicorn” that can achieve that. I bet it will be a collective genius born from trust and friendship of many exceptional learning architects, like the ones gathered in Valle de Bravo. So I can gladly report that in this Symposium at the end of May, humanity made small but significant step towards having a collective genius that will create a new kind of university.