Welcome to the 2020s! This is the Decade where Governments all over the world intend “to act as an instrument of the common good” and use the schools to rewire students’ brains so that they are more amenable to the plans political leaders have for us in the 21st century. I wish this was fiction or just a theory of mine, but it is not. I certainly was not going to write about this during the holidays, but there were quite a lot of white papers put out in December on this point, and being the careful researcher I am, I then followed up on the books and papers cited in the footnote and here we are. This is not a one shot post, but the beginning of what has become a well-documented armada of coordinated initiatives to use schools to cultivate “positive attitudes and activities” so that students can “develop the inner means to handle distress themselves when it arises. In other words, we should aim at a society in which people have the inner resources to flourish.”
About the same time those words were published in the inaugural 2018 World Happiness Policy Report presented at the World Government Summit in Dubai, a retired MIT professor, John Ehrenfeld, submitted his vision of “Flourishing: Designing a Brave New World” to she ji, a journal of design and innovation, asserting that “Flourishing is possible only when the right brain hemisphere is the master, but balanced with the left. The ultimate goal of every designer should be to foster flourishing…For humans, flourishing requires (1) restoring the supremacy of the right brain through direct practices, for example, mindfulness training, and (2) re-designing institutions and artifacts to enhance presencing: the perception of being connected to the contextually rich surrounding world.”
Well, that got my attention since the actual classroom practices now tied to learning standards all over the world fit with what Ehrenfeld wrote would be needed to make the right-brain dominant. I have school mandates under Positive School Climate prescribed materials that turn out to be renamed cognitive behavioral therapy practices. I poke familiar names and find books like Super Better: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver, and More Resilient that plan to use digital learning virtual reality and videogames to Hardwire the Brain via “repeated activation of specific neurological circuits that train the brain to be motivated by challenge, rewarded by feedback, and more resilient in the face of temporary failure.” Use the fact that “neurons that fire together, wire together” to create digital learning experiences to hardwire “cognitive habits that lead to lifelong success and psychological well-being.”
If “Schools are the primary place where the values of a culture get instilled in young people” and the materials quoted above and conferences like Learning and the Brain repeatedly declare that the ‘instilling’ is to be neural, we need to think about the implications of poems like the following created as part of the Search Inside Yourself e-book “Practice Kindness” created for students in honor of World Kindness Day.
Kind hearts are the gardens,
Kind thoughts are the roots,
Kind words are the blossoms,
Kind deeds are the fruits.
The new way for governments, political leaders, and their cronies to control behavior in the 21st century is not overt coercion, but by controlling the inner psychology and the practices and experiences known to instill desired neural and cognitive structures. Let’s get back to how Ehrenfeld laid out the how and why, but never believe his is a voice in the wilderness. Instead, it is entirely an accident that I came across his article while following up on something else and, using my experience from writing what is detailed in my book Credentialed to Destroy, recognized how his prescriptions for right-brain dominance were already enshrined in what has been misleadingly labelled as the Reading and Math Wars. Right Brain Dominance “can create a pull towards a different kind of future.” A future where the focus is no longer on the individual as those of us located in the West have always believed, but on the collective and its supposed needs. That shift needs to get at “the way we hold reality” itself and shift it to focus more on empathy or caring.
Think about all the changes in the nature of education and the new purposes of schools and higher education as you read this Ehrenfeld quote:
With new understanding of how the brain functions, the root causes can be traced to an imbalance between the two cerebral hemispheres. Modern culture is the product of the left-brain dominance, but flourishing can arise only from the opposite: the mastery of the right over the left. The challenge ahead is to reverse this through design and practice…Only the right connects to the [world as it is, with its rich context] , and can produce empathy and enable authentic caring…A key to increasing authenticity is the ability to delay or stop the left brain from taking over–that is, to remain in the present moment…Mindfulness offers a possible way to maintain the attentional stance of the right.
Now all the hype about bullying, where mindfulness practices are held out as the remedy and we happen to also notice that the trainer for the teachers does New Age Buddhist retreats on other days of the week, make far more sense. In fact, in Super Better, McGonnigal notes that “mindfulness meditation, for example, has been measured to have quite similar physiological benefits as casual game play…game play is a way to learn to control our attention–which is one of the primary aims of Buddhist practice!” Neuroscientists have shown that attention is a necessary component for neural rewiring and certain kinds of practices make the emotional side of the brain dominant. Here’s the sought practice beyond mindfulness training under “Reflective Practice”:
Reflective practice is a general label for the interruptive process by which experience can be embedded to the brain as part of learning. Reflective practice in design is driven by direct experience (right-brain) [virtual reality counts as direct!], rather than the mere application of abstract, general rules (left-brain). In terms of the divided brain model, reflection is the process that new experiences, under the control of the right brain, are passed over to the left hemisphere.
How often now are we hearing hype about students needing Whole Child instruction in controlling emotions to “develop five skills: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. All correspond to right brain activities.” Those of us who have ever had a child in an IB Program who were paying attention know we got almost as tired from hearing hype about “Inquiry Learning” as we did from the “Are you an IB Learner?” question. Now we discover that Inquiry is a right brain activity and Lecture is a Left:
Science is the paradigm of the left brain at work. Conversely, pragmatism is based on paying persistent, broad attention to the whole system and creating new understanding; it depends on holding the left at bay. Meaningfulness, or pragmatic truth, is not to be found in the abstract, left-brain, self-consistent, world of science. It is to be found in the real, right brain, phenomenal world…Pragmatic inquiry is a method that keeps the right brain engaged over extended periods in order to capture the dynamic, context-dependent character of complex systems…Presencing is a form of attention, which exploits the right brain’s attributes of breadth, persistence, and exploration/creativity. Presencing restores context to the external world that has been lost while the left-brain was dominant. Such context is necessary for flourishing.
Presencing looks at the world as a domain for acting and transforming. The focus becomes on what could be, instead of what is. Now that we have covered this desired rewiring, in the next post we will cover how this new right-brain vision of what it is to Understand in the 21st century is “not about cognizing a pre-given world, it is about becoming aware of and consciously choosing the aspects of the world we decide to cope with.” That quote was from a paper featured last week in a newsletter I receive and was written by a member of the American Society of Cybernetics. It fits with what the Father of Positive Psychology and Positive Neuroscience who presented at that World Government Summit says should be the new focus of Models of the Human Mind.
Are we going to be Driven by the Past and the dominance of the left brain or shall we make the focus of education “Navigating into the Future”? No, we are actually not the ones who get to design that future. It gets selected for us and then hardwired into our brains neurologically so we can “draw on experience to update” our choices and then act accordingly based on our “needs and goals” that have also been the aim of Right-Brain focused education.
It truly is a Brave New World once we read certain influential journals and look at the programs being put on at the certain well-attended conferences. No need to theorize about this coordinated effort at all. Just review the documentation. At least that is still possible for those of us for whom the left brain remains dominant.
Here’s to the Axemaker Minds who are not yet left to accepting an offered narrative of where education is really going and why it must be changed.