Crossing Five Thought Barriers to Discover the Future of Learning

Two trends suddenly seem quite acute, even threatening. And they’re related.

One, the world continues its downward slide into a deep mess driven by lack of unity, sharp differences about the future, and a foreboding that humans have lost control of their destiny.

Two, education—despite being the industry tasked with preparing the 2.2 billion children worldwide to do something about this mess and design a better future—remains captive to the first trend. Fabulous, progressive ideas have surfaced, and there is visceral dissatisfaction with the status quo, but overall, education reflects confusion in the adult ranks. Do we educate for careers or liberal thinking? Teach coding to five-year-olds? Resurrect handwriting or use iPads? Standardize the curriculum? Encourage personalized learning? Extend the school day or cut more recess time? Do we ____________ or __________? Fill in the blanks.

This is not a pretty picture. Education seems stuck in the same clichés and stagnation that characterizes current thinking generally. Plus, without a clear vision of the future, we don’t know for what purpose we educate children—and that should worry us. If you doubt it, refocus on the number of children waiting for guidance from elders: 2.2 billion. That’s a record number, and they lack adult leadership.

My point is that old thinking won’t work, either for the world or for the future of learning. It’s time to apply the growth mindset, neuroplasticity, disruptive innovation, and every other out of the box thought out there to bring about true disruption—the kind that upends status quo assumptions that shaped our brains and confined our truths throughout the industrial, scientifically-dominant, pre-global era.

This isn’t about finding immediate answers or solutions; it’s about asking better questions so we can help focus the next generation on exploration and wonder as they come to adulthood. It’s about the open mind and our collective ability to transcend the highly challenging, historical moment in which we are privileged to live. What might be these questions be? They’re not easy, but necessary:

What is a human being? It is time for educators to deal with an inconvenient truth: We don’t have a good working model of a human being, so we continue to fly blind. That’s neither an unscientific approach nor an endorsement of religion. It’s simply a fact that certainty is not yet in our grasp.

Right now, education labors under the dominant scientific narrative, which portrays humans as a collection of chemicals held together by a complex wiring diagram and motivated primarily by survival, fear, and competition. It’s a mechanistic view of life, supported by behavioral methods, input-output models, and computer models of cognition. That approach underlies industrial education.

Here are the facts: Science has a clearer picture of the brain, but no clue to consciousness and the mind; no one has ever traced the roots of an emotion, let alone been able to measure it; and with over one billion habitable planets coming into view, questions about human origins are inevitable. We’re not finished with mystery; we stand at the brink.

My thought? We would be wise to pitch education as an investigation into life, not as a prescribed path to capture known information embodied in ‘standards.’

What are emotions? Where has the dominant model led us? In education, it means we dissect children by separating out emotions (bad) from cognition (good). Academic learning is distinguished from social-emotional learning; the brain itself gets divided into forebrain, hindbrain, mammalian brain, limbic system, and so on, furthering the mistaken assumption that the brain performs its miracles through isolated modules. A steady diet of units, pacing guides, and curriculum strategies reinforce this skewed view by taking a narrow aim at stimulating a child’s cognitive apparatus rather than their inner life.

It also means that emotional negatives such as guilt, anger, depression, and anxiety dominate the discussion, while the human capacity for love, courage, compassion, resilience, creativity, curiosity, integrity, self-knowledge, moderation, self-control, and wisdom bring up the rear. This is the exact opposite of the emotions necessary for the future. Already, the positive psychologists have demonstrated that joy, purpose, contentment, optimism, hope, self-efficacy, gratitude, humor, and empathy promote well-being and affect the expression of one’s intelligence.

Most important, for inquiry-based learning, the old model of emotions fails. The capacity and engagement required for students to be successful in an inquiry-based system grows out of a positive attitude, optimism, the capacity to see failure as a form of helpful feedback, purposeful actions, a growth mindset, and the ability to harness emotions to power up learning, not get in the way.

For a 21st century educational system, validating the inner life and activating the personal assets of a child are core outcomes. If we can’t figure out a system to make it happen, we’re in trouble.

Do we know what is smart? No, we don’t—and this is a huge hole in our thinking. Most experts agree that IQ tells us little about intelligence, other than registering some narrow band of cognitive activity. So, what is ‘smart’ in today’s world?

This may be the most important question educators face. Over-reliance on traditional measures of intelligence leads inevitably to obedience to ‘rational’ solutions, which don’t seem to be taking the world forward. Perhaps there is a good reason. If humans are to sustain themselves, there must be an expression of intelligence that transcends the current models and yields cooperation rather than conflict. Emerging evidence from social neuroscience indicates that the old model of the isolated scholar driven by individual ‘brain power’ is obsolete, and that we learn together.

Is this an evolutionary step that mandates a renewed focus on the true definition of intelligence? Very likely. It’s also one that education is beginning to recognize. In many classrooms, the conversation about intelligence has shifted to exploring the deep well of personality and attitude—toward understanding grit, empathy, creativity, collaborative skills, and other hard to measure attributes. If the trend in social neuroscience proves out, we’ll be on an inevitable journey from less test-based accountability to more trust-based responsibility. We’ll need to know where these qualities come from and learn how to teach or encourage them.

Why do we have a heart? Does everything important in life depend exclusively on brain function? If you ask the writers of standards in education, the answer is an unqualified ‘yes.’ But the factual answer is ‘no,’ because, in an inquiry, relationship-driven system that values and expects deeper learning, the heart assumes a new and critical role. A teacher can’t get at the intangibles of motivation and perseverance, activate curiosity and divergent thinking, or tap the well of creativity without engaging the heart.

This is science speaking, by the way. Emotions do not arise independent of the body; they represent neurological and hormonal information flowing from an array of bodily systems and organs through the heart to the brain. Plus, the evidence is overwhelming that positive emotions, particularly gratitude and appreciation, optimize the messages from heart to brain and improve cognition and creativity.

In other words, thinking of the heart as a simple pump is badly outdated thinking, as is relying solely on the brain to get the job done. And even more antiquated is the view that positive emotions and ‘soft skills’ play a secondary role in learning.

As to implications for education? What if 2.2 billion children were educated about their heart?

Is collaboration a technological accident or a survival strategy? Obviously, human origins are mired in murky waters, and at the end of the day, science may confirm that all behavior is hardwired into DNA and regulated by serotonin. But in the meanwhile, bringing a much-needed, positive, life-affirming experimental perspective back into teaching and life can’t hurt—and could prove to be the key to our future.

So let’s try a ‘what if.’ What if we break through to a deeper understanding of human beings—and instead of teaching competition, teach cooperation? What if collaboration—now at the center of work and life—is more than a technological phenomenon? Could it be an expression of a species under threat, and now wanting a lifesaving strategy, much like a herd sensing a coming cold winter?  Is a tender, more cooperative environment waiting to blossom? Do we really believe that the legions of individuals trying to work and raise families in Iran, North Korea, the USA, China, and every other country really hate one another? Or is it possible that we create the divisions to spur us to new thinking that uncovers the commonalities?

This is a question for each of us as an educator. But more than that, this will be the chief question—the critical issue—for the 2.2 billion children waiting impatiently for direction from the older generation.

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