Feeling “Blue” About Education Never Seemed So Hopeful

October 19, 2009

Michelle Knapik, Program Director, Environment


You probably know about TED talks and their tagline “ideas worth spreading.” I got to spend Sunday afternoon at a live TEDx talk organized around the theme of “What is possible in School.”

The “x” factor in the TED community stands for an independently organized TED event, and here’s where the “blue” comes into play because this event was hosted by the Blue School, which was founded by . . . yes, you guessed it, the Blue Man Group. If you want to get a glimpse of how radical education transformation manifests in a school, the Blue School is a must on your learning journey.

Blue School LogoAs a Dodge representative who is trying to help the Foundation continuously weave together the threads of creativity and sustainability throughout its grantmaking, this day was a feast for the mind presented by pioneering Education gourmets whose backgrounds ran the gamut from brain scientists to sustainability movement builders, and from far reaching school designers to psychologists. As soon as the video link of the presentation is live, we will send you a “high alert” and invitation to listen-in.  For now, let me introduce the presenters – all of them “provocateurs” in their own right (see note on David Rock’s work) – and whet your appetite for this TEDxblue talk.

Part of the beauty of the TED is that the effort is building a community of thought leaders, which enables a talk organizer to pull “idea spreaders” from the TED archives. This day started with a replay of Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?

Sir Ken likens the current education practices to strip mining our children’s minds to extract a single commodity rather than educating for a world that understands and develops the richness of human capacity. He wonders how many children we are losing because we “educate them from the waist up . . . then the head up . . . and then to one side” of the brain. Sir Ken believes that we are educating the creative capacity out of our children. If we are trying, as Sir Ken asserts, to “educate children for a future we cannot grasp”, it seems that we are “ruthlessly squandering” an opportunity to ignite their inherent creative capacity to deal with and shape that future.

Imagine a discussion on “what is possible in schools” where Sir Ken is the appetizer! Chris Wink, representing the Blue School Founders, has done a lot of thinking about how we can more aggressively promote creativity in schools. If you have had the rich experience of seeing the Blue Man Group perform you might recognize the “six mindsets” that Chris believes we can more “deliberately explore” and “move through” to tap our creative juices. He explained them as three pairs of diametrically opposed mindsets:

  • Scientist v. Shaman (our rational selves versus our instinctual, primal, inner-world explorer)
  • Group member v. Trickster (our ability to be attuned to others and experience creative collaboration versus the impulse to push past the constraints of convention and stimulate new ways of seeing and being)
  • Hero v. the Innocent (our ability to hold our resolve, to resourcefully push through obstacles and focus on a goal (soon to be referred to as “grit”) versus our ability to enter an emotional, fully present place where we experience childlike vulnerability — how many of us in our adulthood are adept at going here?)

When the Blue Man Group is at the top of their game, they move through and express connections among these mindsets. So is it not possible to educate our children to experience and move through these mindsets so they too have a fully developed mind palate?

Ok, so you are riding the creative high with me now, but what enables people to move from great experiences to high achievement? We think about this at Dodge all the time. Experiential education, a main focus of our grantmaking, might help a child enter a mindset they have not fully explored, or tap creative expression, or turn on a passion (all incredibly valuable), but what is it that makes it stick. University of Pennsylvania researcher Angela Duckworth believes we need “true grit”  to become a high achiever. Angela talked about capacity (our talents) and industry (the path to unlocking the talents). She measures things like the “tendency not to abandon tasks in the face of obstacles” or when faced with “changeability.” Her studies of students who perform best in spelling bees revealed that it is not intelligence that is the highest predictor of success, rather it is those who become “deliberate in practice.” This means that they “isolate what they don’t know, focus in and improve in these areas,” which, by the way, requires a willingness to operate – and persevere – outside one’s comfort zone. True grit.

Educate for creativity, check. Support the development of true grit, check.

YourBrainatWorkCover-784354-760192 But can you clear the hurdle of how we’ve hardwired our children’s brain to do almost the opposite of this? Brain scientist David Rock knows we can, but he asserts that it requires a “novel intrusion” to inspire such change – enter the role of the “provocateur.” The Blue School is integrating the provocateur into the classroom and curriculum. As David Rock explained, the provocateur “notices subtle signals, is ok with uncertainty and knows how to create change.” In essence, these are quiet leaders and change agents. Hmmm, what would happen in classrooms across the country if class aide positions were transformed to class provocateur positions? If you need more convincing on the brain science, pick up a hot off the press copy of David Rock’s book “Your Brain at Work

So we can rewire the brain to inspire a generation of creative thinkers and actors, but how do we address the “better world” challenge? As Jaimie Cloud, founder and president of the Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education says, “We wouldn’t need to educate for sustainability if there was no such thing as unsustainable.” As Jaimie notes, we “spend” 20% more natural capital than humans or nature put back into this earth, which “undermines the systems on which we depend” – and that’s unsustainable.

You may know that the Cloud Institute is a long time Dodge grantee and that Jamie’s work has the Foundation focused in on “systems thinkers” who can “gain new knowledge, apply insights and shift paradigms toward a sustainable future.”

Cloud’s curriculum gets at multiple, interconnected and integrated systems for sustainability learning. I’ll run through them here, but you really need to dive deep to understand their transformative power.


With that caveat, let’s go – we can educate in a way that children understand how to read feedback (this is the fuel for re-wiring the brain circuits) and get new results; we can teach kids that there are limits in a healthy system and that they can tap the power of limits (usher in creative thinking); we can teach children to live by natural laws (why skip this critical lesson – we teach laws created for safety, ethics and the like, but as Jaimie says, we don’t give kids the “operating principles of the planet”); we can teach children that we are all responsible and interconnected, especially in terms of understanding and protecting the commons (and there is the neurobiology of “we” to back this up – see Dan Seigel’s work). In essence, life is not a zero sum game and we can transform education in a way that our children understand that a healthy and sustainable future is possible. How? In part, because INTENTION TRUMPS our hardwiring (did I mention that Jaimie is one of my heroes?).

Dodge is promoting Cloud’s work in a number of ways in New Jersey, including curriculum shifts at Unity Charter School and a train the trainers program called NJ Learns: Schools and Communities that Learn Together for a Sustainable Future. We are also helping Cloud link this work into the exciting Sustainable Jersey program.

Jaimie often talks about educating for sustainability as preparing us to “write a new narrative.” Sometimes, though, we need people to lead us through existing narratives we have yet to explore – and to understand how to listen and discover. That teed-up the archive of Benjamin Zander’s TED talk wherein the famous conductor presented ideas about “Classical music with shiny eyes

In 18 minutes, he makes classical music resonate with everyone. He moves from single note impulses to deceptive cadence and whole phrase impulse (it is not the same without the music). He is a conductor who understands his leadership makes other people powerful, that his work awakens possibilities, and that he succeeds when he looks out and sees shining eyes. I suspect that all the arts do this and can prepare us to write that new narrative of human interaction and experience, but our challenge, as Benjamin states, is to ask “who am I being that my players eyes are not shining?” He asserts that what we say (to our children – to each other) makes a difference.

How to start to put all these concepts together? Dr. Dan Siegel talked about an “integrated mindsight.” He would add three new Rs to the education system– Reflection, Relationship and Resilience – all based on the brain science that we have two main circuits in our brain: the physical (the traditional three Rs address this) and the world of the mind (the circuit that is undeveloped by current education – usher in the three new Rs). He talked about kindergarten being the last time in school where we focus on interpersonal relationships, and he noted that we spend the rest of our education shaping the mind through the traditional 3 Rs. By doing this, he asserts that we miss the opportunity to develop the circuitry that deals insight and empathy, and that helps us see the world as interconnected. He invoked Einstein’s quote about our “optical delusion of our separateness.” He stresses the brain as our social organ, one that school and our modern culture have imprisoned. He sees reflection as the “opportunity to see that relationships are our life’s blood.” Basically, we have a social emergency in that we are less capable of regulating our internal world because we can’t see what’s inside. We have no “mindsight” to see and shape the internal world and little “face to face interaction that enables us to track it.” It seems to me that we will have to turn to each other and resolve (with true grit) to develop some strong mindsight to turn education on its head so we can write that new narrative.


I feel like the waiter who just described a menu of new tantalizing dishes with exotic ingredients, each one with its own allure that is swirling around in your head. I imagine you thinking, “what was that middle dish about grit,” or “can you tell me more about mindsets and mindsight?”, knowing full well you will need to listen to this TEDxblue talk over and over until you’ve fully tasted each dish and re-wired your own brain along the way. I’m guessing that notions of traditional school “reform” are looking a lot less attractive and that you are hungry for education transformation that will enable everyone to order from this menu –this will be our collective challenge.

Do you have examples of schools that are serving these items? Please share. Would you be interested in a large scale, multi-venue viewing of this TEDxblue talk in New Jersey – perhaps one that invites conversation and records community responses? I think Dodge might be able to play a role in something like this – let us know your thoughts.