Let’s stop talking about the future of education: let’s do the inner work | Benjamin Freud, Ph.D. | 10 Min Read

I have been wrestling with a question for months, looking for clues to an answer in conversations, books, podcasts, and quiet moments of reflection. I’m not the first person to have posed this question, and for centuries it has created significant, sometimes bloody, cleavages. The question is “How do new paradigms [for education] replace old ones—by starting on the fringes and eventually displacing the dominant narrative or by attacking and vanquishing existing paradigms from the core?” I put brackets around for education to highlight that this essential question applies to any paradigm.

This question is at the heart of any attempt to change schools fundamentally. I’m not talking about a tweak here, an additional program there. I mean the kind of change that fundamentally alters collective consciousness so that, over the longer run, we adopt different ways of thinking of, feeling for, and acting in schools that put life, and not ego, at the center—will anything else save the planet?

Many of you will be saying “it’s not a case of either/or; it’s both/and.” That might be the case, but maybe I’m simply asking the wrong question. Maybe trying to change education for the better is the wrong approach. While we might set out with the best intentions, trying to change schools is a problem-solution way of thinking, rooted in a mechanical-Newtonian worldview that understands that if we do x then y will happen. The problem is we don’t all agree on what x and y are anyway, which leads to more fragmentation. Moreover, if we take a step back, it’s this mechanical thinking that got us to where we are, so it’s doubtful it will get us out.

Thomas Kuhn wrote that paradigms shift when current theories can’t explain certain phenomena, and someone proposes a new theory that explains these phenomena better.  Say, a community of scientists come to agree on a new theory and laypersons eventually follow and accept this new theory as truth. The shift from geocentric to heliocentric conceptualizations of the solar system is one such example. At other times, it just takes one powerful person to initiate shifts. Christianity was a fringe sect for many years and only became the dominant paradigm as a result of Theodosius I recognizing Catholic orthodoxy as the state religion of the Roman Empire in 380 AD, 68 years after Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. It is a lot easier to shift paradigms when there is one person at the top who can coerce the rest. Another means for shifting is revolution. Most political revolutions that displaced existing paradigms were violent—or threatened violence—and they almost always start at the fringe: American, French, Russian, and Chinese are the more well-known examples, and there are many more. Even the 1989 Eastern European Revolutions were built on the almost ten-year resistance of Poland’s Solidarity movement to state repression. The core doesn’t relinquish power easily.

These examples are all fragmentary. They approach change in terms of the parts that agents play: the scientific community, those in power, intellectual elites, and so forth (back to the if x then y thinking that is so divisive by resulting in binary options). 

Asking whether a new education paradigm should come from the core or the fringe or both at the same time is the wrong question because it starts from the wrong understanding of living systems. The question assumes we can come close to agreeing on one (“best”) model of what the world will look like after change, based on our values of what education should be. This is a fragmentary, problem-solution approach—the if x, then y way of thinking. At worst, it can lead us to sort schools based on how close each is to our ideal, our mental models. 

We should beware of models because they assume inherent replicability and that goes against how living systems operate. We shouldn’t discount models altogether since “all models are wrong, but some are useful,” but we need to season them with a pinch of salt. They’re quick and dirty and don’t describe paradigms.

When considering change, we might want to appreciate that each living system is a whole made up of other nested wholes. Each nested whole is unique and cannot be replicated. Each has a unique essence that has to be developed to achieve its potential and it is never fixed. Nothing exists on its own, everything (including us) is an infinite number of phenomena: the constant interaction of all the parts of the universe at every level, incessant and comprising everything. 

David Bohm wrote that humans are continually developing new forms of insight, which are clear up to a point and then become unclear, and from this new insights develop, and these insights become theories. The operative word here is “continually” because the process is instantaneous and never-ending. 

Reality itself is a process, it is not static, and recognizing that reality is a process reveals that there is no end truth* because everything flows, like the rivers described by Heraclitus, ancient wisdoms, and quantum physics. We are always changing, as are our insights, as is everything. This is why questions are more important than answers when we consider learning. There is no finality.

So what does this have to do with schools? We so often talk about change, about “new normals,” about “better normals,” about personalizing learning, and whatnot. We talk about replacing the old industrial model with new models for the 21st century. The risk is that we engage in the same thinking that got us here, working with models rather than essence. No more models, please. Wholes can’t be replicated because they have unique essences. 

Maybe we stop talking so much about the future of education. Maybe we start appreciating that each school is its own whole, each has its own essence. Imagine talking about the future of children or the future of marshlands without considering each child as their own unique self or each marshland as its own ecosystem? Maybe we start appreciating that each school is on its own journey, each at a different point, each with different potential.

When we understand that living systems comprise of wholes—each of which has a unique essence yet is nested within a larger whole—we understand that paradigm shifts happen through the inner work of each whole and the ripples this inner work generates throughout the system as each whole interacts with the system.

The inner work is part of the flux of the whole, part of the flux of the system. The inner work is a force of becoming**  because it knows no fixed point in time; it is a constant evolution. Becoming opens up possibilities of re-conceptualizing ourselves from nouns to verbs, from entities to phenomena. We are forever changing; we are not who we are. We are our unique and ever-changing essence, immeasurable and interconnected with all in the universe as phenomena. Again, this isn’t woo-woo stuff. It’s quantum physics

We are not beings, we are becomings. The forces of becoming are spurred by the inner work.

The forces of becoming of each school—nay, each learning ecosystem, which is a whole in itself—generate a ripple and the ripples of many wholes coalesce into a wave, then into a tsunami. Maybe we should stop trying to change education and commit to the inner work, repace the outside-in approach with an inside-out approach. Less mechanical thinking, more getting in touch with our unique yet flowing essence.

Paradigm shifts can happen through inner work of the self and the synchronic coming together of the inner work of a multitude of selves (becomings!) into what is collective consciousness. Since the self is a nested whole within the larger nested wholes that are society, the human species, and life, shifts of the self and shifts of paradigm within the community are the same, just different orders of magnitude (and thus force and time required). This is why shifting collective consciousness is the most challenging of efforts, yet also the most natural since nothing is static, everything flows††.

This brings me back to my point about letting each school work out what it needs. We cannot apply a model for change to a living systems framework where each of its nested wholes has an essence that is unique, yet this essence develops incessantly through interactions with other nested wholes and non-living things. Models replicate mechanically while essences become continually.

Instead of talking endlessly about the future of education or shouting that education has to change or bickering unproductively about what that could and should look like, what if we paused and did the inner work, both as selves and as communities, both as nested wholes and as ecosystems? This inner work will generate the forces of becoming, which create the ripples that become tsunamis. 

The inner work is unique to context and to community yet it is not independent of the larger living system. Understanding this is the beginning of the inner work: we are responsible for the ripples we create throughout the living system. We may be unique wholes, but our actions are never isolated. This is the interconnectedness of which quantum physics and ancient wisdoms speak. 

The inner work thus must include a set ethics if we are to direct the forces of becoming a better world, no matter our vision of what that world looks like, and I propose those ethics—and the actions that follow—find the source of one question: 

How will this contribute to the healthfulness of the living system?

It is no coincidence that “health” comes from the Old English hal, which means whole, and the Latin word salvus—the root of santé, salud, and salute—comes from the Sanskrit sárva, also meaning whole. 

This question not only channels our own forces of becoming but also ensures that the living system thrives. This question allows each whole to take its own journey while recognizing that it is interconnected within ever larger living systems. This will open up our thinking and feeling toward abundance, not scarcity. It sees that we are not in competition, but in cooperation, because we are all part of the same living system. It understands that our actions contribute or compromise the welfare of the bio-collective—all living things that have an interest in the healthfulness of the planet. We are all part of the bio-collective.

These ethics, these principles that guide our actions based on our sense of right and wrong, go beyond what is good for the human species. They guide our actions toward all living things.

We need to do the inner work on our own while understanding that we are all connected. This is the most difficult of all work.

Let’s stop talking about the need to change education. Or rather, let’s keep talking so we exchange ideas, help and support each other, and when it makes sense, take that journey together. But let’s respect that every self, every school, every learning ecosystem is at a different place and has different values that come from their unique essence. If we talk about changing education, let’s respect the uniqueness of each learning ecosystem.

This isn’t nihilism. This isn’t asking what’s the point. It’s a call for each whole to do the inner work to identify and decide where each wants to go. It’s a call to spur the forces of becoming in each of us. It’s a call to allow the ripples to become tsunamis. 

It’s a call to channel those forces of becoming back into the living system to ensure its healthfulness. If each of us does the inner work but acts according to this ethic, the paradigm shift might just happen and open to a better world. 

* I don’t mean this in a post-modern way; rather that insights, truths, and worldviews are continuously evolving—yes, even in those we might consider obstinate, fixed mindset holders of fact-free opinions.

** I use the term “becoming” in order to avoid the platonic notion of ideas, which tends to feed rationalism.

†These forces aren’t a Hegelian world spirit either because they aren’t rational consciousness. These forces exist within a bio-centric framework, which goes beyond reason.

†† I am not suggesting that it is not possible to shift paradigms in other ways, as exemplified above. I am suggesting that a shift of collective consciousness through inner work may be the most powerful shift.

Benjamin Freud, Ph.D.

Benjamin Freud, Ph.D. is the co-founder of Coconut Thinking, which creates learning and action experiences where all learners have a common purpose; positive impact on the welfare of the bio-collective — any living thing, sentient or plant, that has an interest in the healthfulness of the planet. Benjamin also works as the Whole School Leader of Learning and Teaching at an International School in Thailand. He was the Academic Coordinator at Misk Schools, which, as the school of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is the most prestigious and high profile school in the kingdom. In 2018-2019, he was also the Head of Upper Primary and Middle School at Misk. Prior to this, he was Vice Principal of the Middle School and High School at the Harbour School in Hong Kong. He holds a Ph.D. in History, an MSc in Education, an MBA, an MA in International Relations, and a BA in International Affairs. Benjamin was born and grew up in Paris, France. He moved to the U.S. when he was 15 and spent 11 years there in different cities, before living in the U.K., Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, and now Thailand. He started his career in consulting for Internet start-ups in Silicon Valley in the late 1990s, working with people whose ambitions were no less than to change the world. This experience had a profound effect on Benjamin’s outlook on education, innovation, and entrepreneurialism.

3 thoughts on “Let’s stop talking about the future of education: let’s do the inner work | Benjamin Freud, Ph.D. | 10 Min Read

  1. What an interesting article. It evoked so many thoughts that I could write pages about it, but I shall spare you. I couldn’t agree more that we should not think in terms of replacing one model with another. Schools are indeed unique ecosystems (most not so healthy, a very few working to become healthy), and each needs to do its own work to respond to the question, “How will this contribute to the healthfulness of the living system,”–to decide where each school wants to go. And the research that I have read into learning and the brain suggests that no one model–even (or especially) in a single school–will ever serve humanity’s diverse education needs.

    The main issue for me is that I don’t know what it means to get in “touch with our unique flowing essence.” I don’t have a background in quantum physics, so that analogy doesn’t help me. I have spent a lifetime studying research into learning and the brain. My own sense of the necessary inner work is that each teacher, each administrator, needs to study and internalize the current insights researchers offer into the biology of learning (I recommend Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, who sees a need for what she has called a Copernican-like paradigm shift). We need to internalize these insights because most of them seem to be at odds with the traditional, already internalized assumptions on which our current structures, policies, and procedures are based (most of which are currently universally incorporated into what we think of as “school”). And, in my experience, while many educators are, in fact, studying this current research, many, many more are not.

    I am not suggesting that researchers have now discovered final truth (and I reject the notion that we will ever find or should find a one-design-fits-all model), only that we have discovered some of the reasons that our current basic design continues to fail: Many of our current “values” seem to have resulted from faulty assumptions about learning and the brain, hence the need to understand new insights and new values. Not to mention that some schools were consciously founded on some very questionable values. Some of the “unique essences” that you suggest we respect may not deserve respect.

    At any rate, experience has taught me that not every learning ecosystem is worthy of respect. In fact, I see depressingly few schools that consider “each child as their own unique self.” I see remarkable similarities in an insistence that all students jump through the same hoops (meet the same graduation requirements, for one example). And so I do think we need to talk about the future of education, given the state of past and present education. We should talk about the future of education in the context of each child’s unique self and all we are learning about the interactions among school environments and both individual and shared human development.

  2. Hi Alden,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I take your point about not having a background in quantum physics to heart. I don’t have one either and, as Richard Feynman said, if you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics. Luckily, ancient wisdoms and living systems thinking provide a more accessible entry point when it comes to essence and impermanence (and quantum and ancient wisdoms are so connected). This is clearly a longer discussion about time as a human construct and the wholeness of the universe. I’m sure there are many sources more capable than I to explain clearly and succinctly.
    I suppose building from your main point is that no one model works for everyone. I can’t agree with you more. I hesitate to put forward that some models don’t deserve respect as that comes from my perspective, my own worldviews. The holders of those same models may think the same of me. We need to let each other be (more on perhaps how to reconcile this in a moment). Research in itself is highly biased and starts with worldviews. You measure what you value. I don’t have a problem with that, it’s just the way we are built. We “just” need to be aware and make others aware of what we bring to the table. From my perspective, learning isn’t all about the brain. I am not suggesting that you think this, though because you don’t explicitly bring in any other elements, I could be tempted to make that assumption, but it wouldn’t be fair (and this is the biggest crime of social media—assuming we understand people’s worldview from 280 characters). But it does mean we should pause and explore so we can learn together. What an opportunity! So what do you think about the idea that learning takes place as a whole body experience? After all, there are “brain cells” in the gut and in the heart. Maybe elsewhere. More to the point, the brain interprets stimuli from the entire body. Even further, we learn together, socially. We do not learn in isolation of anything because we interact with the universe, nay, we are enfolded in the universe. So learning is a social experience too. It is a flow because it happens all the time. That might be different from generative learning, but, again, another conversation.
    So about the thriving ecosystem… yes some ecosystems aren’t great (based on our values). Some schools hurt children and that comes out of their stress, their despair… suicide rates. That’s hard to argue with. If we took a larger, living systems view, we would understand that ecosystems aren’t isolated. The people (everyone, really) who comprise the ecosystems of schools are also ecosystems themselves. Those individual schools are nested within an even larger ecosystem. When I suggest that our ethics should be about what learning and actions that contribute to the thriving of the ecosystem, I mean all ecosystems because they are all connected. One ecosystem is all ecosystems because they are nested within another. This isn’t utilitarianism and it certainly isn’t easy. We can look to nature though to appreciate how that works… an individual ant, a colony, a forest, a region, the world… their all interconnected and balance each other and that is thriving. Schools that hurt, lead to suicide… urgh! So they would be violating the ethics. Whether they deserve respect… well that is up to them and bringing them within the ethical fold. To a large extent, this is such a difficult endeavor: to respect others when we believe there is hurt. Advocacy without listening and learning just leads to escalation and an arms race. This is the challenge! This too is the inner work.
    Thank you for prompting my own thinking!

  3. Benjamin, you are generous to take the time to respond. You ask a question: ‘So what do you think about the idea that learning takes place as a whole body experience? After all, there are “brain cells” in the gut and in the heart. Maybe elsewhere. More to the point, the brain interprets stimuli from the entire body. Even further, we learn together, socially.’ My answer is a resounding yes. Learning is an embodied and social experience. In fact, the researcher whom I mentioned, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang (University of Southern California), certainly includes these aspects (and more) in her research. My concern with a more evolutionary (as opposed to revolutionary) approach to change is that we don’t have time: Children are being damaged by the current system right now (as you point out) and will continue to be. If we have the knowledge to improve the current learning environments and designs, it seems to me we have a moral obligation to get to work–and perhaps, especially, to root out the most destructive practices. It’s the same obligation we have to take action to address the staggering damage we have done and continue to do to the larger ecosystem. We don’t have time to respect the human creations that are destroying species, people, and the planet. In my opinion.

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