My community ran out of water last summer. Occupying 30 green acres in Bangalore, India, 150 families found all their borewells — the primary source of water — dry up as the water table dropped precipitously due to rampant water extraction. Having dug over 60 borewells in just 30 acres, and with several hundred borewells in the neighborhood, we appeared to be winning a race to hit bottom.
Ours is not just the classic “tragedy of the commons” situation where each individual (or community) does what they believe is in their short-term best interests and in doing so put the interests of the group at risk. In fact, our community has come together to plant over 500 trees and nurture a small 2-acre forest for a decade.
But for water? Our solution was to have a stream of water tankers ferrying contaminated water from somewhere else, and adopted a ‘permanent’ solution of drilling two more deeper wells. Everyone knows that we are running out of water, but having achieved an upper class status in society, we are completely wrapped up in the dream of using water at will. Our education has armed us with a belief that some technology will solve the problem in the future, even though everyone admits that we do not live on top of an ocean of freshwater. A community composed of highly educated, successful, and affluent people is unable to come together and consider a real, sustainable solution. Because … a real sustainable solution includes curbing consumption and changes in behavior.
Beyond our community our city has destroyed its water base. Wise and visionary ancestors designed one of the most advanced water systems in the world. Five centuries ago, an amazing man-made network of over 1600 inter-connected lakes converted dry grassland into dense forest. By 1960 our ‘modern’ civilization had reduced the lakes of the ‘garden city’ of Bangalore to 160. Now the ‘IT capital of India’ is down to less than 30 highly polluted water bodies and the critical interlinking 800 km canal network has almost completely disappeared. The national situation has also been made equally grim; our revered rivers are the most polluted in the world. Globally too, a billion people today face a man-made water crisis that is poised to hit major cities in the immediate future. Not just water, but all resources necessary to enhance our lives and provide a foundation for the human quest: fresh air, open space, silence, forests, … are being destroyed in front of our eyes by our very actions, and we are unable to think and act differently.
It is not a lack of knowledge, i have realized, that is tying us down. We — the most educated folks on the planet — are aware of the problems, and even acknowledge our hand in creating them; we are happily squandering our inheritance while worrying about our future. It is our mindset — how we think, how we frame problems, and where we look for solutions — that is the source of our inability us to respond to the issues clearly visible in front of us.
This mindset has been ingrained into us by the education system, one that started with the Industrial Revolution and has spread throughout the world. Since we all go through the same process, we share this mindset.
The education system teaches us two things. One is data — dates in history, formulas in physics, names in biology, figures of speech in language, tables in mathematics, … to name a few. We memorize this data to solve examinations that assess our competency to be leaders in our society. This data and its format have changed over the years. There are changes in the curriculum to include more computer skills. We teach more quantitative techniques and have devised faster ways of assessing them. The black and white textbooks i had in school have been replaced with glossy ones with colorful pictures and striking graphs. We provide students more options and choices.
When a subject becomes totally obsolete we make it a required course.
– Peter Drucker
The second thing instilled in us by our educational system is a very subtle, deep, powerful mindset that is very hard to unlearn. This mindset determines the way we learn, define and solve problems, treat resources, approach exams and challenges, develop an outlook on the world, and deal with parents, teachers, and each other. The mindset creates a way of organizing facts, choosing what to prioritize and what to ignore, often rendering data we learn during the system irrelevant.
Children growing through schools and universities learn individualism not teamwork, learn acquisition not giving, learn isolation not connectedness, focus on ends and ignore means, see unlimited resources not constraints, and learn waste not conservation. Through computers and standardized testing the process of learning alone and being tested individually becomes even more isolating and with greater pressure. This strengthens the mindset imparted in going through this process. That is why our mindset tells us that having fewer pencils is poverty, sharing a book is a sacrifice, waiting for anything is a pain, and the only thing that counts is the final score.
The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.
– Albert Einstein
During the period where our current educational system was codified and institutionalized, the society celebrated explosive growth and individual success. The world appeared to have infinite resources and we could provide everyone with everything. We felt that we could not extract fast enough. The impact of the side-effects on other members of human society was seen as temporary and those on other life and the biosphere were ignored. And most importantly, there would always be new technology to solve any problem. In this dream, the individual is king and the object is to pursue all material goods and pleasures without any regard to the connections with the rest of society. This dream created the Industrial Revolution and allowed it to succeed. This dream and the mindset to achieve it still infuse all those who pass through the education system.
Educational institutions today proudly broadcast slogans such as: “Preparing students for the future”, “Building tomorrow’s leaders”, and “Creating successful children”.
If we look at the future, “tomorrow” involves an increased population facing global problems such as climate change, significantly diminished resources such as water, oil, food, forests, and fish, and increased competition for jobs, housing, and schools. Many of these problems already face over a billion people in many parts of the world. “Tomorrow” threatens to become worse, not better.
Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.
– Oscar Wilde
Our industrial mindset is the cause we, as a society, still chose to ignore the data in front of us and continue to pursue the dreams ingrained into us from the Industrial Revolution. As Einstein observed jokingly, “If the facts don’t confirm your theory, change your facts.” Today he might have said: if the facts don’t confirm to your plan, pretend they don’t exist. The outlook that is built into our brains by going through today’s education process makes it hard to see (and empathize) with the real scenario facing us.
The industrial mindset served us when our population was much smaller, resources were far greater, and the biosphere could absorb most of our outputs and waste. Education has been the key — allowing us to fit in and advance in the engine room of today’s society — but now it is both blinding us and handcuffing us.
A different mindset would allow us to digest the same data and act to create another scenario. The outcome would be where people understand their needs and see resource limitations and learn to connect with each other and handle issues, conflicts, and shortages through dialog in a graceful and equitable manner. To succeed in creating and living in this ‘tomorrow’ requires skills for communications and working happily within and through a set of constraints. People need to avoid thinking of problems as frustrations and solutions as sacrifices, but think of them as challenges and necessities. Instead of ignoring or bulldozing problems, we need to feel the enrichment of going through the struggle and savor the process of finding a solution. This is the way that great leaders, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela, worked through their challenges. They overcame adversity without anger, made sacrifices without bitterness, and resolved to make their society succeed without focusing on their individual success.
We need to provide our children with skills to understand, prepare for, and address the ‘tomorrow’ staring them in the face. These skills will be about cooperation and dialog, understanding and patience, inclusiveness and sharing, creativity and imagination, and a sense of being in the same boat and dealing with problems together.
It is a thousand times better to have common sense without education than to have education without common sense.
– Robert Green Ingersoll
To create a new mindset we have to revise the education system where the mindset is created. In this essay i propose a few changes to the educational system. The revisions are more about process than about content and will provide a real ‘education for tomorrow’.
Educating for Constraints
Children having access to seemingly endless resources do not learn to make do with or work around restrictions, but instead learn to make sure they get the resources they want. They learn to demand and make a fuss, putting their parent or teacher in a quandary: should they spend time to educate the child or resolve the situation quickly by giving them what they want? Children learn to be ‘resourceful’ in shrewd ways or at the expense of others or even using unethical means. They are often rewarded for this ‘resourcefulness’, especially if the result is good, but as they grow their list of demands keeps increasing and they become even more unreasonable leading to all sides becoming frustrated.
Giving children constraints and teaching them to accept them can impart many values: patience, tolerance, creativity, adaptability, connectivity, empathy, and community to name a few. Three experiments will demonstrate my point.
In art class, when something went wrong on the drawing they were working on, my children learned to immediately toss it and started anew. They learned this behavior because there was never a shortage of paper or materials, and it is easiest for teachers and parents to handle such situations by just having them start anew, rather than consoling them, or helping them fix it, or find a new creative solution with the ‘mess’. In crowded classrooms it is hard to ask a teacher to patiently explain to a child and work with them over a problem especially when the child can see, for example, a huge stack of paper that they can use.
When a child throws away paper at the first ‘mistake’, they are learning to discard away things that do not please them the first time around. This attitude starts with food and continues on to jobs, employees, relationships, and marriages.
There is a way to use such a common occurrence to teach a different set of values and skills. The first experiment is to create a new rule for the art-room: a child gets limited resources (e.g. a single sheet of paper) for every project. If there is a problem they have to work around it, use their skills and creativity to make the best of what looks like a messy situation. It only worked for my children and me when we were outside the house having brought only the absolute minimum supplies. To make things easier, resources need to be visibly constrained. For example, in an art class, no extra paper should be visible or available other than the one in front of them. Children will learn to accept, to make do, and work through issues with what they have.
There are tools such as scissors and glue that are nowadays present in generous numbers, at least one per child. They get used to having their ‘own’ tool and never realize that many resources are constrained and never learn to share. By having to share a few of these tools, children will not only learn to wait — patience — but also get more time to watch what others are doing. The purpose of this second experiment is for children to learn to figure out when the tool might become free and whose turn it is next. Until then, they will get a chance to connect, to ask questions, to examine other people’s work, and learn something more than just doing the project. Instead of a single-minded focus on the outcome of the activity, children learn to incorporate other events, even appreciating others.
Today children have access to a full art kit — they have virtually all the colors in their crayon and marker sets. A third experiment is to make them create an art project using only a fraction of these tools — say two or three colors. Constraints in materials might spur creativity and imagination and allow for interesting interpretations while saving schools and parents (and the environment) the cost of having full sets for each student. Students can learn to split a complete coloring set and thus learn to share a resource in a different way.
When children grow up after dealing with constraints, they will see that it is by sharing that the number of parts become larger, and only then can we talk about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.
Educating for Teamwork
Our education system focuses on individual learning. Group learning is, in our system, hard to implement and monitor, though in the working world, people work together all the time, often with difficulty. After passing through our education system, people entering the workforce do not know how to work together. The working world is filled with conversation of dysfunctional teams and often the first training skill taught to new employees is about becoming a better team player. Business magazines churn out articles on teamwork and consultants abound in jumpstarting teamwork in the corporate sector. Instead of expecting people to learn to work in teams as adults, shouldn’t we make an effort to have them experience it early in their formative years? In fact, evidence shows that we are born inclined to work in teams; it is our educational process that suppresses this natural tendency.
Our education system has to provide team projects and team homework. Children get to experience both dividing the project sequentially so that each person takes ownership of one stage and dividing the project into parts where each person completes their part, and is followed by joint assembly. Children will learn situations in which someone dominates or someone fails to do their part. Hopefully they will learn that this happens all the time and there will be times to take ‘charge’ and other times to give up ‘control’. They will also learn to support teammates when they cannot deliver and to be supported when they find themselves in a position of being unable to deliver on their own piece. They will also learn that projects cannot always be divided equally and equitably, but in the end, without a team, it is impossible to achieve anything meaningful. Finally they will learn to share honor and credit and to go through life without individual titles. A major stumbling block in today’s leaders inability to work together will have been removed.
Educating for Temporariness
We learn to create ‘permanent’ solutions — trying to make them stand the test of time. Its good to learn that approach as long as it is balanced by learning that many things do not last, and that for many reasons, we should make things that are temporary, like sandcastles. My children have spent a lot of time building castles and moats at the beach and then watch their work get washed by the tide. They kept rebuilding at the tide boundary to see them survive the onslaught of a few waves but to watch them disappear in time. Most of the time they did not even get to show it to others — it was not the purpose. They realized, maybe not explicitly, that the real purpose was to just enjoy the process of creating.
We have to learn to not defend our work to the death and accept that solutions need to be put to rest or recreated after their original purpose has been served. This mindset will help design products that are ecologically and people friendly. And also as a society, be able to dismantle institutions whose time has gone instead of spending energy propping them up.
I have tried to teach my children the transient nature of things by using media such as slates and chalk. They got an appreciation that their work was temporary, since they had to erase the work for the next activity. This taught them that the process was as important as the end product. If practiced at school, this experiment will reduce the amount of resources needed to be provided to children as well as the number of projects children carry home to be stored or disposed — a relief to both schools and parents.
Educating for Alternatives
We teach the most efficient, the easiest way, especially in mathematics, science and engineering. What should be also taught is a perspective that today efficiency is very narrowly defined (in terms of time and cost) and that often some inefficiency (in time and money) at an individual level leads to greater ease and improved efficiency at a societal level. We also will learn to measure things in alternative creative ways. One experiment i practice is to choose a walking path that will create the most interactions. While paths are measured usually by shortest distance or time, i often measure them by the number of people i meet, with the best one that creates the most interactions.
Most kids get driven to school in a car or a school bus. One experiment would be to have a ‘public transport’ day, a day when all kids have to come to school by public transport. For some it might make a little difference, for others it will involve changing buses or trains and walking, adding significant time to the commute. For parents it would also involve inconvenience. The point is to teach alternative ways of getting things done when we can explore them as experiments, so that in case we are prepared for the ‘tomorrow’ when we are forced to change behavior if oil becomes prohibitively expensive or air pollution rises dramatically. From our current situation this experiment may seem inefficient, in the larger scheme it might be more efficient while at the same time teaching appropriate skills.
In arts and craft teaching alternatives is easy and fun. In life, it is not as easy to teach. But by developing a deeper appreciation of the challenges faced by many members of our global society, we can get to the understanding that alternatives can be fun, that changing some habits is not bad, and we can find many enjoyable things in most situations. Understanding that there is no one ‘right’ way is the key to an appreciation of diversity.
Educating for Self-Evaluation
In today’s education process we get trained to have all our effort be evaluated by someone else. Be it a math problem or an art assignment, from the beginning of our education to the end we put up our work for a grade, for someone to tell us we passed, to tell us how well we did. Later our education is layered with financial discipline so our outcomes are even more numerical, bottom-line oriented and up for easy judgment. Our sense of achievement is then based on someone else’s opinion. We also get trained to be critics of other people’s work.
The work that is required to solve the problems of ‘tomorrow’ is different from the work that caused the problems. It has to be restorative; it has to be steps in a different direction. This work will rely on ripple effects and impacts that we may be unaware of. The outcomes are unlikely to be visible at the end of our effort. So it does make it hard if not impossible to evaluate.
For tomorrow’s work, we need to learn the discipline of self-reflection and self-evaluation. This requires teaching children how to step back and see if the individual and team are acting and what the effort is. We cannot be in a non-stop mechanical rush of activity. We need to incorporate a process that makes us regularly stop and examine ourselves and our work.
Upon self-reflection we have to be satisfied in having moved in the right direction. We have to rely on intuition — that we are doing the right thing and that we are making a difference. This does not mean we do not accept feedback, it means that we do not always position our work for external evaluation.
In our current education system, it is easy to introduce the concept of self-grading. Of both effort and results. And to keep the results private. We can structure a self-chosen short-term project that could be individual or team. Note that it is extremely important to set the context of the project. The process of learning self-evaluation is, in the context of this exercise, more important than the process of doing the project. One can set up a display of the project results, but the self-assessment of the motivation, effort, and learnings will be kept private.
Educating for Lack of Control
Our educational system teaches us that we are in control. In fact, topics that indicate us having a lack of control are not included in the syllabus and subjects that are subjective are phased out in time. No wonder we come out with an attitude that we ought to be in control. Frustration and stress is the result, when things do not go our way. The workplace is filled with “control-freaks” and people seeking control and power are rewarded over those who appear to flow with the tide and do not take charge.
We need to teach children that more often than not, we are not in control. We may do our best but the expected rewards will not always come. We need to learn to accept other rewards including enjoying the process without caring about the outcome. We will find silver linings in clouds, if we go past periods of darkness without frustrations.
When our family started community gardening in a public space, we found that sometimes after weeks of toil strangers took the fruits of our labor. After one particularly upsetting incident where all the broccoli was ‘stolen’, a wise person counseled me that eating the produce was not the reward, our real reward was that we had the opportunity to grow it. It has taken years to digest the advice and i cannot say it is completely internalized yet.
Children can be easily taught that we need to strive and do our best and not worry about the standard reward. In fact, it is clear that effort and grades are not fully correlated. Our system now focuses almost exclusively on grades because effort is hard to measure, being very subjective and dependent on natural instincts and talent. One way is to randomly reassign homework grades for a fraction of the class. Another is to give grades based on the effort that other students felt a student put in. In art class, one requirement could be that another child puts the final touch on one’s artwork.
Educating children about renouncement over the outcome is very powerful teaching. Renouncement over outcomes gives us the power to persevere on problems where there are no quick results or where the rewards are not conferred individually or where fruits will come to future generations. Today society needs people who are not attached to outcomes and rewards to embark on long-term solutions and their associated processes.
Putting Changes In Place
Our educational system is breaking down. Our children are paying the price even during school — who among adults would find the material interesting or useful and would not be diagnosed with ADD? Some brave teachers are fighting the standardized testing requirements and many parents are pulling children out of school. Schools are losing funding and therefore talent and passion are leaving the education system. Teachers who are willing to only teach towards test scores stay while those who want to see kids enjoy childhood, thrive, and learn about themselves and the world leave or are thrown out.
While a major adjustment is needed, the process changes in the education system described above can be introduced piecemeal — all depending on the motivation and determination of teachers, administration, and parents. Some changes are very easy to introduce to younger kids who still have art classes (something our system has stopped for elder children) and for whom school is enjoyable without pressure of college admission exams. However, we should strive to also apply changes in the education system for older children (“higher education”) to teach them the values and mindsets needed to deal with tomorrow.
The process changes i suggest do not constrain thinking, imagination, and expression. In fact, they will lead to increased creativity, communication, and cooperation.
One challenge facing schools today is tight budgets. These proposed changes require some education for the teachers, no changes in the infrastructure, and actually will end up saving money and time at home and at school.
Education consists mainly in what we have unlearned.
– Mark Twain
I realize that asking for changes is very bold in a system that is globally institutionalized; it is by reminding ourselves that the core purpose of education is to help “prepare children for tomorrow”, we will find the strength to make the changes.
Today, we are clearly training our children that success ‘tomorrow’ means everyone for themselves, based on the vision from ‘yesterday’. By convincing our children that it’s a ‘dog eat dog’ world, we are deemphasizing the human traits of empathy and compassion and stifling the human need for connectivity. We are encouraging the successful and lucky few to grab their share and grab more, much more. Forcing the unsuccessful majority to live in misery, squabbling, surrendering, or protesting the system that they cannot succeed in. Awaiting the day when some machine will solve every problem. If we do not make any changes it means a continuation of ‘today’ — a page from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.
Do We Need More Data?
The mental process and outlook that is instilled in our formative years is more powerful than the data we ingest during school. We can see the problem in front of us and even see that our daily acts are making things worse. But instead of changing we continue working on gathering more and more data, evinced by our new love affair with ‘big data’ and ‘cloud analytics’. We are a just like heart-attack patients, reverting to our heart-disease-causing-lifestyle after an attack, unable to act with the data in hand. It is time we adjusted our mindset so we can act on the data already absorbed.
Severe traffic issues, associated noise and air pollution, and related safety and health issues are another set of problems that every member of my community is keenly aware of. But people still want more cars, avoid public transport, and want to convert any open green space into parking lots. The data is visible and a few questions should make us and our leaders stop in our tracks. “What will happen if every Indian gets a car?” “Is there enough oil to feed the vehicles?” “Will the air quality ever improve or are human lungs being used to clean the air for machines?”
Much education today is monumentally ineffective. All too often we are giving young people cut flowers when we should be teaching them to grow their own plants.
– John W. Gardner
Lets look at the clearly visible tomorrow again, but from a different viewpoint: space. The earth can be seen as resembling the Apollo 13 spacecraft floating alone in space running out of resources, needing urgent fixes. However, the Apollo spacecraft just needed a single fix in a very constrained environment for its crew to return home. The spaceship Earth and its crew are on an incredible journey without a destination, though eager for happiness and peace. If we can see the dramatic depletion of our resource base and the increasing stress and unhappiness faced by the crew, we can make some urgent fixes for a happy continuation of this journey for humankind.
We need to envision a future of coming together to address the problems at hand. The questions then facing us in creating this future are clear, but what are the skills needed? We need less problem-solving and technology skills. The skills, attitude, and manners needed are ones that will increase understanding, communication, and empathy while reducing frustration, territoriality, acquisitiveness, and conflict. What should success and leadership look like? Success will be a global success, not an individual or even a national success. Therefore the qualities of leadership will be ones that lead humankind towards contentment and community and will include the ability to build community and to of course, to transform institutions.
We have the intelligence and the resources to solve global problems; we only have to train our hearts and minds to see them. We need to start with our educational system both as a service to future generations and as proof that we can overhaul institutions that are stuck in the past. And then we will find ourselves free to address the problems at hand and find success too. The benefits eliminating resource shortages and meeting the basic needs of all humans are obvious and are key in achieving peace and harmony. We are born with the desire to seek connectivity and inner peace. Given our ability to impact and improve the life of all living beings, we owe it to ourselves and to our children to reach our potential.
In history, we see that amazing transformations have happened in a generation. Today we are clearly at an historic point; we can be the generation that stopped adding constraints on future generations and instead, opened doors and created paths for them.