Brain Health,
Sci + Society,

#181: The Future of Education

May 19, 2017

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.

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