Transforming our schools: an argument for evolving our ability to think

It has to become a global educational priority today for those in education to evolve their ability to think, but also to lay the foundations for an education that ensures our children and young people develop as postformal thinkers.

Derek Wenmoth wrote a blog post that caught my interest and has sent me off on an exploration of Artificial Intelligence and Yuval Noah Harari’s “useless class”; but also into thinking about why educational change is so difficult. It is not that we don’t know that we need to change. We do. However, in his post, Derek said:

“...our schools and schooling system remains largely the same as when I started. Sure, there are now more computers being used, a number of walls have been knocked down between classrooms and vogue terms such as learning styles and personalised learning have entered our vocabulary, but for the most part these are what I call first level changes (where the change takes place within accepted boundaries and leaves basic values unexamined and unchanged).”

He is right. I have worked so hard for so many years to effect change in education within my small sphere of influence and it has been difficult! This certainly hasn’t been because of a lack of will, courage, urgency, perseverance or hard work. Increasingly, I feel like I am in one of those movies, picking my way carefully through the criss-crossing laser lights to get to the jeweled crown, protected at the centre. However, not only are there laser lights that are obvious to the eye, but there are hidden trip wires that send you sprawling when you least expect it; and just when you think you have broken free of the lights and wires and you are sprinting towards the treasure, you slam into an invisible brick wall which sends you flying backwards. I think we are trying to find our way through terrain that is unfamiliar and with many hidden obstacles and often we are using tools to help us that are completely inappropriate. No wonder they call it the bleeding edge. If we don’t come to a deep understanding of the current context, what the issues are and, therefore, what really needs to change and how, then all our hard work and scars may end up sharpening our character but change little else.

Einstein said, “The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we have created them.” Put simply, we cannot solve tomorrow’s problems with yesterday’s thinking. Formal reasoning (Piaget), which includes binary logic, instrumental rationality and abstract intellectualism such as hypothetical thinking, has been the dominant way of thinking of the 20th century and the “industrial era”. This type of thinking has led to the technological achievements of industrial society - achievements that have contributed so much to the evolution of human civilisation. However, it has also enabled the “wicked problems” we face today such as the global climate crisis, global economic disparity and the youth mental health epidemic.

Parker Palmer said, “We look at the world through analytical lenses. We see everything as this or that and ….we fragment reality into an endless series of either-ors. In a phrase we think the world apart”. Viewing knowledge as siloed disciplines, has meant that decisions have been made that achieve a positive outcome when viewed through one lens, but that have had an extremely negative impact when looked at through a different lens. The point is that 20th century formal, siloed, rational thinking, contributed to the problems and cannot be used to solve the problems. Jennifer Gidley suggests that what is needed is an evolution of human consciousness beyond “formal reasoning” to “postformal reasoning”. In her cogent analysis “Postformal Education: A Philosophy for Complex Futures”, Gidley showed across psychology and education and dating back hundreds of years, the recognition and emergence of a way or stage of adult thinking that is higher or more evolved than Piaget’s (and others) formal reasoning. She says this is what we need now.

There is no doubt that formal reasoning served civilisation well in the 20th century in many respects. But today, it is the invisible brick wall we slam into or the hidden wire that trips us up. If, today’s problems are to be solved, including developing an approach to education which prepares our 21st century students for today’s and tomorrow’s challenges - global uncertainty, accelerating change and unprecedented complexity - then we need to fundamentally change our ways of thinking.

The attainment of formal reasoning has been the highest goal of formal schooling to date (Gidley, 2016). This no longer serves society well, and postformal reasoning has to become the goal. The difficulty is that we, the decision makers, are all products of an education that privileged formal, rational, binary reasoning and we are often trying to create change using inappropriate, inadequate thinking – the thinking we know best. No wonder, as Wenmoth says, the changes that have taken place in the schooling sector are not transformational but superficial. Gidley said something very similar when she posited, “Fundamentally, we are still educating our children as if we were living in the 19th century, albeit with a few added digital gadgets and online infotainment” (Gidley 2016, p. 1).

It seems that the current crisis in education (and we are in crisis) can only be addressed by radically and rapidly evolving our thinking. We need to think the world back together again. Postformal thinking embraces complexity rather than trying to deconstruct, simplify or remove it. It treats the “subject” as an integral whole with all its inextricably interwoven and intertwined parts. It embraces disparate ideas and makes sense of paradox – both/and thinking – and always looks for win/win rather than win/lose. It is a self-reflective, emergent, organic way of thinking, which uses collaboration, dialogue, creativity, reflexivity to solve problems; and it crosses or breaks boundaries, while all the time preserving and growing a concept of Self and the Self-in-the-Context-of-the-Whole-World that is coherent and strong. There will be little that is surprising in this description of “postformal reasoning” other than, perhaps, how unprepared we are to do it.

Everywhere I look in education, I see evidence of 20th century industrial thinking being utilized to create education for the 21st century. Communities of Learning provide a very obvious example of formal, 20th century binary thinking being used to meet 21st century problems. Communities of Learning is a governmental response to the current funding and education crisis. The growing number of superannuitants now and in the future is a huge contributor to the reducing pool of funding available for education. Earthquakes, earthquake prone and leaky buildings are all contributing factors. The Communities of Learning strategy is intended to help the system become more efficient and achieve more with less. The strategy’s focus on achievement outcomes and sharing quality resources across schools (expert teachers, for example) is intended to address the inequity of outcomes for students currently being perpetuated in our education system.

These are, of course, all laudable and urgent issues to be addressed. However, while the Communities of Learning strategy does have a postformal emphasis on collaboration as a vehicle for improvement, it also uses 20th century industrial, formal thinking in its design and implementation. It is top down and hierarchical – both in the way it has been introduced into the sector but also in terms of the organisational roles and structures it requires. It allows some, but little, deviance from what has been determined and, therefore, promotes a one-size fits all model, which is very typical of industrial, formal thinking and the antithesis of the holistic, emergent, complex, paradoxical nature of postformal reasoning. It assumes all needs and, therefore, solutions are the same and, as such, resources exactly the same small range of roles for each of the COLs. NZEI expressed concern that in spite of its focus on collaboration, most of the funding provided to COLs is tied up in creating and maintaining a hierarchical organisational structure rather than supporting collaboration. It is binary in its win/lose/in/out thinking. Certain types of funding may only be available through COLs; therefore, only available to schools who belong to a COL regardless of how effectively (or not) that COL is working. This binary approach can only perpetuate the very inequity it seeks to address. The use of “force”, “threat” and pressure inherent in this approach (though possibly not intended), cannot grow open, emerging and evolving postmodern entities.

However, all may not be lost and wasted. The Communities of Learning strategy may be able to evolve into a successful, postformal educational strategy that will meet the current and future needs of our 21st century learners and world. However, this will require those with the power to shift from 20th century, formal, binary thinking to postformal complex thinking; AND, it will require educationalists, such as myself, to stop simply countering formal thinking with more formal thinking (ie. countering with another binary). This will get us nowhere. Like Dr Seuss’s Zax, we will still be standing there years later and refusing to move while our future languishes. We, as educationalists, also need to evolve as postformal thinkers and use paradoxical thinking as we challenge the status quo or consult around new educational strategies and approaches or simply develop our own schools and practices. In this way, the conversation about our educational future will become more intelligent and informed, and, together, whatever our roles in education, we will be able to face our future with greater confidence.  

Holding in mind the paradox of contradictory truths can be very uncomfortable for people only accustomed to using formal logic. We are strongly driven to resolve the tension through a reduction of the complexity. It has to become a global educational priority today for those in education to evolve their ability to think, but also to lay the foundations for an education that ensures our children and young people develop as postformal thinkers. Our world needs it.

In the words of Dr SUESS again, “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”