“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” —John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club
So much space is taken up rebuking the Industrial Revolutionary model of education that still inspires most schools today. You can hear, watch, and read people questioning why it is that students are lined up in rows, organized in grades based on birth year, their minds filled with all sorts of things they will need to be productive members of commercial society. Even those who pretend to break the model by stressing application of competencies over acquisition of content or who swear by the power of teaching concepts over textbooks are often still tied to the narrative that school should prepare students for the world of work. None of this will help us solve the metacrisis that we face, where we face climate disaster, socio-economic injustice, and the breakdown of relationships among living beings.
I propose that we go beyond trying to replace the industrial model with yet some other model that will prepare students for the world of work. I propose we abandon instead the mental constructs that consider students as individuals, and emerge onto a new way of thinking that centralizes the social aspect of learning as action, built around what we can do as a collective. This would have considerable implications in the way we evidence learning and the impact of our actions. I don’t have all the answers, just posing questions. I do think first it may be worth understanding how we got here.
Let’s go back in time to the Enlightenment, which prepared the way for the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions as European and American cultures started to look to reason, rather than God, to understand the world. Humanism was borne of this shift and affirmed that reason was the basis of our inquisitive and productive energies. Upon doing so, Humanism accelerated the disconnection of humans from nature. Descartes’s famous “I think, therefore I am” was a declaration of independence of the mind and the body (though one could argue Plato was the first to initiate the split). Cartesian dualism is the concept that the mind is immaterial while the body is physical. The two operate separately. According to this line of seeing the world, animals and plants do not to possess powers of reason, and as such are inferior to humans. Thomas Hobbes, who wrote about the same time as Descartes and a key figure of the Enlightenment, went so far as to compare animals to machines.
Humanism paved the way for many accomplishments that have improved the lives of billions of people. Thanks to Humanism, we enjoy higher quality healthcare, education, urban planning, and countless other achievements. Our moral compass now points in a direction that rejects torture, oppression, and violence. In so many ways, we are better off than we were in a pre-Humanist world.
All is not rainbows and unicorns though and these accomplishments have come at a cost. By placing humans at the top of the life value chain, Humanism has made it ethically acceptable to subvert nature to meet its needs. While forests were cut down well before the 18th Century, the scale of destruction since then is incomparable to what happened before. From the extraction and burning coal for energy, to the production of non-biodegradable plastics, to the contamination of our rivers and seas… these are the effects of our drive for “a better life,” an answer to Francis Bacon’s call to “conquer nature.” Environmental degradation is the result of understanding humans’ relationship with nature and living beings as instrumental, that is, there to increase the well-being of humans. We can see this when we declare that we have the right to “the pursuit of happiness.” It’s not that Humanism is all bad, but we have to come to terms that Humanism entrenches anthropocentrism, the idea that Humans are the most important entity in the world. In spite of all the accomplishments, Humanist and anthropocentrism approaches and worldviews are the reasons why we have entered the era of the Anthropocene.
Humanism also altered relationships among humans. Descartes again plays an important role here. He pushed forward reductionism as a way of investigating the world (as did Bacon). Reductionism ascertains that everything is composed of a minimum number of parts (think all the way to subatomic particles). Reductionism seeks to understand larger phenomena through the study of the parts that compose it since these parts each have different properties. The models we use (for instance in Economics) crowd out “noise” by reducing complexities to manageable components through reduction. Taken to its extreme, Pierre-Simon de la Place imagined a demon who was so smart, he could predict the future in perpetuity (using the principles of Newtonian mechanics) because he knew the exact position and momentum of every atom in the universe. This line of thinking is the basis of modern, or causal, determinism.
Stay with me.
Systems theory rejects reductionism by positing that nothing can exist apart from its system, whose complexities mean systems’ behaviors are non-linear as they act and respond according to the relationships of their interacting parts. This dynamic relationship is the driver, not the individual parts themselves. Systems are defined by boundaries, but parts can belong to multiple systems at the same time, making systems multidimensional and interconnected. Yet altering one part of the system will affect the entire system. Working together, the parts allow the system to accomplish more than each part could alone. This is where we get the expression “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” You could also argue that the parts could not exist without the system.
This idea that we only exist through our interactions with others and the world is not new**. For over 2,500 years, Taoism and Buddhism have stressed the interconnectedness of the universe. These are complex philosophies, but you don’t need to an ancient Chinese, Tibetan, or Zen scholar for this to make sense. Think of life on earth. Think of your life. Could you exist without food, the oxygen plants produce, other people? Quantum mechanics challenged (if not replaced) Newtonian mechanics and entanglement (as well as the collapse of the wave function through observation) threatens reductionism by showing time after time, through rigorous scientific experiments, that connections exist between parts across the universe beyond our conventional understandings of time and space.
Nobel-winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger wrote that we are “all in all.” Albert Einstein, whose relationship with the spookiness of quantum mechanics was admittedly troubled, believed that by seeing a distinction or separateness between ourselves and the world, we create “a kind of optical delusion of [our] consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
Interconnectedness is not only the way of nature, it is the path to liberation from this prison of delusion.
Ok… I don’t want to get too woo woo on you (as my good friend Alex Soulsby would say). Here is where this all comes back to learning and the role of schools.
Grades and reporting on student achievement are products of a reductionist approach to needing to measure†. There are many arguments—both based in research and intuition—for why grades hinder learning: they develop extrinsic motivation, lower the quality of thinking and creativity, encourage conformity, etc. Without delving into these points (Alfie Kohn does that better than I can), we can stop to think about the context in which learning takes place, the individual’s relationship with this context, and the dynamic (not to write dialectic) that exists between individuals and the collective. I have already written about how our thinking and actions are inextricably linked our environment (context and others). Nothing exists in isolation. Everything we think and do, no matter how small, impacts our context, no matter how small, through a dialectic. This signals that learning (and therefore assessment) cannot exist without taking into account this context and our interactions with others, challenging the idea that we can isolate learning, reduce it to a grade.
We only make sense of the world by interacting with the world. As Jeremy Lent highlights, the very existence of everything is the emergent product of their interconnectedness. The mind is no different. It only exists through ints interconnectedness with the world and we cannot make sense of the world or ourselves without this interconnection. Our sensory organs provide us with information we process, and from there we interpret and perceive reality and act dynamically with our environment moment by moment. Put it simply, there is nothing you do at any moment that doesn’t involve the environment in which you exist. You act and react based on the information you receive from your sensory organs. You process this information and act accordingly, sometimes willfully, sometimes less so, sometimes subconsciously.
You reach for a cup of coffee expecting it to be at just the right temperature to drink. You touch the mug. The nerves on your fingers power off signals to your brain that the liquid inside is very hot. Ouch! Best wait a few minutes.
Your eyes witness various colors on the horizon. Your brain interprets their vividness and the patterns in which they are perceived (there are more colors than your eyes can distinguish). Because of the way it is wired, your brain releases chemicals that make you relaxed and happy. You consider the sunset beautiful and your appreciation for stopping to admire at nature is reinforced, creating connections inside your brain that remember the sense of well-being you felt, which will affect your value system to some degree, your behaviors, or even you taking a picture to share with others.
A tree falls in the forest but no one is around. It makes no noise because no one is there, no ears able to sense the vibrations in the air that our brains interpret as sound. The animals in the forest hear the tree though.
(I am simplifying grotesquely here, but you could take any of these three examples and easily look into the science behind them as well as get sucked down the rabbit hole of what is consciousness.)
If nothing we do exists independently of the world around us, why do we treat learning as if it was something that could be assessed on an individual level, in isolation, even broken down in separate components within the individual? Why do we assign grades to students’ pieces of persuasive writing, or to their ability to plot a parabola, or even to their understanding of a concept? Why do we consider these sets of knowledge, skills, and competencies to exist independently the context in which they’re applied, that is the dynamic interconnection between actor and environment? How do past results indicate future potential if performance is context-dependent and contexts change all the time?
There is a better way to assess thinking and action (which together constitute the bedrock of learning) and that is measuring impact and preferably positive impact. I have written about this looking at Portfolios of Impact and using Net Promoter Scores.
According to reductionism, if something cannot be measured by a scientific instrument, it does not exist. Assigning students grades to report on specific skills within a specific subject area is pure reductionism because it does not consider how learning is a process of connection between other parts of the mind, the spirit, the body, and the external world, that is others and the planet. When we mark against standards (which are constructed by an external body), by discipline, or isolated skills we take the position that understanding can be broken down into components. Most report cards are a menu of standards or skills that each have scores against them, as if any of these could exist independently of one another. Often units that purport to be interdisciplinary are broken down into subject-specific skill††.
We can think about how this emerges on a wider scale, like a fractal. How can we compare schools or school districts given differences in contexts (e.g. socio-economics, cultural, demographic, geographic)? How can we compare countries on PISA tests? How can we pretend that there is objectivity or standardization when circumstances matter and interplay dynamically with the individual (school, district, country)?
I’m not suggesting we should ignore these knowledge, skills, or concepts. I’m saying each is but one piece of the systemic puzzle—and each is only activated through action and context.
Perhaps the key to breaking the mental models is to appreciate reality and the world within a holarchy, that is, the idea that the world is a system where everything is both a whole and a part at the same time. While it’s ok to focus on one particular component, we remember that each component is part of a bigger picture of interdependence. Go ahead and assess a learner’s piece of persuasive writing, but don’t forget that it’s only as good as the impact it has on its audience. Skills exist in themselves but only have value if they’re applied through action in a real context. It’s the same with concepts. Understanding is wonderful, but how do we transfer understanding to action?
It’s only at the point of action that understanding has value. A hammer has no value in itself. It only acquires values when it is used to drive in a nail. It is the same thing with literacy skills or conceptual understanding. You must do something with it and look at the impact.
And that’s just it, if we adopt a systems thinking approach to learning, we cannot dissociate the thinking and action (students’ evidencing of learning) from the environment in which they exist and the impact they have on that environment. That means that we have to go beyond student-centered, beyond the individual, beyond the reductionist worldview.
More to the point, we shouldn’t want to dissociate anything. We should embrace the holarchy. We should treat learning as a social experience that happens together, not individually.
We are all part of a system and interact with the system in a sort of dance. We learn through every experience, no matter how small, whether we realize it or whether the learning is subconscious. This perpetual interaction through which we are constantly processing information and creating or modifying mental models—this incessant and instantaneous dynamic of all the learners and the context—is what constructs learning, and has impact when learning becomes action, when learning acquires value.
Since we learn within a dynamic interaction, what if we stopped atomizing students, thinking of assessment in terms of the individual, treating learning as if it could be reduced to a number, as if skills existed in-themselves? What if we re-conceptualized learning as a social experience? What if we focused on the thinking and actions of the team or collective rather than falling into the reductionist habits of breaking things down, rejecting the symbiotic nature of the system?
This is where the real shift happens because it will take us beyond changing the way we think about assessment. It will take us beyond student-centric. It will reposition our mental constructs, putting the collective at the center, the bio-collective—all living things that have an interest in the healthfulness of the planet.
We can embrace this idea that individual well-being only happens within a flourishing society and within a healthful natural world. We can emphasize what brings us together, rather than what atomizes us. We can value (assess!) based on the quality of impact our actions have on the bio-collective. Those who take the challenge can collectively set forth a set of ethics in schools that would ripple throughout the community, however defined.
Instead of the 4C’s, perhaps we should live by the 4R’s: Relationship, Responsibility, Reciprocity, Redistribution. LaDonna Harris, whose paper introduced me to the 4R’s, writes, “we can only be ourselves together. We can only be a ‘self’ in community. We are simultaneously both autonomous and connected. There are no private truths. We have to let the realities of others into our conceptual and emotional spaces and vice versa.”
I feel there is so much in unpack here, so many conversations to have, so many threads to pull. Whether we are thinking in abstracts—such as the moral and ontological separation between reductionist and systems thinking/Taoist worldviews—or what this would look like in the learning space—how we assess and report on the impact of group/team rather than the achievements of the individual, moving toward a post-humanist worldview that understands the interconnectedness of the world. Humanism amplifies anthropocentrism by widening the gap between humans and nature. By creating hierarchies between species, we create a terrain for hierarchies in our society: socio-economic, racial, gender… and of course, act in ways that are out of touch with nature and endanger the planet.
Humanism has led to wonderful achievement, but it’s time to go beyond. This is the only way we will find a long-lasting solution to the metacrisis we face today: climate disaster, socio-economic injustice, and the breakdown of relationships among living beings.
Reductionism in education is a child of Humanism (since schools are a product of Humanism). It is time to move beyond that too, to consider the impact of the individual and the group on the community and the bio-collective. Impact is the result of our knowledge and skills turned into action and taking the world into consideration. Impact is what gives learning value.
This is a provocation to re-examine how our practices, what we take for truths, our tendency to see through a reductionist sense. These aren’t all the answers, just a springboard to come together, as it should be. This is the opportunity to have our collective thinking and action make an impact.
Isn’t that what will make a difference rather than our individual competencies and knowledge? Isn’t that the whole point of global citizenry?
Isn’t that what will change the world?
*This article is inspired by Jeremy Lent’s Web of Meaning.
** There may not even be a separate “I” in the first place.
† Actually, you could say that the entire education system that silos disciplines is part of also the product of reductionism. History does not exist in isolation of Chemistry, which does not exist in isolation of Physics, which does not exist in isolation of Philosophy, which does not exist in isolation of Economics, etc. Play the matching game yourself. In any case, you cannot study any of these disciplines without connecting it to another, and no serious academic does. Many schools still think act as if you could be a historian without delving into literature, the arts or chemistry. Bizarre.
††This is also the case when we purport to teach in concepts. The concepts may be the driver, but then why still report on knowledge or the application of skills independently of context? Strands or working toward grade expectations…Even measuring understanding or performance according to a rubric does not consider action and impact (though much more room to play here).