A New Vision for Education: From Career to Creative Life

Education stakeholders currently share a common vision of preparing students for career and life. However, the transformation of work driven by accelerating technologies is challenging our understanding of readiness and the very nature of career itself. Indeed, as digitally automated and augmented work diffuses across industries and reshapes the productive contributions of humans, traditional notions of career may actually limit opportunities for success. Rather, a more robust process of cultivating a creative life may be more effective in helping students develop the capabilities, motivation, and self efficacy to thrive in the emerging era of smart machines. Educators, counselors, parents, and other stakeholders would benefit from an understanding of the shift from career to creative life in order to effectively support students for long-term well-being and success in the future.

The Need for Passion and Creativity at Work

The rise of smart machines, global production networks, and technological acceleration are transforming the work landscape. Technological job displacement through automation is widely accepted, yet the pace and scope of its impact are still unfolding. A University of Oxford study reports that 47% of current US middle class jobs are at risk due to automation over the next twenty years. While the McKinsey Global Institute suggests that 45% of the activities that workers do today could be computerized. Others forecast that technology will redefine work and create new jobs rather than destroy them.

Central to the evolution of jobs and meaningful productive work in the future will be the demand for human creativity, curiosity, imagination, and emotional intelligence. Indeed a key element of success in an innovation-driven economy is the ability to leverage human passion and imagination in the pursuit of new ideas and possibilities. Supporting and amplifying these uniquely human capabilities will bring success and competitive advantage to organizations across industries. And as smart machines perform more cognitive, “knowledge work” tasks, these human super powers will be critical for a fruitful professional and personal life. As John Hagel, co-chair for Deloitte’s Center for the Edge advises,

Find a passion. Find something you’re really, really passionate about, and don’t stop until you find it. Once you find it, find a way to make a living out of it because that’s the only way you’re going to thrive in the new world.

In the emerging work environment, the productive individual is a creative producer of original ideas and approaches, building a portfolio of work that is the unique personal and professional signature of the individual. This means more than cultivating a personal brand. It means discovering and developing an expression of the individual’s creative identity applied to the problems and challenges of her broader productive community.

As automation permeates work, the uniquely human meta-cognitive strengths will form the basis of new jobs, work projects, and lifelong productive pursuits. Educational institutions (including those serving K12, postsecondary, and higher education students, and lifelong learners) will need to prioritize and re-orient around two insights:

  • Effective educational preparation and readiness will need to prioritize its focus on the development of a strong human social-emotional core and self-concept to provide an engine for curiosity, creativity, lifelong learning, positive relationship building, and resilience; and
  • Career development processes and supports will need to shift from an external orientation based on short-term market needs and static job requirements to a focus on cultivating a creative life.

These two insights are critical guiding principles for educators as they design learning experiences and programs intended to prepare students for long-term success in an increasingly automated world.

A Social-Emotional Core for Readiness

An effective readiness approach for the emerging world of work will be built on a strong inner social-emotional core. As described by the KnowledgeWorks Foundation in Redefining Readiness from the Inside Out,  attending to the fundamental human capabilities of self discovery, individual awareness (emotional regulation) and social awareness (perspective taking and empathy) is essential to effective progress  in other foundational cognitive and meta-cognitive capabilities that are critical to the emerging world of digitally automated and augmented work.  Failure to address and develop the fundamental human capabilities will constrain success and well-being in the future world of work.

Among foundational practices (see figure above), problem-solving, thinking differently, creating with numbers, making friends with people and machines are critical capabilities for creative production and innovation. These capabilities draw heavily on a deep sense of self and resilience that grow from skilled awareness, understanding, regulation, and management of human emotions. Individuals without these skills will not be able to weather the rapid change and volatility of the workplace. They will struggle to effectively respond to the imperative to build productive relationships and maintain the agility and motivation to learn.

A Focus on Cultivating a Creative Life

While automation is elevating the importance of bringing uniquely human capabilities to work, it also is disaggregating work from institutions causing it to become distributed across online markets and platforms. Employment will be increasingly arranged, evaluated, and coordinated by algorithms enabling the growth of online talent platforms, contingent work contracts, algorithmically managed project-based work, and professional nomadism. In the context of fragmented employment and projects, how might individuals construct a narrative of their professional lives and make choices that contribute to a fulfilled life?

The desire to learn and continue on a journey of self development will propel successful individuals through the job and work choices of the emerging era of work. Individual initiative and self efficacy will be essential for building coherent work strategies through potentially turbulent and rapidly changing employment environments. The traditional notion of career — with its predetermined, linear path of work and codified skill development — is not robust enough to help to organize a professional life. Likewise, most career management models are aligned to industrial era work and are not sufficient for the kinds of personal and professional development necessary to be successful in a creativity and passion driven economy.

The table below describes the shift from managing traditional careers of the industrial era to cultivating creative lives in an era where human contribution at work is derived from imagination and creativity.

Source: Saveri Consulting, 2017; derived from Marc Zegans, Arc and Interruption

Strategic Implications for Educators

Education leaders have an opportunity to re-examine their school models, programs, services, and learner experiences to understand how they might support their students in developing a creative life in the rapidly emerging world of smart machines and digitally automated and augmented work. Specifically, educators should identify and focus on ways to support students in developing a robust self-concept with tools and capabilities necessary for professional creative production and practice.

Below are some opportunity areas to consider for supporting students in developing a creative life, with examples of current programs and initiatives.

Help students build robust inner selves
Schools that fully integrate social-emotional learning across curriculum and school community life will provide students daily practice in building and integrating essential emotion management skills. This will help students recognize and appreciate emotion management as a core tool for self care, creative engagement, and identity development as they encounter the joys and challenges of learning in a socially dynamic school community. Comprehensive social-emotional curriculum programs such as the RULER program and other CASEL programs are evidence based programs that work with educators to develop their social-emotional skills and implement curriculum into preK-12 classrooms and after school programs.

Develop multidisciplinary, thematic learning that drives self-examination
Creative production emerges from discovery, uncertainty, conflict, challenge, emotion, and expressive desire. To develop their creative thinking, expression, and problem solving capabilities students need to engage in relatable experiences and real world issues. Particularly in middle and high school years, they need to care and be activated by real world phenomena that spark awe, compassion, outrage, and joy. With greater self-discovery students will find passions that direct their creative energy and learning.
Schools such as SF BrightWorks, Tahoe Expedition Academy, Big Picture Learning, and Finland’s approach to phenomenological learning are examples of multidisciplinary, thematic, learner-centric education that puts individual student discovery and sense-making at the center.

Develop assessment frameworks that reveal uniqueness not averages
Most students experience assessments as competitive comparisons with their peers that highlight their deficits. Report cards and transcripts focus on reporting average and reductive scores (GPA, SAT, ACT) rather than unique strengths, experiences, and possible future directions as a creative individual and learner. The Mastery Transcript initiative is a collective of high schools collaborating to develop an alternative model of assessment, crediting and transcript generation that serves students by creating a unique, visual graphic that illustrates a student’s individual learning, growth, and experiences. Students demonstrate their mastery of skills, knowledge and habits of mind by presenting evidence of their work that is institutionally assessed. The electronic Transcript allows college admissions, counselors, parents, or students themselves to click through any part of the graphic transcript to get a deeper story about the individual student’s body of work. The Mastery Transcript has the potential to shift a student’s school experience (and college admissions) toward more authentic engagement around and discussion of a her personal development and expression as a learner and creative thinker in the world.

Support teachers as creative designers
Teachers create learning experiences, inquiry-based project engagements, social and emotional climates in their classrooms, and various growth opportunities for their students every day. As creators and designers, they are important role models for their students. Teacher professional development and training should shift toward supporting their growth as creative designers of social-emotional, academic, and community/civic experiences. ISKME’s Action Collab program and the Teachers Guild are dedicated to developing the capacity of teachers as creative designers and innovators by offering training and a peer community for user-centered design and problem-solving techniques that they can bring back to their schools and classrooms.

Refocus teacher preparation programs on human development
Teacher training institutions need to re-examine their programmatic approaches and priorities to ensure that new teachers gain a meaningful understanding of the shift to the emerging era of digital automation and its implications for human learning and ongoing self-development. With this background they will be able to design learning experiences, assessments, and communities that best support student wellbeing in the future. Specifically, new teachers should be well equipped with social-emotional intelligence skills. It will be necessary for them to create appropriate and productive emotional climates in their classrooms and apply emotion-based skills to manage their own professional practice as well as guide students through their social-emotional self-development. A recent CASEL study shows that SEL is lacking in most teacher certification policies and in the coursework of colleges for teacher education. In particular, they note that teacher self-awareness and self-management skills could potentially contribute to improving the rate of teacher burnout.

These are just a few concrete examples of the ways that schools can begin to support students as creative producers in an increasingly automated world. School senior administrators, principals, trustees, and school boards should consider the shift from career to creative life in their strategic planning, communications, and marketing efforts to ensure their schools are aligned with the future of work and professional life.

To learn more about the implications of Redefining Readiness for your school or organization’s strategy, and the rise of creative production click here.

Unleashing Innovation in Teachers

“In the future I am going to do something that scares me more often.”
Big Ideas Fest 2014 Participant

MadLibImage

Reflections like the one above are what keep me coming back every year as a designer and facilitator of ISKME’s Big Ideas Fest — an annual immersion in collaboration and design for educators around the world looking to make meaningful change in teaching and learning.

As someone who works behind the scenes, as well as in the midst of the action, I am always thrilled to see the diverse collection of educators arrive with enthusiasm, some with a degree of healthy skepticism, and leave Big Ideas Fest as experienced BIFniks— open, collaborative, and hopeful education change makers, equipped with new tools and concepts, and inspired to put them into practice in their own learning environments.

The Action Collab—ISKME’s design thinking process— frames the Big Ideas Fest experience as it gives BIFniks a chance to immerse themselves in an innovation and collaboration experience in order to learn it and apply it to real world education challenges. It provides a common language for the way we interact, pose questions, and look ahead to post BIF engagements.

We asked BIFiks to reflect on their Big Ideas Fest experience at its conclusion to learn about the impact of the BIF and Action Collabs on their work. Three important outcomes, listed below, emerged from their comments about their Action Collab experience.

It demystifies and democratizes innovation by breaking it down into practical activities
BIFniks leave with a grounded experience in creative problem-solving and with an understanding of how to set themselves up for innovating at home. They learn to become open collaborators less concerned about perfection and more focused on generating possibilities to explore.

Today I learned:
“How to move forward from a juicy question to a specific innovative solution.”
“Letting go of my own outcome leads to new discoveries.”
“The design process is messy but generative.”

It instills fearlessness and confidence in their own abilities as creative problem-solvers
They learn how to trust their own creative instinct and gain an appreciation for the uncertainty and surprise factor that accompanies true innovation.

My biggest take-away is:
“There’s something productive behind frustration!”
“You can’t predict where an idea will go.”
“I can’t be wrong, my ideas matter.”

It gives them skills and practices to act on right away
BIFniks walk away with clear, practical tools for collaborating and unlocking creativity in themselves and their colleagues.

In the future I’m going to:
“Live ‘Yes, And’ more often.”
“Resist suppressing my creativity.”
“Listen in order to receive”
“Use student collaboration right away in my own work.”

I’m looking forward to our upcoming Facilitator Training for Action Collabs on April 27-28, 2015 in San Francisco. If you want to learn how to facilitate an Action Collab process in your own organization, ISKME is offering a 2-day immersive training where you will learn the Action Collab process and its rationale, by participating in an Action Collab, and learning how to set up Action Collab modules for your own groups. Check out the following announcement for more details, and email andrea@iskme.org if you have additional questions.

Notes on Conversations of Education Transformation: Frames Shaping the Stories and Solutions

As I participate in discussions about the future of education, I listen for how the conversations get framed.  Underlying most discussions about innovation and transformation in education are assumptions that tend to set the boundaries of discussions.  Sometimes these frames are overt, sometimes hidden, but in any case they influence the kinds of questions that get asked and shape the solution space.  They highlight some players over others and may orient towards particular solutions.  Ultimately they shape how we view opportunity and visions of what is possible.

Here are three frames that I have noticed.  I’m sure there are others out there too.  When I sense that we are moving into one of these frames, I draw it out so that we can be explicit, work the frame to deepen our conversation, then move to another frame.

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The performance frame is typically technology driven.   It frames discussions by focusing on innovations that drive what teaching and learning could look like.  (Time on the x-axis and performance on the y-axis.) These conversations tend to focus on what is possible from innovative ideas and new technologies.  Questions focus on how emerging technology clusters and new conceptual paradigms enable improved system functionality and value.  The key here is how performance is measured.  It could be increased access (as with MOOCs) or greater affordability and relevance (as with competency-based education programs). Over time, as incremental gains decline and are exhausted a new set of technologies comes along and boosts performance to a new level.  The benefit of this frame is that it can serve as a springboard for imagining new constellations of innovations that collectively could increase the performance of the system.  It also focuses on highlighting definitions, measures, and values for system performance.

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The adoption frame originates from Everett Rogers’ early work on the diffusion of innovation and recently is described as the “two curve” challenge, in Ian Morrison’s book, The Second Curve.  (Time is on the x-axis and penetration rate is on the y-axis.)  This frame is more human, and organization centered.  It focuses on the threats and opportunities of innovations to specific users and stakeholders.  It helps orient conversations around what might enable or inhibit adoption of innovations.  For example, who doesn’t want to move to the new curve and what economic or political drivers may be the reason? Are there other barriers in the market or within an organization?  This frame also is a good way to discuss what kinds of risks emerge, and when, from remaining on the existing curve too long or leaving it too early.

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The concept of the adaptive cycle is at the root of the ecosystem frame.  This lens on change in education helps us look at the breakdown and disruption of the traditional education system as part of an adaptive process to a newer system that is better aligned to its context and conditions.   After a mature forest experiences breakdown and loss from fire, it re-generates itself by opening itself to unknown possibilities from potentially new species and relationships among plants, insects, wildlife, and nutrient flows.  Productive relationships thrive and over time the ecosystem rebuilds itself in response to its new conditions.

The ecosystem frame is particularly useful for orienting education system discussions around new opportunities, potential value, and relationships.  The frame highlights the generative dynamic of relationships and novel responses to threats and disruptions. Rather than resist disruptions (such as new technologies and innovative organizational models) or fall back on existing (ineffective) responses, the ecosystem frame points out adaptive responses by examining opportunities created by the release of resources, re-organization of relationships, and exploitation (leverage) of new niches in the ecosystem.

We’re currently in the early period of exploitation in which novel combinations of players are testing the ground and seeing what kind of sustainable value they can create.  Content and curriculum development is proliferating among open educational resource spaces that support new combinations of teachers, experts, and learning agents like librarians. New ideas like blended learning and competency-based assessment are attracting experimentation and pilots.  The most damaging action to the education ecosystem now would be to stifle experimentation (the exploitation of opportunities presented by new ideas, technologies, and players) and the learning obtained from successful and failed initiatives.

The adaptive cycle is nature’s learning process that supports its resilience over time.  For this reason, the ecosystem frame is a useful one for challenging the rhetoric around experimentation and failure (as in “don’t experiment with my children”) and creating a more productive conversation focused on learning and system improvement.

See my earlier post for a detailed explanation of the adaptive cycle.

Benefits of an Ecosystem Frame for Understanding the Future of Education

Using the adaptive cycle to imagine sustainable transformation of teaching and learning systems

The word ecosystem is used a lot in education today to talk about new ways of organizing teaching and learning. Often the term is used to refer to more network-styled relationships (rather than hierarchy) among a diversity of players and roles (rather than a single bureaucratic system) using various modes of organizing learning experiences (rather than one-size fits all approaches).

The concept of the adaptive cycle is at the root of an ecosystem frame and worth exploring to understand more deeply the possibilities for transformation in education. The ecosystem lens on change in education helps us examine disruption and breakdown of the traditional education system as part of an adaptive process to a newer system that is better aligned to its context and conditions.

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Source: Saveri Consulting, derived from Hollings, Radford, Weeks, Rodriguez, and Blakeslee.

Mature, tightly connected ecosystems can become rigid as they accumulate resources in their conservation phase.  And while they may be efficient in their exchange of resources, they are inflexible and susceptible to breakdown when confronted by threats and disruptions, such as fires, invasive pests, drought, and pollution. These shocks drive a release of energy and nutrients as trees and plants burn, wildlife scatters, soil erodes (or floods), and resources become disconnected from their traditional relationships.  Release leads to re-organization as gaps in the ecosystem invite new species and resources.  Loss of low growing, dense plants may allow more circulation and sunshine to penetrate a forest and sets the stage for new plant species.  New plants species may attract new kinds of wildlife—perhaps new insects and other creatures that create new relationships and resource connections.  Re-organization of existing ecosystem inhabitants and new entrants enables a period of exploitation—a time of rapid experimentation by ecosystem inhabitants to learn what relationships are most productive and sustainable.  Some new species fare better than others.  Some may get crowded out by invasive species (weeds) while others may benefit from the stabilizing effects they have on the soil.  As successful combinations form, they grow and accumulate more resources and reach and begin to define the transformation of the ecosystem over time. (see this for a detailed explanation of the adaptive cycle).

The ecosystem frame is particularly useful for orienting education system discussions around new opportunities, potential value, and relationships.   The frame highlights the generative dynamic of relationships and novel responses to threats and disruptions. Rather than resist disruptions (such as new technologies and innovative organizational models) or fall back on existing (ineffective) responses, the ecosystem frame points out adaptive responses by examining opportunities created by the release of resources, re-organization of relationships, and exploitation (leverage) of new niches in the ecosystem.

Shocks to the traditional bureaucratic education system in the past few decades include disruptive technologies, increasingly diverse learning populations, new workforce requirements, soaring costs, and economic crisis (declining budgets).

Traditional responses from existing players seem to have only driven greater breakdown and release in the system, as student and new teacher dropout rates have increased, schools apply for charter waivers and reduce connection to the public system, and neighborhood schools close.  This may not be a bad thing as breakdown and release have created openings for new ideas and players.  Ed tech innovators have entered the teaching and learning ecosystem, as have community organizations such as libraries and museums.  Venture capital firms, crowdsourced funding platforms, and employers are playing new roles as funders and partners.  New individuals are finding their way into the teaching and learning field as professionals or para-professionals in new kinds of spaces of learning like media labs, techshops, maker centers, and learning hives.  New school models are attracting new providers.

We’re currently in the early period of exploitation in which novel combinations of players are testing the ground and seeing what kind of sustainable value they can create.  Content and curriculum development is proliferating among open educational resource spaces that support new combinations of teachers, experts, and learning agents like librarians. Foundations are seeding more cross-boundary partnerships and novel pilot projects. New ideas like blended learning and competency-based assessment are attracting experimentation and pilots.  And schools themselves are beginning to open to more experimentation among its faculty and staff. The most damaging action to the education ecosystem now would be to stifle experimentation (the exploitation of opportunities presented by new ideas, technologies, and players) and the learning obtained from successful and failed initiatives.

The adaptive cycle is nature’s learning process that supports its resilience over time.  For this reason, the ecosystem frame is a useful one for challenging the rhetoric around experimentation and failure (as in “don’t experiment with my children”) and creating a more productive conversation focused on learning and system improvement.

Making the Future of Education Actionable Today

One of the challenges of foresight work is to make new insights about the future relevant to our own situations and actionable in meaningful ways.  Foresight needs to be matched with processes that help leaders move past “This is interesting, but what does it have to do with my organization?” towards something more like “This reframes our professional development needs (or choices for strategic partners, etc.) and here are 3 things I can do now!”

The KnowledgeWorks Foundation recently released a new toolkit that is intended to help education stakeholders do just this.  Creating a New World of Learning: A Toolkit for Change Makers is an action planning guide that helps leaders design and facilitate customized learning experiences that help them think long in order to take action now.  The toolkit supports the forecast content that KWF have been developing and sharing for the past several years, such as their 2020 Forecast: Creating the Future of Learning and Learning Agents of 2025.

I worked with KWF to develop the toolkit and one of my goals was to make sure that education stakeholders had an opportunity to engage creatively and play with ideas about the future of education.   Rather than look for proven answers, it seemed important to create opportunities for leaders and groups to ask “What if?” and explore possibilities, even if they seem a little crazy or silly. With this in mind we broke out the activities into four sections:Imagine, Learn, Apply, and Prioritize.


Imagine and Learn sections focus on expanding the visions of what is possible in the future of education and developing a shared language and set of concepts to talk about future possibilities.  The Apply and Prioritize sections focus on applying new concepts and possibilities to a group’s organization and identifying opportunities for action.

The toolkit works a bit like a Chinese menu. Each section has multiple activities that facilitators can pick from to structure their learning experience.  The document is web-enabled so viewers can jump around and check out each section, the resources in the back, end even sample agendas.

There is also a rich set of audio, video, and text based resources to support activities.  There are audio and video clip stories in which future learners and learning agents describe their teaching and learning experiences.  There are text-based scenarios about future learning systems that describe how stakeholders might interact and how resource might be allocated. And education artifacts from the future provide an opportunity for practicing a bit of future focused archeology.   Participants can explore new ideas through hands on activities such as card games, prototyping, storytelling, and news headline generation.  And ultimately, there are opportunities for participants to use their new insights to identify new goals and actions for change.

Since the activities are modular, sessions can be flexibly planned to last 2 hours or as longer half or full day sessions.  The hope is that this toolkit brings some fun and safe risk taking, and thoughtful play to the education transformation process.

From Pedagogy to Sociogogy

I recently watched the video of the  Independent Project and caught some of the commentary like this and this from the NYT .

I don’t know the back story of the project, but I have to say it made me very excited to see a collaborative and supportive model of learning in action.  It boiled down to responsibility and trust for me.

The discussion of the Independent Project’s significance brings me to the term pedagogy and how we have built a system of learning around a very old concept of learning that hasn’t changed much since the Greeks.  A few years ago my colleague Matt Chwierut and I forecast the need to develop social learning platforms and practices that enable “sociogogy” – leading one another.  (The forecast was for KnowledgeWorks Foundation).

The term pedagogy comes from the ancient Greek practice of assigning a slave—literally a leader (agagos in Greek) of children—to escort boys to school and generally supervise them as they prepared for life in Greek society. This paternal teacher-student relationship, of an adult leading a child through a course of study has persisted in basic form since then. The diffusion of Internet connectivity, mobile devices, and participatory media is disrupting this long tradition. The connected, open, and social media context is creating a new context for cultivating relationships among learners and teachers. Like the Internet itself, the structure of learning relationships is flattening, becoming more peer-based and networked than hierarchical, expert dependent, and “command and control” driven. Educator-learner relationships are becoming
more co-creative and self-initiated by individual learners. Many have referred to this learning relationship shift as a move from the “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side,” but in fact the transformation is more fundamental. Indeed the experimentation with networked, co-creative, peer-based relationships among learners suggests a shift from “pedagogy” to “sociogogy”—in which teachers and students are learning “companions” (from the Latin “socius”) leading one
another.

In the video, the principal remarks how the students moved themselves through learning experiences vs being on a conveyor belt of lessons.  I hope the video sparks new ideas, pilots, and more research so that we can move toward a more sociogogical (ugh, combersome word) system of learning.

In Search of Flow: An Emerging Culture of Attention

The release of the PNAS study, “Cognitive control in media multitaskers”, sparked the latest round of debate about whether we are losing ground in a landscape of distractions or entering into a renaissance of attention.  The study by Stanford researchers Eyal Ophir, Clifford Nass, and Anthony Wagner, reports that in various standard psychological tests for cognitive control (attention and working memory) light media multitaskers performed better than heavy media multitaskers.  Note that this study measured performance in a controlled lab context and not in the real world.  (Read the article here for the full description of conditions and results)  Nevertheless, this kicked off another round in what Stowe Boyd calls “the war on flow.”

The discussion seems to go something like this. On one side are the proponents of attentional poverty.  They argue that the emerging digital media landscape of Twitter, Facebook, email, iPhones and Blackberries and the meteoric growth of information are increasing the distractions in our environment, depleting our attention, and driving us toward a surface understanding –gaining information but losing wisdom.   The benefits of mutlitasking are a myth. (Christine Rosen ).

On the other side are the proponents of creative abundance.  This argument describes a new landscape of connection and creativity.  It argues for the benefits of distraction and overstimulation (Sam Anderson “In defense of Distraction” ).  The new media world is indeed a world of distractions.  It is nonlinear, less “efficiency” oriented and it offers possibilities for greater creativity, serendipity, and novelty.  Could Einstein have come up with his theory of relativity as a patent clerk if he maintained total focus on the job and his mind didn’t wander? Or if his job interrupted him so much he couldn’t focus on relativity? This position argues for the opportunities from “flow” and new approaches for greater understanding and knowledge creation (Stowe Boyd).

Stowe Boyd offers this perspective on his experience with digital media flow:

Perhaps what we are doing has nothing to do with efficiency. I don’t operate the way I do with the principal goal of speeding things up. My motivations are much more complex and diffused. I don’t perceive what I am doing as multitasking, really. I am not trying to speed up how quickly I shift from one thing to another. Instead, I am involved in a stream of activities, in which other people figure prominently, either synchronously through direct discussion (a la Twitter or IM) or indirectly, through their writings and my responses.

And further on he adds:

If you judge a juggler by how many times the balls hit the floor and contrast that with someone throwing and catching one ball at a time, the juggler will always lose. But the juggler is doing something different. You could argue that doing it that way makes no sense, that throwing one ball at a time is more efficient, leads to less sleepless nights, and doesn’t confuse the mind. But it isn’t juggling.

I was happy to read Boyd’s post because he brought the discussion back to the big issues that the Stanford study raises – there are distinct modes of cognition and we need to learn more about how they are developed, inhibited, and what they mean for us in terms of learning, work, relationships, and our environments.   Perhaps these distinct cognitive modes realize different kinds of cognitive gains in different contexts.  Achieving low efficiencies in single task completion may be offset by high efficiencies in other kinds of tasks.  There may be multiple kinds of cognitive goals and realizing them may require a combination of information processing modes or a selection of modes based on goals and context.

So what are our principal goals?  To what ends do we want to direct our attention, as individuals and as a society?   Maggie Jackson orients her discussion of distraction and attention in this bigger context.   She is a healthy skeptic who acknowledges the power of our technology and stresses the importance of deep reflection on who and what we are becoming when we use it.

In Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age,  published in 2008, she exposes the centrality of attention to our humanity – our sense of the past and our collective ability to reflect deeply and imagine the future.  She pushes the reader to reflect on how digital media may be affecting us and what kinds of values, and choices, they reflect. While the title may suggest that this book fits squarely in the “war on flow” camp, it really doesn’t.  She argues that we risk eroding our capacity for deep reflection, intimacy, and the potential to sculpt our future if we do not critically examine the impacts of our technologically enabled lives on attention.  She fears that we may be over valuing surface understanding and speed for depth and reflection.

I’m not angling for a return to some sort of pastoral, un-mechanized Eden in order to halt the erosion of attention.  We cannot blame technology on society’s ills.  Nor can we fall in to the opposite and increasingly commonplace trap of blindly trusting that our new tools will automatically usher us into a glorious new age.  The tools we are wholeheartedly embracing today are inherently powerful, and we ignore that truth at our peril. You can use a stick for digging potatoes or stabbing your neighbor, so how you use a stick is important, but equally important is the fact that a stick is not a wheel.  … This is the messy soup that makes up our relation to technology, and explains why technology plays a starring but ultimately subordinate role if this book.  Technology is a key to understanding our world, but it is not the full story.  Instead we must ask: how do we want to define progress?  We are adapting to a new world, but in doing so are we redefining “smart” to mostly mean twitch speed, multitasking, and bullet points?  Are we similarly redefining intimacy and trust?


However she also suggests that we may be on the edge of an attentional renaissance, fueled by our growing understanding about the science of attention (citing research by Michael Posner, David Meyer, and others).

As humans, we are formed to pay attention.  Without it, we simply would not survive.  Just as our circulatory or respiratory systems are made up of multiple parts, so attention encompasses three “networks” related to different aspects of awareness, focus, and planning.  In a nutshell, “alerting” makes us sensitive to incoming stimuli, while the “orienting” network helps us select information from among the millions of sensations we receive from the world, voluntarily or in reaction to our surroundings. A baby’s first job is to hone these skills, which are akin to “awareness” and “focus”, respectively.  In a class of its own, however, is the executive network, the system of attention responsible for complex cognition and emotional operations and especially for resolving conflicts between areas of the brain.  All three networks are crucial and often work together, and without strong skills of attention, we are buffeted by the world and hindered in our capacity to grow and even to enjoy life.

Her book takes us through each of these attentional capacities and discusses how they respond to and are affected by our current world of high mobility, fragmented time and virtual spaces. Her narrative demonstrates the broad extent of the attentional network and its impact on our wellbeing (stress, joy, happiness), its role in conditions such as autism, ADHD, and its significance to human experience.  From a new understanding of the mechanisms of attention, we may develop a language and culture of attention that can become a platform for nurturing it more broadly in our easily distractable lives.

People who focus well report feeling less fear, frustration, and sadness day to day, partly because they can literally deploy their attention away from the negatives in life.  In contrast, attentional problems are one of the main impediments to attaining “flow”, the deep sense of contentment that people find when they are stretching themselves to meet a challenge.

What I appreciate about Distracted is the shift toward thinking about the ways we can value and enable attention given the realities of the modern technological world.  Rather than advocating a complete elimination of technology and sources of distraction and fragmentation, the book concludes with a chapter entitled “The Gift of Attention – A Renaissance at Hand.”   In this chapter, Jackson shares her visit to the Shambala Mountain Center in Colorado where she observed a study in progress on the impacts of meditation on attentional skills and on social and emotional health, led by UC Davis neuroscientist Clifford Saron.  Building off of new understandings of neuroplasticity, the study hopes to shed light on the possibilities for training the brain and reshaping the mind.  She discusses other breakthrough experiments, such as the work of neuroscientist Amishi Jha,  that shows the positive impacts of mindful breathing on spatial orienting, providing what Jha calls a “cognitive rocket booster.”

The merging of our understandings of art, neuroscience, and meditation is revealing that we have greater capacities than we thought to relate to the world deeply and intensely. Perhaps we can rediscover, or reinvent, flow in this new land of distraction.  Taking sides for or against technology won’t help.  Engaging in purposeful reflection on who we are becoming with our digital media and in deep examination of our motivations and goals as a society will help us hone those capacities.

A Generation of Caregivers

All the discussions about health care reform have reminded me of a workshop I did with high schools students last summer as part of a youth forecasting project with the KnoweldgeWorks Foundation.  I developed a curriculum for teens about key trends in technology, community, health, economy, and demographics and worked with the Center for Digital Storytelling to conduct 3 workshops in which high school students imagined their lives ten years in the future.

The stories were personal, about distinct moments in their future lives, and they revealed issues that mattered to them.  One theme that came through in several stories was their recognition that they would be caregivers – not only to their aging parents – but to their chronically ill peers and to their friends and family members who had become ill as a result of toxic environments and food.  Part of their vision of themselves as caregivers involved developing personal relationships with digital para-professionals (robots), with human medical professionals thorugh social netwokring, and through online markets for medical services.

Here are two of my favorite stories.

ZaidaCervantesDV

MarissaBeckettDV

My big take away from these workshops is how capable and insightful the teens were at imagining plausible futures and teasing out the implications that mattered for them.  It was also rewarding to see how excited they got about the present when faced with a set of possible futures. I need to do more of this work!