Wondertree Learning Systems

Wondertree Learning Systems has developed a fully integrated approach to teaching children how to learn, moreover, how to follow their spirit to learn that which will empower them to give their unique gifts to life.

Brent Cameron, the founder of Wondertree, understood the value in letting his child choose the course of learning from her natural desires to follow her spirit path. We have many examples of children being crammed with information redundant to their life paths, living lives of frustration, acting out because their intellects were being bred into confinement.

Whether we choose Wondertree, Montessori, Waldorf, or a combination of other learning systems, the freedom for the child to choose must be considered important in our choices. The object is to raise clear thinking, self-determined individuals.

When a Village Learns

Beyond Schooling - 'Learning as Self-Designing' in Synergistic Community

by Brent Cameron M.A. of Wondertree Foundation for Natural Learning

With mention of the word 'village', it is important to begin with a mutual understanding of what a village might be, and of some sense of how it can learn. When I first hear the word 'village', I find myself standing on a hillside looking down upon a valley to see a collection of houses and buildings clustered together intermixed with trees, roads, cars and people. This collection of 'activities in total' equals my initial sense of village. However, because of my vantage point on the hill, it is the people that I mention last. They are the smallest and least significant component seen from outside the system. Yet, if I travel down the hill and 'into the village' to invest the day there, I begin to realize that it is the human interactions that comprise the fundamental distinction of village. The structures dominant from an outside view are merely containers for and extensions of human interactions. More so, it is the kinds of interactions and the very shared experiences of the villagers that are at the heart of what a village 'is'. It is the feeling of shared membership and belonging as a complex of intertwining human experiences that constitute the essential definition of village. This shifts any idea of a village as a collection of things, buildings, to a complex of experiences and to the conversation of living systems.

Before the industrial revolution the majority of earth's people lived in small villages. Villages nested in valleys served as "nests", as contexts to nurture and sustain the family. The family; a nest within a nest, a context within a context, nurtured and sustained its members, and its members a context for the growth of children. The family conversation was the smallest unit of human experience, a unit of which an individual was a essential member. Each day the children would pour out of the family nests into the meaningful context of the village, and would play and work as part of the fabric of village life. Each child would engage in significant interactions with approximately 5 to 6 adults every day. These conversations formed the basis of informal mentoring whereby the children modeled the attitudes and skills of the adults. These modeling relationships maintained the integrity of village life, and thereby generated the sustaining quality of a culture.

Now, this is not a nostalgic plea for a return to the idyllic past. Many village societies were also oppressive, where women and children were often little more than ill or well-treated slaves. The cultural mores that sustained these societies often did so at the expense of the individual for the profit of those in control. However, we can survey Ruth Benedict's work and take an anthropological perspective on a global collection of diverse cultures discovering 'how' some were oppressive and 'how' some were enhancing.3 She experienced oppressive and cruel societies and, in contrast, societies that developed in tune with individual human nature sustaining positive and fulfilling inter and intrapersonal relationships. She labeled these societies 'low synergy' and 'high synergy', noticing that the difference that made the difference was based on the degree of mutual benefit experienced in the society. Synergy refers to a resulting quality in relationship when two or more agents combine, their collective effect is greater than the simple sum of individual effort. In other words, 'cooperative interaction' creates an enhanced combined effect. The quality of the interactions, whereby one's gain became everyone's gain, creates a high synergetic effect. Relationships can be defined as "win/win". When one's gain results in losses for others, the overall effect for the whole society results in an underlying sense of disharmony and low synergy. Relationships can be defined as "win/lose". The result of high synergy is that everyone has more choices, relationships are characterized by increased openness. By contrast, in a low synergy society, most people's choices are diminished by those few who gain at the expense of others.

In systems theory, an individual with greater flexibility (more choices) controls the group. Having more choices can be understood as a significant aspect of intelligence, assuming the kinds of choices are more or less equal. Authority works well with a win/lose social model, where those in authority control others by convincing them that they have fewer choices. However, in a win/win society everyone represents their own authority and the social structure is more circular and egalitarian rather than hierarchical and pyramid shaped of an authoritarian win/lose political model.

One of the most significant factors influencing both synergistic and non-synergistic societies has been the industrialization and urbanization of humanity. The overall short-term benefits for humanity have been an increase in consumable material wealth. The cost of this wealth, on the macro level, is an impoverishment of our global living systems - the ecosystem. On the other hand, on the micro-level, the cost has been our individual sense of diminished well-being and fulfillment - the intrasystem. The question is; how can we shift towards becoming a high synergy global society whereby our increases are comprehensive and include a sense of the quality of being human as fundamental?

Let us assume that money is both an extension of, and symbol for, our life energy. Is the accumulation of money and thereby the accumulation of choices a license for power at other's expense? Furthermore, money is about agreement, it represents our faith in each other whereby value is based on mutual trust. However, our real and meaningful relationships have not been the basis for the extension of our economy. These subtle yet profound mistakes make the difference between a society of fulfilled individuals and a society indulging in the illusion of success as a masquerade of misery for both rich and poor. To look deeper into the issue of wealth, let's look at 'how' we are wealthy. Whether it is wealth of money or knowledge, our society needs to look at 'how' we hold these states rather than 'that' we have wealth. We can get at this quality of 'how' by creating a metaphor for conventional learning as the acquisition of knowledge. Education today is like taking children to the world's most wonderful lavish restaurant and then feeding our children the menu. Not - 'all that is on the menu' but 'the menu' itself. Mistaking the map for the reality is our folly today. We mistake the symbol of wealth for well-being, accumulation of knowledge for understanding and obedience for enthusiasm. We demand that our children learn 'about' life rather than beginning with their living and bring to that some understanding. To begin to understand where we have missed the point and how we have lost our way lets look at the difference between formal and informal learning.

Formal learning is what teacher's do 'to' learners. Its output is instructional and its feedback is rote memorization. This kind of learning is a lower level learning similar to stimulus and response, involving choice of response, therefore right and wrong according to the instruction. However, a much more comprehensive level of learning, learning about learning occurs in the hidden curriculum. This curriculum is the unspoken politic around obedience as an appropriate response to authority and control. Formal education is an artificial construct designed by externalized authority to instill in its potential citizens the appropriate attitudes for complacency to the social system. Formal learning is an exclusive and closed process that focuses on the development of the left hemisphere as a dominant and controlling influence in society. The individual is managed for the benefit of the group. Reward and punishment are used to motivate children with the equally devastating results of; fear, guilt, and shame for losing, depression and apathy for passing and pride and greed for winning.

Formal learning is an artifact of abuse. The management of society by those in power involves the reducing of the number of choices of those managed, therefore low synergy. The current phenomenon in western society of bullying and violence is a symptom consistent with low synergy in the overall politic of society. To reduce anyone's choices in 'any' way is an act of confinement, therefore an act of torture. Any time I am made to feel less or confined with fewer choices, I experience an act of violence through violation. Similar to the cascading of water down a waterfall, the cascading of violation down the ladder of any hierarchy is the methodology of control. To hold children responsible for bullying, when they are appropriately modeling the, albeit more sophisticated representations of control, is absurd. They are doing their best to model what they see as the underlying politic of adult relationships.

In comparison, informal learning is close to living, living that aligns with natural coexistence. It exists in relationship and is interpersonally rich and meaningful. The first and foremost informal learning relationship is the bonding relationship between infant and mother. It is the foremost representation of relationship derived by and from love. Informal learning is whole body and whole mind. Within a relationship, the emerging conversation becomes the context for learning appropriate to the sensibilities of mutually beneficial living. The qualities of being human are central to the kind of intelligence upon which this pattern of learning is designed. Informal learning is spontaneous and emerging. It parallels the natural growing of an organism biologically and neurologically as a mutually dynamic conversation. Increase in complexity expands through limits and contexts to new levels of understandings and abilities. The unfolding of the infinite interior manifests in any individual as an increase in their repertoire of choices in responding to the complexities of the world. Informal learning generates a quality in society informing the shared integrity of individuals in meaningful and egalitarian partnership relationships.

Informal learning is what Wondertree calls Natural Learning. Ideally Natural Learning is a process of Self-Designing in synergistic relationships. Learning in living relationships occurs in the deep conversation that emerges when one individual is fascinated with the abilities of another. All species have unique characteristics that make them successful, birds - their flight, deer - their running, rabbits - their hopping, dolphins - their swimming and humans - their 'ability to learn'. Our 'ability to learn' is founded on our essential design as a learning species. Natural Learning is fundamentally imitation using our ability, to model, to focus and to observe, then to imitate and copy. Our closest relatives the chimpanzees are unable to make love or raise their offspring if they are not raised in a context where they have been able to observe these patterns of living all around them. The observation of patterns of living and the modeling and practice of these patterns is what gives us our flexibility and power as a species. It is however, also our place of vulnerability. If we do not live in terms of this essential aspect of learning upon which our harmonious living on this planet is based we could be in trouble, and we are.

Fundamental to the experience of synergistic community is the way in which people "feel" as a consequence of relating. If in any relationship the experience of either person in a relationship is diminished through loss of choice and flexibility then the nature of the relationship 'takes away' from the quality of self as a consequence of the relationship. We tend to choose to be in relationship because we expect that by doing so we shall increase our opportunities and choices. However, because of the nature of control as a significant factor in human relationships, where one individual controls another, we have the experience that in fact at least one person in a relationship loses flexibility, with dire consequences to the quality of being for both in the relationship. The secret of equanimity and of expanding one's mutual choices in a relationship requires a unique form of communication that respects and honors the essential qualities of humanness. The essential assumptions generating strategies of action to create respect as a way of being are based on experiencing the legitimacy of the other and one's fundamental quality of love as a basis for synergistic relationship. A human being is able to see legitimacy in others to the degree that they themselves have been held legitimate by others in their formative development.

The idea of bonding and modeling are consistent with the ideas of attunement and resonance. Attunement means a mutual tuning of emotions, a dyad of emotive responding that mutually modifies and coordinates one's sense of self and other, wherein the 'distinction of self' emerges from the mutual acknowledgement of self by the other. This bonding is fundamental to modeling which is a child's genetic program to observe behavior and internal strategies represented in postures and behavior as artifacts of attitudes, beliefs and strategies in order to obtain a way of living that perpetuates one's existence as a living system. Resonance is a higher order of attunement in that the relationship is shifted to include a conscious awareness and point of view that provides and awareness of self in the process of fascination. This critical adjunct to bonding, allows a degree of ability to modify one's lifestyle, therefore increase choice and flexibility as a human being within a culture. However, if one is modeling another without the other having a perspective of detachment to the process of attachment, then there is little ability to evaluate the efficacy of the mutual attraction or fascination.

In contrast here is a specific example of a typical parenting situation. I was recently working with a group of young children and I approached the idea of personal power and integrity. Just before I began the workshop I read an email from one of the parents concerned about their children's ability to demonstrate excellence. Keeping this expectation for performance by a parent in the back of my mind I began a conversation about choices and agreements. I told the children that I live my life out of a sense of choice, whereby, 'I do what I want'. They said that this was fine for me, but that I was an adult and didn't have any parents telling me what to do. I cited my daughter, as an example of a child, who always did what she wanted, who lived her life out of her fascination and who enjoyed every moment. So I suggested that this exception might challenge the assumption about the nature of parent child relationships and introduce the question about 'how' parents and children create relationships.

In the email I got from the father, he stated that he would like us to support his daughter in learning Japanese because "we want all energy into that language". However, when I discussed the learning of Japanese with his daughter, she said that she "hated Japanese" and that she had tried everything to get out of Japanese lessons. We discovered that she had literally tried "kicking", "hiding", getting sick, and screaming. Nothing had worked so far. Her parents had persisted and had achieved reluctant compliance through "fear, guilt or shame." Although she attended the classes, her efforts were minimal and her sense of herself was one of persecution. So although the parents got a 'yes' on the outside, it 'looked like' their daughter was attending class, inside there was a 'no', sabotaging the actual experience of learning in excellence. When we control another person, they get an inner emotional experience imbalance, which ultimately undermines their experience of inner wellness and the eventually destroys the quality of the relationship. When we have any form of control of one person limiting the choices of another we have relationships based on coercion. Any form of coercion results in an experience of torture. In this culture, our children are institutionally controlled and therefore tortured as a normal and accepted method of management. Since learning involves a natural increase in the number of choices one can make, the existence of coercion in all its forms stops learning in its community.

Today, children live external to themselves in a materialistic world, assembled like the world they live in. As we can see the village from outside and from inside, whereby we get a significantly different impression of what a village is, we also can see children from the outside or from the inside. How, we talk with children, whether we talk to them referencing their behavior (expectations from the outside) or their strategies and feelings (empathy from the inside) significantly influences the kind of relationship we create. Each day in school, a child shares one significant adult contact with about 30 other children. This child does not model his or her teacher, because teachers are not demonstrating fascinating or meaningful work. The teacher is trained to teach and this very activity interrupts the inherent modeling process of each child and causes a reactive response in most children. The children who do model, of course become teachers. Teachers are not available for bonding and connection because they are moved along each year as the assembly line of education proceeds. If children aren't modeling the significant adults they spend most of their day with, then how about the parents?

The modeling of one's own parents, the basis of the guild system in the past, is now impossible. The typical child's parents are either commuting, working away from the experience of the child, exhausted at the task of keeping house and working, or overwhelmed and recuperating in front of the television. These activities unfortunately take prescident to conversing with family members, especially the conversations that meet the interactive needs of their children. Accordingly, many parents are virtual emotional strangers to their children. The child's need to bond and model is realized by his or her peers; incompetence modeling incompetence. This mutual sense of futility then desperately turns towards super-competence and children mutually bond to the powerful super-heroes on television, movies and in video/computer games. These all-powerful heroes model unlimited power to children offering an illusionary escape from the prison of isolation in which children finds themselves.

We are living within a system that needs to be changed towards greater harmony and balance. A resolution of its significant problems requires being able to step outside the kind of thinking that sustains the system in the first place. This kind of paradigm shifting, of getting a perspective outside and above the pattern, also requires a new way of seeing what is going on from the inside. At this point in the history of the world the factor of scale has a significant influence on social relationships. The urbanization and industrialization of culture seems to be an artifact of industrial efficiency and consumption at the expense of individual fulfillment and community sustainability. To appreciate the effect of unlimited growth on the quality of relationships lets take a macro and mirco perspective. An interesting parallel of a biological and anthropological perspective offers an insight into our patterns of growth. Growth in harmony with the external (ecological balance) and growth in harmony with the internal (essential balance) are fundamental patterns in the design of nature. However, as Dr. Bill Rees recently illustrated in his 'eco-footprint' evaluation of the resource base necessary to supply a city, he shows that its needs outstrip the supply available. When we look at the growth patterns of a city from the air we see a similar pattern to the pattern of the growth of a biological system looking through a microscope. The only organism that grows without respect to internal or external balance is a cancerous growth and the pattern parallels the growth of our cities. It has been well documented that an overall social imbalance is manifest in individuals as illness, and in many individuals together as an epidemic. Today with economies growing without limits and the supporting ecological infrastructure cancerously devoured to support this unlimited, imbalanced growth, we experience a parallel epidemic of cancer in our population. The other illness affecting millions of people is heart disease, which has its parallel social phenomena, the impersonalization and institutionalization of our social relationships. The flow of information between systems is far more pervasive than we can see with eyes trained to distinguish separate entities.

We need to establish new villages, new community networks of life-fulfilling relationships to revitalize our urban dis-ease, we need to grow mushrooms in a decaying forest. If we imagine eco-villages emerging within the infrastructure of the city we could see the emergence of human scale communities foster new kinds of relationship that are externally ecological (energy efficient) and internally ecological (inter/intrapersonally fulfilling). To begin this designing we need to build the village as an extension of human experiences, build the village for and by people in community. We need to begin with human experience. Buckminster Fuller suggested that we map the experiences of any individual during a typical day and evaluate these experiences according to one's sense of fulfillment and usefulness. Central to this experience are the conversations and relationships that develop throughout this day. Building on the kinds of conversations that enable and increase choices we can construct conversations and activities that enhance one's sense of living in community. And around these activities are the spaces and the rooms that shelter and hold these conversations. The design of the buildings is best informed by the kinds of relationships and conversations that sustain the fabric of living in the community. When a village is the conversations of people in community, then the village learns because the kind of conversations engaged in by the people allow change through as sense of increased choices and options that deepen a collective sense of meaning and well being.

Learning is essential to our human nature, it is what makes us human. Learning is part of every 'quality' interaction and experience that opens each individual to one's infinite potential. In our conversations we either learn that we are not free or learn that we are free. Learning 'loss of freedom' aligns our living with entropic closed systems (physical). Learning freedom, includes opportunities for choice and increase in intelligence and aligns with syntropic open systems (living). Only activities that support the learning of freedom in freedom allow a human being to realize one's humanness and celebrate life as an act of love. The world, external to life, is determined by "quantity and matter". The internal world of living and relationships is one of "quality and love". It is a dangerous life-denying mistake of our culture to superimpose the external onto the internal.

A community that lives, that grows and learns is one that has living at its heart. The design of a learning community is fundamental to sustaining the kinds of conversations that allow people to understand themselves and others more profoundly in the context of the activities and work that sustain the living in community. As a mother is the embodiment of birthing, bonding and nurturing, this primary relationship establishes the very nature and well being of a human infant. A mentoring relationship is as emotionally rich as mothering and is the kind of relationship that births and nurtures a learning community.

A community that learns is one that includes the activities of the one that doesn't know as part of the activities of the one that does. It is this proximity of persons doing work in the village, and how they do this work that will inspire the learning of the children in a village that learns. I remember meeting an elderly retired gentleman in the forest many years ago when I had just founded Wondertree. We sat for hours in conversation as we both discovered our mutual fascination with learning. He had been in charge of the training program for Boeing in the manufacture of airplanes. When he started, Boeing's training program was classroom based and consequently had a significant inventory of parts that were improperly made and assembled. His job was to decrease production errors by increasing the efficiency of the training program. After studying every educational model ever written about, he shut down all of the classrooms and fired all of the instructors. He immediately put all of the trainees into the factory and assigned each new learner a mentor. This return to the apprenticeship model of learning soon reduced the number of manufacturing errors drastically. There is an important lesson to be learned here for the learning community, the post-industrial village.

Wondertree has pioneered a prototype for learning beyond the classroom. The graduates of this program who are now between 20 and 25 are a unique group of individuals who demonstrate excellence, leadership and profound cooperative interpersonal skills. The success of our prototype verifies the importance of Natural Learning, of learning in community. Extending our model to community learning we move beyond classrooms into a learning village, the children would work with learning consultants in small discussion groups. These meeting areas would be integrated into the heart of the living and working spaces in the village. This proximity and integration of activities is one factor reducing redundancy and expensive separation of resources in modern cities.

According to government statistics (1994) the average Canadian family of four with both parents working, earns approximately $60,000 per year. The cost of living for this same family is approximately $59,000 per year. The assembly line has become the treadmill and no one dares get off. If we can change the patterns of living by reducing the costs of living by one half then we immediately offer some choices to this average family. They can both keep working to earn extra money and retire early, or share a job and earn less. The cost of living in an energy-efficient and intentionally simplified village would offer a lifestyle that would allow the parents more time to participate in family and village activities. With parenting a more involving activity, children will spend some of their week learning in the family. Some of the time each week will be involved in group projects and discussions focusing on insights to the human process. Part of a child's week will be invested in modeling a diversity of the work activities of the adults and youth mentors who work in the village. This integration of living, working, playing, growing food and generating resources is essential to the self-sufficiency of the village. With everyone doing work they love and are good at, the children will naturally be fascinated by activities that are readily available to their experience. With many adults doing interesting things in proximity to young learners and with learning consultants helping children become aware of their own learning process, we have the makings of the sustaining and open learning process.

Essential to the relationships between 'children and adults' and 'learners and mentors' is the quality of the relationship evaluated by understanding the politics of the relationship. A fundamental idea is that, "happiness is a biological condition" and "unhappiness is a political condition." From this, the politics of relationship can either support or undermine human happiness. Unhappiness is a legitimate emotional response to the domination of one by another, and a common indicator of abuse. If a relationship is closed - unhappiness, if a relationship is open then the possibility for happiness. It is therefore essential that children are politically equal in a learning village and participate equally in consensus democracy. Each and every problem that arises is an opportunity for every village member to take individual and collective responsibility to solve the problem. Participation in returning balance and equilibrium to the village creates a sense of mutual power, of power 'with' others. These conversations of management, evaluation and 'solution creating' are the very activities that create a synergistic learning community. In a living and human community system, where each individual is participating in a synergistic process, one experiences an individual wholeness as a reflection of this greater synergistic whole. Each person grows from fulfillment towards wisdom and their individual and collective activities express this wisdom as part of the grace and gratitude for living together.


Letter from a Parent

Much has been written about the "new children" coming into our reality fully awakened and educated. Until this understanding becomes the consensus reality, we must consider the education of the inheritors of our world.

I have reworked the village essay. I inspired a project in Colorado last year, gave a town presentation and also trained the consultant team. It has been running for almost a year now, and I just got this email from one of the team. It is also a response to my essay in the context of working in a learning village.

Marc is an architect who with his wife just hand built a house for $300.

Dear Brent,

I read through "When a Village Learns" I'd say that we are mostly in accord about the thoughts you presented. I'd question a few of the assumptions, but the conclusions match my experience. The overall effect was somewhat like viewing and thinking about the town from the hill. It has a conceptual, theoretical tone. In Paonia, we are that village and as a friend said, "as much as it seems and more through the door" It seems you are building a conceptual framework that is much like the description of the gateway, a body of knowledge that will enable the people who are ready to "read sign" on the way to the new paradigm. The gateway is ahead of you. We look at the same gateway, but from the other side. What was theoretical has become obvious.

I hope Dev has kept you better informed than I have. It's been a very busy year. Vision is well established with over 200 students and many more on the way. Diane has been very busy first as a steward and advisor to Dev and now as a staff member reworking the program to match the realities. Diane and I are now in the process of launching the next step, "Catalyst" which is best explained at http://www.alivedesigns.net/catalyst

Jordan is currently producing a video, which along with the website (when we finish it) and the handbook will document our experiences ad give some tools that may help other communities. Because communities are unique, the solutions will be unique, but at least others will know that it has been done, the mold has been broken, and there is beauty inside. A different paradigm is possible and it is possible to utilize the old paradigm as food for the new. Everyone comes out as a "winner".

Jordan produced a short 7 minute video of Vision for presentation at the annual school board meeting where the Vision program was reviewed. It invigorated everyone. At one point, Dev said to the school board, " I don't know how we can really document what's going on". The Superintendent pointed to the video screen. "Like that!" If you want a copy of the video, you might get in touch with Jordan at oeozero@yahoo.com. It may help win support in your community. One of the beauties in the way Vision developed was that it grew from simply commonsense, from a group of ordinary people attempting to solve a real problem. The mission statement and principles came after the fact. At first it was unclear, but a general direction was known from the reports of the scouts and wayfinders. The people knew each other and knew who to trust with what responsibilities. The board of Stewards was selected, not elected. Everyone is the program is responsible. There are some people who are not ready for this amount of freedom and responsibility and they get the least benefit.

We have been trying to keep Vision quiet and so far no major media has found out. Still we are beginning to get more inquiries than we can respond to. There will be a need for consultants to help other communities get started. What is happening is to complex to accurately convey. Perhaps Jordan really understands the program better than anyone, even the director, because he is doing so many interviews and documenting what is happening. Because the primary power lies in the relationship between the Resource Consultants, the learners and the parents, this basic triad is the driving force and because this can look so different from one situation to the next, no one really knows what is going on. The staff can only create a reasonable framework in which to operate. But the system and the substance are not the same. The system is a loosening mechanism, the substance a flow influenced by even the smallest variable.

I am a resource consultant. One of my learners, as his primary organizing principle for his learning plan, has chosen to research "The Beautiful Feeling" I have no doubt I am dealing with a young man who is learning to tap the Genius. He studies the masters where he finds them and they are more common than most people tend to believe. He has given himself to commitment and discipline for the first time in his life. He's thrilled and at 22 is learning to write with great enthusiasm.

Best wishes in your endeavor. If I can be of service to you, please let me know.

~ Marc