A Fundamental Redesign of Our Schools

I climbed the hill leading up to one of my favorite coffee shops in Seattle this morning to enjoy a coffee while taking in a phenomenal view of the city on this beautiful day. As I took a seat on a bench, I noticed there was a woman on a conference call sitting on the bench next to me. She'd put the conference call on speaker, so I could hear everything being said.

My attention wavered between appreciating the gorgeous day and listening to her conference call. It didn't take long for me to realize that the woman's call was among educators participating in what sounded like a virtual staff meeting. The voice leading the call was talking about the challenges of opening the school back up in the fall. There was also talk of the ways students were coping with being at home all day, and how educators could leverage their knowledge of trauma-informed strategies to help students engage with learning until everyone could meet back up at the physical school in person.

Overhearing this woman's conversation got me thinking about some of the conversations going on in the education world about what it will be like to open back up after COVID-19 is no longer such a threat, and, maybe more interestingly, if this might be a huge opportunity to fundamentally shift the way we do things in education.

While I find the prospect of huge shifts exciting, I also find them concerning. Naturally, different people have very different views of how schools ought to shift and for what purpose. Every crisis also presents opportunity, and whether we make the most of the opportunity depends on whose voices are heard and the incentives that motivate them.

I thought I'd take a moment to weigh in here about where I'd like to see education go, and the pitfalls I think are inherent in some of the more powerful currents of thought regarding a post-COVID reopening of schools.

If you don't know me, let me lay out my bias right here at the beginning: I believe the purpose of school is in supporting young people specifically, and our society generally, in growing into something more evolved, aware, and in touch with our environment and ourselves than we are right now. As Pasi Sahlberg says, the purpose of education is to help people become their best selves.

For far too long, the Western model of schooling has focused far too heavily on developing the cognitive functions of our intelligence and has generally paid little or no attention to the other vital forms of intelligence that, when trained, we are able to access through our body, emotions, intuition, and relationships, to name a few.

To draw an analogy, our overemphasis on our cognitive selves is akin to body building by going to the gym to workout your right bicep to the exclusion of every other muscle in your body. Over time, you might develop a phenomenally strong right bicep capable of lifting very heavy things. You might be so impressed with the strength your right bicep is capable of that you might mistake it for the very definition of strength, and you might mistake the purpose of the gym for the sole purpose of exercising your right bicep. You might show your right bicep off to others, and proselytize to them about the virtues of working their right bicep. If you met a person with well-developed legs and abdominal muscles, or even a well-developed left bicep, you might not even be able to acknowledge the values inherent in working those muscles because the entirety of your experience with muscle building has been shaped in such a way that right bicep strength, for you, is what strength is. Now you've become blind to other valuable forms of strength. You've also developed some very imbalanced musculature, which actually puts you at increased risk of injury, despite your impressive ability to lift very heavy things with your right bicep.

We do something very similar in schooling. We train students in the use and development of their cognitive domain to the exclusion of the other ways of knowing and being that are gifted to us at birth in our DNA. Yes, we sometimes pay lip service to other domains, using terms like social-emotional learning, but all in all, the culture of schooling is still very unhealthfully rooted in the notion that cognitive intelligence is the very definition of intelligence.

I would like to suggest that the unbalanced development of our young people in schools has profound implications for their health and the health of our society. Again, this is similar to the way that overworking your right bicep in the gym has implications for the stability of your posture and movement. In effect, an overemphasis on one part of your body while ignoring the others actually makes you more prone to injury and can have cascading effects on other bodily systems. It is, in fact, a risky approach to body building - something like trying to shoot a canon from a canoe. Without the support muscles that allow the bicep to do its work (in this analogy, a canoe represents the underdeveloped support muscles, when what's really needed is a battleship), the use of an overdeveloped bicep can damage the overall frame of the body.

Similarly, an unbalanced approach to learning, particularly in the very disconnected and individualistic society that we live in, also has profound implications for our health. While well-developed rational, analytical brains have proven they can do incredible things like plan civilizations, investigate the nature of quantum physics, or predict the weather, they are not always the best resource for a lot of basic human endeavors, such as figuring out how to relate to people, or how we recruit the resources available to us to help metabolize and make sense of our traumas.

Life in the modern world is inherently traumatic. Many of us have a lack of clarity about the purpose or direction of our lives. Others grow up in a society that seeks to marginalize them, sometimes quite violently. Still others have never learned what it's like to meaningfully connect to another human being. Understandably, these challenges create a lot of angst and discomfort in young people, many of whom, I believe, have yet to accept this situation as "normal." Yet, the best hope that schooling tends to offer is the possibility of financial reward at the end of a long and stressful gauntlet through the sometimes cold and institutional experience of schooling. Presumably, if you're lucky, and you've managed to secure a life where you're able to earn enough money not to be worried about housing, health care, and food security (no small task for many folks in the United States), you can figure out for yourself how to live a decent life. School has almost nothing to say whatsoever about the decent life part beyond developing your cognitive intelligence in such a way that you will be able to market it in order to pay for things you want.

It is no wonder that addiction, depression, and chronic disease are spiraling out of control in much of the modern world. The belief that a meaningful life can be achieved by following the map our culture has laid out for us, I think, could be seen as a type of pathogen. And the sense that schooling can support this path solely through the development of our cognitive abilities is a further mutation of this pathogen.

If we're going to have big conversations about possible seismic shifts in the way we do education, then let's avoid those conversations that seek to put our age-old cognitive learning approaches on steroids by trying to optimize "digital learning" and ensure equity by minimizing community.

To my mind, one of the most powerful things educators can do going forward is to digest and put to work the astounding implications of cutting-edge research in the field of traumatology, and specifically polyvagal theory. Of the many things we've learned in the last decades of this research is that our cognitive thinking is undergirded by our biological and physiological processes. In other words, the way we think, reason, and respond to new experiences is largely a function of how safe we feel and how other people in our presence are responding.

Far too many schools and school systems across our country are extremely socially toxic environments - that is to say, they are lacking in authentic, meaningful relationships, and swarming with high-stress hormones due to real and perceived threats that often exist for the purpose of ensuring compliance rather than fostering creativity. In addition to unfunded mandates that create loads of precarious legal liability for administrators trying to create an appearance of checking off all the right boxes to avoid being sued, a great many of the humans wandering the halls and classrooms are in states of extreme stress and physiologically dysregulated to the point where even cognitive learning is nearly impossible. In this state, they are even less available to develop the most intelligent traits of humanity, such as empathy and compassion.

In an interview at Google about his book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger suggests that post-traumatic stress disorder might be less a function of experiencing trauma than the context in which trauma occurs. Life is full of trauma, regardless of where or when a person is born. If human beings didn't have a natural ability to integrate and metabolize trauma, it seems unlikely we would have survived very long as a species. The problem with modern societies and schooling may be that we have removed the resource by which humans heal - i.e. connection and community. Healing, growth, learning - these are different ways of talking about a common phenomenon. I think it very likely that in the future, colleges of health will house colleges of education. In the present, the schooling experience we put our young people through must begin to create room for the possibility of the integrated and balanced growth of an individual. If, as a society, we are going to create a future that both harnesses the extraordinary power of our intellect as well as decreases the horrific rates of depression, anxiety, and addiction we're currently seeing, then, yes, schools will need to be very different.

Perhaps the most significant thing I can say about how we might work to change schools for the better following COVID-19 is to say that they must be oriented first and foremost in community. People with power in our school systems must work to change policies that put people in survival modes into policies that encourage a sense of safety and creativity. Adults and students with trauma must be offered supports for understanding their triggers and working through them. And structures that encourage opportunities for eye contact, play, and emotionality will go a long way toward growing both healthy and intelligent human beings.

There was a part of me that wanted to say all that to the educators participating on that conference call I heard this morning, but, instead, I walked back down the hill to my house, and put it in this blog post. I hope I didn't ramble too much, and my thoughts are at least somewhat coherent. If you had the time and interest to read all the way through, I'd love to hear your feedback. 


  1. Hola James, Hope everything is going well for you and yours in this time of trepidation.

    I'm certainly not a big fan of psychology while at the same time acknowledging that some of the concepts can be helpful in understanding what makes we humans tick. The Polyvagel theory is one that I struggle to lend credence to although the underlying desires to make the teaching and learning process are laudable. From my experiences I've found far too many psychological theories that underlie many practices to be less than adequate and indeed, have, in spite of the good intentions, been harmful to the teaching and learning process and to the students. Which I believe you are trying to counteract with your writings/being.

    I prefer to keep things on a very basic human level in attempting to improve the teaching and learning process: Do I positively address each student to/for what they believe they are in their very being? Do I make it a point to positively include all to the greatest extent possible in the workings of the classroom? Do I counteract my own initial prejudices when encountering the student whether for a first time or on a daily basis? Do I treat everyone as equitable as possible in the teaching and learning process? Do I seek to protect the students from harmful educational malpractice mandates? Did the lesson work? And quite a few more questions I always asked myself during the course of my teaching career. I found that the process of asking and answering those questions helped me to become a better teacher, at least I thought it did.

    I don't have a lot of need for psychological theories in that process. For me it clutters my thinking-not that I don't think those things aren't interesting but the questions I have about those things such as Polyvagel Theory cannot be satisfactorily answered in a way that makes them relevant to the classroom teaching and learning process.

    As far as "Life in the modern world is inherently traumatic." I'd leave out modern. Life can be and oftentimes is traumatic, as the saying goes, it's a dog eat dog's world sometimes. And education, the teaching and learning process, should be and can be a palliative for that fact. And that care HAS TO BE DONE by teachers and not a screen. Trite but true, screens cannot sense emotional states that are necessary components of the teaching and learning process.

    1. Hi Duane! Nice, as always to hear from you. I hope you are doing well too during this time.

      I really appreciate the questions you shared here. There is a lot of wisdom in there, and if every teacher asked themselves those questions, I have a feeling teaching and learning would certainly happen in more useful and humane ways.

      I agree that life is inherently traumatic. It does seem to me, though, that modern living is perhaps uniquely traumatic, or maybe traumatic in different ways than it may have been in the past.


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