What might regenerative practice look like in education?

[T]he only true atom is the universe—that total system of interdependent “thing-events” which can be separated from each other only in name.—Alan Watts

Regenerative practice can never be achieved or ticked off a list. Regenerative practice is just that, practice. Regeneration is dynamic and ever-changing, so cannot be a place we land and settle comfortably. While sustainability aims for balance, regeneration focuses on the dynamic process of change, at every moment and in which we are active participants, rather than isolated entities. 

The word regeneration comes from the Proto-Indo-European roots “*re-” (again) and “*gene-” (to give birth). Sustainability derives from the PIE root “teh₂-” (to support, but also to remain). We can visualize the difference between the two words: one focuses on maintaining support, while the other represents the perpetual process of renewal. Regeneration implies re-birth (and therefore re-death), yet this does not provide much insight into regenerative practice in education1. We still need a map to find our bearings as we fumble our way through the practice.

What might regenerative practice look like? What might it look like in education, in learning? How can we make it more accessible, bringing it down from esoteric heights? We can start by asking these questions, but we will quickly realize that no matter what we do,  regeneration is always happening, that the universe, our relationships, systems, and everything else are constantly flowing and permanence is an illusion. Regeneration is the unfolding of life, contrasted to the mechanistic view (static, composed of replaceable parts, lifeless) of the world our culture frequently embraces. The universe is non-static: it is the infinite processes that are born, grow, decay, and are transformed into newness, and it is only when humans delineate that we create separateness and the illusion of permanence.

Regenerative practice flows and does not stop anywhere long enough for permanence to settle. It participates [in/as] the world through non-duality (advaita, in Vedanta philosophy), which is a unity that is not the same as “one-ness opposed to multiplicity.” It is the idea that we are “all, but not two,” that is, we are relational becomings (see below), not independent entities unto ourselves, separated from the rest. We are wholes, yes, but only insofar as we draw a line in pencil, erasable and wiggly, around who we are. 

This disorients our notion of education because we no longer ask individuals to follow one linear path toward a predetermined goal. Rather, we re-wild learning. In the wild, nothing can live on its own. Non-linearity, complexity, bio-diversity: this is what life needs to thrive and these are the seeds of any regenerative practice. We are all, but not two.  

It is in this bio-diversity, this understanding that we are active participants in life, that we differentiate2 but cannot separate, that we find regenerative practice.

In Western culture, we tend to believe that we end where our skin ends, as if our bodies were the physical delimitation of who we are. This might be a convenient myth, but given that what we call our bodies are microbiomes in themselves, hosting tiny critters of all sorts, that our DNA contains genes from viral invaders, that our bodies respond to environmental conditions, how can we end where our skin ends? 

David Bohm calls the wholeness of the universe the implicate order. The implicate order is the underlying basis from which the explicate order emerges, which is everything we can see, touch, taste, hear, and smell, as well as all the objects, events, and phenomena that we are aware of in our physical environment. Karen Barad introduces the neologism “intra-action,” explaining that entities are not pre-existing and separate from one another, but rather are mutually constituted through the relational becomings that take place, as phenomena, between them. In other words, the boundaries between entities are not fixed, but rather emerge through these ongoing intra-actions. 

The universe is entangled and nothing is separate, yet we make differentiations between “things” to make sense of the world. The word interdependence, where everything is connected to everything else, continues to stress separateness, albeit where entities connect with one another across the universe. Intra-action places the primacy of relationships over connected entities: we become through our relationships, not the other way around. Things are not essential, not definitive; they do not have an essence or a Platonic ideal. Things emerge when we focus our attention on parts of the whole. We create the differentiation, but these exist a posteriori our relationships, that is, based on the experiences we have of these relationships. In other words, the tree emerges when we differentiate it through our senses and (to avoid getting stuck in a phenomenological quagmire) when we agree collectively that it is a tree. We could perfectly well “see” it as something else, but if we don’t agree on what differentiates this as a tree, we won’t share meaning.

Differentiation is not separation. We draw lines in pencil around “things” to differentiate them as part of our meaning-making, but this does not mean that these things exist on their own. There is no objectivity because there are no separate objects, but that doesn’t mean that everything is subjective either, because this too would create separation. There is neither static objectivity nor unbridled subjectivity; there is only the experience we share right now and the meaning we make together by drawing lines and sharing understandings. This is a playful exercise (practice?) where we negotiate and write the rules as we go along. We cannot take ourselves too seriously, though that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be sincere.

Thoughts (and the words that follow) create dualities where there are none. We use words to differentiate one-thing from no-thing. Yet we need language (in all its communicative possibilities, not just words) to make meaning of shared experiences. This cup is a cup because we agree it is a cup. If I put pencils in it, it becomes a pencil holder. We could also describe it as a particular configuration of specific molecules or part of the contents of the cupboard. We call ourselves humans because we find it convenient. We could (and do!) call ourselves by many other names. Some of us reject traditional gender identities; could we not also reject the traditional Linnaean classification system… or even just the label “human?”

So we appreciate that there is no one way, that life is wild and we learn and live together in all our diversity, which we differentiate, together. We are all, but not two. We are a collective—a bio-collective—for life, differentiable but not separate. We thrive when we are allowed to express ourselves in the moment and as participants in life. 

What might regenerative practice look like in education? I use “might” not “does” because regeneration practice is not a model, it cannot be replicated because life cannot be replicated; life emerges in its unique way, through its responses to the specific conditions around it. Regenerative practice is based on principles, not rules. It cannot be planned, rather it grows in spaces that provide the conditions for it to thrive (and so it is life-affirming). This growth is never complete and never final: it is always in flow, that dynamic process that I mentioned earlier. The principles themselves might vary depending on whom you ask3. I have listed three below, not with the intent to add to anyone’s list or to claim that mine are better than others… rather I propose these as a guiding spirit. Regenerative practice in education:

  1. Create pace for emergence: Without linearity, without a mechanistic straight path to a pre-set and externally-determined objective, regenerative practice creates spaces for surprises, for possibilities, for energetic bursts of life. These is nurtured in the way we design physical spaces we create, connected to place, but also in the spaces we open up relationally. We make room for emergence. Like everything in Nature, growth happens from the inside, and is influenced by the surrounding conditions. Kindness and generosity are powerful nutrients. Regenerative practice is a space where we are comfortable with the complexity and uncertainty that comes with learning, that comes with releasing control and letting learning take a life of its own. This means trusting in the way we (self-)organize these spaces through the aspirations we set out at the beginning. In other words, we allow for possibilities which are infinite within the constraints that we set4.
  2. Are fluid and ever-morphing: Regenerative practice does not try to determine the future. They do not write procedural steps on the dead pages of a planner, to be used year after year regardless of who or what is present in the learning environment. They adapt and change, recognizing that everything has a life cycle and will be composted so that other life forms can emerge. Like life, we continuously respond to the context in which we find ourselves, without a hard boundary between us and the outside, but rather understanding that we participate in weaving the context, with everyone/thing5.
  3. Are pluricentric: Regenerative practice is not student-centric, they aren’t even human-centric. In regenerative practice, there is no center because there are no boundaries. Rather, there are infinite numbers of centers because we deal in entangled relationships (relatonalities?) not separate entities. We are perpetually moving within the flow of these relationships. The center is not fixed or permanent: it is as non-localized and ephemeral as the cuts we make in the universe to make sense of it. 

None of this means it’s the Wild West! But it is wild, like Nature. It is not a manicured garden where diversity is sketched out beforehand to please the eye and line the paths. A wild ecology of learning where every actant plays a part to influence others and be influenced by others simultaneously. We learn from each other, beyond the human, because we are all in this together. 

If we are all in this together, who are we and what is this

If we are all in this together, who are we? If we are all in this together, what is this? How do we draw porous borders to mark the space, delineating what is and what is not? We know that we exclude whenever we draw lines and we sit with that trouble as well. We want to reduce carbon emissions, yet how are some groups affected negatively as a result? We want to include more voices into the mix, but what of yourself must you leave behind to be accepted in the circle? We become indignant at the violence perpetuated in Europe by warring countries, yet we do almost nothing to alleviate the hunger of 850 million humans on the verge of starvation, never mind the billions of other, non-human earthlings who are on the brink of extinction. Let us love those within the lines, get to know richly who is there. We do the same for those outside the lines, extending those lines beyond where we initially drew them.

Regenerative practice does not demand perfection, but it does call for us to be attentive to/in/with spaces that are fluid and have no center. It asks us to live in the moment to moment, listening with our minds, bodies, and social fields to how life expresses its need to thrive in each moment. This is not personalization, which claims to focus on the needs of the student. Regenerative practice de-centers the individual, the human, so that we consider all life, or at least as much as we can within our context, appreciating as well that we will have blindspots, but we never stop trying to extend the space to include more life. 

The key lies in “as much as we can within our context.” In some settings, it may be more challenging, but we do what we can. Perhaps we are working with a set curriculum, learning outcomes, and the need to deliver test scores. How can we be regenerative within this context? 

We can start by cultivating healthy relationships in the moment, every moment. 

We can begin by appreciating learners’ areas of strength and abundance rather than weakness and scarcity.

We can be sure to bring in different perspectives in as many aspects of the curriculum, perspectives that go beyond the human.

We can insist that everything we do contributes to the thriving of the bio-collective.

We can revere place and everything that lives in it, as the expression of place.

We can slow down and find pleasure in simplicity.

We can respond to learners’ needs through flexibility, adaptation, and a willingness to notice and assess understanding in whichever way learners decide to demonstrate it.

We can care for the soil, the water, the light, and every living thing in the more than human world.

We can make time for joyful play.

We can find love in the bio-diversity that makes us different in infinite numbers of ways, yet all share the same purpose: the healthfulness of the planet. We are all, but not two.

We can release control and allow the learning to be wild again, where every wildflower in the learning space can express itself individually and as part of the stunning bio-diverse landscape. 

Regenerative practice is not a model, it is not a hard set of rules. It is a spirit, based on the principles of and for life. It is contextual. It is always moving, temporary, and dynamic because it responds to the here and now, with skillfulness and attention.

In a universe entangled, we are responsible for the lines we draw to make sense of this universe. We strive constantly to expand our circle, care for the members of the bio-collective, refuse exploitative and degenerative ways. We find humility and courage: we know we cannot change the world, yet we find the will and the power to affect this moment, in the place.

1 We could say “make it concrete” since concrete comes from “*kom,” (together or with) and “*ker-,” (to grow). In Latin, the word is “crescere” (to grow), so to make something concrete is to allow it to grow together. Unfortunately, we tend to think of the hardened building material, so I am avoiding this term.

2 Differentiate as in, make different, not the pedagogical strategy.

3 The RSA outlines its guiding principles for regenerative design very well in this paper.

4 This might be inspired by Fransisco Varela, who argued that living systems are self-organizing and maintain their own boundaries, and that this imposes constraints on the ways in which they can evolve.

5 The etymology of “context” is to weave together.

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