Neuroeducation via Learning Standards to force Neuroliberalism: Such a Fruitful Site for Intervention

The original title for this post on the admissions about Psychological Governance (PG) and its declared ties to ‘standards-based’ education reforms and ‘competency frameworks’ was going to be “Shaping Citizen Identity and Social Practice so that Governance is Inside-Out, not a Building”. That gets at the function nicely and what must be, and is being, changed by law and governmental edicts as a matter of public policy. It’s also an aim that has been lied about repeatedly over the years in a most coordinated manner by people with ties to public policy think tanks and the philanthropies that fund them. I don’t think any of this is coincidental as I will explain. As I was outlining this post, however, the admissions about what neuroeducation and PG are were even more explicit than I remembered. Plus, the Hewlett Foundation, which has been heavily involved with education reforms via its Deeper Learning Initiative to prescribe the conceptual frameworks to be internalized within each students’ minds (the micro level of reforms),  moved forward in December 2020 to the needed shifts at a more macro-level in what it is calling its Economy and Society Grantmaking Initiative that seek to explicitly move beyond ‘Neoliberalism’ to get to a ‘Fairer Tomorrow’ as the our old instigator-in-chief the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences is calling it.

We are going to deal with the micro-level today, although I have tracked down, downloaded, and read all the cited macro reforms that apparently can now be put in place via higher ed and the Academy because the K-12 learning standards aligned to neural pathways are fully in place. Let’s start off with the definitions of Neuroliberalism and PG contained in the 2017 Psychological Governance and Public Policy: Governing the mind, brain and behavior. They are essentially the Goal and the envisioned Tool of Choice.

Neoroliberalism is a vision to change the contents of people’s heads using education, cognitive restructuring and behavioural exercises…[to get to] a more inclusive and emancipatory politics. Psychological Governance are interventions targeted at the interface of conscious and non-conscious thought and action, connecting emotional response and rational deliberation…The exercise of psychological governance is a form of regulation of the social good through targeting the minds of individuals as a means of changing their behaviour…with a view to normalizing ‘an interrelated set of psycho-emotional’ attributes, dispositions, attitudes and behaviours associated with emotional regulation/intelligence/literacy, resilience, stoicism, optimism, character, hope, aspiration and community-mindedness…

I was revisiting my ISC posts from the spring of 2018 when I was working on the nexus of the think tanks and their seemingly organized deceit around education over the weekend. I came across the advocacy for instilled Fuzzy Cognitive Maps (the Reflective System!) within the mind of each student and the accompanying quote about how what air is to the lungs and blood is to the heart, experience is to the brain. I guess the author of the analogy wanted to remind readers that the brain is a physiological organ of the body with a purpose, but, in my mind, pumping blood and breathing air don’t change how the heart and lungs function. Experience, though, changes the brain at a physiological–predictable and observable–level and that universal reality of being a human being is precisely what standards-based reforms and competency frameworks have always been intended to quietly manipulate. That manipulation embodies a new vision for “an understanding, empathetic citizenship [grounded] in a ‘universal’ dimension of human experience and identity.”

That’s why john a. powell in Racing to Justice wants to hype racism in the US as a reason to target students at the level of their automatic decision-making systems. It’s why the 2020 Behavioral Insights book from MIT argues for a vision of education that recognizes “there are many environments that individuals struggle to change on their own, indicating a change in politics or policy is needed…to gain a healthy democracy and civic agency.” Sounds like just the thing Hewlett now wants to fund under its Moral Economy or Law and Political Economy Initiatives, doesn’t it? Getting back to our micro-level discussion though, that sought civic agency needs  “the use of behavioral insights can actually help build that agency.” Here’s the next paragraph on how–

At the most basic level, behavioral insights can be used to nudge people to take part in civic activities in the first place. Although this nudge may be operating on the Automatic System, the goal is to make sure that someone takes part in in an activity that engages their Reflective System [where it gets to use the instilled Fuzzy Concept Map]. Then, behavioral insights can be used to design better deliberative mechanisms. Many of these activities take place in groups, but behavioral science shows that groups are vulnerable to issues like group polarization, availability cascades, and self-censorship. We can’t just assume that good reasoning prevails in deliberative settings–but evidence-based design makes it more likely.

Both of these books insist that this nudging and the behavioral insights work is done in “full public view,” that there is no “conspiracy to govern through expert knowledge on the mind, brain and behaviour,” and that “there is no sense it was a secret cabal unleashing a programme of control of citizens around Whitehall.” None of those assertions, however, dovetail with the ties to mandated learning standards globally that quietly impose a vision with “implicit moral assumptions about the kinds of young people we ought to cultivate” by targeting their Automatic Systems through the classroom and digital learning and manipulating their Reflective Systems. When the footnotes in these books take me to the 2012 Special Feature of the journal Ecology and Society called “Nudging Evolution” that laid out how to manipulate conceptual frameworks to gain new useful belief systems to allow a reenvisioned social construction of reality, it becomes clear just how targeted both the Automatic AND Reflective visions are in this vision of education reforms.

Learning Standards, and the curricula and assessments they quietly impose, then simply become a euphemism for what author Daniel W. Bromley called “Rules to Live by”. In this vision, instead of the purpose of education being to gain an understanding of reality itself, we are to get a replacement–

a workable view of the world out there, and its meaning to us, [which] comes to fruition (is realized) as a process of convergence…this alternative approach authorizes an epistemic community to engage in a process whose very purpose is the creation of convergence. When a consensus emerges among members of that epistemic community, then this consensus might as well come to be regarded as the accepted account of that observed and apprehended reality. In other words, what is really out there is the agreed upon account presented to us by those whose job it is to study and analyze what is out there, and then report back to the rest of us.

So in this vision of the social construction of reality it is the media, the academy, and public policy think tanks who are to provide us with the agreed upon account, which we are to simply accept. No wonder I angered so many when I wrote Credentialed to Destroy and then started this blog. Learning standards, in fact, prevent the ability for most students to develop “our own idiosyncratic meanings”  and they force students to come to a “shared understanding” of global challenges and observed problems. Those are necessary for social systems, including individual people, to evolve toward “a desired outcome in the future, and the preferred means by which that outcome might be brought about.” Further,

In essence, each individual must work their way through this process by continually ‘updating’ their beliefs, as new evidence emerges, in order to reach some consensus on the exact problem, plausible solutions to that problem, and the range of feasible instruments by which the solution might be achieved…Reason giving is the essential component of democratic discourse in which a gradual evolution in mental models is the point of that discourse.

In PG, and its favorite tool–learning standards–we see a phenomenon going on around us that is insufficiently understood–“the role of the state in responding to and producing particular subjectivities.” It’s every bit as intrusive if it is the local mayor and Chamber of Commerce pushing for this invisible manipulation, as it is if Congress enacts it (which it has). In actuality, all these levels and institutions coordinate around the use of neuroeducation for 21st century transformations and “the broader rubric of psychological governance as a strategy for molding the adolescent brain, behaviour, character, and resilience.” Remember all the references we keep encountering to Virtues and Aristotle, apart from all the mindfulness mandates grounded in Buddhist practices? PG recommends either turning to “ancient Western or Eastern philosophies,” such as Aristotle, to “provide philosophies for living, tools for happy, virtuous and well-regulated emotional lives.”

How ironic, huh? Let’s finish with the quotes from the title that bring this all together.

Neuroeducation is still very much an effort to make pedagogy more effective in terms of teaching competencies that are dictated by standards committees…in neuroeducation, neural pathways are the real and imagined site of relevant moral and pedagogical interventions…what makes the brain such a fruitful site of intervention is that it is located at the threshold, intimately connected as it is to the senses, between the body and its social networks and environments, and that it is plastic, changeable, malleable. The brain is a site of encounter amenable to manipulation…the objective of teaching pupils to ‘respond not react’ to stressful, emotionally charged situations has put the brain and, in particular, the prefrontal cortex as the location of ‘executive function’–as that which must be crafted in order to achieve the most positive outcomes.

See how ALL students can learn or succeed and why Equity mandates are so crucial and ubiquitous now? They all force or flow from this recrafting of the brain quite literally to supposedly force a more normative vision of the future. Let me close with a quote which followed the above and note that by writing about these aims and methods here today they are ‘unnoticed’ no more.

What goes unnoticed, however, is the difference between the brain as a real organ in people’s heads and the brain as an ethical object that motivates new practices and behaviors.

Interesting isn’t it how all the offered solutions to the hype misrepresenting the nature of the Common Core and competency frameworks turn out to envision an education remolding the brain as an ethical object? That thus “Nudge Evolution’? That this is also ultimately the solution being pushed as the solution for ‘systemic racism’?

These days nothing is a coincidence when it comes to education. It’s simply too useful a tool and the changes are mostly hard to observe, unless you know who to quote as they proclaim their intentions and methods of choice.