Teaching, Learning, Literary in our High-Risk, High-Tech World: A Framework for Becoming Human (Teachers College Press, 2017).


We humans deeply misunderstand our brains, our bodies, or ourselves.


Academic silos (and their traditional notions of narrow expertise) do more harm than good.

The Head Brain

Humans have two brains, one in the head and one in the gut (the gut is connected to the head brain by the vagus nerve).  The gut brain is often more important.

The Gut Brain

The human body contains trillions of micro-organisms (the human microbiome).  Most of these microorganisms are in the gut and they deeply influence how we think and feel and our mental and physical health.

Head Brain Bugs

Our head brains do not actually work well.  They are prone to a great many well-studied “brain bugs”.

Head Brain Modules

The head brain is composed of many modules the internal workings of which humans are consciously unaware. The relatively small conscious part of the brain is devoted, in large part, to confabulation and self-deception.


Humans learn from experience.  Experiences are good for human learning only when they involve an action that learners affectively care about and are helped to manage and monitor their attention in the experience.


The experiences we store in long-term-memory—the basis of learning—are used primarily to build simulations in our minds to plan and get ready for action in the future.  Human memory is more future oriented than past oriented.

Knowing and Acting: Judgement Systems

When learners are “beginners” they do not know what action to try first and how to assess the outcomes of what they do in terms of a successful trajectory to a goal.  They need help to form a judgement system that informs them what are good things to do and how to assess the outcomes of their actions.  This help comes from social groups that mentor them into socially-significant identities.


Humans learn bottom up from experience.  Unfortunately, humans are pattern recognizers par excellence and are quite prone to finding, believing in, and using spurious patterns (a brain bug).  So, here too, learners need good judgement systems to know which patterns and sub-patterns in a domain are most fruitful for future use.

Well-Designed and Well-Mentored Experiences

Experiences in the world and in media need to be well-designed and well-mentored to achieve optimal learning.  Designing and mentoring good experiences for learning should be the job of a modern teacher.  Today, effective teaching goes in more out of school than in it, especially in affinity spaces (see below).


The social groups that give learners’ judgement systems in various domains also give them different identities.  There are two major types of socially significant identities: Activity-based identities (e.g., “gamer”, “physicist”, “birder”, “teacher”) and relational identities (e.g., “Native-American”, “gay”, “Christian”, “teen”).  Activity-based identities are the hallmark of our current digital world.  Relational identities, when people proactively accept them—and do not see them as simply imposed—often come to behave like activity-based identities.

Affinity Spaces

An affinity space (like a country) is a set of many spaces (like towns and cities) through which people with a shared interest or passion can move back and forth to develop into and be a certain kind of person—gain a certain identity—such as being a gamer, a Catholic, a physicist, or an activist Native-American.  These spaces can be physical or virtual and may affinity spaces today are composed of both physical and virtual spaces.

Distributed Teaching and Learning Systems

Affinity spaces are composed of many real and virtual spaces through which people move to carry out an interest or discover a passion.  In modern affinity spaces teaching and learning goes in all the many spaces that compose a bigger affinity space.  Teaching and learning are distributed across many different people and tools and takes many different forms.              

The Pareto Principle

Most affinity spaces operate by the Pareto principle: 20% of the people do 80% of the actions in the space and 80% do 20%.  This does not mean that the 80% (“the long tail”) are not contributing—often their actions still make important contributions because problem solving in an affinity space requires diversity and any piece of information may become crucial.  We want everyone in the modern world to be part of many different affinity spaces and find one or a few in which they can be and want to be in the 20%.

Collective Intelligence

Humans are “plug-and-play devices”: They are stupid unless they are plugged into good tools, other people with different skills, experiences, and information, and good environments.  While each of us is good at deceiving ourselves, in a collectively intelligent group our self-biases can “wash out” (when this process is formalized, we call it “science”).


Today we face massive levels of inequality in individual societies (such as the United States) and across the global.  Lots of research demonstrates that high levels of inequality in a society make people, rich and poor, sicker in mind and body—and give rise to many more social problems for all segments of the society—than in a society with higher levels of equality.

Clashing Frameworks

Our world today is riven with ideological divisions, echo-chambers, and ill will, all leading to an inability to engage in collaborative problem solving as our shared world moves to disaster.  However close we frail human beings can ever come, over the long haul, to truth and peace is contingent on our being able to engage in reflective discussions with each other where we compare, contrast, connect, and debate different perspectives or frameworks on important issues and problems, and perhaps, adapt and change some of our own.             

Recommended Readings:

Gazzaniga, M. (2011).  Who’s in charge? Free will and the science of the brain.  New York: HarperCollins.

Gee, J. P. (2017).  Teaching, learning, literacy in our high-risk high-tech world: A framework for becoming human.  New York: Teachers College Press.

Pickett, K. & Wilkinson, R. (2011).  The spirit level: Why greater equality makes societies stronger.  New York: Bloomsbury.

Soroush, A.  (2000).  Reason, freedom, and democracy in Islam: Essential writings of Abdolkarim Soroush.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Seligman, M. E., Railton, P., Baumeister, R. F., & Sripada, C. (2016). Homo Prospectus.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Yong, E. (2016).  I contain multitudes: The microbes within us and a grander view of life.  New York: HarperCollins.