Reimagining Consciousness, Not Learning

The air is thick with ideas from many good minds on how we can reimagine learning in a world driven by post-COVID shifts and accelerated change, but one question sums up the challenge of reinvention:

Where and how do we store the word C-A-T in our brain?

No one knows, exactly. There are theories, many of them, again from many good minds. That raises another issue: There is absolutely no consensus about the origin of the mind, other than it is a vague consequence of having a brain.

This has not posed a barrier to education’s relentless effort to prescribe learning—to fill the mind with facts, or activate the mind to be creative, or engage the mind in collaborative activities, or force the mind to think critically.

By default, all of our present assumptions rest on cognitive science, neuroscience, and their extrapolation, the ‘learning sciences.’ All are full of mighty claims, impressive terminology, and findings backed by the scientific method. The certainty of the findings, plus lack of any alternative other than the ethereal option, has forced us into a box. What else could the mind be but a collection of neurons?

This plumbing and wiring view of the mind leads us to accept the present parameters of consciousness, despite the fact that no one over the age of 5 who has dreamt, imagined, felt deep emotion, or experienced the bliss of communion with another person can even begin to figure out how a network of cells makes this happen. Neither can the neuroscientists. The ‘binding problem’ is the chief unresolved issue in the field. Thus, the scientists default to stimulus and response studies that measure blood flow to parts of the brain and designate the images as ‘thinking.’

It’s easy to be snarky or ironic here; I don’t intend that. But how long can we accept a model that has zero explanatory effect for deeper learning, particularly as attitude, strengths, and well-being become central to navigating life? I simply believe that we’ve reached the end point of avoidance and can no longer afford to live in a state of willful ignorance if we intend to reimagine learning and the world that will result. However well-intentioned, it’s sheep-like behavior—the kind of behavior that won’t take us the distance to survive on a planet with 50/50 chances.

There is another default here—religion. As we pose it to ourselves, it’s the binary choice. If we can’t measure it, the answer lies in Heaven. But whatever personal philosophies we espouse, that explanation is splintered by sects and doesn’t have global traction.

And there is the third default: Continue to shrug our shoulders and go about our business as usual. Well, imagine getting to 2070 and still not knowing where and how C-A-T is stored and processed. Imagine, in this moment of historic change, not questioning our own range of consciousness. We’ll be disappointed with ourselves, while the oceans rise and remind us that we could have done better. Not to mention that our views of education will be little different from 2020, forcing fresh lamentation about how ‘schools never change.’

The traumatic effects of the first six months of 2020 on our institutions, patterns of behavior, and work life can’t be overstated. But what about our brains? That should be the central question that we ask ourselves. Neuroscience is agreeable on this question—it’s clearer than ever that the culture and outside influences shape networks and interactions in the brain, giving rise to new ways of thinking. And many neuroscientists question the cognitive model of the brain and suggest a quantum model—a far more likely prospect in a world in which our homes, lives, and interactions depend on energetic bytes carrying untold amounts of information in milliseconds from one end of the globe to the other.

When we come up for air and have some perspective on events, I believe that will be our chief  conclusion: Our deeply ingrained assumptions about life, now etched in our brain by several hundred years of ‘modern’ experience, will have been altered. Among those assumptions, I hope, will be a new look at what it means to learn and how that learning is facilitated by the interaction of our consciousness with the minds of others and perhaps with life in all forms.

For the moment, put aside the fact that the mind and consciousness are mysteries—those will take several centuries or more to work out. Instead, focus on freeing up young people to make progress on the solution. Whatever consciousness is, it is a creative, free flowing, boundary-less experience that can take us to multiverses, into fantasies, and immerse us in dreamy introspection that ends in the reinvention of reality. And it is natural terrain for remainder of the century.

The watchword of consciousness is freedom—and that is what our youth need now. I’m quite aware that schools are loosening their grip on students now, which is all to the good. But I include freeing them not only from old beliefs about learning and the mind, but also current precepts about race, national borders, the habitation of the 100 million galaxies, and evolution itself. All, if you choose to notice, are under assault as fresh thinking emerges. It is clear they are not ‘facts’ but limitations of thought encircled by our own level of consciousness, which are only a summary of past human experience, many quite recent in geological terms.

Human experience is transitioning. Thus, I would admit ignorance to young people. I would say we know nothing about the interior of your mind; we do not know the range of your dreams; we can’t even get a good fix on the word C-A-T. But we do know enough to provide the love, choices, information, relationships, and conditions under which freedom gives rise to growth—naturally. That’s our promise to you. That’s the new curriculum.  

Building a New Ecosystem for Old Learning

When 58 million children simultaneously experience freedom, discover learning through the lens of passion and purpose to be exciting and engaging, turn kindness and empathy into a viral event in response to a global airstrike for human rights, and consume daily reports of urgent future challenges to their survival, their collective psyche shifts and behaviors change.

Humanity is different now. So are youth, and we had better be ready. Part of the massive shift in youth consciousness and in many of their families is the common realization that in today’s world, school isn’t normal.

Simple ecology lies behind the shift. For years there’s been growing evidence that the skills, strengths, agility, and attitudes required for the young to thrive in their new environment can’t be instilled within four walls using conventional means of instruction in subjects barely changed for the last 100 years. Yet as a global society we’ve clung to the idea that schools are the hub of learning. The disruptors of the past several months have revealed the limits of that ecosystem.

Educators have noticed. The educational world is flooded with webinars on the ‘future of learning’ and creating ‘schools of tomorrow.’ Standardized tests, institutional mandates, and admission requirements have been jettisoned. But demolition won’t be sufficient. The hub has shifted to the person, not the school. I don’t believe schools can recover from that experience. Instead, I believe the once-in-a-lifetime challenge offered by the events of the day is to recognize that schools no longer serve as the hub for learning; they must be part of a new healthier global ecosystem focused on creating the optimal conditions to help every young person thrive.

I don’t think we have a choice. We need to grow better human beings—and more of them, everywhere. A new ecosystem must exhibit extraordinary stability, resistance, and resilience to persist and contend with the earth-threatening disturbances of climate change, inequality, and social unrest, as well as liberate a deeper level of creativity and imagination critical to invention and innovation.

That requires a global system committed to every child, in every corner of humanity, without regard for the artificial boundaries of nationality, race, ethnicities, lifestyle, or gender. Joining together to explicitly nurture inner strengths, empathy, resilience, and a commitment to every individual’s opportunity to thrive and collaborate—the invisible parts of the self inevitably to be tested by future events—is the job of the village, as the virus has taught us in a few short months.

The Project Mindset: What is It?

I use the phrase ‘Project Mindset’ to describe the goal. A mindset is a blend of capability, attitude, and commitment, built on a foundation of openness and empathy, that fosters capacity for engagement, problem solving, and creativity. The ‘project’ aspect leads to observable behaviors to replace the old metrics of certificates and degrees. The list will vary with practitioners yet there is surprising unanimity around the following nine indicators:

The good news is that we’ve groped our way towards this new mindset for some time. And one reason I believe that we can create a sustainable global ecosystem to support the Project Mindset is that it is already in place. Virtually every school system in the world, high performing company, and job offer from an organization of any size, revolves around the same vision.

The Project Mindset: Building Out the Ecosystem

Where the work ahead lies is creating consensus on how to support youth in developing a project mindset. This is a challenge because a mindset can’t be taught—adults only create the conditions under which it can flourish. Once established, the mindset acts as an attractor, drawing into it the knowledge necessary to grow further.

A stable ecosystem also needs to be built on timeless truths, not the artifacts of a faded industrial world. Gardens grow because they do, not because they are tested. In my mind, that begins by returning to our roots and seeing learning as a natural process that humans tuned into when consciousness first stirred. Reinvention is not necessary: The goal is to repackage and update old learning based on the timeless principles of challenge, passion, purpose, and freedom.

These principles drive our thinking now—another good sign for the ecosystem. As I wrote two months ago in Over the Online Rainbow: PBL, Gen Z, and the Return of Moral Courage, and in The ‘Project Mindset’: How to Hand Learning Power to the Next Generation, the exponential rise in project based learning practices can be attributed to our intuition about how people learn and thrive. Old learning starts with people, not curriculum—and as I’ve stated many times, PBL is a human development method, not an academic strategy.

However, terms such as ‘project based learning’ or ‘student-centered practices’ or ‘voice and choice’ won’t survive the new ecosystem. These terms lean toward the system and the teacher, not the person and the student. Old learning doesn’t depend on terms that divide, distract, and categorize. The energy of growth and learning will flow more freely when we accept that all we know about empowerment, projects, growth mindset, design thinking, creativity, communal work, contribution, and wellbeing all draw from the same well of freedom and challenge.  It’s a new mental model for us all, asking each of us to shift simultaneously to a more holistic view of the elements that make up an ecosystem for learning:

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Of course, this sounds radical. But the new ecosystem is centered laser-like on the person, not the system. I think of learning as energy, and the less constraints the better the flow. Those constraints will disappear if we as a world community—including educators, youth, parents, corporations, and citizens take on now visible lessons of deep interconnectivity and vulnerability and make a simultaneous leap into a new learning future.  

So, let’s end on a note of speculation. What if a Project Mindset (or whatever term emerges) became a key focus? What if everyone pledged to shift together? What if a student-centered world actually emerged, redefining learning as a personal voyage through a global sea, with each individual using their own compass, but on a collective mission to calm the waters?

The ‘Project Mindset’: How to Hand Learning Power to the Next Generation

Orthodoxy, risk reduction, and safe ‘standards’ are over. What’s next? Go beyond PBL!

Like the Berlin Wall, the edifice of education disappeared overnight. 1.52 billion young people have been sent from the classroom and are learning, unlearning, or doing something at home. This is an amazing geological event, like the end of the Ice Age. It will spawn a range of questions, from ‘Who knew it was so fragile?’ to ‘What will we do with all those expensive whiteboards?’

A bit of humor might be wise because the demolition is complete. A system defined by ‘safe’ expectations has crashed, disposing of normal educational practices and leaving everyone adrift. Consider what we’re seeing:

  • Learning is fun. 91% of young people have momentarily escaped the Death Valley (Sir Ken Robinson’s term) of an outmoded industrial system that values information and instruments of control before people, relationships, and open-ended exploration. An astounding number of youth (and their parents) have awakened to a joyful new reality: When driven by passion and curiosity, learning fuels itself.
  • The whole child is back. Industrial-era education allowed learning to be defined as a set of standardized targets met by using ‘evidence based’ methods to deliver chunks of information to the brain. This highly reductive, mechanistic, and cognitive-centric view of learning—on steroids for the past two decades—disenfranchised critical elements of human personality, such as curiosity, empathy, and wonder. The post COVID era’s focus on invention will force the embrace of the ‘iceberg’ model of human functioning—the hidden, least teachable, and most-difficult-to-measure domains of imagination, creativity, and human connection.
  • Adults are lost. With so many young people experiencing the freedom to learn on their terms, plus the unspoken loss of trust and trauma brought on by global life shifting on its axis, a sudden vacuum is evident. No one knows what to do—and won’t for a long while. This makes it near impossible for adults to lead through dictate.
  • Something bigger is in the air. The moment of ‘unknowing’ coincides with the somber realization that a renewed vision for educating the young is not an ordinary choice. Climate change, inequality, water scarcity, and other crises on the horizon will inevitably arrive with the same suddenness as the virus. It’s difficult to voice because of its implications, but a secret question underlies this moment: Is this the final opportunity for humans to thoughtfully redesign learning?

So, everyone is scrambling and asking: What now? Most teachers are focusing on more project based learning (PBL). That’s a good start. PBL provides a beautiful frame for questioning, problem solving, design thinking, social emotional growth, and collaboration and contribution. It upends the dreaded lecture and invites less standardization.

But PBL needs to evolve beyond a teacher-led, student-friendly method for ‘problem solving’ in pursuit of meeting outcomes set by a standardized curriculum devised by adults. That’s part of the demolition. Orthodoxy is over. Education must find ways to regain faith in exploration and trust in the evolution of human talent rather than repaving a safe path between the lines.

There is only one choice remaining: Hand the power to learn back to young people and turn them loose to find a better future, independent of preconditions. Rather than ‘project based learning’, imagine how teachers can encourage a ‘project mindset’ in students by shifting from outcomes to explicit values that support wellbeing, personalization, purpose, investigation, and deep collaboration—all framed by a profound commitment to merging the global mind in pursuit of a positive future. PBL still exists, but with two crucial changes. It’s driven by a deeper vision of change and innovation, and informed and led by mentor-ready teachers who become co-learners and partners on the ride together. Think of five objectives for the new curriculum:

The opportunity for finding self. The ‘project mindset’ begins with encouraging and training young people to develop empathy, openness, curiosity, perseverance, and resilience. Shift the focus in learning from gathering less data about the outer world and more insight into self. Reflection, a sense of the journey, and a healthy focus on developing positive strengths takes priority.

Developing a vision of the whole. In the new system, everyone is in this together, regardless of any national, ethnic, or cultural boundaries. It’s time to connect holism, wholeness, holistic, and health (and holy)—all of which derive from the same word—into a vision of interconnectedness that underlies all learning. A new fundamental, basic skill is to help make the planet whole. The ‘project mindset’ is focused on sustainable solutions and meaningful, authentic problem solving, with teachers serving as sensitive guides on important issues.

Revisioning accountability. Literacy and science and language and quadratic formulas and beautiful forms of knowledge will continue. But as life moves outside the lines, young people will use a ‘project mindset’ to define these in terms personal to their needs, all the while inventing new forms of knowledge that can’t be fit into the container of subjects. The ‘new normal’ for teachers is to reward innovation and non-compliance.

Adopting human-centered design. A critical goal of the ‘project mindset’ is to tap the power of purpose necessary to drive a new generation of design thinkers committed to solutions for the whole. Since this process is no longer dependent on standards and predetermined outcomes, the barriers that prevented PBL and design thinking from a complete merger have been removed. The goal for PBL teachers now? Take advantage of this by placing design thinking at the heart of the process of exploration, imagination, and creativity.

Telling the story of a learning planet. Young people may spearhead the ‘project mindset’ but the greater goal is a ‘communal mindset’ that unites students, teachers, and parents into a planet-wide village of learners. PBL highlights public sharing already, but the next step for teachers is to amplify the message of change, exploration, and innovation by focusing on the ability and opportunity for students to tell their stories, share global solutions, and find their tribe. In fact, the best thing education could do would be to build a global network of design challenges that transcend culture and country. Orthodoxy is over, synergy is in.

Over the Online Rainbow: PBL, Gen Z, and the Return of Moral Courage

It’s not just an online moment for education. Something bigger has happened. Industrial schooling is officially over.

Perhaps it doesn’t appear so. Teachers have done amazing work to rapidly load brick and mortar lessons onto digital platforms, set up class schedules, organize methods to collect homework, and busily teach at a distance. It’s assumed that in a matter of time, life will return to normal, schools will open, and the normal routine of lesson delivery, compliance and testing will resume.

But will it? No. One clue is the deafening cheers worldwide from educators celebrating the cancellation of high stakes tests. Who knew how much they yearned for release from those tests? That genie will never go back in the bottle.

Second, teachers have rediscovered what it means to be a teacher. Teachers report high levels of challenge and exhaustion as they go online and search for the right platform and methods, but the freedom to reinvent has brought a revived sense of purpose and collegiality to the profession. How this taste of freedom translates back in the classroom is unknown. But prepare for newly empowered teaching force.  

Third, a still invisible phenomenon: Brains are being rewired. Each day that 850 million students attend ‘school’ online while experiencing crisis accelerates the dissembling of the herd mentality and the formation of a global tribe with a revived collective consciousness. Expect unsettling repercussions.

And, it’s all good. In a few short weeks, the Black Swan event has accomplished more than 30 years of handwringing and hectoring could ever do. A much-needed set of new learning practices is on the rise, meaning more freedom for students, a revised skillset for teachers, and a rebuilt infrastructure.

How will the transformation play out, particularly if COVID-19 turns out to be the first crisis, not the last? What can we expect? For myself, I foresee three phases.


In Phase One, teachers learn to use the tools of the digital age to explore alternative ways to learn, but still think like brick and mortar instructors. After a few weeks of novelty, this approach fails. Work does not get done. Online games resume. Without the whip of a teacher’s voice, fear of testing, and outdated standards as tools for compliance, low level brick and mortar lessons lose their appeal. Everyone shrugs because, “Well, it’s just temporary.”

The virus threat fades and students return to the fold. Schools reinstate routines and testing, talk up university admissions, and reinforce the rules. But something new is in the air. Students have made a silent decision not to trade freedom for a seat in a row of desks. Teachers persist but students resist.

The solution: Go hybrid. Subjects stay in silos and grade level ‘expectations’ remain but flipped learning and more offloading of core skill subjects to the internet is allowed. Yet it’s like an avalanche. Despite efforts to modernize, standards slip while test scores drop. Handwringing resumes. Yet to all but a few political leaders the hollowness and disconnect of a standardized curriculum is obvious.


Students notice. There seems to be a vacuum in adult guidance. Another crisis piles on. Energized by their newfound release from the four walls of school—both metaphorically and in practice—young people mobilize and apply the constructivist powers of the internet and apps to produce novel work unrestricted by the normal workflow of essays and quizzes.

It does not take long for youth to realize that Instagram is not their only link. Their conversations cross borders as they and their teachers discover online resources from across the globe. Gen Z, and their younger brethren Gen Alpha, mimic Millennials and begin to band together, collaborating online in unprecedented numbers. As they find each other, they discover, perhaps quite abruptly, that they share a common world, with common threats from viruses, climate change, a common distrust of leaders, and lack of innovation in institutions and communities—all at once. A formidable bloc of under-30 citizens, including teachers, endorses rebellion. From that point, it’s a short distance to critically questioning—and finally disposing of—a system of learning devised by adults for a faded world.

Purposeful learning

If adults do it right and don’t spend all their energy trying to drag youth back into the fold, Phase Three unveils itself—and it could be a good one. The old ‘hand it in, hand it back’ culture is dead. What replaces it? That will the choice.

The best choice is let learning flow in its natural direction toward the problems of the day. In this phase, students hit their stride but so do educators. A new version of ‘school’ emerges that supports the global tribe digitally and face to face. Teachers truly move into the role of facilitators.  Education becomes a co-creative act rooted in project-based work (PBL) and design thinking. But it’s not the brick and mortar version of PBL used with varying levels of success now. It’s a powerful, field-tested model refined for online work that replicates the human-centered design process by which the world moves forward. It focuses on authentic problems, commits participants to innovation, blends core knowledge with skillfulness, and values openness, inquiry, and deep collaboration.

Now, we’re wide awake. Adults worry, for good reason, that successive breakdown and crisis have tested the inner life of children as never before. Back in the day, brick and mortar wall posters advocating virtuous behavior sufficed. But the world revolves on a new axis. Helping young people learn to contribute, find satisfaction in helping fellow humans thrive, and supporting their ability to stand up to adversity—the realms of resilience and moral courage—are paramount outcomes and must be built into learning.

That’s when we discover a Holy Grail: Education shifts to people development and refocuses on character and human strengths. Again, project based work turns out to be the perfect tool. As youth partner with a caring, knowledgeable mentor, project based work informed by strengths-based psychology proves to duplicate the conditions under which humans grow up to be healthy adults. The co-creative partnership between mentor and student fuels challenge, purpose, autonomy, and mastery—the exact elements cited by youth experts as best indicators for life success.

Of course, if all the dissolution and disruption of the present phase is to yield real results, one more phase must occur: Crowd sourcing collective solutions that yield a livable, positive future. That’s why unleashing the creative energies of the 1.3 billion youth worldwide who are waiting for a redesigned world is critical. Transformation will take us there, if allowed.

Giving Every Child Access to Their Strengths

Big questions leave us uneasy, so we invent workarounds, particularly in education, where the goal is to control outcomes. The brain works like a computer, so we simply need to change the input codes. Intelligence can be dissected and tested. Deep behaviors such as empathy and curiosity can be fostered through ‘strategies.’ Pretty much, we’re still focused on the amoeba theory of learning. Poke and prod enough, and good things will happen.

If we’re honest,we know little about human beings. The brain is increasingly considered a quantum dynamic organ, bringing with it all the mysteries of a sub-visible reality that underlies biological functions. Evolutionary theory is in the throes of revolution, as we discover that genes are malleable and DNA is not destiny. Consciousness itself—how we think and know—remains in the same state since the dawn of humanity. That is, we have not figured ourselves out.

I don’t believe any of this. I never have. But to this point it hasn’t mattered much. Society has built a good track record despite a faulty foundation.

But the foundation is crumbling…everywhere. There’s demolition afoot worldwide. The extraordinary challenges of the second half of the 21st century demand the courage to take a fresh look at how we prepare young people (and ourselves) for the unprecedented confluence of artificial intelligence, global climate disruption, social unrest, and general disorientation. If you, as an adult, feel a bit bewildered now by the turn of events, think ahead. How will the five year-olds of today cope with 2050? And the still to be born in the next thirty years?

The bottom line is that the world needs a huge influx of talented individuals—from every corner of the globe—to make it through the next fifty years and beyond. And, the talent focus needs to change from outward competencies to inner strengths—the exact kind of talent that we know little about and continue to support through outdated and flawed theories. Those strengths include a deep sense of curiosity about the world and self, a heightened capacity for empathy and openness, and a kind of flexible resiliency drawn from a purposeful inner life that builds resistance to trauma and daunting circumstances.

How do we do this?

  1. Go holistic. Rather than continue to slice and dice humans into discrete skills, behaviors, and fact-retaining organisms, stop separating heart and head, or pretending that emotions arise through a wiring diagram in the brain. See learning as a whole body endeavor fueled by purpose, challenge, and meaning. Think social emotional learning and wellbeing first. Do this well, and the academics will take care of themselves.
  • Work as a Guide. Start thinking of humans through a quantum lens. We’re composed of a wild range of emotions and energies, which through formal schooling we hope to corral. That’s not working any longer. So, embrace uncertainty (the proven scientific principle which underlies reality). One way to do this: Think of humans as a field of expression, with unknown and mysterious capacities. How do we stimulate this field? Through appreciation and intention. The goal? Infuse this field with positive influences.
  • Shift the Mission. In education, supporting student growth is the mantra, but this is more flawed reality designed to hide a deeper truth: We want students to be who we think they should be. Schools and curriculum, as presently designed and delivered, don’t liberate inner talents. Freedom, exploration, and passion are the only signposts to a positive future.
  • Be a Future Ready Educator. If you’re an educator, you’re as close to ground zero as it gets. Around the world, educators and schools are awakening to the impulses of the future. Project based learning, inquiry, maker spaces, design thinking—all these represent an intuitive response to a deeply transitioning society. Use the methods with your students. Become competent as a practitioner, facilitator, coach, mentor and changemaker. Push your schools. Be an activist.
  • Gather the courage to change. Realize that, within the next fifty years, the demolition extends to schools. This shift is in motion already, but acceleration is certain. Classrooms, the 50-minute period, and standardized curriculum will disappear. Testing as we know it will be gone. ‘Grade-level’ thinking will be an anachronism. In their place, personalized pathways to learning, focused on strengths, deep interests, and inner conviction and intuition will prevail. Imagine your response. The same talents required of students will be necessary for teachers. You will need to be the face of courageous change.