Happy Steve

Innovation and Learning

Start with clarity of intent.

Now build it out with an evocative vision. Improvise progress by tinkering: with lots of trial and lots of error. The not knowing is the best bit: the mysteries the surprises, and from time to time the windfalls! 

Hello there, I'm Steve Collis! 

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Echo, Narcissus, and schooling.

Bear with me, please.

I’ll start with myth, which I will define as the archetypical stories and collective schema that tend to cross all time, space and culture, and somehow collect and distil rock-bottom basic aspects of our experience of existence.

By ‘collective schema’ I mean that we share these myths around. ‘Superman’ is a myth. We all know the myth. Like many myths it explores what we are not, which creates a contrast for us with what we actually are. If you walk out of a ‘Superman’ film wishing you too could fly, you’re more keenly aware that you can’t fly. The myth accents your non-flying essence.

Our society is woven together with myths. Democracy is mythic, and so is money. They’re both a collective hallucination. Luckily, we all appear to be hallucinating simultaneously.

This morning I was exploring recent internet ‘memes’ – you know, those highly popular, repeated images, videos, emails & whatnot?

I landed on this sophisticated discussion of memes, which included a link to this tool for exploring the take up and repetition of key phrases in the media, such as “our entire economy is in danger”.


A meme might be a cat that plays the piano, or a political explanation that everyone adopts and repeats.

What if we thought of memes as neurons in the collective hive-mind? What is ‘Twitter’ if not a hive-mind? The shape of the twitter conversation seems to me not dissimilar to the shape of our own personal internal dialogue: contradictory, messy, replete with tensions, misinformation, fears, unwitting gaps, idealism, factoids and fun.

With a computer processing metaphor, we all replicate the conversation locally.

Think it through: you can’t have a thought that someone else hasn’t already had, because we think with language and symbols that have been inherited from our culture and communities of practice.

You know what a midlife crisis is, right? Well, you couldn’t have had that thought before 1970, and here is proof. Do you think ‘adolescence’ is a salient and useful term? I certainly do, but I would not have in 1800. Which is more discussed in our society, heaven or hell? Do you prefer to use the term global warming, or climate change? We are like lego builders with an inherited set of lego.

The rise of stress

Individuals are actually variations on a theme, rather than stand-alone universes. The melody of your mind is ever-so-close to the melody of mine. We play the same notes.

I am not sure that you and I are different people. We have words for ‘me’ and ‘you’ but are we not both participating in an extremely similar human experience, defined by a common cultural legacy and a shared collective consciousness?

You might imagine why the following discovery left my jaw dangling several inches from my face:

When I lift my right arm, there are a whole bunch of neurons that, statistically, fire together. Now, when I see you lift your right arm, a subset of those same neurons also fire together. These neurons are called ‘mirror neurons’ and they are threaded through our brains. This is one basis for empathy: it’s not just that I imaginatively put myself in your shoes to feel what you are feeling, it’s that I fundamentally understand you in terms of my own experience. And why not? Your experiences of doubt, joy, anticipation and regret are the same as mine. These experiences are mythic.

We are iterations of each other. We are cells in the same body.

At our most fulfilled and most actualised, we perceive this commonality. The sense of being caught up in something greater than ourselves is in fact the feeling of ‘coming home’.

In emergent behaviour of crowds, mobs, communities and cults there is always a fine line between the sane and insane. We want a checking-mechanism, where we retreat into individuality, and independently sort through and renegotiate the connection between what I stand for and what we stand for. Otherwise… well there’s the Nazis, Rwanda, that group that bullied you or that you bullied with, or that bullies you or that you bully with. It’s one and the same – collective brutality is as common as our own individual struggles.

So I am not saying I am a subset of the crowd. Rather, we exist individually, yet independently resonate. Imagine that! Imagine that, travelling all the way out here into individuality, then opening my eyes and finding you right here with me? Uncanny…

Now introduce the concept of ‘voice’ and ‘agency’ into our patchwork-quilt communities.

If I am a note in our collective chord, are you muffling me, or vice versa?

In the Greek myth of Echo and Narcissus, Echo’s voice is a facsimile of Narcissus’. Have you ever been in a relationship where you were the Echo to someone else’s Narcissus? It’s a scary insight when it comes. You’ve internalised the language of others about you and this language has become you.

“You’re a bit of a flirt, you know.”

“Why do you have to upstage everyone?”

“You’re ALWAYS late!”

Or the opposite “You’re going to go far!” (But I don’t want to go far!)  Or “You’ve gone quite far enough!” (But I want to go further. I want to be further.)

We get infected with a meme-virus. The infection comes from hearing portraits of ourselves in the words and reactions of others, and then our own psyche takes that self-simulation and co-opts it into the self-concept.

This means we construct each other.

If society is a shared hallucination then you and I are mini-tornadoes. To talk of ‘me’ in disconnection with my community is hopeless. I am nothing if not a Venn-diagram of overlapping discourses within which I am complicit, caught up, dependent and compelled.

Who do you Echo? For whom are you Narcissus?


I can’t get the myth out of my head because my wife has been studying Greek mythology and coughed it all up in this song. When she plays, each note has an echo, and I’m acutely aware that even in this blog post my every sentence is an echo of someone else’s clever thought. Life is one big mash-up!? The song captures the longing of the excluded. It is a beautiful work, if I do say so myself.

If you are a teacher, are your students the Echo to your Narcissus? If you keep your face can they also keep theirs? But that’s a baby-question – most (or many?) of us are aware of the damage and destruction our ego can do to the young ones in our care, right? We know that the great myth of TEACHER-POWER is destructive in its silencing of young voices.

In our society some have voice and some do not. Voice is currency. This is the ability to be heard. There is nothing worse than being voice-less. If you are voice-less you are less than Echo.

This is the power of the argument for the animal rights movement. A cow or a monkey cannot object. They can’t write a letter to the newspaper, they can’t negotiate, and they can’t pursue their case through the courts.

Hence the modern-myth "The Planet of the Apes" where we find ourselves in the same predicament. 

The passion aroused over the plight of refugees is the same in nature.

Oh, and then there is the plight of women over most of recorded history. Edited into non-existence, it appears.

When we deny individuals a voice, we are denying them participation and actualisation. If life is communal, and society is a symphony, voiceless individuals are the ‘rests’. We are all the poorer for it.

If you analyse schools with this apparatus, you get a game of ‘winners and losers’. Winners are Echo. Examinations are Echo-checking devices.

Schooling is a game, and it teaches young people how to win at the schooling game. Is the student who sits at the front of the class and Echoes the status quo really being actualised? Or is this one big exercise in complicity?

Went to school and I was very nervous,

No one knew me, no one knew me.

Hello teacher, tell me what’s my lesson?

Looked right through me, looked right through me.


This is no promotion of brutal individualism. The ability to resonate with others is crucial; to Echo them, resonate with them, and work with them to create something new. After all, I started by emphasising our collective consciousness, where we each Echo each other, and something amazing emerges.

So, the myth that I propose for the future of schooling, in unison with many others, is the myth of community. It works as well for young people as for adults.

It is the great return to the pre-industrial mode of existence. It is post-factory. Post-institution. Post-modern. Post-Christian. (But not post-Christ. Christ is post-Christian. If anyone was edupunk…).

At a recent Christian symposium on the future of education my colleague invoked some thoughtful silence by suggesting we need ‘anarchy’. He said this in reaction to a discussion that had taken hold on ‘accreditation’.

Accreditation, timetables, uniforms, bell times, standardised testing, examinations, rules, reports, syllabi, and a tribe of mini-kings called teachers.

As I type I am suddenly distracted by my distracting reference to Christianity. And then I thought: I might as well be talking about churches as about schools. It’s the same situation. I’ll leave that there.

What if school were a village?

Some had skills and could model them for others?

Some were great leaders?

Some were great supporters?

Some loved to live at the fringe, and were given space to live there, and celebrated for their wonderful fringe-ness?

Some sprinted. Some dawdled. Many did both, in rhythms and cadences that we’d all recognise as native to the breadth of the human journey?

A village of overlapping Echos?

I’m not sure you’d need payed individuals. I’m not sure there would be a distinction between staff and students. I’m not sure you could delineate the learning village from ‘the rest of life’ in a meaningful way or that it would start aged 5 or end aged 18, or be centrally located.

Or accredited. Or run from Monday to Friday.

How would structure arise in this situation? How would the ‘anarchy’ be anything other than ‘anarchy’?

My colleague proposed ‘anarchy’ as a relative juxtaposition in absolute terms. There is no such thing as anarchy! Birds fly in V shapes, and humans form quasi-neural networks like cells in a body.

We can't help it. You don't need to enforce it with bits of paper or Skinner boxes. 

The structure in a learning village will come from the same impulse that makes me say “SHHHHH” to the guy in the cinema who answers his mobile phone.

That’s how communities work.

Did you get your job on the strength of your HSC examination results? Or because you connected meaningfully and convincingly in your interview? It is a travesty that universities accept students on the strength of their ability to play the school game.

The only game in town is community, our only dream is belonging, and our only aspiration is participation.

That is my myth.

And to the extent that ‘schooling’ distorts it, I say schooling must go! Let’s close all schools next Monday, stop for a month and have a very honest think.

Then, with fear and trembling, let’s start from scratch with nothing sacred except

the ties that bind.


P.S. This sound too abstract? Check out Bianca Hewes, who is coming over all praxis with this stuff: http://biancahewes.wordpress.com/2011/06/11/this-is-my-classroom/ . We put the same mythic concepts into action at my school too, and I hope they spread like the best of all memes.