The Education Crisis of Perception

Some years ago Fritjof Capra wrote about the environmental crisis we face in the book The Web of Life and the movie Mindwalk, saying that we faced a “crisis of perception.” In the movie, upon hearing this, a character protested, “that’s great, you tell me the world is ending and it’s a crisis of perception. I’m sorry that’s a little too abstract for me.” The point of the movie, in particular, is to describe a new way of perceiving the interconnections between living systems as foundational thinking and the first step toward addressing environmental issues.

I believe the same can be said about the education crisis we are (seemingly perpetually) facing in the United States. We are in a “crisis of perception.” Let’s consider some history by focusing in on the teaching of science—though the story of education reform (or lack thereof) can be applied across the subject areas. In the early 20th century, John Dewey criticized science teaching as simply an accumulation of facts, and recommended an emphasis on the process of inquiry. In the 1950s, Schwab criticized science education for being taught as empirical, literal, and as irrevocable truths and recommended teaching through laboratory experiences where students were left to ask questions, gather evidence and propose explanations based on evidence. In other words—inquiry. In the 1960s, with the country shaken by the late 50s Soviet Union launch of Sputnik, and noticing that we still faced a crisis in science education, Rutherford was critical of science educators for not representing science as inquiry and added that science teachers must understand the history and philosophy of sciences they teach in order to teach it as inquiry. In the 1980s, project 2061 was a long-term initiative by the American Association for the Advancement of the Sciences, which provided a framework of science teaching. Want to take a guess at what they recommended? Start with questions, collect evidence, stop separating knowing from finding out, and deemphasize the memorization of technical vocabulary. This led to the National Science Education Standards in 1996 with a heavy emphasis on inquiry. The National Research Council weighed in in 2000 and told the same story. The Next Generation Science Standards were released a decade later with a heavy emphasis on inquiry. Nearly a full century of critiques of the profession has yielded the same critiques over and over again.

Hear we sit in 2015, 15 years after the latest major push in education in this country to finally fix education, the last truly bi-partisan act in American politics, the passing of No Child Left Behind. We now recognize that it was a failure. Since the The Nation at Risk report in the early 1980s, more and more standards to define what facts are to be learned, more and more testing to reward those schools that test well (and punish those that do not), more school choices, and ironically more and more racial and economic segregation have been implemented. And the result. Very little change and/or improvement in graduation rates, test scores, public satisfaction, and student achievement (at least based on the measures we are using).

So what is the problem? We have a crisis of perception. Through all of those changes we haven’t significantly changed how we teach. We have continued to address the education woes of this country from the same paradigm over and over again. With each new critique and set of bad news about student achievement we dig deeper into the machinery of education and begin replacing parts. We are operating from a failed perceptual model of reductionism. Students aren’t keeping up in science—so we invent an acronym called STEM—but honestly don’t really change much of how we teach science. Test scores are flat so we rewrite tougher standards—but use the same methods of teaching. We push the system harder and harder, replacing a gear here and a piston there but the machine can only turn so fast. What we are failing to recognize is that, just like when we tug at one of the strands of a living system with all of its interconnections all of that system is affected, the mechanizations of the education system are all also connected. And they are not just connected to one another, they are also connected to the rest of the social systems in which that machinery operates.

So how do we address this crisis of perception? How does a society change a perceptual model, and can a society change a perceptual model fast enough? How do you fix a system the seemingly requires changing everything at once? Consider this example. The indigenous peoples of New Guinea had their first contact with outsiders in 1931. For them it was as world shifting as if aliens from outer space were to land in Times Square tomorrow. The New Guineans were living a stone-age lifestyle. Within the lifetime of many of those individuals who witnessed their first non-New Guinean, the islands have been divided up into political states, and they have learned to use computers, money, new agriculture, modern medicine, as well as begun to suffer all of the same ills that seem to come with modern society. My point isn’t to highlight the ills of modern society—though they are connected to the same crisis, but instead to illustrate that paradigms for a society can shift rather quickly given the right circumstance.

So how do you change a paradigm? One student at a time. The paradigm shift begins with training ourselves and the next generation to think differently. Simplistic answers may get a politician to the top of the polls (see Donald Trump), but simplistic answers will not fix what ails us. One cannot fix a system without understanding the system. The best he or she can do is treat some symptoms. We need to retrain ourselves to see the systems before we take them apart to replace the mechanisms within those systems. Currently, we train our children to live in the world by breaking the world into tiny bits and feeding it to them one at a time. We then expect that they will naturally put those tiny bits together, seeing the connections between the bits when they complete their education. But how can they when they are never taught to even see the connections, let alone understand the positive and negative feedback mechanisms that are foundational to systems theory. We need to flip this methodology of reducing the whole into small disconnected bits and hope that someday students can understand the whole 180 degrees. Instead, show the systems, the connections and the interrelationships first, and then help them to pull those systems apart and understand the “gears” and “pulleys” of that system in context of the larger system.

If we can accomplish this, then just maybe, we can have a populace that isn’t reliant upon a select few to engineer our way out of the next crisis—be it environmental, political, educational, or economic. Maybe, just maybe, we can have a populace that chooses political leaders who offer solutions resulting from discussion and debate over their merits and impact on the collective good for generations to come instead of the goal a “political win” and regaining political power by one party over the other, often at the expense of the collective good.

A colleague has challenged me to answer the question, “Is holistic thinking possible within this century?” I have to believe so. Maybe. Just maybe.

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