The World Desperately Needs Your Presence

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People love to get together and talk about pressing problems.

Different members of a community share an area of concern. They recognise it is bigger than any one of them can solve.

An invitation is issued. Speakers arranged. The venue, the food, the powerpoint deck, the wifi, all sorted.

The evening arrives. Attendees sift in through the doors, collect a name badge, and enter the room. They have polite conversation about the rain, old acquaintances take a moment to catch up and newcomers take a seat alone. When prompted all guests are seated.

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The organiser stands up the front and delivers an introduction to the event. After that we might see a panel session where a selection of smartly-dressed local experts discuss the issue at hand. Guests ask questions for the panel to answer. A handful of social media aficionados tweet feverishly.

The last question is fielded and the panel draws to a close. Guests eat cheese and crackers and down a wine. They mingle, some excitedly discuss the content of the evening. Others peel away for conversations about their workplace, their renovations, pets, kids and travel. Slowly the crowd peters out and the organisers dutifully pack-up and head home.

The problems remain unsolved.

Polite conversations are a pleasant diversion, but they achieve little

Whilst linear problems within the scope of our own organisation should be simple enough for a small team to solve, complex problems that cut across disciplines and fields require a different sort of attention. So what do we do about it?

We’re not totally off-track

To be fair, as a species we are getting better and better at the collective solving of complex problems. We have plenty of new (and revised) methods of harnessing collective wisdom and forging collaborative actions that make a difference.

https://fogartyedfutures.org.au/

Here at the Fogarty Foundation, we are currently dabbling and experimenting with some of these methods for our EDfutures program.

There’s plenty of talk in Australia about how the education system ‘needs to change,’ and all too many reports about globalisation, digital disruption and automation that highlight the urgency for this change. Our students are graduating into an uncertain world with a laundry list of challenges facing us. And yes, indeed, there are numerous, high quality efforts underway across the country that are giving rise to the enhancements and shifts that are taking us in the right direction.

As for us, we decided to take a step right back, in order to try and see ‘the whole’ as broadly as we could.

An experiment in systems change for education

EDfutures was initially forged as an “umbrella” banner under which we would investigate, convene and champion change in the education system. We see education as a source for societal transformation. A place for regeneration and restoration, towards social-ecological flourishing and a healthy relationship between people and planet. We all need a vision to move towards, and ours was very much inspired by the book Thrive by Innovation Unit’s Valerie Hannon.

EDfutures Design workshop at PICA

Instead of describing EDfutures as a program, it might be better to call it a “networked change effort,” which aims to enable individuals as systems change agents working towards the changes that need to happen.

As we worked together on this initiative it did become clear that my colleague Rebecca Loftus and I are creatures of the intellect, and our contributions to the development of EDfutures were borne mostly through research (with a healthy dash of animated dialogue).

The intellect is a powerful thing, but collective systems change requires more than our grey matter, our voices and polite events.

Everything changed in one moment by the sea

I realised how blind I was to myself, one clear winter day in a large conference room by the sea. Here I was at the Presencing Foundation Program, Asia-Pacific, 2018. The soft yet grounded voice of Arawana Hayashi washed over us, giving the sensation of standing on a firm beach of the finest sand.

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She explained how “the system” uses our bodies to express itself. That if we are just able to sense this, then it is possible to gain more intelligence about a complex problem in one instant than we can garner from a year of report-reading. It was different from anything I’d ever heard about cognition and understanding. I realised I was a big brain, resting on a small body I didn’t listen to. This new piece of understanding changed everything.

You can’t change a system by academically analysing it and writing a list of action points. Before we even act we need to understand our blind spots. And that can be quite a challenge.

The problem of not knowing yourself

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Those skeptics amongst you may like to do some reading on the anatomy and function of our brains, and understand the role that the amygdala (AKA “reptilian brain”) and the limbic brain play. We’re familiar with our old grey pal, the neocortex, but are mostly unconscious to the other important parts of our brain.

In default state, the thinking brain thinks that it knows itself and comprehends matters accurately. But the “non-rational,” unconscious parts of our brain make more decisions for us than we realise. We ignore the intelligence of our unconscious mind, and of our bodies. Problems arise when we think we’re acting rationally but we’re actually completely blind to ourselves and to others. When we only look to the stars but never in.

As individuals and groups our rational brains analyse problems, write and implement project plans, but in our working lives we can continue treading the familiar path of the status quo, walking around and around in circles alone and not progressing the changes we actually want to see. We have a feeling that we want to move but we’re not sure how, or where.

Most of us don’t really understand the ruts we’re stuck in

When we look in at ourselves, and sense those around us, we are able to share a deepened understanding. The ‘system’ starts to actually comprehend what is really going on. The points of ‘stuckness’ start to loosen and it’s possible to perceive where and how the shifts can and will happen. With increased empathy and courage from our shared perspective it then becomes easier for us to move together in the same direction. We are more able to craft solutions together that are more likely to make a difference. This process is called “presencing,” and by doing so we can lead into the emerging future that we want to create.

“The ability to shift from reacting against the past to leaning into and presencing an emerging future is probably the single most important leadership capacity today.” — Otto Scharmer.
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It is important to note that the method of “presencing” is not about disparaging deep domain expertise and technical endeavour. Rather, this is about adding another data point to our triangulation. This is about ensuring that all of us, including all those “I,” “T,” or “X” shaped people, have our feet firmly planted on the ground, with hearts tapped into our unconscious wisdom; gaining deep knowledge of ourselves and others. Only when we do that, will our change efforts really take root where and how they should.

A night of experimentation starts with an uncommon introduction

Photo by Tirachard Kumtanom from Pexels

Rebecca and I decided to trial some methods gleaned from the Presencing Foundation Program for our next EDfutures Community night. We are holding these nights to convene an assortment of individuals interested in education and change, and to see how and what we can do together.

We started with a slightly unconventional round of introductions where asked attendees to make a comment on the “present state” from their point of view. I scribed a summary of these statements, which was then read back to the group. Later on these statements were re-ordered by Rebecca.

Our circle checks in:…

Why hasn’t change happened?
I see children struggling. I struggled.
There’s a disparity between the classroom and the real world.
Our institutions put up barriers.
What about the voice of the child? What is the big picture for each child? How can students help other students?
I want to be a part of this, but I don’t know how. Yet. What is our role here?
We need to unbundle everything.How can the arts enhance learning? Learning beyond institutions. The alternatives should shift into the mainstream.
I’m a teacher first. My subject comes after my responsibility to the child.
It was three years ago, when I really started to notice change happening. I’m excited, but this is a battle.
We need to turn the sector on its head. Let’s reform the future. What could it be like?
This is the right room to be in.I want to be a part of this conversation. I’m happy to share your news.
All you need is one seed for something big to grow.
Why can’t we do this?
We’re in the right place, right now.

We tried out “4D Mapping,” and here’s what happened

We then tried out a technique called “4D Mapping,” which is a form of “Social Presencing Theatre”. Essentially, you have individuals physically perform the roles of key stakeholders in a system. This “helps the system to see itself”.

For our 4D mapping, we handed out cards, on which we had written 10 different “key stakeholders” in the system: Industry/Business, Universities/Tertiary, Governing Bodies, Principals, Teachers, Parents, Young People, Community, Education Service Providers, The Planet. These had been looped on string and were worn around the neck by those who felt ‘called’ to play a role (not necessarily one that they inhabited in their day-to-day).

The current system is one of stress and alienation

Participants received minimal instruction to represent a “sculpture” that communicated the current state:

Take up a position in the room relative to the others, at your choice of height/level, and orientation/direction. Take your time to settle into place.

The participants moved about each other, slowly falling into a constellation in the room that ultimately displayed disorder, alienation and stress. Participating and observing individuals were physically able to to sense the discomfort, distress and stuck-ness of the present state.

I gave a soft prompt, for any compulsion of movement, to occur. The constellation of people in the room shifted and circled around itself, moving towards each other, rising up and joining hands. There was a moment of settling and completion as this new formation collectively arrived at a physical representation of their desired state for this system.

The emerging future takes shape.

The future that emerges may make you cry

As the “sculpture” moved from the present to the emerging future, participants could physically experience the sensation of the ‘shifts’ that occurred. We gained a new perspective and a new source of intelligence. What and where exactly was the “stuckness,” how did it move, and what did it say to us?

This exercise did make some participants feel uncomfortable — mostly because it was completely new and it felt strange to use our bodies as a source of data! But for the most part, it seemed like tiny revelations were had all around.

Social Presencing Theatre is something that really must be experienced in person; as the new data is experienced only by participants and onlookers physically in the space.

In the absence of your presence, I will provide you instead with an account of this exercise by one of the participants, Elaine Olsen, who took up the role of “Planet”.

Whilst there is much more to be said, written and experience in the field of presencing for systems change, for now I leave you with a voice that is rarely heard. Read and let it sit with you.

And finally the Planet speaks:…

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I am planet Earth.
I am small and inconsequential. I sit on the floor and hug my knees. I am forgotten.
I feel the ignorance of people regarding who I am. I retreat to the edges of the system, away from the main group.
A hand rises up and points at me. I cannot see who it is. Someone seems to be taking notice of me.
The second situation starts to come about. I remain in the small position on the ground.
I suddenly feel that it isn’t right to be so lowly. There is some sort of energy pull that is urging me to become bigger and stronger. So I move into a kneeling position.
Still the feeling persists that I need to be taller. So I rise to my feet. My arms open up and widen. I want to encompass the whole group in my embrace.
There is movement from the group. They start to shift. I sense that they want to cluster around me but they aren’t sure how to.
Then someone puts their hand into mine.
I hesitate.
Should I return their grip?
I decide to. I feel safe and strong. There is love in the way I am held, a reassurance that they’ve got me.
I am planet Earth. I am You. You are me.
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Elaine shares her account:

I am Elaine representing planet Earth. I have recently developed a stronger affinity with Nature. I wanted to see what it would be like to play Nature.
In the first position, there was an element of my head speaking to my body, telling me to represent the way our planet is currently being treated. I deliberately kept my eyes averted and did not look at anyone’s face. I did not want to rely on my sense of seeing to direct me in what to do next.
When the hand came up and pointed in my direction, I did not know that it was the Young Person.
All I knew was that someone was actually interested in the planet. I wanted to respond somehow. The urge to rise up took me somewhat by surprise. My head said stay down, continue to stay small. But a part of me was saying no, that doesn’t feel right. Mother Earth needs to take her rightful place.
When the group started to move, I felt them draw nearer to me. I didn’t feel the urge to move closer to them. I felt that it was right that they should make the move towards Earth so I stayed put. When I put my hands out wide, I wanted to let people know that Earth was there for them.
I was surprised when a hand slipped into mine. I wasn’t sure where the hesitation came from. Was that me Elaine, who felt a slight sense of discomfort holding the hand of someone I didn’t know, or was that Earth wondering if she should take the helping hand?
I also felt a pause when the Young Person was deciding if she should put her hand in mine. Then very clearly I sensed a decision being made. Suddenly we were connected. The group was now closer to me than they were before.
I am Elaine and as someone who has recently tuned in to nature, I adore how sense-making makes sense. Hope the perspective of me as Elaine and me as planet Earth comes together in a way that makes sense

Watch this space, or jump in!

This was just the first of many experiments in using “presencing” for systems change in education.

If you would like to get involved please sign up as a community member of EDfutures.

Our community is much more than just talk. We’re moving beyond reports, beyond polite conversations, towards meaningful transformation.

All we ask of you is your presence.

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This blog post has come about after my participation in the Presencing Foundation Program Asia-Pacific, 2018.

Deepest gratitude to Otto Scharmer, Marian Goodman, Arawana Hayashi, Bradley Chenoweth, Dieter Van den Broeck, Katie Stubley, John Stubley, Phoebe Phillips, Zoe Street and Dr Ben Chan for facilitating this program in Fremantle, Western Australia.

For more information about the exercise we used (4D Mapping) see the Presencing Institute Foundation resource page.

A huge thanks to Matt Norman, Phoebe Phillips, Zoe Street and Elaine Olsen (all participants of the Presencing Foundation Program), who helped Rebecca and I with this session.

If you found this article interesting or helpful in some way, please give me a clap or two.