Musings from Aspen Ideas Festival


I recently attended the Aspen Ideas Festival, which included speakers on a wide range of topics including education, happiness and technology among others.

Of particular interest was a panel of neuroscientists hosted by celebrated professor and author Daniel Gilbert. The discussion centered on how modern neuroscientific research and the wisdom of ancient contemplative traditions suggest that happiness is the product of skills that can be enhanced through training the mind.  (And speaking of happiness, we would like to recommend Christine Carter's book Raising Happiness—a great read for parents interested in raising happy children.)


I was fascinated to hear from Dr. Sherry Turkle, MIT Professor and author of Alone Together, how young people are telling her about their frustration and disappointment in the amount of time their parents spend in front of a screen.

Dr. Turkle has focused her research on psychoanalysis and culture, as well as the psychology of people's relationship with technology, especially computer technology and computer addiction. Dr. Turkle underscored the importance of understanding how today’s youth, clearly the most switched on generation, still place tremendous emphasis on the value of parent/child relationships. Those same kids whom we criticize for being constantly glued to Facebook… seems they would prefer it if parents were more connected to them than they are to their Blackberry’s.

Also speaking on the impact of technology were Linda Stone (who shared her findings on the physiological response to screen time) and William Powers, author of Hamlet’s Blackberry (who spoke on the importance of finding opportunities for solitude. He encouraged us to teach children to be alone or they’ll only know how to be lonely).  A number of the speakers encouraged all of us to consider a “technology shabbat.”


I was also excited to see the film “Connected”, Tiffany Shlain's latest doc about what it means to be digitally connected in the 21st century. The celebrated filmmaker and founder of the Webby Awards asks why, in this connected world, human beings have such difficulties acknowledging how inter-dependent we are. Be sure to see this film when it opens in theaters this fall.


Another highlight of the festival was David Kelley’s presentation.  Mr. Kelley is a Stanford Professor and founder and chairman of IDEO, a design- and innovation-consulting firm. A world recognized leader in environmental engineering, Kelley has worked extensively envisioning innovative physical environments for education. Schools need to more carefully consider how environments can be used to encourage creativity, Kelley says. He believes that they should promote spaces that allow for projects and team work, bring in natural elements and lower the gap between the teacher and student so the teacher is more of a guide on the side. Please stay tuned in for more interesting information on this topic as our research into maximizing the learning experience for students continues.

I also attended Rye Barcott's talk (author, It Happend On the Way to War) on the hottest trend on college campuses. Turns out the hottest trend on some college campuses is social entrepreneurship. 


Aspen Ideas remains a unique event in American public life where compelling thought leaders come together to enlighten the country as well as each other. While my overall experience at the festival proved rewarding, I was somewhat surprised at the extent to which the education thread was dominated by the voices of corporate reformers. Listening to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, I was especially surprised (and disappointed) to hear him express his excitement about the efficacy of the carrot and stick approach to education reform – a method of threats and inducements born of the No Child Left Behind Act that has proven to be an utter failure over the last ten years.  That stale approach goes against everything we know about intrinsic motivation, the development and mastery of thinking skills and the compulsion to engage in lifelong learning. We can only hope that Mr. Duncan will take the time to watch the videos of some of the experts at the festival (such as Diane Ravitch's lively talk and debate with Wendy Kopp – an eye-opener that will help the Secretary understand the direction of real education reform arising through grassroots organizing).