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The “One Thing” of Connectedness

In 2004, The One Thing… a Simple Proposal revealed the key to Joel Barker’s success as a Paradigm-Shifting Guru. Then, after sharing that secret, it ended with a simple, and clear charge:

“At a time when schools have neither the capacity, nor the societal support, to “fix” themselves, we have to develop and initiate processes that support capacity development as a practically simultaneous, inside-out, knowledge-development process.

That requires changing everyone’s mental model of schooling and, fortunately, we now can use the “simple rules” imposed by what we already know about how the human mind works as it processes information to solve problems that get in the way of making a difference.

• First individuals must have a compelling reason to change the way they look at, and understand, the three interconnected processes of learning, teaching and schooling.

• Then driven by the motivating power of understanding why new alternatives may be necessary, they need to have the means and support to work within that new paradigm.

• Finally, they need processes to derive from their work experiences the necessary knowledge and culture to sustain that way of functioning for all students.”

Today, 12 years later, we offer below some of what we’ve learned about that process… and why some wrongly think it is systemically impossible.



“Everything-is-connected-to-everything-else” seems to be the slowly-developing ah-ha emerging from the minds of those trying to understand the era in which we’re living.  But that doesn’t help much to understand how to escape the webs of interconnectivity in which we find ourselves tangled. What’s missing so far is the question that comes in response to the rest of the insight… “but connected to what?”  For, as Joel Barker, the guru of paradigm-shifting, once pointed out, the answer to that can be found in the mental map or worldview that bounds and gives meaning to all the connecting relationships within it.

What Barker did to help people understand the profound differences such a different map or paradigm could make, was to ask his “impossibility question:

“What one thing is impossible to do today, which if it could be done, would fundamentally change your organization for the better?”

For instance, what if I could call upon the ghosts of two old “paradigm-shifters,” Copernicus and Galileo, and ask them that same one question?

If anything were possible, was there any one thing you could have done when you were alive that could have convinced everyone that your way of understanding the nature of the solar system described the way things actually were?

I would imagine that, with the benefit of hindsight, they would tell me that they would have liked to have been able to take people to the surface of the sun. There they would tell them to look up… and from that perspective see how the planets actually moved.

Now there would no longer be a conflict between what people could see with their own eyes and the new, hard-to-envision theories from science about the actual nature of their world. From that time on, the “see-what-we-believe/believe-what-we-see” vicious cycle would become a self-reinforcing virtuous cycle, as understanding of possible actions would be developed by looking through the same lens of understanding.

Moreover, that perspective’s usefulness back on the ground would come from the fact that it offered a common lens ground from personal experience reinforced by scientific fact. — one emerging from a common belief about reality at its center.  It would define the boundary of its scope, and the nature of its connecting relationships.


In education today we face the need for a similar lens-reinforced paradigm shift. But while its significance can be as profound as Copernicus’, we don’t have 2-300 years to wait for it to evolve.

So what if we were to ask ourselves the same Impossibility question about the Schooling universe we navigate?

“If anything were possible, what one thing might we do that could convince everyone that what we observe as a school district already is an indivisible system within which all its parts have natural relationships to a common “fact” (or scientific knowledge-based) center-point?”

What might convince everyone that what cognitive science is learning about the biological functioning of the brain already provides the core building block we don’t get to vote on, …but whose acceptance makes it possible to understand relationships that we currently can’t see, and therefore use, as we try to make sense of what the work of schools’ must deal with each day?

Our answer might be similar to that of my imagined ancient scientists: We would like everyone to be able to stand at the “center” of the educational system – a child’s brain — and look out at the surrounding real world of experience that it interacts with as the mind’s capacities develop through the process we call learning.

From that perspective they might “see” a natural world operating according to “simple” natural principles.

But here’s the problem. We have the “science,” but don’t think we have the personal systemic experience that can give it meaning.

As an example, from what cognitive biology tells us about how that brain interactively supports the mind’s “learning”-from-experience,” we have sufficient “facts” that make it possible to describe the common learning capacities that schools must develop in all children.

That’s what the Common Core Standards are all about. But unfortunately, with that as theory, its application in practice has suffered from the lack of  a “lens” with that individual learning process model as its center that would enable seeing and understanding it’s direct relationship to the daily actions of people and organizations as they respond to the always-present nature of that brain-driven individual learning process.


   The Sabusense site offers an opportunity to tap into that type of personal and organizational systemic experience. Among other things, it includes the story of a major American school system transforming itself from the inside out… as seen through a different lens — one that has the biological nature of the individual learning process as its center.

   For almost two decades, this 150,000 student school system had attracted the attention of committed foundations and reformers seeking a benchmark for whole district change.  These included the Annenberg, Stupski, Panasonic, and Broad Foundations; the Harvard Business School (which produced several case studies and a book); and it received national recognition such as the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.  Each attempted to benchmark the “What’s” and “How’s of the system’s work.  

   In the meantime, this lens’ different view offered a way to dig deeper to the “Why” that gives meaning to the other two.  And it found the answer in the ways-of-thinking they were developing about themselves as a connected system.

Moreover, while conceived as a response to Barker’s “Impossibility Question,” this lens’ different “One Thing” perspective, soon led to understanding the nature of “Possibility Answers.”  And eventually pointed to the “Probability Answers” necessary for sustained change.

For over a decade and a half, its on-the-ground usefulness has come from:

(1)  the fact that it is a lens ground from personal experience reinforced by scientific fact. It reduces the conflict between what people see with their own eyes in schools and the new, hard-to-envision ideas from science about the actual nature of that world.

From that time on, understanding of possible actions could be developed by looking through the same common lens of understanding. And

(2) it directly addressed Systems Thinking’s major “blindspot.”  Its most essential aspect  — the connecting relationships among its parts and purposes that make it a “system” — can’t be seen and experienced. 

   Together this way-of-seeing and thinking offers a theory about practice that can help raise questions whose answers can empower society to sustain systemic improvement of the processes and products of its schools.



…Stay tuned to find out what happened when Peter Senge discovered how the “One-Thing” Connectedness of his seminal 5th Discipline way-of-thinking was contributing to the learning disabilities currently plaguing the system’s thinking movement.


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