Protopian Education Six: Honing the Meta-Skills

“Learning is life’s most important skill.”

—Tony Buzan

The Inner Development Goals of Education

Ithas been emphasized, in my studies and elsewhere, in more ways than we can give justice to, that conventional education is too cerebral; too much focused on mental and cognitive capacities, and that it is often blind to learning goals that go beyond “left brain thinking”: the intuitive, the sense of wholeness and meaning, the creative, the playful, the experiential—the aspects associated with the “right hemisphere” of the brain (let us disregard for a moment the debate around the debate around the neurological appropriateness of this division and use it only metaphorically to get at the point).

The complexity of the modern world disconnects us, also as learners, from certain “lost ways of knowing”, ways of knowing that go beyond conceptual knowledge and have more in common with crafts and art.

So education may need a proper reintegration of the left and right hemispheres of the brain; and, in some ways, this reflects a reintegration of (presumably more reductive) Western education with the (presumably more holistic) Eastern traditions.

But if this critique is so prevalent, one is compelled to ask—in parallel to our earlier discussions—why the cerebral and dry nature of education persists with such apparent tenacity, and why it is so often disconnected from the intrinsic will to play?

A simple explanation would be that engaging the full person in a learning experience is more difficult. Once certain goals have been set, and once “what is measured” is defined, teachers and learners alike naturally retract to the lowest common denominator: what needs to be taught, what will come on the test, and how does one pass the course?

Factual knowledge can be taught and learned relatively directly—but meta-skills which involve the whole person and their experience of life, can only be taught and learned indirectly; by creating favorable conditions for the spontaneous and transformative to occur as a welcome surprise.

Meta-skills involve those qualities that cannot be pinned down to any specific set of facts or professional capacities; they involve issues of how one relates to the world, to oneself, and to other people. Meta-skills are the larger frameworks within which we use our skills, capacities, and talents; as such, they are closer to traits or properties of the person, than to knowledge.

The Oak Island (or in Swedish, Ekskäret) Foundation have proposed five such meta-skills—or what they call “transformative capabilities”—which they endeavor to support, especially in business leaders and international leaders:

  • openness,
  • perspective seeking, (not just perspective taking)
  • sensemaking,
  • inner compass, and
  • compassion.

Each of these qualities can, in fact, be developed according to research cited in the Oak Island’s report. This framework was later develop into what is today the Inner Development Goals that were recently officially adopted by Costa Rica, to be implemented across their public sector.

Would the world look differently if there was a conscious and deliberate effort to help all people to develop such meta-skills via the systems of education?

And it certainly seems relevant to ask: If our environments are changing more rapidly, and economies evolve through transitions, does it not make sense to direct greater resources to cultivating meta-skills, which are useful no matter what specific skills we may need to acquire, hone, and use during our lifetimes? If meta-skills are the frameworks within which our talents are brought together and used, are they not a form of learning more likely to matter?

Traits Last Longer

The set of “transformative capacities” suggested by the Oak Island Foundation refers to meta-skills that are worthy goals, but perhaps not the most basic and fundamental ones from a strictly educational/schooling perspective. Qualities that make each person function and thrive may include:

  • Good learning capacity (needs continuous training and drilling)
  • Good social skills (as reflected in the Inner Development Goals)
  • Self-knowledge (this can be informed, for instance, by the psychological flexibility theory—it later found its way into the Inner Development Goals)
  • Positive emotions
  • Strong physiology
  • Good relationships
  • Good health habits

All of these present viable alternatives as goals of education. Some of it has already discussed in prior articles in this series.

But I am presenting this list to make an argument: It is traits like these that are likely to be the strongest predictors of a good life. More so, perhaps, even than traits like openness and compassion (which are, naturally, also very important). It is, all things considered, possible to imagine a person that is not very open, and not very compassionate, but who still lives a happy and productive life, good for themselves, and good for others. It is more difficult to imagine a person with poor learning capacity, poor social skills, no self-knowledge to speak of, no positive emotions, a weak health and tense body, poor relationships, and poor health habits—who still thrives and is good for others. Or, vice versa, it is almost inconceivable to imagine a person who has all of these qualities, but still lives an unhappy life.

And it is not difficult to make the case that almost any subject learned in conventional schooling—save perhaps for reading, writing, and basic arithmetic in a modern society—would have a greater impact on the likelihood of a life well lived.

I do not claim that this list is final. What we seek to underscore is the way of thinking, the perspective: The traits that are undeniably useful to all people, in all walks of life, that make up the most basic building blocks of a good life should be identified—and invested in through education. Such qualities may not sound as lofty and exciting, but that does not make them any less important. They have exceedingly high likelihood of producing good results—and avoiding bad results—over the lifespan. Even the gifted poet or scientist can collapse under the weight of the difficulties of life, and while society of course depends upon there being good poets and scientists, it also depends on the general resilience of those same people.

And these basic qualities are, unsurprisingly, interrelated: strong physiology affects emotions, which affect relationships, which affect social skills, which affects self-knowledge, which affects good health and learning habits—and so on. Each of the qualities can, in turn, be cultivated and trained, not least by designing the educational systems to this end. Perhaps, then, these qualities should be made the top priority of the whole educational system. It should likely improve results on other learning goals as well, be it within arts, chemistry, or languages.

With such a stronger foundation within each person—and within the networks of people, since the quality of their relationships is included, and since the health, habits, and emotions of one affects another—the “loftier” meta-skills may also come within reach. Meta-skills are transformative; which is to say that they are demanding—they require serious inner work. A first step can and should be to create a resilient foundation for such work to be fruitful and meaningful.

Just how difficult are the meta-skills to cultivate? How can education truly entail meetings that “touch the soul” and transform our perspectives? If we are to believe one of my interviewees, John Vervaeke (professor of cognitive science) present-day cultures around the world are subject to a severe “meaning-crisis”; a collective, existential crisis pertaining to the lack of sense-making capacities in the populations. According to Vervaeke, many of the maladies that societies around the world experience are somehow related to this meaning-crisis. Religions used to offer a whole package of viewpoints and techniques to foster self-knowledge and sense-making, but today they find it difficult to fill this role. Vervaeke suggests, much in line with the Oak Island Foundation, that new structures must be invented and put into place, building on the best interdisciplinary science possible, to help people construct their own sense of meaning and direction in life.

Such work includes, as we have seen in a previous chapter, facing one’s own weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and finding ways to integrate and embody them. How could we, for instance, be compassionate and curious for new perspectives, if our inner lives are still wounded, clenched and confused?

Briefly stated, yes, cultivating meta-skills is a difficult task, and it may require some resilience, energy and effort on the parts of everyone involved. Meta-skills require transformational work, and that often includes periods of confusion and even painful work. And yet—without meta-skills like compassion and openness—how could we hope to have the capacities to not only live productive lives, but to collectively tackle the global issues of climate change and technological disruptions?

This view of education—that its main aim is to foster basic resilience, happiness, and meta-skills—of course partly contradicts the focus on making learners employable on the job market. Yet, there is reason to believe that the nature of job markets would itself be transformed if such meta-skills were successfully cultivated throughout society, and thus pervading the economy. Highly functional people with good relationships are, in the long run, also less likely to end up unemployed, burned out, or on sick-leave.

Simply: traits last longer than specific skills. So the priority should be: first, the building blocks of basic resilience; second, the meta-skills; and third, skills and knowledge. That has the highest likelihood of educating people in ways that are genuinely useful. We may even end up with more useful and specific skills and knowledge for it, as people take better charge of their lives and steer it with an inner compass. This is core to the new paradigm of education.

Learning to Learn

The odd man out in the list above is the “learning how to learn” part. It deserves a brief discussion of its own, not least because the argument here is somewhat counter-intuitive and may seem to run counter to our other arguments.

Granted that times change and job markets evolve, we must all become better at quickly and easily learning new skills. But also our ability to make sense of the world is, arguably, limited by our sheer capacity to take in, process, and organize information meaningfully. What holds people back from doing and trying new things, and thus from growing and living a full life, is often simply how daunting it is to learn an entirely new field or topic.

In conventional schooling, there is little or no emphasis on this quality or trait after the first few years. As children are socialized into the schooling system and culture they learn, of course, to read, to take notes, to sit and listen, and to do home assignments. But after this initial period, they are left to their own devices, never again actively practicing their reading speed and apprehension, their note-taking techniques, their memory techniques, their structuring capacities, and their studying techniques (how many repetitions, and so on).

Training this capacity, the capacity to learn, is not necessarily something that occurs spontaneously. In especially conscientious and diligent students, yes, but in most children and youth, never. The result is that very many struggle with getting themselves to actually do schoolwork and home assignments over the years—simply because it is draining and elicits more negative than positive emotions.

“Learning capacity” could become a school subject throughout the years, actively and deliberately drilling and repeating tasks that pertain to learning how to learn. It is, naturally, hard to imagine a more boring subject: repeating speed-reading techniques, practicing memory, going through notes, structuring work plans. The very word “drilling” makes chills go up spines—and it sounds as though all has been forgotten about making education embrace more of the intuitive and playful.

But drilling the capacity to learn may very well be a sound investment that ultimately pays off even in terms of fun and playfulness: if children are supported to do their assignments more efficiently, more time is left for play and relaxation—without a lingering guilty conscience.

However, the “learning how to learn” argument goes deeper yet. If people are empowered to learn more quickly and easily, their learning autonomy increases, i.e., learners gain more power over what they wish to learn, and learning is one of the most empowering and rewarding experiences of all. If all grow up in an information society, it almost seems callous to leave all children after age 10 on to their own devices when it comes to this core capacity. It is even a question of personal freedom or emancipation within an information society, since each person can free themselves more from what others teach or assign then, and learn from their own hearts.

This connects, in turn, to the issue of lifelong learning. If the average person has been diligently trained for years in the art of learning, they will have a higher capacity and lower resistance to learning new things and subject matters throughout their life—which, by the way, serves the meta-skills of openness, perspective seeking, and sense-making.

And then there’s the job-market argument. If job markets do indeed become more complex and volatile, it makes sense to properly equip populations with the highest possible learning capacity.

School cannot always be fun. Even if education is ultimately play, playing can need some scaffolding from time to time. A good game, or playing the piano, may also require some excruciating practice. So education should invest its “necessarily probably boring hours” judiciously. One of the best ways to invest them is, arguably, to drill student repeatedly in how to study easily and efficiently. Therefore, this capacity deserves a place as a basic building block, or meta-skill, of education.

Gender Equality, Sex, and Romance

Gender equality informs many of the Sustainable Development Goals and is an issue that pervades education, too. For girls and women, it is often about increasing the access to education, thus empowering women, combatting structural gender inequalities, stabilizing economies, serving ecological sustainability and improving chances for peace. For boys and men, educational gender equality is more about making the educational systems more adapted to their needs, as boys generally fare less well in conventional schooling than do girls, at least in terms of test scores and immediate learning results.

Here, we would like to consider another take gender equality: that it is, in many ways, a collective capacity or meta-skill of the population, and that it can be developed through education.

The most gender-equal countries in the world also have comparatively extensive programs of sexual education, which of course does not imply a causal relation in either direction. However, considering that the new paradigm of education, we have argued, can and should focus on issues of vulnerability and inner work for the sake of mental health and personal development, the closely related issues of gender, sex, and romance can hardly be avoided.

It is well established in developmental psychology that youths are in the process of establishing identities as sexual and gendered beings, and that this often includes a considerable challenge during this developmental phase—affecting how the person as a whole develops. Budding romantic relationships, or hopes of such, occupy young minds and cut into the core of what many of them are struggling with.

If the goal is for young people to establish positive gender and sexual identities, and to establish pro-social behaviors in the sexual and romantic realms, and if the goal is to create a solid basis for good relations between the genders throughout society and over the life course (which, in turn, affects the quality of family relations, the psychological basis of society)—then issues of gender, sex, and romance should also be supported through education, simply because there is no other place that reaches such a large part of the population.

Basic sexual education involves issues of biological procreation, birth prevention and basic norms concerning the autonomy of one’s own body, desires, boundaries, and sexual consent. Imparting such knowledge to young men and women help to clear confusion and establish that each person has freedom to make informed choices.

But such practices can be expanded. Insecurities and difficulties to take the perspective of the opposite sex (or other genders) can cause gender relations in whole societies to be wrought with conflict, with control of female sexuality, and with emotional wounds that play out over the lifespan, affecting the most important relationships in people’s lives.

In line with the rest of this report, it may thus be argued that a secure sexual and gender identity should be a learning goal—as well as the capacity to take the perspectives of other genders. Such knowledge is, perhaps, not best taught in class or discussed directly in the presence of classmates. But professional sexologists can and should lead workshops in safe settings, perhaps away from schools, maybe mixing students from different schools, and delve into the more difficult and sensitive matters that are otherwise left untouched—but where there is nevertheless much expertise and knowledge that the young simply never acquire.

If gender equality is to be achieved at a more real and deeper level, it must also pervade the realm of sex and courtship, as this is a major interface between the genders. A simple thought experiment underscores the importance of this point: Would we rather want that our sons and daughters live in an environment where others have confusions, insecurities, and frustrations around such issues, or in a setting in which such issues have been made visible and dealt with to the greatest possible extent?

In conclusion, even meta-skills like compassion and openness may not go deeply enough. People’s real emotions, and their personalities, are shaped by their relations, their desires, their hopes and dreams, and by their identities. Gender equality, and what it means to be masculine and feminine, is thus at the heart of the transformations of inner life. There are strong arguments for equipping young people around the world with the means to relate to an deal with such issues—sensitive as the topic may be.

What this entails is an expanded view of gender equality. It cannot be viewed in isolation from issues of gender identity, sex, romance, and family formation—and hence the goal of gender equality leads to these deeper human territories, which, incidentally, also offer pathways for improving mental health and offer a basic building block of human happiness: the art of love.

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.