Educational Vision Nova Academia

This is the textual version of a presentation, by Tjeerd Andringa, addressing the Educational Vision of Nova Academia during the Inaugural Day on April 6, 2024.

Note: This text is lightly edited for readability and grammar.


I’m going to discuss Nova Academia’s educational vision, and one of the things that I want to say is that what we are doing is actually not at all shocking or new. The problem is more with other universities.

I want to address the formal and informal visions of education. The formal vision is based on epistemological development, basically learning how to think and act in the world. However, the informal vision is aimed at social and physical development: having a good body and reality-tested social skills. So, thinking skills and acting skills complement each other and help improve each other.

The formal educational vision

First, I want to say something about the formal educational vision, which has existed for 40 years or more since 1979. It is a six-step progression of learning strategies and a development of bringing the learning process under self-control.

Conceptions of learning known since 1979

If you ask young children, “What is learning?” then the answer is “Increasing knowledge” without understanding what this entails or what to learn. In step 2, this changes into memorization: learning is memorizing. Step 3 is learning to apply all kinds of rules, the rules of society, the rules of a field. Then—only at step 4 —there is learning to think for yourself, learning to really master domains, et cetera, instead of just memorizing and reproducing.
The phase after that is if you have a proper base, you can start to widen your horizons, and from then, step 6 is growing self-awareness. There is always self-awareness, but it grows immensely at this later stage.

This has been developed in the last 40 years. In this talk, I refer to a paper called “Six Languages in Education” by two Dutch researchers, Hamer and van Rossum. They came up with this list that is now the consensus in the field. They describe six hierarchically inclusive ways of knowing that shape and affect the perception and experience of learning and teaching, as well as how we shape and learn the world and how we interact with it.

Six languages in Education, the most advanced one’s are typically required for 21st-century skills]]

“Hierarchically inclusive” means that you can do all the previous levels if you are at level four. You might be interested in level five, but you have no real understanding yet of level six. That is one of the key points that they are saying.

They also say that many 21st-century skills are associated with the more complex ways of knowing, so levels five and six. Therefore, we need to include pointers in our education so that students can self-develop levels five and six.

I want to explain a little bit more about how those levels develop on top of each other.

Level 1 – Increasing knowledge

It starts when you are very young with learning, which is knowing a lot. They have no idea what to learn, so they learn everything, whether it is pointless or not. They have no idea about what might be useful.

Level 2 – Memorization

At the second level, typically around eight, they are very good at memorizing. You always lose to them when you play the game Memory, and that is because they are extremely good at memorizing. They know they can’t learn everything by now, so a typical question of them, and not only of them, I’m afraid, is, “Is this important for the test?”

I have met many university students who ask this question, and I know at what level they are acting at that moment. They are very happy when they know the main points. They want a teacher to provide the main points of more or less difficult parts.

Level 3 – Reproductive application

The next level is the level of reproductive application, where you learn how to apply scripts, procedures, and protocols and where you algorithmically apply them. Basically, like a recipe from a cookbook. They do exactly what you are supposed to do, even if there is an easier way. They will not see the easier way. They apply the whole procedure.

This is what bureaucrats do and what some of my colleagues also did. Here there is a little bit of agency, and it is the agency of, “OK, I want to do this if it is useful for later.” So you have to convince me as a teacher that it is useful for later, and then I’ll do my best to memorize it.

And what am I interested in at Level 3? I am interested in figuring out how to apply those procedures. So, I don’t want to understand the procedures—no, no. I just want to know how and when I can apply them.

That is level three. You get very far with level three at university, but it is not the only thing the university does.

Level 4 – Learning to think

Level four is learning that all those procedures, protocols, scripts, etc., are actually composed of different parts. And by rearranging the different parts, changing one part in a different context, and applying it there, you can build all kinds of new knowledge. This is the first time you learn to think about knowledge and become flexible in applying it.

What you learn here is typically the knowledge associated with a particular field of science. So, what you learn is already known, and you rediscover it or reconstruct the knowledge. If you can reconstruct the knowledge well, you get a high grade.

But you do it here because this will give you a unique competence in society that will actually help you become rich or famous or solid in terms of having a good position in society.

Our universities do this almost explicitly. They have learning outcomes, which the teachers or a program committee write down. The learning outcomes are always aimed at level 3 or 4. For example, “The student demonstrates that he can reconstruct that knowledge,” or something like that. And so this is what is happening at regular universities.

Overview of the key features of the six levels in education

Level 5 – Widening horizons

Well, I got in trouble because I knew this, and I knew the next level and the level after that. So I tried to teach there. And why did I try to teach there?

Because students, and definitely the smart students that I was working with at a liberal arts college, are adolescents, they were widening their horizons. They were going outside the house into the real world and sampling all kinds of new knowledge. I was helping them widen their horizons, step out of their comfort zone, and discover that there is high-quality knowledge outside of their original in-group.

I helped them develop their own viewpoints by referencing the high-quality viewpoints of people everywhere in society. What was interesting was that the vast majority of them were really interested in novel, complementary, even contradictory, and sometimes annoying viewpoints.

But when I did this, I annoyed my colleagues, not all, but quite a few, because they were at level three or four, and they discovered that Tjeerd introduced the students to all kinds of knowledge that was not their knowledge. Hence, he is poisoning the well, poisoning the whole system. Hence, he is a poison, and we must get rid of him. And now that I’m gone, the situation is much healthier, I guess.

Level 6 – Growing self-awareness

So, what is the last phase? That is the phase in which you have discovered a wide variety of viewpoints and interacted with and learned from the world. This is typically after adolescence, although all those phases merge, especially when you’re young. You are in multiple phases at different points of your life.

When you’re old, you’re typically in one or two levels, one that you’re comfortable with and one below to fall back on. You still can grow, but it goes slower. So don’t worry too much, but you don’t have the benefit of a rapidly rearranging brain that you have when you’re 20, 25 max.

Anyway, at level 6, and typically throughout your life, you discover common structures across different fields and experiences. You learn that you can trust your instincts—intuition—and apply the discovered common structures to help optimize processes everywhere.

When you see something not going well, maybe you should activate it a bit, or maybe that one goes too fast or needs a little correction. You make all kinds of little interventions in the processes you participate in. This behavior has a name: it is Wu-Wei in Taoism, which translates as effortless action. Those wise people are not so visible for that reason, but they are extremely important because they make everything work better.

Nova Academia’s educational focus

Universities focus on this part—levels 2 to 4. It requires students to submit to the system of learning outcomes.

We – Nova Academia – want to focus on students who develop their autonomy. It’s very simple. And this is already known. Every educational department should know this. However, I have met a professor in educational research and a dean who is at level three at most. Well, maybe not at most. At his specialism, he is at level four. But he simply does not understand what his students are capable of. It confuses and annoys him when they venture at level 5 or 6. Hence, he actively prevents education at this level.

The educational focus of Nova Academia

Our educational focus is levels 4, 5, and 6. So, we start at the last stage of a regular university. We assume that students come in here at the end of level three but are actually already venturing or decent in level four.

We help them deepen–typically within a discipline, broadening and integrating. How we do that in detail will be the topic of other presentations.

The informal goals

So, we’ll move on to the more informal educational part. I want to start this in a completely different way with an observation of society at the moment.

The current adolescent mental health crisis

Adolescents, especially girls, especially those with everything, especially smartphones, did not do well in the last 10 years. After 2010, there was an increase in mental health problems among high-wealth girls. In Dutch society and the whole of rich Western Europe (and less so in Eastern Europe), mental health problems increased by 55% in only eight years.

Percent of European students who experienced three or more psychological distress symptoms in the last week for at least six months. (https://www.afterbabel.com/p/international-crisis-europe)

And we haven’t included COVID here. So, we got another big jump after 2019. Boys mental problems also increased. The researcher who did this research, Jonathan Haidt, concluded that

As young people traded in their flip phones for smartphones and moved their social lives largely away from (already weakened) real-world communities and into chaotic virtual online networks full of loosely connected disembodied users, those who made the move most fully found that their sense of self, community, and meaning-in-life collapsed.

This is horrible.

The girls, and also boys, but girls in their puberty, are much more comparing themselves to others, more than boys do. And social media facilitates this in toxic ways. So this is an important difference between the two.

Anyway:

Those who were more firmly rooted in mixed age real-world communities of family, neighborhood, and religion had some protection from this transformation.

Jonathan Haidt
Nova Academia as the antidote to society’s dangers

So, turning that around, what do young people need? Strong real-world communities, minimal smartphones, and a focus on the sense of self, community, and meaning in life. That is what Nova Academia should provide.

Balancing skills

And then something that comes from my research, I researched autonomy and autonomy development. I wrote a paper that, for one part, only a pretty small part actually addressed the difference between the left and the right hemisphere from a particular perspective. Namely that from Iain McGilchrist, who wrote an absolutely wonderful book, I would say the best book on the brain and society ever written, called “The Master and his Emissary.”

But using his work, I concluded that in the first three years of life, the right hemisphere leads, and it helps us bring our body and emotions under control. In these first years, you really have to self-develop from nothing. It’s a bootstrapping activity led by the right hemisphere.

But then, between, say, 4 and 17 years old, every one of us has to learn a huge body of cultural knowledge just to be able to function in our societies. And for that, we use the strengths of the left hemisphere. We use them, and we really need them.

Right-left-right hemispheric dominance development. The problem is that people only seem to make the transition back to right when they have become comfortable with their cultural knowledge basis.

But there is something really important. If you become comfortable using all the knowledge of your culture, then and only then can you transition to dominance by the right hemisphere. The right hemisphere is the autonomous hemisphere. It is the self-decider.

Left hemispheric properties

The left hemisphere is always looking for a boss. That boss can be the right hemisphere, but only if it can trust it. It will trust external authorities if it doesn’t trust its right hemisphere. And now you’ve basically created an authoritarian. So this is an important story.

The strengths of the left hemisphere

To give you a bit of an idea of what the left hemisphere is better at than the right hemisphere. The left hemisphere typically sees the world as exclusive, either-or, black-and-white, analytic, fragmentary, linear, sequential, explicit, basically as any learning, as any school memorization type of stuff.

You do one hour this, another hour that, et cetera. And there’s very little relation between all those hours. The focus is local and narrow. It likes static things, especially static rules. And it represents reality. It doesn’t present it. So it represents reality, like seeing someone via a smartphone as a few words and maybe a picture, but not in the real world. In terms of action, it is very good in competition. And it can go very far in competition, like destroying your enemy, competitor, or whatever.

It is also less reliable because it has very little focus. Because it has little focus, it is completely unaware of everything it doesn’t know. Hence, it comes up with poorly designed plans that it thinks are really good. This is also what bureaucrats can do.

The good thing is that this is what we need for deepening, so this is not bad. The only bad thing about it is if it is leading, if the left hemisphere is leading in life.

Right hemispheric properties

But what should be leading? That is this part, the right hemisphere. It leads to a completely different world: a world that is global, broad, vigilant, flexible, and sustained. The right hemisphere is about the interconnected self in the world. It sees the bigger picture and sees things whole and in their context.

It helps you integrate across all kinds of things. Also, the stuff that the left hemisphere has created in isolation, the right hemisphere can integrate.

And you maybe saw here in the picture of the left hemispheric strengths; there’s a lot of action here and very little of “the other.”

The strengths of the right hemisphere

But if you go to the strengths of the right hemisphere, there’s a lot of “the other” and very little action. But the action of the right hemisphere is moral judgment of actions. “Is this the proper thing for me to do?”

The other is important for the right hemisphere: you feel connected with the other, with nature, with people, with new and uncertain things. The right hemisphere has a theory of mind that allows you to understand other people, putting yourself in a position of other people and using that knowledge and that position to actually enhance your situation for self and others.

So this is the broadening part. And we have to integrate that and we have to ensure that that becomes all. These are the activities that are very important next to our academic activities.

Positions

Well, then, something that we sometimes use is the word position. So what is a position?

Positions as a class of beliefs to be developed at Nova Academia

A position is a well-developed, well-defendable belief that is grounded in evidence and well-argued. So, it’s not just any belief; it must have these properties. Positions are grounded in data, facts, and research. And it is very important that they are aware of and defend against conflicting beliefs.

If you have a belief and start changing it into a position, you typically discover that someone with a conflicting belief actually makes sense. So, you will include the other person’s knowledge in your position. And although you might not be fully on board with the other person, you definitely are not the enemy of that person anymore. You actually are very grateful for the knowledge that that person brought in. So this leads to a completely different way of relating to the other.

So what we want is level 4 thinking: the ability to use evidence and logic. Then, level 5 thinking involves respecting existing well-defended viewpoints. Level 6 is integrative thinking: the point is not to win the debate but to create the best possible knowledge formulation to apply in the world.

That is what Nova Academia wants to do. And we have already put that more or less on our website.

What I just said makes full sense to all of us here, although we are not necessarily able to explain it and point to the underlying research.

A typical student’s day involves deepening, broadening, integrating

So a typical student day consists of deepening knowledge, broadening and integrating knowledge in various ways, intellectually, but also here playing on the field, gardening, dancing, building stuff, etc.

So, at Nova Academia, we aim for a culture in which everyone is not only comfortable talking to everyone but also disagreeing with many. Global self-development leads to well-supported, self-constructed, unique positions, viewpoints, and competencies.

So everyone here is going to be his or her unique self and not become interchangeable, which is almost the goal of the university. They define learning outcomes, so they define the standards that you have to comply with.

At Nova Academia, we want a very broad palette of viewpoints, but they must all be respectful of each other.

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