How Can You Begin The School Year, Or Anything, As Skillfully As Possible?

There is nothing like a beginning. Just think of different beginnings. First meeting someone. Building your own home. Starting on a vacation. Of course, it’s not always clear where any event begins, is it? But let’s start with the sense of a beginning. What is its essence? Something new, unknown, exciting, scary yet filled with promise. You don’t know what will happen and are hopefully open to that. To begin something, you end or let go of something else.

 

To start the year off well, understand what beginning the year means to you. What do you need to be open? What do the students need? You can’t do it solely with thought. You must also be aware of your feelings. Many of us, if we don’t train our awareness, will plan our classes or vacations so tightly that the realm of what is possible is reduced to what seems safe and already known. It’s not a beginning if you emotionally pretend that you’ve already done it.

 

To train your awareness, I recommend two practices. The first involves how you plan your courses. The second involves your mental state when you enter the classroom.

 

First, to plan any trip, you need to know where you’re going. To begin, you need to know where you want to end. To teach students, you need to know what you want students to know, understand and be able to do. I often used what is called the backwards design strategy, and I highly recommend it.

 

The energy behind backwards design comes from using essential questions. They are big questions, philosophical, existential, even ethical. These questions are open-ended with no simple answers to them. They evoke the controversies and insights at the heart of a discipline. They naturally engage student interest because they connect the real lives of students to the curriculum. The classroom becomes a place where mysteries are revealed and possibly solved, where meaning is created. In working with questions, teachers don’t dictate answers but direct, model and coach active inquiry. Especially with secondary students whose lives are entwined with questions, essential questions are the DNA of learning. They are intrinsically motivating. Students look forward to coming to class.

 

Education, to a large degree, is about uncovering questions.  Let’s say you like sports or are teaching PE. Underlying your interest in sports might be questions about your potential: What are my physical capabilities? About competition: Which is more important, to compete against others or myself? What role do other people play in my life and in developing my strengths? And in ancient history you can ask: What can the Greeks show me about what it means to be human? Where in my life can I find the remnants of Athens? Young people can easily get so caught up in their social relationships that they can’t see their lives with any perspective. What does history reveal about what I could possibly do with my life? What are the cultural and historical pressures that operate on me? How am I history? If you’re teaching biology, you are teaching the essence of life on a physical level. How does life sustain itself? What does it mean to be alive? To die? Such questions can challenge assumptions and reveal the depths that students crave but which are often hidden away. The Greek philosopher, Plato, said: “Philosophy begins in wonder,” the wonder from which real questions arise and which they evoke. This, right now, is my life. These other people—they’re alive, just like me. Can wonder be allowed into the classroom?

 

And an added set of questions: after summers like this one, filled with violence, political upheavals, and environmental disasters, student’s fears, anxieties and questions must be acknowledged and, if possible, brought into the curriculum. They need to know that their real life concerns and thus their real selves do not need to be hidden away in this classroom. How do you face the violence in the news and the anxieties it can produce? What social conditions contribute to violence? What is anxiety? How can it be met in a healthy way and utilized for deeper understanding?

 

Second, begin by shattering any fears or expectations that your students might hold that you will hurt or distrust them. Create a supportive environment in your classroom, so students know, “this is a place of safety.” Enter the class as a fellow human being, not hidden behind a role. Mention your excitement and nervousness. When you trust students in this way, you yourself will be trusted. You model awareness, both of your own inner state as well as of the importance of the other people there with you. This is compassion. You care and show that care. To be a teacher, be a student of your students. Recognize there’s more you don’t know than you do know. And one of the things you don’t know and want to learn is who these other people are. When you enter with this compassionate awareness, you will be relaxed and confident. When you enter hidden behind a role with a schedule to keep, you will be stiff and nervous. This is the ultimate end you want to teach from the beginning, being a compassionate human being.

 

What stressed me out when I began a school year was the idea of a whole year to lesson plan, with so many students whose educational needs I would have to meet. All that work, all that time. But if I planned from the end, so I was clear about what I was doing and why; and I developed my awareness with mindfulness and compassion practice, then, instead of facing the idea of a whole year of work, I faced only an individual moment. I was prepared, alive with questions; I could trust myself and be spontaneous. One moment at a time, I could do that. And this changed the whole quality of my teaching and of my life. My teaching and my life were one.

Critical Thinking Part Three: The Process of Critical Thinking is Creative

In 1992, I saw a PBS television documentary called “The Creative Spirit” and it brought so much together for me. It proposed four steps in a process of creative thinking: preparation, frustration, incubation, and illumination. Just learning the techniques of an art is not enough to be creative. You have to develop a creative mind and attitude. I realized that critical thinking is also a process like creativity. You can’t just learn techniques and a vocabulary of “rational” thinking or problem solving and expect be a good critical thinker. You have to develop a whole process of living with a question or problem.

Here is an outline of the steps I propose for thinking critically about a question or problem:

1. Carefully construct and define the question or topic.

2. Prepare by immersing yourself in relevant material. Question sources, theories and assumptions. This is an area teachers know very well. As I described in an earlier blog, empathy and imagination are very helpful here. Define a thesis or first answer to the question, then confront that answer with an opposing antithesis.

3. Mindfully face your frustration, your fear of mistakes, or your anxiety when you realize your old ways of viewing the world won’t solve the problem or answer the question. Transform this energy into a broader focus on the task. Accomplish this by reflecting on your process. This requires monitoring what you’re doing, thinking and feeling, learning from mistakes, and directing the process accordingly.

4. Incubate: take a break, sit in silence, relax and let go of the whole question so it doesn’t overwhelm you, exercise, meditate or even “sleep on it.” Allow your mind the space to grow into an answer. Incubation can be the key for transforming frustration into the energy needed for persisting until a solution is created or discovered.

5. Insight: Formulate your new synthesis of the material.

6.In creativity, a testing period follows insight. If you create a script for a play, for example, you have to do a staged reading to determine if the play sounds right. In critical thinking, your conclusion must be tested. It is too easy to deceive yourself or get so committed to your old way of answering or solving a question or problem that you lose perspective. Or you can miss the implications of your answer. Use standards to facilitate testing: for example, evaluating the precision and clarity of the conclusion, the depth and breadth of the material examined, the flexibility and fairness in examining opposing positions, the implications of a theory. Test opposing theories to see which answer fits best.

 

Actually, these steps are more like conditions which make critical thinking possible. Each step or condition happens over and over again throughout the process. Questioning sources requires reflection on your process. You come to smaller insights in order to synthesize the material into a larger, more general conclusion.

 

These steps help the student integrate critical thinking into their whole life. The process recognizes, for example, that time off is required. It recognizes that the student’s emotions are part of the process. Without emotional awareness, students can get lost trying to figure out a complex question or complete an in-depth project. They lose the internal focus on understanding and shift to an external focus on being judged. Their drive to meet expectations, both their own and the perceived expectations of the teacher, can spiral into great anxiety. Mindful reflection gives the student the ability to recognize the early signs of anxiety. They can then step out of the spiral and return their attention to creating meaning out of all the information they are evaluating.

 

I think many teachers don’t recognize just what self-reflection requires. For example, in my school, we often ask students to reflect on their learning process. For students not familiar with mindfulness, sincere and skillful reflection is difficult. After one or two mindfulness experiences, I ask students “how many thoughts did you have?” Most students say they have few or no thoughts. They have little awareness of all that is going through their mind because they don’t know how to look. They need to learn a methodology of inner awareness. If they are unaware of what is going on in their mind, how can they self-reflect? And how can they use self-reflection to monitor and direct their critical thinking?

 

One example of an in-depth critical thinking project I used in some philosophy and history classes was a personal essential question project (PEQ). This gave students a way to shape their own education. A PEQ was a “big question” related to the course material requiring the formulation of a general conclusion or theory as an answer. The student chose their question, one which interested and/or intrigued, frightened, upset, excited them. It required research, analysis and synthesis. They would then present their research, reasoning and conclusion either in a lengthy essay or, occasionally, through a multiple-media presentation. This project usually took about four months to complete. Students undertook the project in addition to the regular classwork. Each student had a support group of other students. Every few weeks the students would get feedback on their progress either in person or through written comments on research summaries, drafts, etc. from me and/or their support group.

 

Defining the question in a way that a possible solution could be found was the first tricky step. Some questions could not be answered, only understood better. It was also tricky to pinpoint what the real question was which a student wanted to answer

 

Student essential questions varied greatly. They had questions about the environment, political systems, ethics, gender roles and power, the causes of anti-semitism, racism, the nature of bias, truth, suffering, violence, how to deal with their awareness of death, even what factors determine what’s fashionable. The project was like an intellectual rite of passage. It told the student that meaningful personal questions could be answered. It taught the student about applying critical thinking to their daily concerns.

 

Students theorized that culture helped people deal with death. That fashion followed what rich people did. That the way women were treated was correlated with the religion of the culture and with how the environment was treated. That there was such a thing as truth, but its not what most people think. Their conclusions were often creative—new to them, new to me.

 

Our intellectual work might seem to be about doing well in school or formulating ever deeper and wider generalizations or theories—creating intellectual gems. But as I said, it is not ultimately about those gems. Our ability to think critically is part of our larger ability to learn from and live our lives more deeply and thoughtfully. It is about improving our ability to better integrate information, synthesize conclusions, and reflect on our beliefs, actions and decisions so we can better understand the effects of those actions and decisions on others and our world. And to use emotion, empathy so we can also be more ready to act appropriately on what we understand.