Protetto: Anantha Duraiappah – An education for Humanity. The whole brain approach

ADi International Online Meeting - February 2021



by Anantha Duraiappah
Director of UNESCO MGIEP, India 



6aThanks for inviting me.
First of all, I would like to give you some information about the Institute I run. It is called Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development (MGIEP), based in New Delhi, India.
The activity of our Institute focuses on goal 4.7 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: an education aimed at promoting peaceful and sustainable societies. The vision that guides us is “transforming education for humanitas”. A crucial vision in an era of globalization with exponential economic growth accompanied by increasing inequalities and devastating climate change.
Our Institute, created in 2009, was lucky enough to be born and developed in an era in which there is a great flourishing of interest in the educational sciences and neuroscience applied to education.
There are many studies on SEL, Social and Emotional Learning and on soft skills, that we call “super hard skills”, because we consider skills such as mindfulness, self-regulation, empathy and compassion to be much more important, lasting and complex than subjects’ skills.
In the last four or five years we have used the best researchers from around the world to develop these skills, which I will tell you about.
I will talk to you about human flourishing, about education to make humanitas flourish, not capital, but I will start with some very negative data to describe the crucial aspects of the situation in which we find ourselves.



1) I think one of the biggest problems that we are facing, among many other problems, and especially among the young, is the first data on the slide here in the left: twenty five percent of children between the ages of 13 and 15 have some form of mental depression in India. And we’ve got about 800.000 kids in that age group, dying by suicide every year, globally. And these are only the reported ones. Let me remind you, in India, any form of reporting on mental depression or any mental hillness is a taboo. And and much of those data, I say, are driven by the education sector because in India education zyou have to reach ninety nine point nine percent quintile to get into the universities, the top universities. Imagine the pressure that the child is put on.

Why those students committed suicide? Because they didn’t get to the expectations of what their parents wanted and you know what? These were not kids at the bottom of the rank. These kids in a society like ours would have been considered as achievers, but still not in the ninety nine point nine percent. That‘s sad. And we need to do something. The government recognizes that. But it’s the parents who need to have a change in mindset, and that’s what our work is, with the teachers as well. And this is a global number, this is a WHL report, and look at the number of suicides, that’s huge. I’m not sure why we’re not reacting to that as we are reacting to the coronavirus. I just don’t understand this disconnection.

2) This is another issue that the institute has been asked to work on: intolerance and violent extremism growing. You know, when you look at the numbers is really not huge, but you know how fast this things can really scale up. We have that history and we see this happening in many parts of the world, in many countries for the wrong reasons. We just had a workshop in Sri Lanka where we brought young people from various regions and we asked why many of them were ex-jihadis, people who have been with the Taliban, who have been with ISIS. We also have white supremacists. And we want to know what prompted that. One of the things was about how hate speech gives them that kind of support.

3) Of course, we know the global problems like climate change, migration. It was very interesting when when we did a study with young kids about grade eight on their perspectives on migration. What we normally like to do is looking at perspectives from different parts. So we don’t really like to connect children within just one country. We connect kids from India, Sri Lanka, the US, Norway, with very, very different perspectives and we talk about the same issue. And then you can sort of see how those issues are so different seen by children from so different backgrounds and understanding of that migration and the issues of migration tend to be a lot more homed in to the individual. And then you can see where apathy suddenly changes to empathy, because once they have been asked, this will have an impact on your life.

And I want to talk a little bit about climate change, because I heard with really a lot of hope that Italy had just passed a law where climate change now is going to be mandatory in the curriculum of schools. But I want to sort of say, if you do it just purely as an intellectual exercise it’s not going to do anything. You need to bring in the emotions. And that’s why my talk is going to be a lot on the role of emotions.

4) And, of course, we have privatization of education. A friend of mine who works in the private sector. In a life that I’ve forgotten, I was once a banker working with the Hong Kong Bank and somebody made a very interesting statement from the credit markets. This is the cost of tuition, the cost of education, i.e., university fees will keep rising until the credit markets think it is now risky to. Nothing to do with education. It was purely a risk analysis on the markets. That was scary.

5) And last, the current education system, I don’t need to tell you about our current education system, many of us have gone through it: we have this listen, don’t question rote memorization material. Well, so basically we teach our kids to become really good workforces in an economic system. And that’s the whole agenda. One size fits all. I get a lot of problems when I talk to teachers about that last one and there’s a big push back. But I think that to be fair, not all teachers are like that. But if you like, if you go to countries like India, Korea and some of the others, it is a one way dialogue and this is how it is supposed to be. Things are changing, but a bit too slow, I think, for many of us. 



We need an education for human flourishing. In a sense, it’s about leading a happy life.

And this is where the kindness comes in, and we’ll talk about it a little bit more later, an education that is rooted in kindness.

A new approach based on science and evidence

The good thing is science shows that we are wired for empathy. Which is related with kindness. So why do we go against our nature? We’re doing that, and when you go against your nature, you tend to get into situations of depression, anxiety and stress because you’re going against a natural flow. We need a new approach based on science and evidence.

What I found was that there was very little science which has been used in education. And evidence, a lot of times it’s just like “well, this is the way we have been doing it”. So if you say rote memorization, do you have the evidence to show that this actually is what? And what is the science behind this? To be fair, a lot of the signs on the neurosciences of learning has been relatively new within the scope of science. Thirty years are few, but that’s its history. We still don’t have all the answers. But there are some good starting points for us to use to introduce into the school system.

Diapositiva7So, we have the rational and the emotional pathways of the brain, and this is where the interesting thing comes in. The science shows that every action, every behavior is based on inter flow between the rational and the emotional. And if it’s a symbiotic network, you get a rational decision, but if it’s not in symbiosis, you get an irrational decision. And there is a book by Daniel Aroney, Predictably Irrational, a bestseller. It’s not a technical psychology book. You can easily read it. And then, of course, there is Daniel Kahneman’s work on thinking: Thinking fast and slow. All fall into this particular realm where decision making is basically many times irrational and it’s the interplay between the rational and the emotional.

There is a particular network in the brain, so that there is no such thing as a thinking brain and emotional brain, and I used to make that mistake as well. There is no such thing as that, it is always a network. It’s what dominates that network that defines the actual behavior. And so we got the critical inquiry part, the prefrontal cortex right up in the front part. That’s our latest development of the brain. Then you’ve got the limbic in which is the emotional part, which is what was there in the early days of brain development. And that’s why in young adolescents, teenagers, the limbic is already developed, but  the prefrontal is still being developing. And that’s why you get all these funny behaviors coming from the teens. That’s why we say they’re terrible teens, because the prefrontal, the rational part is still developing, but the emotional is all well defined. So it’s just hormones being released at that point, then we have the critical inquiry, then we got attention, regulation and sensory motor skills coming out here. And the real focus is that we need to train the brain to tease out those empathy neurons, to motivate behavior change.
That’s the network that we want to activate. Sometimes there is what we call – if you see that particular line here – is what we call the amygdala hijack, which means your emotions get control of your rational, and then you do all those irrational things, which maybe a few minutes later we say “why did I ever do that?” or “why did I say that?”. Because the emotions hijacked the rational. And it happens, unfortunately, a lot of times. Now we can train the brain for this.  And that’s the whole thing of what we call the super skills, in common terminology called the soft skills. We call it the notion of self regulation, critical thinking, empathy and compassion. Those are the four fundamental. A lot of times they talk about collaboration, but you can’t collaborate if you don’t have these fundamentals. Otherwise, you collaborate for the wrong reasons.

So, when people say “what do you do at MGIEP”? What the institute stands for? We say:  we are there to fire Ghandhi neurons in your brains. Who coined that word? It’s a very famous neuroscientist from UC San Diego, V.S. Ramachandran, the guy who developed the whole notion of phantom limbs and the mirror neurons. So he in his last TED talk, talked about empathy, mirror neurons and the Ghandi neurons. But we know that you need to fire those neurons to create those networks because it is not the neuron, it is the neural network that’s important. And that’s what we are trying to find. And some of the early studies say that there is this network, but it needs to be trained and it needs to be activated. If you don’t use it, you lose it. But if you train it, it emerges.

Diapositiva7That’s the beauty of what they call neuroplasticity, networks can be created till you die. The speed of neuroplasticity, the speed of creation of new neural networks happens the highest during the teenage years after twenty four/ twenty five, it slows down. But it never dies. And bad networks can be deleted, a new positive networks can be created. And when you start thinking about the brain and its systems, another great book I would suggest that is still a New York bestseller, is Robert Sapolsky book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst and there he talks about that millisecond before you actually take an action. And then he goes back to millions of years of evolution. And it’s incredible how you see that evolution of how we have gone through that dictates the way we behave, any traces on how violence and hate evolves in our brains. And how it can be actually reduced and in fact, eradicated over time.

The importance of social emotional learning

Diapositiva8So this is our approach that we worked on, we looked at a lot of frameworks, also the CASEL  framework, which is one of the most dominant frameworks in the world. We looked at some of the works done by the Max Planck Institute in Germany, we looked at the work of Richard Davison, who’s like one of the big scientists working in Wisconsin. What we do?

1) We use this term mindfulness, but what mindfulness is about? It is developing your self regulation and emotional regulation. So it’s about being within yourself. It’s about understanding the moment as it happens and you’re able to reflect on that and regulate that. So it’s interesting. Emotional regulation is like “it’s OK to be angry”. But you know that you are being angry and you know why you’re being angry and you are able to reflect on it, so it’s not about suppression of your emotions. So the whole notion of mindfulness is to understand your emotions. Analyze your emotions and then react.

2) The second is empathy. Empathy training is about understanding the other, but from their perspective. Not about understanding the other from your own perspective, which is what happens all the time when you see international negotiations, peace negotiations, you hear the other side speak and then you speak on your side without really understanding from their perspective at all. And that takes a lot of practice. We did an exercise, and this is part of our training, where you sit and listen to the other person, you write down what you listen to, and then you go back and tell to the person, this is what I heard from you. 90 percent of the time, on that first round, the person says, “no, that was not what I was trying to tell you”. And then you start the dialogue. That’s a really critical part of empathy training. It’s called journaling, exercise, reflection, dialogue, back and forth. It is extremely difficult because the tendency is to put your perspective on this issue, which is so rational, why can’t you see it? From my perspective, it makes so much sense. Doesn’t that sound familiar? I do that all the time with the kids. And then after this training, I kind of sit down and say, “oh, ok, they have a valid point with the way they look at things as well”.

Then we have compassion. Compassion is the action part. So when you understand the other, you empathize with the other and then if you just leave it that way, what’s the point of the whole exercise? Compassion is to do something about it. The reason we brought compassion in – and this came out from an experiment in the Max Planck Institute – is that you can have a lot of empathy and go into empathetic distress, which means you go into depression because you don’t do anything about it. So in India, this is really a high probability because at every traffic light you see little kids in the middle of winter, no shoes, hardly any clothing. They are always begging. And if you’re a human being you want to do something. But there are so many of them and a lot of people get depressed. They get angry. Compassion is trying to do something, even if it’s a small thing, do it. And for children, this is a great action. And this is where the kindness comes, compassion is acts of kindness. Putting empathy to practice.

3) Critical inquiry. The reason why we put critical inquiry is in the rational part, because what we found is you can be mindful, empathetic compassionate and you can still be a suicide bomber. Because you’re mindful of yourself in terms of empathetic with the cause as others are, and you’re compassionate by believing that by blowing yourself in the name of a greater god  makes sense. But the critical inquiry requires you to go through the process. Is this what the writings (Koran) are suggesting? Is this what actually it means? And a lot of times when we have talked to ex white supremacists or jihadis, they say that when they go back to the Koran, it doesn’t say what they’ve been told to do. And a lot of time they have been told by the people who are trying to recruit, “you don’t have to read the Koran. We know this is the message, this is from our leader, you should listen to that”. But if they say “no, I want to read it and I want to question it” this is critical inquiry. The way we develop it is: questions, questions, questions until you are happy with the answers.



So that’s the approach that we use for all our curricula. The difference between my institute and other schools is we don’t train people on these skills separately, in a separate course. We take an issue, we take migration or we take climate change, and then e.g. in the climate change, we go through the critical inquiry: what is climate change? What caused climate change? Who were the main emitters? Why? What happened? And then the solutions. It’s a continuous dialogue. And in that dialogue, we bring in the mindfulness in terms of how many people get extremely irritated, they get angry, and then they empathyse to understand the others who are not willing to cut down their emissions. Why they don’t want to cut down? So that’s the process that we have taken.

 And the way we deliver it is called deliberate process.
It just freedom, it provides agency to the student. It’s storytelling narrative based,  we make it using case studies, we do a lot on digital, we don’t use the word ICT in our institute, we use the word digital pedagogies. It is not about just using digital instruments and transmissive mechanism, it is a pedagogy by itself. And you can see that different neural networks are being created when you use a digital pedagogy.

We do a lot of games and gamification, critical inquiry. You don’t have to embrace all of them. It depends on the particular course. You can do this for Maths, you can do this for science. We are building a course on Maths for grade eight, but having SEL involved in it. It’s embedded into it, we don’t believe on having a separate course or time for social emotional learning integrated into your schooling system.

The climate change example

Click to enlarge

So one of the things with climate change, I put this very quickly. First we start with evidences, causes, solutions, very, very intellectual information, rational power. Then we have this human well-being. And this is when the things start getting interesting, wealth and personal security, and where you have to understand how, with adaptation, you might have acts of kindness leading to positive or negative changes. Then you want to have the discussion that if you want to cut down emissions, you might have to increase the price of gasoline. This is one of the most contentious issues. Every time a government tries to increase the price of gasoline, you have riots on the streets. “All right, but you sort of see, you know, these are some of the trade offs. There is no such thing as a free lunch” and then “I disagree with that statement because the reason you are having a free lunch is we are not costing the climate cause of climate change into our present policies”.
So. That’s the way that we will address climate change becouse if you’re going to act with responsibility, accountability, it will have an impact on material well-being, human well-being.


Diapositiva12One of the things we do is the call to action. I invite you to sign up to our platform Have a look. It’s open source. You can just log in. Climate change module is there available and you can type that. It is still under development, but it’s available. And you can role in our global citizenship, cause we are having now countries already involved, five schools from the countries we’re looking for, others who are interested. This is a pilot testing ground. So usually we have like five schools from different countries with very different socioeconomic demographic profile. So we want to understand if certain variables have an impact on learning. And we have established kindness clubs, we want to link up kindness clubs around the world where kids can connect because I think the essential thing is they must connect across cultures, across countries to understand that we live in one planet.



And now my three cents:
1) we must nurture both the rational and emotional parts of the brain, just not let’s focus on the rational part, because final behavior is going to be defined by both rational and emotional if we train only the rational and not emotional  we’re going to have a lot of times irrational decisions.

2) Mainstream SEL, do not create a separate SEL  because we really strongly urge to not separate it from the mainstream and integrate it within the courses. The easier courses are on contemporary issues like values, education or civics education, citizenship education. But it can be done in Maths and Science and History is also another great place to bring SEL. And it’s important that we integrate it within Maths and Science because everybody wants to do STEM these days or attempt to transfer STEM to STEAM. But that’s like an afterthought. Everybody, every country that I go to is still STEM, STEM, STEM. It has to be built into STEM as well.

3) And we must encourage acts of kindness to be guided and supported and mindful, empathetic and in a critical manner. And not just do acts of kindness, which is a random thing, make it as part of a more strategic initiative.

So from predators to nurturer. Thank you very much.

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