It seems pretty clear that we are in a societal ‘liminal space’ right now, which is a threshold between what we have known until now and what we will know in the future.
We are also in a liminal space related to learning and education, as schools hastily try to move learning online (despite disparities in access to online learning systems), and we have an incredible opportunity to think through what we think children’s learning should look like in the future.
In today’s episode we hear from Dr. Zak Stein, who has spent many years thinking about ways in which the education system in the United States could be reimagined to take advantage of virtual learning opportunities and ‘learning labs,’ which gather resources around learners instead of having learning take place in classrooms isolated from real-world experience. Dr. Stein is a big-picture thinker, and it was really exciting to sit with him and envision the future of learning.
To learn more about the memberships I mention in this episode, please visit yourparentingmojo.com/together
Click here to read the full transcript
Hello, and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. To put the show into context before we get going, I wrote the questions for this episode on the night of Friday, March 20, 2020. And we recorded it on Sunday, March 22, which is coincidentally my birthday and I took at least half a day off. Here in the California Bay Area, we’ve been ordered to stay home for everything except non-essential errands for five days now. And the shutdown has now been extended to cover one in five Americans, including the entire states of California, New York and Illinois.
Now, I plan to reach out to our guests for the show in a few months’ time. But all of a sudden, on Friday night, I realized that I needed to talk with him now and that we need to hear from him today. And so our guest today is Dr. Zach Stein, whose book title tells you something of the breadth of scope of what we’re going to discuss, it is called Education in a Time Between Worlds: Essays on the Future of Schools, Technology and Society.
We will lay some groundwork so we have a common understanding of how some of our global systems work, and then we’ll start to look at the role that education plays in the system. I think it’s become really clear to us in the last couple of weeks that many of the systems that we’ve built are unsustainable, and for a long time, that word has been used to mean that they’re bad for the environment. But I think that now we’re seeing that they’re actually not that good for us either. And so what will it take for us to do things differently?
Well, first, we need to start imagining what kinds of systems we might want to see instead and how we and our children can both live within those and also shape those. So that’s what we’re going to think about in this episode. And we wrap up the show by thinking about some of the steps that we ourselves can take in the coming days and weeks to start to put this in motion. And it was really great to hear Dr. Stein share some surprising and very doable advice on this topic.
One of the things that’s become most clear to me over the years that I’ve been doing this work is that the way we raise our children may be the single thing that we do that will have the most impact on the world. We talked about it a bit in the episode on Patriarchy a few weeks ago with listener Brian Stout and Dr. Carol Gilligan. The idea that systems that privilege men’s voices over women’s voices seems so huge and so deeply ingrained in our culture and they just seem impossible to change. But if we personally see the role that we are playing in the current system, and we accept that with grace and humility, but at the same time, take steps to do things differently with our own children, then we can actually make change happen. And I really feel like we’re on the cusp of some kind of big shift in our society right now.
Even a month ago, the conversation that we’re about to hear would have been mostly academic, I think, because it’s so easy to keep following the grooves in the system that we’re in, rather than get out of that groove and create a new system. But we’ve all been thrown out of our groove right now. We don’t have a choice but to do things differently. And we might miss the groove for sure it was comfortable, and it was comforting after all, and it seemed like we knew what was going on, and we could function within it. But the opportunity that I see is that the level of effort between the way that we’re currently existing and the future systems we can imagine, has never been smaller and may never be smaller again in my lifetime. And if today’s conversation sort of maybe helps us similar light bulb to go off in your head as it has in mine, even if it’s only a very nimble but you can’t really see anything else around it yet, but you can see that that bulb is there, I wonder if you would consider coming and joining me in a special edition of my memberships that I’m currently running.
I was planning to open them on a staggered basis later in the year, but we know that a lot has changed in the last few weeks. And I can tell from the kinds of questions and issues that are being raised in the free workshop that I’m running, which is called The Kids are Off School: Now What? There’s a real need for me to open these again right now. And so I host two memberships.
The first one is called Finding Your Parenting Mojo and it’s designed for people who agree with the ideas that they hear about in the podcast, but somehow find that they just really struggle to implement these in their daily lives. I know it’s so easy when you’re listening to a podcast, you just kind of nod along and you’re thinking, yeah, that sounds good. I’m gonna do that next time there’s a meltdown.
And then when you’re actually in the meltdown and you’re feeling triggered, then that thing that you heard in the podcast two weeks ago is nowhere to be found in your mind and you react in the same way that you’ve always reacted. And after it happens, you might even look back on the meltdown and you think, oh, I was gonna do that differently. Wasn’t I?
Or was there something I was going to do differently and then you just kind of fall back just as we do as a society into our regular group and nothing really shifts. But over time, things just seem hard. And maybe you wonder if parenting should be this hard. Or perhaps you’re just not sure what to do about it.
In the parenting membership, we take one topic per month and in the beginning of the month, I send you a short guide. And it turns all the research that I do for this podcast into a short set of really actionable tools on that topic.
Around the 10th of the month, we get on a group call, we see if you have any questions as you read through the guide, and you start to think about implementing the ideas. And then you go away for a couple weeks and you start practicing them. And towards the end of the month, we have a second group call because by then you tried a bit and you’ve had some successes, yay. And you probably have some failures as well and things that didn’t quite go the way you hoped. And we celebrate those successes, and we work through what happened with the things that didn’t go as well as you hoped.
And we help you to adjust course so that you can refine your approach and by the end of the month, you haven’t just read or listen to something and forgotten about it or even half remembered it, but don’t really know what to do with it, you’ve actually had support in figuring out how to implement it in your real life with your real family. And you’ve been through a couple of cycles of doing it. And you’ve been supported in that, and you’re on the way to making it a new habit.
And then in the next month, we move on to the next topic, and we repeat that process. So in terms of the topics we cover in the first month, we dramatically reduce the incidence of tantrums at your house, give you a bit of breathing space, and who doesn’t need breathing space right now. And in the second month, we look at what values we want to hold as parents and how we raise our children in line with those values. And this isn’t me telling you what values you should be using to raise your children. But this is you defining these with my help and support.
In the third month, we will understand where we might want to get more aligned with our parenting partner and use some tools to open up conversations with them in a way that invites them to share their ideas with you rather than making them feel attacked. And we also acknowledge that it’s totally fine for parents not to be on the same page some of the time and we help you figure out which are those areas for your family, and how to manage those. And after that we picked topics by group vote and these may include things like supporting emotion regulation, understanding anxiety in both parents and children, and navigating screen time. All the ideas and tools that I present in the membership are based on scientific research, but the overarching principle is that if you don’t want to, you never have to read another parenting book.
You just don’t have to do that anymore, because we go right to supporting you and implementing the tools that are based on the research. And given that a whole lot of parents are at home with their children for an extended period of time, it sort of seems as though the time is right to start thinking about how you want the next few months to go. Schools been closed for a couple weeks now. So how are things going? Can you imagine doing things the way you’ve been doing them for the last few weeks for several more months? If so then way to go. You got this. But if that thought makes you kind of nervous and you might want to think about using the membership to make a shift in your approach towards something that helps you work with your child, rather than feeling like you’re butting heads all the time, so the coming months and even years really can be easier and more peaceful. So that’s the Finding Your Parenting Mojo membership.
And so the second membership is the Your Child’s Learning Mojo membership. And that’s where we support children’s intrinsic love of learning. And you’ll hear a little in this episode about how schools have really not been designed for children’s learning. They were actually designed to mold people who would produce goods in factories and consume them in homes. And that’s why education is so standardized because getting people with standardized skills out the back end is really useful when you’re producing standardized products. And I have to say, it frustrates me no end that so many thousands of skilled and compassionate and knowledgeable teachers work within the system that so devalues their abilities and their relationships with our children in a way that really stamps out our children’s natural curiosity and the world around them by about second grade.
So in the Your Child’s Learning Mojo membership, we understand in layman’s terms how children learn. And then we learn how to use their own questions and interests as a jumping off point for engaging them in learning those deep and meaningful, and we’ll stay with them for so much longer than learning based on worksheets and curriculum. And as well as the actual learning on individual topics that happens which is great, we’re also helping them learn how to learn.
So we’re really being their guide on the side rather than the sage on the stage. Where it’s reimagining our job. Our job isn’t to provide them with answers. Our job is to connect them with resources, and see how the process of learning works so that they can apply this no matter where their interest take them in life.
And so schools are going to be closed for at least the next several months. So I know parents are wondering how the heck they’re going to support their children’s learning in that time, without standing over them, forcing them to fill out worksheets every day. Nobody finds that fun. One of the parents in the Learning membership told me last week that, “My children’s creativity and excitement over learning has been exploding since I’ve been in the membership.
Until last week, my only concern was that we would never get to all the projects we thought of based on their interests now home because of the Corona virus, we have no shortage of meaningful activities to fill our days for weeks, or even months to come. This course has put me in a position where I can turn lemons into lemonade.” And of course, that’s not to say that you or even this parent has to fill every moment of your day with projects. We’re not saying that at all. But rather, that you never need to search online for another list of 100 things to do with your child while shelter in places in effect, because you’ll already be working with your child on things that they love to do.
And so just to tie all this together, on Thursday, I hosted a circle for 40 parents it was on a Zoom call and they’re all taking the free workshop which is called The Kids are Off School: Now What? We were laughing a little and we were crying a little and for a couple of hours it was just kind of okay for us to lose it a bit and then gather up the pieces and go back to our families and some of the folks who are in the memberships also joined and they were feeling as much stress as everybody else was, but a couple of them said, “I feel like we’ve been preparing for the last 18 months for this.”
And so they’re referring to that period since they’ve been working with me and they’ve been practicing tools to help them in regular everyday parenting that they’re now finding are also so incredibly helpful in navigating their children’s anxieties about Coronavirus as well as just simple things like routine changes and not being able to see their friends and so these parents are feeling confident and prepared and ready for whatever comes up with their child.
So if that sounds like the kind of feeling you would like to have as you prepare for the next few months at home, which so many people seem to need both at once right now, I’m running a special package when you sign up for both of these memberships together, both the learning and the parenting one.
So, to see how that works just head on over to YourParentingMojo.com/Together.
Once again, that’s YourParentingMojo.com/Together. All right, so with all that out of way, let’s go ahead and meet today’s guest. Dr. Zach Stein studied Philosophy and Religion at Hampshire College and then Educational Neuroscience, Human Development and the Philosophy of Education at Harvard University. He’s now a scholar of the Ronin Institute, where he researches the relationships between education, human development and the evolution of civilizations. He’s also the co-president of a Think Tank, a board member at a number of technology startups, and he consults with schools, organizations and technology companies. Welcome Dr. Stein.
Dr. Stein 13:29
It’s great to be here.
So I’d like to start by waiting right into the deep end with the big picture systems and then we’ll move from there towards understanding the implications of these for our children’s learning and education. And I’m going to quote from your book you’ve said that, “Based on an analysis of long-term global trends in economics and political history, contemporary world systems analysts argue that we have reached a crucial moment in geo history. When any complex system reaches its structural limits and evolutionary crisis ensues and a fundamentally new kind of system must be painfully and violently born”. So, if we were beginning this conversation a month ago, you know, yes, research on this topic has been around for a long time, but we might have needed to spend some time thinking through what this actually mean for us as fortunate people in our real lives? And today, we don’t need to do that, we see the collapses beginning to happen. And we intuitively understand that what you wrote is true. I wonder if you can help us to maybe put your thinking about the Corona virus pandemic in the light of your previous writing and thinking please.
Dr. Stein 14:31
Yeah, thank you. Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that a lot. I, along with a bunch of other scholars since about 1972, not myself personally, you know, that the current way the systems running simply can’t be sustained. So if you look at a book like The Limits to Growth, which was published in 1972, where the Student Loan Corporation, which was founded in 1972. And you look at the predictions from a lot of economists who saw the kind of waning of American hegemony beginning in 1972, which is when the dollar was taken off the gold standard by Nixon, through Fiat. And so a whole bunch of things basically started to get a bunch of people thinking that we need a fundamental change, right? Environmentalist sounding the bell, right? I think Silent Spring was 1962. So, what you have is a sense that, yeah, we were seriously running out of time, that there were all these extremely fragile systems that were reaching the limits of their growth, that the thing was wrongly conceived that you can’t have a plan to infinitely extract resources for capital gain on a finite planet. And so there was just this question of, what will that transition look like? How will we go from this kind of unsustainable model of civilizational growth to a sustainable way for in perpetuity, there to be human civilization? So, I started talking about this notion of being in a time between worlds because we’re aware that the current system is ending, even though it may not look like it on the surface. And we’re aware that the current systems ending and we don’t know exactly what that next system looks like. So we’re valley crossing in terms of evolutionary theory, we’re moving out of one world and to another world. And this was apparent to people who were like, a small number of academics were basically looking through into the deeper structures but now this rather esoteric notions become exoteric and you’re getting it like down on Main Street at an every living room that there’s a phenomenology, there’s an experience so whoa, we just been deworlded, right? The world as we knew it has kind of changed, that the old world is gone. And something new on the other side of this will emerge. That’s been the feeling in the abstract and now it’s the feeling in the concrete. And so it’s revealing all of those systematic vulnerabilities in civilizational architecture, which have been known about, but it’s making everyone aware of those, like, for example, the supply chain, right? It’s like, when you go into a store and it’s packed with goods, you’re like, there’s no problem with civilization. Look at this, like, everything’s packed, right? You go into a store, and there’s some stuff missing. You start to think maybe you maybe have the thought occasionally, but now you’re thinking like hard about it, like, how does that supply chain actually work?
And then you buy more toilet paper?
Dr. Stein 17:35
Right. So this is the idea is that whoa, all of these supply, you know, all of the vulnerable infrastructures that sustain us now are revealed in their vulnerability, and that’s the economic structures and, you know, I mean, if Netflix crashes right now. Seriously like, and so you have to think about that, and then don’t even bring in the geopolitical vulnerabilities that are actually at stake. So the situation is quite profound. It’s a historical moment. And of course, as part of that the schools have been turned off, they just flip the switch and the schools are turned off. And that’s remarkable.
It is. Yeah. And before we get to that, I just like to spend a moment on the fact that we have been able to insulate ourselves from this idea that academics have been out there thinking about this, talking about it, writing about it. A lot of people around the world have already been touched by being in this phase in between worlds, and you know, due to flooding and wildfires and they have seen this coming and they have been affected by it. But my hypothesis that I’m sort of forming on the spot here is that because we have set up our systems to use GDP to measure success, our systems actually looked like they’re doing fine while we’re sitting in this time in between worlds, as you call it. Do you agree? Is that sort of on the right track?
Dr. Stein 18:52
I mean, definitely from certain kind of echelons within society. Everything looks like it is going great.
Dr. Stein 18:58
And I worked in the field that studies civilizational collapse, some of my closest colleagues like Daniel Schmachtenberger, works on it specifically. And if you look at like the historical record, you know, no civilization hasn’t collapsed or significantly transitioned or transformed, which is another way of saying collapse. Just sounds as scary. And like if you look at other Roman Empire, when the Roman Empire was collapsing, which is the one we all have heard about, right? The rise and fall of the Roman Empire. Where the Roman Empire was collapsing, you get these letters. And we’re talking we’re like, not far out from the sacking of Rome by the barbarians, but we’re like, a couple years away. And the aristocrats are writing letters to one another, planning projects for the future. And so there’s a little bit more chaos on the roads, but ultimately I think we are unaware that the thing was coming apart. And so, yeah, in certain echelons it has looked fine. In other echelons, as you’re saying in other localities geologically, you know, spatially we’re in Australia this year. It’s been clear if you, from Amazon, see the kind of destruction that’s happened there. And so you end up realizing that, yeah, like you’re saying it’s, you know, there’s a phrase I forget which futurist it was, but he says, “The future is already here. It’s just not widely distributed yet.”
It should be on Netflix.
Dr. Stein 20:26
And so you’re getting that sense where…
Dr. Stein 20:28
Yeah, okay. Now, all of a sudden, right here in the gated west, we are confronted with the actual limits of our growth and the actual norming of our behavior by reality itself, which is what The Limits to Growth argument was. Yeah, it was like capitals fiction, right? These are numbers ultimately and we’re pure abstraction, which isn’t to say that the construct of money isn’t important. It’s just there needs to be rethought, but reality is what it is. There’s only so much air, there’s only so much water. And our bodies only have immune systems that do certain kinds of things and temperature thresholds for proper functioning. So, yeah, that’s again, one of the reasons that civilizations struggle with institutional decline. And eventually collapse has to do with the kind of the way the educational system creates that illusion about the eternity or the seeming eternity or pure, like the naturalness of the current order. And some of what’s being disturbed right now is that social construction of reality, which is a fancy term for post modernism that’s used a lot, you know, that you create your reality in these kinds of things. And you’re seeing a lot of, kind of, I think, inappropriate, spiritual and new age discourse that’s basically missing the point here that no, when you’ve been deworlded, when you’re between worlds, and the socially constructed reality has become actually more visible than usual and become almost uncanny, you can see it for the first time. Now you’re with reality. And that’s what’s interesting about the social isolation and quarantine and returning to the insularity of being with one another without mediation. And that’s kind of one of the things. If Netflix goes down, then we’re left with reality of one another.
Oh, my goodness, how will we cope?
Dr. Stein 22:29
But it’s true. How will we cope? You know, and yeah, so there’s many, I think many factors in play.
Hmm. Yeah. So let’s link this then to education and maybe the kind of systems that have gotten us here and who they serve. Can you speak a little bit about those and we’ll dig into that a bit.
Dr. Stein 22:48
Yeah. I’ve said I believe in my writing that the educational system it’s the human making function of the society. It’s the thing that makes us the people that populate this kind of civilization. So another way to think about it, it’s like it’s the self-reproducing nature of the social system. It’s the auto poetic word from biology. It’s the way that it keeps on being itself, like a metabolism or metabolic function. And so, you know, the educational system we’ve had in recent memory, let’s say the past 20 years, it’s been serving the function of reproducing a civilization that is basically driving off a cliff, right? From The Limits to Growth perspective from this idea that so many of these systems were becoming hyper fragile. So many of the key kind of numbers are getting the hockey stick pattern on the chart, right, which is, like unsustainable exponential or near exponential growth in key risks and extraction rates and other things. And so that the educational system has been reproducing that kind of insane civilization, which was basically driving off a cliff. You know, the 2008 financial crisis was created. If it was created, it was at least it happened on the watch of people who graduated from our best, absolutely best schools who aced the SATs, right?
Which should be in fairness you and I both graduated from as well.
Dr. Stein 24:24
Totally. I bombed the SAT.
I didn’t take the SAT. But yeah, we are part of that, right? I just want to, you know, not hide away from that.
Dr. Stein 24:35
No, I went to the Graduate School of Education in Harvard. And I argued with people at the business school. And I argued with a lot of the kind of global educational reform movement, Gates Foundation, kind of supporters of No Child Left Behind type educational reform, which were legion and so yeah, so there’s a way that, well, even now if you take this current situation of the schools being shut down, the same kind of inequities that were in the schools, when they were running are now evident, even more so I think in a more poignant way, when the schools are shut down, you know, that the experience of being kept home from school. And that school is in the suburbs of Boston is a very nice school, the experience you’re having at home, whether learning is taking place or not, whether there’s a healthy environment, whether as opposed to the experience of being, you know, your school shuts down, and you’re in the Southside of Chicago and it’s very different situation. And the response patterns across different districts and even down at the level of the school has been such that you’re seeing many of the nicer schools, which is to say schools in socio economically advantageous areas, what you’re having here are actually learnings taking place, right? They’re actually spooling up kind of a makeshift decentralized technology based way to keep the kids in school. Whereas in districts, large urban districts that don’t have the same funding and the socio economic levels of the surrounding neighborhoods are very different than the suburbs of Boston. What you have is a situation where learning is exactly not taking place where there’s a whole bunch of factors that make it many of those factors being the lack of availability of computers at home, an extra computer specifically for a kid. You know, where there isn’t learning taking place. So having, basically those schools, which were already kind of like advantaged, continuing the advantage in those schools that were in a sense disadvantaged being further disadvantaged. And yeah, so that kind of gives a window into the nature of the distribution of educational possibilities throughout the nation that’s being becoming clear. And it’s not to say that it’s good for any of the kids because frankly, and I’ve been arguing this for years, it would have been possible before this, to have put in place an alternative educational infrastructure and digital-based alternative educational infrastructure precisely as a safety net for the failure of the physical infrastructure of the school. And like in New England, you get snow days and sometimes snow weeks, and they just shut the school down. And then you do extra weeks in the summer. And so I had suggested in some pretty serious conversations that, well, why don’t we easily enough with like some video conference technology and Google Docs and a few things just set it up beforehand so that we know what we’re doing if there’s a failure in the physical infrastructure, which is easy for there to be that kind of failure and this one is particularly frightening. But you could have a gas becomes too expensive and the buses don’t run, right? Something as simple as that. Or strike in the cafeteria workers. And so yeah, but these opportunities were not taken, even though the basic technology for the distributed educational network possibilities, they’ve been there for a good five years, maybe more. And so it could have been that when this happened, the schools were shut off instantly, we flipped on the other system, like the generator for your house, if the power goes out or something, right? Then we’re up and running on the alternative system, right? The distributed educational hub network that I described in my book, which is using this kind of interesting tech stack. Once that’s up and running, then we could realize that actually we don’t need to ever go back to the other way.
And before we get to that, I really want to explore that in some detail. But can we just spend a moment on one more aspect today. I know you care a lot about, which is standardized testing, because I think that it’s such a core part of the experience of being in school, because I remember reading an article in The Times, probably six or seven years ago, talking about how states were going to start using the results of standardized test to determine teacher pay. And I’m thinking, well, that sounds great. Why wouldn’t you do this? Doesn’t it make sense to measure the outcomes you want? And then incentivize the people working within that system to achieve the outcomes you want? And I believe you wrote a dissertation on this subject. I wonder if before we start talking about what it could be like, maybe we can just spend one more minute on kind of what is one of the major flaws in the system that we have right now that we do not want to replicate as we move forward?
Dr. Stein 29:28
Right. Yeah. I mean, yeah, my dissertation was it was on standardized testing, specifically from the perspective of philosophical theories of justice. And that became a book, my first book, which was Social Justice and Educational Testing, and I traced the history of standardized testing in the United States. So I could basically speak ad nauseam about what’s taking place there. But one of the things I note is that testing is actually extremely better. Maybe better said assessment is an extremely important part of education, and specifically important part of a fair or just educational system. So I was basically asking in the book, if we were to design, I did a role of John Rawls, the great philosopher of justice, he had these thought experiments about what a fair society would actually look like. Let’s imagine that. What would be the role of testing in society that was actually fair, and basically, it becomes clear that some form of testing is necessary to have fairness. And so the insight that you had, which is that, oh, right, if we’re trying to do something in the schools, like, for example, if we send all the kids home, and we make them work remotely with digital technology and video conferencing and Google Docs, do they learn or not, right? That’s a hugely important question which you need to find a way to answer and the only way to do that is with something like assessment. And so there is an important in fact, critical role for good, rigorous and in fact, actually objective and strict psychometric sense assessment to have a good school for the sciences of learning, if we want to study curriculum development and its effectiveness, if we want to fairly distribute educational opportunity and resources, we need objective measures. So there’s this notion that in my book of justice oriented testing, that testing conserve justice. But the history of testing the actual history of testing that we’ve had, this has not been the case.
Dr. Stein 31:35
We had a lot of lip service given to justice oriented testing.
Dr. Stein 31:40
But ultimately, what we’ve had in place is a kind of what I call an efficiency oriented testing. And this has to do with the use of testing from the perspective of something like a market-based model of basically economic efficiency as opposed to using testing from the perspective of an educationally centric or learning centric perspective, and these are different, and there’s a whole line of thought, that’s in both books about the educational commodity proposition. And that’s basically the idea that you can reduce education to something that can be basically sold for a price. And the end result of that through some argumentation is that you can reduce education to something that can be quantified or monetized. So one of the main reasons we drive standardized testing is so that we can put a number on the amount of learning that’s occurred, because if we can do that, which is to say, like, did five bits of learning occur or did 10 bits of learning occur, right? If we can do that, then we can ask questions of like, am I getting a return on my investment, right? How much education did I get for my tax dollar, right? And that’s a way of thinking about education that places education within the commodity form. But I’m arguing in fact that education should not be understood simply from a commodity form. So think of imagining parenting, as if it’s a commodity form. And this has been done even by certain feminist theorists that and I have huge sympathy for this argument, in fact, that the “domestic labor of the wife in raising the child is actually a tremendous amount of work on behalf of the capitalist system”. Right? That little, little Johnny, he becomes a CEO, mostly because of his mom. Right? Not because of school, because she gets them up, she gives them breakfast, washes the dishes, and cleans his clothes, all of that work. And so there’s been an argument from Marxists and feminists, you know, we should pay mothers, right? We should pay them and we should specifically monitor the quality of their mothering. And how good of a mother are they? And then, you know, remunerate them based on if they’re a good mom or not? And at first blush, it seems like that’s a good idea. Right? But if you think more about it, it gets quite difficult, like, so if you’re a kid from the perspective of the kid, and your mom’s doing all this nice stuff for you. And you think, is she doing that because she loves me? Or is she doing that because-
She wants a rate.
Dr. Stein 34:23
-she’ll get paid. And so I’m arguing that the teacher-student relationship, and specifically education as a social function should be understood as more like parenting than like a transactional relationship in a marketplace.
Right. So, Nel Noddings work on caring and the rights of the centrality of caring and the relationship between teachers and students, which is completely lost in a testing first environment.
Dr. Stein 34:46
Yeah. I love that work, the Happiness and Education, another great book by Noddings. And yeah, so there is that sense that if we start to over commodify education, then you actually diffuse the potency of the teacher-student relationship. And this is the like most insidious part of the educational commodity proposition, which is that the customer’s always right. So the customer’s always right. Now, if you’re in a college classroom, understanding yourself as a customer, because you just basically took out the equivalent of a mortgage to be sitting in that classroom. And now this teacher is actually challenging your beliefs. Right? That doesn’t vibe with the whole customer’s always right thing. I’m paying your salary professor. You don’t get to say that. We’re gonna stage a protest, we’re gonna kick you out of college because you’re saying things that undermine our simplistic beliefs. You’re getting this kind of reaction on college campus, which has to do with a lot of things, but in part it has to do with the education commodity proposition, and that they don’t know how to understand themselves as students because students want to be proven wrong. That’s the whole reason you’re a student. Right? The whole reason you’re studying is so that you can change your being and belief and capacity into the model set for you by the teacher, which means you want to be in a sense, proven wrong, you want to be shown where you can grow. And so if you get education commodified, then you diffuse the potency of the teacher-student relationship, and you have the student misunderstanding their role. And so I have this notion of teacherly authority, right? And if the question of where’s the locus of the teacherly authority, and if it’s in the dollar, which is to say, the reason I’m here is because of the way I’ll be able to cash in on having this experience with my future income or, you know, the reason I’m here is because I’m spending so much money to be here that it must be worth something. These kinds of notions are not conducive to the kinds of personality transformation and other things that can actually happen. When you respect the authority of a teacher, because of well, the fact that they’re worth respecting, right, that they have knowledge, that they have skill that you want to learn what they have to teach. It’s not a transactional relationship. Similar to the love and respect one can have for a parent who’s doing their job well, that they’re not doing it for some other reason other than to give what they can give. Right? And so yeah, there’s the more you get transactional commodification of the what sometimes called the life world, right, which are these domains of human practice that resists commodification and measurement. The more you commodify and measure them, the more they break down, and you get institutional decay. So yeah, so that’s a little bit of a deeper story there. And it just has to do with the over expansion of the commodity form and the over measuring of everything.
So now we understand that a little bit better, where are we going? And I want to set this up as kind of a choose your own adventure for you because you have a vision for education and it sort of fits within a vision for society. And I wonder as much as these intersect and kind of weave back and forwards between them. Can you tell us about those, please?
Dr. Stein 38:01
Yeah, I mean, and now’s the time to be imagining a different kind of society.
It is. And that’s why we’re so excited to talk with you.
Dr. Stein 38:09
I mean, you know, I talk in my book about this thing that’s been called concrete utopian theorizing. And this is just another way of saying we need to exercise the social imagination, we need to actually be able to have in our imagination, the future that’s worth creating. And we can do that in a rigorous, principled way. And sometimes that’s called concrete utopian theorizing. And so I do a lot of that in the book, both around the educational system, and around others societal systems that interface with the educational system, right? So one of my kind of pet peeves in educational reforms that we’re constantly trying to fix the schools, when in fact it’s the whole neighborhood around that school and then the businesses around that neighborhood and then the, you know, finance mechanisms above those businesses, all of that needs to be changed. The school is not the main problem. The school is actually shouldering a lot of the burden of the other social problems, actually. And so yeah, so basically I’m arguing across the board for a very different social world, that this old world, you know, as we’ve been saying, it’s passing away, and the new world is coming. And, you know, according to the limits of growth model that again, 1972, we’ve been seeing this coming, we’re driving off a cliff. And you can almost think, like, jeez, like, we need to actually stop this thing on a dime, somehow. This thing needs to stop on a dime. And of course, if you’re driving a bus extremely fast, and you stop on a dime, it’s not going to be nice for the people on the bus, but it may be better than driving the bus entirely off the cliff. And so we’re in a situation now where basically I’m saying for better and for worse, we have stopped a lot of stuff on a dime. And we are kind of blessed with this opportunity. And to kind of like this tragic ordeal needs to be reconceived as an opportunity, let’s say better, which is that we don’t have to restart those systems, we can reboot them with a different kind of hardware and software. And education is one of those ones so is economics and so is the supply chain. And so we can start reconceiving those in this moment, right? The Greeks have two words for time, right? There’s Chronos, which we get chronology, right, Chronos. That’s just like linear time. That’s like the calendar and your clock. But then there’s Kairos. And Kairos is a word that basically means like, special time or potent time or pregnant time and it actually literally means like a portal or a chink in the armor of Chronos. It’s like opening in time. And so we’re in that, we’re not in normal time, we’re between worlds. We’re in Kairos, we’re in this opening, which is terrifying, basically. And like I said, it’s, you know, I don’t want to sound like, you know, let’s monopolize, let’s take advantage and be opportunistic about this situation. That’s not really what I’m saying. I’m saying that in every tragedy, and I believe human life is structured tragically, which is to say, in everyone’s life, there’s always tragedy, and in every tragedy, there’s always some way to get opportunity. And this is true of illness. That’s true of death. And so we’re all confronting this potential for metanoia, right? Metanoia, it basically means to transform one’s thinking and self like rapidly, right? Think like Paul on the road to Damascus, classic incidence of metanoia. As you’re looking at, we’re all facing this possibility of changing the way we think about the world and we’re being forced into it like my colleagues, Benita Roy, she said, you know, “the monastery just came out”. Right? Like we’ve been, in a sense, looking for a retreat from this world trying to find a way to get space enough to slow down and change habits and fix patterns and infrastructures. So yeah, so if we can grapple with the onset of something like an amplification of the mental health crisis, if we can have a metanoia or transformative ordeal, then we can turn the pain into something else and turn the profound difficulty of the moment into one of those crises that on the other side of it you are glad that happened. Like you wouldn’t have wanted that to happen.
Dr. Stein 43:08
Like I didn’t ask for this to happen to me. But it’s happening. And so I have to find a way on the other side of this for this to be something that I’m kind of I’m glad this happened, you know, and it’s like, it’s difficult to say that at this moment because there’s so much fear, and so much experience of one’s world disappearing. It’s basically that sense of being between worlds is completely disorienting. And so, yeah, there’s that I’m thinking of two is just how are we actually, as families and individuals being with us. And so yeah, so this is a long way of saying basically that there’s an opportunity to not just simply go back to school, as we’ve known it that we could reboot these educational systems after the summer, and make them run differently. And that might involve both securing the distributed tech stack to all students so that we have a national, but decentralized and localized, technologically intensive educational hub network so that the large, enormous factory style public schools don’t have to be the only place where education takes place. And then we can have neighborhood level up classroom technology facilitated ahead of time and skill sharing network stuff happening, which happens in other sectors, and even happens in the homeschooling world. And so I’d like to see that and you could wed that with a basic income guarantee, which is another thing I write about in the book. And it’s looking very much like something like a basic income guarantee maybe necessary here, right? The food service industry, even if we wanted to restart the food service industry as it was, I don’t think we can I mean, from what I know about restaurants, it’s their hand to mouth in terms of how they run. And so, you know, instead of simply bailing out the restaurant industry as it was, which includes KFC, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Olive Garden, Pizza Hut, all that stuff, which, you know, there’s other ways to do food, you end up having an opportunity to basically change one group of service workers from doing that kind of work to actually being the kinds of parents who could facilitate the education of neighborhoods. But they couldn’t do that if they had to get another job that wasn’t fulfilling their life’s destiny, right? Instead, we could give a basic income guarantee, change the nature of colleges too, right? Because many colleges are not going to reopen after this. What do you do? Do you reimburse tuition? What about all the student loan debt? You might have to so there’s also and we haven’t talked about it above the K-12 system, there’s also going to be a rearrangement because of the simply turning it off, it’s hard to turn it back on. So we could change even the way that adults can continue education, linked this with a basic income guarantee, and you end up getting a different kind of educational thing happening throughout the country. And it no longer looks like schools in any simple sense, because it’s intergenerationally more complex. It’s involving the parents in a richer way. And it’s using the full stack of the digital potentials. It doesn’t mean the schools completely disappear. It just means that there’s now this like, exciting and kind of like living new educational infrastructure that’s emerged alongside them, and then eventually, maybe they could be phased out. And so yeah, I’m imagining the emergence almost inevitably of something like this educational hub network, you know, aside from the standardized testing, and in many ways in relation to the standardized testing the homeschooling in the United States has been one of the major educational like optics, large numbers going on in school. And in part, that’s because of the true potential of digital technologies, which make the school systems look like dinosaurs, because they’re so big and bureaucratically overloaded. And so there’s a sense of like, what we could actually maybe even run higher quality education through basically less overhead. Be cheaper, more efficient, and healthier. So that’s something and again, I’m not saying tear the schools down, I’m actually saying in the big urban schools where often kids, you know, would maybe prefer to be in school, given neighborhoods and other things, and there’s always complexities of safety and other things you have to think about in this whole model and I talked about that in the book in terms of, you know, you can’t just let the kids out on the street. You know, I mean, there’s going to be some sense of protection that you turn these schools into unprecedented institutions that are some combination of like a library, a co-working space, daycare and a museum and Center for Youth activists and athletics.
It sounds like a real shift towards more personalized learning as well. And I think it fits really well with we talked with Dr. Todd Rose a couple months ago who’s also at Harvard I think.
Dr. Stein 48:24
I know Todd, I worked with him.
Yeah. So we spend some time talking with him and understanding his vision. And I’m just looking at a quote from your book. You said, “What if the goal of society as encoded in it’s very legal structures, was not the endless accumulation of wealth, but the endless actualization of human potential and that, to me, sort of provides a really neat link between your work and his that if we can each truly fulfill our true potential in the service of others and our community isn’t that what we’re driving towards here?
Dr. Stein 48:53
Right. And that’s one of the kind of outcomes of having that decentralized network is that you actually get to have children having truly unique educational experiences, right? And the whole premise of the modern model, you can see from the nature of the buildings and the desks and the standardized test, it’s a model of homogenization. It’s exactly that misunderstanding of fairness, which says, well, everyone gets exactly the same experience. That’s actually not fair. Because people are completely, not completely, but people are unique.
Dr. Stein 49:27
They’re different from one another. And so when you start to change that literally architecture at the physical and technological and pedagogical level, you change those architectures to allow for the emergence of uniqueness. You know, it’s not a coincidence. Todd and I both studied with Kurt Fischer. He was the founder of basically the field of mind, brain and education and was a Neo-Piagetian and he had this remarkable model of cognitive development, which was a complex dynamical systems model. So he actually basically proved that everyone’s unique. It’s not just like a trite thing to say that we’re all snowflakes, you know that. But in fact that the unique self, which is also talked about in integral theory and other places, you know, that this notion is instantiated at the molecular level and your DNA, you’re unique. It’s instantiated at the simple physical level at the fingerprint, right, your unique fingerprint that’s instantiated also at the psychological and learning level, that uniqueness is a reality. And so that’s yeah, part of what could become possible is that you get each child having a truly unique trajectory through a much more complex and adaptive educational system that each student having a different but still standardized trajectory through a complicated educational system, which can’t adapt to the uniqueness of the students but forces the students to adapt their uniqueness to the school.
Dr. Stein 51:00
So that’s one of those classic trade-offs. And so we can kind of turn it over into something that would make the opposite, right? Where you’d have to struggle to find it through the educational hub network that was basically identical to someone next to you, just by virtue of how it’s built, there’s going to be unique pathways. And I get into some of what the educational technology would need to look like and the curriculum theorizing. And, again, the safety of students and things. But yeah, something like that seems to be possible. Now more so than ever.
Exactly. And so I want to end on a super practical note, because I really feel as though if we had talked a month ago, this would have been a great conversation either way, but I would have come out of it feeling kind of hopeless, because the systems that we’re talking about a month ago seem so big and so powerful and so impossible to change and what could any of us do, but with where we are today, the systems are changing, school across the US, at least probably in many other places is probably done for the academic year. And yes, the easiest thing next year would be to reboot the existing system, although that won’t be completely easy as you had mentioned. But the discrepancy between the effort needed to drop back into that old system as one option, and completely reimagining a new system that works for us, on the other hand, seems smaller than I could have ever imagined it being in my lifetime. So I’m wondering if parents are listening to this, and it’s kind of igniting something in them, and maybe they’ve questioned aspects of the system before but couldn’t really, fully articulate it or understand it or know what to do about it. What do you think we should read or think about or talk about or do in these coming weeks?
Dr. Stein 52:42
It’s interesting. I think we need to do the things that we know are good for learning. And that includes
things like not being on Facebook. Like seriously, like, I’m worried about the mental health consequences of the quarantine and one of the main reasons I’m worried about is because of Facebook, fragments attention commodifies attention systematically confuses, systematically runs disruption on collaboration. Good things happen on Facebook, no doubt. But at the same time, and I think for the most part, research has shown that the more time you spend on Facebook, the more depressed you are. So although it feels like we should avoid social isolation, make it physical isolation, and therefore be with one another on Facebook. Facebook is actually not human interaction, and it’s actually not learning. Those things take place with long form, actually synchronous which is to say real time interaction long form. So Zoom calls and what we’re doing is so much better for learning and mental health, like the fragmentation of attention and the inability to focus on something for longer than 15 minutes is also correlated with depression and anxiety. You need to be able to soothe yourself through the focus of attention on something that’s meaningful. And you know, Aristotle said that learning is just intrinsically pleasurable. And that’s different from distraction and entertainment, which will burn out your synapses, whereas learning is something different. And so I think we need to, if we’re going to make this work in the long run, we need to become disciplined about what the nature of learning is, and not confuse it with edutainment. And not confuse whom interaction actual human interaction, not confuse that with asynchronous text-based exchanges through basically someplace that’s selling us advertisements. And remember the incentives that drive the code that makes Facebook what it is, which is to say the incentives that drive what appears on your newsfeed when that’s not there to educate you. It’s not there to show you the most true things. It’s there to keep you looking at it as long as possible. They’ve studied the science of addiction. And so we need to break the habit of that addiction and get a new habit that actually is conducive to learning. And so that’s the first step is we need to do this simple things. Not that like complex, like totally change your life things that got to study neuroscience to even understand that, it’s not. This is simple things that we know help learning and help emotional health. And so yeah, we’ll have to there’s going to be a need to discipline around those not in a pejorative sense in the sense of like, a spiritual discipline, a spiritual practice something that you’re doing intentionally to improve the state of your awareness and being and to model that for children. And because there’s nothing worse than a parent who’s telling a kid to sit down and focus and do his homework, he’s just like doing the infinite scroll on their phone, you know, just like completely distracted and spaced out. That kid knows that you’re doing that. He knows what you’re looking at. You know, so there needs to be a coming to a certain kind of integrity, around the quality of our experience and the nature of our learning and conversation. So 100% when people doing things online, to alleviate social isolation, but I’m suggesting that those things are long form conversational, and when you’re engaging media, same thing, long form, right? Read the whole article. Don’t read the headline, the first paragraph and repost it. Read the whole article, maybe take notes on the article, right? Like do stuff that’s going to calm you down and focus you instead of completely fragmenting your attention and amping up your limbic system. And if the more that gets done, the more steadiness there can be in households and the more we can actually reasonably conceive of what I’m imagining because right now, in the chaos of the disruption everyone wants to just return to the way it was. My idea is probably frightening, because they can’t even do it right now. How could they possibly be homeschooling next year, right? And so we need to be finding a point of stillness and connection to reality between worlds. In order to imagine the new world, we can’t imagine the new world from a state of trauma and anxiety. Right? So there’s a focus that needs to come in now, which happens in emergencies. If you allow it to, it can clarify your awareness, exactly that it’s an emergency and that it matters. So that’s my main recommendation, and then of course, begin to communicate the experiences you’re having at home with the educators in your community. Right? Like begin the conversation with the parents and the students and the teachers and the administrators about what is happening, what’s going down. Not an angry conversation, a constructive conversation about how it’s working, how it’s not working. Right? And that will be key because part of the reality that we need to get in touch with is one another, and precisely when the normalcy of routine falls away, that’s exactly when you can get out of bad habits. Like some of the things psychological research shows, you know, you’ll get the coffee headache when you’re at home when you’re used to drinking coffee. If you’re traveling, you don’t even know what time it is wake up morning, you actually don’t get a caffeine addict. So similarly now, because of the great, I’ve seen it referred to is the great depatterning. The great depatterning, all the patterns have been kind of like, removed. And so that means we can create new patterns. So that’s gonna take focus. And so yeah, I think that’s where I would leave it.
Yeah. I love that your first advice is not necessarily to do but to be.
Dr. Stein 58:57
It fits so well with sort of mindfulness approaches to just getting in touch with yourself. I mean, this sounds a bit touchy feely, but that has enormous value in understanding yourself and your experience in this situation. And from there, then you can get to a place where you can start to have the conversations that you’re subsequently talking about, about the kinds of change we want to see. But it has to start with the being, the understanding ourselves.
Dr. Stein 59:26
Right. And it’s, yeah, and in one sense, it’s touchy feely. But another sense, as I say, like the neuroscience evidence.
Yeah. It’s there as well.
Dr. Stein 59:34
Like protect your brain from Facebook.
Indeed. And on that note, it’s so helpful to have something concrete that we can do that’s doable. I mean, this is not go out and find a way to enact social change. This is something we can do today, right now. So thank you, Dr. Stein for sharing your thoughts. I emailed you on Friday night. 45 minutes later, you said yes, let’s do it. It’s now Sunday. I’m so grateful for your time and your energy. And all of the years and years of thought that you’re bringing us here to this right now. It must feel like an incredibly pregnant moment for you and you must be so excited to see what comes.
Dr. Stein 1:00:12
Yeah, I’m cautiously excited. Yeah. Totally. I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you. It’s been great.
Thanks for your time. So our listeners can find all of the resources from today’s episode at YourParentingMojo.com/BetweenWorlds and if you’re interested in learning more about the Finding Your Parenting Mojo membership on supporting your child’s development and making parenting easier or the Your Child’s Learning Mojo membership on supporting their learning then please head on over to YourParentingMojo.com/Together. That’s YourParentingMojo.com/Together to find all that information and to sign up.
Stein, Z. (2019). Education in a time between worlds: Essays on the future of schools, technology, and society. Bright Alliance.
Stein Z. (2019). COVID-19: A war broke out in heaven. Author. Retrieved from http://www.zakstein.org/covid-19-a-war-broke-out-in-heaven-article-and-interview/
About the author, Jen
Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.
Her Finding Your Parenting Mojo membership group supports parents in putting the research into action in their real lives, with their real families. Find more info at www.YourParentingMojo.com/Membership
She also launched the most comprehensive course available to help parents decide whether homeschooling could be right for their family. Find out more about it – and take a free seven-question quiz to get a personalized assessment of your own homeschooling readiness at www.YourHomeschoolingMojo.com
And for parents who are committed to public school but recognize the limitations in that system, she has a course to help support children's learning in school at https://jenlumanlan.teachable.com/p/school