Protopian Education Five: Shift the Human-to-System Relations

“Can we go from f*ck the system, to love the system? In China, the latter is being explored. The problem there, of course, is that it’s a system even less worthy of our love. For a system to be loved, it must merit our love. And a social system—educational systems included—merits our love by being generative of inner thriving and dignified relationships between us, the members of the public.”

— Hanzi Freinacht (who sometimes makes up his own introductory quotes if he can’t find a suitable one)

Breaking Away from the Industrial Education System

In the previous article I discussed how human relationships can be transformed in the world of education. But all human relationships occur within larger social systems—educational relations included. How, then, could human relationships be transformed in a desirable direction without the direct involvement of the systems within which we meet, are defined, and live out our lives?

In this chapter, we bring up that age-old critique of education: that it locks down the lonely individual in an impersonal, mechanical “prison” of sorts, mutilating their personality and extinguishing their creative spark and will to learn by playing.

Naturally, there is more to education than this grim image: schools, colleges, teachers, and professors around the world all do their best to make learning engaging and driven by intrinsic motivation. And in many cases, to a certain extent, they succeed.

And yet—the resistance and critique persist, not least on a systemic level. In the following, we bring up ideas and perspectives that aim to transform these systems. One of the major challenges here is that there can be no “one solution” or one “ideal system”, given that education occurs in so varied contexts and cultures. So if I cannot conjure a solution, at least I can discuss some promising and thought-provoking ideas that may serve as general guidelines for reforming the educational systems from the old paradigm to the new.

Because we are social beings, the systems we live in don’t just shape our social environments; they shape who we are and how we act, even how we think, feel, and perceive. To transform social systems is also to transform our minds and our capacities for empathy and productive relationships. To tackle this issue, we must begin by looking at what the “systems of education” truly entail.

Education Is Not (Only) about Education

The first point here is that transforming education may not even be about education (its practices and content) primarily, but all the more about the many other systems within which it is layered: politics, democracy, public administration, business, accounting regulations, wealth redistribution, the media landscape, the tech industries, and healthcare. A similar case was made by Brent Cooper (political sociologist) when I interviewed him. He maintains that the main issues of access to quality education have to do with the economic system and how it plays out politically—and that reformers of education should look primarily to how the funding of education is organized in society. Transforming education is just as much about transforming society.

In other words, education is not an isolated system; it exists, naturally, within the larger structures of society, such as the state and its institutions, the market, and so on. It is wise not to stare solely at what education looks like to get the whole picture—but to lift one’s gaze and try to see the larger society that surrounds and affects it.

Understanding education as a system often entails issues such as financing and creating enough transnational stability and agreement to sustain it. The Education Commission, under the leadership of former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, published a report in 2016, titled The Learning Generation, focusing on the importance and viability of financing education globally, making certain that countries around the world are equipped to face the disruptions of job markets that automation can bring about, bringing education to deprived populations, the importance of focusing on educating girls, and giving suggestions on budgeting—among other things.

Such issues are indeed vital, and the educational systems ultimately do remain dependent upon the efforts of international leadership and public funding. At the same time, however, it can be argued that such great, global efforts to fund and expand global education simultaneously present a perfect opportunity to reform it—so that the countless billions of dollars that are invested, are also skillfully directed towards transitioning (through eight interrelated pathways, as discussed throughout this article series) from the old paradigm of education to the new one, hopefully better suited for the demands and potentials of the Internet age.

Shared sense-making of what such systemic shifts can and should look like is a vital component of such a bold transition between the old and new paradigms. Hence the need for the present endeavor to offer a complex map of the territory, which stakeholders from across the fields may use to understand their mutual efforts, and to coordinate strategically across sectors, regions, and nations.

It is well understood by most key agents, we believe, that ensuring the future of education is both a matter of quantity (making certain there is enough of it and that it reaches all who stand to benefit) and quality (making certain the teachers are qualified, classes well equipped, and so forth). But there is less unanimity around the issue of the qualitative shift of global education: how the very nature and goals of education may need to change to best serve the world’s populations. It is only if enough key stakeholders from across the board share such a map of the territory (as I am trying to sketch a suggestion for in this ten-part series of articles), if enough of the right people in the right places, partake in this “mind-shift”, that real and sustain systemic transformation is possible.

The alternative, we should stress, may be bleak: Even if the world invests generously in the quality and quantity of global education, there may be a great rift between the reality that people are educated for and the reality that they actually come to face. If the educational systems are not sufficiently geared towards accommodating the new life conditions, issues of destabilization, ecological degradation, mental illness, and technological disruption may persist. Furthermore, if the many heartening attempts to reform education are not coordinated, they may fail due to systemic challenges and lacking understanding of other key agents.

This lands us in a position of both-and. Education must both be transformed as a part of larger, institutional and transnational shifts of society, and it must be transformed from the inside-out, even down to the quality of each personal teacher-student relationship—supported by a strategic use of technology and necessary shifts of perspectives about what education is, and what its purpose is in the first place. If global education is to be rescued from its position of mounting future shock, and if the spark of playfulness is to be saved from too mechanical pedagogy, the systems of education must be redesigned by many brave co-creators.

Skin in the Game

My second point builds upon the first one, and it has been much emphasized during the interviews that were made in preparation for this article series: If education’s future ultimately depends upon the surrounding systems, the practices of education must become better connected to these same systems—to better harmonize with them, to pick up on their changing nature and be influenced and adapted, and simply to improve learning outcomes.

It is an unfortunate effect of the conventional educational systems that they seldom—sometimes never—entail “real work”; i.e. tasks in which there are at least a minimum of external stakeholders who care about the results of any given assignment: not about the grading of the assessment. Many students go through their whole educational experience without ever quite “learning by doing”, as all school work is and remains within the boundaries of a great “as if”. This, if anything, can foster alienation in schools, and it can arguably undermine the sense of self-worth and self-efficacy of students who graduate from a long education but yet have no real world experience to show for it.

“Skin in the game” is a term that has recently gained popularity with the publishing of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s 2018 book with the same title. Accountability, Taleb argues, is difficult if not impossible to achieve as long as people have no skin in the game, if they don’t stand to lose directly from the consequences of their own decisions and contributions. Likewise, in education, learning to gain confidence and being held accountable, is difficult to achieve without working with real-world projects.

But within the confines of the classroom, it is almost inconceivable to see how students could do projects that are directly relevant to other stakeholders. Hence, education may increasingly need to break out of the classroom, and branch off into other fields of society: industries, healthcare, social services, environmental projects, and so forth. Chuck Pezeshki (complexity scientist, engineer) argues that his engineering students are only able to work in real companies with real stakeholders (and, often, real results for the companies) because of his own long personal history of building up the relationships with those same companies. His work highlights what may be a future professional role within education: establishing contacts to the outside world with as many and as varied agents as possible—so that learners can engage in real projects, with real stakes.

There may be other pedagogical gains from the development of such an approach: That education gains ongoing vital influences from other fields has already been mentioned, but it may also be emphasized that motivation to learn can increase. If students need specific knowledge to successfully finish their real-world projects, this can indeed place teachers in the more privileged position of being a cherished mentor for coveted skills. In short, reconnecting education to society can foster a sense of agency and initiative, rather than passive learning.

Shapes and Forms: From Class to Community Network

The third point connects, in turn, to the second one. If schools and educational settings are less organized as classrooms, and more as nodes that connect to partaking in society through projects—perhaps the schools themselves should be created with another core image or image in mind: the network.

In industrial society perhaps the underlying image of the factory, “mass producing education”, was a suitable alternative for schooling. In a network society, in which education in increasingly tech-driven and project-based, this image may need to be challenged and replaced, at least to a significant part.

The first years of education would naturally still require the networks that form to be locally based: creating schools that are, in effect, little villages with their own vibrant face-to-face communities, so vital to acquiring a sense of trust and safety. Bonnitta Roy (philosopher, background in neuroscience) goes as far as to suggest that such villages would have their own currencies, so that children could buy lunch and resources for their projects and play.  Brad Kershner has organized a “village school” in North Carolina (albeit without its own currency) and claims that—comparing with many school systems he has worked with—this is indeed a superior model for fostering healthy relationships.

But as children age and learn, they may be invited to creating more self-organized and self-governing networks of learning, based around tasks, projects, and interests—while keeping exposure to and connection with a larger schooling community.

Such networked structures of schooling may in turn harmonize well with another topic that our interviewees have brought up, among them Elke Fein (political scientist): sociocratic self-governance.

In so-called “sociocracy”, people are organized into small circles, each with their own tasks, and may decide upon how tasks should be performed through discussion until each member has given consent, “good enough for now, safe enough to try”. Such practices can disperse leadership and authority, but still lead to good management—sociocratically organized schools already exist in Austria (albeit without the network structure) where both teachers and pupils are organized in sociocratic circles. Sociocracy in schools may also offer hands-on learning for life-long participation in democratic societies: listening to others, finding common ground, discussing pros and cons, taking decisions for the common good.

What Is Being Measured?

The conventional system of measuring and grading educational results seems to have few friends among my interviewees and forward-thinking commentators. And indeed, a system can only truly be calibrated to manage that which it somehow measures. What is being left out?

One point that has been brought up is that conventional grading works opposite to the rewarding principles of “gamification”: making learning more like an entertaining game. If a video game starts with zero points, and then you work your way through treasure chests, fruits, and bonus levels, you feel enriched and that you are making progress. But grading starts with an “A” (or whichever the highest grade is) and then your work your way downwards by making mistakes or not knowing answers, and your efforts are marked with a red ink pen in the process. There are certainly issues of simple motivation-boosting techniques that could help learners to feel more motivated and positive about the experience, for instance, by simply turning grading on its head.

But the critique we hear in our interviews goes far beyond that. Zak Stein (Zachary Stein, philosopher of education) maintains that the measuring systems are themselves defunct, in effect measuring skills and capacities in too limited, and ultimately unscientific, ways. This view comes not least from his own experience, going from a underachieving dyslectic interested mainly in music, to a Harvard-educated researcher. He calls for a reformation of the measuring systems so that more just and holistic method comes to the fore: seeing how complex and intricate the independent tasks performed by the students are.

Brad Kershner agrees, through his experience working with children, that the sole focus on test results hinders the design of a truly nurturing education, because it ignores the main piece of the puzzle: the quality of relationships between teachers and pupils.

This view is echoed in related manner by Gregg Henriques (clinical psychologist, professor). He notes that the measures of qualitative variables like wellbeing, relationships, self-development, emotional maturity, and perspective-taking skills are entirely lacking: and yet, they may very well constitute the most important part of what is means to grow and learn. Introducing such measures into educational systems may require a host of measuring devices—but these are in fact already available within the discipline of psycho-metrics, and may be ready to use after some adjustments.

How would education be guided differently in its design, if the measuring systems were both more holistic, had better prediction of real-life outcomes, and included more variables pertaining to human happiness and flourishing? The mere existence of such measurements might change how agents within the educational systems view themselves and how they understand and enact their work.

Said differently, the measuring systems of education may be one of the major flaws in the current paradigm: they force teachers and students into an impersonal and distance machine of quantification. But this does not mean that grading should be abolished altogether; rather, our interviewees seem to hold, it should be reformed in a more holistic, sensitive, accurate, and relevant direction. This arguably present a great task for reformers of education.

How Silos and Egos Prevent Reform

On a last, darker, note about systems change, the interviewees that I have spoken to from the world of developing international education—working in governments and large organizations—bring up the need for greater fluidity and shared understanding among themselves. It is thus not only children and teachers who may need to reorganize and find new ways to self-govern and measure result.

Too often, our interviewees claim, sometimes with frustration, the different organizations and governments are too siloed, too isolated from one another, and they have too divergent organizational and professional interests. It could even be argued—controversial as the matter may be—that “egos” get in the way of long-term, productive cooperation. Instead, agents of change often feel gridlocked by the agents of other, but related and interconnected, fields. Even on the level of international leadership, sensing and caring human beings are trapped in the system, in the wrong human-to-system relations.

Hence, the systems of education may need not only to be reorganized from the bottom up (in the schools and universities themselves), nor only vertically (reconnecting education to other fields of society), but also from the top down: how the leadership of global education is organized and how its different branches relate to one another.

Real change to the systems of education cannot be achieved unless such siloes are broken, interests aligned, and lines of communication clearly established. This requires its own practice and strategic work at the top international level—and resources and attention can and should be directed to this end, for the benefit of all parties and for the sake of future education. A good place to start may be to discuss the overall map of shifting global education from the old paradigm to the new—and forming project-based strategic networks while working out differences by facilitated meetings until consent is granted by all participants to move ahead.

Changing the future of education is thereby—again—not about education itself, but just as much about developing the systems around (and above) the field of education itself.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian, and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.