Earthwise Learning

The ICA's new multi-disciplinary educational program
can provide maps for journeying to our planetary future

One of the articles in The Learning Revolution (IC#27)
Originally published in Winter 1991 on page 48
Copyright (c)1991, 1996 by Context Institute

The Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA), a private, non-profit organization "concerned with the human factor in community and organization development," is one of the most consistently innovative organizations on the planet. The central concern of its diverse programs in over 20 countries is "to maximize the participation of people in taking responsibility for their own lives and for society as a whole" – and its new Earthwise Learning Series is a very potent contribution to that endeavor. Australian-born John Burbidge is Publications Coordinator for ICA West at its Seattle office, 1504 25th Ave., Seattle, WA 98122.

If you are interested in participating in the creation, funding, or distribution of the Earthwise Learning Series described here, please contact James Wiegel, ELS Coordinator, ICA West, 4220 North 25th Street, Phoenix, Arizona 85016 USA, Tel. 602/955-4811.

The world of the 1990s promises to be quite unlike anything we’ve ever known. The crumbling of old political forms, the delicate state of the environment, increasingly sophisticated technology and communications – these are but a few of the features of our evolving planet. The "global village" has indeed arrived, not as some grandiose idea at the frontier of history, but as the very stuff of our daily lives.

The challenge we face is learning to live as planetary citizens in the midst of everyday life. Most of us can hardly claim to have those skills, and if so, only within our own field of personal and professional expertise. At best we operate with the know-how of earlier periods of history, albeit updated and refined. It’s as though we were still driving a Model-T Ford in the age of the computerized automobile.

But the last few decades have surrounded us with an amazing array of breakthroughs in almost every field of human endeavor – brain research, learning processes, wellness, communications, biotechnology, organizational change, international relations… the list is endless. Few of these breakthroughs, however, have trickled down to the point where most of us can understand them and integrate them into our daily routines.

All too often, we experience ourselves and our institutions as ineffective and irrelevant. Too easily, we feel defeated and angry in our attempts to manage our lives. At the same time we long, as Joseph Campbell put it, "to actually feel the rapture of being alive."

At this point, many people turn to educational institutions – both to place the blame and to seek solutions. But like many traditional social forms, education today is in disarray. The waves of information, social innovation, and the multicultural experience of the last forty years have swamped our learning institutions. With isolated exceptions, these institutions have been no more successful than we ourselves in digesting and using what we have discovered about how people learn.

The Earthwise Learning Series (ELS), a project of the Institute of Cultural Affairs, is an innovative response to this dilemma. Unlike many other educational ventures, the ELS is not designed to deliver more information. Rather it is designed to distill, from the reservoirs of available information, images and ideas which illuminate changes in our understanding of ourselves and our world. It focuses on patterns and processes, not data. In fact, the raw stuff of the curriculum is the participants’ life experiences.

The ELS builds on decades of ICA work, including the former Global Academy offered by ICA in the 1960s and 70s. This intensive training program focused on methods of intellectual, social and spiritual development for global citizens. Also, during the late 1980s, ICA branches in Chicago, Brussels and Guatemala sponsored programs dealing with breakthroughs in learning and human development. And ICA branches around the world have done extensive work in areas like organizational transformation, human capacities, the emerging planetary culture, voluntary simplicity, spirituality, partnership, consciousness, practical experimentation with community living, entrepreneurial style, corporate culture and cultural archetypes.

Curriculum design began in October, 1988, when a group of fifteen experienced educators met in Phoenix. This thinktank drew upon previous ICA educational eperiments, which have won recognition for their ability to take specialized areas of knowledge and present key insights from them in ways that make practical sense to people. The end product of the thinktank was threefold – a comprehensive curriculum framework, an outline of three intensive courses, and initial designs for test modules to introduce the program.

The initial design group considered what capabilities were needed for planetary living in the 21st century. Three pivotal questions emerged:

  • How does a person experience the significance of human living?
  • What are the breakthroughs in learning today that are changing the world in which we live?
  • What are the skills one needs to interact with others and make a creative contribution to society?

These questions laid the groundwork for the three intensive courses, each of which was planned as a full-time, month-long program with a central theme. The first course emphasizes breakthroughs in the natural sciences which are altering the way people think and act. The second focuses on the diversity of cultural archetypes and metaphors that make up the global mosaic. And the third highlights analytical and creative methods that enable people to function effectively in today’s world.

To launch the ELS, three introductory modules were created: Making Sense of the World, Myth and the Human Journey, and Methods of Individual and Group Creativity. These modules use individual and group processes and a variety of multi-modal teaching techniques, and demonstrate both rational and intuitive approaches to learning.

A fourth module has since been added – A New Image of Learning. The work done on learning processes in recent years has provided the pieces of an entirely new paradigm. Presently, this paradigm is about where the computer industry was thirty years ago – big, bulky, hard to use technologies surrounded by a host of small, unconnected inventions and concepts. The piecing together of this paradigm in the next decade will produce the equivalent for learning of the personal computer.

This fourth module on the new learning paradigm is pivotal to the development of the entire ELS curriculum. It will help ensure that the methods used are appropriate to the message of the curriculum, i.e. the development of planetary living capabilities.

The ultimate intent is to create a co-learning community in which all involved are partners in exploration. Staff leading the program will act as a support network to the participants. And since the total environment in which the program takes place is part of the learning experience, the curriculum will include both formal sessions and more leisurely pursuits – in other words, a music lounge might be as critical as a seminar room.

Who is the ELS intended for? It was first thought that the ELS would be piloted by business executives in university courses. Many corporations invest heavily in education to help their employees better understand themselves and the world in which their enterprise operates, and the cross-cultural, multidisciplinary framework of the ELS directly addresses this concern.

Since then, however, a diversity of target groups has emerged, ranging from Masters’ students in global management to at-risk youth involved in leadership training. One suggestion has been for the creation of a mobile ELS serving the needs of advanced education in "Third World" countries. The intention is to develop a new style of leader or social healer – one tuned to the deep transitions taking place in the world’s cultures, able to respond creatively to those challenges and capable of inspiring and teaching others. And as ELS coordinator Jim Wiegel has pointed out, "The key learners … are you and I, not the ‘coming generation.’ This learning is for living right now."

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