How to Update Higher Education

It’s time to ask ourselves the question: how to update the educational system? How can higher education tackle the technological, environmental, and social disruptions of the 21st century?


Classical higher education is based on the unity of teaching and practical application. Modern higher education is based on the unity of research, teaching, and practical application. I believe that the current historical moment, with a new civilization being born, invites us to reconceive 21st-century higher education as a unity of research, teaching, and praxis of transforming society and self.
The current contribution of higher education to societal transformation remains unclear. This is because the traditional output of higher education  — knowledge and practice  —  is not the missing piece to catalyzing social change.


Let’s consider the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It can be seen as the current global framework outlining the transformation objectives of the next decade.
The difficulties in implementing the SDGs worldwide are not caused by a knowledge gap. The problem is a lack of political will and a knowing-doing gap. Otherwise described as a disconnect between our collective consciousness and our collective action. This gap leads us to collectively create results that nobody wants: massive environmental destruction, societies breaking apart, and social media-induced mass separation from our deeper sources of self.
To address these profound challenges, we need new platforms and new capacities that upgrade our mental and social system from ego-system awareness to eco-system awareness.

learning to shift

The main problems in higher education today is the lack of the capacity to lead transformative change. We neglect learning in shifting to:
· seeing yourself — i.e. self-awareness — both individually and collectively;
· accessing your curiosity, compassion, and courage;
· deepening the space for listening and conversation;
· reshaping the type of organizing from centralized to ecosystem;
· cultivating governance mechanisms that operate from seeing the whole;
· holding the space for profound transformation: letting go and letting come.

This shift of focus is mirrored by the challenges we face across societal sectors. When you talk to CEO’s, CPO’s, entrepreneurs and activists they all say: ‘We need people who are agile and co-creative and who can make their organizations thrive in a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. We need to increase our capacity to collaborate and co-create across institutional and sector boundaries’.
Talking to higher education leaders, there are some exceptions, they live and operate most of their time in the straightforward world of education. Their thinking is framed in terms of adding another skill here or another course there , not in terms of development which essentially deals with the evolution of consciousness. To use the analogy of the smartphone: they think in terms of adding another app, not in terms of upgrading the entire operating system.

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the shift

In short, the shift needed is about leading transformation by shifting consciousness from ego-system awareness to eco-system awareness. I believe that in this century the primary reason for higher education to exist increasingly lies in helping individuals, organizations, and societal systems to build such transformation/shift.
The following 9 principles summarize what 21st-century higher education institutions could look like if we take the shift: upgraded the entire OS.

1. Societal Transformation – if the 21st-century higher education institution is about the unity of research, teaching and transforming society and self, learners must go out into the real world and engage with the core challenges of our time. To be relevant for society, higher education needs to be relevant to the pressing challenges at hand, such as the implementation of SDG goals.


One of the biggest roadblocks in making progress on these challenges is the gap between knowing and doing. Addressing that gap requires leading for transformational change across all levels of social systems: at the level of individuals (holding the space for self-awareness), groups (deep listening and dialogue), organizations (from centralized to ecosystems), and larger systems (coordinating through a shared awareness or seeing the whole). All these dimensions are at play whenever you deal with transformational change in society.

2. Kindling – learning is the kindling of a flame. ‘Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel’. Those words of Plutarch are as true today as they were two thousand years ago. Still, the misconception of education as a vessel-filling activity remains. How do we create the conditions for this kindling to happen more intentionally?

3. Action Learning – shift the outer place of learning. Students must learn by doing. In action learning the student is the change agent or entrepreneur, and the teacher is the coach, the helper who holds the space for the learner to activate her highest future potential. Developing action learning at scale requires very different learning infrastructures, including classrooms that are not primarily about content delivery but about reflection on action. This requires a different type of classrooms that can hold the space for student-centric forms of learning.

4. Ecosystem Leadership – build capacity from me to we. Students and learners must be ecosystem leaders: change-makers in their own context. The number one institutional leadership challenge across systems and sectors is how to become effective at ecosystem leadership challenges. How to convene a diverse group of stakeholders and partners and then take them on a journey from a silo to a systems view, from ego-system to eco-system awareness. Holding the space for such a journey is at the heart of all major leadership challenges today. It’s a capacity that is largely missing in organizations and insufficiently developed in higher education.

5. Self-Knowledge – know thyself. Learners and change makers must know themselves. ‘Know thyself’ has been at the foundation of wisdom traditions in both the East and the West. Today, the quest for self-knowledge is even more mission-critical than before. ‘Who is my Self? and What is my Work?’ are essential questions we need to ask ourselves not only as individuals, but also as organizations and ecosystems. Who are we as human beings? Who do we want to be? What kind of future do we want to co-shape and be part of?
The currency that counts when it comes to self-knowledge is not ideas. Anyone can have an idea. The currency that counts at the bottom of the theory U process is practice. Practices are things that we do every day. Practices relevant to the development of self-knowledge include listening, contemplation, mindfulness, and presencing.

6. Systems Thinking – make the system see itself. Learners and change makers must be systems thinkers. What is the most important practical contribution of systems thinking to the world? It’s the use of methods and tools that make the system see itself — i.e., that make people in the system see the patterns that they collectively enact. Students need to develop mastery in delivering these interventions at all levels of change: individuals, groups, organizations, and societal systems.
Advanced systems thinking includes the capacity for systems sensing. Because making a system see itself is not good enough. To address the knowing-doing gap we have to make the system sense and see itself. How can you build this capacity at scale? Answer: social arts and social aesthetics-based practice fields are the main vehicles to developing these foundational capacities. They should be a core element of any student curriculum.

7. Other Paradigm to Science – bending the beam of scientific observation back onto the observing self. Students and change makers must have a method. Science uses particular methods to get the data to talk to us. Traditional science limits the application of scientific methods primarily to one type of data. Data based on third-person views. In the future we need to extend the concept of science by letting all three types of data talk to us. Third-person (external observations), second-person (deep listening and dialogue), and first-person data (one’s own experiences). To do this we have to bend the beam of scientific observation back onto the observing self . We have to investigate not only external but also internal data, the more subtle aspects of our experience. Doing so will allow us to make the applied scientific method relevant to where it matters most in the context of this century: the cultivation and evolution of our self-knowledge not only as individuals, but also on the level of the collective. Because we cannot change a system, unless we change consciousness. And we cannot change consciousness, unless we make the system sense and see itself.

8. Democratize – build infrastructures for deep learning at scale. Learners and change makers must facilitate deep learning at scale. The democratization of access to knowledge is one of the main accomplishments of recent decades. Access to quality education and access to a deep learning cycle are not as readily available. Studies have shown that online learning (content freely available online for anyone) tends to be shallow (head-centric) and the completion rate is low. So, what does it take to make the deep learning cycle (involving head, heart, and hand) available to everyone?

9. The Fourth Teacher – cultivate generative social fields. Learners and change makers must be able to experience and cultivate generative social fields. Who are the main teachers in our journey toward making the deep, transformative learning cycle accessible to everyone?

innovation in learning

We need to move the main focus of our societal learning infrastructures to transformative learning systems. The ten principles are pointers that help us to progress on this journey.
In doing so higher education expand their focus to the well-being of the entire ecosystem that they are embedded in. Broadening and deepening the learning cycle in these ways grounds our institutions of higher education in the praxis of transforming society and self. Because societal and personal transformation are not separate , they are two different aspects of the same deeper evolutionary process. How do you take action in this change?

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