“A Whole New Mind”

Last week old boy Constantine Lai spoke to us about the importance of understanding your own motivation for learning. I’d like to follow up on this by sharing a few thoughts from Daniel Pink’s book “A Whole New Mind,” a book I liked so much that I shared it with 50 faculty members last summer.

Pink makes two important points. First, he looks at the left brain vs right brain metaphor, with the left brain focusing on linear, analytic, and sequential work, and the right focusing on creativity, innovation, and teaming, and says that schools tend to do a much better job on the former, in part because it is so much easier to measure a student’s math performance than it is to measure his work in the area of innovation.

Second, Pink believes that school curriculums follow economies. There is a reason why no high school in North America teaches the Irish language because Ireland is —  and I hope my relatives will forgive me —  not a key driver in the modern economy. There are, by contrast, many compelling reasons why lots of schools have added Mandarin in the last few years. And if you remember Mike Evans’ speech from Founders Day, you’ll know why.

Pink believes that as we move from an industrial economy – where most people make a living by making things in a factory-like setting, to the new economy, the right brain becomes more and more important.  If you tend to rely exclusively on your left brain, you may be facing stiffer competition in the future because a lot of that left brain work, work that operates with a rigid set of principles that are continually applied in a step by step process, that work may be done by a machine or by someone in the developing world who will work for a much lower wage.

What will become more important in this brave new economic world will be people who can work well with others, who are good at teaming, who have a high degree of what we presently call “emotional intelligence,” as we well those with a strong aptitude for innovation and creativity. Pink points out, for example, that leadership never gets outsourced.

I know this may sound a bit lofty for the first Monday morning in March, so let me reset: Pink believes that in the future different skills and values will become more important – especially those we associate with “right brain” work, and this should have a major impact on how we educate students today.

The two questions I hope you’re asking yourself right now are these:

First, Is Pink right? (I happen to think he is. We have all seen industries move from Canada and the USA to Mexico, then to China, then to Pakistan and now to Vietnam and Laos. We can moan and groan all we want, but even Bruce Springsteen knows in his heart of hearts that those factories and those jobs aren’t coming back.

The more important question is, if Pink is right, what does this really mean for me? I’d answer that question by asking another question. (Have you ever heard the one about the guy who asks his friend, “Why do you always answer a question with a question? To which he responds, “Why shouldn’t I answer a question with a question?”)

But the questions should be, “How can I learn to be creative, innovative, and a good teammate?  How can I improve my people skills and develop a sense of leadership?”

I will end this morning with two quick observations:

First, I no longer use the word “extracurricular” to describe all that that take place after 3:30 each day. Co-curricular may sound a bit wonky, but it captures the fact that many of the most important lessons you’ll learn will take place in a theatre, on a field, at a service placement, or on the ice.

And second, for the last twenty years, we have been trying to come to grips with students whose minds work differently, not poorly mind you, but differently. Take ADHD, for just one example. Ten thousand years ago, our ancestors didn’t need someone who could sit still in a desk for ten hours at a time. They needed someone who noticed the lion sneaking through the trees. A lot of those folks who could sit perfectly still and remain perfectly focused on what was right in front of their noses for long periods of time got eaten by those lions.

Pink points out that, to take just one example, boys who are dyslexic, a very broad term that refers to a processing challenge where sometimes students invert letters, people with this “ailment” are four times as likely as their peers to become millionaires. When you think about this for a moment, it makes perfect sense.  People who can’t become accountants, for example, because they can’t do lots of linear, analytic work, develop different skills. In the way a blind man develops an acute sense of hearing, these guys tend to develop other ways of solving the problem or creating the product. Lots of spectacularly successful entrepreneurs, by the way have some sort of processing challenge, and because they can’t do that left brain work, they develop incredible people skills, and that ability to connect with all kinds of folks ends up making them who they are.

Even a partial list of those who might today qualify as people who “learn differently” would include Einstein, Charles Schwab, Tommy Hilfiger, Winston “Never. Never. Never give in” Churchill, Alexander Graham Bell (a great Canadian), Walt Disney, and Beethoven. Thomas Edison, by the way, was actually taken out of school by his mother because his teachers at school thought he was retarded.

Now all of this doesn’t mean you should stop studying math or science. Far from it. You want to develop both sides of your brain, and develop all of your skills. But remember what Constantine said. It’s not just about getting a grade or gaining a ticket to university. It’s about understanding your own motivation and gaining an understanding of the world and of yourself.

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