How Might a Culture of Powerful Ideas Emerge?

There are two distinct approaches for improving the typical American diet. The first approach focuses on doing the things we’re already doing better. How can we use data to personalize diets and programs? How do we inform people so they can make healthier choices? How do we motivate people to stick to the diets they do choose?

The second approach takes a step back to focus on the underlying culture. What are our beliefs about food? How are those beliefs transmitted and then amplified through our norms, habits, traditions, media, food industry, and governmental policies? Children who grow up surrounded by people eating a Mediterranean diet in a society set up to support that lifestyle don’t need special diets, additional nutrition classes, or superhuman willpower—so why do we?

I believe both approaches are important. People need help eating healthier now. But in the long run, diets only perpetuate unhealthy relationships with food and an unhealthy food culture. Ultimately, we need to create a culture where eating healthy is as natural and easy as breathing.

Powerful ideas

The same two approaches are being pursued in education today. In his talk, Rethinking Ideas, Alan Kay poses the following question: What kind of culture of powerful ideas must we create?

A powerful idea provides insight and new contexts for thinking—it expands our perspective, reframes what we think we already know, and changes how we see and think moving forward. A mediocre idea becomes powerful when it is debugged and revised over time.

In a culture of powerful ideas, everyone develops, shares, tests, and applies powerful ideas as naturally and easily as breathing. But sadly, in our current culture, we believe most powerful ideas are beyond the reach of most people, never mind children. We believe powerful ideas are the province of “experts” and people with “aptitude”. So, when “teaching” ideas to children, we water down the ideas, removing any power they might have.

Quantum mechanics is one of the most difficult and abstract subjects I have ever studied. Trying to wrap my head around it in graduate school was a struggle. I could not imagine understanding it as a child. But in his seminal book, Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, Seymour Papert makes the case that powerful ideas, like quantum mechanics, are difficult to understand only if delivered using formal instruction.

Imagine if, instead of learning about quantum mechanics by reading about it, we could see and experience quantum mechanics all around us every day growing up. Quantum mechanics would be concrete and we would develop the intuitions and intellectual structures needed to understand it. According to Papert, a culture of powerful ideas would emerge if we simply lived in a landscape filled with materials embodying powerful ideas, making powerful ideas concrete and easy to explore.

Growth mindsets

It is generally recognized today that a growth mindset is healthier than a fixed mindset. If intelligence is fixed, performance and success are based on innate ability—and there is nothing we can do to improve. On the other hand, if we have a growth mindset, we believe we can develop our abilities through hard work, learning, and determination.

Coming from an unhealthy learning culture, a growth mindset seems ideal. It’s certainly better to believe we can improve our performance through hard work, even if we have to work a million times harder than anyone else, than to believe we can’t grow at all. But reframe the growth mindset in the context of food and culture: You can eat as healthy as you want if you work at it hard enough. That’s not a message we would hear growing up in southern Italy—or in a culture of powerful ideas.

Belief and insight

We struggle to wrap our heads around the idea that everyone can develop and understand powerful ideas as naturally and easily as breathing because it runs counter to everything we’ve experienced to date. In our culture, we don’t see learning as natural and easy.

Alan Kay explains we have three main brains for thinking: our body brain, our eye brain, and our language brain. While the language brain excels at processing, generalizing, and sharing insights we’ve already had, it’s not as effective at generating insights in the first place. Words aren’t enlightening unless they help us recognize something we know in other ways. We rely on our body and eye brains for true insight—we have to do and see before we can start to re-evaluate our own beliefs.

It’s difficult for me to have insight into quantum mechanics because I can’t see or do quantum mechanics for myself. Someone who is only aware of American food culture wouldn’t believe it’s possible for everyone to engage in a healthy diet without working at it. We can’t begin to imagine a world where everyone develops and understands powerful ideas as naturally and easily as breathing. This raises an interesting dilemma: If we have to experience a culture of powerful ideas before believing one can even exist, how might such a culture emerge?

Mountain climbing

In Mindstorms, Papert describes children exploring the Logo programming language. Logo embodies at least two powerful ideas: using differential geometry to move a turtle and inventing a vocabulary to communicate with a computer. Children developed and applied both ideas naturally and easily in environments that were more playful than educational—but for the most part, a culture of powerful ideas did not emerge. Why not?

Alan Kay cites a saying from chamber music which I find relevant here: “In climbing a mountain, the reward is seeing the higher mountains.” As children played with Logo, they climbed a mountain leading to a spectacular view of higher mountains—and from this new perspective, they gained insight. But the children didn’t climb the mountain to discover other mountains to climb; they climbed the mountain in pursuit of personal goals and interests. While they might find the view at the top of the mountain awe inspiring, they had no intentions to climb the higher mountains in the distance.

After spending time using Logo, the children moved on. They didn’t become mountain climbers after climbing a single mountain. This is perfectly normal and to be expected. After all, it would be weird if someone growing up in Greece could point to a single influence for adopting a Mediterranean diet. The reason a culture of powerful ideas didn’t emerge is because materials embodying powerful ideas are so rare. Once they moved on from Logo, the children were not going to run into differential geometry or a computer language like Logo again, and they weren’t likely to run into other powerful ideas either. For the children, their time with Logo would be a treasured, but anomalous, experience.

But imagine if the landscape was filled with mountains. Going anywhere or doing anything meant climbing a mountain—we couldn’t avoid them. Over time, we’d develop into better mountain climbers, and eventually we’d start climbing mountains just for the sake of climbing mountains and checking out the view. Then, we’d notice the higher mountains in the distance and wonder what we’d see from the tops of those mountains. A few generations later, climbing gear would be given at baby showers and 10-year-anniversary parties, there’d be rock climbing walls in playgrounds, every middle school would have a climbing club, and mountain climbers would be professional athletes and celebrities. In short, everyone would climb naturally and easily.

Self-directed learning

There are people who believe a culture of powerful ideas will emerge if we simply encourage and enable children to pursue their own interests and design their own learning. I don’t see how that would happen. Why would a mountaineering culture emerge in a landscape with virtually no mountains?

In a healthy food culture, we want to listen to our bodies. But if the culture is unhealthy, our intuitions about food are often wrong and our brains can misinterpret the body’s signals. Children have easy access to Logo today but they choose to use less powerful materials. Why? Growing up in a culture with unhealthy beliefs about learning, we make unhealthy choices. Seymour Papert recognized this when he wrote about the impact of “mathophobia” in Mindstorms.

Diversifying learning

The most plausible theory I’ve seen that explains how a culture of powerful ideas might emerge also involves self-directed learning, but it doesn’t rely on people choosing to focus on powerful ideas simply because they are now in control. Instead, the theory relies on enabling those who are already focused on powerful ideas to find and build the materials they need.

Imagine we live in a society with public tax-funded cafeterias. We may opt out of the public cafeteria system and pay to join a private cafeteria, but all meal times are spent in a cafeteria until the age of 18. If you are an adult, or if you didn’t get your fill at the cafeteria, you can also eat at one of the food trucks scattered around town.

There are a handful of people who love eating raw roots foraged locally. A few decades ago, some public cafeterias did offer a raw-root dish on their menus. People responded favorably to it, but the dish was difficult to source and prepare properly, so it was eventually phased out with no public outcry. The raw-root fans were out of luck. While they could hunt for raw-root dishes among the food trucks, few did because they were already paying for and spending time in cafeterias. In turn, food trucks would occasionally test raw-root dishes, but they never found much demand.

This is the state of education as it exists today. The people who are focused on powerful ideas are underserved because there aren’t enough of them to cater to in a cafeteria. Now imagine the cafeteria system is abolished and we have a worldwide network capable of matching raw-root fans with raw-root food trucks. A new market is born and the uptick in availability of dishes for raw-root fans leads to new converts.

Assuming there’s no real value in eating raw roots, the number of fans will eventually plateau, reaching a new dynamic equilibrium. But if raw roots do have real value, which we only recognize after eating enough roots, there’s the potential for a virtuous cycle: a new market → more dishes → more fans → even more dishes → even more fans, etc. In theory, the democratization of education, coupled with technologies enabling a new market for powerful ideas to form, could initiate a virtuous cycle, adding more materials embodying powerful ideas to the landscape until a culture of powerful ideas eventually emerges.

Vertical learning

Like I said, this theory is the most plausible one I’ve heard, but I’m not sold on it. For example, I’m a bit concerned by the rise of the maker movement. If there’s an emphasis on making, then we’re naturally drawn to where the resources and community are, which can often mean choosing trigonometry or analytical geometry over differential geometry and Python or JavaScript over Lisp just because that’s what everyone else uses. It’s not clear to me if we’re diversifying learning or simply trading one educational establishment for another.

In my own research, I have focused on working with individuals to create cultures of powerful ideas locally—in landscapes where materials are scarce. I realize I’ve been mixing a lot of metaphors in this article, but I’m going to introduce one more.

Imagine you are shipwrecked on an island. One of your main food sources are the raw roots you forage from a common plant. While the roots sustain you, they’re not very nutritious and you suffer from malnourishment. There is one variety of plant whose roots are packed with essential vitamins, but the plant is rare—by chance, you stumble on and eat roots from this variety of plant about once a month. Unfortunately, to notice the health benefits of these roots, you’d have to eat them three times per week.

What would happen if circumstances changed and you suddenly stumbled on a group of these plants next to the beach where you like to watch the sun go down? After eating a bunch of roots, you feel noticeably stronger. This piques your curiosity and you start tracking what you eat and your health. Eventually, you realize that you feel stronger after eating the roots from this particular variety of plant—and you make it a habit to identify and note the location of those plants wherever you see them.

You are now an active learner. You recognize which roots are nutritious and make a point to eat them wherever you find them. This works for a while, but the roots are rare and you’re curious to learn how much stronger you’d be if you could find and eat more. Once you start going out of your way to search for the roots, you become a sense-making learner—finding even more roots is now a priority.

Feeling healthier and clearheaded, you think through your situation. Your chances of survival would be much higher if you could secure your supply of nutritious roots. You begin cultivating the roots and experimenting with cross-breeding different plant varieties. You are now an independent learner.

Emboldened by your ability to secure your food supply and feeling even healthier, you start to notice other issues with your living arrangement: your shelter is too flimsy and exposed to the elements, the sleeping mat you wove with vines isn’t comfortable, and the water you drink would be fresher if you collected it closer to the source. You know you could do better. At this stage, you’ve become a coherent learner—shining a light on problems and thinking things through is who you are and what you do.

With all of your basic needs secured, you’re in good shape. But looking to the future, you identify goals you can’t achieve alone. You start reaching out to fellow survivors from the shipwreck—bartering with them, teaching them what you’ve learned, and building a sense of community. Together, you pool resources to map the island, build a system of trails and aqueducts, and cut down trees from the interior to build better shelters. You also begin to think about ways to get off the island. You are now a strategic learner.

Concluding thoughts

Ultimately, we must create a culture of powerful ideas. The learning culture as it exists today is unhealthy. Any attempt to help children learn within the existing culture only serves as a bandaid—necessary in the moment but not part of a long-term solution.

The most plausible theory for how a culture of powerful ideas might emerge involves democratizing education and using technology to enable the people already focused on powerful ideas to connect. If a market for powerful ideas can form, it may initiate a virtuous cycle, increasing the number and variety of materials embodying powerful ideas in our landscape until understanding and developing powerful ideas is as natural and easy as breathing.

But even if the emergence of a culture of powerful ideas is inevitable, it may not happen for generations. In my research, I have focused on working with individuals to create cultures of powerful ideas locally. Because we don’t live in a landscape filled with powerful ideas and we are constantly having to push against an unhealthy learning culture, the work requires a great deal of insight and design—but it is possible.

I wrote a slightly more technical description of vertical learning theory, and its relationship to Piaget’s constructivist learning theory, in an earlier article, Why We should Learn Vertically: