The Possibilities of Mutualism


Dis-Integrated Learning

I started teaching at a nationally recognized high school in Fairfax, Virginia. Our test scores, graduation rate and college acceptance numbers were strong. Yet the only time faculty members gathered outside of their departments was on lunch duty, in assemblies and momentarily in the tiny teacher’s lounge. 

Bells signaled the temporary stampede in the hallways. Students sat in rows, sophomores with sophomores, seniors with seniors. Administrators, like a ship’s officers, kept to the quarterdeck — the office — with few exceptions. Parents? Back-to-school night and conferences.

Those separate streams seldom flowed together, as if learning needed to be broken up in order to be managed. As I was writing the first paragraph above, I kept wondering why I never questioned the dis-integration of the community of learning.

The Aslan Phenomenon

Any element of a school that nurtures learning adds quality, any element that impedes learning reduces it. The industrial approach to schooling — uniformity, standardization, hierarchy, the assembly line mindset — elevates control over learning. Maybe that approach is a leftover, an example of The Aslan Phenomenon, coined by a fellow named Roger van Oech.*

Roger loves to run. He also loves dogs. As he jogged around his new neighborhood one day, he happened upon a dog named Aslan who couldn’t wait to make a new friend. Roger made a point to run by Aslan’s yard every day to play. One day he came by and Aslan was nowhere to be seen. A man working in the yard told him Aslan had passed away. Yet the next morning Roger found himself running by Aslan’s yard even though the reason for doing it was gone.

Let’s ask ourselves how many Aslan phenomena in our schools’ habits about power and control crowd out the engagement of our students, teachers, administrators and parents as equal leaders.

Beyond Carrots and Sticks

What if we don’t need to motivate students to learn? Parents to participate more actively? Teachers and administrators to see each other as equals? What if we accept that the default setting for human beings is to be motivated and involved?

Most organizations, whether HOAs, church groups, businesses or schools, rely on a flawed understanding of what drives people to high performance. We call it carrot and stick: rewarding “correct” behaviors and accomplishment, punishing mistakes and failures. What we know from current research is that this pattern reduces accountability and derails continuous learning.

Daniel Pink, in “Drive,” shows how extrinsic drivers (carrots and sticks) destroy initiative, innovation, performance and learning. His research, focused on behavioral science and myriad case studies, indicates that all human beings have three intrinsic motivators. These create extraordinary performance if we remove the barriers — excessive control and lack of trust in others’ capacity — that hold them back.

He concludes that we all share the desire to:

  1. Control our own lives;
  2. Learn and create new things;
  3. Do better by ourselves and our world.

This is not pie-in-the-sky thinking but, as he says, “. . . a way of thinking and an approach to business grounded in the real science of human motivation.”

Given conclusive research about intrinsic motivation, how can we remove barriers that prevent these three motors of performance from coming forward? For our teachers, for our parents, our administrators, and most important, for our children. We can model intrinsic motivation and give them permission to do the same.

Learning Mutually

I’ve had many jobs in my life, never once only working with people my own age. So why do we group our children by age? Aslan Phenomenon, perhaps? Why do we systematically (and systemically) create walls between the roles of administrators, teachers, parents and students? Separation not only restricts learning a subject like geometry, it also (maybe more importantly) restricts the development of leadership skills, communication expertise, and mutualism: how to act together.

A seminal study in this field is George Land’s “Grow or Die.” How’s that for a cheery title? He suggests we all have the opportunity to move through three stages in our lives. The first is accretion: childhood, when we focus on getting what we need to survive, i.e. food, love, diaper changing, shelter, etc. The second stage he calls replication, when we begin to form tribes by copying behavior. Adolescents copy athletes, performers, other teenagers, images from marketing firms. The final stage many of us never reach he calls mutualism.

Mutualism accepts, even treasures differences. We achieve mutualism by lots of interactions with lots of different people until we see differences between people or ideas as resources, not threats. So why not have all students work together? Why not have parents, teachers, administrators and students work cooperatively to operate the school, in every aspect?

Leadership over Management

I am very grateful to have learned two important lessons about learning in my first two years of teaching. I wish I’d learned them before I started, but I was caught up in archaic ideas about what learning looked like. I think I was also trapped by my own self-importance as the teacher. Here’s what I found out in spite of those blinders:

If I really want to explore an idea or topic, teach it!

The more I engage my students in that teaching, the better we all learn.

Before I discovered these insights (or they discovered me), I had mistaken teaching as management rather than understanding teaching as leadership. Taking roll, handing out assignments, grading papers, making announcements, keeping the classroom orderly, are all management. I’d even had a course in graduate school entitled Classroom Management. There was no course available, maybe still isn’t, called Classroom Leadership.

Some years ago, I was facilitating a group at the Department of Education and heard a very smart fellow by the name of Bill Taggart say “Two things you develop before you need the: capability and relationships. You manage things, lead people. If you treat people like things, you’ll turn them off.”

So, we can ask ourselves Do we want our children to spend most of their formative years in a dictatorship or a republic? To learn how to follow or learn how to lead? To assume learning is separate from everyday life? That we learn best in isolation?

Let’s re-think, and re-design, our disconnections and provide schools where learning, leadership and collaboration flow together.

Three First Steps

  1. Build a framework for convening parents, teachers, staff and students, on an equal footing, to look at re-forming your school to share communication, accountability for learning and leadership with everyone equitably. Even having that conversation is an important change.
  2. Give all students the opportunity to mentor each other and form learning teams across grade levels. These can be project teams, community service teams, rules committees, any focused, collaborative effort that builds the student community across age lines.
  3. Establish a “What’s holding us back?” blackboard/website for gathering and disseminating ideas for mutualism in our community of learning.

Learning is powerful and limitless. Let’s confront old ideas about what a school should look like, who should lead learning and fearlessly open ourselves to greater possibilities.

For a slightly different slant on The Possibilities of Mutualism, or for you auditory learners, click on The Learning Chaos podcast features over 50 conversations focused on leadership and learning, ranging from scholars and authors to bass players and executives. If you’d like to participate in such a conversation, please reach out via


Since 1994, Mac Bogert has been president of Aza Learning, providing innovative coaching and learning programs focused on leadership and creative thinking. He began teaching in 1971 after attending Washington and Lee University and the University of Virginia. He’s taught in a variety of schools, from elementary to college, today providing learning support for 200 clients nationwide.He recently published Learning Chaos: How Disorder Can Save Education, which suggests we don’t need to make people learn but to remove the barriers that prevent learning. Mac lives in Annapolis, MD, where he works, writes, sails and plays blues guitar, though not all at the same time.


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