“Developing the mind is important but developing a conscience is the most precious gift parents can give their children.”

John Gray


I just finished an ‘education system and society’ project where I had some PTSD revisiting some of the same issues I encountered when discussing my 2009 online education initiative. I begin where I have always began – the objective of education has never changed. It is to create good effective citizens so essential thinking skills are embedded within their eventual professional focus; by developing minds. I have consistently said, and thought, the education system should stop chasing industrial predictions of what the professional world will look like in the future. I am not alone in that thought. Shit. Toffler warned us to not follow that in 1970. That said. That is almost heresy in an industrialized education system, and an increasingly professional skill reductionist societal mindset, where everything seemingly gets reduced to measurement against ‘useful skills that can be professionally applied.’ To be honest at this point it almost feels like schools from kindergarten through university are structured in ways that students end up less developed than they would be if they spent the equivalent amount of time doing something else. This is not a reflection of poor educational intent, but rather how capitalism theory has been dictated upon the theory of education within capitalist societies. Ultimately this is a reductive ‘human capital’ theory, rather than “mind development”, that has made educational systems just feeders of the economy not a civilized society. Simplistic pragmatism has stripped education of the belief that possibilities and potential is found in what many people deem ‘soft skills’ (thinking, situational awareness, ethical decision-making) rather than ‘hard skills’ (pragmatically doing something). I suggest that while it is not a binary discussion it is those thinking & awareness skills which creates higher value for when you have actually learned a specific skill.


Consistently, one of the biggest debates I have with traditional educators (and, frankly, some boomer type people who suggest we need to go back to some basics in education so that “they”, i.e., youth, can learn the things we learned) is the role of the web and whether it can educate properly. I find this all a bit ironic in that these same people focus less on developing thinking minds and focus more on pragmatic thinking minds where online pragmatic youtube skills channels are incredibly effective.

We need to ignore existing paradigms and focus on the best ideas.

Yes. That ‘ignoring existing paradigms’ philosophy sucks if you are in the existing education system but developing a new education model means working backwards from whom you are educating.

Which leads me to the people at The Fischler School of Education and Human Services at Nova Southeastern University.

  1. According to a 2008 Pew report, 97% of American teens aged 12-17 play computer, console, or cell phone games, and three-fourths of these teens play them with others at least some of the time (Lenhart et al. 2008).

  2. 93% use the Internet, 61% go online daily, and 51% create content that others can view online (Lenhart et al. 2007).

  3. Eleven million students under the age of 18 use MySpace (Owyang 2008).

  4. The site myYearbook, a social networking site created specifically for 12- to 17-year-olds, boasts 7 million members (Loten 2008). In short, many, perhaps even most, of the current generation of learners are enmeshed in connective technologies.

  5. The environment and culture in which people grow up affect their thought processes and that cognitive processes are far more malleable than previously assumed. Evidence provided by magnetoencephalographic (MEG) imaging suggests that structural rewiring of the brain “can and does occur via experience” (O’Boyle and Gill 1998, 406). Interactive and interpersonal applications of digital technology shape the social and cognitive development of those who use them (Shumar and Renninger 2002). Oblinger (2004) claims that “constant exposure to the Internet and other digital media has shaped how [students] receive information and how they learn” (“Abstract,” 1). Some of these changes include “the development of a new type of multimedia or information literacy” which “parallels other shifts in how we approach learning such as of moving from an environment of being told or authority-based learning to one based on discovery or experiential learning” (“4. How People Learn,” 7).

  6. Students “tend toward teamwork, experiential activities . . . and the use of technology. Their strengths include multitasking, goal orientation, . . . and a collaborative style” (“2. Changes in Students,” 1).

  7. New societal patterns produce new educational paradigms that too frequently completely discard the old.

  8. Students engage their social-connectedness schema in a set of behaviors that I describe as “link, lurk, and lunge”: Students link up with others who have the knowledge they need; they lurk, watching others who know how do to what they want to do; and they lunge, jumping in to try new things often without seeking guidance beforehand (Brown 2000).

  9. Students’ social-connectedness schema underlies their ability to create and sustain physical, virtual, and hybrid social networks (Oblinger and Oblinger 2005).

  10. Today’s students “do not just think about different things, they actually think differently” (Prensky 2001, 42).

  11. Reigeluth (1999) argues, “when a human-activity system (or societal system) changes in significant ways, its subsystems must change in equally significant ways” (16).

  12. Education theory must change to accommodate new developments in the way students learn and access information.

Source: This article was originally published in Innovate as: Sontag, M. 2009. A learning theory for 21st-century students. The article is a reprint of the original publisher, The Fischler School of Education and Human Services at Nova Southeastern University.

While the information is dated, it remains directionally true. So If we use this information and think about an education redesign what kind of outcome can we expect?

Well. Let me use something the Singapore Ministry of Education has written and created.

If you buy into all of this, well, you then begin leaning into the thought that knowledge and skills must be underpinned by values which help define a person’s character. They shape the beliefs, attitudes and actions of a person, and therefore form the core of the framework of competencies.

The middle ring signifies the Social and Emotional Competencies—skills necessary for children to recognize and manage their emotions, develop care and concern for others, make responsible decisions, establish positive relationships, as well as to handle challenging situations effectively.

The outer ring of the framework represents the 21st century skills necessary for the globalized world we live in. These are:

  • Civic literacy, global awareness and cross-cultural skills
  • Critical and inventive thinking
  • Information and communication skills

Why do I think this matters?

Well. we are in this weird spot where we are being encourage do think that people who go to an Ivy League school, or an equivalent, are less worthy to not only talk to but listen to. Please note, that is nuts. I am not a huge fan of ‘elite schools’, yet, most of these elite schools are simply the highest forms of vocational training – not thinking. And that is where higher education gets caught between being beneficial and being not. Elite schools train practitioner-based leaders, not thinkers. They foster holders of power, not critics of power or even critics of existing systems that uphold power structures. They have a nasty habit of not encouraging an independent mind or an independent thinker (challenging the systems within which people work) or a mind independent of allegiances to the existing institutional power structure. That is where education’s outcomes get killed in the public perception mindset (and it should). An independent thinker thinks of exploring while the practitioner-trained leader seeks to harvest existing fields, i.e., simply squeezing more out of an existing system.

I believe if we want to change education we should let learning occur through individual pursuit, not always ‘from-the-top’ dictate. I also believe business should be designed this way so it all actually ends up in sinc with a larger ‘optimizing professional potential’ objective. That said. I would argue the biggest obstacle to attempting this youth education redesign is adult’s unhealthy love of symmetry & “well rounded education”. My view is to encourage asymmetrical learning. Why? Emergent learning begets exponential learning, not additive learning. That is my Tedtalk in a nutshell. I will note that in order to achieve this it will take a blend of online and face-to-face (as noted in my 2009 initiative – online supported by face to face – or this 2023 piece on blended learning).

Which leads me to we should stop talking about free college or even college at all.

College is a tactic in developing minds, let’s talk strategies. It was around 1900 that the United States made highly (essentially) universal. Industrialized education or not, it created an entire generation with a strong foundation of knowledge. I could argue this was ‘structural value creation’ for society and business. To me the key to the future of, well, everything, is not college education, but youth education. How do we reinvest our energies and focus on the young – equally – so that there is a foundation of critical thinking and knowledge from which the future can be leveraged from. And while I purposefully put ‘critical thinking’ I’d like to be clear that there needs to be a reemphasis on math and science. We need to ditch the ‘right brain/left brain myth’ <which, in my mind, is where things began to truly unravel at the youth education level because it applied some pseudoscience to an already industrialized education system> and grasp the fact that philosophers and ‘creative thinkers’ are better if they understand math and engineers and plumbers (who really are a version of an engineer) are better if they understand arts. To agree with me you almost have to agree that progress is nonlinear, in other words, ‘new work’ is often unplanned outgrowth of innovative thinking. And, if you do, then it behooves the working population to certainly learn a skill, but having reached that skill bringing to bear a broader scope of knowledge and learning to that skill then simply that skill’s particular knowledge stream. Well. That’s what I think. Ponder.

Written by Bruce