SelfDesign - A new way of thinking about leaning

Tuesday, 22 November 2011 16:00

By: Brent Cameron Ph.D.

Once there was a child who dreamed she was a butterfly and who grew up dancing from flower to flower ... 2003© Brent Cameron

Giftedness is like a butterfly. There is nothing more beautiful than a butterfly's brilliant dancing flight from flower to flower. However, any attempt to capture and mount that butterfly often leaves us with a greater sense of loss than of holding a treasure. Similarly, giftedness cannot be captured. Our testing and measuring of the flight of the human mind leaves us with a lifeless, statistical artifact of something that, by its very nature, is the symbol of human metamorphosis.

In our culture, the word "giftedness" implies a very special innate quality, realized by only a few. It suggests a metamorphosis or transformation from a special kind of nothingness to a powerful and elegant kind of everythingness, not excellence in everything but in a special area of focus in an individual's life. As a radical and innovative educator, I have chosen to look at this issue somewhat differently, believing that everyone has unique gifts to unfold. Because of the innovative nature of my work in human learning over the past forty plus years, I have had the opportunity to have breakthroughs in understanding and the possibility of extended observations into human learning arising in freedom.

Three times in my life I have been overwhelmed in the moment - helpless, present and flushed with a flood of serotonin in that special experience of nothingness at birth. The first time was when I was born, the second time was an opportunity to re-experience my own birth as a young man, and the third time was when my daughter was born seven years later. I now understand that the second two experiences provided me with the ability to join the world-view of the infant which set the stage for my design of a new, from the inside view, of learning as living.

Without speaking a word during the first year of my daughter's life, she said more to me than the sum of my teachers and mentors over my lifetime. More is misleading, because it was actually the depth and quality of the communication that transformed my way of being. At the age of thirty, I found myself bonding for the first time with another human being. The gift of this experience, coupled with my awareness and understanding of the process, set me on a journey of discovery with my daughter to find out what it is to be human. This exploration inwards to unknown territory has allowed me to create new maps and models illustrating how human beings work and also discover new methodologies for how we learn.

Over the thirty-four years since the birth of my daughter, I have discovered that passion, focus, purpose, fascination and enthusiasm emerge from a ground of curiosity and are the conditions that truly birth gifted and talented activity. Furthermore, I have come to believe that human excellence is a consequence of integrity, presence, congruency and balance as specific neurological states foundational to comprehensive thinking and understanding. Because I created an experiment in learning beyond the paradigm of schooling, I have been able to witness learning in its own right. It became very clear to me that human beings are essentially learning organisms. Obvious maybe, but profound if we can actually learn to design our intelligence through aligning thinking strategies with our natural patterns of integrity as emerging and unfolding beings. I have come to realize that our ability to stand in the center and author our thoughts and actions, as well as observing ourselves from the outside, allows us to align our unconscious and conscious neurological processes. People who engage in this dynamic integration seem to be identified as gifted and talented.

What makes us unique as a species is that the human being is the design that designs itself. With this realization, our alignment of our creative and intentional processes with our unconscious natural excellence allows for the unfolding of our infinite intelligence. As fruit forms on a mature apple tree, human intelligence comes to fruition as self-actualization. Self-actualization is a lifelong metamorphic learning process of integration and harmony. We are all born as the authors of our own lives. Thereby, each one of us is an authority of one. Living as the author of one's life in presence and wholeness allows each one of us to live as an authentic person. Living as the author, creator and designer of one's own authentic life, is a transformational experience of enthusiasm and fulfillment.

My personal unfolding ...

 As a child I could never quite understand what I had done wrong to have my freedom stripped away leaving me to spend endless days and years effectively in jail. I remember that I was never once asked what I was interested in, and I am sure that no one ever inquired about what I wanted to learn. I learned that pleasure was something I had to sneak outside of adult supervision. Because my inner world was ignored, over the years I gradually learned to ignore my own feelings. My birthright of self-authority was abandoned and my own desires became irrelevant and unimportant. After graduating from university, all my friends headed out into the world to capitalize on what they had learned as submissive and excellent students. In an anti-authoritarian mood I remember making a commitment to myself to find out what I had lost and to rediscover the worldview and joy of my early years. The transformational discoveries during the next ten years set the stage for me to parent my own daughter in an entirely different way and, secondly, to become an innovative educator outside the current paradigm of schooling.

During my years of freedom and discovery, I began to read diverse thinkers and realized the value of meeting as many of these people as I could. I was lucky enough to meet Buckminster Fuller several times during that period. This quote was pivotal to my developing a new logic of learning:

"All children are born geniuses, but are swiftly de-geniused by their elder's harsh or dull dismissal of the child's intuitive sense of what could be relevant. Children spontaneously weigh all information from their immediate experience and try to relate it to other experiences of some time before. The incipient geniuses must somehow weather, year after year, the barrage of admonitions to ignore what they spontaneously think, instead of only paying attention to what others think and are trying to teach."

I was determined to understand the implications of these ideas. The design of my new educational model would include an effort to minimize the reductionist effect adults can have on children.

The chronology of SelfDesign® ...

With Fuller's quote echoing in my mind, I became father to my daughter in 1977. I was so inspired by watching my daughter learn to talk that I began to imagine a new way of thinking about learning. I had read that psychologists consider the learning of our first language as the most challenging and difficult neurological task in our lifetime, yet virtually all children accomplish languaging joyfully and playfully in a self-directed way.


On a beautiful sunny September morning in 1982, my daughter walked out of kindergarten. It was recess, and she was swinging joyfully on a swing. When the bell rang a feeling came into her body and she realized that she did not want to go back into the school. That night we talked about her insight earlier that morning, and she said, "In school I cannot learn what I want to learn when I want to learn it." She did not return to school and a year later in September, when her friends were going into Grade 1, our family began a conversation about learning. After over a week of discussions we agreed to start our own school based on the freedom of each child to learn what they want to learn. One fall day in 1983 my daughter and I walked hand in hand around Vancouver, BC putting up posters. We announced that we were starting a small learning center as an educational experiment in which children have the opportunity to learn through curiosity and enthusiasm.

Wondertree ...

We called the program Wondertree, and by the end of the first year I had six children that I played and learned with each day. By the start of the second year I had formed a non-profit society and began working with 10 children out of our basement. Each year for eight years I worked with my daughter and more or less the same group of children. Each day we would sit together around a large circular table and out of our conversations would come plans and activities that were meaningful and exciting. We pooled the tuition money and the learners learned how to manage the budget of the program. We would meet interesting people on our adventures and the children would hire them to work with us each week for a few months. We hired musicians, story-tellers, dancers, potters, artists, writers, computer programmers, scientists, anthropologists and their favorite - a clown.

The curriculum emerged out of our individual and collective interests. Our decisions were based on consensus, and we used a negotiation strategy to resolve differences. Over the years I began to witness qualities emerge, unique to each learner, that could be appreciated as an unfolding of natural intelligence or giftedness. In my attempt to better understand what was happening, I began searching for mentors to assist me in comprehensively explaining human development. I discovered Neuro-Linguistic Programming and worked with the founder John Grinder for several years. This subjective science introduced me to breakthrough techniques for observing and understanding human behavior at intrinsic levels and gave me strategies to help the learners design their own strategies for personal excellence. Gradually over the years I drew from many different disciplines to outline new ways of mapping and modeling an epistemology of human learning.

During these same years the learners and I started designing software and we won three national Canadian awards for innovation in education. The children focused on what they loved, and their deepening passions and successes deepened their skills, confidence and self-esteem. I found it interesting to note that parents and visitors to our program started seeing each one of our enthusiastic self-responsible learners as gifted and talented. This was especially significant because about half of the learners came into the program with learning difficulties and challenges.

Virtual High ...

Although the original K-9 ungraded program continued on for the next twenty years, I shifted my focus to start a high school. In 1993, Michael Maser, my daughter Ilana and I did the planning, research and marketing for the launch of Virtual High. We attracted about 35 young people who felt high school was not meeting their learning needs. We rented an old mansion in the heart of Vancouver, where we began a whole new level of self-designed learning. It took a while for many of the teens to deschool and shift from being outer-directed by authority to being inner-directed as the authors of their own lives. One of the most empowering aspects of our program was the experience of consensus that gave each learner a practical experience of authorship and authenticity. Michael and I initially thought that the program was going to be about entrepreneurism and using technology in innovative ways to engage these youth as enthusiastic life-learners. However, the youth transformed the program so that the focus was on personal development. The ongoing conversations and interest in introspection and self-awareness encouraged each learner to get in touch with their inner resources. The process of SelfDesign® as an epistemological process was realized in the program as the learners and consultants focused on meaningful feedback and personal development. It became clear to the learners that school subjects are both an illusion and an distraction from learning about the most important subject - subjectivity. With human experience as the curriculum, the learners began to transform as talented, intelligent, self- responsible and expressive happy young people.

When I examine traditional education using my own childhood as an example, I think that it is absurd that we learn all about math and science and yet we learn nothing about ourselves. We learn all about history, countries and cultures and yet nothing about interpersonal relationships. We learn to digest literature and find out about famous people, yet nothing about how we work, about our feelings and our subjective experiences. The focus is outwards not inwards.

The youth in Virtual High wanted to be heard, they wanted to create and experience their passion They wanted to be the authors of their own lives. They longed to go deep inside and find out their purpose in life because they wanted to make a difference in the world. Through our ongoing conversations they learned to tell their own story, to state their opinions and ideas in powerful and persuasive ways. They learned to acknowledge, respect and love themselves and the others in the community. For each individual, a unique kind of innate intelligence emerged that was quite apparent to anyone who met them. Like flowers in spring, each learner blossomed according to designs within. The dancer was recognized as one of the best dancers in the province, the graphic artist was soon in demand around the world, and a group of learners so positively influenced Vancouver City Council with their ideas for an ecological village, that the Councillors passed bylaws to build a sustainable community in the heart of the city. Virtual High was a four year experiment as a intentional learning community that existed from 1993 until 1997.

In 1996 our organization invited Chilean biologist and systems thinker Humberto Maturana to Vancouver to participate in an educational conference. I learned about his idea of "autopoiesis" and realized that it was a comprehensive insight into our creative emerging as learning organisms. I coined the term SelfDesign® as a translation from Latin to introduce the idea of learning as individual creative experience in co-inspirational relationships.

SelfDesign® Learning Community ...

Our program, now officially called SelfDesign® had become a profound and successful model over its first 27 years and had far exceeded my humble early expectations. As an educational organization we had evolved to working with families rather than just children as we confirmed our belief that children’s psyches and emotional attributes are intimately interwoven with the members of their families. A child's wellbeing is intrinsically woven into the wellbeing of his or her family, and family is the microcosm of community. Our desire became to create community in everything we did, community that intentionally inspired love and mutual respect for each member, and we were convinced that we could do this in many different forms.

In 2002, the Ministry of Education in British Columbia allowed our organization start a pilot project offering our unique program as a province-wide internet- based school. We began with 100 learners and 12 certified teachers and we proceeded to create an online learning community of SelfDesigners and Learning Consultants.

We designed our own software and created an online village experience. We became a learning community that emerges as we all do - in conversations. Our program grew significantly each year, and now in our eighth year we have attracted over 1000 unschooing and home-learning learners from around the province of BC who hear about the freedom and respect in our program. When a family joins, we invite them and the Learning Consultants to both look over each other's profiles and to mutually choose to work together. This is an agreement that can be renegotiated as the year proceeds if the relationship is not optimum for both parties. Our Learning Consultants see themselves as part of a nurturing organization, and the families with whom we work find choice for themselves and for their children. Because our learners consistently demonstrate equivalent or better learning as compared to public school students, and because our organization focuses on professionalism, accountability and excellent record-keeping for the Ministry, we are seen as a highly successful and innovative program by the BC government. The Ministry of Education continues to support us by offering fifty percent of the funding received per pupil by public schools (as they do for other independent schools), as well as translating their rules focused on instruction to agreements focused on learning. We do not teach, have grades, or tests and marks. There is no curriculum in the usual sense of the word, and we do not deliver courses over the computer network that children must learn. We define 'attendance' not as the physical presence of a body in a classroom, but instead in reference to the fact that our children enthusiastically 'attend' to their authentic learning experiences, and as a result they flourish. The learner is central and essential to the start and existence of our learning program. Children are natural learners, and we guide and support them in discovering and pursuing the experiences they desire.

We begin our year by asking each learner to talk about what they love doing and what they would be curious about learning this year. Consultants and parents work with learners to design wonderful mind maps unique for each learner. For very young learners we do not take the learning plan too seriously, not until the child begins to own their plan as a map of their own learning. With a plan in place, we make approximately $1100 available for each learner as a Learning Investment to purchase resources and mentor time in support of their learning interests - as represented on their learning plan.

Each day the parents observe both the planned and emerging learning. Each week the parents and learning consultant engage in an online conversation about the achievements and learning process. Over the years we gradually involve the learner more and more into this conversation. As our learners mature they start documenting their own learning experiences through introspection and self- awareness. Learners are on their own self-designed learning path or journey that is supported by both the parents and the consultants and any mentors involved. The process is reviewed seasonally and the learners become more and more responsible and capable of creating and growing their own learning journey as a lifelong continuum of self-actualization.

An overview

Our program is designed to meet the needs and optimize the interests unique to each child. "Curriculum" as experience, emerges differently for each learner, because we understand the individuality of every human being. Traditional education as we know it is a continuation of a model for teaching that arose out of the Industrial Age to train our children to become productive employees in our modern industrial society. Our society has evolved past the industrial age into the Information Age and our culture's dynamics have also evolved and transformed. Schooling today is not preparing children for the future, but for the past - for a work ethic that is now obsolete. We have a choice before us, do we encourage our children to learn skills from the past that we are familiar with, or do we imagine a possible future and prepare them to live in the unknown and emerging reality of change for the future.

The resolution to the question of what do we change - the children to fit the system or the system to fit the children emerges from fundamental philosophical and epistemological roots. Are children blank slates or essentially wild and chaotic beings that need to be socialized and taught values, or are children essentially beautiful beings who if respected loved and nurtured will mature naturally into healthy and well individuals? We have a huge monolithic social experiment called modern schooling based on the first premise. I believe schooling essentially does not trust the integrity of children and therefore, for example, believes that children will not learn to read unless you teach them. Our society holds that authoritarianism and control of children is necessary to train them away from their immature natures towards participation in an intelligent society. In contrast, I think that there is enough evidence from the sciences involved in human development that we can afford to explore an entirely new experiment. In my opinion the best science can not fix a system that is antithetical to the essential attributes that would be introduced as changes. Our experiment, called SelfDesign®, is a prototype for change that is based on an engagement of individuals as loving beings in an ongoing effort to meet the developmental needs of individuals towards self-actualization. Self-actualization is the gradual development of the qualities and inherent intelligence of a human being in balance, harmony, integrity and congruence. After 25 years its results are becoming available as a prototype for innovation leading to a new paradigm for learning beyond schooling. SelfDesign® is not an improvement on schooling, it is a focus on human learning as an authentic process and the design of a learning community to support that learning.

The paradigm of schooling has continued to exist even though a growing number of people realize that the system doesn't really meet the learning needs of our children. For example, in a recent Gates funded study of 15,000 drop-outs, 88% of the youth leaving school had good grades but were bored and tired of both authoritarian teachers and classmates' disruptive behavior. Schooling exists because most parents and all teachers have been schooled, it is all they know and understand. The universality of schooling ensures that instruction is the only way we now understand learning. We all believe that learning is something that happens in response to instruction and schooling. Learning follows teaching. From a systems perspective, schooling is a mechanism for social conditioning and compliance with a materialistic, authoritarian, and consumeristic society. Compliance and allegiance to large social systems is deemed essential for a successful, economically, viable society even if it is at the expense of the well being of the individual. Regardless whether you are a critic or a supporter of education, currently there is no other way to keep children busy so that their parents can both go to work until the children themselves can go to work. Education has not been held accountable for academic success because it is a necessity as a pragmatic economic placeholder, the real reason it still exists despite its track record.

In contrast to underlying religious and cultural prejudices that in my opinion work against human nature, SelfDesign®, as a new model for learning, holds a fundamental assumption that human beings exist in integrity and that love is our universal, essential and core quality. Our abilities as parents and educators to love, respect and nurture our children in a way that honors human design and integrity allows for the infinite wisdom of each individual to unfold. Giftedness is the expression of the deep and unique qualities within each individual that emerge when the relational conditions are close to ideal. Potentially it is therefore possible for everyone to experience the unfolding of our giftedness.

As adults, our ability to listen to and create relationships with children that are respectfully honoring of their and our integrity creates a mutually beneficial condition; in SelfDesign® we call this co-inspiration. When we are each authoring and designing our own lives in touch with our deep desires and enthusiasm, then a kind of relationship emerges that brings forth qualities in each of us that could not be achieved otherwise or alone. This synergistic principle is at the heart of the mentor/learner relationship, whereby each person, in each present moment, is choosing to be engaged in mutual fascination. SelfDesigning is nurturing the love of learning and the realization that living is learning.

Three stories of learners ...

A few years ago a father phoned me and asked me to meet with his son. The boy was in Grade 8 and had been in gifted programs from the beginning of school. His father was deeply concerned because his son was bored and depressed, on the verge of suicide. During our first meeting, I encouraged the boy to walk away from school and take a break. I invited him to find his happiness again and come and see me when he was ready. On his next visit he proclaimed that he wanted to study political science and that he wanted to help the world learn how to get along. He joined our online SelfDesign® program and I recommended that he take a university political science course. With his father's credit card in hand, we signed him up for an online course. Before the end of what would have been his grade 9 year he had finished a couple of university courses. He loved them. By the end of what would have been his grade 10 year he had finished 5 courses or equivalent to first year university. He took his straight A transcripts to a local college and was accepted into second year. Two years later, instead of having a grade 12 diploma, this young man had an equivalent of 3 years of university. He felt he needed a break and wanted to get some life experience, so he got a job with the US consulate in Vancouver. He then took his university transcripts and enrolled in 4th year university at Simon Fraser University where they ignored the fact that he was a Grade 8 drop-out. He graduated with honors while his high school peers were just finishing first year university. Currently he attends university in England to earn his Master's degree in political science.

Just last week I met a unique 9-year-old boy who had walked out of kindergarten about three years earlier. They joined our program because he was a very self- determined and bright young boy who was delighted to be busy learning what he wanted to learn. Last year his father was studying micro-biology at a Master's level and discovered that his son had been reading the textbooks and understood the material as well as he did. The boy was assessed at a centre for giftedness where he tested beyond their measurement tools. Feeling somewhat challenged by their son who now wanted to go to university, they contacted me. After our first meeting, I began advocating for him so that he can take a biology course in SelfDesign® High while simultaneously taking a first year university micro-biology course online. He is thrilled with his new possibilities.

As a child, my own daughter was too busy doing exciting things to seriously entertain the idea of reading until she was almost 10. She was a very bright and delightful person who liked to learn her own way. When she felt ready to become a reader, she asked if she could sit on my knee, stipulating that I could only help if she asked. Within a month she had figured out how reading works and started in on her first novel. Within the second month she was reading at a Grade 7 level. She loved reading and took every opportunity to devour book after book. A couple of years later I was doing my Master's degree, and one day, while she was at the university with me, she decided to take an English history course. She was 13. As I learned later, because I hadn't taught her how to read the slow way, the way I read, she had become a speed reader naturally. She explained that the words, "The cat ran into the house" instantly became a movie in her mind without reading the words. The visual external data became visual internal images without being slowed down by being sounded out as words. Now 34, her love of learning and reading is as intense as ever and she reads philosophy and science books for fun and lives in a small town as a musician. Everyone who meets her, like virtually all of our graduates, is inspired by her passion for life and her natural intelligence that emerges as a SelfDesigning person.

In summary ...

Isn't it interesting that a public school system that insists on teaching all children to read at 6 in Grade 1 produces such a significant percentage of students with reading problems. Our program, that lets our learners begin to read when they are motivated from within, has a history of virtually everyone being an excellent reader. Could it be that reading difficulties, along with many other learning disabilities, are more a function of expecting children to do tasks that they are not neurologically mature enough to begin than they are an actual attribute of the learners. I can imagine if we began teaching 6 month infants how to walk we would have a significant population of adults with walking disabilities. Over the past 27 years I have rarely, if ever, experienced a child demonstrating learning difficulties when their motivation to learn comes from within, from enthusiasm and curiosity.

In the winter of 2010 I finished my Ph.D. thesis based on research interviews into the lives of 27 of our graduates. Now in their late 20's and early 30's their stories and lives continue to amaze and inspire and are testaments to the transformational aspect of learning through self-awareness and introspection as a SelfDesigning human beings. For example, one of the graduates of our program in Virtual High was a Grade 9 school drop-out. After Virtual High he attended two years of a post-secondary computer training program then took a job in Scotland. His company offered to pay his way through a one year B.Sc. computer program at the local university. As a self-motivated, self-responsible and self-respecting learner he caught the eye of his professors. While all his fellow students were waiting around to be taught, our SelfDesign® graduate was enthusiastically learning and researching on his own initiative. His professors offered him the opportunity of entering the Ph.D. program after finishing only one year on his B.Sc. He is now completing his Ph.D. and lecturing to Master's students while he has only one year of formal education past Grade 9. This is just one but a typical kind of story of our graduates.

I have learned that human excellence is a clear statement of possibility. If someone has the talent and strategy to do something amazing then it signals an opportunity for the rest of us to mimic and model his or her strategies to achieve similar accomplishments. Giftedness opens spaces for humanity, it is just a question of how. This following quote was shared with many of the SelfDesign® high school learners, and in a departure from left-hemisphere masculine type thinking to a more relational and whole-brain/mind feminization of our world view, here is a feminization of the text -

“The master in the art of living makes little distinction between her work and her play, her labour and her leisure, her mind and her body, her information and her recreation, her love and her religion. She hardly knows which is which. She simply pursues her vision of excellence at whatever she does, leaving others to decide whether she is working or playing. To her she's always doing both.“ James A. Michener

SelfDesign Learning Foundation (Canada) and SelfDesign Foundation (USA) sustain the operations of the SelfDesign Learning Community in British Columbia and the emergence of our programs worldwide. To discover more about SelfDesign please look at the SelfDesign book available on our websites - and To check into our graduate programs please visit in Washington USA.

Last Updated on Thursday, 23 February 2012 12:41