The Environment that Unleashes Minds

A reflection on “Frozen Minds” by Jorge Luis Contreras Herrera

“Learning is not the same as education.”

With this blunt statement, Jorge Luis Contreras starts his book Frozen Minds”. Education is fostered in the traditional educational system. On the other hand, learning is cultivated in alternative environments. He implies that education is passive and monotonous, while learning is active and fun.

First, let us look back at the history of the traditional education system. It all started a thousand years ago when a systematic way of acquiring knowledge emerged. “Some individuals who had lots of free time and dedicated it mainly to research and development (learning on purpose) started gathering to share their findings with one another”. These learners, such as Plato, and Aristotle, among others, founded their own academies to transmit their knowledge to others.

Then, between 1650 and 1780, “The Enlightenment” emerged. It was a movement based on the superiority of reason and scientific thought. The enlightened were the ones who “knew better.” Once realizing the amount of knowledge they had and impressive discoveries they made thanks to it, they established what they thought was the best thing for society: the indoctrination of as many individuals as possible. And they did it.

Countries all around the globe started adopting this “Enlightened Absolutism” in the form of government education programs. Somehow, this helped the authorities control what the children learned and didn’t learn. They standardized education.

Despite the good intentions of the enlightened, our traditional system has harmed millions of potential individuals by stagnating and killing curiosity and creativity. In this system there is no room to be different. The students are measured through standardized tests, which determine if the individuals have learned the same skills and have the same knowledge. “The problem is that we didn’t industrialize learning; we industrialized education,” here again Contreras emphasizes that education and learning are different, if not opposites.

First, the traditional education system has frozen the minds of children; they don’t follow their own interests and set their own goals. Someone establishes these for everyone, usually the teacher, but sometimes even the government. Everything is imposed: the curriculum, the knowledge, the books, and the schedules. The only “responsibility” that a student has to complete when going to school is to absorb this prefabricated knowledge, and be skillful enough to memorize it and repeat it in a test. Repetition is highly encouraged, approved, and rewarded.

By contrast, in a learning environment you are free to decide for yourself. You set your own goals based on your genuine interests. It is crucial to understand that “different individuals have different interests. It is natural that different individuals set different goals. When you learn, you decide your own deadlines.” By learning to accept the dynamism of individuals, repetition won’t be rewarded anymore, therefore cultivating creation and innovation.

A very important aspect of the book is the concept of self-value. In a traditional educational framework, children seek the approval of someone else. They are vulnerable to someone else’s opinion of them, which consequently defines their individual value. Whereas in an independent learning environment, children learn to seek their own approval and understand that they have an intrinsic value liberated from any authority.

Jorge Luis presents the four pillars needed to live in harmony with these values and habits of an independent and active learner. He highly suggests creating new environments rather than changing the old ones. The four pillars that should be fostered in any learning environment are:

Fun

It is fueled by curiosity, which is defined as the “main force behind our ability to learn”. It is the energy that moves us to gather new information. School kills children’s curiosity because the system makes them give up their natural way of learning. Since there’s no fun in school, there are no incentives to keep on exploring the world.

Challenge

By overcoming difficulties and noticing our weaknesses, we can improve as human beings and as learners. Constant challenges are the means to improve. “The only way to be better at anything is to practice in order to improve our abilities.” Coping with challenge is not easy at all. Even though the majority of children have fun with it, they don’t always know where to find the next undertakings. They need some guidance as to where to improve, as well as what their next step should be, in order to keep on demonstrating to themselves what they are capable of doing and what they can learn.

Emotional expression

Emotions play an important role in our life. They are “additional units of energy that suddenly become available for a purpose.” When emotions are repressed, stress and negative energy builds up, causing a harmful environment. A learning environment should encourage every participant to express their emotions before they turn into something negative. Expressed emotions can transform into good energy.

Mimic

Children are always aware of what others are doing, and they replicate these behaviors. “Children don’t learn what you say; they learn what you do.” If you are constantly challenging yourself, improving skills and continuing to explore different branches of knowledge, children will look up to you and imitate your habits maintaining their individuality or essence.

If one fosters an environment that respects and takes the pillars mentioned above seriously, children will most likely build the skills that will enable them to create and pursue whatever thrives within them. Contreras builds up to the idea that the natural source of self-esteem is creation, because one appreciates oneself when one works. When you create something, you feel proud.

In regular schools, uniformity is seen as good and diversity as wrong. How are we supposed to unleash the next generation of innovators if we are creating homogenized individuals? If you analyze it, everyone is learning the exact same skills. How is anyone supposed to find the cure to cancer if he is receiving the same learning experience that everyone else? How are we creating an environment in where the students feel good to fail? We are freezing individuals, and it is only until they discover their internal drive (outside of school) that they will start learning and unfreeze their minds.

The alternative system of education celebrates failure as a crucial step for learning to happen. Without error there is no improvement. “The universal method of learning is ‘trial and error’, not ‘trial and success’ for a reason.” With this method, children are allowed to learn from the consequences of the decisions they make. Their own experience is their immediate source of feedback. However, in this environment feedback from peers and tutors is also nurtured.

School prepares us for a static and passive world. However, “there is one thing about the future we do know with absolute certainty: there will be change. And with change there will be new knowledge, new problems, and new capabilities. So, basically, what we need to practice is being prepared for change.” Inspiring individuals to pursue their own projects and be able to cope with change will create the next steps of progress for humanity.

Accepting and celebrating diversity leads us to understand that there is no such thing as universal passion and that there is no “one-size fits all” method in education. Contreras proposes to industrialize learning through technology by creating learning environments and a new learning system. He uses technology as a means to make learning available to everyone without depending on a human being to explore knowledge. It reminds me of Sugata Mitra’s “Hole in the Wall” experiment, which started with a computer and the curiosity of children. It is impressive to hear the testimonials and witness their learning journey, and how much the children grew in so little time.

The learning system, as described by him, “must pose countless opportunities for children to think, to decide, to judge, to create, to be productive, to be of service of others by trading their creations, creations which solve real problems for real people, and to learn for themselves if they can make a living with the ideas they turned into accomplished creations. And when they can’t t, the learning system must make it easy for them to close that door and find many other doors to explore their potential. The learning system must show them the way to be successful by being themselves.”

Imagine a world that pursues the learning system described above. Imagine all the possibilities we could explore with each individual pursuing their own passions and immersing completely into them to achieve something of value. Imagine all the solutions we could find if every mind dived into a specific question to get an answer. Imagine all the Newtons, Einsteins, and Jobs we could unleash just by changing the way we deal with learning today. It is certain that traditional education freezes the minds and crushes the insatiable spirits of our youth. Let’s unleash the individual and collaborative potentials by changing the dogmatic way of teaching and educating. It is all about setting young minds free by giving them back their autonomy to chase their own passions, interests, and dreams.

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