Letter to Ashley on a New Education — Part 1

July 21, 2016

Hi Ashley,

Want a nice surprise to hear from you. I’m glad you’re settled in your new home in time to meet the kids and get prepared for teaching. The state-of-the-art science building at your new high school should be fun to work in. Maybe I’ll get to see it sometime.

As an evolutionary behavioral biologist, you can appreciate that nature vs. nurture is a false dichotomy, because everything biological is a perpetual, inextricable blend of these things; which is why, as you say, “it’s incredibly difficult to tease apart the nature vs. nurture influences on anything, especially learning.” I think it’s good to remember that the mind has a body and couldn’t do anything without it. Schools tend to forget that we are biological beings and consequently that our physical experiences are necessary components of our knowledge and ideas. (I wrote a short piece about this, “Experience and Analog,” with examples from science, if you’re interested. It’s online at tinkering.exploratorium.edu/paul-tatter).

I’m inclined to think that mind and consciousness are not things that the brain does on its own; they are not simply neural functions, and because of this they are not exclusively internal, private or radically individual as our educational psychologies might lead us to believe. Rather, mind and consciousness are manifestations of the give and take transactions or interplay among our biological selves, which of course includes our brains and hands and ears, etc., and other people and their activities (including communicating facial and bodily expressions, vocalizations, gestures, mime, signs, language, art, music, things we make, et cetera), and the objects that constitute our environments at any time. All of these and the changes occurring among them are necessary for the presence of mind and consciousness, and for meaningful learning. Substantial constraints on any of these constituents must necessarily impose significant constraints on learning. Neglect of this is one fundamental reason that schools fail to educate well.

I am grateful for your thoughtful and insightful reading of “A Need for a New Education.” I think you are right that we generate motivation and focus usually for things that we believe are important and relevant for our lives. I would add things that we find curious or entertaining, and also things that other people, who we trust, respect, admire or like, find interesting. Perhaps most compelling are things that we see or experience happening around us that spark an interest to participate. The “I want to try or to do that, too” or “I want to help with that, too” motivations of children are not lost on adults. So, for example, anyone helping others to learn science probably should be themselves publicly (in the neighborhood) engaged in a scientific investigation of their own.

To be truly representative of lifelong learning, a learning park would need around 4,000 participants, about 50% of whom would be adults engaged in pursuing their passions or interests. Odds are that at least 100 of these adults would be doing some form of science. Regular access of young people to these adults, and vice versa, would have a very compelling effect on learning and discipline. As you say, “I love how inclusive the whole idea is–educating not just children and grandchildren, but parents and grandparents too.” The mutual simultaneous learning could be profound. You go on to say, “The Learning Parks idea is a total revamp of what we have currently, and I love that! A place where anyone can come and feel welcome, encouraged, and motivated to better themselves and their community. It’s a creative force that can totally change the trajectory we are on. I think the one thing I would attempt to add in there is the teaching of self-discipline.”

I understand your concern for teaching self-discipline; it is shared by many. But I believe that the perceived need to teach discipline is a consequence of inadequate learning environments like schools. What we really seem to mean by this special use of the term is the repression of our distaste, disinterest, or revulsion for doing something; or a willingness to do something for which we feel no purpose or motivation. As educators we have to figure out the differences between discipline and obedience. I think self-discipline is largely a natural correlate of need or interest and does not need to be taught. Early examples are seen in the discipline children apply to learning how to walk or talk, and to many other behaviors, both physical and social, that they work to master. This self-applied discipline of youth continues with the many things they see their elders doing that they also want to do. People of any age show great discipline in learning everything from hitting a ball to driving a car to reading a book to playing a violin to building a robot, when they are associated with other experienced people that thrive on these activities.

An effective place of learning would organize itself to utilize these sources of discipline that are more powerful and long-lasting than coercive forms of “discipline” that are actually forms of obedience imposed by authorities and reinforced by rewards and punishments like prizes, privileges, detention, retention, grades, tests, and diplomas (All state governments have criminalized not attending school.), or the promise of money (jobs) that often eludes many young people, especially after they are burdened with college debt. I don’t believe that people have to be taught discipline, but they may need context and support in applying it. On the other hand, obedience has to be taught, and people have to be trained in it; and we should be wary of its purposes and consequences. It is almost always justified as being “good for you” or being “required” by some unquestioned authority, or being “necessary” to get something like a good job.

Education should never be obsessed with preparing employees, and to make it principally so is probably unethical, and certainly deprives people of opportunities to become fully human; but that is another issue. I advocate excluding coercion and trusting the learners because, in comparison, the alternative is substantially short-lived and ineffective. It is most especially clear that thoughtfulness and good judgment, creativity and invention, inquiry and application to life are not learned through coercion, but rather through the full and voluntary exercise of a person’s own capacities. Of course we would have to accept, or better celebrate, that the outcomes of this will be unpredictable and diverse. And of course to educe this would require exhaustive attention to the qualities and constituents of environments for learning. Of what should these environments consist to most effectively support diverse and complex learning? The means become the end. The way we get there is what we get in the end. What kind of world and people do we want to end up with? Our means will tell us. “How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! Oh, brave new world, that has such people in ‘t!”

And there are so many other sources of discipline that are biologically and culturally grounded, such as the impulse to help others. This inclination is extremely strong and readily overcomes our reluctance or disinterest in doing something onerous, but which has a purpose we believe in. This comes from our being social animals and certainly from a parenting instinct, but it has generalized to many contexts. An example I saw involved the 30 teen-aged interns at our science center, who provided science programs for elementary school children. These interns were surrounded by adults who cared about them and who were engaged in experimentation. But what really sustained the discipline to learn science for these teens was the continually growing interest and personal growth they derived from it, and the desire to share and to help younger children learn science.

You ask, “If there is no positive reinforcement (such as recognition or awards) besides one’s self-satisfaction, I wonder how that would continue to motivate individuals to better themselves.” As you suggest, we certainly respond to our feelings of self-satisfaction, but perhaps even more profoundly we respond to gratitude, respect, love, caring, loyalty, or the needs, cooperation, support and approval of our friends, colleagues, neighbors and community. Because we are social animals, the most powerful “reinforcements” and “rewards” (an inadequacy of these terms is their medication-like, and terminal, and perhaps selfish specificity) are occasions and feelings that arise within sustained, social relationships.

In this kind of context I think would prosper your idea for “a sort of ‘anti-elective’, where every given time period an individual has to become involved in a topic they’ve been avoiding.” I agree with you that it is educationally beneficial periodically to challenge people to move beyond their comfort. How about minding the kids, or cleaning up, or showing you love me, as well as racism, and what are you voting for, personally offensive topics or opinions you detest, or snakes, Light in August, Hamlet, the car manual, singing, dancing, and topology? And I really like your idea of “someone of relation to the individual (a child/grandchild, a friend, a mentor, etc)” requesting a topic for that person to explore. As you say, “I’m not sure exactly what it would look like, but I do believe there should be some sort of aspect of the Learning Parks that essentially makes people do something they wouldn’t otherwise do.” Yes. Thanks for improving learning parks with this idea.

[End of Part 1 — Letter to Ashley on a New Education]