Author Archives: designerlyways

What is Education For?

What is education for? Why do we educate? What are students really learning in our classrooms? Are we over-schooled but under-educated?

“Today’s children starting kindergarden this year will graduate in the 3rd decade of the 21st century, a world that will have challenges and opportunities beyond what we can predict, with new possibilities and problems that will demand creativity, ingenuity, responsibility, and compassion. Whether our children will merely survive or positively thrive in the decades to come depends in large measure on the experiences that they have in school” (OWP/P Architects, VS Furniture & Bruce Mau Design, 2010). How might we join school learning to living well and well-being? As the WALL-E Captain famously says: “I don’t want to survive, I want to live!”

What do we want our students to know, do, and be? What is best for our children to learn for the future, and how can they best learn it? How do we educate future innovators (beyond mere conformists or consumers) who are confidently prepared for the opportunities, responsibilities, and experiences of life? How might we encourage “goodness” as part and parcel of school “effectiveness”?

There are no shortage of questions about “21st Century Learning” in a world of increasing instability, uncertainty, inequality, and unsustainability. Statistics estimate that we will reach 7.5-10.5 billion people in 2050 unless a major catastrophe happens. 2.8 billion people in our world live on less than $2 per day. 1.3 billion live on less than $1 per day. 1.5 billion people will never get a clean glass of water today, tomorrow, or any day in their lives. 115 million primary school aged children don’t go to school. And how many millions will go to bed sick and hungry tonight?

The Dalai Lama’s Facebook status on Monday, March 7 is worthy of contemplating:

Whatever the intellectual quality of the education given our children, it is vital that it include elements of love and compassion, for nothing guarantees that knowledge alone will be truly useful to human beings. Among the major troublemakers society has known, many were well-educated and had great knowledge, but they lacked a moral education in qualities such as compassion, wisdom, and clarity of vision.

What is most important for students to know? How do we educate confident, happy, citizens who are committed to sustainability, social justice, and civic responsibility; who are technology-savvy; who have strong morals, cross cultural awareness, and respect for diverse others? How do we teach and learn about managing and ensuring a sustainable world? How do we minimize our reckless abuse of one another and nature? How might education be more relational, compassionate, and caring, such that we might learn how to love ourselves, each other, and the planet Earth playground that we share?

OWP/P Architects, VS Furniture & Bruce Mau Design. (2010). The third teacher: 79 ways you can use design to transform teaching and learning. New York: Abrams Books.

The Mind’s I

The Mind’s I: Fantasies and reflections on self and soul is a radical exploration of mind/brain/body/soul in which editors Hofstadter & Dennett (1981) have arranged an enigmatic collection of provocative texts to problematize the nature of self:

  1. A Sense of Self
  2. Soul Searching
  3. From Hardware to Software
  4. Mind as Program
  5. Created Selves and Free Will
  6. The Inner Eye

“Where Am I” (chapter 13) is Dennett’s fantastical piece (reprinted from Brainstorms) recounting his highly dangerous and secret mission for the Dept. of Defense (in collaboration with NASA and Howard Hughes) to develop a STUD (Supersonic Tunneling Underground Devise). In short, Dennett’s assignment is to undergo an advanced surgical procedure: the radical separation of his brain from his body.

After the operation is deemed successful, a lightheaded Dennett gets really excited to take a good look at his brain – of course he is excited, wouldn’t you be?! Upon seeing his brain, floating in a mysterious bubbling fluid that looks like ginger-ale, Dennett wonders why his thoughts are originating from his body? Why is he staring at his brain-in-a-vat instead of believing that he is suspended in the effervescent fluid, being stared upon by his very own eyes? He tries and tries again to think himself into the sparkling vat, but to no avail. Riddled with confusion, he attempts to orient himself by giving names to things:

Yorick,” I said aloud to my brain, “you are my brain.  The rest of my body, seated in this chair, I dub ‘Hamlet.’”  So here we all are:  Yorick’s my brain, Hamlet’s my body, and I am Dennett. Now, where am I? And when I think “where am I?”, where’s that thought tokened?  Is it tokened in my brain, lounging about in the vat, or right here between my ears where it seems to be tokened?  Or nowhere?  Its temporal coordinates give me no trouble; must it not have spatial coordinates as well?

Of course, this story isn’t (and couldn’t) be true. Dennett’s philosophical fantasy seeks to shake-up our unquestioned assumptions about the mind/brain/body/self (particularly to provoke the narrow-minded, no-nonsense, scientific view of the human soul). Dennett’s philosophical truths of “underwhelming significance” serve to make the strange obvious and the obvious strange, revealing perplexities with absurdity, such that we may be jolted to see throught our conditioning and begin to rethink our assumptions. Where is Dennett? His brain (aka Yorick)? His body (aka Hamlet)? Or is there no Dennett? Or is Dennett wherever he thinks he is (i.e., his point of view is also the location of his self)? If the sense of location is but illusion, then perhaps so is the sense of self?

In questioning his “essential Dennettness”, Fortinbras (Dennett’s new body, after the expiration of Hamlet) routinely flips an intentionally unmarked Master Switch that allows him to switch from Yorick to Hubert (his newly cloned brain) or vice versa. Every time he flips the switch, nothing happens. Dennett doesn’t have any idea where his self is. But he continues to flip in the switch, longing for the moment of understanding, and then, all of sudden:

“THANK GOD!  I THOUGHT YOU’D NEVER FLIP THAT SWITCH! You can’t imagine how horrible it’s been these last two weeks — but now you know; it’s your turn in purgatory.  How I’ve longed for this moment!  You see…

I’m not one to spoil a good story, so you’ll have to find the answer for yourself in Dennett’s text: Where Am I?