Skip to content
All posts

Whats the crisis? The C of 5Cs

1. The Crisis of Coronavirus

What's the crisis? As President John F. Kennedy explained:

In the Chinese language, the word "crisis" is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other, opportunity.[1]


The crisis is clearly a crisis of coronavirus. So what's the opportunity? The opportunity is to see what underlies the crisis. To see, and to learn, not merely about this crisis, but about the predictability in the patterns of crisis. To learn more about the underlying structures that cause the crisis. And, to learn more about the mental models we use that get us into the crisis and the ones we use when we are faced with a crisis. In systems thinking we use the metaphor of an iceberg to get this idea across.


The opportunity is to see that this is a crisis of coronavirus is actually a deeper crisis of sorts. A more basal crisis that causes and/or exacerbates the current superficial crisis we are in. Indeed, the situation we are in is merely at the tip of the iceberg.

2 . The Crisis of Cognition

Some years ago in 2008, I led a rag-tag band of interdisciplinary doctoral students and postdocs in a study that surveyed the entire Cornell faculty. We asked a simple question: what is the crisis?

Our research was extensive, as we surveyed the entire Cornell faculty--an interdisciplinary community-- to learn what they thought the most pressing crises were. We had them identify crises, sort them, rate them along various dimensions, and then we crunched the numbers, did some network analysis, multidimensional scaling, and clustering analysis. What we learned was fascinating and a little surprising. They generated over 116 unique crises that the world faces. So, perhaps imagine 116 individual post-it notes. How would you answer the question we asked them:

The most pressing problem society faces is...?

This is how they answered it. In fact these are the 10 of 116 that the faculty rated as the top 10 most important and the top 10 most solvable crises we face.


  • 116 unique categories with 1 card in each category...
  • 33 groupings where each set is a cluster of related crises...
  • 7 groupings of a various number of cards...
  • 1 grouping of 116 cards.

A set of 7 groupings is optimal for humans because we can grasp it and think about what the themes associated with the groupings are. These were some of the themes we discovered (for example) using the 7 cluster solution; Education and Tech, Social Institutions, Human Nature/Perspectives, Environmental and Resources, Economics and Poverty, Influence, Health and Disease.


Drilling down further, we perhaps wonder which themes a 2 cluster solution would produce? For example these 116 unique crises might be grouped into 2 categories: (1) social crises and (2) environmental crises. Our group of researchers wanted to understand the ROOT crisis. The Crisis that underlies all the other crises. Mathematically, this is synonymous with what is called the “One cluster solution.” So what is the root crisis? The crisis that lies at the root of all crises is...

A crisis of cognition.
The vaccine for this crisis of cognition is systems thinking. It is also painfully obvious that our best response to coronavirus is to fully understand it and all its factors from a systems thinking lens. Indeed, our lackluster response to the coronavirus crisis is based on our collective inability to understand systemic effects, like:

  • unintended consequences or "knock on" effects;
  • delay in systems that separate related causes and effects because they are separated by time, causing us to miss important connections;
  • exponential growth that is difficult for the human mind to comprehend[3]
  • the pervasiveness of our cognitive biases, in particular reality bias and confirmation bias;
  • the way that complex adaptive systems (cas) use simple rules at the local-level of agents, yet yield wildly complex and bewildering system-level behavior called "emergence";
  • network effects like webs of causality rather than linear causal explanations; and
  • many more.

As Einstein said, "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." Systems thinking is the alternative form of thinking we must all adopt.

If the root crisis is a crisis in the way we think, then we must ask ourselves, how did this come to be? What has led to this shortcoming in our powers of cognition? We must look at education as a contributing factor.[4]

3. The Crisis of Curriculum

The consummate naturalist, Charles Darwin believed education was the lever for individual development and social change. In one of the famous journals he entitled “Old & Useless Notes,” Darwin wrote what has been for me a call to action:

"Believer in these views will pay great attention to education."[5] [6]>

What was Darwin saying? What did he mean? In contemporary terms he would say it like this:

Education is THE way to ensure the survival of the human species. It is also the precursor to societal success. Depending on how we see education, it either will, or won't, ensure not only that we survive but whether we thrive.

You might agree with Darwin.You might say, "of course, that makes total sense." But, ask yourself: do we as a society behave as if we believe it?

Let me give you an example. I was speaking with a district superintendent the other day about the coronavirus crisis and the decisions he faced in response. He said to me (I'm paraphrasing):

We closed the schools. No one has said a thing about the education and curriculum kids will be missing. The focus of people’s concern is on the need for "daycare" and meals for kids. No one even mentions the educational component of what we do. Interesting that we have become a society where that is the # 1 thing people talk about when schools close...

In other words, imagine if we had to close all the local grocery stores - the primary purpose of which is to sell food, and people complained, "where are we going to get our prescriptions filled and drop off our dry cleaning?"

He was shocked to learn that the value parents articulated most through their concerns was one of custodial care and meals. In other words, his mighty efforts are to educate kids, but that wasn't on the minds of parents.

This view of education shows that our schools are woefully out of sync with the times. They do not prepare kids for their future. They prepare kids for a past that hasn't existed for some time now. And that's just the curriculum. Let's say we view the value of schools as synonymous with "what people miss about them" when they are gone during this crisis. Then, schools are merely reactionary problem solvers, not proactive, preparatory nor developmental. Your kid needs daycare, schools provide it. Your kid needs a meal, schools provide it. At worst, it seems our schools are stuck in the agrarian age when younger children who couldn't work on the farm would be fed and "kept busy." At best, our schools are stuck in the industrial age, in which they prepare our young for jobs in factories. Follow instructions, pay attention to the bells, memorize your tasks, toe the line.

The crux of this crisis in our schools is the crisis of curriculum. It is a crisis that weighs methods of instruction over methods of learning. It weights what teachers do as the arbiter of learning rather than what learners do. It is a crisis that talks about curriculum and instruction rather than curriculum and construction.

When I was younger, I was so excited to get LEGOs. Now, back then, LEGOs came in a big bucket with a variety of different shapes, sizes, and colors. There were no instructions. Whatever you could think of, you built. My son also happened to love LEGOs a lot. His experience with building a LEGO is starkly different from mine. His comes in "kits" with entire booklets of instructions and all the pieces separated into step-by-step bags. Bag 1 is for the first instruction booklet and so on. There is no creative freedom, no opportunity to look at all these parts and create something besides an X-Wing. Now this isn't to say that there's no thinking involved with building these LEGO sets, but it is indicative of a larger trend that our society seems to be adopting.


What concerns me (See my TED Talk) is that, with all the best intentions, we are surgically removing the thinking and construction processes from the Curriculum. Instead of requiring children to be imaginative and thoughtful when they build their LEGOs, we give them instructions to follow. This leads to our children becoming consumers of information, and not builders of knowledge. They know how to follow the rules, but not create their own. This would be like if everyone born after 2000 knew how to read, but none of them knew how to write. They couldn't take the examples that they are learning from and use their building skills to turn original thought into a book of their own. Imagine a world like that.

The Instructional paradigm is one that assumes the mind is like a computer; that we can transfer knowledge from place to place like a file transfer. It assumes the mind is absorbent like a sponge. The mind is not like a computer and it is not like a sponge. If you must use a metaphor, the mind is much more like a construction site. It takes raw information as materials and is constantly building, renovating, and demolishing structures of meaning called mental models. The best summary of this curriculum crisis is the idea that:

"You Can Explain Things To People...but you can't understand things to people."

The vast majority of our educational system today--mind you, the most important society-creating engine we have--operates as if you can understand things to people.

We can't get knowledge, we have to build knowledge. And, the way we build knowledge is by structuring information with thinking. We must make the curriculum not about content and teacher-instruction but about cognition (thinking) and student learning. A documentary called, RE:Thinking, was done on our work in K-12 schools. The crux of our work is to make thinking central. As many of you may have an extended period with kids at home as a result of the coronavirus crisis, take this crisis--No, take this opportunity--to teach your kids to think. There are many resources on this blog and at that can help.

That said, without a doubt the biggest impediment to teaching thinking in our schools is "content tyranny."

4 . The Crisis of Content

Content King
The current product of education is information. The vehicle by which we consume this product is memorization. The customer is students. What if I told you that your product is literally going to start growing on trees, anyone could get it, make it, and the supply would quickly become surplus? As a result, your product loses its value every day. Any smart business person would see it as a poor business choice, particularly because your customer will need a different product in both the short and long term. Let me give you an example:

Let's say that you were in the nizbit business. You were the king of nizbits and you were always looking for new ways to corner the nizbit market. And let's say that I told you one day that I got some insider information about the future of nizbits. The future looks like this:

  1. Advances in manufacturing make Nizbits incredibly easy and inexpensive to produce; literally anyone can produce them at any time for almost nothing;
  2. The market will be absolutely flooded to overflowing with nizbits. There will be massive supply;
  3. Most nizbits will be free;
  4. Each individual person will have so many nizbits that they will need extra storage space for their nizbits and that too will be offered for free;
  5. Every person will have almost immediate access to everyone else's nizbits in the palm of their hand.

What would you say? Would you still be keen on the nizbit business? Probably not. You would realize that nizbits are so prevalent, it would be like selling air. And you would need a new product. The product of school is informational content inside of curricula. In other words, content is the nizbit of our educational system.

Today, information content is all around us. We can google it. We are awash in it. It is freely available. Yet, our schools are still purveyors of information And this is why they are failing to prepare our young for a future where information is constantly changing. All the information you learn today will have changed by tomorrow. Information is in over supply - a surplus. What is a hot commodity in short supply is the ability to think. To adapt. To be aware of oneself and one's surroundings.

This overabundance and overemphasis on information in schools has made content tyrannical. In fact, the Content King is a real player in schools. If you try to touch the content that is being taught, it is immediately defended and protected much like a king being surrounded by his royal guards. This, in spite of the fact that there's a good chance that that content not only will expire, but that it has already reached its expiration date. Much like an old, senile tyrannical king who refuses to leave office.

We need to realize that informational content is the medium in which we live but it is not the message. Developing in children (and adults) the ability to think in systemic ways is absolutely essential. This holds true for ANY thing we are trying to understand, even ourselves and our connection to others.

5 . The Crisis of Caring

This brings us to the final crisis, the crisis of caring, This stems from the common belief that cognition is a cold, analytical part of ourselves. We hear that the “head needs the heart.” Of course, that's wrong. The “heart” that we speak of is in our heads. Cognition, as a field, includes emotion and conation (motivation). Evolutionarily speaking, our cold, calculating, selfish gene is the flip side of our warm, social, altruistic gene. A sub phenomenon of cognition--metacognition, or thinking about our thinking--has been shown in meta-analytical studies to be the most effective driver of not only analytical intelligence, but also emotional intelligence.

So, as we talk about the centrality of thinking (cognition)--and especially of the awareness that comes with practicing metacognition--we are not ignoring the matters of the heart. They are one in the same. To have empathy requires perspective taking. It requires the ability to make an analogy to take a theory of mind that considers the other.

Lately we’ve seen examples of the best of humanity (people coming forward to help others at expense to themselves such as health care providers, corporations, and neighbors and family) and the worst of humanity (Millenials who have decided that because they erroneously have heard that the coronavirus doesn’t kill them, it’s a good time to party). This is, in the final analysis, a human crisis. The Earth cares not if we make it. And, that human crisis means that we cannot lose our humanity. We must remember--as I remind myself whenever I see others--to smile. When we do, it brings out the smiles in others. We must remember to check in on people, especially those less fortunate. We must remember to do what we can not only for the good of ourselves and our family, but for our human family. In other words, we must think. We must be thoughtful.

I often say: Think. It’s patriotic. It is also true that to think is humanitarian. To think is to care.


  1. Speeches by President Kennedy at United Negro College Fund fundraiser, Indianapolis, Indiana, 12 April 1959, and Valley Forge Country Club, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, 29 October 1960 > ↩︎

  2. This is something that DSRP Theory tells us is impossible as for every perspective, there can be a part-whole grouping
    Amazingly[2], despite our significant advances in network theory and analysis, there is no single way to group any set (of things). So mathematically, for example, you could think of 116 items as being grouped into any of the following and all would be equally valid: ↩︎

  3. A fable tells the story of when the inventor of chess showed his new game to the Emperor of India. The Emperor is so impressed he exclaims, “name your reward!” The inventor says, “my needs are few, Oh Emperor! Simply give me one grain of wheat for the first square and double it for the remaining 64 squares of the chessboard.” The Emperor quickly agrees, surprised that the man would ask for so little. But the Emperor is not a systems thinker and does not understand the exponential effects of simple doubling. The first square has 1 grain, 2 grains in the second square, then 4, 8, 16, etc. But, on the entire chessboard there would be 2^64 − 1 = 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains of wheat! This wheat would weigh 1,199,000,000,000 metric tons or 1,645 times the global production of wheat (780.8 million tons in 2019).Or, you have a weed that doubles the area it covers every day. It covers a large field in thirty days. How many days will it take to cover half the field? 2 days? 1 day? The answer is 29 days! This common riddle is one that many highly intelligent adults miss because the growth at first is slow, we often do not understand how something slow can "sneak up on us" and suddenly become a very large number. ↩︎

  4. No one will say out loud that education is unimportant, but our collective behavior reveals our true feelings. Most notably, we do not invest in education as a society and we do not pay teachers nearly what they are worth in terms of ROI. So if we want to make headway into our root crisis of cognition, we should start here. ↩︎

  5. In Darwin C, Barrett PH, Gautrey PJ, Herbert S, Kohn D, Smith S. Charles Darwin's notebooks, 1836-1844 : geology, transmutation of species, metaphysical enquiries. [London] Ithaca, N.Y.: British Museum (Natural History) ; Cornell University Press; 1987. (p608) ↩︎

  6. Try to remember that, regardless of what you think you know about science or fact, or data, or evidence, or knowledge, or the "debate" over evolution, if you don't see evolution (and Darwin) as one of a handful, if not the most significant human thoughts that has ever been had by a human mind, then you are wrong. I'm sorry to be so blunt, but you just are. And, by the way, everything we do right and wrong about the crisis of coronavirus is informed by Darwin's theory. Coronavirus itself "believes" in Darwin's theory because it is the theory from which it derives its behavior. ↩︎