Edgeucation Blog

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:

A screenshot of a cell phone

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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.

Reinventing PBL to Focus on Human Performance

image of a project based learning iceberg

Watching fourth graders working in a team on a creative PBL science project (Their problem to solve: Educate parents and community about how common devices like TV’s and phones rely on wave technology.) reminded me that great project based learning aims to produce brightness. That’s a non-evidence-based term unrelated to the repetitive mantra of more rigor.

Brightness is hard to define, but certain markers identify it: Big eyes, with greater than usual sparkle; wide grins; lots of excited chatter; deep concentration; and body language that signals increased confidence and maturity—exactly what those 4th graders were demonstrating.

The underlying cause of brightness is no mystery. It’s a natural byproduct of exceptional human performance driven by the opportunity to thrive and shine, and a state of being reached by learners of all ages when they accept a challenge, engage in creative work, experience intellectual mastery, trade ideas, find joy in trying and persisting, craft an acceptable solution, discover new facets about themselves, sense their growth, and share the whole process with someone who cares.

Do educators like brightness? Of course. It’s a fuzzy outcome, but it warms the heart of every teacher because it’s direct evidence of internal awakening. ‘Iceberg’ traits such as curiosity, creativity, and openness have been stirred. Visible joy equals meaningful learning, and often leads to higher test scores. And, as most educators sense, the tide of history is flowing toward fuzzy outcomes. At some point, they will be considered primary outcomes rather than chance byproducts of an academic system.

Here’s the argument: We’ve hit that point. Brightness now matters more than test scores. The globalized, networked, just in time world invaded classrooms a decade ago, but has finally forced upon education the Great Shift: People’s strengths count more than credentials. Many hard truths emerge from this new reality. Knowledge without application has less value. Attitude matters. Openness and flexibility determine success. Skillfulness, discernment, engagement, and creative impulse become the rulers of the land. And, the final fact: Today’s system, with its focus on content rather than human performance, will be tested until it breaks.

There’s a lot of noise in education right now, but only one signal: The need to invent a system designed for brightness so that inner strengths routinely surface in children. Can it be done? Yes, if we weave together three dominant trends in schooling today—the rise of PBL, our growing commitment to social emotional competency, and the refocus on student agency and inquiry—into a coherent human performance system.

Transforming PBL: From High Quality to High Performance

Advocates for ‘high quality’ PBL push teachers to adopt best practices that go beyond traditional ‘projects’ and engage students in authentic inquiry, deeper problem solving, and applying core skills such as teamwork and communication. This is good work, but slow—and there’s a reason: PBL relies on an outdated platform. It’s built on teacher methodology, tying it to a behavioral worldview which presumes that standards-based thinking and ‘strategies’ provoke deeper student awareness and problem-solving. While a great deal of lip service is paid to authenticity and student-driven work, most PBL doesn’t really begin with the student. It’s seen as an educational method, not a system to support human growth.

This was not always the case. In fact, PBL is a method for brightness. That’s what it’s intended to do. PBL began as ‘problem based learning’ in Canadian and Dutch medical schools in the 1960’s. Not coincidentally, this was the exact dawn of the human potential movement, in which pioneers like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers began developing a humanistic approach to psychology that emphasized self-aspiration, inner reflection, and a ‘person-centered’ approach to life. This cultural shift influenced early adherents of PBL, who wanted to move prospective doctors in the direction of deeper learning through less textbook diagnosis and more communication with patients.

If we want a replicable model of PBL that incorporates standards and knowledge, but also reliably yields successful fuzzy outcomes, the first step is to reclaim the belief that PBL is designed to facilitate personal growth and uncork human potential. It’s a psychological process as well as an educational tool.

With that mindset, PBL takes on a different hue. The principles of high quality project design are familiar to well-trained PBL teachers, and a reinvented PBL retains those principles. But each can be infused with a higher purpose by intentionally eliciting social emotional strengths and supporting growth while learning takes place. This requires systematic design, not lesson planning. The principles function as parts of the whole, creating a continuous set of Petri-like conditions that work synergistically to shift a student’s awareness in the direction of openness, curiosity, flexibility, perseverance, discernment, deeper engagement, mastery of content and—eventually—wisdom. Consider a transformed PBL process that can be put in place right now:

From standards to purposeful challenge. Every great project begins with a ‘why’ that starts the engines of the inner life and spurs openness. Preparing for a test is not a ‘why’ nor do standards stir the soul. Begin with powerful, meaningful ideas that invoke meaning, purpose, and service. Go deep, then import standards into the project. The times demand it.

From a Driving Question to a ‘wicked’ problem. The true test of the quality of a Driving Question is whether it forces discernment and flexibility. A wicked problem with multiple solutions and clear constraints—the kind that dominates life today—invites powerful critical thinking that invokes deep inner resources. PBL is NOT a brain-based exercise; it’s whole body learning experience that yields appreciation for the richness and complexity of knowledge and lingers throughout a lifetime as curiosity.

From fast to slow learning. PBL oriented to human performance requires abandoning the folk myth that fast learners are smarter and that coverage equals learning. The quality of the work should include attention to detailperseverancereflection, and creative effort. The underlying change is from a ‘hand it in’ classroom culture to a design, draft, fail and perform culture that values depth over coverage.

From groups to intentional collaboration. Group work inspires chat, but when interacting in well-organized teams or cohorts students must stretch communication skills. Those skills manifest as good listening or visible support of teammates. But ultimately, communication succeeds in the presence of empathytolerancekindness, and self-awareness. Since working in teams brings out individual personality, teamwork gives teachers a grand opportunity to observe students and coach them on behavior and self-restraint.

From educational rubrics to human performance measures. PBL has birthed a set of excellent performance rubrics that describe skills as well as content, but the new generation of rubrics must add measures that focus on the strengths underlying the skills, such as confidenceresiliency, and other factors that support the growth mindset. It will not be enough to hope that students develop strengths; the next generation of rubrics must show and tell.

From teacher to co-creator. Differentiating ‘teacher centered’ from ‘student centered’ is no longer useful. In the system to come, everyone plays a role as a learning partner holding respect for each other. In PBL, the teacher designs, guides, mentors, teaches, and evaluates—but also incorporates creative insights, student wisdom, and opportunities to produce new knowledge. All this cannot happen unless teachers take a similar journey as students: Toward more depth of awareness, acceptance of multiple talents, deeper empathy, a never-satisfied curiosity, and the experience of the joy of work well done and knowledge well applied. The goal for both teacher and student? Brightness.

Why a 21st Century Teacher Isn’t Just a ‘Guide on the Side’

The great fiction that a teacher today has become a ‘guide on the side’ is now hardwired into nearly every conversation about the future of teaching and learning. Teachers don’t deliver information any longer; they act as co-constructivists and facilitators, sitting shoulder to shoulder with students.

Why raise objections to this new narrative? First, it’s disingenuous. Teachers still stand at the front of the room. They teach, using traditional tools and tapping their repository of information to share with students. They lecture. Yes, sometimes too long, but a competent teacher knows when to sit down or ask questions.

The second objection is aimed at education’s habit of settling for shiny new terms when the facts demand a deeper commitment to truth telling. The truth is that in the emerging  era of project based learning, personalization, 21st century skills training, commitment to social emotional growth, and attention to equity and social challenges, the complexities of teaching can’t be captured by a simple ‘You’re now a guide on the side’ mandate. Teaching in this ecosystem calls upon a rich, demanding skill set that has transformed the profession into one of the most complex, creative, and (potentially) rewarding jobs on the planet.

Given the numbers of teachers expressing dissatisfaction with their jobs, leaving the profession, or reporting burnout, one might conclude the opposite. But the turmoil can be traced to the system of pacing guides and testing that forces compliance. Educators are tired of teaching inside the lines. In schools focused on innovation, the job may be challenging, but it’s also energizing precisely because it invokes deep purpose and reward.

Acknowledging the new state of the profession is critical. With standards obsessed systems backed by high stakes testing wilting under the increasing pressure of on demand, self-directed learning, schools will yield to more flexible curriculum, online options, and strengths/skills outcomes supporting the journey of learning, not the final degree.

As systems change, inevitably a teacher’s role will have to be reconceptualized as a new mental model evolves around what it means to ‘teach.’ Evidence shows how difficult this mindshift will be. Despite the decades-old ‘guide on the side’ conversation, no corresponding attention is paid yet to developing the facilitation skills and coaching protocols that teachers need for effective people management. The focus instead remains on classroom management and traditional behavioral tools.

Preparing teachers for this new role amplifies the challenge. Under industrial rules, a teacher is trained (‘prepared’) to implement a skill—to follow a pacing guide, roll out a reading program, deliver content, and ‘manage’ a classroom. But already complex professions operating in dynamic environments foresee ‘training’ as obsolete. There is an increasing demand for the ‘T-shaped person’, who has both the breadth and depth to respond to variety and novelty.

The observational and relational skills necessary for deep facilitation and mentoring in inquiry environments meet this standard of complexity. Rather than being preparedteachers will need to prepare themselves. Techniques will matter, but true competency will derive from experience, practice, and agile learning within an ecosystem of constant growth.

This sounds a bit theoretical compared to the seat time and one size fits all approach to teacher preparation. But transforming our mental model of a teacher is not really that difficult. First, stop relying on the one stop category of ‘guide on the side’ and start identifying the skill sets necessary to be a ‘future ready’ teacher. Undoubtedly the nomenclature will change over the next decade, but projections on digital learningpersonalizationcreativity, and contribution indicate at least five categories of teacher skillfulness:

  • Practitioner. No matter how much Google or AI invades the classroom, teachers will still deliver knowledge. But in inquiry classrooms, teachers mainly deliver on the fly with ‘just in time’ information in response to student questions and wonders. Since knowledge can’t be easily scripted, prepackaged, or confined to shopworn lessons, teachers will need to do a deep dive into their subjects and know not just the subject, but the field. More important, they will need to master a new skill set focused on project based learning and inquiry practices.
  • Facilitator. Threshing out the true roles of the guide on the guide is the next step. A facilitator’s prime job is to set up the conditions for optimal learning by building safety, community, and relationships into the environment. Setting challenges, building successful teams, monitoring deeper learning, and combining design thinking with high quality PBL practices come next. In many ways, the required skill set is to know how to put all the pieces in place for deeper learning—and then getting out of the way.
  • Coach. In a world with infinite paths to success, personalization is inevitable. Each student will start at a different place and end in a different place; each will bring unique talents and perspectives to the journey. A coach teaches and models skills, listens deeply enough to know individual needs, and realizes that coaching is not just conversation but an exchange that succeeds through respectful protocols. The skill set? Teachers will need explicit skills in offering feedback and techniques across thinking, creating, designing, collaborating, and communicating domains.
  • Mentor. The Mentor shares the skill set of the therapist. However daunting, teachers will need to expand their comfort zone and be willing to teach, assess, highlight, value, and offer support for empathy, curiosity, perseverance, and the range of positive strengths identified as successful behaviors in today’s world. This extends the Coach’s role into a much more personal and engaged relationship with students, requiring deep observational skills backed by empathy, deep listening, attentive presence, and an attitude of openness and nonjudgment.
  • Changemaker. Students will not remain silent or standards compliant as the globe contends with climate change, inequality, or migration. As the innovation meme intensifies, they will want to find purpose, put the sustainable goals into action, and in general move way beyond the four walls of school. For teachers, resistance will be futile. Rather, the new skill set of the future-ready teacher is become a co-learner and co-creator, working with students on service learning projects or finding ways to apply classroom knowledge to authentic issues. This trend is already visible; expect it to accelerate.

The next step? Let go of seat time metrics to certify teachers. Instead, focus on the professional journey and full immersion in a digital and face to face ecosystem that invites deep collaboration, on demand knowledge, shared practices, high quality feedback, and teacher-led systems leadership. In other words, start a rich conversation and keep it going through every means possible. That’s the way forward for teaching in the 21st century.

Why Teachers Need to Become Radicals

Image of flags for project based learning.

I’ll start with two stories that tell us what we need to know about the future of education.

First, Greta Thunberg, climate activist, potential Nobel Peace Prize recipient, and 16-year-old Swedish student, went viral with these words: “What am I going to learn in school? Facts don’t matter anymore, politicians aren’t listening to the scientists, so why should I learn?”

As expected, some of her teachers took issue with this. Like most educators, they hope a solid education leads to informed citizenship, but they’re focused on Algebra and History now, not activism.

But Ms. Thunberg wasn’t having it. At the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, she looked the audience in the eye and knifed them with this rebuttal: “I don’t want you to be hopeful, I want you to panic. I want you to feel fear every day and then I want you to act.”

The second story was different in tone, but quite ordinary in content: Another grumbling complaint from a high school teacher, just published in 2019 in a high profile internet journal designed for a millennial audience. We need to change education. I’m tired of teaching verb conjugation and boring my students!

Well, I’m going with Greta—all the way. As educators, we should panic, not whine.

Why? Because climate change is only a third of the trifecta hurtling toward us. Add in artificial intelligence, with estimates of 30% unemployment with a decade and a half. Brew in growing inequality worldwide. Then imagine exponential social disruption and mull the prospect of a miseducated population lacking the core personal knowledge, resiliency, and empathetic and collaborative skills required to regroup as a global society and solve problems that—for the first time in human history—could lead to extinction.

The last point—miseducation—is why educators should stop complaining and start acting. Talking about the future, even fluently, is fine. But it’s not fine to continue teaching to an outdated paradigm, using tools honed decades ago, relying on credentials that won’t truly matter, and reinforcing the oblivious belief that if schools deliver high test scores, students meet standards, and every student attends university, all will be fine. Particularly, it won’t be fine because most teachers secretly know the truth. Yes, it should change. Yes, testing really doesn’t work. Yes, our subjects are outdated. Yes, students are bored. Yes, we know…

Okay, if we know, let’s band together and exercise the incredible power held by the 15 million teachers worldwide, who teach 1.5 billion students and who are uniquely positioned to help youth create a positive future. Action driven by fear is required. It’s time for teachers to become radicals, to panic, to step up and disrupt, to be part of the solution.

Too radical? No, it can be done without endangering the monthly paycheck. It’s about mindset, vision, and attitude, not about barricades.

Mostly, it’s about individual teachers freeing themselves from the tentacles of a system designed for a fading world and becoming innovative risktakers unafraid to speak truth to power:

Take back your power. It starts here. In a highly regulated system with bells and periods and units, your brain adapts to the cultural surround. The rules manifest as neuronal pathways, and those tracks harden over time into an attitude of compliance, acceptance, or resignation. But the structures of thought around us are breaking down, and schools are no exception. Freedom and experimentation are in the air, and you are not a cog in the system; you are the system. Schooling doesn’t happen without you and you can’t be easily replaced (robots will be helpless when dealing with adolescents.) So, know your value.

Treat your Superintendent or Principal as a colleague. Taking back your power requires asserting your place in the hierarchy, meaning all those ‘above’ you, including principals, headmasters, and bigwigs at the state or national level, are just colleagues. Respect everyone, but remember in these days of massive, exponential change, you know as much or more about teaching and learning as anyone. Teachers in too many schools get talked down to. No more. Present at workshops. Speak at conferences. Be vocal on policies. Insist.

Recognize the dynamic nature of knowledge. In a non-standardized, personalized world, standards as the basis for education are failing. Virtually every teacher I have ever met does not truly believe in standards as their north star for learning. They see the child, not the information. So, act accordingly. Lobby hard. Make noise. Object. Argue in favor of bringing back the creative resources of the individual teacher to determine how to teach and what to teach. Tell the suits—relentlessly—to reduce standards to minimums and turn them into guidelines rather than rules.

Teach to the present world: I spoke not long ago with a Lower School Director at a prestigious independent school. He wants to bring project based learning to his school, but the teachers “will fight me tooth and nail.” Why? “They are very academic oriented,” he told me. No, they are not academic -oriented; they are oriented to a paradigm that is over and gone. Traditional instruction designed to increase college acceptance rates, and then release graduates into the VUCA world—volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous—is a dead end. Embrace PBL, Maker Spaces, inquiry, design challenges, and any similar innovation that give us hope that we can prepare young people for an unrecognizable, unpredictable future. Step out of the box. Dive into the new.

Take the challenge to the planet seriously: In Australia, where I often work, upper elementary teachers spend several weeks on the Australian Gold Rush, similar to learning about the California Gold Rush in my part of the U.S. Then students learn about the Euphrates before moving along the supply chain and mastering the intricacies of the Glorious Revolution in England. I’m not just picking on social studies or history; it happens in every subject. Teachers are so focused on a stale curriculum that they cannot find time or space to study imminent threats to life on earth. Why? Doesn’t fit the pacing guide, adhere to the curriculum frameworks, or teach to the standards. How will this turn out? Without a future, the past won’t mean much.

Share the dream: A global phenomenon is underway that has gone completely unreported: Teachers across the planet are speaking out, sharing ideas, and beginning to form a global coalition. If you don’t believe this, join Twitter. There’s a simple reason for the alliance: Every teacher, everywhere, faces the same challenges. Bored students. Outdated curriculum. Resistance to new ideas. Too much focus on subjects and testing. Too little focus on emotional competency. Solution? Join the global conversation, make your views known, and contribute your story.

Oppose hate: Educators form the essential bulwark against injustice, prejudice, intolerance, and the slow diminishing of kindness and empathy in our global society. It is not overstating your role to see yourself as a noble warrior for light and goodness. Yes, teach your students, fulfill your responsibilities, and correct them when necessary. But while doing so, be a model for an enlightened, tolerant human being. Be Gandhi. Be anyone who inspires you. Be the change you wish to see. That’s radical.

Don’t settle for the ‘21st century’ meme: In 2000, introducing ‘21st century skills’ was a good idea. Education needed a refresh and a new direction. And, nothing sinister about the 4 C’s: Communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. But the 5th ‘C’ now matters most. Without Character, all else becomes a cognitive task unrelated to purpose, meaning, and commitment to a positive future. However challenging, the great undertaking before us as educators is to graduate better human beings. We don’t have good methods or metrics for this, I know. Nevertheless, a radical teacher takes on this challenge and is constantly coaching, mentoring, and inspiring the inner life of students. One little catch here: Teachers also need to be better human beings. Think of the new mantra for educators: Reflection, reflection, reflection.

Present reality to your students: 1.5 billion students are enrolled in schools around the earth. Exactly this number is going to be deeply and—in many cases, negatively—impacted by artificial intelligence, robotics, and inequality. I’m not suggesting scaring students with this formidable reality; I do believe that combining a sober look at the future with a belief in young people’s extraordinary capacities for innovation and problem solving is necessary. Students face an uphill climb to managing the planet to success—and they will do better if they can assess the risks, realize the seriousness, and prepare themselves mentally and emotionally for the future. A radical teacher can guide this process by being candid, optimistic, and a capable intellectual leader.

Honor many paths to learning. The system of learning is breaking down. You may have noticed. Universities may not be able to support brick and mortar classrooms in 20 years. High schools devolve into charter schools, academies, personalized pathways, alternative schooling, home schooling, and unschooling. Young people around the world learn advanced math on the internet, not in class. Flex replaces classroom routines. All these trends will continue and accelerate; traditional, institutionalized forms of instruction cannot withstand the onslaught of Google, 24-hour media, devices, and—more than anything—the push for personalized pathways to growth, learning, and lifestyle everywhere. People do their own thing these days; youth will also, meaning education will have to seek out and identify new core principles for what it means to be an educated person, not just a certificated one. This will test us as educators. So, the final suggestion? Remember Greta’s advice: Stay fearless.

From PBL to PBD: Next Steps for Project Based Learning

image of a classroom learning project based learning skills.

Project Based Learning (PBL) has reached escape velocity. The small movement that began in the U.S. twenty years ago is rapidly becoming the teaching method of choice (and the hot topic of discussion) in virtually every country.

There is a simple reason for the ascendance: In an information-driven world that values an individual’s ability to develop an entrepreneurial mindset and a problem-solving skillset, nothing else works. The ‘doing’ is now the ‘knowing’, and seat time and certificates are fading as a good metric for competency. High-quality PBL, with its active, skill-oriented, problem-focused, and inquiry-based approach, is the answer to the challenge of the day.

But the world isn’t standing still. Two very large trends are becoming visible. First, globalization isn’t happening, it has happened. We’ve reached the point of culminating disruptions and instability in our political, social, environmental, and financial lives. The visible chaos will drive youth toward social entrepreneurship. In the next decade, expect a global youthquake—also known as a rebellion.

Second, events are pushing all of us, youth and adults, to develop deeper personal skills—in the form of empathy, curiosity, persistence, resiliency, and other attributes—critical to navigating the global environment. That’s why social-emotional learning has become as visible as PBL. While SEL needs to be built out into a more powerful strengths-based vision, including more SEL in classrooms is an overdue start on helping every young person develop the emotional capacity necessary for maintaining balance in an unbalanced world.

As a philosophy of inquiry, PBL offers a great framework for meeting these challenges. But the current version of PBL, as practiced in most schools, hasn’t shaken the legacy of the industrial mindset, in which the goal is to meet standards and master content. In the future, knowledge will matter, as it always has, but personal attributes and commitment to social entrepreneurship will matter equally and need to be the foundation for projects. In fact, the 2.0 version of PBL begins to resemble less a method for ‘learning’ than a system of team-based design, exploration, and problem solving—something we might characterize eventually as Project Based Design, or ‘PBD.’

How do we get to PBD? It starts by imagining a future PBL better suited to the issues of the future, and then being willing to follow the general world trend of rethinking best practices. Some possible steps:

  • Replace the Standards-Based Formula with a Human Performance Mindset.

PBL was poorly named from the beginning, causing educators to confuse a method of instruction by teachers with the deeper promise and purpose of PBL: To help students experience personal and intellectual growth as they move through a process of problem solving. Mastery, purpose, and autonomy have been identified as the key factors in human performance. PBL is a perfect system for making these critical elements the foundation for learning. The next step? Always begin project work with an authentic challenge tied to purposeful engagement, not the material to be covered.

  • Merge PBL and Human Centered Design. Many PBL teachers are skilled at establishing a Driving Question and requiring public products – two elements of high quality PBL. But the ‘middle’ of projects is often characterized by traditional teaching methods aimed at spurring ‘critical thinking’—a vague holdover from industrial times. PBL needs to capture a key shift in how the world solves problems by using design thinking. The next step? Incorporate the human centered design process – empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test – as standard procedure in projects.
  • Shift from Test-Based Thinking to Skills Based Thinking. Educators have concluded that test-based results are a poor metric for the type of ‘rigor’ required in todays’ world. So, why do tests still prevail and predominate? Because we don’t know how to measure skills and personal process. But that is the exact mindshift and leap of faith required. Redefining rigor around skillfulness and ‘doing’, not merely the ‘knowing’, is an essential step forward. How can PBL advocates take that step? Put skill-based performance standards on par with testing outcomes. Use consistent, field-tested, rich rubrics that identify levels of mastery in communication, collaboration, presentation, and design outcomes. 
  • Focus on Deep Collaboration. PBL professes to use teams as part of the process but lags far behind the best thinking in industry on how people function effectively in a team through teamwork or teaming. Using the terminology of ‘groups’ is outdated; the language of teams invokes accountability, purpose, and cohesion. That should be standard practice in PBL.But there is a critical next step: Recognize that personal strengths develop through social-emotional interactions in a team and take time to coach students in the core skills and attitudes required for deep collaboration: Empathy, humility, listening, and assertiveness.
  • Establish PBL Teachers as Co-Creative Intellectual Partners. It’s common now to speak of teachers as a guide on the side, and to refer to student ‘agency’—easy phrases not really backed by deeper introspection about how teachers and students will partner in the future. But the outline is clear: In todays’ creative, constructivist, information rich environment, it’s likely that teachers will know more than students about some things, and students will know more than teachers about other things. The power dynamic thus shifts dramatically and invites us to envision a deep teach/learn and learn/teach relationship between student and teacher. Inevitably, we will move in the direction of deep intellectual collaboration between parties in the learning space. A critical step in this direction: Teachers will no longer be able to rely on a credential or traditional professional development to craft a successful skill set for teaching. The emerging skill set includes personal openness, flexibility, humility, and the ability to listen and observe.

In Our Connected World, What If Empathy is Learning?

Image of student for project based learning.

Observing a group of students conversing deeply as a team, checking resources on a Chromebook, presenting solutions to a problem in a project, or responding to open ended questions, you might ask yourself: What the heck is going on? Is this learning?

In times past, this was an easy question to answer. Traditional, recognizable elements of education, such as lectures, worksheets, spelling tests, writing, and standardized tests were prominent. There was also a shared mental model of what learning meant. It was assumed that individuals operate as a unit separate from each other and the environment, which enabled the transmission version of learning—the input-output model in which packets of information enter the brain, form building blocks of knowledge, rewire circuits, stimulate executive function, and thinking happens… (The conversation trails off a bit at this point because the whole process gets mysterious, especially the thinking part.)

But what now? Information is everywhere, making it impossible to package. Collaboration and networking underpin life, and constant communication is the norm, even for plants. Each time you check your smart phone you tap into a global brain. And when you finally put down the phone, you shake your head: So much going on. In fact, the tightening weave in the global network means that never has there been an era in human history in which so many people learn together.

Education has noticed, driving the move to personalized, learner-centered, teacher facilitated, applied skills approaches to schooling, with increased emphasis on teamwork and collaborative project-based work in school, accompanied by a sharp necessity to tap deep student attributes such as engagement, motivation, openness, and curiosity.

That the transmission model has collapsed is clear. But it’s now time to take the more difficult step: To acknowledge that living a densely linked life and operating in a non-linear, intimately connected, globally diverse, culturally conflicted world with 16 million text messages exchanged every minute and knowledge itself becoming a social construct mediated by the whole requires entirely new thinking about learning itself.

What will replace the old model? There are three important clues—three sets of data from emerging science—that point us in the direction of a radically new notion of learning in the remainder of the 21st century and beyond.

First, consider that conventional evolutionary theory is being challenged by complexity, which assumes the primary unit of evolution is the organic whole, not the individual. This theory follows the rule of dynamic systems, in which chaotic patterns (and we have plenty now) accelerate until crisis reaches a penultimate stage and chaos resolves itself into a new order. In other words, the entire ‘building block’ notion of life, with a long evolutionary timeline and subtle changes in individual genes over many lifetimes, may be replaced by the notion of collective intelligence and evolution of the whole.

Second, there is increasing evidence that in our highly connected world the social environment interacts with human consciousness to create a social field of information. Like fish trying to see water, the field is invisible to us, but we learn from the field. It’s now our chief source of curriculum.

Third, experts in the field of social neuroscience assert that our relationship to the field can be mediated through an expression of empathy and openness. That may be why empathy has suddenly morphed beyond a narrow definition as a tolerant attitude into a deep interpersonal skill necessary for effective teaming, customer design, and other aspects of life that require openness to the flow of information.

What does this mean for education? In my view, it’s time to match the emerging science with the tempo of the times and upend established ‘truths’ around learning. It’s time to act on the assumption that knowledge is flowing through students, not being delivered to them, and that the chief skill is openness. That means, for the foreseeable future, empathy is learning. This is the game-changer. Anything less is a slow dance solution in a rock and roll world.

This may seem theoretical and far away from present school practices. But recall the complexity approach to evolution: More chaos indicates the problem is intensifying to the point of a sudden shift. We are not as far from a 21st century model of learning as we might believe. In fact, there are at least six ways that schools can get out in front of the shift:

Promote a Holistic, Non-Brain Centric View of Learning. Empathy be a behavior, but it has a physiological underpinning. In an empathetic state, the body relaxes and brain activity shifts to the higher centers. To an extent larger than generally realized, this shift is mediated by the heart. Further, the physiology of the heart—in the form of heart rate variability, which affects the messaging to the brain—is influenced by emotions. All the emotions associated with empathy, such as openness, humility, gratitude, and compassion, affect the heart positively.

View Empathy as the Foundation. Old schemata for learning, such as Bloom’s Taxonomy, need to be replaced by iceberg models that give us better insight into behaviors that matter in the world, including social awareness, self-awareness, and attitudes that lead to connection with others. This includes replacing the term ‘social-emotional’ learning, an industrial hangover from a time in which academic and social skills could be distinguished, with a strengths-based focus that binds intellect, passion, and skillfulness into a whole. Teaching SEL skills is on the rise, but teaching the core strength—openness, curiosity, and empathy—and acknowledging empathy’s   fundamental role in cognition and achievement is the next step.

Turn Empathy into an Outcome. Empathy can be learned, demonstrated, and evaluated, but it needs to be defined in terms deeper than ‘I like others.’ Empathy is the first step in the design process. Empathetic behavior makes teams function better and can be identified in teamwork rubrics as active listening, open body posture, kind critique, and similar behaviors that can be assessed. Learning to be empathetic, however, does require the right conditions–sitting in a row of desks and answering teacher questions doesn’t do it. Empathy is best learned through service or teams in a project-based environment.

Continue to Personalize Learning. The exact definition of personalized learning is a work in progress, but is a visible response to our intuition that the old model of learning no longer holds. The more that an individual is not confined to chapters in a text book or a set of lecture notes, and has 24/7 access to a broader field of knowledge, the more that learning becomes personal as well as collectivized. Many choices equal many paths equal multiple ways to become educated. This is a huge challenge for formal education, but unavoidable.

Recognize Teachers as Co-creators. With the learner at the center, the teacher is the facilitator. But education requires a serious build-out of this concept. In the new model, the real teacher is not a single person, but the social field, which leads to learning, but also awakens deeper levels of creativity and a desire for service. In the transmission model, learning is very much geared toward self-fulfillment; in the new model, we can expect empathy to shift the focus to the common good. Teachers will inevitably begin to apply their subject expertise to real-world demands for solutions, innovation, and problem solving. That’s really the outgrowth of an empathic model of learning: To make a positive difference in the world.

Get Students Out of the Classroom and into the World. In a world of collective ‘learning’, the standards-based approach will inevitably fail or undergo severe modification to focus on skillfulness rather than content. The replacement is ‘learning while doing’, hopefully in service to the greater good. Expect to see service learning, out of school social good projects, and opportunities for students to share their collaborative knowledge to explode over the next few years.