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Otto Scharmer, Sanjay Sarma & Dacher Keltner: Re-Imagining Higher Education


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Nuggets From Otto Scharmer, Sanjay Sarma & Dacher Keltner's Call

This week, we had the privilege of hosting Awakin Call with Otto Scharmer, Sanjay Sarma & Dacher Keltner.

Nipun framed the conversation to say that these are challenging times but because of that, it also might open us up to radical new possibilities. Rather than returning to old normal, perhaps we can create new paradigms, and now is the time.

Here are some short nuggets from the call:

  • This has been a wake-up moment that as humans, we can actually change the laws of our behavior once we put our minds to it. We can bend the curve. That’s the lesson of this moment. So how we respond collectively to disruption matters.
  • We can respond to disruption in one of two ways. We can lean in if we open our minds, our hearts, and our will – AKA accessing our resources of curiosity, compassion and courage. Or we can turn away and close down by closing the mind (ignorance), heart (hate and anger), and will (fear).
  • Educational institutions mainly think of horizontal development (loading a new app) v. vertical (changing the whole operating system). Need to add vertical spine, vertical literacy into the curriculum by adding "transformational" literacy.
  • We are in a "social recession", or pandemic of loneliness. We need to re-define human health.
  • Need Peace Corps type extension of education that gets people out in the world. Service learning. Praxis = service.
  • Success of online learning is an indication of the failure of higher education. Social distancing is working because education was socially distanced to begin with.
  • We need to flip every classroom, teach the social arts, and teach students early on to find their passions.
  • “Listening is the most transformative thing – you’re not in touch with reality if you’re not a great listener.” You can profoundly change your mode of listening in just 6 weeks. “If you change the way you listen, you change the way you experience reality. If you change the way you experience reality, then you change everything.” Listening is one of the most underrated leadership skill of all time.
And here are some more extensive notes: Why is right now the time to re-imagine higher education?

Otto Scharmer:
  • Profound change is possible with wakefulness. COVID-19 has taught us 2 things: (1) we are all interconnected (we knew that before in our heads, but now we feel it); and (2) profound change is not only necessary, but possible, if we succeed in really focusing our intention globally on one issue and align that shared attention with our intention. This has been a wake-up moment that as humans, we can actually change the laws of our behavior once we put our minds to it. We can bend the curve. That’s the lesson of this moment. So how we respond to disruption matters.
  • Bending the curve has a requirement – wakefulness; that we’re all awake and that we all step into our leadership. 6 countries in East Asia Pacific (Australia, NZ, Japan, SK, Taiwan, and Vietnam) – with combined population that is same as the US – have had a total death count of 1200. Same population of 330 million, and yet here in US we have 100,000 deaths (they had 1.2% of that). What accounts for difference? Awareness and leadership – awareness-based leadership. Being in touch with reality. Recent study said that if lockdown had occurred 2 weeks earlier in US, we would have saved 50K lives probably.
  • How we respond to disruption: two ways.
    • lean in – requires us to open our minds, our hearts, and our will – AKA accessing our resources of curiosity, compassion and courage.
    • not turning toward, but turning away and closing down. Closing the mind (ignorance), heart (hate and anger), and will (fear).
So why is there this phenomenon of Trumpism, not just in US and Brazil, but as a global phenomenon? I believe the phenomenon essentially is the result of two things coming together: disruption, and inability to access open mind, heart, will (3 c’s) to the degree required by that situation. If these two things come together, it throws the human mind into a freeze reaction (closing down) – ignorance, hate and fear. And so the COVID situation and the catastrophic response we’ve had here is the massive failure of our educational system. Because educational institutions are there to help us rise to the occasion when change happens, and not to close down.
  • How might we re-think our current educational system, esp. in higher education?
    • Start with re-imagining and updating not just the structure of universities, but the idea of the university. Classic idea was unity of research and teaching. 20th century – core idea was unity of research, teaching and application. This century – we need to reframe idea of university as unity of research, teaching, and praxis of transforming society and self.
    • Problem with higher ed institutions in general today is the absence of transformational literacy. We live in a deep decade (not only of disruption, but of profound societal transformation). Where we lack is capacity to lead and activate and hold spaces for these transformational processes already underway. There is a distinction between horizontal development and vertical development (adding new skills v. development of the self of the person holding and applying these skills; development of awareness and consciousness from ego- perspective to ecosystem awareness). Educational institutions mainly think of horizontal development (loading a new app) v. vertical (changing the whole operating system). Need to add vertical spine, vertical literacy into the curriculum.
    • Deepening of learning process (moving from head-centric to integrating head-heart-hands), and systems view (teams/organizations/multi-stakeholder systems – whole ecosystem). Need to put these 2 axes together – now, we’re just in one corner (training individuals, just head-centric, sometimes head/hand). Need learning environments for all matrices – head-hands-heart across individual, team to whole system. Needs to move place of learning out of classroom and into real world – into hot spots of societal transformation.
    • Is that even possible at the level of scale necessary today? Has it ever been tried? Yes – was successful and of profound impact until today. Nordic countries/Scandinavia are now on top well-being rankings; 150 years ago, they were at bottom. The Nordic Secret (book) tells the story; follow the trail. Main finding: it’s the result of an educational intervention, whole-person, whole-systems learning – the matrix – Danish folk high school (1860s and 1870s) replicated in other countries, and societal cohesion takes off. Took learning model from small university of Germany and made it available to the whole population (farmers, etc.). Changed the social soil which allowed growth of cohesion.
    • What are we called to do now? Same thing – we need to globally create accessible school (for all students across campuses, even outside campuses) – platform that will allow all methods/tools/science/social art practices/places/faculty members (stuff we already have). Put it together in a way that’s truly accessible to young people looking for stuff like that because they want to create a future that’s different from past.
Dacher Keltner
  • Citing Vivek Murthy, former U.S. Surgeon General with a background in public health, Dacher says we are in a “social recession.” Even before the pandemic, we were grappling with this phenomenon of loneliness, isolation, loss of friendship in last 15 years.
  • We’re interconnected down to brains. Pandemic is uncovering a different model of who we are – not just homo economicus, but interconnected, compassionate and service-oriented. There has been a rich science around that brewing for 20 years; pandemic is going to necessitate that we teach, push, institutionalize that knowledge on a broad basis. Universities will need to move to a “meaningful life” core curriculum.
  • Opportunities for transformation:
    • Need different model of health – proved causally by who dies from pandemic. Healthy person has access to good food, unpolluted environments, freedom from discrimination. One lesson/opportunity is to develop an intervention approach to why are people dying? Loneliness, racism, economic inequality. These are things that can be learned to transform the idea of human health (building on interconnection), and then scale it.
    • Praxis – with new advances in education (which they can access more quickly/easily in terms of content), students hunger for getting out in community/for service. Need Peace Corps type extension of education that gets people out in the world. Service learning. Praxis = service.
    • We have explosion of bi-directionality in diffusion of knowledge, and more horizontal model of citizen participation. This allows for more citizen-driven science and learning.
    • Accessibility – how do we take scientific paper that may have stats/math, etc. and get that knowledge out to the world for action? Slowly, universities are starting to recognize that if you write an essay for the New York Times (and not just an academic publication), that counts. Things other than academic scholarship can be valued. If you disseminate knowledge via teachers, that counts. Universities have to embrace that.
Sanjay Sarma
  • Success of online learning is an indication of the failure of higher education. COVID19 has put 1.6 billion students in some form of distress or the other, but people have been talking about the success of online education. That's not a success. That's a failure. If you separated a couple and put them across Zoom and say everything was hunky dory, that wasn't a great relationship to begin with. Or a parent and a child and said, "Oh you can talk by Zoom," and they said, "Oh that's great," and they say "It's 80 percent as good as it used to be," well, that's pretty bad. The fact of the matter is that a lot of the education in the world is extremely antiseptic. It's very clinical. It is about checking those boxes, passing exams. And all the stuff about human development, critical thinking, discussions, the disagreements, the debates, the late-night chats between students where they discover something interesting and strange about each other but also expand their horizons, that we've never counted. And we, of course, romanticize it. We do nothing to help it.
  • We have taken co-presence, what I call proximity, for granted and nature is doing this incredible experiment where it's confiscated it from us. We're going to go back and all that will vanish is the Zoom window. Well, we might just as well have been on Zoom. Social distancing is working because education was socially distanced to begin with.
  • What Needs to Be Re-Imagined
    • Pedagogy – move toward a model of greater coaching/engagement. Around the world, education is exams/passing the test – all the other things that we ought to take seriously have been neglected -- engagement, human development, discussion, critical thinking, working with your hands. We need to return to those.​​​​​​​
    • Content – we need to teach more practical skills and also more relevant skills for a data-driven world.
    • Modality – mixture of on-line and in-person; certificates, not just degrees. We need to make room for discussions, and it cannot be the professor standing on a stage. We've got to create room for this engagement. And the whole point of online is to create room for the in-person. Students can do stuff online and then come back and then they're on campus. For people who don't have access to good education, online is going to be a great, great, great solution. But for those who can, let's make it [in-person] worth it. We also need to think of certificates systems, and not just degrees. “Let's say you're getting a bachelor's in a liberal arts college. By the way, a number of liberal arts colleges are going to die as a result of this. It's such a tragedy because they actually get pedagogy right. They may have other issues like economics, but they get pedagogy right. But, if doing a course in art, it doesn't hurt for you to take an online certificate in the computer science behind art or the [artificial intelligence] in art, which is an increasingly important field. So we need to be able to mix it up and give students more options. We needed a different structure.”
  • Living in the Gray Zone. “I think, in summary, this drive to utilitarianism has driven universities into a very black and white mode, and when they go black and white, online will win. I think they need to live in the gray zone.
Highlights from Q&A/Conversation:
  • Social arts are at the foundation of the basic skills, and necessary to build collective leadership capacity. Involves embodied learning, learning to engage in new patterns of behavior with another). [Otto]​​​​​​​
  • Learning one’s passion: At UC Berkeley, Dacher helps students think about what they care about it; asks them to think about their passion (independent of salary they make, what will make work meaningful for them in the world?). Offers them a framework – do you care about justice, reducing suffering, beauty, pleasure, transcendent knowledge? Such a frame helps move them toward career in medicine, engineering, or teaching, or bakery…. He does an exercise – “which of these concepts really moves you? Is it justice/inequality, or physical suffering?” This is really new to students far along in their education. Students learn to think about degrees in utilitarian sense, but don’t think about “what makes me tear up, gives me goosebumps – integration between self and society. Students don’t do that early in the game. They don’t know what they care about in senior year.” Dacher thinks that’s a “grave mistake” and students (even high school students) need to be thinking about that earlier.
  • Recommendation for today’s high school seniors: Find out what moves you. Take gap year for either service or living/studying in another culture.
    • “If you have choice, go to college.” Don’t do online courses alone. “If you are parent, lay off the kid and let them find their own path. Stop micro-managing. Beginning of new century is 2021, not 2000 – what you’ve [the parent has] learned may or may not apply; they’ll find their way.” [Sanjay]
    • Gap year of service (not just traveling) – move out of American educational bubble. Find out what it’s there for you to be there for someone else (not where it’s organized around you). [Dacher]
    • Start college experience in different culture. Most important – follow your heart. Expose yourself to different contexts. Use, particularly now, experience to go to different culture (education less expensive elsewhere, you can have in-person experience more likely given the arc of the pandemic), then come back here for master’s or half-way. In Europe, most education is free. Financials are important. You don’t want a lot of debt. [Otto]​​​​​​​
  • One small step that can be done now to shift the paradigm.
    • Flip every classroom. No lectures. [Sanjay] Barriers to doing so are that students have to be complicit; both have to agree to do discussion. Students currently are trained just as much as professors to learn one way. It gives them the “illusion of learning – which can be more powerful than learning the material better. When you learn something better, you actually know what you don’t know. We’re trapped in trap – professors are busy; students think that’s [lecture is] what learning is.”​​​​​​​
    • Empathy walk and deep listening [Otto] – an exercise where students pick a partner and then talk about a person that is maximally different from them in local area; then make arrangements to spend couple of hours as a respectful guest in that person’s life (deep listening). Then write a reflection paper on that. “Transformative” exercise. “Listening is the most transformative thing – you’re not in touch with reality if you’re not a great listener.” You can profoundly change your mode of listening in just 6 weeks. “If you change the way you listen, you change the way you experience reality. If you change the way you experience reality, then you change everything.” Listening is one of the most underrated leadership skill of all time. Empathy walk is one of the practices.
    • One-unit “come to know yourself” course based on discussion, with a practice and service component. [Dacher]
  • Bottleneck of people with habitual ways of operating. It’s often said that the quality of an intervention is as good as internal state of intervenor. We can talk about transformations, but we are populated by people who have been educated in old ways. How can we really flip the paradigm from operating within it? What do we do to set up the alternatives? Otto: One of the bottlenecks is faculty with habitual ways of operating. To move from lecture-centric to student-centric to eco-centric model, we need new capacities and awareness-based social technologies – social technologies that allow you to hold the space for deeper social processes and activation of generative social fields to happen. That’s the most important missing piece in curriculum: access to and practice fields for these social technologies. University of the future needs practitioners at front line of societal and personal transformation. Such capacities should be important in assessing faculty. Some people will be more embedded in living examples of societal transformation; such people can do more coaching from the field than from being on campus.​​​​​​​
  • Sources of inspiration during these pandemic times.
    • Socially unstoppable human desire to be social when that’s been confiscated from us” (Sanjay). Also inspired by MIT’s virtual graduation – where 1,000 students have contributed sounds. VR graduation.
    • “Astonished” by local contact (eg, making eye contact with people walking around). (Dacher) Pandemic is giving us opportunity to return to “deep wisdom of local” – community, local food systems, gardens.” Dacher is also inspired experimenting with 1-unit class – get them out in world, applying knowledge, build out discussion capacity. ​​​​​​​
    • GAIA project and School for Transformation (Otto). 10,000 people signed up in 12 days; active core group of 130 volunteers around 8 different language tracks. Deep learning journey environment.” Otto is also inspired by the idea of building out a “school for transformation” – individual journey applied to collective. School for transformation could be pulled and plugged into any kind of educational institution for people who want access to these methods, tools, networks – “the crisis of the current moment is calling for us to step forward for a bolder move.” We could pull together stuff we already have – democratize the access to that and link it in a more coherent ecosystem.
We ended with the hope and intention of creating such a platform for a universally accessible School for Transformation. We have all the content out there for such a school for transformation. Not clear that existing professors are best equipped to flip the classroom, and so perhaps we need a hybrid model of online content with in-person engagement, within local communities in a distributed way throughout the world connected via an engagement spectrum.

Lots of gratitude to all the behind-the-scenes volunteers that made this call happen!


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