In Memorium: Brent Cameron (d. May 2012)

I am in disbelief – this month marks ten years since my friend and mentor of many years, Brent Cameron, died in Nelson British Columbia after a lengthy fight with cancer. I wish to honour Brent with some thoughts on this anniversary. 

If you are associated in some way with Wondertree, Virtual High, SelfDesign Learning Community or the SelfDesign Graduate Institute (now merged into the Individual Masters program of Antioch University) – all alternative learning programs that first sprouted in British Columbia – you have been directly or indirectly touched by Brent. He toiled to conceptualize, launch and then run the first three programs mentioned. Alas, he didn’t live long enough to experience the launch of the graduate institute but it reflected his craftsmanship, nonetheless. 

Brent Cameron

If you’ve benefited from a personalized learning, home-learning or social-emotional learning program, you may also have reason to nod appreciatively in Brent’s memory, as I’ll explain. 

Like an exceptional craftsman, Brent studied people young and old, and especially children and youth, and he dedicated himself to designing a learning environment in which they might thrive. The model he conceptualized years ago had little in common with conventional schooling because it wasn’t created to serve bureaucracy or technocracy or process children like cans of beans. Rather, Brent’s model reflected the people that inspired him like the architect Christopher Alexander, English philosopher Douglas Harding, zoologist Jane Goodall and the polymath Buckminster Fuller

But far and away the most important inspiration in Brent’s life in conceptualizing a new model of learning was his daughter, Ilana. In Ilana, Brent saw an emerging being seeking to live and learn joyfully, and he saw his role and the role of Ilana’s mother, Maureen, to support Ilana’s learning through a concious and conscientious parenting that synched harmoniously with Ilana’s from moment to moment. 

It was and is a different model of parenting than is often practised in our society. It doesn’t serve ‘helicopter’ parenting or ‘trying to be best parent’ or any model of coercive parenting. It is a transformative model that grows infinitely through love and mutual respect. 

From this model of parenting grew the educational imperatives Brent – a frustrated public school teacher – dedicated himself to pioneering, and in which I was fortunate enough to participate in as his partner, starting in the early 1990s. I had just finished three years of conventional teaching and, chafing from the entire experience, I met Brent by chance in Vancouver at an evening seminar (he organized) featuring John Taylor Gatto. John, the award-winning, iconoclastic rebel-teacher from New York, enthralled a standing-room crowd for 6 hours and then, as he raced off to catch a plane, I introduced myself to Brent. 

We soon re-convened over beer and he offered me his Masters thesis to read about Wondertree, the learning program he’d just pioneered in Vancouver for Ilana and a host of other pint-sized students with whom he had convened as their ‘learning consultant’ for 7 years around a hand-crafted circular table, modeled after King Arthur’s legendary table where he took counsel from his knights. 

The thesis was like nothing I’d read previously but it sang to me: 

“Wondertree Learning Centre has been designed from a unique perspective, representing and incorporating a shift in perspective of 180 degrees. The initial and only question asked at its inception was, ‘What is the optimum interactive environment to support a child learning naturally?’ … ‘It is my opinion that real educational change will take place when the natural experts of learning, the children, redisign the education system as an extension of their natural learning processes.” 

From the moment I first encountered Brent, and in the subsequent years when I worked in partnership with him, he worked to bring definition to his concept of “natural learning” as defined by children and learners. He viewed it as his mission to give voice to the learner (especially the child or youth) whose natural learning proclivities had been ignored or sullied by an indifferent or self-devouring education system. 

A man of many talents, and humours

I joined him in this work to the best of my abilities, as did many others, but his work ethic challenged the most diligent of us. His visions, enlivened by new friends and emerging technologies, seemed to sprout effortlessly from his imagination. He was immersed in his work at times like an automoton, and he could be difficult and naive to a fault, but there was little time to ruminate on challenging issues because he always had a new idea to share. And share he did, as one of the most generous people I have ever known. 

My adult life as an educator, parent and person were deeply enriched by knowing and communing with Brent. To his enduring spirit I say: I continue to think of you often, and reflect on how today’s advocacy of ‘Personalized learning’, ‘Homeschooling’ and ‘Social-Emotional learning’ in mainstream education reflect your contributions in some ways. Yes, others have contributed to advancing these, too, and I know you would enthusiastically acknowledge them were you here to do so. I also know your contributions aren’t limited to these initiatives but I’ll save those for another time. 

In my heart, Brent, you will always be near and I will continue to recognize your remarkable contributions and honour our friendship.  

– Michael 

FYI, I will be presenting at this June’s AERO conference, a 30-minute session, profiling Brent’s legacy, covering some of the same ground I cover in this blog. (maybe June 26th?)

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