Edgeucation Blog

Reimagining Consciousness, Not Learning

August 15, 2020

Thom Markham

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.  

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