the educational technology journal

Vol 17|No 5|May 2008
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Making Sense?
A Review

of Daniel Pink's
A Whole New Brain: Why Right Brainers will Rule the Future

By Jamie McKenzie
About author

The second half of this book is delightful, but the first part, full of prophecy, is hard to swallow. This review begins by questioning the augury but ends with support for the six senses Pink outlines and advocates.

Looking up to the top of the Grand Hyatt Hotel Shanghai from the inside.
Photo ©2007 Jamie McKenzie

The Claim: Right-Brainers will Rule

Tom Peters calls this book, "A Miracle!" on the book cover.

There is much in the book that is pleasing and hopeful, but "miracle" seems a bit over the top, and despite the title, little is new inside the book compared to similar pronouncements made by Peters and his disciples twenty years ago. Many of us have been working for the transformation Pink forecasts for decades, but the society hardly seems poised to make the shift, as conservative forces maintain a firm grip on many of our institutions and the workplace revolution predicted by Peters has not really materialized.

While Pink cites the sales of candles across the USA and some other workplace trends like outsourcing as evidence to support his predictions, this all seems like flimsy evidence as huge corporations like Wal-Mart dominate the culture and No Child Left Behind drains creativity, thinking and invention out of many school programs. It reads more like wishful thinking, despite Pink's assured tone.

Back to the Future?

One good thing about age and memory is the capacity to recall previous soothsayers and their lofty predictions. Back in the 1980s, Peters and his followers began describing the society of the time as hugely different than any previous one because the rate of change and turbulence would require an entirely new kind of company and worker. More than 20 years later we are being told pretty much the same thing, that this age is vastly different from any previous age.

I recall reading Peters with enthusiasm and writing articles back then that echoed his call for a different kind of organization, applying his ideas to schools and schooling.

"A Passion for Excellence: A Review." Jamie McKenzie, Executive Educator, Fall, 1985.

"Revising the Educational Agenda: Basic Skills for 2010." Jamie McKenzie, School Leader, May/June, 1988.

There is little evidence that the predictions of those years came true, and it was a bit disturbing when many of the companies Peters profiled in his book as examples of his new way of leading and planning went nose down shortly after In Search of Excellence was published.

In the 1985 introduction to my first book, I made assertions much like those that Pink threads through his book. I also pushed hard for a right-brained approach to schooling and management. It was all the rage back then in some educational circles, but these themes never seemed to capture the allegiance of mainstream school leaders, their parents and their communities. While some of us called for a "Whole New Way of Doing Things," most of the educational world kept right on in a fairly conservative manner.

While sympathetic to Pink's wishes I distrust his oracles.

This book is about making change in schools. We are entering an age in which we will need to follow the example of characters like Jack (of the bean stalk) and Alice in Wonderland. The Age of Information threatens to leave us with sacred cows or short change, unless we learn to plant beans and climb beans stalks. Life may begin to resemble Alice's mad tea party, unless we learn to solve the riddles of a changing world. We must learn to make change in our schools as if our future depended on it. Because it does.

Making Change in Education: Preparing Your Schools for the Future, Jamie McKenzie, 1987

In the first chapter of a 1993 book, I wrote the following:

Life in the 1990s is full of surprises, startling shifts that leave us breathless and often disoriented. We live in a topsy-turvy world with Jack-in-the-Boxes sprouting or popping open all around us.

Throughout our society there is steadfast and apparently growing resistance to change as adult workers find their middle years - years which once promised serenity and the pleasure of consolidating the benefits of a well established career - disturbed by galloping obsolescence. No matter where one turns, the workplace skills of yesterday are being shelved as new technologies and a global economy require new ways of operating and communicating.

For generations raised on promises of stability and serenity, the chaos of modern society is not attractive. When Tom Peters (1987) urges us to learn to manage chaos, many brows wrinkle with anxiety. When he states that what works today probably will not work tomorrow, the wrinkles grow deeper. When Rosabeth Moss Kanter (1983) likens management in this decade to a mad tea party, school leaders may nod knowingly, but they are slow to applaud that reality.

Administrators at Risk, Jamie McKenzie, National Educational Service, Bloomington, IN, 1993

Looking back at those words now, I cannot help but wonder how many decades we will keep claiming that the current or approaching decade is vastly different from the ones before? I wonder also if we have not encouraged the growth of a change industry that hypes the rate of change beyond its reality, stirring up the pot to create waves providing the illusion of surf.

Making Real Change and Good Change

Some of the most impressive change strategies of the past few decades were pioneered by The Coalition of Essential Schools. Ted Sizer and his group formulated a list of admirable learning principles as well as a model for school change that proved effective in many locations, especially in small schools of choice and in schools within schools.

As an admirer of this model, when I tried to put some of the learning principles into practice, I encountered resistance from conservative elements of the staff, the parents and the community where I was superintendent. I learned that the path to vastly different kinds of schools and schooling may be paved with good intentions but is often a rocky road.

I do not see those social conditions as having lightened up during the past few decades. To the contrary, the fact that NCLB initially won broad popular support despite its draconian focus on basics would indicate that elements in American society still thirst for a no-nonsense approach to education. If anything, we have lost ground in the past eight years as NCLB imposed its narrow and short-sighted agenda.

Pink predicts that right brainers will rule the future, but his analysis lacks any focus upon the factors that have impeded the realization of predictions made by his predecessors in the futures game - Tom Peters, Joel Barker and others. While "guru" has an honorable tradition within Hindu spiritual circles, the term seems less positive when it comes to management gurus. As Eric Hoffer is quoted as saying, "Guru is a word for someone who cannot spell charlatan."

Pink's Six Senses

While I distrust Pink's predictions, I applaud his emphasis upon what he calls the "Six Senses." This section of the book could prove illuminating to many, as he ends each chapter with a section he calls "Portfolio" - a listing of resources that the reader might explore in order to nurture the sense outlined in that chapter.

Pink writes well and is entertaining. He keeps the book moving along with passion, humor and vivid illustrations. He practices what he preaches, relying on one the six senses - story - to breathe life into these chapters.

The Senses
  • Not just function but also DESIGN
  • Not just argument but also STORY
  • Not just facts but also SYMPHONY
  • Not just logic but also EMPATHY
  • Not just seriousness but also PLAY
  • Not just accumulation but also MEANING

Much of what Pink outlines is not as novel as his forefather in change, Tom Peters, would have us believe, but it is still worthy of schools' attention. Those who were involved in the Gifted and Talented movement of the mid 1980s will find much of what he suggests quite familiar.

Pink spends quite a lot of time raving about his experience with Betty Edwards' approach to drawing pioneered in the 1980s and used by some of us with teachers then to awaken their awareness of right-brained thinking. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is fantastic but not certainly not new.

If Wishes were Fishes

It takes more than wishful thinking to make fundamental changes in a society and its schools. Those who have devoted decades to the challenge have found the going quite rough. The task of moving from theory into practice can be daunting. Those who attempt such work are reminded of Sisyphus, a character in Greek mythology condemned to rolling a boulder up a hill throughout eternity - a boulder that kept rolling back down.

A central assertion in Pink's book is the growth of employment in the USA requiring his six senses while factory and information jobs move overseas. Although some might welcome this development, desirability and inevitability are not the same thing.

A distubning implication lurking within Pink's central thesis is the idea that countries like India and China might not be able to master the six senses he outlines.

While education in India and China does not traditionally value or emphasize Pink's six senses, these societies are going through so much change at this time, they may find their own pathways to the creative and imaginative work Pink reserves for the USA.

Sitting in a hotel in Shanghai as I write this review, I am surrounded by reminders that China is quite well versed in design, and I have found many of the people here empathic. As for MEANING and PLAY, the Chinese have quite solid traditions - so much so that many Americans have travelled to the East to find the spiritual wisdom Pink connects with our destiny as a nation. Why should the Chinese fail to "capitalize" on these traditions now they have embraced capitalism as a way of doing things?

A well designed park in Shanghai. © 2008, J. McKenzie

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