Dear reader: I am writing from a distant Future. A time where words like school, teacher and education have acquired new meanings. Schools are not limited to walls, neighborhoods or cities anymore. Teachers are not limited to rooms, to languages, to subjects. Education is not defined by the government of your country, by your age, by your grades.
Intrigued? Surprised? Skeptical? As always, many factors contributed to these changes but I would definitely underlie the increased awareness about how happiness can drive society. We now know that happy people are more productive, more creative, more autonomous and more engaged with their community.
This became a very hot topic within society and a lot of scientific research was developed to define and establish physiological markers for happiness. For our society, measuring happiness levels is as common as it is in yours to measure risk of cardiovascular disease. Pursuing happiness became so embedded in our culture that the wealth of a country or a company is, in our time, measured by how much they contribute to the total number of happy people in the population. On the other side, unhappiness is considered a medical condition like a cold.
This change in paradigm changed life habits enormously. In the same way that in your time there is a generalized knowledge on healthy diets and the importance of physical exercise, people became aware of the importance of play and other activities that promoted fun and well-being.
As a collateral effect, self-knowledge became a tool to reach happiness. Having accurate methods to determine if someone is happy or not, does not solve the problem of determining which actions or contexts make you feel happy or how this changes throughout life according to your experiences. You need to learn how to be aware of your internal state and what to do to change it. For instance, while you are having a meal do you know exactly when is the tipping point to feel overfed? In our time, in general, people do.
Society started its quest for this new common good called happiness, pressuring its different systems to change accordingly.
The educational system took the lead. As people were incentivised to pursue happiness, they started questioning to which extent they should learn what someone else had defined as important or necessary. Decision-makers reacted slowly to these changes, as often is the case, so people turned more strongly than ever to internet-driven technology where knowledge was widespread and where the learner could choose what to learn, where and how – I should add that the word student is now considered an archaism, we use exclusively the word learner. As a result, people trusted the educational system less and less, and started looking for alternatives that would combine custom-made learning with common knowledge. Nevertheless, a sustainable educational system could not afford to provide each individual with a personalized curriculum or a specialized teacher who could match each individual’s specific needs. Relying more on this web-based-knowledge system had, of course, its caveats and soon enough people started to understand that, in parallel, there was the need to develop critical thinking. There was the need to find ways not only to get and provide generalized access to immense data but also to push learners to assess the quality of this information. Curiously enough, the answer to this problem came from an industry that had been exploring the interplay between learning, fun, science, and to a certain extent critical thinking, in great depth: the video game industry.
Video games are simulations of the real world.
Even if those simulations seem remotely connected to your own life, they take advantage of fundamental brain mechanisms to get you engaged in play. This industry, since its early days, seemed to have found a way to effectively leverage the brain reward system with logic and emotional content, evolving from simple games like Pacman to complex, multiplayer real-time games like World of Warcraft. In these complex, intricate games the player progresses through different levels in a self-paced way, driven by goals defined by himself/herself. It was in a context of full discredit of the educational system that the video game industry saw a way into education, answering the need for people to engage in individualized processes of learning. Moreover, it was easy to enrich gaming environments with challenges requiring critical thinking. This enrichment was achieved by importing into the game environment the type of challenges that PhD students from all areas of knowledge have to go through in order to get a degree. Nevertheless, today there is still no consensus on which are the neural bases of critical thinking. In order for you to have an idea, education-oriented video games became something like hybrids between Wikipedia, World of Warcraft and doing a PhD. A game that would accompany you in all stages of life were you could learn from all the different fields of knowledge and where you would decide what to learn and how. Additionally, all sorts of multisensorial interfaces were developed so that, for instance, you could physically manipulate objects representing mathematical concepts in order to facilitate problem-solving. An unforeseen consequence occurred: teachers entered the game as learners so that those who could help other players to progress further in the game would also be rewarded. So, we also stopped using the word teacher and these are now called knowledge hubs. You may ask: does this mean that anyone can be a knowledge hub? In theory yes but, as in other games, you will only progress if your cooperators also progress in the game.
In the end, the importance that happiness, as a good, acquired for society added to the inability of the system to answer quickly to this change in paradigm and an opportunistic attitude from the video games industry set up the way for a revolution in education. Governments ended up opening the door to massive use of video games in the classroom so that schools ended up being used mostly as spaces for social playful interactions. Schools became big playgrounds where mentors, instead of teachers, follow up on children and their communities to insure a full integrated development where emotion, logic and body come together.
People finally got what they wanted: a society where happiness is achieved by an active interaction with the world on its multiple complex forms driven by acquisition of self-knowledge.
But now you may ask: society demanded a new educational system but how did those people feedback into to society later on? How did these people reshape and transformed society? What were the consequences of having people that work for happiness and that develop their brain according to their own particular, specific needs?
A system based on individual preferences revealed the amazing diversity that lies within human brains. In the same way that you, in your time, would understand why butterflies have different wing patterns or dogs have different fur patterns, we, now in our time, understand that each human brain has its unique behavioral pattern. Hence, being part of a minority became the rule. Now imagine what it is to create political parties with people who cannot identify strongly with a given strategic vision of the world? Or, how hard it is to define a country or a culture? Because everyone has a very strong opinion about everything this poses very big challenges to whichever societal system that depends on collective decision making, authority and rules. Imagine how hard it is for people to follow the law while the main reason for breaking it is the pure argument that their brains do not work under that set of principles. If on one hand, violent crime diminished considerably and now these people are considered mentally ill by default, on the other hand, all sorts of civil disobedience acts have shoveled small stones into the system. For instance, people will abandon whatever they are doing if they don’t feel fulfilled with that action. Getting a university diploma is totally secondary. Companies hiring new collaborators use video games created specifically to assess the desired skills for the job and select candidates based on their performance in these games. Wherever you go you define yourself by revealing what makes you unique, your identity is your uniqueness. Interestingly enough, people still need to have interactions out of the video games in order to consider each other trustworthy in matters of life and death. People tend to report much higher levels of trust towards someone who is part of their family or that they have known for a long time outside gaming settings. So, in case you are wondering, parenting still has a function. Until now, there is no video game which can elicit the same feelings of comfort and reward in a child’s brain as the ones elicited by their parents.
You have not arrived to my Present, yet. Between both of us we cannot be sure if that is going to happen, but by giving it a thought, by considering for one moment how a distant Future might look like you may already be changing your Present in unforeseen ways.
Ana Rita Fonseca studied Engineering as an undergraduate and then moved to neuroscience where she is developing a PhD project in rodent decision making at the Systems Neuroscience lab, Champalimaud Neuroscience Programme.