We send our kids to school to help them learn and develop social skills — both functions of brain development.
But Dr. Zachary Stein, Academic Director at the Center for Integral Wisdom and member of the scientific advisory board of the Neurohacker Collective, says that traditional schools can actually work against the optimal development of young brains.
And is coming from a man who went to Harvard.
School and the Brain
Through the large-scale institutionalization of schooling, we’ve had a collective massive impact on our brains. There’s no doubt that literacy and numeracy affect our developing brains. In fact, many forms of mathematics that are now standard-issue in schools today, like algebra, were extremely unusual hundreds of years ago.
In many ways, schools represent the intersection of our brains and specific cultural expectations. Our current school system has created new disorders. Dyslexia, a learning disorder associated with difficulty reading words, by its very nature can’t exist in illiterate cultures.
By valuing certain forms of neuronal development — like math and reading* — our current education system has had a homogenizing effect on the potential of our brains.
*Disclaimer: this is not to say that things like math and reading aren’t important. Just that they’ve been prioritized over other forms of learning.
The Ethics of Our Educational System
Recognizing this fact doesn’t mean that we should stop teaching math or reading. Far from it.
But Dr. Stein wants us to ask more probing questions of our schools. Things like, what is optimal brain development? What makes a “good” human? And what is a human if we aren’t wage laborers (assuming AI will cause mass joblessness in the future)?
Learning vs Education
Dr. Stein would like to see a new form of school that promotes learning, as opposed to education. In his model, the best learning is learning that enables more learning.
This requires a system of schooling that ditches modern authoritarian schools and moves towards a modern version of the traditional one-room schoolhouse.
Under Dr. Stein’s vision, these new schools would walk the fine line between autonomy and authority, restricting just enough current freedom to allow for maximum future freedom.
What does that mean, exactly? Kids need some structure, and they do need to learn the basics to set them up for a lifetime of learning.
For example, in the short term teachers would need to exercise their authority to make sure all kids learn the scientific method. But this would create more freedom for children in the future because they would understand how to conduct their own experiments.
A New Type of Education
Dr. Stein proposes new schools that are more like “educational hubs,” a combination of a library, museum, coworking space, daycare center and computer workshop. There would be no “one size fits all” school, but rather a decentralized network of educational hubs.
The curriculum would allow for the most appropriate forms of learning freedom in the moment without allowing for forms of freedom that would eventually block future freedom.
A significant aspect of this new type of school would be a mindset shift to embrace failure. You need to make mistakes to learn, but our current system does not promote failure. This needs to change – we need to let kids fail, but in a controlled environment where a failure can’t destroy their lives.
Another feature of this new system is that children would be free to mix regardless of chronological age, which Dr. Stein argues is a terrible proxy for development. Teaching is the best way to learn, so older children would be allowed and encouraged to teach younger kids.
Zak Stein: Everything we know about the adolescent brain, in particular, would suggest that the school day ought to start much later in the morning, if not after lunch. That's a simple example of the way that schools can actually work against the optimal development of the brain. There's also the fact that for a very long time in human history - in fact, the vast majority of human history - human brains did not read, which is to say we did not neuronally recycle our face recognition system to become a graphing recognition system and become literate. Yet now, we are doing, in schools, on an everyday basis, forms of mathematics that were extremely rare in ancient times.
The Pythagorean Theorem, for example, was a freaking mystical insight, like it was an insight into the reality of the cosmos for the limited number of elite people, and now every eighth-grader is learning the Pythagorean Theorem. Literacy and numeracy affect the developing brain. This is very clear.
What we can say from just this brief conversation is that through the large scale institutionalization of schooling, we've had a massive impact on the development of the brain because so many people now are literate, numerate, right?
Jesse Lawler: What do we actually see in brain differences between literate and illiterate people? Is it parts of the speech areas that do double duty when we're reading and writing? I mean, obviously the visual cortex is going to be involved, but what portions of the brain handle our reading requirements?
Zak: There's a few things. One is that brains are very unique. There are many ways to become a reader. For example, with my dyslexia, I became a reader in a different way than perhaps you did if you're not dyslexic. There are some generalities, so I'm going to hone in on one specific thing, which I already mentioned, which is this hypothesis of neuronal recycling.
This comes from the work of Stanislas Dehaene, and he's a French neuroscientist who looks specifically at mathematics and other things. But, when he was looking at the way we process graphings, which is to say this unique thing in our visual field which is a kind of squiggle that has meaning, he showed, pretty interestingly, in a scanner and with the few other methods that what gets recruited by the brain to do that, to recognize a graphing as like semiotic object in the visual field, and what gets recruited is what gets recruited before you read to recognize faces, and specifically emotional complexity.
That's interesting and there's overlaps. Of course, when you look at FMRI studies, it's always averages of averages. But, the point being that brains did not evolve to read. I always like to say this like as a dyslexic, that disability emerges at the interface of biology and specific cultural expectations. There's no dyslexia in illiterate or non-literate societies, period. Dyslexia doesn't exist in the same way when you're using pictographic alphabet as oppose to our alphabet.
Jesse: You can't be a bad typist in the era before typewriters.
Zak: Exactly, right? So, it's interesting that we essentialize or kind of reify many of these disabilities as if there's some genetic code for dyslexia. There can't really be. What there is is a code for certain forms of neurodiversity which interface with cultural expectations and forms of text, etcetera. So, that's kind of one way to think about it is that the brain didn't evolve to read, but what schooling has done is, on a large scale, get everyone to use their brains in this unique way to neuronally recycle some part that was used for something else for this radically cultural and kind of novel activity of reading.
Different than speech. Speaking comes naturally. Reading seems to be kind of bolted on and using other things and so do other forms of high-level thought and symbol operation. Schooling has a massive effect on our brain and has been for centuries, for good and for ill, and this is where it gets interesting. School has also made certain forms of neuronal development, let's say, as a proxy for psychological development, skill development. Certain of those are more valuables than others, certain of those are paid attention to more than others, certain of those gets financial rewards as opposed to others.
There's a homogenizing effect to mass schooling. Another narrative here is that, yes, everyone's learning to read and write, and so we're getting this new kind of brain that's evolving on a large scale but we're also getting a kind of regimentation, potential homogenization, restrictive functioning on what could be the potentials of the brain. For example, meditative states, which I do a lot of work with, massive potential in every human brain to be capable of deep meditative states. That's not in school.
So, this is the one of those things where it's about not just the brain. It's about the way the brain is in culture, and the way the potentials that are implicit in the brain are expressed or not expressed, given the context, and especially given socio-cultural context with all these ethical and normative kind of emotionally-laden expectations, which is what schooling is, which is what the family is.
Schooling in the brain are huge. The simplest thing for me is the time of the day it starts. I'd say this at schools all the time because you get to cheer for the students like, "Yeah!" It's way too early to take the adolescent brain, get it up at like 6 am, and showered, and out the door. It's like, "Whoa. What are you doing? That's like torture."
Jesse: There seem to be a lot of things where from what we've learned in the past couple of decades of research, we're sort of swimming upstream with our educational system, having kids which are wired to move and using their bodies physically to sitting still in desks, and you get in trouble if you're moving.
Zak: Yeah, I mean, that's exactly right, and that's another case where good neuroscience, even good psychology will just say, "This is crazy. You can't have a kid of this age, you can't reasonably expect them to sit there for four hours straight." One of the powers of neuroscience and of the human science is, in general, what philosophers call explanatory critique, which is to say once you know there's a certain process at work, you have no good reason to behave otherwise. If you're behaving otherwise, it means there's some ulterior factor.
So, for the school day, it has to do the way the schools have been, for lack of a better phrase, a holding pen for the youth while mom and dad go to work. The biggest problem with changing the starting time of the school day is that mom and dad go to work at 9, and if the kids don't go to work until 11, there's two hours. So, what do they do? You hire someone to take care of them or what happens? It's interesting, and my latest book, I'm talking about how all of these macroeconomic reforms are actually necessary to make schools the way they need to be for optimal brain development.
Jesse: So, I'm going to just lid off the ethical can of worms here and say, "What are some of the frameworks by which we might try to devise what optimal brain development really is?" because I was raised in the normal American schooling system, and it might that be that my brain is ossified into this thing where I'm not even capable of thinking some of the creative ways as to why the system might want to be different, why producing people of the same conveyor belt as produced me as even a desirable thing?
Zak: That's a deep philosophical question. This is where we land when we do the philosophy of education in particular. The deepest question in the philosophy of education is, "What is the good human or the good community?" Education raises, for us, the most foundational question, as does raising a child outside of schooling. Who are we to shape this child, and who are we to not shape this child? Which is to say that the absence to teacherly authority, the absence of parental authority is also potentially damaging.
Jesse: You can't exactly advocate that role.
Zak: Exactly. This was the problem with free school movement. This is what John Dewey was always criticizing was the free school movement where if the kid didn't want to learn math, he didn't have to. That's actually a huge disservice to that kid. So, it's about this dance between autonomy and community, and about finding a way to exercise teacherly authority appropriately and we are now, in our culture, in a crisis of teacherly authority, which is to say that who knows what or who to believe. Is it CNN or Fox News? Is it the New York Times or writers at this college professor or this blogger who never went to college?
Jesse: It's really tough for people now to predict what the psychological and educational needs of a kid popping out of the school system 20 years from now is even going to be. Predicting the world five years in advance is a tough road to hold these days.
Zak: Precisely. Again back to Dewey, he, of course, addressed this question you ask explicitly. His most coherent answer went something like this: "Those forms of learning are best that enable more learning." It's a call for forms of education that are open-ended and that allow for ongoing lifelong learning. Instead of, for example, teaching science as a collection of facts in a textbook, you teach the scientific method. It's an open form versus closed form way of defining the goals of education.
So, the open form that Dewey's preferring is to say that freedom that's allowed to the child that's best, the freedom that we allow them is the freedom that would allow them more freedom in the future. If you don't teach the child mathematics, you've closed off this huge realm of possibility for them. There are certain key things that need to be in place to allow for freedom, which is to say we need to limit freedom to allow for freedom, and that's the dance of teacherly authority, which is to say, "No, you don't know what's good for you yet, but I'm going to allow you to grow into your autonomy, and as soon as possible, hand the reins back over to you for your own development, equipped as you are to develop further."
This is one of the hardest moves to make as a culture and as a school system where we'd like to give standards and guidelines and multiple choice tests that say the outcomes of schooling are x, y, z list of things, list of skills, when in fact, the outcome of schooling needs to be a much more open set of potentials. We need to teach you how to educate yourself to solve problems that we can't even predict are going to be emerging yet.
This is one of the turns we're making in schooling as a whole is away from the kind of naive sense that it's just this pipeline into this predictable job market, and into this different sense that, actually, we live in a different kind of society in an evolving world in which the unpredictable is what we can predict, and so there needs to be this radical kind of freeing up of what we value educationally, because we don't know, as you already said, what these kids are going to have to deal with 50 years from now, 30 years from now, 10 years from now.
Jesse: Putting myself in the role of high school guidance counselor or something like that, I would just have a hard time pretending like I could really give a kid reasonable advice on what the job market might be like in 15 years. Are certain job roles which are part and parcel of modern society even going to exist or will they have been completely automated?
Zak: That's the issue is that the macroeconomic concerns such as artificial intelligence-induced mass unemployment. Actually, one of the hardest nuts to crack when it comes to artificial intelligence and what I would think would be the natural outcome would be a basic income guarantee. The issue here is what's the human if the human's not a wage laborer? What's the human if they don't get up every day and go to work at 9? How do give meaning to our lives? This is the kind of question the educational system is going to have start to answering, and it means a different kind of brain needs to come out the other side of it. We're seeing that. We don't have that kind of brain yet. The school system's failing to provide society with the skills and capacity it needs.
Jesse: What are some of the ways in which developing kids psychologically could or should be improved in the current schooling system?
Zak: I mean, again, the issue sometimes it's called the hidden curriculum, but it's also the things that the school does almost unintentionally, almost by verge of just being a school: the playground and gym class, the difference between the smart kid and the less smart kid and how they relate to one another. There's essential social skills that play out. Often, when I am critical of schooling, I sometimes will give a vision of a society in which there are no schools.
Ivan Illich wrote this great book, Deschooling Society, and people get nervous because they imagine it's all home schooling, when in fact the deschooled society is a return to almost the one-room school house model. Schools are also one of the only institutions that segregate by age. It's weird if you think about it. There's no other place in the world, except maybe an old folks home, where people are organized simply by chronological age, and chronological age is a terrible proxy of development.
Jesse: Yeah, it really is. You could do it by height; it would be just as arbitrary.
Zak: Yeah, exactly. So, one thing what I'd love to see disrupted is this: the one-room school house, one of the virtues of it was that you had all ages mixing together, and so, oftentimes, the older kids would teach the younger kids, and there's no better way to learn something than to teach it.
So, there's that dynamic which we're seeing in some rare context of charter schools. That's an example of the kind of social insanity of schooling, which is the age norm segregation, and then, of course, the actual segregation by race and socioeconomic class. If you take a critical theorist view of education, there's always been what they call the correspondence principle, which is to say that the relations of schooling mirror the relations of the labor market, so that when we had the agrarian society, we had the one-room school house, when we had the factory society, we had the factory school.
Now we're moving into this post-modern thing, and we've got these kind of startup charter schools. So, the idea that you are habituated into the forms of labor and authority structures that you're going to be participating in at schools, and this is divided socioeconomically so that you find in schools and lower working class neighborhoods, these schools are run very authoritarian, whereas if you go to suburban schools, the kids are allowed to leave campus and do all kinds of things on their own will.
Jesse: Casual Fridays and things like that?
Zak: Exactly. So, what you're looking is they're being prepared for professional life where you're given autonomy, whereas the working classes kids are being paid for a different kind of work or supervisory relationship. So, that's again, the social insanity and this has an effect on, of course, the brain. It's very clear that the kind of emotional environment that you spend time in becomes the pattern of your nervous system. With learning disabilities, in particular, it's a great study.
I think it was Todd Rose who did it, and he showed, basically, that it's not the disability itself that ultimately makes kids fail, it's all of the negative emotional connotations with schooling that follow from the disability. It's not that the dyslexia does the problem; it's the fact that I'm constantly barraged by special educators and negative feedback, and for ADHD, it's worse. If 80% of the feedback you get at school is negative, then you come to have this emotional charge with schooling. You come to hate learning. Michael Apple, this great critical theorist of education, he talked about the structure of feeling, of schooling, the structure of the feeling of being in the classroom, and what that does to the nature of your identity and your sense of self.
Jesse: It seems like there's a lot of societal blowback, or at least hard feelings now about just how coddling, and to some extent, just being a kid in modern society is how we try to insulate kids from any sort of negative feelings until they hit 18 years of age, and then all of a sudden, the world can do whatever the world normally does to them, and then in some ways, we might be really underpreparing kids for the fact that the real adult world is not always a nice place. What's the data have to say about those sorts of issues?
Zak: I mean, the data does show that there are shifting trends in self-perception, absolutely, towards what we would traditionally characterize as narcissism. But, these trends, they're generational, but they're also just cultural, period. Which is to say that, yes, younger people are becoming more narcissistic, but so is everybody else. I always find it interesting that parents who are addicted to their phones expect the kids not to be addicted to their phones, and parents who get up every day and go to a job they hate expect their kids to love school to pursue a job that they're eventually going to hate. I think it's interesting, and I think because it's easy to point downward generationally.
Jesse: We got a long history of doing that.
Zak: Yeah, and I think the first thing we need to do is look in the mirror that adults need to know about who they are and whether they're actually accomplishing what they think they're accomplishing before -- anyway, I could go on and on about that, but it is true that the schools play a role in this. But, if you look at the culture, and particularly the social media, everything that social media is showing you has been, on the backend, programmed and delivered to you for your preference, and this comes down to the customization of advertising across most of your web browsing.
The consistent message you're getting from the media is one that's flattering, is one that's giving you what you want to see, potentially, even what you think you need. So, that's, perhaps, a deeper trend. There's a great book that's called Mediated, and it's about this. It's about how we went from broadcast to radio. Everyone watches the same show, gets the same commercial to this different form of media, which is now much more flattering, which is to say that we're creating these bubbles of perception which make us delicate and make us able to be popped quite easily, because we actually think we're exposing ourselves to everything in the world by looking at Facebook, when in fact we're being exposed to a very narrow bandwidth of the world by looking at Facebook. So, that consistent self-confirmation bias that you get from these forms of media.
Jesse: There's one counterpoint to that, which is that a lot of what were given by social media feeds and things like that tends to be that which outrages us or makes us think, "That's the craziest thing in the world. I hate, hate, hate that with six exclamation points," because, algorithmically, if we see something we hate, we're likely to take an action, like forward it to a friend, "Hey, don't you hate this also?" and the algorithms pick up on that activity. So, it almost kind of like polarizes things into stuff that we're really, really going to love or really, really going to hate, and not much in the middle.
Zak: That's absolutely correct. I mean, I think we're going to look back 50, 60 years from now at what's going on with social media and screen time the way we look at cigarettes. Like, we're literally going to look back and be like, "Jesus!" Yes, and the outraging stuff, as you're saying, is actually the stuff that's the click bait. The other thing to understand about Facebook is that it's an advertising mechanism, as is the vast majority of the internet.
So, again, the advertisement does, by its very virtue, is flattery. That's what advertisement does. We've gone to the social media thing here. The broader point is that, and again, to Dewey, the great philosopher of education had said, "All the basic structures of our society are educational," and that means that all the basic structures of our society affect the nervous system in a very profound way. We can't think that the self-driving car, for example, that's coming isn't going to have big impact on our nervous system.
Think about just the build-up of neurotoxins from commuting. People talk about depression anxiety. Well, what or what if you didn't have to commute an hour a day and sit in traffic? Instead, you could read or whatever in your self-driving car. Everything can be seen through the lens of how it affects the nervous system and how it affects education.
It's one of the ways I'm trying to articulate in my next book, the scope with which an educator should conceive their task, which is to say that almost all forms of policy can be thought of in terms kind of educational optimization, or nervous system optimization, so that we can live in a society that was literally designed across all the plains of our being for development. This is kind of the concrete Utopian vision that I lay out of a society of educational abundance.
Jesse: How would you go about those big structural changes? What would you want to see done differently as far as what kids are thought in what order, or what level it's personalized at even though you need to accommodate 10, or 20, or 30 million kids at any given time?
Zak: Again, I keep mentioning this next book. The title is called Education in the Anthroposophy: Essays on the Future of School's Technology and Society. One of the questions I ask is this question, which is basically, how do we create a fundamentally new kind of educational system? I start from the assumption that we need a path there, and I suggest, essentially, repurposing existing schools. So, literally, gutting the school buildings and turning them into educational hubs, which are combinations of libraries, museums, co-working spaces, daycare centers, computer workshops.
What we have is, in the school, a new type of institution, and this institution looks like an amalgam of some of what we're seeing in, let's say, Silicon Valley startup incubators, and also some of the kind of fringiest parts of the charter school movement, and, of course, Illich's vision of the deschooled society. Illich's vision of the deschooled society, each child got an educational credit card, which he could redeem with elders in the community.
What I'm doing here is with a vision of a network of educational hubs so that schools and other buildings in the local region become places where students go, and essentially, create by their own volition a kind of emergent path for their own education by making use of the decentralized resources of the community that are kind of brought together in the hub.
Related to the hub vision is macroeconomic reforms, including things like a basic income guarantee, and labor market reforms that would free parents to become kind of teacher-citizen-scientists and populate the hub, and that whole thing can be arranged with a form of skill-sharing network that's basically done online.
It's a taste of the vision. There's a bunch of different moving parts, but essentially replacing a one-size-fits-all school with a decentralized network of educational hubs. One of the things that I'm building with this educational hub model to accommodate is radical social disruption, and that's important to keep in mind when you lay out these kind of Utopian visions, which is to say you couldn't just plug and play this into our current job market and geopolitical situation.
My argument is that educational abundance is our only hope. In fact, that the only way to get out of this and into a new way of being human beyond this global crisis, the only way to do that is by unleashing human potential like we never have before, and this goes all the way back to what we started about what the schools do to brains. We need to create open form schools that kind of catalyze uniqueness and this is almost an evolutionary argument. Like, ecosystems survive based on uniqueness. We need people to think of ideas and come up with things that no one would have ever thought of if they'd come out of a factory school where they learn exactly the same scientific facts, etcetera.
So, we need black swans to be everyday occurring in terms of what people do with their minds. Otherwise, we're not going to solve these problems. The so-called grownups who are criticizing the younger generation, they're not solving these problems as far as I can tell. Things are not getting, necessarily, better on all fronts. In fact, on some fronts, they're getting drastically worse precisely because of the lack of openness and freedom in our educational system.
Jesse: One of the things, historically, that we've always needed to do with humans is, to some extent, mass produce them. If one butcher, baker, candlestick-maker was handy in order to run a society, you needed a bazillion people that had that same skill set. But, the one thing that we're really good at doing with technology now is once you can fit an algorithm to it, just replicate that and you do not need to replicate humans in that same way anymore. It might be that where humans really come in handy is for their individual special uniqueness.
Zak: Exactly. That's a post-capitalist vision of a society after the wage labor system has been replaced by automated machines. Like, that's one key thing that's happening in this world system pivot. So, as you described, it means that the value of the human is no longer the value they can produce that's monetary. The value of the human is the value they can produce in all these other realms of human expression and being, some of which are extremely serious.
There's a whole bunch of sick, old people who are cared for by strangers. There's a whole bunch of sick, regular people who don't get the care they deserve. There are a whole bunch of children who never get to see their parents, and go to these alienating schools.
So, freeing people from the wage labor system allows them to be people. It doesn't allow them to be irresponsible drug addicts and artists and whatever. But, the point being that we have these strange ideas about what the human is, and they're being given to us, and inculturated into us, and we need to drop and shed many of those to survive. So, that means I think we do need to get a little bit radical with our visions of what schooling could be in the near future.
These kinds of trends are already unfolding. I mean, the largest movement in education in the United States is the home school movement that's largely dominated by the political right, and kind of conservative religious. But, I could imagine a very different ideology motivating people and drawing them away from this system.
I think times, they are a-changing when it comes to education in particular, which means their brains are changing.
Jesse: When I think about some of this, it reminds me of the X-Men of everybody being a mutant with their own special mutant superpowers. But, the downside, I guess, or maybe the thing that you don't think about when you think about the X-Men, but you do when you think about biology, is that most mutations are not beneficial. It's only the slimmest margin of random mutations of people just trying out something new that actually works out well.
What I do feel like, we might be losing it, letting our educational system be so personalizable is that most of the time, it won't work out well for the person. Right now, we have a system which tries to do as best it can for everybody. It probably won't do the perfect job for anybody, but as you increase freedom, you increase people's ability to screw themselves up.
Zak: Absolutely, and this comes back to this issue of teacherly authority. One of the details in the educational hub is the software that creates the individualized plan for the students, and baked into that software is curriculum design in terms of an integral theory of knowledge. So, there's all of this detail there about how we allow for the most appropriate forms of freedom in the moment without allowing for those forms of freedom that will eventually disallow future freedom.
This is that idea of skeletal trajectory we want to set to keep them safe, especially at a young age to enable as much autonomy as possible. So, this means that that software is developmentally diagnostic, and this comes to the non-profit, which worked on this problem of, "How do you figure out where is a kid in their skill development, and what's the next best step for them to take?"
Artificial intelligence, tutoring system that makes those kind of judicious decisions about, "Well, kid, I know you want to do that, but let's wait a little bit. Do this first and then think about that," and that's the role of intergenerational transmission is not just a school, not just to stand at the chalkboard and talk, but to create the environment where the kid can play and be safe.
Just to flip your argument and turn it in another direction, one of the key things about learning, if you think of learning as an evolutionary process, is that mutations need some to happen that fail in order for mutations to be found that work. Which is to say, you need to make mistakes to learn, and you need to make, sometimes, dangerous or painful mistakes to really learn. We are mostly in an educational system that punishes you for mistakes, and actually makes you fear making mistakes.
Now, if you need to make mistakes to learn, we should have an educational system in which you are allowed to make mistakes, and in fact, put in a position where you can fail. So, that's an important thing to remember here too is that by not allowing children to fail, we actually don't allow them to learn, but in fact, enough freedom to fail safely, but not so much freedom that you can fail in a way where your life is destroyed now, and that's an important difference.
Hopefully, the hub network and this kind of software platform that customizes the trajectory for the child, hopefully that has built in enough, but not too much, in terms of educational guidance and teacherly authority.
Jesse: What do we know as far as critical periods for brain development? I think, actually, the term in your paper was "sensitive periods" rather than "critical periods". But, how might we change the way that we're doing things now to better take advantage of the sequence in which children might best learn things?
Zak: Yeah, that's another great example where the best of what we know about neuroscience, cognitive science, developmental psychology really contradicts what we do in educational practice. So, a couple things here. One, the notion of the sensitive period, I think, is interesting, but can be kind of reified or made into something that it's not.
Just for example, foreign language learning. You know, it is true that in early infancy, the human ear can recognize all possible phonemes. But, eventually, that capacity, there's a process of pruning in the brain so that you become able to mostly only recognize the phonemes of your native language. That makes perfect sense because now it just becomes this automated process. But, by virtue of that, when you go and learn a foreign language as an adult, there's stuff you can't hear. Not without a lot of practice, sometimes never. So, that's an example of a critical period that passes.
Now, that doesn't mean that you cannot learn a foreign language as an adult. What it means is that you may never speak that language in such a way that you sound like you're a native speaker. But, the main problem with foreign language learning with adults is how difficult it is, as an adult, to be doing kiddy language and to be making mistakes and talking like a child.
So, again, the critical period is absolutely true, but it gets misunderstood. The work that I've done has been more about large-scale developmental reorganizations of capacity, and these are radically neglected in the school system. This comes from the Piagetian tradition of thinking about human development in terms of a series of levels or phases which are a sequence of prerequisites. Your use of the word "sequence" there is absolutely correct, and there's a big difference between what a 10-year-old can do and what a 20-year-old can do, and we have good ways of characterizing the kind of gradations of abstraction and complexity between.
Often, what we see in the schools in the schools is a neglecting of the critical phase of when you can do abstract thought, and then the next critical phase of when you can do relations between systems of abstract thoughts. So, there are these key milestones in the development of thought, which could be used to build curriculum in a much more efficacious way.
But instead, we expect kids who are not able to even think abstractly, and we give them all these abstract words, and if you really ask them deeply about what a word like "ecosystem" means, for example, they'll just say, "The forest out there," and that's great. That's how they understood it, and that's their representational level. But, the abstraction of ecosystem has to do with non-linear dynamics, for example, which kids aren't going to get.
So, this is an example of it's not quite the critical phases, but it's about the architecture of the mind and brain, which we neglect, at our peril, as educators. You simply can't teach a kid something before he's ready. Now, it doesn't mean that you dumb it all down. It means that you do diagnostics to figure out what's the right next step. So, the sequencing and the delivery in terms of developmental diagnostics is a big kind of piece of that software I was describing at the core of the educational hub.
We need to know how to identify that kid who's precocious and already doing abstractions, and we know how to identify that kid who's doing abstractions in one domain, but really struggles in this other one. So, these ways of thinking about the kind of mass customization or the delivery of individualized educational trajectories, it's where everything is pointing in terms of what the neuroscience and cognitive science suggests, which is a science of uniqueness.
Not to bring Dewey in the room again, Dewey said, "All the most important problems of philosophy come to a head in the problem of education." Politics, ethics, religion, aesthetics, it's all in there. Nutrition, school lunches is a huge deal, and it always has been historically. So, yeah, I think it's all tied up in education, and a lot of that has to do with the reflective ability of the human to shape its own brain. Now, we're finally thinking about it in terms of the brain.
Jesse: Do you think that, given the fact that humans tend to think on such short-term time scales, like who's going to be the president for the next four years, or things like that, making changes in education has massive consequences, but not over a terribly short time span? Is it going to be tough to get social buy-in, given the long payoff before we get real consequences?
Zak: I think this is the time, actually. So, we're looking in the next five years, maybe even longest, 10, at something like the Wild West in the educational marketplace, precisely because it's becoming a marketplace. So, I think one of the long trends in the politics of education since the '90s has been the move to privatize the schools, which is to say to take them away from being public and return them into being private. That's happening, and I think we're going to see that accelerating.
What that means is that we're moving away from the massive school systems and the giant high schools into kind of a fractured, stratified marketplace of educational vendors. They'll call themselves schools, and some of them will be the most amazing schools that, maybe, have ever existed. But, others shouldn't be called schools. Like, we've got Burger King Academy already down in Florida.
Burger King Academy attracts underperforming, usually, African-American, Hispanics from high schools who would otherwise drop out, trains them up with a GED to be a Burger King manager, and this is a charter school run by a private corporation that gets federal money to process these kids and turns a profit, and then gets managers for the Burger King.
So, that's an example of just the Wild West. That school exists, and then we have like the Montessori Schools, and the Waldorf Schools in Silicon Valley. So, it's just the world we're moving in education is one of increasingly stratified. What this also means is that there's opening. Go back into the '60s, '70s, '80s, try to change something in the schools. You see massive public bureaucracies.
Now, we're going to have this more flexible dynamic educational marketplace for better and for worse. And some of the better will be, in pockets, incredible stuff happening, and the question is will one of those pockets, where something incredible happens, find something that kind of goes viral and then spreads, and it becomes a new center of gravity for tomorrow's educational system.
Jesse: It could be that there's going to be multiple high points. They might be mutually exclusive to some degree, like one educational philosophy versus another, but could both be better than what we have now.
Zak: Yeah, and that's what you hope for is a polycentric emergence of these new alternatives. This is what I'm seeing, so I do think the time is kind of ripe, but it's not ripe for a massive just swapping out of one big system and swapping in of one new big system, but instead, this evolutionary chaos period where there's going to be all these different things happening educationally, and then the question will be what sticks?
Jesse: Let's say that some 12-year-old has gotten a hold of this podcast and listens to you talking and says, "Hey, you know, this guy sounds really smart, and it also sounds like he's saying that the current system is screwed up, and I shouldn't necessarily pay much attention to what my school district bureaucracy tells me." What is a kid or a parent to do at this point before these changes sort of come online?
Zak: My answer to that question is usually separate learning from schooling in your own mind, and in your own experience. Do not confuse learning with schooling and find a love of learning. Schools are going to be what they are, and I kind of used school to pursue power, which is to say I went to Harvard for a reason, strategically. It was curiosity and I was driven to be a scholar, but it was also I wanted to see what was going on in these upper-echelon educational places, and to be empowered by the knowledge that I could get there.
But, that's not the route necessarily. If you learn to love learning, then you're going to be successful, period. And whether that success is through degrees and credentials and moving up this kind of hierarchy, or whether it's dropping out of high school. If you know how to learn and can pursue it and love it, I think the risk is that you're in a bad schooling situation and your parents can't move, you're kind of stuck in this crappy school. The risk is that you confuse schooling with learning, and you confuse your failure in school with your failure as a human being, or as an intellectual. When, in fact, failing in school could prove your success as a human being.
I think that's important so that you can survive in a difficult schooling situation, if you can find ways to pursue your love of learning outside of it. But, that takes bravery, and that means being a little unconventional, and I think having, also, some faith in the next 10 years, the world's going to be totally different, so that many of your friends who are in school, all prepared, and getting straight As with this career path in 9th grade, or whatever, good luck to them.
To the 12-year-old listening to this, I would say, "Don't necessarily listen to your teachers."
Jesse: So, you're saying my degree in typewriter repair is now useless?
Zak: Yes, that's what I'm saying. But, your ability to learn computer repair, because you're a lifelong learner, is priceless. And that's the difference. We should not teach typewriter repair; we should teach the ability to become a repairman of any type, which is to say how to learn to fix things, the principles of repair, and how to learn. I think that's what we need.