The Place of Wildess and Wonder in Critical Thinking

*This blog was first published by Gillian Judson’s website, Education That Inspires. http://www.educationthatinspires.ca/2017/04/26/the-place-of-wildness-and-wonder-in-critical-thinking/

 

What is critical thinking? One element of critical thinking that most everyone agrees on is “higher order thinking,” which includes evaluating the appropriateness of evidence, the truth of propositions, and the soundness of arguments. But is this enough? I think you need to add imagination, mindfulness and empathy, and to think of critical thinking as a process enabling you to deeply engage in what you study and test your answers. How many times do you think you have the right answer, and then a minute, day or year later, you realize how wrong you were?

 

‘Critical’ comes from the Greek ‘kritikos’, able to discern, and ‘krinein’, to sift, judge, or separate. To separate, as in analyze or break down into component parts. But ‘discern’ also means to perceive or understand what is not immediately obvious or what might be beyond your previous viewpoint. It means to perceive, as much as possible, the whole or what’s real or true.

 

To analyze or mentally break what was originally whole into its component parts, you can easily conceive a dichotomy between the parts and the whole. However, to perceive the whole, you need to include the parts. To see the forest, you include all the trees. To perceive the parts, the whole always remains, as context or background. It is like the figure-ground principle of optical illusions, as in the vase-faces illusion. The lines of the faces and the lines drawing the vase are both always present, yet you only see one at a time. What you perceive changes from one to the other depending on your point of focus.

 

So, to clearly understand what you perceive or think about requires a process that lets the reality you contemplate BE whatever it is, as much as is possible. When you try to understand something, you use words to form concepts. This abstracts your experience from the perceived reality. You can then get lost in your abstraction. You might even love your abstraction; it is your creation. Words are wondrous but can be the subtlest of blindfolds and distractions.

 

To think clearly and critically requires constant monitoring, so you can mindfully shift perspectives, from abstraction to original perception— or from one theory to another, from thoughts to feelings, from object contemplated to the experience of contemplating. This allows you to engage more fully with whatever you focus on. You feel as well as think about whatever subject your mind touches, so it takes on a three-dimensional quality otherwise hard to see.

 

Your mind becomes the act of contemplating. You enter a place, or more accurately, the world becomes a place full of life, wildness, even wonder. It pulsates. The imagination flows from that place. Imagination is how mind transforms into time and language, into questions, and possibilities. Love and relationships are born in that place.

 

How Do You Utilize Imagination in Critical Thinking and Enter a Place of Wonder?

 

Begin by taking breaks from intellectual study to let your mind quiet and integrate material. Practice mindfulness meditation, sit by a waterfall, or take a nap and dream. Did you ever wake up from a dream and have an insight appear to you?

 

How does critical thinking utilize imagination? For example, how would you answer this question, which frequently came up in my high school class on the history of human ideas: “Why did early humans create so much art?” Or maybe, “Why did they do any art?” Students often reply, “They did it because it was fun.” But that answer needs to be questioned further.

 

Students need to place themselves in the world of ancient humans by visualizing, for example, a world of few humans and many wild, animal species, no cell phones and no buildings. This requires not only imagination but also empathy. According to the psychologist Paul Ekman, empathy can come in different forms. There is a cognitive form, being able to read another person’s feelings, for example. There is also feeling along with others, and caring. Without immersing themselves as much as possible in the world they study, and adding empathy for the subject studied and the subject studying, understanding will be limited. When you use a process of critical contemplation, employing empathy and mindfulness, you allow whatever you perceive to be itself.

 

One form of art created by early humans was extensive wall paintings in caves in southern Europe, Africa, Australia and other places. In France, for example, some of the caves were extremely difficult and possibly dangerous to access. Access involved crawling though long, narrow tunnels.

 

Students decided to research, in groups, various aspects of how the cave painters lived: their food, religion, tools, other species populating the world at that time, and theories of the origin of language. A group of five or six studied the paintings in detail and then reproduced the art on the walls of a rarely used stairwell of the school. One day, when the work was complete, this group had the other students form a line and one by one enter the stairwell. It felt like we were entering a cave. The only sound was the music of a flute. The only light source was a series of small lanterns placed near the painted walls. When we had all entered and sat down on the floor, I led the students in a visualized journey into what being in the caves might have been like. Then the student-artists discussed the paintings.

 

We created the activity together. I bet most still remember the experience. It enabled the class to feel engaged and develop a more in-depth perspective. They could then analyze evidence, evaluate theories and derive their own conclusions.

 

This type of activity is not limited to a history class. In an English class, you could imaginatively journey into situations depicted in a novel. Or in a science class you could journey though a cell or the orbits of electrons. Or outside of class you could journey into the mind of a friend that you had an argument with. Critical thinking is not just logic or problem solving. It requires imagination and honoring the pulsating life of whatever you study.

 

*Photo is from the wall of the “cave” painted by students at LACS.

Engaging Students’ Imaginations in Their World: Some Features of Imaginative Ecological Education

A Guest Blog By Gillian Judson

 

Imagination and Place are two concepts that are rarely given the educational importance they are due. Each is often considered, for different reasons, peripheral to “real” learning and the work of mainstream schools. And yet, it isn’t difficult to stir up support for either one. There are obvious benefits of imagination for learning and many teachers are open to learning more about how to connect their students to Place, because, among other reasons, they see the value of developing students’ ecological understanding—a sense of connection with and concern for the natural world—or, increasingly, because they are being mandated to do so as part of their teaching. In addition to being of interest to teachers, if one knows where to look, there is theoretical and practical support for centralizing both of these neglected educational concepts in one’s practice.

 

Dr. Kieran Egan’s (1997, 2005) theory of Imaginative Education (IE) provides a theoretical framework and rationale for incorporating students’ emotional and imaginative lives in teaching and an extensive range of resources to translate this into practice. In IE, content is shaped in ways that connect to the imaginative and emotional lives of students. Imagination is acknowledged, thus, as one of the main workhorses of learning and not just a “hook” for grasping students’ attention. Similarly, there is an increasingly broad base of literature indicating the theoretical importance of Place and Place-Based Education (PBE) for cultivating ecological understanding and practical means for doing so. Bring imaginative engagement and an interest in Place together and we enter the new pedagogical terrain of Imaginative Ecological Education (IEE).

 

Three principles—Feeling, Activeness, and Place—guide an imaginative and ecological approach to teaching (Judson, 2015).

 

Feeling

In order to know how to imaginatively engage their students with a topic teachers must, first, be imaginatively engaged themselves. This puts a spin on the idea of creating “wonder” in the classroom. Indeed, what it suggests is that teachers find, first, what it is that evokes their sense of wonder. This is the emotional connection that will then inform all subsequent planning for teaching. This is the source, often of “the story” on a topic, the emotional and imaginative insight that will inspire the way the teacher shapes her teaching. What the teacher’s initial engagement does is allow for the introduction of the topic to the student in an emotionally and imaginatively engaging way. The teacher’s role in choosing what aspects of a topic to introduce—when and where—is part of all classroom teaching. An IE approach simply makes the teacher’s decision about where or how to begin be informed by emotional and imaginative interests first. From here she uses her knowledge of the ways her students engage emotionally and imaginatively with the world around them, to shape her teaching in a way that leaves students feeling something about it. She employs tools of the imagination—what Egan (2005) calls “cognitive tools”—to engage her students in discovering the wonder in the topic.

 

Activeness

It is important to consider that simply being outside or doing things outside will not necessarily contribute to learning or to students’ sense of connection to nature (Blenkinsop, 2008; Takahashi, 2004). In IEE the aim is to cultivate what Arne Naess (2002) calls activeness. Activeness describes a profound internal form of relationship we can cultivate with the natural world that has the most potential impact on our understanding of nature. “To do a great many things is not enough; what is important is what we do and how it happens. It is those of our actions which affect our whole nature that I call activeness” (Naess, 2002, p. 76). Rather than a form of physical activity, activeness may be better characterized as “lingering in silence” or as “pause” (Naess, 2002, p. 2-3). Our somatic engagement in the world, the attunement of our senses with our surroundings and the engagement of our sense of pattern, musicality, among other tools of the body, contributes to activeness.

 

Place

There is a rich body of literature in PBE that discusses the educational value of students’ engagement in the natural world for making their learning meaningful. It is also argued that a long-term sense of care for the natural world and a sense of connectedness within it stems from direct, physical engagement in nature as a child. So, unlike most pedagogy created in the current climate of objectives-based teaching, IEE is teaching situated. It is connected to the local natural and cultural contexts in which students live and learn, through engagement of the imaginative means in which human beings make sense of place. IEE also considers place-making in imaginative terms; we are imaginative and emotional beings. We use our imaginations in making sense of the world around us. Through the engagement of place-making tools—the sense of relation, the formation of emotional attachments, and creation of special places—increased knowledge of place (including, for example, knowledge of flora and fauna, geological and cultural history, etc.) is paired with affective engagement.

 

Place-making Tools

One of the imaginative means through which oral language users develop a sense of place is through the formation of emotional attachments with particular features of their immediate environments as well as with particular processes or rituals they experience on a frequent basis. So, for example, the teddy bear or “blankie” contributes to the child’s sense of self and world, offering a needed source of comfort and security. That is, children often grow very attached to objects of permanence in their environments. The young child’s sense of self and place is often blurred, as they experience a highly participatory form of engagement in the world as oral language users. In addition to emotional attachments to objects, shared processes or rituals contribute to the child’s sense of belonging in a place, to the meaning of the place and what sets it apart in the child’s mind. One sees, of course, in the adult world, ways in which shared rituals or customs continue to contribute to the sense of place and one’s sense of belonging (e.g. raising of a flag or customary patterns of interacting).

 

Older students will be imaginatively making sense of a situation in ways that reflect their growing sense of an independent, separate reality. In terms of place-making, one notices more direct attempts by children to create special, and often personalized, places of their “own” as in forts and hideouts, personalized lockers or decorated bedrooms. The creation (or also discovery) of special places support a child’s attempt to deal with a new sense of reality by offering a secure place in which he often has autonomy and from which he can creatively—and safely—explore wider social, cultural or natural contexts. Place-making now seems to coincide with more direct forms of creative engagement in the world. A central premise of IEE is that by employing in our teaching, the place-making tools that students are already using to make sense of their situations, we can engage imagination in place-making as part of any unit of study. [For more information on cognitive tools of place-making see Judson (2010), or Fettes & Judson (2011).]

 

Concluding Thoughts

IEE offers means to teach a rich and varied curriculum in ways that acknowledge and nurtures the imaginative life of every child. I hope this far-too-brief introduction to imaginative ecological teaching principles and practices leaves you curious to learn more. (The IEE website: www.ierg.ca/iee or IEE posts).

 

References

Blenkinsop, S. (2008). Imaginative ecological education: Six necessary components. In G. Judson (Ed.), Imagination 360˚: Effective learning through the imagination (pp. 139-148). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Egan, K. (1997). Educated mind: How cognitive tools shape our understanding. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Egan, K. (2005). An imaginative approach to teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Fettes, M. & Judson, G. (2011) Imagination and the cognitive tools of place-making. Journal of Environmental Education, 42 (2), pp. 123-135.

Judson, G. (2015). Engaging Imagination In Ecological Education: Strategies For Teaching. Vancouver, B.C.: UBC Press.

Judson, G. (2010). A New Approach to Ecological Education: Engaging students’

imaginations in their world. New York: Peter Lang.

Naess, A. (2002). Life’s philosophy: Reason and feeling in a deeper world. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Takahashi, Y. (2004). Personal and social transformation: A complementary process toward ecological consciousness. In E. O’Sullivan, & M. M. Taylor (Eds.), Learning toward an ecological consciousness: Selected transformative practices (pp. 169-182). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

 

About the Author

Professor Gillian Judson is a consultant, researcher, and educator from Simon Fraser University, teaching courses in cognitive styles, environmental and imaginative education, and the awakening of wonder. She is the author of several books. Her latest publication is a co-authored book entitled Imagination and the Engaged Learner: Cognitive Tools for the Classroom. (Egan, K. & Judson, G. New York: Teachers’ College Press; 2016).

Is Truth Now Illegal?

We have to study Dictators and reread books like 1984. Since the election, so many people have been coming to this realization that maybe this is now obvious, but I will say it anyway: Once again, a would-be dictator is trying to impose thought control. As we’ve witnessed over the last week, the new administration has been taking steps to prevent agencies like the EPA from sharing climate information with the public. They have gone from claiming global warming is a hoax, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, to destroying that evidence. Our fearless leader doesn’t like the fact that Hillary got more popular votes than he did, so he will now start an investigation to find all those illegal voters who supposedly preferred his opponent. He doesn’t like the photos negatively comparing the size of the crowd at his own inauguration to President Obama’s, so he claims the photos were altered and information distorted. He doesn’t like a CNN reporter questioning him, so he tries to prevent the reporter from speaking. He doesn’t like people protesting his policies and statements, as with the Women’s March, so he sends out his press secretary to deny what occurred, and Republican legislators in 5 states try to make it illegal to peacefully protest.

“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” George Orwell, 1984.

This is both laughable and frightening. The consequences of such actions can be disastrous. He may try to imprison truth, but truth can be slippery and easily escape, to take revenge on him and on all of us. Any statement about ‘truth’ is a statement about reality. Our daily lives depend on how well we discern it. We depend on scientific information, for example. Will he next outlaw the weather forecast? It, too, is based on climate science. Will he stop the use of climate information from going to cities and towns on the coasts that could be used to prepare for sea level rise? Will he try to stop information going to medical researchers about the harmful effects of air pollution and thus cause the death of many children or cause more lung and breathing problems in our population?

“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” George Orwell.

Our economy is dependent on science. Creating new technologies can be a rich source of new jobs, but if scientific research is interfered with and access to it restricted, our economy will falter.

“We are not interested in the good of others. We are interested solely in power, pure power.”

“Power is in tearing human minds apart and putting them together again in shapes of your own choosing.”

In whatever area of life you look at, restricting information, restricting science, making up reality to fit your vision of power, puts everyone at risk. You try to lock away truth when you fear it. Since truth is about what is real, he is trying to lock away reality so none of us, including himself, can perceive it. I think he is doing this not only so he has free reign to do as he pleases without being held accountable, but so he doesn’t have to see what he is.

“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”

This is 1984. But we don’t have to allow ourselves to be infected by this vision of the world. “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” Schools, news media, social media, people passing on the street, gatherings, demonstrations: perceiving and telling the truth, “speaking truth to power,” is now a revolutionary act.

 

*Journalists have also been arrested for covering last week’s protests. Please do not forget these journalists.

Lazy Or Miraculous? Both?

How do you talk about the human brain? I just read a very interesting and timely article by David Ropiek called “The Problem of the Lazy Brain: The first step in confronting the ‘post-truth’ era is recognizing that we are all susceptible to lapses in critical thinking and motivated reasoning.” The author talks about how different people can take in the same raw information, like the color of someone’s dress, and perceive it differently. Or someone, like Mr. Trump, can assert something demonstrably false, yet people who follow him accept what he says as truth and surrender to him their power to think critically. How does this happen so easily? To combat the problem, Ropiek says, we must first understand it.

 

He goes on to say that “the brain is lazy. It instinctively works no harder than necessary…” Thinking critically takes more glucose and more effort. It is easier to accept uncritically than to critique. We reason only about things we are motivated to think about, for example about our own survival. Since we rely on a group to survive, we are most highly motivated to think in ways that reinforce our group’s social cohesion. We don’t accept information that counters our group’s beliefs. Thus, you can’t throw information, “facts,” at people who disagree with you in order to persuade them to change their viewpoint.

 

I agree with most of this but not the part about using the adjective ‘lazy’ to describe the brain. To say “the brain is lazy” is using a metaphor or conceptual framework that can undermine my own power. Brains are not lazy; people are. If I say the brain is lazy, I am saying I am lazy. To speak about “the brain” is to speak about this very mind, this very being writing and reading this essay. I am by profession a teacher, although mostly retired. If any teacher in my school called some student lazy, my ears would perk up to watch for some form of bias.

 

Saying “the brain is lazy” distorts the nature of the brain. In contrast, I think the brain is miraculous and powerful. Right now, my brain is hardly lazy. It is working on, engaged in thousands, maybe millions of tasks and processes. It is keeping me sitting up, awake, focused on my ideas, helping digest food, be warm, sense, breathe, etc. And add to that the amazing feat of somehow creating language, abstract ideas, and being involved in conscious awareness itself.

 

If I’m lazy by nature, then won’t I be lazy about everything I do, even trying to change? How can I change the world or change how I think if I’m lazy?

 

Each human being is both all human beings and totally unique. We all have characteristics developed through evolution, and characteristics developed through personal experience. We are all more alike than different. It is extremely helpful to know what these human characteristics are and how our own mind works. Ropiek’s discussion can be helpful in that regard, as in his discussion about the influence of motivation in perception. Human attention is limited, and thus selective. This enables us to focus. An illustration of this is “inattentional blindness,” where we miss something happening right in front of us because our attention is on a different stimulus. We are especially motivated to search the world for what might be dangerous or might threaten our understanding of the world, or what might cause pain—or bring pleasure. We pay particular attention to what’s new and unanticipated. Our default mode is to spend a good deal of thought time imagining, speaking to ourselves about the social world we are moment-by-moment constructing. We consciously consider one construct at a time, so it behooves all of us to do all we can to increase our ability to monitor and evaluate what we think about.

 

Our capacity for thought and imagination is actually so powerful that it can help or destroy us, cause immense joy or terrifying pain. Our brain constantly changes and learns. What we learn, or what we make of what we experience, the theories and beliefs we construct, affect our very perceptions, and how much we will learn in the future. That is how miraculous the brain and mind is; it certainly is not lazy. So we need to consider how we talk about ourselves so we can better hear what we, and the world, has to say.

 

**Photo is from Crete, of possibly the first paved road, in Europe, the world?

To Question, First Listen

Several teachers asked me: “How do you get students to question, or ask questions?” I often say that, to start any unit or start the school year, find out what questions students have about the subject. What do they want or feel a need to know? But, students don’t always know or won’t say. Their questions are not always clear to them. The same for most of us. So, what then?

 

What do you do when you’re unsure about what you feel or think, or you don’t know what’s bothering or driving you? In other words, how do you hear what you’re saying to yourself?  Or, how do you improve your ability to listen, not just hear; to see, not just look? That’s a big question, bigger than I can answer.

 

Some people think a question is a sign of ignorance. Actually, it’s a sign of strength. A question is halfway to an answer. You need to recognize that you don’t know in order to come to knowing or to changing a viewpoint. So, teach and learn how to live with not-knowing and to live with questions.

 

One important element of teaching questioning in school is creating an environment or school culture that honors questioning and honors student voices, both in and out of the classroom. For example, a democratic school honors student voices and gives students a sense that their viewpoints are important. If they think their views are important, they will be more motivated to listen to themselves. If the school does not give students a sincere voice, students have more of a struggle to recognize value in their own mind and heart.

 

But what if you don’t have or can’t create a democratic school? Or even if you do, it’s not enough. The teacher in a classroom can model asking and listening– and questioning. Teachers should make their thinking visible, so the student can do the same. When teachers enter the classroom as if they are guides to learning, not know-it-alls; if teachers admit they lack knowledge and have questions, students feel more inclined to do the same.

 

Teach model questions. For example, questions to ask when you’re discussing a topic or reading a text. Questions to ask to test the speaker and ones to ask to test your own understanding. My favorites are ‘what,’ and ‘why’ and then how. “What exactly was said? What was the context? What was meant?” And: “Why was it said? What reasons would/did the person give for saying it? What is the proof?” Then: “How did they or would you apply this?”

 

What you are after is interoception, a relatively new word that means “perceiving within,” or perceiving one’s internal state. Humans have evolved brain systems devoted to this skill. Interoception is crucial for thinking clearly and acting with awareness. Mindfulness or learning how to be aware moment-by-moment of thoughts, feeling, and sensations is one way to train interoception.

 

Another way is to pick up a pen and write down on a piece of paper exactly what you hear, now, in your mind, without editing. Write even your wonder about what you’re writing. And then read Writing Your Mind Alive, by Linda Trichter-Metcalf and Tobin Simon. It describes a practice of revelation and understanding called proprioceptive writing.  The practice helped me find joy in writing, after I had lost it, and deepen understanding and self-trust.

 

Improvisational theatre games can be adapted to the classroom. They’re fun, and also teach you how to listen not only for your inner speech but for that of others. I’ll describe a few exercises I have used frequently in a classroom:

Show the class a photograph of a few people interacting in public. Ask students to study the photo and then write, “who-what-why;” who the people are, what they’re doing, and why they’re doing what they’re doing. Tell them to simply listen to their intuition and let their imaginations work.

Give students one word, one that easily evokes an archetype, such as ‘no’ or ‘wonder’ and ask them: say the word to yourself a few times. Then describe an imagined person who this word personifies. To take this to the next step, have students create three people, from three contrasting words, like ‘yes-no-maybe.’ Put these three in a situation and imagine what will happen.

A more physical exercise might be mirroring. Pair up students. Have the people face each other, hands up, palms toward the partner. You can begin by having one person act as the leader, and then switch back and forth until there’s no clear leader.  When one moves, the other mirrors the movement. Make the movements fairly easy, at first. Do not lose eye contact or break the plane of the mirror.

 

Mirroring is a good way to introduce empathy training. There are many meditation practices to develop empathy and compassion. According to Paul Ekman, who has studied emotion extensively, empathy can take different forms. It begins with recognizing or reading what someone is feeling or thinking. It can then progress to “feeling with” another. Add caring and the willingness to act for another’s welfare and you have compassionate empathy. Add putting yourself at risk and you have altruism. Empathy is not “self-sacrifice” in the sense of not valuing your life. Instead, valuing (and clearly perceiving) the messages of your own mind and heart allows you to value the mind and heart of others, and vice versa.

 

To question, first listen. To listen, first care. To care—hopefully needs no further reason.

Energizing Meaning

We usually act as if the meaning of a word were inherent to its sounds and shapes. But I bet you’ve had the experience where you looked at a word and suddenly it had no meaning. Not only did it lose semantic meaning but you couldn’t even sound it out. It became merely random marks on a page. Experiment with this; it can teach useful lessons. The easiest way to do this, actually, is to start with the sound instead of the written symbol. Say a word over and over until sound and meaning decouple. You become mute.

 

All language depends on complex layers of associations. A word means something only as long as you can give it meaning. But it’s not only yours to give. Students sometimes argue in class that a word can mean anything you want it to. Try it out. It doesn’t work very well, not if you want to talk with someone else. If a word meant anything you wanted it to, then how could anyone understand you? Your meaning would be different than anyone else’s. You would isolate yourself; your words would be merely mutterings in the wind. Ask yourself and your students: Where do meanings come from? When you speak, it’s not only you speaking. It’s a whole culture. It’s a time and place in history speaking.

 

But this connection takes energy. You can lose it. When you’re tired or angry, how hard is it to read or write? Word meanings disappear on you. Or imagine trying to write a poem or essay when you’re worried about something else. How much meaning you derive when you read a book varies greatly with your focus, quality of attention and emotional state. This is true not only with reading a language but even more with reading math symbols or scientific formulas.

 

This has great import to all of us, but especially to teachers. It provides a great subject for students to investigate and study. It reminds us that education often begins with uncovering what was hidden, assumed, right in front of us, and then constructing new understandings. And it reminds us that understanding and learning takes energy. So any work assigned in school must have a well motivated and clear learning goal. Even tests must be thought of in terms of what the act of taking the test teaches students.

 

But if meaning requires energy, what sort of effort should students be encouraged or taught to expend? To many people, work itself is good, hard work is even better. Hard work supposedly teaches persistence, how to face adversity, develop “grit.” But unjustified work imposed on people is just unjustified, and being told to do it in a school mainly teaches how useless schools can be. Work imposed only from the top is completed mostly out of fear, or out of a desire to please an authority figure. The fear might be of a bad grade or of looking bad; the work itself is not compelling. Fear can motivate, but it also creates resistance, stress. Do we want to associate learning with fear or with pleasing authority-figures?

 

However, work which emerges from and elucidates a student’s own life concerns, crises, joys and questions is barely work at all. It is not imposed top down but emerges from one’s life or from one’s own assessment of what is important. The effort to complete it is almost effortless.

 

In psychology class, when we teach about stress, we talk about the “3Cs” of commitment, control and challenge. These 3Cs develop hardiness, the ability to take on demanding work, intellectual or otherwise. Applying this to a school situation, the more a student feels committed to or interested in a topic or assignment, is given a choice or some control, and feels the task is a useful challenge or adventure, the less resistance or harmful stress they will experience, and the more they will learn. The 3Cs are a good guide to fostering effortless effort and clear learning. It also makes school more enjoyable and engaging.

Musings On A Reunion, Dreams, and Compassion

For too many students, schools are like factories, large institutions where they are inspected, tested and rated until they are passed on to other schools or employers where they are further tested and rated. But for others, at least many students from The Lehman Alternative Community School, school was a place where dreams were born, where the education of the capacity for imagination, for feeling that life was alive with possibilities, had a place along with the capacity to think critically. This insight was inspired by a graduate of LACS, John Lewis who, when still a student, created a mural of Peter Pan characters whose faces were those of students and staff from the school, youthful dreamers dreaming.

 

Two weeks ago, LACS had its 40th Anniversary Celebration reunion. I went to the reunion thinking about all the dreams that students had had for their lives, thinking even about my own dreams, and wondering how many saw their dreams realized or felt happy with their lives. How many would remember the school, and me, fondly and think we had prepared them well for the world? As soon as I opened the door to the beautiful guest house where the first event was held, I had my answer.

 

But first, think about dreams. There are so many different. even conflicting, ways we use the word ‘dream,’ some positive, some negative.  Start with night dreams. They arise out of a mystery, or they often feel like a mystery, and arise when we are most vulnerable. They can feel like an expression of what is most intimate to us, unknown not only to others but even to our own conscious awareness. So, we often push them away. Many of us remember few dreams even though we have four or five cycles of dreams (dependending on how long we sleep) each night. So we live our lives surrounded by a largely unknown territory of our own making.

 

Then there are day dreams. By daydreams we can mean those moments when we drift from the reality of now into flights of fantasy. Or we can mean imaginatively exploring possible courses of action or the meaning of what we think we truly desire. We can use the mind like a chalkboard or play movies of our own creation in order to explore scenarios of what might be. We set our mind free.

 

How well we use our capacity to dream depends on how much we are aware of what we’re doing. After a night-dream, we might think of our self as the hero or heroine. But that can be very deceiving. We perceive or experience each scene in a dream from either the perspective of a character in the dream, someone who looks like us, or from a “godlike” perspective looking down on it.  We can take this person who looks like us for the self, but I think that is a mistake. I think that each dream image is ambiguous, probably in several ways, but one way is that each element of the dream is yours. You are not just the central character or any one character but the whole scene. When you have the nightmare of being overwhelmed by a flood or wave, you are not just the being overwhelmed but the force of overwhelming.  When you are hugged by the love of your life, you are hugged by yourself. You need to take in the whole perspective as revealing something about your self, not just one element of it.

 

And this gets us to the reunion. The reunion lasted from Friday night to early Sunday evening. Saturday included an ASM, an All School Meeting, as part of a Symposium on Education. At our school, once a week the whole school meets to discuss some issue or proposal or to share an event together. So this was a poignant blast from the past for many graduates.

 

Dr. Dave Lehman, the founding father of the school and first principal, brought a proposal to the group. In our school handbook (we call it a footbook, to tell us where we are going) we define the school’s mission as creating global citizens, persons of character who strive to be caring, kind, sensitive to others, trustworthy, recognizing when there is bias, and such. Dr. Dave proposed that we add compassionate. Quoting the Dalai Lama, he defined compassion as “concern, affection, and warm-heartedness;… the essence of compassion is the desire to relieve the suffering of others.” To take action to relieve suffering. We ignore our own inner lives—and the inner lives of others—“at our own peril.” The motion passed overwhelmingly.

 

In her introduction to the ASM, Diane Carruthers, the present principal, quoted Septima Clark as saying that “education is freedom.” I’d add, to go along with Dr. Dave, that the recognition of interdependence is freedom. Compassion is freedom. A graduate, Megan Hanna, helped develop this connection. She said that compassion for others begins with compassion for oneself. We are too often miseducated into thinking that our welfare is opposed to that of others and so we often feel torn, bound, isolated. Like in a dream, recognizing that the whole dream situation and all the characters in it are you is liberating. Compassion is liberating as it wakes us up to how important other people, relationships, our surroundings and the quality of our experience are to us. It allows us to open up in inconceivable ways. We ignore this truth at our own peril and the peril of our planet.

 

Certainly, one of the tasks of childhood is to bounce against boundaries. We test out where we end so we can discover where we begin. We begin this homework assignment as children but our education in this subject continues throughout life. We start life with no notion that we, or our needs, end, but soon we start thinking of the skin as our boundary, that we end at our skin. But one of the main functions of skin is to feel the world. And certainly, as teenagers, we feel. What we think of as our end is thus a beginning. We realize our own capacities not as much by opposing what is “outside” the skin but by contacting it. Only then can we know it. Even to fight something, we need to first know it. Our end, the skin, and the “rest of the world,” or, in reality, our capacity to feel, is thus where we begin.

 

And this is what the reunion showed me. Leaving the school was an opportunity for graduates to learn the meaning of their dreams, which includes learning the meaning of their schooling and community. We are always embedded with others in a world, like a dream character is embedded in the whole of the dream. Students said, both in the ASM and in private conversations, that what LACS did for them was allow them to be themselves. It gave them the freedom to trust and thus discover themselves and to speak from that process of discovery. It did the same for me and for other staff members. We staff members knew we were doing something meaningful for others. We trusted (with some careful watchfulness) and tried our best to nurture others and in turn were, as much as we could be, nurtured. What we gave we received.

 

I came to the reunion hoping to hear that every student was a success and their dreams realized, but students made clear to me I had an outdated notion of success. Success is not really about worldly recognition. The mark of a successful life is how we live, and how much we feel we play an important role in other people’s lives and they play a role in ours. It is how we deal with our struggles and the world. This all ties in to the mirroring quality of compassion: how we live with ourselves is mirrored by how we live with others. We are all, as John Perkins said, dreaming the world together. And in recognizing that, I think most of our students are clearly a success, or they’re on the way to it.

The Interview

 

Sasha Lilley, producer and interviewer of Pacifica Radio’s Against The Grain, interviewed me a few weeks ago. The interview was about alternative education or student centered learning, the attacks on public schools, how to teach to meet the needs of a diverse population, and how to teach critical thinking using mindfulness. It was aired on the radio last week. Here is a link to it.

 

Mon 6.16.14 | The Radical Philosophy of Alternative Public Education | Against the Grain: A Program about Politics, Society and Ideas

 

In the interview, I talked about using questions to engage students and develop their critical intellect. As an illustration, I used the historical question: Why was Socrates executed by his city-state, Athens? In the interview, I did not give adequate background to the question.

 

Socrates, who was one of the most influential philosophers in history, certainly Western history, was probably both a hero and a pain in the butt. His methods clearly irritated many of his contemporaries. He was charged with impiety and with corrupting minors, by encouraging his students to question their assumptions and beliefs. He was the teacher of several notable people, including Plato, who taught Aristotle, who taught Alexander The Great. He was executed in 399 BCE, just five years after Athens had lost the Peloponnesian Wars, had lost their once glorious empire and seen their democracy destroyed and rebuilt. The wars had spanned over 30 years. When given the opportunity to escape a death sentence but be exiled from his home, he declined. So, why was Socrates executed?

 

I was also unclear in explaining why test scores are poor vehicles for diagnosing what students have learned. When tests compare student achievement, as by using a curve or by ranking how the student stood in relation to other students, they do not say what a student actually knows. If everyone in a group does poorly, scoring 90% does not mean you did well. If everyone in the group is a high achieving student, scoring only 10% might be vey good.

 

And there are so many other reasons not to use standardized tests to assess student, teacher, or school achievement. So, why are the tests still pushed?

 

Also, this week LACS received good news. The radio interviewer asked me if an alternative school, which de-emphasized tests, grades and competition, could prepare students for the tests and other challenges of the world. I said yes. To support my assertion, the SAT scores for the year were announced this week. LACS outscored all the other schools in upstate New York. (Despite this, I still argue that standardized tests infringe on learning more than they assess it.)

 

I hope you enjoy the interview. Any questions or comments?

 

 

*The mural is by LACS students. The blue ox is the Blue ACS, symbol of the school.