Spiral Dynamics and the Classroom

The Modern Classroom Paradox

We can all agree that there is a need for deepening learning and developing 21st Century skills for academic and life success of learners. Teachers at conferences, blogs, and Twitter are echoing the need to release control over to students and more collaboration. For the teacher to move from the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side”. On the other hand, many teachers have experienced times when taking more control and less collaboration was the right thing to do for the sake of the students.

Coaching many classrooms across the country, I can recount radically different stories of teachers granting more control and collaboration to students. Some have worked well, a classroom of self-managing students tapping into their innate love of learning.  Some others intellectually want to to empower students, still keep the reigns too tight, limiting the classrooms growth. Still, others, have unleashed the gates of empowerment and collaboration to suddenly, resulting in disorder and chaos. How do we make sense of this paradox of control and empowerment? The feeling that we should do it, but, also knowing that at times, it is unwise?  And, how can we move from high control to student empowerment in a safe way? How do we differentiate for each unique classroom?

Enter the Spiral

First, we need a dynamic mental model to bring a cohesive understanding to why, what, and where a particular classroom is, and how to evolve it to where we need to go. Spiral Dynamics is a powerful model that does this. Dr. Clare Graves, a contemporary and colleague of Abraham Maslow, describes a dynamic systems model of human development that sheds light on the control/empowerment paradox. Spiral Dynamics classifies how we think about things into something called Value Memes (vMemes)…<yes, these are different than internet memes of cats>

vMemes transposes itself into a world view, a value system, a level of psychological existence, a belief structure, organizing principle, a way of thinking, and a mode of living” – Don Beck, Spiral Dynamics

To clarify, it does not classify people into types. It classifies our thinking about particular things. It structures our belief systems and determines how we make decisions. I may think one way about my students, and, another way about my own kids. Spiral Dynamics outlines scaffolded pathway of evolution of thinking about things, called the Spiral.

5 Core Principles of Spiral Dynamics for the Classroom

The Spiral operates on certain principles. I have modified and simplified the Principles of Spiral Dynamics for the classroom as follows:

Principle #1: The Nature of the Classroom is Dynamic. Classrooms, their individuals and their interactions, are not fixed.

Principle #2: Memes are The Result of the collective Classroom Conditions. The Classroom condition includes (1)Time, (2)Place, (3)Problems (4)Circumstances (5)Classroom members (includes the teacher) and their Interactions (6) Assumptions about the world students will enter (which I call future success conditions).

Principle #3: Memes zig-zag back and forth between a focus on Me and We, or, between Learner Independence and Learning Interdependence.

Principle #4: One can not skip levels, they must evolve through each stage, in ordered progression.

Principle #5: Transcend and Include. The higher system does not exclude or reject the prior systems, it includes and builds from them. For example, as we will see, a highly empowered classroom does not reject rules, but, builds off the structure it provides for greater autonomy.

Classroom Viewed from the Spiral

Spiral Dynamics separates vMemes into 6 systems, color coded for ease of reference. I have included the 4 systems that I believe are relevant to most classrooms today. Remember, none of these are wrong, and may be appropriate for the current Classroom Condition. Each has their strengths and their weaknesses.
Collaboration, empowerment, and differentiation flows from the thinking of each system, and, I highlight it.  I believe the word Independence is a more useful way to describe levels of empowerment, and,  Interdependence more useful to describe the levels of collaboration.
BLUE/STRUCTURED “Learn it the ‘Right’ Way”
If the thinking is Blue, then, the classroom will exhibit:
Independence: Low
Interdependence: Low
Differentiation: Low
Students learn the right way from the wrong way. Order is essential providing safety from the classroom disrupting into anarchy. The School is a hierarchy, including the classroom. Student are to acquire correct learning from an authority, which is higher up in the hierarchy. There is a right way to behave and learn and are punished if they do not do so. Students, as well as Teachers, obey authority, comply to rules, prescriptive standards and curriculum. The focus is on the content, not, the learner. Structure is highly valued for the safety it provides.
View of  success in the 21st Century is to find a career in a large organization that provides safety and longevity. Classrooms are structured in what we see as traditional, all in rows, working quietly. Military schools are strong examples of Blue.

ORANGE/ACHIEVEMENT ‘Learn it In My Own Way-Authentic’
If the thinking is Orange, then, the classroom will exhibit:
Independence: High
Interdependence: Low
Differentiation: Medium (individually high, but, low for social learners)
Classrooms embrace technology and the abundance of resources on the Internet. Often, see themselves as more innovative, with more freedom. Often, these teachers may even bend or break the “rules”, asking forgiveness rather than permission. Classrooms still have a strong sense of achieving on the standards, but, they do so in their own way. It is highly differentiated. Classrooms allow for individual expression of each student, but, may lack a common classroom identity. They may be seen by administration and peers as not a team player, or, going rogue. Learners are more self-directed and self-paced, often working at very different levels. The focus is on student achievement and perhaps, competitively so.
View of student life success is a career that provides high level of financial reward or status, as future entrepreneurs, innovators, and disruptors. Blended Learning, Differentiated Learning, Personalization of Learning, and Flipped Classrooms are common buzz words in this system.

GREEN /PARTICIPATIVE “We Learn Better Together ”
If the thinking is Green, then, the classroom will exhibit:
Independence: High
Interdependence: High
Differentiation: Medium (high for social learners, low-med for individual learners)
These classrooms create a strong and caring sense of community. A focus on inner development, such as emotional and social intelligence. Learning goals and activities are reached through consensus and discussion, favoring the groups needs as a whole. Teachers and students are seen as co-active partners in learning. View of student life success is a life of meaning and contribution, making a world a better place for all. Examples of this system are Design Thinking, certain Project-Based Learning programs, Collaborative Learning, EduScrum, Participative Learning and Democratic schools might be  examples of Green.

YELLOW/ADAPTIVE  “We learn dynamically with agility ”
If the thinking is Yellow, then, the classroom will exhibit:
Independence: Dynamic based on context
Interdependence: Dynamic based on context
Differentiation: Very High
The classroom is Intrinsically motivated, placing the need of the situation over a specific pedagogical philosophy. The classroom has a high awareness of their connectedness to each other, the school, and their community. It sees itself as a system, connected to other systems . The classroom is flexible, flowing effortlessly through and combining different systems, appropriate to the challenge at hand. The classroom has a feeling of an entity unto itself, working with agility to differentiate to the needs of individuals and the whole.
“A Yellow classroom will identify the learning internal systems within the students, i.e., if left brain or right brain thinking, and even perform an informal memestack analysis of the students to determine what their dominant vMEMEs are. If blue instruction are the best for  a group within the class, then a Yellow system will empower that simultaneously with Orange and Green.  It is a kaleidoscope of all the lower systems made functional. ” -Said Dawlabani
View of student life success is being able to collaborate and connect in global economy, a flat world. The 21st Century is changing rapidly, so, students must have the skills to adapt and learn fast.  Classrooms in Yellow may have a strong inter-curricular focus.  Agile Classrooms is a Yellow learning framework and so are Systems Thinking programs. 

Spiraling Up Your Classroom

Spiral Dynamics provides a conceptual model to match the right level of empowerment and collaboration in your classroom. It offers a conceptual model of how and when to increase them in your classroom, as well, as when to decrease them. It can serve as a guide to help you avoid swinging between the two extremes of stifling your classroom’s growth and the classroom falling into chaos.  So, how can you use this model?
  1. Identify your color. Take a look at one of your classrooms. What color is it?
  2. Make the color healthy. By aligning techniques, methods, and structures to the correct system. For example, if thinking is Blue and the conditions are a match, I will need low empowerment and little collaboration, with traditional classroom techniques. (I will elaborate in another post on how to match the conditions with the classroom approach)
  3. Then move to the next level…. no jumping! Evolving up the Spiral is like growing muscles. I need to build my strength progressively when weightlifting. Being overly ambitious will cause serious injury to the body. Jumping to high empowerment & high collaboration when these ligaments are not strong enough, will cause anxiety and chaos. You must make sure the current system is healthy, then stretch into the new challenges of next system. For example, as I move from Blue and into Orange, I start to incrementally increase the level of empowerment/independence dial, but, I need to ensure we are performing well in Blue first.
  4. No judging. These levels are not better than the other. It is about being right for the context,  your school environment, you as the teacher, and the students.
  5. The teacher needs to move to Yellow! Huh? Didn’t I just say the classroom needs to be at the right level for their situation. Yes, the classroom does. The teacher, needs to set a path to be at least at the Yellow system, so she can move between all the other lower levels. Only Yellow can understand and use the lower systems, and guide their evolution. This means, the teacher sees students and the classroom as fully capable of becoming highly independent and highly interdependent. Indeed, you must be the change you want to see in your classroom.
  6. Direct the evolution of the classroom to Yellow. The 21st Century  is increasing in connectedness, change, and high concept work.The world these kids are entering requires a Yellow mindset  to thrive.


This is where Agile Classrooms enters the picture. It provides one learning framework to across all levels, greatly simplifying the classroom. You’ll learn more about how Agile Classrooms translates the Spiral into 4 Learning Zones. You will be introduced to 2 simple dials, the Empowerment Dial and the Collaboration Dial, giving you a powerful and simple way to incrementally grow to the next stage, safely. 

What do you think?

Does Spiral Dynamics help make sense of applying the right level of empowerment and collaboration for you classroom? Do you see these levels of situational? What if you viewed your classroom from the different colored lens of Spiral Dynamics, what do you see?
AndIf this model did not quite gel, I will be introducing you to another model from Dr. Grow, called the Staged Self-Directedness model, which we explicitly use in Agile Classrooms.
I appreciate the time and feedback I received from Marcus Barber  (futurist) and Said Dawlabani (author of MEMEnomicsyes, you need to read it), with their depth of knowledge of Spiral Dynamics.

John Miller | Chief Empowerment Officer | Agile Classrooms

Leave a Comment