Edgeucation Blog

Why Genius is in High Demand—and How PBL Can Deliver

May 19, 2017

Thom Markham

Image of modern day thought for project based learning

Often the history of words reveal long-forgotten truths by harkening us back to a deep past before experts parsed the world into small bits, built the complex industry called ‘modern day thought,’ and excluded those aspects of human experience that remain beyond the reach of scientific validation or explanation. The history of words reminds us that our forefathers may have lacked technological prowess, but knew very well the literacy of human behavior.

One such word is joy. In itself, the word carries a kind of archaic energy since joy implies an emotional state beyond the reach of brain scans, psychometric evaluation, or hormone analysis. When we feel joyful, something big happens. We just don’t know what.

Another word is genius. In some deep past, as language gained traction, the bulk of people believed genius to be the mysterious elation that welled up internally. They equated it to an outbound flow of wisdom, deep learning, and creative insight. In fact, they defined genius as “giving birth to joy.”

Thus, the truth of our history: Many centuries ago wise people figured out that lighting the fire within is more important than stuffing the mind from without, and that meaningful learning does not occur primarily through a cognitive input-out system in which packets of information run neuron routes like a rat through a maze until the packets dead end in an aha! We may believe the ancients were primitive, but they would have thought crazy the fact that an industrial system of education ignores the mysterious roots of joy and genius.

Education has added punctuation to this narrow point of view by inventing every conceivable method, curriculum, and delivery system to create a conduit for input into waiting brains. Once facts are inputted, results can be tabulated; once tabulated, they fulfill the prophecy that learning has occurred. Under this pretense, we then rank the learners.

Why care about this? Because if we don’t return to the ancestral view, educating young people for the life they will live as the world turns toward the 22nd Century is impossible. The input and ranking system worked fine when we didn’t need to know much about learners. Teachers delivered the appropriate packets, and learners regurgitated them. If students flashed signs of joy and genius, all to the good. But inspiration was not required, and joy was not an indicator.

But let’s consider what every thoughtful educator knows and what every social or business institution is telling us: To survive or thrive, young people must demonstrate emotional capacity, whether we identify it as resiliency, empathy, curiosity, or learnability. Yes, knowledge and mastery matter—the packets have their place. But using emotional capacity to navigate, apply, sort, filter, and persist with knowledge is the new normal.

Beyond that, the emergency lights are flashing: Global society needs more genius. Insights and breakthroughs, not deeper grooves in well-worn pathways, are in urgent demand, and the times require a quantum leap in human capacity. That’s a good metaphor, because a quantum shift results in a wholly different atomic structure, yet takes place at a level that can’t be observed—exactly the region of humans where joy and genius reside.

That’s why we’re headed in reverse, back to an originalist view of learning. The outlines of this are not entirely clear, but the direction is apparent: Life is driving learning inward, back toward mystery. That’s why testing fails now – it doesn’t tell us anything about the interior, about joy, and certainly not about genius.

If one is truthful, educators deal daily with many mysteries. No one really knows how to ‘instill love of learning.’ No one, including psychologists, can define intelligence adequately. No one can explain why learners are different. No one understands the roots of motivation, let alone understanding why we’re conscious. The new curriculum itself is fuzzy: The four C’s of 21st century learning lend themselves to fine posters and appealing mission statements, but no one would put critical thinking and creativity in the same category as spelling, writing a grammatically correct sentence, or solving for x. You can’t collaborate well unless you feel empathy, but what is that? You can’t communicate well without sensitivity to others, but where does that come from?

There’s a simple solution to all of this: Go back to joy and genius. See learning as a mystery that needs to be accepted, not understood. Appreciate the well spring, even if the source of the headwaters has not been identified and tested for purity. And then: Design education around that reality.

There are trends every educator should support. Train teachers to value, mentor, and facilitate social-emotional development. Personalize learning, so children discover inner joy. Teach less, but teach deeper, so the joy of mastery emerges. Engage social, community, and global issues with abandon, so students experience the joy of service. Employ as much project based learning as possible, so the joy of intellectual engagement emerges. Reward the whole child, selfless behavior, and evidence of reflective action aimed at more joy and genius. That is the only path forward.

It doesn’t matter whether this sounds radical, undoable, incompatible with present testing goals, or utopian. Because it is happening. Because it has exponential power. Because students are demanding it. Because the brain is a quantum-driven, survival-focused organ, operating as a system, not a bunch of modules, and it takes notice of deep changes in its surroundings. Our ancestors may have not known the wiring scheme, but they knew that the inner life, whatever that may be, programmed the brain, not the other way around. And speaking of that, what goes around, comes around.

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