Issue #12: education

The classroom of the future

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by Tom Chatfield on June 20, 2016

Here’s one of my favourite neologisms: “hangry.” It’s a punning portmanteau. To be hangry is to be angry because you’re hungry; a phenomenon that plays an intriguing role in Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 guide to behavioural economics, Thinking, Fast and Slow.

As a battery of experiments cited by Kahneman demonstrate, your decision-making differs profoundly depending on how long it has been since you last ate. According to a 2011 paper by psychologists Shai Danziger, Jonathan Levav and Liora Avnaim-Pesso, the likelihood of a prisoner being paroled by a panel of judges declined from a perky 60 per cent immediately after breakfast to a perkless zero per cent just four hours later – only to be boosted right back up again by lunch.

It’s a stunning statistical divide, and one the judges themselves had little capacity to predict. Yet the causes are close to common sense. Hungry people are more likely to rely on mental short-cuts, emotional impulses, and default states when taking decisions. In this case, leaving prisoners locked up is a safe default position. High quality attention of the kind that permits us deliberately to change our minds is, the authors observe, a limited and easily depleted resource. Even the most skilled thinkers have only so much to spare.

What does this have to do with education? Ask a teacher facing the day’s final class on a cold Friday and you’ll get your answer: tired and hungry pupils have precious little capacity for learning. Proper nutrition and decent sleep are vital to performance. But there’s also a larger point at stake, and it’s one Kahneman makes the centrepiece of his narrative: “you think with your body, not only with your brain.” There is no such thing as a human mind existing distinctly from a human body. The workings of the body are also those of the mind. And, given what we are beginning to know about some of these workings, many traditional aspects of schools and classrooms are something of a disaster.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, education saw itself as a civilising discipline, imposing physical stasis and mental focus on pupils who would otherwise be running wild. In the 21st century, an age more sedentary than any that has come before, the mission of taming wild young minds is a colonial anachronism – and yet more emphasis than ever is put on unmoving intellectual absorption.

Consider some of the visions of educational progress offered online for our delectation. Search for “the classroom of the future” and you’ll be dazzled by digital possibilities: technicolour seating with tablets for all, massive projectors and interactive whiteboards, virtual and augmented reality environments, live video links, and telepresence beamed across the world. As some companies boast from the vantage of their labs, what’s on offer is “a truly personalised environment” in which “the classroom will learn you,” providing “a tailored curriculum from kindergarten through high school and toward employment.” With teachers backed up by “sophisticated analytics over the cloud,” what could be better?

At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, what strikes me is the degree to which the little human beings within this scenario don’t much resemble the intractably embodied creatures psychologists, cognitive scientists, and philosophers are spending so much time getting to know. Instead, they’re digital marketeers’ dreams of a quantified learner: a pair of eyeballs and ten disembodied tapping fingers, hooked up to as much relevant information as possible, from now until the end of time.

However a series of disembodied minds hovering in rows before an interactive whiteboard with sustained inattention are likely to be met with a diagnosis of ADHD and a methylphenidate prescription. Playtime is an indulgence steadily reduced as age increases; physical education constitutes two or three hours a week of grudgingly allocated time in which ‘proper’ learning is not taking place. Assessment is exhaustive and constant. Great teachers may run lively, passionately questioning classrooms, but this is often despite rather than because of the incentives surrounding them.

In philosophical terms, education’s approach to body and mind resembles a view that has been intellectually disreputable for over a century: dualism. There is the stuff of the mind and the stuff of the body, and never the twain shall meet. Physical needs are largely there to be overcome; physicality itself is an unwelcome distraction from the business of knowing.

For the philosopher of technology Luciano Floridi, writing in his 2014 book The Fourth Revolution, “the exponential increase of what may be transmitted has caused a major crisis in how we conceive education and organise our pedagogical systems” – but this isn’t so much a crisis of how as of what. “The real educational challenge,” says Floridi, “is increasingly what to put in the curriculum, not how to teach it.” Gadget fixation is part of the problem, not the solution. In an age of exponentially increasing information, the intelligent allocation of time and attention matters most – together with helping students develop matching skills of self-management and discernment.

I have two young children and I watch them learning every day. My son learns what most words mean not by hearing them on the television or radio, but by using them while doing everyday things with people who love him. And he learns the power and the fertility of language by twisting, turning, playing, laughing, taking a delight in throwing words at his parents and seeing how they react. We read, play, laugh, explain, explore. To be idealistic, the great enabling conditions of his learning are time, attention, love, and permission. To be pragmatic, he needs to run around a lot, sleep and eat well, engage loudly with people and ideas, and be shouted at and told to sit still as little as possible.

Education in the 21st century, Floridi notes, isn’t just about preaching certainties. It “should teach us to be careful about what we think we know, and hence the art of doubting and being critical even of the seemingly certain. We are all fallible, it is how we handle our degree of fallibility that makes a difference.” Behavioural economics and cognitive science offer some of the best insights yet into handling fallibility – into offsetting the predictable irrationalities that are the stuff of bodies and minds. Yet we sometimes seem to be retreating ever further from the implications of such self-knowledge.

To quote Daniel Kahneman once again, “when faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.” Dualism is a seduction we cannot afford when it comes to education: a disembodied dream of perfect predictability and precision-engineered feedback. We are messy, embodied, inefficient, fascinatingly fallible creatures. We must learn to live with – and to teach – ourselves as we actually are.

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