Shalom Mountain Retreat and Study Center has been loving crafted into a New York Catskills mountainside over a period of several decades. Climb a slope steep enough to get your heart pounding, to stand in awe, in a hidden meadow, between four pink granite standing stones several stories high, spaced several football fields’ length apart. Deep in the woods, you’ll encounter a yurt meditation room, a mossy labyrinth, an outdoor mud bath, many embraceable trees, and a rambling white frame retreat center where thousands of people have come over the years to learn how to become more conscious, loving and fully alive.
To provide encouragement for these retreatants in their day-to-day world after they leave the exalted moments of the retreat setting, support groups are active in many cities in the US and Canada. They offer regional retreats, potluck dinners, heart-to-heart communication, and more. Here in Chicago, I have been a part of the formation and evolution of the Shalom Heartland support group. A group of five individuals self-selected as the “Shalom Heartland Leadership Circle”. Over the past four years I’ve observed how we coalesced, and how each one of us has manifested individual responsibility, cooperation, collaboration, and intra-organizational plasticity (one node in the network can take over work typically undertaken by another). We have engaged with one another to think about our purpose, and to create activities here in the Midwest, grow our Shalom Heartland membership, communicate with other support groups, and evolve as an organization.
Fritzof Capra has said, “In nature there is no “above” or “below,” and there are no hierarchies. There are only networks nesting within other networks.” Our Shalom Heartland Leadership Circle is one of those nested networks, within the larger network of shared leadership which is the ineffable Shalom Process.
Networks are comprised of any grouping of connected agents. The concept of agents is nicely defined by Alvaro Moreno and Arantza Etxeberria in their paper, “Agency in Natural and Artificial Systems” ( published in Artificial Life,Vol. 11, Issue 1-2 (Jan 2005)), as entities in a network which can interact adaptively with their context in order to contribute to their own maintenance.
In social networks, some of the agents are human. In social learning networks, the intent is learning.
Our Shalom Heartland Leadership circle is a prototypical social learning network. It is a complex system in that it consists of interacting units and exhibits emergent properties (properties emerge from the interaction of the parts which are not properties of the parts themselves).
Just like the human nervous structure, a network of humans interacts internally and externally by continually modulating its structure. This includes many types of social learning networks with which we are familiar: families, schools, businesses, faith-based organizations, non-governmental organizations, nations, and so on.
A healthy network is one that learns. A healthy network has characteristics necessary for life and growth, as well as for its adaption to the environment, and cognition. The nodes of the network are engaged with one another. This results in self-organization, or homeostasis and synergy. As a network self-organizes, the nodes manifest individual responsibility, cooperation, collaboration, and that very desirable feature of intra-organizational plasticity I referred to earlier. At a more complex level of engagement, the nodes in a network engage with one another in cognition, creativity and growth, distribution, and reproduction or evolution.
This, in a nutshell, is my framework for a learning theory which I call relationalism. Relationalism is similar to George Siemens’ connectivism, which situates learning in the experiential activity of the nodes in a network. Relationalism, however, is a more robust, holistic and ecological view of the interactions between the learner, the educator and the complex environment in which learning occurs.