Dr. Zach Stein, Ed.D. Harvard University/ Neurohacker Collective
This year’s ritual panic about US school performance on the recently released international comparison tests was particularly tone deaf [PISA link]. The state of public culture during the election cycle has demonstrated, more than any test could, the failures of our educational system. We are in the midst of an educational crisis, the scope of which professionals do not have measures or words to address. And so, they wring their hands about our kids’ math scores and the state of our schools. Understanding that our schools are in trouble is a start (and you don’t need the PISA to tell you that). Yet the intensity of the current educational crisis extends far beyond what most people have considered. I personally believe human capacities (and more importantly their absence) are at the center of a compounding global meta-crisis [ITC link]. While there are innumerable specific problems unfolding around the planet, they can all be traced (when seeking cause or solution) to the state of the human mind, heart, and skill-set. The whole of our crisis ridden moment in history boils down to one big educational crisis.
Humanity is Always Already Learning.
That is Natural. And Painful.
What do I mean by educational crisis? I mean that the world’s problems are becoming more complex in the same historical moment when human capabilities are remaining simple, deficient, and fragmentary. An educational crisis is a crisis of capability; the only resolution is learning and transformation. Individually, we experience these quite often; when more is asked of us than we can give, the only resolution is to learn, to grow, and to develop new capabilities. But whole societies can go through similar crisis of learning and capacity development. Entire civilizations disappear because they are unable to learn what they need to survive. Ecological crises have always historically been accompanied by an educational crisis, as human ideas and practices must change as the climate demands.
Let me clarify this point about ecological crises as necessarily involving educational crisis, because it is relevant to say the least. There is no doubt we are in a different situation than previous civilizations facing climate crises, in so far as technological breakthroughs are on offer that could offer a very real way out. And this is exactly the point. The climate crisis is actually a crisis of human decision-making and worldview, not a crisis of infrastructures and carbon emissions. Educational initiatives are as important, if not more, than legal and economic ones. We have what we need, except the task-demands of building sustainable systems and lifestyles are more complex than the capabilities of those asked to do so. Building a “smarter planet” through technology (like an IBM) and policy (like an Al Gore) is necessary and possible. But smarter people are a basic prerequisite to that task. The greatest threat to the biosphere is not industrial pollutants but rather the low level of human capability with regards to relevant decision-making domains.
The current crisis in the human-biosphere relationship is only an example. We are in over our heads[link] across the board. What we need to understand and do in order to survive seems to be continually outstripping our abilities. Look around. See it all through the lens of educational crises. From consumerism to ecocide, racism to terror, healthcare to government—humanity is in a position where it needs to transform its own capacities and mindsets across the board.
I will not comment on the obvious and increasingly common ignorance and incapacity that besets our society. It is too easy to point fingers at those who have been undernourished culturally and educationally (and often literally) and then blame “them” for the continued lack of true civility in our civilization. In an important way, our least educated citizens are scapegoated as the cause of our problems, particularly given that the so-called “best minds” appear to be doing nearly as bad despite far better positioning to effect positive impact. The leaders of our banks, industries, and governments all went to a small handful of prestigious schools, and passed the hardest tests with few exceptions. Maybe I am pessimistic and uninformed, but when I map the complexity of the world’s problems against the disappointing approaches displayed by purportedly “educated” people in key leadership roles, I get extremely concerned. The educational crisis is not only about, and perhaps not even mainly about, those who are obviously ignorant and mis-educated. It is about us. We who graduated college (dare I suggest even grad school) and yet remain unwise, even though we have become quite “smart.” The complexity of the problems we face demand a corresponding increase in sophistication of our national and global problem solving, but we continue to act as if yesterday’s capacities and world views are enough.
In a previous NHC post I suggested you either hack your own mind and brain or it gets hacked for you [link]. Today’s educational crisis is a direct result of the large scale hacking of human minds/brains arranged for (sometimes knowingly, sometimes unconsciously) by our society’s many educational institutions: schools (and then work), television, and internet - where the vast majority of time is spent. I believe those findings in the field of social psychology that show humans largely possessing the skills and dispositions that meet the expectations of their society's most common institutions. To know a society, therefore, is to know the “hidden curriculum” instilled by its institutions. Whole repertoires of behaviors and ideas are encoded like operating software behind our backs. Habits of the mind and heart are coded through countless means across the entire lifespan. This way of thinking leads me to believe we are in the current educational crisis precisely because our legacy institutions succeeded in hacking the human mind-brain. The problem is that any given hack is only good for so long.
The key to the modern education mind-brain hack has been standardization, specialization, and a contrived scarcity of expertise and opportunity [link]. This has meant that people’s capabilities have been developed in contexts in which they have little control. Our central educational institutions have served as a “sorting machine,” routing different people along different trajectories, ideally arranging for a functional fit between the individual and the social system [link]. While it is true that this approach to the allotment of educational opportunity and related positions in society has reproduced inequality across generations, this is less of an issue—in terms of the educational crisis—than the fact that these allotments no longer reflect the state of knowledge and the economy. The sorting machine is no longer working because the conditions of society and science are in unprecedented flux. The idea that one should pursue certain standardized skills and knowledge so as to assume a specialized role the economic system is an increasingly simplistic way to think about the function of education.
One of the basic premises of modern education has been the idea that one institution, such as a school, is responsible for preparing individuals for transfer over to another institution, such as a factory or company. The link between education, learning, and employment is seen as primary and intrinsic. However, this only works if there is alignment between what education provides and what society and the economy needs. And there is the issue. Almost every education think tank has focused on 21st century skills, and they all have said the same thing: schools and colleges are not providing citizens with the skills they need to thrive in today’s world, but tomorrow’s schools will solve this by instilling 21st century skills [link]. This has become a cliché. So much so that all the various “new and better schools” are primed to fail on delivering their promises. Because the problem is not with the failing schools. Schooling itself is the problem.
Look at where and why truly creative cultural leaders built their most important skills and ideas. It wasn’t in school and it wasn’t to meet extrinsic motivations of job and money [link]. This leads us toward the right way to respond in an educational crisis… But first, to summarize what I have been suggesting here:
One can boil the global situation down to an educational crisis.
This crisis is a result of the successes of legacy educational institutions.
The “standardized differentiation” of the modern educational hack needs an update.
Want to Respond to the Educational Crisis?
Be Always Learning and Teaching.
In a nutshell, the best response to an educational crisis is to start neurohacking [link], both individually and in groups. To be clear, the response is not to start simply taking some supplement or doing some meditation practice or using some brain-entrainment technology, although those may be beneficial. The most comprehensive response in an educational crisis is to engage personally with innovations that optimize the growth of needed human capacities and then propagate the use of these innovations throughout society at large. Today, this means individuals will need to be taking responsibility for their own learning and development on a massive scale, often well outside the existing institutions dedicated to education. Humanity will need to start radically expanding the contexts in which personal development and growth are thought to take place.
Beyond the standardized differentiation of modern education is a new form of education that enables individualized self-actualization. Don't mistake true educational autonomy for the common misconception in progressive circles that students will learn better if they are more or less left alone in an environment rich with resources. Teachers and technologists can err when they give all impetus over to the student and radically cede any and all teacherly authority. An autonomous empowered learner is usually involved with some empowering teacher. And these two roles are not mutually exclusive. Freedom of movement between the role teacher and learner is at the center of tomorrow’s decentralized post-school educational infrastructure. True education for self-actualization occurs beyond the student as subject of instruction and beyond the student as consumer of educational commodities. A self-authoring individual, outside of formal institutionalized contexts, must take on the project their own further self-development using the full range of available options. I close here with a few more thoughts on responding to educational crisis in this way.
Start learning about your own learning. Doing that allows you to take responsibility for your own mind and brain. Remember, you have already been hacked, and what has been installed is likely outdated. It is possible to assume control and essentially reprogram yourself. But that requires understanding how the mind and brain actually function, how learning and capacity development work, and the kinds of things that allow you to take control over your own individual learning and capacity development.
Empower others to step into their own self-education. Tools and learning resources should be shared and made as abundant as possible. If you want to get through an educational crisis, become someone who is always learning and always teaching. This is different from someone who is always competing and always winning, which is one of our culture's current educational ideals. Education and learning are not a zero-sum game, despite the appearances to the contrary arranged for by our legacy institutions, which pit us against one another for educational resources only then to make us compete to show who has learned the most. In an educational crisis we need to do the opposite of what we have been taught. We need to participate in unique learning communities of every shape and size, wherein another learning is as important or more important than our own. Some forms of schooling are dead, but teaching and learning will never die. Self-empowerment should be pursued in service of community engagement; the goal and outcome of learning is to better spread more and better learning in whatever ways possible. This is the self-amplifying, autocatalytic miracle of true education and learning; it builds in a virtuous cycle [link] upon itself, spiraling upward and outward, including more and more in the sphere of what is known and possible for self and other.
Responding well in an educational crisis requires discovering capacities and ideas at the leading edge of human potential. These are unprecedented capacities and ideas unknown to society and yet needed desperately. The whole crux of an educational crisis is that the capacities and ideas needed do not exist and they are unlikely to exist given the state of institutions. This means the only hope is with the outliers and self-authoring, the neurohackers and psychonauts, the explorers in the uncharted frontiers of human potential. It is they who are most likely to discover the new intellectual, emotional, and moral resources needed to resolve the current educational crisis.