New Learning Cartography: Small Steps for a Big Journey with no Destination

This article was published in IntrepidEd News on 13 Jan 2023. It was written in collaboration with Michelle Blanchet.

Some years ago, the education world grabbed hold of this idea of 21st century skills.  Experts and leaders identified and agreed on four “essential skills” necessary to succeed in the uncertain world of tomorrow. This brainchild grew legs rather quickly[1] and it was almost never questioned that creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication—all conveniently beginning with C— were the four chosen ones. It is a most delicious irony that there is such certitude of what is needed to prepare the youth for an uncertain world. Well maybe not that much certitude because other words seem to pop up here and there: multi-literacy, perseverance, adaptability, intercultural skills, and so forth. The list seems to be getting longer, much like the list we might have as we pack our bags before a trip. Sometimes, we try to pack in so many things that we can no longer zip the bag closed. This all feels so unwieldy. 

The trouble is that most of these skills are presented in a way that’s a bit sterile. They seem more interested in covering all the bases of what will be needed in the world of work rather than challenging us to imagine what other futures might be possible. It’s not just that these skills seem somewhat haphazardly thrown around or that it’s troubling that they should be thought of as “essential” for the future. The 21st century is a quarter gone and never had exclusive rights over these skills—those brave souls who migrated 6,000 years ago toward the endless horizons of the South Pacific needed resilience and collaboration skills, and the builders of the St. Peter’s Basilica and the Mayan pyramids were surely creative and collaborative. What these skills are missing are purpose and a soul. They remain individualistic and mechanistic. Creativity for what? Collaboration toward what[2]? Surely there must be more than career readiness, that term used to justify the system of capitalism. How might we find meaning in our jobs, reversing alienation from ourselves and our work? How might we re-conceptualize the relationship between economy and environment as a positive-sum and not zero-sum game? How might we navigate (not prepare for) an entangled present and future that nurture ways of being and becoming toward life, each other, and ourselves that are atavistic, connective, and truly essential for these times of crises: generosity, kindness, caring, and love? Even these words are arbitrarily selected. Words are symbols we draw on maps to guide our audience through the landmarks of our ideas. 

Ah! Some will call this communication an essential skill! Of course, communication is important; no one is suggesting that we stop opening up spaces for more impactful communication. Rather, it’s that every map has a legend or at least a tacit understanding between the cartographer and the reader of what the symbols mean. The map is not the territory, as they say. The ways we are and become are the territory. Creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication are not the destination; they are what we pack on our journey, and we have the power to draw up our own lists of what we need. The unsettling reality is that when we are all in this together, all facing the meta-crisis—which includes an entanglement of climate, social, economic, relational, equity, and, and, and… breakdown—there is no destination. This is a journey toward a horizon that we will never reach, nor should we try, but we still travel together.

Sustainability and regeneration are not destinations. They are entanglements that value the unique essence of all life and the interconnections between all things. They are assemblages of generosity, kindness, caring, and love. If we want to respond in skillful ways to the meta-crisis we face, we will need skills, yes, but more importantly the ways of being and becoming toward which these skills are applied. We will need to create spaces where others feel they are welcome, safe, and can contribute; everyone applying their skills toward greater ends. We need to make people aware they are already on the journey (whether they like it or not), that there are many ways to engage, and that we each have our own path to pursue.  

When we approach others with our ideas, when we share our thoughts and perhaps try to change conditions for our audience (that is what communication is!), we might do so with generosity, care, and love. When we come from a place of generosity, we open up to the reality that we don’t get to pick what language will resonate with others. We speak, we write, and we share in ways that make others feel welcome, safe, and listened to. We heal divisiveness by opening up the spaces in between. We trust that when we speak not from the heights of our perspectives but from the flat ground that lies between us, we open up space for connections, one of the Cs that is seldom mentioned. (Communion, cogency, and concern are also ignored.) 

We often forget that what is important in communication is not how or what we say or write, but the impact our message has on the audience, how the communicator is the mediator who changes conditions for the audience and perhaps influences the way they act. The form that action takes, that is, what happens as a response to the message, is one of the most significant measures of the qualities of the communicator[3]. The point is that it takes two to tango and in school systems where communication is a skill often assessed through rubrics limited to organization, content, style, punctuation, eye contact, or listening, it’s no wonder that communication remains an act of isolation rather than connection: what is important, impact on the audience, is nowhere to be found[4]. If we are preparing students for the present and the future by emphasizing the importance of certain competencies, then we as practitioners need to develop these skills as well.

Impact takes shape when we mind the gaps[5] that lie in between our connections. Gaps of misunderstandings, misassumptions, and miscues. Communication is the art of minding those gaps, and tending to what is not there. Empty space on a map does not mean that the territory is empty. 

The language we use helps us navigate toward understanding. The words we use and the drawings on maps are symbols, representations of the territory. While we may share the same words, what these words (symbols) represent may differ vastly. The same words may not have the same meaning. The meaning behind the words, that is, language itself, is value-laden. Different values, different language: even if the words look and sound the same—same letter combinations and phoneme blends—they don’t mean the same things to all of us. Ask ten different people what their definitions of democracy, freedom, or learning are. Ask them what they see in their mind when you tell them the word cup, car, or dog. Will you ever have two answers the same?

The wounds that cut deep within the civilizational landscape won’t heal until we find common ground not of words, but of the spirit behind the words: who does not value generosity, caring, and love? Words are representations and create binaries like battle lines in the earth. Trenches dug with the words we use, the opposition lies in front of us. What would it take for us to come together in the no man’s land that separates us, a place where we meet halfway? What would it take for us to be mindful of the gaps in the land, the scars in the earth from years of fighting, walking toward one another in efforts to understand? What would it take for us to de-represent words, using words as connectors and no longer weapons? We use words in single-serving portions, more aware of the spirit of what unites us than the words that separate us. From here, words are no longer the forest.

The steps we make toward each other are the first of a journey alongside one another. No matter which “side we’re on” (as if it were a binary!), almost all of us want to be happy, to be loved, and belong. We find common ground not by forcing our ideas on others, not by shaming and blaming from our high horses or our white towers. We find common ground by noticing the language we aren’t using as much as the language we are using: what is not said? what is implied? what is assumed? We walk toward each other along these narrow connecting bridges, aware of the gaps in between. At first, we will be clumsy, not sure-footed. We might lose our balance and so we catch each other in the spirit of generosity, caring, and love. At first, we don’t go too fast! We simplify. We simplify as much as possible without dumbing down.  Sustainability and regenerative practices must be inviting for all, so every person feels their worth and impact…

As we journey together, we might walk just a bit faster, but we will not get to our destination any sooner. There is no destination: the journey is the beginning with no end and it is not a straight line. It is a way of being and becoming. We must recognize that others will have their own starting points on the journey, and we must meet them where they are, even if it’s not anywhere near where we’d hoped that starting point might be…

And so we adapt to our audience. Isn’t that in the same spirit as classroom differentiation? Do we speak to six-year-olds in the same ways we speak to 17-year-olds? When we adapt our language to our audience, mindful of the gaps between us, and communicating not from fixed positions but from the momentum of our journey together, we heal the wounds in the common ground. We are the dancers, agile and light-footed, inviting others to move to song and joy. Partners respond and adapt to each other to find synchronicity and communion.

When we talk to one another on this journey we take together, we appreciate the now as much as the direction toward which we are headed. We realize that there are no hard rules about where we should be. Every situation, every person, and every context is unique. (Again, the difference between standardization and differentiation.) Sometimes small steps are huge steps. We find grace in all forms, not just the supposed ideal. 

There must be a place from where we might begin, a word or phrase that is the seed. It must be something upon which we can all agree. Even love, that energy that connects us and without which life cannot thrive, is not a word that will re-connect us. Love as a word is sometimes seen as the device of the enemy[6]: utter it in the wrong direction and you’ll be accused of recruiting for the local hippie commune. Don’t smile. How often is freedom conflated with the right to bear arms or unbridled capitalism?  

What would it take for us to begin from a place of agreement rather than disagreement? What would it take for us to find common grounds instead of battlegrounds? We can all agree that we want to be happy and for our loved ones to be happy. We can all agree that we want to be healthy and well and we want our loved ones to be healthy and well. We can all agree that we want our communities to thrive. As poet, scientist, and founder of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, when we collect all that which we have in common, “piece by piece, the cadence begins to eddy around the boulder of disagreement and erode the edges of the barriers between us.” We use language we both understand to collect the commonalities. 

No more blame and shame, for it can quickly blow out the spark of someone who’s trying. No more using words as weapons. No more ignoring the gaps between us. These are times to nurture more than “essential skills,” these are times to nurture ways of being and becoming. We respond to the world with generosity, caring, and love and find that certain skills are essential to bring about these responses. Communication is but the means for possibilities to emerge. When we communicate with other people, we appreciate that how they engage depends on the language we use (including non-verbal). We ensure that we use the language most effectively to bring about the world we wish to bring forth. We bear the responsibility to one another and the earth to make our message as welcoming as possible: low threshold, high ceiling, wide walls. 

We cannot talk about sustainability in ways that aren’t sustainable. We cannot care for the earth if we do not care for each other. We cannot honor the unique essence of all living things if we do not honor each other as unique. It’s not about us, it’s about the work and the message through which we do the work together. For us to take this journey together, we must be travel companions. 


↑1Sometimes even a tail or two and we have five or six C’s instead of just four.
↑2Some of the most murderous regimes have proven exemplary practitioners of creativity, collaboration, and communication.
↑3 The quality of the communicator is only one of the factors that engender responses: the rest include environmental factors, intra-actions with materials, what each audience member brings to the present moment (bad day? no breakfast? newfound confidence from a recent experience?). We cannot isolate any one (or one million) thing(s).
↑4Google “communication rubric” and see for yourself how seldom these rubrics take impact into account.
↑5This idea comes from Nora Bateson.
↑6Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time: how many millions found death because they refused to find solace in the love of the Lord?

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