So much of our interest in learning and education currently revolves around identifying, acquiring, and assessing knowledge. In other words, we are trying to find better and better ways to know what to learn, how to learn it, and how to know that we learned it. Implicitly, we are treating knowledge as a cold hard structure that is waiting for us somewhere outside of ourselves. But there is more to the story – I would argue most of the story – once the knowledge becomes part of us.
At its most basic level, learning is both hard and fun. Trying to learn a musical instrument or a mathematical equation inherently releases dopamines when we are successful and tensions when we are in the thick of it. The “hard” part of learning can also be physically painful rather than just emotionally frustrating or emotionally hurtful. Learning that new stance in yoga or practicing new moves in martial arts all involve some pain. After we have fully integrated this knowledge into our repertoire, we largely reap the benefits of the fun with the pain becoming a memory.
Here is the rub, though: we age, and that knowledge ages with us. If we read Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for instance, before our first love and after it, the work will have a different effect on us. The learnings that we might take away from that work will be different for us. The sooner we read it, the longer this knowledge is with us. School curricula inherently take this into account when they decide what books children should read when. Teachers also realize this when they tell their students: “You might not understand or like it now, but you will appreciate it someday.” Notice that the word choice is inherently emotionally driven: we might not “like” it, but we will “appreciate” it.
I can offer recent examples in two different domains from my own life. The first is from thermodynamics. I was the Teaching Assistant for a PhD thermodynamics course at Stanford and a student 9 months later asked me to help him prepare for his qualification examination. By passing this examination, he becomes a PhD candidate and can therefore continue on his path to becoming a researcher and expert. I already liked my knowledge of thermodynamics when the course was running. Helping this student rekindled that feeling and amplified it because its impact through me was more tangible and personal. The second example is from art history. Having traveled extensively in Europe growing up, my parents ensured that my brother and I knew about the major art movements and masterpieces. While no one in my home is a full-time or professional artist, we always sought out art musea and enjoyed the works on display. My father and I recently visited an art exhibit in Vienna. I discovered paintings and artists I did not encounter before, but I recognized their style as distinctly Impressionist. For the first time, I also saw the beginnings of what would eventually inspire some of my favorite painters. Realizing that, I appreciated that I knew what Impressionism is and I enjoyed that that knowledge combined with this experience generated opportunities for new insights. Then I talked to my father about Impressionism and we exchanged what each of us knew about it. None of that would have been possible without our prior knowledge, despite the fact that we acquired the knowledge significantly earlier.
As we mature, our knowledge matures with us. Because the moment we integrate knowledge into our being, it ceases to be “the” (external) knowledge and becomes “our” (internal) knowledge. This means that it is there with us as we go through our emotional experiences and that it can even help us move through them. I cannot count the times when I told myself: “I am so glad that I knew that.” Again, the language is emotional because I was expressing my gratitude through my gladness. And nothing else really mattered after that moment. I was grateful for that knowledge and for all the pain and fun I felt in acquiring it and for all the effort and time my teachers used in crafting it.
So my question is this: what if we engineered education specifically with the emotional experience in mind? And there is much to work with because the engineering happens on three timelines simultaneously. The students get to learn something in the present that they will in the future appreciate because they will apply it in a future situation by reaching into the past. The parent education becomes the future past. This is a reality and requires no engineering whatsoever. We can engineer three steps in this process. First, we can engineer the learning moment so that it is especially easy to retain and access. Second, we can engineer the application moment so that the learners access the knowledge. Third, we can engineer the reflection moment so that the learners feel through the application experience and consciously realize the emotional value the knowledge allowed them. In so doing, we are approaching education not just from an intellectual, but also from an emotional perspective. We literally bring (back?) the heart into education.
When we combine these engineering insights, we actually find that there might be a more conducive model for understanding our movement through time. If we are presently reflecting on past knowledge for the benefit of our future self, then we are not operating in multiple times. We are, in fact, still in the present. We reflect on our memories of the past and re-shape them in the present only for them to slip back into the past. In this model, the past future and the future past are hurtling toward the present as we call each to attention to be manifested and re-shaped by us in the here and now. The better conceptualization for us might then be that there is only the present moment, with the past future and the future past simply mixed in as we bring them to attention.
One does not have to look too far for esoteric examples. Think about what physics students go through when they transition from classical to quantum mechanics. Their conceptualization of the world shifts and requires quite a bit of re-visiting alleged truths established in the past. As they are re-working this past knowledge in the present, they are aware that this is something their future self will need to advance further. What if this became a key attitude and skill that learners consciously cultivate? Where (instead of when) would they apply it?
From my two examples and others, my application moments tend to occur outside of the classroom and include the wellbeing of others. Helping me do my job for the organization’s clients, assisting others through their classes and exams, and connecting with others over shared experiences are moments of deep appreciation for me. It is my knowledge that others do not have as readily available to them that I am able to use that knowledge to interact with them in this way. Of course, this does not mean that by knowing everything, I would be perfectly happy. It is also the lack of knowledge and the willingness of others to share theirs that I come to deeply appreciate the knowledge as well as their generosity with it. I fully trust that they are offering their knowledge and being patient with me as I grapple with it that because they care about me and believe that I am ready for it.
I do not know the full extent of emotionally engineered educational experiences. I do know that the idea is already helping me enjoy my past, current, and even future education. I also know that everything that is part of me – now including this – is going to evolve as I evolve. And, knowing that, I might start adventuring for knowledge I want to mature for longer sooner as well as select some knowledge to leave for later. After all, if we are to enjoy life, why not also enjoy everything we know about it at all times?