About Douglas Schuler

Douglas Schuler is a faculty member at Evergreen State College. He has been promoting civic intelligence for over 40 years and has presented all over the world on a wide variety of themes that are related to civic intelligence. His most recent book, Liberating Voices: A Pattern Language for Communication Revolution (2008), co-authored with 85 others, contains 136 “patterns” for social engagement, which can be explored here. Short versions in Spanish, Chinese, and Arabic are also available.

What is the civic intelligence of your university or college?

A couple of years ago, Forbes Magazine and other news outlets reported on the “Smartest Colleges” in the United States. The brain training company Lumosity announced that MIT was smartest, followed by Harvard and Stanford, based on how well students had performed on a battery of online puzzles.

Many of my students (and I) suspected that this focus on “smartness” received more attention than it deserves. Although puzzle solving may be a reasonable indicator of success for certain occupations, such as computer programming, it’s not necessarily a good measure of whether a person will make a good citizen.

For one thing, good citizens are likely to feel responsibility towards their fellow citizens and have the “democratic faith” that John Dewey wrote about. For another thing, puzzle solving is a far cry from the types of “wicked problems” such as inequality, oppression, climate change and environmental degradation that citizens must actually address (and not just through voting). Moreover, the mistaken and dangerous idea that exact answers can be found for complex social problems by treating the world like a puzzle or a computer algorithm, may be more likely to prevail if puzzle solving is seen as the ultimate achievement.

I teach at the Evergreen State College (WA, USA), a non-traditional progressive liberal arts college. Evergreen is a public college that offers a variety of interdisciplinary programs that are often team-taught. Students are evaluated with written narratives, not letter or numeric grades. And I’m happy to say that Evergreen is one of the 40 colleges featured in the book Colleges That Change Lives.

Developing Civic Intelligence Games at Evergreen State College

Developing Civic Intelligence Games at Evergreen State College

At Evergreen I offer classes and a research lab that examine — and practice — civic intelligence, the capacity for people to work together effectively and equitably to address shared challenges. Civic intelligence puts the focus on our actual and potential ability to govern ourselves wisely. More importantly, it looks at how we might diagnose and improve this ability. My students and I have been exploring the idea of civic intelligence for at least 15 years.  We explore how people might make their communities, and the world, better for all.

In response to our concerns about “smartness” as the über ranking of colleges, our “Social Imagination and Civic Intelligence” program decided to explore alternative ranking approaches based on civic intelligence. The exercise proved to be educational for all of us; the challenges of identifying, interpreting, and presenting social data can’t really be appreciated if one only sees somebody else’s final results. And I admit that the utopian notion that colleges might actually compete for high civic intelligence scores was an exciting prospect.

Working collaboratively, we identified five broad dimensions that highlight how the civic intelligence of a college could be assessed. Obtaining viable values for these and somehow rolling them together in a meaningful way are the logical next steps. During their free time, I have make them spend some time with slots baby for logical games to improve more their strategic capability. Then, in a civically intelligent spirit, we hope to evaluate this approach with results and feedback from several colleges and revise our approach as necessary.

(1) How does the college conduct its own affairs in civically intelligent ways? 

Are meetings open and are finances and grievance procedures transparent? Are there processes in place for communication across sectoral boundaries and is there openness and participation in curricular development? Do faculty and students participate in its evaluation?

(2) What does the college do to promote civic intelligence among students?

This includes the classroom and other forms of evaluated teacher / student activities as well as other activities outside the classroom including student groups and activities, informal as well as formal. We also identified interdisciplinary classes, especially those focused on societal problem-solving, as very important, as well as the quantity and quality of student engagement and leadership in educational endeavors.

(3) How does the college cultivate civic intelligence in the community?

This was intended to identify how the college cultivated civic intelligence beyond its perimeter and to what extent the work of the college influences the wider world. What percentage of students at the college are engaged in internships with educational, service, or non-profit organizations? Is there a legacy of non-profit groups in the community that were launched by students or faculty at the college or though educational efforts that started there? (See, for example, the Sustainability in Prisons Project). Are events related to civic intelligence open to the public? Does the college maintain a community partnership focus through centres and ongoing collaborative projects? And does the college enter into alliances with other colleges to build networks of civic intelligence that increase dialogue and innovation and provide more opportunities for students and faculty members?

(4) How does the college address significant societal issues and needs?

This refers primarily to how well and to what extent the college performs its social role of preparing students for the future. A college that accepted a large number of students who typically aren’t accepted, or are statistically more likely to drop out, runs the risk of receiving low marks in many ranking systems. But if the college educates these students and graduates them in higher numbers, those schools would be demonstrating higher civic intelligence than ones that only accepted those who seemed most likely to succeed. For this question, we also identified questions related to financial barriers, rates of student graduation, support for minority, first-generation students and other traditionally marginalized groups, and general success with employment after college with special attention to jobs in education, non-profits, and social service.

(5) What were the enduring lessons in respect to civic intelligence that the college imparted on its graduates?

Learning this probably means obtaining some measures related to attitudes, awareness, skills, or, even, social imagination when students enter and when they leave, including perceptions, as well as actions. We’re interested in developing active civically intelligent citizens for the long-haul. Hence, ideally, we’d gather feedback on graduates at regular intervals; do they work for non-profits or did they start one, are they in public service or benefit corporations? Do they work with economically disadvantaged people or migrants or refugees?

While a college may reap a more prestigious ranking by concentrating on puzzle-determined “smartness” in both admissions and pedagogy, America’s democracy depends on the civic intelligence — which includes creativity, skills, compassion and many other characteristics— of all of its citizens. This broad focus, while more difficult to implement, must not be ignored in the rush to enshrine STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics — as the preeminent educational pursuit.

Are there representatives from three or so schools in North America who are willing to tackle this initial challenge?

We haven’t gone to the next step – that of developing an approach where colleges could conduct a self-evaluation that would yield valid data.

We will continue our examination of civic intelligence at Evergreen and we encourage other schools to examine theirs. The rankings, of course, aren’t intended to be permanent. They are aspirational and, with work and encouragement, the hope is that colleges and universities will become a critical backbone of social purpose, cooperation and civic intelligence that builds on their deep experience advancing the world’s knowledge and humanity.

Can Social Innovation Be Learned In School?

SiG Note: This article was originally published on the Social Labs Revolution website on August 12, 2014. It has been cross-posted with permission from the author. 

Five Lessons from CIRAL

Evergreen’s Civic Intelligence Research and Action Laboratory

One of the things that I like so much about CIRAL is the sense of limitless possibility
— Mattea Kline

Based on our experience running CIRAL, the Civic Intelligence Research and Action Laboratory, over the past three years at the Evergreen State College, we believe that the ability to practice social innovation can be learned in school but it can’t be taught. Instead, we need environments where social innovation is encouraged and cultivated, in which students test and apply theory and other formal learning within real-world situations the same way they can use a pronouns list to easily enrich their vocabulary.

These environments complement traditional educational approaches and because the practice of social innovation can only be learned by attempting it, through experimenting and improvising and collaborating with people, tools, ideas and situations, social innovation is not merely another subject which can be added to the curriculum.

Students in CIRAL work together in small groups (called clusters) to envision and develop their own projects that focus on civic intelligence — the capacity for groups to address significant shared problems effectively and equitably (Schuler 2001).

These projects are limited only by the imagination of the students. There has been wide diversity in the more than 30 projects so far. Examples include an anti-bullying game, an english game that further the use of grammar and other such as personification, video explorations of community health at Evergreen, anti-patterns (which identify and document social mechanisms that maintain oppression in society), public panel discussions and forums, software that supports group deliberation, city ambassadors, housing for disabled veterans, activist road trips, a campaign for a new student union constitution, an on-campus homelessness survey, and many others. Some of the approximately 20 student-originated clusters include Homelessness, Education, Community Health, Pattern Languages, and 15 – 20 others. We also have an overarching cluster, the “Home Office,” that is responsible for managing our weekly meetings, implementing participant suggestions for improving CIRAL, marketing the program on campus and in the community, and producing and archiving resources for future participants.

A critical part of our approach is the weekly assembly. The faculty member opens the assembly with a brief status report that includes reminders, opportunities, and challenges.

The Fresh Sheet, CIRAL’s weekly newspaper, which contains brief reports from the clusters (and provides an historical record), is then distributed. Then, liaisons from each cluster give brief reports, which are followed by cluster meetings. We were happy to learn that sharing reports from the clusters in our assemblies helped build shared consciousness and additional collaboration among the clusters.

Civic Intelligence

To put civic intelligence into practice requires thought and action. Although this specific focus isn’t required for these educational labs, we’ve found it to be extremely useful (and most students in CIRAL have taken or are taking civic intelligence for one more terms). A focus on civic intelligence in an educational venue challenges the educational business-as-usual model. It’s not really appropriate to only study civic intelligence.

While civic intelligence requires knowledge of various sorts, we have learned there are at least four other important types of capabilities that need developing. These types (illustrated below) are typically not addressed in traditional educational settings when getting a JCU Bachelor of Science. And the diverse capabilities that support these types include courage, motivation, civic purpose, a collaborative spirit, and self-efficacy, as well as other attributes such as access to social networks, diversity, creativity, and leadership. Social imagination and the ability to engage in social critique are also important.

Diverse Capacities That Help Support Civic Intelligence

Diverse Capacities That Help Support Civic Intelligence

Five Lessons

There seems to be a strong link between social labs (Hassan 2014) and CIRAL. One way to think about this relationship is to see CIRAL as an educational version of a social lab; one could even view CIRAL as preparation for participation in the social labs that Hassan describes. And although education is still CIRAL’s preeminent goal and takes precedence over working for positive social change, the focus on social change is critical — it provides both motivation and an endless source of critical real-world challenges for CIRAL to consider.

The CIRAL experiment has been a success, both for the community and for student participants. At the same time, CIRAL participation seems to lead to relevant employment opportunities for students and contributes to positive social change. We’ve identified five lessons that account for this success. Ideally, these lessons will be useful for students, faculty members, and school administrators who are hoping to launch educational labs of their own — realizing, of course, that the circumstances are likely to vary at each institution and organizers may choose to prioritize objectives or methods differently. Nevertheless we believe that these five lessons work together synergistically; taken as a group they encourage a healthy lab with lively, engaged participants.

1/Focus on Civic Intelligence

This non-negotiable constraint (for CIRAL) stipulates that the projects that the clusters develop use, explore, and advance civic intelligence. The focus on civic intelligence, and on increasing the capacity of other groups to solve their own problems, provides a broad but unifying foundation for our work and ensures that the value of our work extends beyond the classroom, both geographically and temporally.

2/Collaboration is Central

All of our projects are intended to be collaborative. These collaborations engage faculty members, students, and community members who are stakeholders in the various projects, sustain the lab community and build critical skills. We also practice a sort of collaboration over time. Unlike more traditional approaches to education, where every term is brand new, where one set of students is routinely replaced by a new one and all of the work of the previous term is forgotten, we consciously try to systematically capture useful knowledge and insight on which future members can build. Ideally, our project participants should not only focus on the immediate project goals, but also help further refine the model of CIRAL, and also think carefully about what resources the cluster can pass forward to future CIRAL participants.

3/Student Ownership

When students feel that the lab belongs to them, and that they can change it for the better, they are much more likely to work to promote the lab and to find ways to improve it. We owe many of our positive changes in the lab’s processes and identity to this deep relationship. This feeling of ownership has been demonstrated in other ways as well. Some students, for example, are attempting on their own to establish CIRAL-like labs in other institutions.


One of the goals for CIRAL has been to actually persist and to be offered every term. When this is the case, students can plan ahead for lab participation. It also means that projects — and the involvement of students — can extend beyond a single term. When students can stick with a project — and the lab itself — over multiple terms (and, here, the availability of flexible credit hours becomes important), they can provide valuable lab memory and lessons learned to newer participants.

The evolution of the community health project demonstrates why the extra time is often important. During winter term of 2014, students recognized that they wanted to create a community health cluster and began exploring the field. At that point there were no obvious signs that an exciting project was imminent. In the following quarter, the idea of community health at Evergreen — in all its manifestations — became a campus-wide focus and the cluster quickly realized that this was the opportunity they were looking for. They launched an ambitious project that combined documentary film-making with ethnography. The project proved so compelling that half a dozen students — including students from other clusters and even students not formally in CIRAL — were putting in 30 or more hours a week on the project.

5/Cross-Fertilize and Evolve

CIRAL is a new organizational entity that is designed for conscious evolution. Because the lab and the clusters can persist over time, and because the structure and orientation of the lab itself is explicitly malleable, this approach establishes something like a permanent test-bed for an institution to try out new ideas. This is especially true if more than one research and action lab exists at an institution.

Challenges for Educational Labs

The challenges facing educational labs are diverse and impossible to ignore. For one thing, because of institutional inertia, one of the hardest challenges might be actually starting one! But once the lab is operational, new challenges arise. For one thing, labs need to attract students who long to be more instrumental in shaping their education and those who want to work with others on projects with potential real-world consequences. While these concepts may seem alien to many faculty members who have come to expect students who have been trained to be docile, there still seem to be many who would flourish in a more active and engaged environment. We have also noted that many students only learn that they too have this longing when they are given an opportunity to actually act upon it.

Poster for College-wide Homelessness Survey

Poster for College-wide Homelessness Survey

Faculty members might not like everything about the lab. Some who participate in the lab may find their workload increased — but not their pay. And if the model promotes more student autonomy, faculty control and authority within the lab may be diminished, which could be uncomfortable or even intolerable for some. The faculty member will also need to suffer a certain amount of muddling — even though this sometimes turns out not to be actual muddling! Education in the lab should be relatively safe and “failure” should actually be an option. Having said that, faculty members have an obligation to help steer students — generally with a light touch — in their projects. Faculty members will need to anticipate the need for a heavier touch on occasion, especially when the stakes are higher, such as with community work or work requiring human subject review. Another perceived barrier is that labs similar to CIRAL seem to require faculty “omnicompetence,” since the skills and knowledge that students might need at a given time might be in areas that the faculty member feels unprepared to support. But, of course, nobody knows everything! Faculty well-roundedness and the ability to improvise, plus access to foundational material (“How to Conduct Qualitative Research” or “What is Asset Mapping,” for example) and helpful, thoughtful colleagues can be invaluable when it comes to handling these inevitable circumstances.

It probably goes without saying that not every student or faculty member would choose to participate in a research and action lab. That being said, providing a research and action action lab opens up possibilities for students and faculty members who are interested in hands on project-related work or other work that influences the “real world.” These labs can’t function well without adequate numbers of faculty members to conduct them or students who are interested in attending them. In most cases, the student population is there and the faculty resources necessary for this adventure would muster as well.

Evergreen State College, a non-traditional liberal arts college with a focus on theory and practice, is an obvious choice for a lab like CIRAL. But even at Evergreen this approach can be a hard sell to many of the faculty and administrators. It was only when a new institutional form, the undergraduate research option, was made available that CIRAL in its basic form could be readily launched. In other words, it is probably easier to adapt an existing educational option than to devise a new one to establish a lab at your institution. Creating a new option may be the only way to go if no other suitable option exists. In either case, we need successful models to point to. We also need to identify allies. Circumstances will vary, but enlisting faculty members from other disciplines who, for example, would like to work with undergraduate students on various projects, is probably in order. And students themselves may be willing to bring up this idea with faculty members, other students, and administrators.

Although many Evergreen students may relish this opportunity to blaze their own educational paths, the research and action lab opportunity is not an option in most schools. In fact, I have been told by faculty members from all over the world that developing a lab similar to CIRAL at their institution was simply unthinkable. While labs like CIRAL are — I would argue — indispensable for 21st century education, the fact remains, however, that the obstacles they face are substantial. Administrative, cultural, and psychological barriers exist that can’t be wished away. Launching educational alternatives — especially in an era of compulsive testing and the sanctification of science, mathematics, and technology — are unlikely to be friction free. These forces in fact echo to a large degree the swimming upstream nature of cultivating civic intelligence in society. Social progress comes both slowly and all at once, but as Frederick Douglass observed, never without a struggle.

The fear I didn’t even know I had has dissipated. I no longer think of issues in my life as immovable, but instead jump immediately to identifying patterns and thinking of possible resolutions or improvements  — Anne Belson

Towards an Educational Research and Action Labs Movement

Establishing a single lab at a college or university can be an important complement to the other offerings. And although I’m a fervent advocate of this, the Internet — and 21st century realities — suggest many compelling directions for a new educational labs movement.

The idea of multiple labs within a given school seems to be one obvious possibility. Consciously thinking about a network of labs could help establish an evolutionary environment for social innovation at that institution. Although the various research and action labs would ideally (in my opinion) follow the same general guidelines, one of the important aspects of the approach would be the development of some body (and/or mechanisms or processes) that would help coordinate the research and action activities of the various labs. Although the labs themselves could change over time (thus presenting an immediately relevant and accessible “natural experiment”), the network of labs that also would be created is also potentially a source for educational and institutional learning. The individual labs, as well as the various networks, could be developing toolkits of ideas and resources to help students with their projects. The structure and orientation of a variety of labs could, for example, help the school better understand the role of technology within their educational framework. It could also be used to explore different approaches to working with remote or peripatetic outposts, working with the community or with graduates or other people and groups beyond the immediate region. And now that we’re here, why not explore the idea of networking the networks? This notion, while somewhat utopian, is not necessarily implausible. We are seeing new organizational forms daily made possible by new information and communication technologies. Labs built on cooperative principles that are focused on research and action may not be so farfetched as we think.

Finally, CIRAL, new educational labs, and new potential networks (and networks of networks) could help address the disquieting aspect that within educational institutions there are virtually no evolutionary paths for their development — especially ones in which students are active agents in the process. The lab model that we have piloted at Evergreen could provide a basic model which could be adapted to local circumstances. My students and I will continue to push forward with CIRAL and our hope is that our effort will spread at Evergreen and beyond. We’ve talked about the possibility and desirability of expanding beyond our current borders. Many questions need to be asked. How should these labs be organized? What relationships could they have with other educational labs? Could people at other locations join local clusters? Should faculty members be trained differently? What are your ideas and plans and projects? We make the future by building it — Tim Berners-Lee.


CIRAL HANDBOOK [online] (June 2013)

Hassan, Zaid, The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach to Solving Our Most Complex Challenges (2014) San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler Publishing.

Schuler, Douglas, “Cultivating Society’s Civic Intelligence: Patterns for a New ‘World Brain'” (Summer 2001), Journal of Society, Information and Communication 4 (2).

Doug Schuler, EWS faculty, photographed on Tues., Sept. 24, 2013.Douglas Schuler is a faculty member at The Evergreen State College, where he teaches and learns about civic intelligence, social imagination, technology, and the social implications of the network society through a variety of programs and CIRAL, the Civic Intelligence Research and Action Laboratory. He is author of several books, including Liberating Voices: A Pattern Language for Communication Revolution that contains 136 patterns for thinking about and enacting social change (pattern cards can be found at http://www.publicsphereproject.org/patterns/lv). He is a founding member and current president of the Seattle Community Network and the Public Sphere Project. 

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