Altered Bodies: Changing the Environment to Improve the Performance of the Mind

Topics: Future of Learning

Post by Xiang Yu, formerly a graduate fellow in strategic foresight with KnowledgeWorks and currently a doctoral student in philosophy

How the mind performs relies crucially on the shaping of the natural and social environment. Sometimes the worsening of the natural environment can have pernicious impact on the way the mind works. In addition, the restrictions that the social environment puts on the mind can prevent it from realizing its full potential. When these things happen, we can act to mitigate the negative impact of the natural environment and to change the way we set up the social environment to improve the performance of the mind.

The Altered Bodies driver of change from KnowledgeWorks’ 2020 Forecast: Creating the Future of Learning explored interactions between the mind and the environment, with an emphasis on experimenting at their intersection points. This post looks back at this driver of change as part of a series.

The 2020 Forecast: Creating the Future of Learning, published ten years ago, revealed how many of our fundamental relationships — with ourselves; within our organizations; and with systems, societies and economies — were being reimagined and re-created in ways that could disrupt the status quo and challenge our usual assumptions.
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Altered Bodies described a future in which people would increasingly come to think about mental and physical abilities in new ways and accommodate the needs of people with differing abilities in ways that would serve them while also sparking broader innovations. This driver of change also forecast that our minds would continue to be affected by stressors imposed by the worsening of the natural and social environments. It projected that schools would become key sites for intervention in overcoming the resulting challenges.

There are connections between the drivers of change identified in the 2020 Forecast to those identified 10 years later in Navigating the Future of Learning. For instance, in the newer forecast, we explore how forces of change such as Altered Bodies are related to new forces of change like Accelerating Brains.

Continuation of alterations

Over the past ten years, as people have continued to think about abilities in new ways, important conversations about ableism have been initiated and different kinds of accommodations have been made for learners. These accommodations are more prevalent than they used to be. At the same time, the damaging effects of climate change have continued to accumulate. Air pollution in the US has worsened in recent years after years of steady improvement. Though it has decreased since 2008, food insecurity among children remains a problem. The percentage of children with chronic illnesses is on the rise. Finally, childhood trauma has recently been recognized by Centers for Disease Control as a public health issue.

The 2020 Forecast asked two questions to guide the readers in thinking about how educators could respond to this driver of change. Here, we review how educators and educational institutions have responded to this driver over the past ten years.

How have experimenting and designing for “special” learners created innovations for all?

Over the past ten years, people have increasingly been changing established norms. For example, in response to the emerging notion of neuro-diversity, video game characters with autism have been introduced. These characters include Symmetra, one of the super heroes in Overwatch, and Ava, the protagonist in Ava. Ava, in particular, is intended for whomever wants to understand and apply social skills in a fictional world.

In another example, as a response to the changing of gender norms, drag queens have started to read stories to children in public spaces to help them explore their own gender identities and engage with queer role models. Moreover, virtual reality systems that help paraplegics use their brain activity to control movements of their legs, while benefiting paraplegics, also have the potential to benefit people with other health conditions, such as strokes and neurological disorders.

KnowledgeWorks has been creating forecasts on the future of learning since 2006. In Forecast 5.0: Navigating the Future of Learning, you can read about the drivers of change for the next ten years.
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How have school communities become centers for protection and rejuvenation in a bio-distressed world?

It is difficult to be a child living in a stressful world. Educators and educational institutions have increasingly realized this fact and have taken measures to alleviate the impact that stress-inducing events have on children. For example, climate change has become part of the curriculum in Canadian schools, as an effort to help young people better understand climate change and increase their confidence in improving the environment by developing their own solutions to the problem. In dealing with food insecurity, school districts and universities have joined forces with non-profit organizations to improve food security for kids and families in their communities. To provide support for children who might have experienced or be at risk of emotional trauma, social-emotional learning (SEL) has been integrated in schools to help children develop self-awareness, self-control and interpersonal skills.

Room for improvement

In summary, accommodations for unconventional learners have benefited conventional learners, too.  This impact was achieved by allowing conventional learners to have an enhanced understanding of what it is like to have a different mind and body through fun learning activities and by introducing technologies that have the potential to support a wider range of mental and physical conditions than originally intended. In addition, school communities have responded to bio-distress by improving the environmental literacy of children, providing children and families with the resources they need and equipping children with social and emotional skills that help them navigate the world around them.

The changes forecast in the Altered Bodies driver of change are already happening, as shown by the prevalence of responses that are taking place in the educational field. As we work to create the future of learning, however, there is still room for improvement.

With respect to accommodating differing abilities, it is important to realize that programs specifically designed for unconventional learners are not yet accessible to everyone in need due to practical constraints and because the effectiveness of these programs remains to be evaluated. Additionally, even though progress has been made in terms of accommodating unconventional learners, more needs to be done to shift the way people think and feel about differing abilities.

With respect to bio-distress, many schools in the US lack robust education about climate change, especially schools that belong to a state that has not adopted the latest science education standards. In certain places, schools are still struggling to properly address public health crises such as the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan.

Many students’ ability to learn will remain suboptimal until these issues are addressed. More needs to be done to steer our environments toward being supportive of human performance instead of detrimental to it.

Dive deeper into how your learning community can improve the performance of the mind in a changing environment with customized talks and workshops.

2020 Forecast Retrospectives