Professor Angus Fletcher is a global expert on how the brain functions. In groundbreaking research, he has discovered that the way we teach children is hugely counterproductive. We need a complete overhaul of schools. He talks to our Writer at Large

HAVE we got it all wrong? Is the way we teach our children not just inadequate, but downright damaging?

Professor Angus Fletcher, one of Scotland’s most gifted polymaths, thinks so. He is now championing a revolution in education. His theory can be summed up in three words: “Death to Logic.”

We need far fewer maths lessons and IQ tests, and much more free thinking, arts, play, and even “chaos” in the classroom.

Fletcher, who is based in America and is both a distinguished neuroscientist and doctor of literature from Yale, has just published a groundbreaking paper with the New York Academy of Sciences on what he has called “Narrative Theory”.

The idea is game-changing. In his lab, Fletcher studied the brain and determined that our mind isn’t “a computer” but a machine for “storytelling” or “storythinking”, as he terms it.

The brain doesn’t work on logic, but narrative. It’s one of the most paradigm-shifting notions in 21st-century science.

The way we teach children – front-loading education with logic – just doesn’t accord with how the brain works. Maths and IQ tests have their place, but the dominance of “logic” suffocates children intellectually and kills creativity.

Fletcher is road-testing his theories with the US military, leading CEOs and hedge fund managers, and primary school children. American special forces are using Fletcher’s teaching as a handbook to make commandos better on the battlefield by freeing up their creative side. Last year, The Herald on Sunday highlighted Fletcher’s discovery of “story science” – he’s currently professor of story science at Ohio University. At that stage, he had worked out how different types of stories have profound physical and psychological effects on humans. His most headline-grabbing finding was that Disney films, although they provide an instant mood “high”, actually have long-term depressive effects as they present people with unobtainable levels of happiness.

Paradoxically, Fletcher discovered that war stories – like Homer’s Iliad –flood the body with the love hormone oxytocin, by replicating in the brain the same sense of bonding which occurs in combat soldiers.

Now, we are asking Fletcher to unravel his new “narrative theory”, and how it could change not just education, but the way we run the world – and even how we think.

The big idea

NARRATIVE theory centres around the discovery that the brain works like a “story machine”. For decades, we’ve seen the brain as a computer. That’s entirely wrong, Fletcher says. The brain doesn’t work on logic, but narrative, telling itself stories.

A simplistic way to understand Fletcher’s theory is to consider how the brain evolved. “Our job in the state of nature wasn’t to solve maths problems,” he says. Our ancient ancestors didn’t rely on statistics for survival, but the brain’s unique storytelling skill. They would look at a stone and think “can I turn this into an axe?”. Then they would look at their new axe and a tree, and think “can I make a canoe?”. Or they would hunt big game and imagine – “imagine” being the key word – that if some tribe members stood on this hill, and others in that valley, then they would have a better chance of killing mammoths.

Some 525 million years ago, Fletcher explains, the evolution of “animal neurones” was accelerated by “storythinking”, not logic. Primitive life didn’t use equations to survive, it used trial and error – essentially building “stories” of how best to eat and breed. “Our storythinking brains evolved to answer problems by developing plans, strategies, and narrative solutions,” he explains. “A story is cause and effect. Narrative is about change. The alternative to a story is an equation. An equation is 1+1=2. It never changes.” And change, crucially, means being creative – not just creative in the sense of ‘the arts’, but creative in the sense that a great engineer, architect or even entrepreneur can be creative. It wasn’t logic which ‘invented’ Stonehenge, or airplanes or the internet – it was human creativity: the desire to dare to think differently.

Logic and maths helped bring those big ideas into the world, but without the brain’s storytelling abilities, which spark creativity, they would never exist. “The world isn’t logical,” Fletcher says. Logic always provides the same answers and depends on masses of data. Often, though, there’s no good data in a world that is essentially chaotic.

Damage to kids

IN this uncertain world, the brain is built to “invent new ideas, new actions. Our brain isn’t a machine for doing logic, but initiating original actions”. So, fundamentally, Fletcher says, we’re pushing too much logic onto children, who are evolutionarily predisposed to think narratively, or creatively. “We’re unintentionally doing a lot of damage to kids – and adults.”

The predominance of logic in education has accompanied “a decline in emotional resilience in children”. That is seen most evidently today with “increases in anxiety and stress”.

Creativity, Fletcher explains, “is the source of emotional intelligence”. Logic has a terrorising effect – demanding we always find the “right answer”. But if right answers are hard to find – or don’t exist – then we “become panicked”. The idea that the teacher is always right – even in artistic subjects, as is often the case today – is profoundly limiting for children, who grow up intellectually stifled.

It is not that Fletcher advocates banning maths, we just need more balance in the curriculum – much more emphasis on creativity and much less on logic. “Maths has become an invasive species. It’s taken over schools. It’s warping them. It’s like going to a town and seeing every house painted blue. You wouldn’t get rid of blue houses, you’d just suggest more colours,” he adds.

This logical world we have fashioned “leads to inflexibility, being judgemental, anxiety, submission to authority, anger and resentment of authority”.

Embrace the chaos

COUNTERintuitively, more “chaos” in classrooms is what is required. He doesn’t mean kids running riot. He means throwing kids into the deep end somewhat and letting them solve problems themselves – allowing their natural creativity to blossom. Fletcher doesn’t want to dispense with exams – just change them so they embrace more than logic. “Standardised tests are fine for logic, but other instruments should be used to test creative thinking.”

Fletcher gets pupils to develop their own “assessments”. He has them identify a problem, then invent a method of testing the problem, and finally show how their new system solved the problem. It makes children tell themselves a story in order to solve complex issues creatively, rather than following the logical instructions of teachers by rote.

Punishment, unsurprisingly, isn’t high on Fletcher’s agenda. Traditional discipline enforces “judgment, and right and wrong, as opposed to curiosity, empathy and multiple possibilities”. It also “creates fear which famously stunts growth”. He cites an experiment showing how terrorising tadpoles literally results in smaller frogs.

In a “healthy education environment” punishment is unnecessary, Fletcher believes. In the P4 classes Fletcher works with, he has noted that children who misbehave – or even act violently – immediately show shame and regret. Enhancing creativity increases “social awareness” and helps us “police” ourselves.

Benefits of conflict

HOWEVER, a little conflict is a good thing. Or rather “good” conflict is a good thing. In our risk-averse, logic-obsessed society, “our brains get habituated into a very regulated system. It alienates us from our natural ability to handle chaos”. Conflict is necessary for humans, Fletcher says – by which he means regular, healthy intellectual debate, not a fist fight.

“It’s good for you and I to disagree because we’ll both learn something. But logic teaches us that conflict is bad.” Logic demands there is always – and only – ever one “right” answer. This, he suggests, explains today’s troubled world. “So what you see is people who have progressively got worse and worse at coping with conflict – think of the partisan divide. People think those who disagree with them are evil. We always want to be right. We’ve created this artificial world which we want to be stable but which is actually more fragile.”

The brain’s natural state is “tension – that leads to energy and creativity. If your brain was always in alignment with itself it would always do the same thing. It would never grow or have new ideas.” So the fashion for “mindfulness” at all costs may be counter-productive.

Healthy societies welcome intellectual conflict. “It’s positive,” he says. “Some of your ideas go into my head, some of mine into yours. We listen. But we don’t have that any more as we’re so trained by logical systems to think there’s always a true answer – and that people who don’t have that true answer are ignorant or malicious. That makes us angry and fearful.”

Medieval schooling

FLETCHER scoffs at claims that “logic equals intelligence”. Historically, that’s a very old notion. “Logic was the science of the middle ages,” he says. The Enlightenment – partly centred on work by Scottish philosophers like David Hume – replaced medieval logic with Empiricism: the idea that knowledge must be tested and explored before it can be accepted. In other words, the Enlightenment found that “creativity equals intelligence”.

“Scottish empiricism teaches us that the brain is smarter than a logical computer.” The best science isn’t based around logic, he says. Vaccines aren’t “deduced by logic”, for example, but by creative scientists experimenting and trying out new ideas which are often wrong, until – crucially – they are right. “There are many different ways of being intelligent,” Fletcher adds. Logic rejects failure while creativity thrives on it.

AI is a con

FLETCHER, who has worked extensively with artificial intelligence, has been led by his research to conclude that AI is a pipe dream – it will never achieve the same intelligence as humans because computers run on logic, not the brain’s “story” system. AI will only ever be as good as the human instructing it. AI can run an assembly line, but it will never invent something. “AI cannot imagine a story,” he says. AIs – like all computers – work in the permanent present. They cannot understand the concept of past or future, so they can never make a plan or be imaginative.

Logic and computers are the antithesis of the human mind at its most creative: think of comedians extemporising on stage. “Most of what the human brain does is non-logical storythinking,” Fletcher says.

Like maths, Fletcher isn’t saying abolish IQ tests – they have their place. “The problem is that 95 per cent of people have other forms of intelligence that aren’t being served by IQ tests. So they are being alienated and even harmed by the education system.”

Be Shakespeare

A GOOD example of how Fletcher’s theory works in practice can be seen in an English lesson. A standard Shakespeare class might ask pupils to deduce themes, unravel symbolic language, and draw conclusions about the play’s meaning. Essentially, Fletcher explains, that’s using logic – even to teach an arts subject. To teach Shakespeare creatively, he suggests children read a play, then write their own dramatic response. Or look at a Picasso and rather than logically try to understand what the painting means, draw their own portrait.

In combat, Fletcher teaches highly-disciplined soldiers, taught to always obey orders, how to respond when plans fall apart. In other words, when to turn logic off, and creativity on. Think of the operation to capture Osama bin Laden. It could have collapsed when a helicopter was damaged. Logic dictated abandon the raid. Instead, commandos thought like artists – they acted creatively – and accomplished their mission. Creativity is the ability to be spontaneous, not logically conformist.

“Our society encourages real conformity,” Fletcher says. He dismisses the idea that someone building new apps, for example, is creative – after all, most tech companies build apps, and creativity isn’t about following the crowd. “There’s a distinction between creativity and innovation,” he says. Innovation simply tweaks someone else’s idea. Likewise, he scorns claims that children’s computer games like Minecraft are creative. Minecraft merely gives kids what the want – there’s nothing to push against and challenge children in order to trigger real creativity.

The logic prison

THE decline in creativity is highly pronounced in people who have had logic drilled into them. Fletcher says mountains of evidence show how the creative side of engineers tails off rapidly during their education. They become skilled, for example, at making better and better engines for a specific car or plane – but ask them to really “invent” something and they’re lost. The reverse is someone like Leonardo da Vinci who imagined helicopters centuries before they were invented. The takeaway is: if you get the balance between logic and creativity just right, it will unleash a revolution in human ingenuity.

Reducing logic in schools, and placing more emphasis on free thinking and story-based learning, would mean that everyone – scientists, managers, athletes and artists – become more creative.

“We’ve made a prison, where more and more our emotional needs are being served less and less,” Fletcher adds. “We’ve known for decades that schools are impacting kids’ creativity. That’s staggering.” The tail-off in creativity starts at around eight when logic comes to dominate the curriculum.

Modern life madness

“THE more creative you are, the more you can solve your own problems, and the more self-efficacy you feel,” Fletcher says. Ubiquitous screens only add to the rise in “mental fragility and anxiety”. The irony isn’t missed on Fletcher that smartphones are powered solely by the logic of computers. “They’re designed to give us what we want all the time.” We’ve ceased to negotiate with the world and therefore learn and grow as evidenced by the declining social skills of children. The utilitarian logic of forcing humans to “specialise” also suffocates us. Again, think of our ancient ancestors, with a host of both artistic and technical skills – from painting cave walls to making flint axes.

Today, most people have only a handful of skills centred around work. It’s another dead end creatively, and therefore a denial of what makes us essentially human.

Fletcher makes clear that his theory isn’t utopian or about “chasing happiness. People are obsessed with happiness. The human brain isn’t evolved to be happy”.

What he’s pushing for is a growth in our “psychological resilience”, as well as our natural creative talents. “We have to give up the idea of utopianism, in its over-machined sense, and just embrace the fact that life can be difficult – and that’s good for our brains.”

Dumb politics

POLITICS, though, is very bad for our brains. In Britain and America, for instance, there are just two dominant camps: left and right, or in Scotland’s case, nationalist and unionist. That rigid dichotomy crashes up against the brain’s natural desire to seek out multiple different answers to problems. “It makes us dumber,” Fletcher says. Just two “stories” are being forced upon us. “The way we evolved as humans is to have a vast number of narratives.”

Again, think of an ancient ancestor who disliked the way their tribe was run – they might simply pack up their belongings with some friends and family and leave to find their own “political” solution.

Today’s political landscape “is like a library where there are only two books and you dislike them both”. Politics has ceased to tell real stories – “it’s become marketing”. Thus, it feels “anti-human”.

Change is coming

FLETCHER is optimistic about the future, however. There’s a sense that we’re all sick of the way the world works, and his ideas – fresh from the laboratory – on changing education are already getting picked up in America. He believes a “renaissance” is coming –that we’ll throw off the shackles of our “neo-medieval” obsession with stale logic and embrace human creativity again as the great artists and scientists of the past did, like Galileo, Newton, Da Vinci and Shakespeare.

Newton is the perfect example of how creativity spurs on science rather than rigid logic. Newton famously invented a new branch of mathematics, calculus, for his revolutionary theories.

“It’s not that logic is wrong and people shouldn’t be interested in it,” says Fletcher. “The problem is that logic is turning our societies into logical apparatuses – it’s industrialising and standardising society. When a society ‘becomes’ maths, and everything in society is built around maths, you just go off the rails.”