Concepts are simply tools to be used to make decisions to improve the lives of people.
Focusing on issues that affect the lives of people as a way of identifying core concepts needed by engaged citizens is a way to put the well-being of people and society at the heart of the PostPandemic Curriculum Project.
To be successful in reforming our schools, the Post-Pandemic Curriculum Project will need to identify a fairly small number of concepts that underlie the most important public policy issues confronting us. I expect that the process will become decentralized and somewhat chaotic before a consensus emerges. I have no expectation, and frankly lack the capability, of controlling the process.
My hope is that the evolving discussions will embody five common traits:
- a commitment to, and enforcement of, a respectful but open-minded and challenging exchange of views (something that I call being “Collegially Disagreeable”)
- a deliberate effort to exchange views with people of dissimiliar experiences, expertise, assumptions, and priorities
- a focus on issues, and the underlying concepts needed to understand them, rather than on advancing suggested actions to be taken on the issues (arguing about actions without a common language or understanding, is bound to result in hostility and failure)
- a willingness to question your own most cherished ideas and to adopt the ideas of others without ego
- a ruthlessness in keeping the focus on only the most important issues and the most foundational concepts. Institutions and individuals alike can manage only so much complexity Seeing every issue as critically important, every concept as foundational, is a type of intellectual hoarding. Strive for spare simplicity. A list of 500 issues and 2000 core concepts will change nothing.
People and institutions have limited capacities, including a limitation on the number of concepts that they can keep in mind at a given time.
Cluttering this precious “concept-space” with concepts that have little or no effect on the state of the world is more than wasteful. It does active harm, like using operating room space to store surplus football uniforms instead of surgical equipment, blood supplies, and ventilators.
To get things started, I have identified the core concepts that I think are needed by engaged citizens in a robust accountable democracy. I am certain that the list is incomplete, and that perhaps some of what I consider to be core concepts are secondary to engaged citizenry. My purpose is to provide a starting point, not suggest a final list. I claim no special insights. I am as blind to my own blindness as anyone else.
Why couple “core concepts” to issues, rather than just identify the concepts directly?
Asking the question “Does it help to make sense of a serious public policy issue?” is the equivalent of Marie Kondo’s question “Does it spark joy?” It forces you to look at something that you are attached to in a new, and critical, light.
Until it interacts with the world, a concept – no matter how ornate and finely-crafted – is simply an interesting feat of the intellect Its true value only becomes apparent when it is applied to an issue facing people.
As I’ve developed my own list of core concepts, I have found myself leaving off some concepts that are very close to my heart – including Plate Tectonics, Special Relativity, and Natural Selection. Although these provide exceptional insight into the workings of the world, I was not convinced that there are major public policy issues that require an understanding of any of these concepts.
Sayre’s Law: “In any dispute, the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the stakes at issue” And a corollary: “Given the choice, most people prefer to battle over small differences than calmly address large issues.”
There is something comfortable about staying on the familiar ground of small differences. You don’t have to work that hard to understand what is going on, and your standard arguments are good enough. This lets you focus more of your attention on emotion, giving the older parts of your brain a good work-out, and your over-worked executive brain functions a rest. Unfortunately this approach generates more noise than innovative thinking.
“My concept is better than your concept” vs. “How does this concept contribute to that shared issue?”
Recently the standard bare-knuckle “Positional” negotiating strategy of tabling competing offers before hammering out a “compromise” somewhere in between has come under attack https://www.pon.harvard.edu/daily/negotiation-skills-daily/six-guidelines-for-getting-to-yes/as inviting unnecessary and unhelpful conflict. Proponents of “Principled” or “Getting to Yes” negotiations recognize that discussions are both more productive and more collegial when they invite people to search for a solution to a shared goal. Starting with a shared public policy issue and looking for underlying concepts is inherently more collaborative, and likely more productive, than haggling over nuances of how a concept is described.
Core concepts common to many important policy issues will naturally emerge.
There are untold numbers of concepts that might be considered as “core”; each will have its own staunch proponents. Sorting through these to arrive at a list of a few dozen is an onerous task. The number of critically important public policy issues is much smaller than the number of favoured concepts, and the task of identifying the underlying concepts needed to make sense of each of these issues is manageable and largely ego-free. Most importantly, some of concepts will arise for only a couple of these issues, while others will appear time and time again (cognitive distortions and exponential growth are two that come immediately to mind).
Starting with issues will help bring people with diverse backgrounds into conversation with each other.
If the conversations centred on concepts, it is most likely that mathematicians would congregate to discuss those arising from the maths, anthropologists to discuss those arising from anthropology, etc. Each siloed group would have the same sort of discussions that they have had for years, with few fresh ideas injected. Making the discussion about issues will likely bring people with diverse backgrounds and viewpoints into contact with each other – issues such as criminal justice reform or redressing the residual effects of oppression transcend disciplines. Concepts ranging from statistics to psychology and from brain development to finances underlie these issues and will result in people with many technical and experiential backgrounds sharing perspectives and learning from each other..
Suggested Issues & Suggested Core Concepts
Starting with a blank piece of paper (or screen) is hard. Sometimes it helps to have the beginnings of an outline, even if you discard it and start again shortly afterwards. Please treat my thoughts here as a point of departure rather than a clear map to a fixed destination.
To provide some initial structure, I have outlined a couple of dozen core concepts, along with four issues that are likely on most everyone’s top 10:
Thanks for joining the Post-Pandemic Curriculum Project.
If you have any ideas on how to expand and/or improve these discussions, please share them..