Looking on the Bright Side for the Future

When Jared Silver writes, it’s frequently thought-provoking, enlightening and worth considering.

This is a very interesting piece he’s written for Edu Surge that puts the argument that as the internet becomes readily available to anyone anywhere in the world, so, we are entering a new human revolution that will unlock human potential at levels we cannot even imagine.

EduSurge – The Impending Human Capital Revolution

His evidence for this is the rarity, historically of Indian or Chinese Nobel Prize winners – because the people in those countries didn’t have the same access to knowledge and education compared with those in more developed nations. Now that the internet is freely available everywhere, so everyone can have access to all of human knowledge.

The first issue I would have with this argument is that by no means does the internet contain all of human knowledge or even most of the best knowledge. I think we’re a very long way from that and will continue to be for a long time. For one, even if we think of new knowledge that is published in books. At most, people give access to snippets of it online in order to entice more people to buy the books. They’re not about to give it all away for free. Secondly, there are vast parts of the world’s population who have severely restricted access to the internet, with large parts of knowledge placed behind curtains where they are not permitted to go. Laws and rules that restrict access can all too easily be imposed on people in any part of the world, justified by nebulous concepts like ‘national interest.’

As highlighted by Daniel Kahneman in ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ there are different kinds of thinking (engagement with knowledge) that lead to advances in human development. Whilst the internet and ubiquitous accessibility might give greater potential for the fast and shallow kind of thinking, it gives little scope for the slower, deeper forms of thinking. For that deeper thinking, people need access to the kinds of written material not generally accessible through the internet (at least for free) and access to other thinkers and experts in the chosen field with whom to share thoughts and ideas. On the latter point, email and ability to ‘find’ experts has had interesting implications. I recall a meeting and discussion with Dr Howard Gardner in which he slightly ruefully acknowledged that today he spends a far greater proportion of his time responding to speculative communication that he receives from people all over the world who want to tap in to his knowledge and insights. There is serious risk that this heightened level of accessibility makes his work less whilst giving little benefit in the enhanced knowledge of those corresponding with him – considering that the vast majority will still only be engaging with him at the most superficial levels.

One thing that Jared Silver’s article doesn’t really make clear, is whether he sees this human revolution emerging because a few more exceptional people will be able to emerge because of their newfound access to knowledge, information and each other, or whether he actually foresees an overall raising of all intellectual levels of all people. If he’s arguing for the latter, I’m really not sure that his examples about Nobel Prize winners are convincing proof as these people are by their very nature the exceptional, rarest of the rare.

If you walked in to most western school classrooms (or those in more affluent private schools anywhere in the world) and asked students what the internet changes, gives them access to most of their answers would relate to social networking and gaming. There is a strong argument to say that, especially with its addictive qualities, the internet is far from fueling an intellectual step forward for mankind, but rather giving him new and previously unforeseen ways to fritter away life on meaningless, addictive and compulsive activities. This is at its worst for those receiving a lot of unfettered access in their youth when the wiring of their brains predisposes them towards addictive and compulsive activities that give them repeated doses of dopamine and other neural ‘drugs’ that have nothing to do with enhancing mankind. instead, like the Soma of Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ it dulls the mind, eats up their time in ways that don’t challenge or move them forward intellectually and keep them limited in their advancement.

This has become of such concern to some educators that it leads to news articles like this recent one from the UK:

The Times – UK – Your Teacher’s At The Door – He Wants Your Xbox

Some years ago i had the privilege to host as a guest in one of our Delhi schools the great economist, CK Prahalad (who I suspect if not taken from us too soon was destined to be a future Nobel Prize winner). over coffee before and after the event we had conversations ranging over a wide array of topics. The one that has always stuck in my mind was his fears and apprehensions for the youth we worked with. The new young elite of India whose parents were all too frequently the first generation in their families to taste real economic success. he saw them suffering from a disease he described as “Affluenza” – an infection of plenty that undermines motivation and drive when these young people are growing up with all opportunities handed to them with ease and lacking the drive and the need to strive that marked out their parents’ generation. Such a level of complacency is more likely to lead to short cuts than hunger to use and access all possible information and knowledge that is accessible in the world.

The workings of human motivation, drive and the inclination to purpose have been areas of fascination to many (Daniel Pink – Drive, Roy Baumeister – Willpower, Viktor Frankl – Man’s Search for Meaning, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). Just because opportunity is available to people, doesn’t mean they will take it, grasp it or see it as important. People’s aspirations and feelings of what’s possible or what are realistic and meaningful life goals are not simply shaped by exposure.

For example, ten to fifteen years ago, there were plenty of eminent experts who suggested that the growth of the internet would lead to new and greater levels of cultural understanding, empathy and recognition of common purpose amongst people of the world. The argument was that knowing people from all over the world, being exposed to them, understanding more of their culture would reduce fear, animosity and distance. however, as we see a wave of nationalism, protectionism and inter-cultural and religious sabre rattling, it’s clear that there is still just as much potential for people to be divided on ethnic, racial, religious or nationalistic lines as there ever has been.

In conclusion, the possibility that future Nobel prize winners might be more evenly distributed throughout the world doesn’t, in my view, automatically add up to a human revolution. Access and opportunity don’t change things on their own. Whilst i can agree that intellectual and knowledge accessibility may contribute to greater equity in the world, there is no rule that says a rising tide of accessible knowledge will raise all boats.

Tenby Educators – Academic Year End

Dear Tenby Educators
Following on from my end of term letter to you all, I promised you some more information here!
As educators who espouse the virtues of ‘lifelong learning’, it is vitally important that we too make lifelong learning a natural part of our day to day life. As educators, we are in a unique position to model the values of the school for our children.
I also happen to believe that this value of ‘lifelong learning’ is a win-win for all of us – growing feels positive, learning is enriching. I also believe that educators share knowledge, so for me that’s the biggest reason why this blog exists.
Vacation time is important for us to recharge our batteries, to reflect on our professional practice and to set goals for ourselves that motivate, inspire and excite. I believe humans are a bit like bicycles – we’re at our best when moving forward and standing still really does us no good at all.
I take this opportunity to share with you my personal selection of great reading, perfect for vacation.

1. Mindset, Carol Dweck
This is a book I’ve been very fond of recommending to both colleagues and parents, ever since I read it for the first time. I believe it deserves to be right up at the top of the reading list. Carol Dweck is a professor at Stanford University. Her book explores, through research findings the impact of the Fixed Mindset vs Growth Mindset. The starting premise is a simple one, but as the book highlights the implications are massive. Educators and parents who are not aware of the findings in this book can be inadvertently reinforcing fixed mindset that can blight the lives of children as it infects their beliefs about academic abilities, propensity and skill in learning, creativity, sports and physical skills and abilities.
If you choose to read only one of the books on this list, this is the one I recommend.

2. Happier, Tal Ben-Shahar
A small slim book, but one of of my favourite books. The book is a bi-product of Tal’s course that he used to teach at Harvard – the most popular and most attended course there. Yes, indeed, the young under and post-grads of Harvard are smart enough to realise that they can have all the skills, intelligence and ability to get in to one of the world’s great academic institutes, they might be destined for great professional success – but, none of that guarantees them happiness in life. Tal is a part of the ‘Positive Psychology’ movement that is applying the rigour of academic research and thinking to what might previously have been strictly the domain of the self-help movement.
Very thought provoking and well worth exploring.

3. Flow or Finding Flow, both by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
I’ve read both of these books twice, and took something new away each time. Both are fascinating and well written books about how to ‘get in the groove’ so that tasks don’t feel like tasks and we get more done of what we need to do to achieve our goals and aspirations.
These have occasionally provoked some really interesting conversations with students about how to create meaning and purpose in mundane tasks. I talked about how when I had menial manual jobs as a youngster I would set myself targets related to how quickly I might complete a task, how accurately, estimating various aspects and then seeing how close I could get to those estimates. As I did this I found time on task flew by, I avoided boredom, got the job done and felt satisfaction afterwards.

4. Linchpin by Seth Godin
In a changing world, everyone needs to pay careful attention to how they ‘make meaning’ in the world, carve out a niche for themselves and do work that is engaging to them.
On my first reading of this book I found so much that was significant both for us as adults and for children in school, being prepared for life.
In short – it’s about how people make themselves indispensable (and that includes reading and learning!)

5. Disrupting Class by Clayton Christensen
A Harvard Business School professor who has built his reputation on work about how technology does so much more than just lead to incremental changes in any industry, turned his attention to how technology can radically disrupt the field of education.

6. Schools That Learn by Peter Senge
This certainly wins the prize on this list for the biggest and heaviest of the books – maybe a bit too heavy for your hand luggage if travelling. Peter Senge is one of the world’s leading authorities on Systems Thinking. In this book he turned his attention to schools, education and parents. There is an accompanying website that provides more information:

7. Good to Great by Jim Collins
One of a series of books that looks at companies and organisations from various fields, exploring how they get beyond just merely being good companies or organisations, but become outstanding – and, maybe more important, sustain it.

8. The Leader Within by Stephen Covey
Most people know Covey for the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (and subsequently, the Eighth Habit). In this book he translates the habits in to a set of principles that can be used to create a school culture, following through in some detail some of the first schools in the USA that did so.

9. The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Sir Ken Robinson
The man best known for his groundbreaking TED talk that challenged some of what he perceived as wrong in education today. It’s the most watched TED talk ever and has been the inspiration for many educators to bring meaningful change to schools and their teaching.

10. Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn, or
Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn
A somewhat controversial and provocative, New York based educator who has published many books setting out well-reasoned arguments that challenge some fashionable and accepted orthodoxies when it comes to teaching, schools and parenting. Reading Alfie Kohn’s work leads us to start to question things we may have taken for granted in many ways about children.


11. Drive, Daniel Pink
As a long time reader of Pink’s books and his blog this book had been on my ‘to be read’ list for quite some time. It’s a fascinating exploration of human motivation. It’s relevant for us to understand our motivation as adults, but also to understand children’s motivation to learn.

12. Giving Voice to Values, Mary C Gentile
I originally received this book as a gift from a professional colleague. Ms Gentile is a professor of Babson College, USA and the book explores the issues of finding courage to lead through values and inspire others. It explores how values can be the driving force for an organisation and for leadership.

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