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Dinosaurs, Caterpillars and Educators—Real Structural Change

Read this breakthrough, paradigm-shifting model concept of educational change—metamorphosis of schools and K-12 Districts—collaborating with parents & students

© Copyright 1998-2010 By Kelly Gerling. All rights reserved

Let me ask a question that contains elements of both pessimism and optimism: Is the traditional educational system in the United States a dinosaur or a caterpillar? And don’t try and suggest that it is neither, and that it is quite successful with no threat of extinction or need for radical change. Poll any group of kids older than 10 years old and they’ll tell you otherwise. The fact that the traditional educational system must change or die needs no list of facts or logical proof. (Unless you haven’t read a newspaper or talked to a young person in 25 years!) 

The Dinosaur Scenario

Sure dinosaurs were successful for a long time. Yet, as we all know, dinosaurs went extinct because they lacked the ability to innovate when confronted with rapid changes in their environment. What are the elements of this latter day would-be institutional dinosaur, the traditional educational system? 

Dinosaurs Going Extinct

The traditional system consists of: classrooms, blackboards, desks in a row, bells ringing, competitive subject learning, abstract grades  for ranking achievement measured by letters of the alphabet, homework, workbooks, teachers presenting information to student spectators, highly-structured one-on-one question and answer conversations (“Let’s not always see the same hands.”), no talking to your neighbor, summers off for harvest and most of all—adult rule.

Is this traditional educational system a dinosaur? I say yes, if . . . if it fails to innovate in meaningful ways, then yes, it will plod on for a short while, soon becoming extinct.

It will be replaced by private, innovative, small, scurrying, mammal-like systems of education. These new systems will thrive because they will do a better job at serving the needs of its customers—the learners and their parents.

Under this scenario, the wealthy minority—the children of the techno-knowledgeable haves will receive a dynamic, effective, private education in the new, emerging, innovative, educational systems. The children of the poor majority —the techno-knowledge-deprived have nots, will either be stuck in some husk of an institution doing their 18,000 hours of K-12 time, or they’ll be out on the street pursuing entrepreneurial sales careers in the illicit pharmaceutical and personal defense industries. And in the process, the old traditional system will mutilate the creativity and confidence of yet another generation of young people, as it succumbs to internal civil revolution and external competition. 

Non-violent resistance to this oppressive, dictatorial system mainly takes the form of apathy and the resulting nearly complete ignorance of the subjects taught in school. And increasingly, violent resistance has reached such a level of frequency that many schools regularly use weapons detectors and armed guards. Unless there is significant change, the wealthy will continue to leave and the poor will continue to stay. The poor will become more technically illiterate, forming a kind of urban third world. Remember the images of this in the movie, Escape From New York.

It’s a bleak scenario. And yet it is possible, even likely. That’s because the collection of practices making up the traditional educational system dinosaur hasn’t changed significantly during the past 150 years. And today it is changing with all the rapidity of a turtle encased in concrete. Michael Hammer, originator of process reengineering and author of Reengineering the Corporation, said that he has never heard of reengineering being applied in K-12 education, anywhere.

So I don’t like the dinosaur scenario. It’s not what I want for the children of America, and it’s not what they deserve. And I have my own motivations for avoiding this dinosaur scenario. I’d like to let you know my personal motivations and biases on this subject. You see, I was a child prodigy and then I went to school.

From Child Prodigy to Adolescent Alienation

Traditional Classroom

Before I entered Kindergarten, which happened to be a Catholic version of the traditional educational system in the Kansas City area in 1957, I was a child prodigy. Just like you, I quickly mastered the basic aspects of my native spoken language in the first three or four years of my life. Just like you, I did this with no formal instruction, only by listening to a few examples and interacting with others. In my case, I learned the language from my parents, my three brothers, my sister and other friends and family members. This complex accomplishment includes learning to decipher and produce the sentence code, the facial expression code, and the gesture code— feats that still paralyze the world’s most powerful computers!

And by this remarkable, although common, demonstration of genius, you and I joined the ranks of all the other millions of children who learn their native language and demonstrate being prodigies, using their inherent genius with disciplined enthusiasm for learning.

To me, this means that every child is a genius and a prodigy. (Except those who have some kind of organic brain damage. And even they can develop their special capabilities, like Leslie Lemke, a young man with severe organic brain damage who became a concert pianist. See the movie The Woman Who Willed A Miracle.) And because the typical five-year old has mastered something so wonderfully intricate and complex as a human language, nearly every one takes a sense of deep inner confidence into Kindergarten.

What normally happens then, starting in Kindergarten, is the tragedy of mutilating minds and hardening hearts. The dumbing down process starts in earnest. It takes just a few years in the old traditional system of imposed ignorance to convert this most brilliant of the primates into the typical bored and alienated adolescent.

Often, by the fourth or fifth grade, the conversion has occurred. The system of imposed ignorance has had its impact, and in so many youngsters, the curiosity, the genius, the prodigy, the quest for learning has been squashed, mutilated and destroyed. For so many learners subjected to this process, learning has become “homework” they have to do, multiple choice questions they have to answer, and adult rule they have to submit to. Indeed that’s what happened to me. 

I didn’t like the system that I tolerated as a child. Except for Miss O’Bryan in the third grade, Miss DiGiovanni in the fifth and Mr. Rangel in the seventh grade, and a few High School teachers including Bill Rost, Sister Martina, and Ken Perry, the whole 18,000 hour curricular experience is still a dark, dingy, clock-watching, barely-memorable process of doing-my-time and avoiding all subject learning. And I was one of the more fortunate ones. (I am glad for sports, my buddies and girlfriends. And luckily, I snapped out of it shortly after entering college, regaining the enthusiasm of a five-year old.)

I’d feel terribly guilty if I did nothing to help young learners avoid such a serious disruption of learning. I want a new educational system for the young learners of today and tomorrow. Which leads me to my favorite metaphor for educational change: the caterpillar scenario.

The Caterpillar Scenario

Like most people from Kansas, I am optimistic and idealistic. So I like another scenario much better—the caterpillar scenario. It’s not about death and extinction. It’s about life and long-term success. It has a built-in optimism: a new structure emerges from a cocoon of metamorphic change. 

Consider the current symptoms—dissatisfaction, apathy, metal detectors, drop outs, crime, ignorance and the rest. If the educational system is a caterpillar, then these symptoms don’t mean the traditional educational system is dying—going extinct like Tyrannosaurus Rex. It only seems like death. Under the caterpillar scenario, these symptoms are indicators of deep and profound change. They indicate that the caterpillar is entering the cocoon. 

Before elaborating on the meaning of the caterpillar scenario for creating a new educational system, I’d like to explore some of the biological processes that actually occur in the cocoon during the changes from caterpillar to butterfly.

Biological Processes of Metamorphosis

To a casual observer, the process that turns that stripped caterpillar into the glorious, flying, orange and black Monarch butterfly is certainly mysterious. So what happens exactly when a Monarch caterpillar, Danaus plexippus, enters its pupa-stage cocoon? It is a most extraordinary process indeed.

Once in the safety of the cocoon, hormones begin to activate quiescent genes. These genes in turn activate dormant groups of cells of two kinds — the suicide cells and the imaginal cells. The process produces remarkable changes. The suicide cells, called lysosomes, release enzymes that destroy (ungrow) the cells not needed in the butterfly. Their tissues then become available for recycling. 

At the same time, disks of dormant imaginal cells spring into life, and begin to grow into entirely new structures. (They have been lying dormant since the caterpillar hatched from its egg.) 

While the old body of the caterpillar dissolves, new beautiful wing structures emerge. The legs of the caterpillar lengthen, more than doubling in size, and developing five extra segments. The old caterpillar eyes disappear and beside them new compound butterfly eyes begin to form. The tiny galea of the caterpillar head becomes the butterfly proboscis.

After these and hundreds of other major reorganizations in the cocoon, the heavy, slow-moving, crawling caterpillar body turns into the leaner, more streamlined, flight-capable body of a Monarch butterfly. 

And the imaginal cells that grew into other forms, contained not only all the coded information for growing the new anatomical forms. They also contained the coded information about where to fly to perpetuate the life cycle of the butterfly. 

Using Metamorphosis As A Way of Looking at Education

Using the idea of metamorphosis as a perceptual lens, I see that the remnants of the caterpillar that dissolve in the cocoon . . . the old eyes, the long caterpillar body, the horns, the fleshy filaments, the prolegs, have their counterparts in today’s traditional system—practices that are vanishing. 

In my imagined new, better school system, many remnant practices are gone. Subject learning is gone. Big buildings are gone. Grades are gone. Bells are gone. Externally imposed discipline, blackboards, permission to go to the bathroom, multiple choice questions and answers, undisputed adult rule . . . all gone, like caterpillar eyes left behind as a distant memory of a long-faded, small, crawling creature, replaced with a new pair of compound eyes, more suitable for flight. 

I dearly hope that the public and private traditional schools all across America and elsewhere in the industrialized world will recognize the value and hope inherent in metamorphosis. Then they can hurry up and build the cocoons of safety within which metamorphosis can occur. 

What if the unneeded cells didn’t want to die? If each cell in the caterpillar had a conscious existence, this transition inside the cocoon, for most would be a death. And because consciousness doesn’t like death, they would defend their right to continue to exist. They would defend the preservation of a big caterpillar crawling body, unsuited for flight, along with all of the other old remnants of the larval stage of life. However the inexorable processes of growth recycle these defenders of caterpillar life into important resources for the life as a butterfly.

The Defenders

The traditional educational system has its defenders. They are the teachers, principals, superintendents, who are trying to hang on to these old, unneeded caterpillar forms, these bells and blackboards, adult rule, and other parts of the old creature that need to be left behind. 

The defenders say: “Let’s get back to basics. Let’s bring back the paddle and other forms of corporal punishment. Let’s bring back stricter rules. Let’s focus on the three Rs.” In the cocoon of educational metamorphosis, hopefully these defenders of the traditional system will retire gracefully. 

I doubt anyone reading this is a defender of the old system, because you wouldn’t have gotten this far. You would have put down this article long ago. However, if you are a defender and you want to force kids to learn subjects they’re not interested in — if you want to dictate processes of learning that learners and their parents have no say in, then I hope you change jobs or enjoy an early retirement. (Perhaps the Army needs drill instructors?) While defenders want to preserve the old system, there is another kind of person who wants to start from scratch and create an entirely new system of education for kids. I call these people newformers. 

The Newformers

Because of my personal beliefs about the traditional educational system, I have become what Buckminster Fuller called “a newformer.” I'd like to participate in the design a new system of education that works — one not bound by restraints inherent in a 150 year old traditional educational system that is based on the Prussian Army.*  The system I imagine will continue the tradition of genius that every youngster begins with the learning of the language. It will provide real, empowering, democratic processes to learners, to parents, and to educational professionals. It will perpetuate the prodigy inside each child by allowing them to pursue their interests and desires so they can continue to discover what they are prodigies at. It will unleash continued creativity, innovation, exploration, and most of all, enthusiasm for learning.

No, I don’t want to offer technologies of accelerated learning that work inside of the traditional educational system. Too often these technologies, in the context of adult rule, amount to sophisticated methods of crowd control. 

Educatiors need to particpate in innovating, experimenting, researching, and documenting ways to improve education. If you are a newformer, and you’re reading this, I want to collaborate with you. I want to compare models, compare ideas, share knowledge, and otherwise do whatever it takes to create the best new system we can conceive of. 

Monarch Caterpillar Growing Its Cocoon

As Thomas Kuhn pointed out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the paradigm shifters always come from outside the old system. Newformers, as paradigm shifters, operate outside the old system. And many of them have founded alternative schools or are doing home schooling, while breaking the old rules. And yet, with all of this work creating new systems, to have a broad impact, we need to work with the reformers. They are people who, like imaginal cells, are ready to create new forms within the traditional educational system. For examples of this, see a book that I contributed to. It is called Creating Learning Communities and is edited by Ron Miller. 

The Reformers

If you are a teacher, principal or administrator, who has been breaking the rules, who dreams for new ways to enhance the enthusiasm, the fun, the genius of the learners in your classrooms, then I suggest that you are a reformer. And as such, you are essential to the future generations of learners and citizens. Reformers are the ones who can help the most young people. Reformers are the imaginal cells inside the cocoon that can create the metamorphosis required. Trust your instincts and trust those imaginal visions you have about a new system... let go of the atavistic relics of the caterpillar-like traditional educational system. And above all, take action. You can help the defenders become imaginal reformers by sharing your images of new ways to help learners. (Or help them retire early.)

All we newformers want to do is give you some ideas and provide evidence that you can use in your quest to create a new system that works. Then, instead of harming young people, minimally the system gets out of their way. And ideally, a new system facilitates their learning, their genius, their innovation, their acquisition of knowledge, and their enthusiasm for learning. 

My Particular Vision

If the traditional educational system is a caterpillar, what will it be like when it is a butterfly? I have some particular visions. On the negative side, I feel sad when I see learners having their curiosity stifled by the imposed ignorance known as the traditional educational system. That’s what I don’t want. But complaining is not enough.

Monarch Cocoon

Here’s what I do want. I see new forms emerging. Project learning replaces subject learning. Group conversations, consensus and democratic voting methods replace top-down decision making and obedience. Cooperative relationships between learners and educators replace one up/one down relationships. Knowledge-sharing computer networks replace paper and pencil. Internet and CD-ROM and virtual reality knowledge-bases replace paper libraries. Participatory democracy replaces adult rule. The educator that has a single role as information dispenser turns into an educator who has multiple roles as friend, mentor, liaison to the community, facilitator of learning, coach, family therapist and roles not yet discovered. Students treated as products to mold turn into learners treated as customers. Dictatorship turns into democracy. Most of all, fun-filled discipline, creativity and enthusiasm for learning replace boredom, apathy and alienation.

The defenders retire, the reformers reign, and the newformers, with their innovative work outside the system, create experimental prototypes that turn into possible scenarios for what the reformers can create in their existing systems. This partnership between newformers and reformers is a natural way that we can end up with a new system as different from the traditional system as a butterfly is from a caterpillar. 

Let’s Enter The Cocoon

The children of the techno-knowledge-deprived, the have nots, need to be a primary focus for the best education we can create.This would be the ultimate investment in the security of our future. To achieve this the reformers and the newformers need to work together. 

If we do, on the other side of this period of metamorphosis we will see an astonishingly beautiful butterfly-like educational systems emerge. We will stimulate enthusiasm for learning. Some will be public, some will be private. These systems will be available for every child, rich or poor, coming from the families of the “haves” as well as the families of the “have nots.” Ideally, they’ll be learning from each other, making collaborative efforts to share knowledge about a new emerging system. 

Local governments can help in the effort. Even the Federal government can get involved, I hope by simply giving money back to local governments to use innovatively, or perhaps using systems like charter schools to create options. 

Monarch Butterfly Emerging

If this vision strikes a chord within you, let me know how you want to contribute. Together we can hold the vision in mind of an educational system that helps learners unfold the wings of their capabilities as they take flight into the new millennium. Instead of crawling along unaware of the greater possibilities, I can see them soaring into their own chosen learning adventures with our support and blessing. 

This vision offsets the tendency to view the traditional educational system as a dinosaur lumbering to extinction. Rather, a vision of metamorphosis gives me a source of hope for the future of education. I hope it does for you too. Let’s enter the cocoon and fulfill a vision of a new system of education for the young learners of today and tomorrow. 

*   *   *

Biological References

Vincent G. Dethier, “The Magic of Metamorphosis: Nature’s Own Slight of Hand.” Smithsonian, May 1986, volume 17.

“The quiet exterior is no indicator of the turmoil that is going on internally. Most caterpillar tissues and organs are being broken down and recycled. Genes of adult tissue that had been quiescent are now released from suppression by a complex interplay hormones. As caterpillar organs are dismantled by programmed cell death, their raw materials are built into adult organs. Within a few days, or for some two weeks (unless the pupa is overwintering), a complete adult has been constructed. At the appointed moment the pupal skin splits and a bedraggled but complete adult appears. page 125.

The collection of genes that the butterfly bequeathed to the caterpillar must program the structure and behavior of the caterpillar and at the same time carry in trust the traits of the adult that the caterpillar will one day become. Just as the adult harbors within its body the germinal tissue that is to become the caterpillar, the caterpillar from the day of hatching caries within its body small pockets of cells destined to form a butterfly.  page 124.

At some point an intermission in growth must occur to reset the stage, and the intermission must not expose the animal to attack. The solution is a pupal stage. page 124.

Scott, James A. The Butterflies of North America: A natural history and field guide. Stanford University Press, Stanford California. 1986.

The wings develop from tiny clusters of cells already present inside the larva. Other adult organs grow enormously inside the larva: the tiny galea of the larval head becomes the proboscis; the labial palpi greatly expand and grow a third segment; the antennae develop from cells beneath the adfrontal (antennal) sulcus of the larva, each antenna folding back on itself inside the larval head; the adult compound eye grows from cells beside the larval eyes, which disappear in the pupa; the internal and external male and female reproductive organs start to develop; and the larval legs lengthen to become the adult legs, in the process developing five extra segments. 

Inside the pupa, the muscles are reorganized for flight, and when the adult emerges it is perfectly developed, except for the wings themselves. Page 23. 

Tanner, James M., and Taylor, Gordon Rattray. Growth. Time-Life Books. New York. 1969. 

In the metamorphosis of the frog, each tail cell is believed to contain a sort of “suicide capsule,” a sac of enzymes which, when released, destroy the cell. Page 51.

“De duve and Novikoff gave the tiny bodies a new name, lysosomes . . .” Page 176.

“Like the poison which a spy conceals to kill himself under the threats of torture, lysosomes wait in readiness to kill the cell that contains them. No one knows what triggers a lysosome to do its deadly work, but living bodies must, at one time or another, get rid of some of their cells. Indeed, “ungrowing” is often as important to development as growth itself. Page 176. 

Monarch — Danaus plexippus

adult = imago

chrysalis = pupa

Groliers on Delphi


The higher insects (such as beetles, flies, butterflies, and wasps) complete a more complicated series of metamorphoses as development proceeds from egg to adult.  For the butterfly or moth the larva that hatches from the egg is called a caterpillar.  The caterpillar is vermiform and feeds voraciously on plant matter.  After completing four molts the larval butterfly has grown tremendously in size and undergoes a metamorphosis to the pupal (or chrysalis) stage.  As its final act the caterpillar secretes a cocoon about itself, firmly cementing the cocoon to a branch or twig.  Inside the cocoon all the tissues of the PUPA are reorganized.  Larval structures are broken down, and adult structures such as wings differentiate from little groups of cells called imaginal disks.  When this metamorphosis is complete, the winged adult, capable of sexual reproduction, emerges from the cocoon.

Armand Kuris


Barnes, R. D., Invertebrate Zoology, 5th ed. (1987);  

Noble, E. R. and G. A., Parasitology, 6th ed. (1989);  

Tata, J. R., Metamorphosis, 2d ed. (1983); 

Zaslavsky, A., Insect Development (1988).








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