Teaching Compassion With Our Choices: Are We Engaged in a Milgram Obedience Experiment Right Now in Our Schools?

I just realized two startling parallels, one between two psychology experiments, one between these experiments and so-called educational reform in the United States. The realizations started last week, when I introduced in my blog the possibility of discussing, in a secondary school classroom, the question: If humans are (or can be) compassionate, why is there so much human-caused suffering and hurt in the world?

 

Maybe you have heard of the “obedience experiment” carried out by Stanley Milgram in the early 1960s, just after the beginning of the Eichmann trial. In that experiment, a volunteer was tasked to play a teacher to help educate a student learn word pairs. Each time the “student” replied with the wrong word, the “teacher” gave him negative feedback in the form of an electric shock. The voltage of the shock was increased with each wrong answer. The “teacher” sat in one room before an electronic control panel and could see through a window into another room where the “student” sat hooked up to wires. A white coated experimenter stood in the room with the “teacher” encouraging and instructing with comments like, ”Continue using the 450 volt switch for each wrong answer. Continue, please.” The experimenter repeated these instructions even as the “student” began to scream and later dropped over, silent. The “teacher” raised objections; but as the instructions continued, the “teacher” continued with the shocks. The student was an actor; the  shocks to the “student” were not real. However, the effect on the “teacher” was real.

 

It was initially reported by Milgram that 65% of the “teachers” actually continued to shock their students even to a lethal level. But according to researcher Gina Perry, that statistic was only true with one of the 24 versions of the experiment. There were over 700 people involved in the experiments, and the 65% represents only 26 people. There were some variations of the experiment where no one obeyed the authority.

 

The philosopher Jacob Needleman studied the visual recordings of the experiment and commented on the facial expression and speech of one of the “teachers.” When questioned just after the experiment was over the “teacher” said, “I don’t like that one bit. I mean, he [the “student”] wanted to get out and we just keep throwing 450 volts…” The teacher was dazed and under further questioning couldn’t let himself comprehend what he had done. He couldn’t comprehend his own feelings or allow himself to feel what the “student” might have felt.

 

A startling parallel to Milgram was a series of experiments by Daniel Batson who tested whether people would act compassionately to save others from suffering.  In one experiment, volunteer subjects, like Milgram’s teachers, watched people receive shocks when they incorrectly answered a memory task. The volunteer was then told the person they were watching had suffered trauma as a child. The subject was given the choice to leave the experiment or receive the shock intended for the supposed trauma victim. Many subjects who later reported they felt compassion for the other person volunteered to take on their pain.

 

What is the message of these experiments? The first is often considered a revelation of the potential for evil in all of us. It is argued that the evil arises from our propensity to obey authority despite clear evidence of the wrongness of the act. I question that interpretation to some degree. The psychologist Philip Zimbardo talks about the “fundamental attribution error” which is a failure to recognize just how much other people and the context influence our behavior. He says that we tend to overestimate the role played by people’s disposition or personality and underestimate the power of a situation. It is not just the authority figure that people follow but the whole situation. Our understanding of who we are and what is real and possible is formed in tandem with our understanding of our situation with others. If other people, in this case the experimenter, act as if the only important factor in the situation is whether the “student” answers correctly, not their physical well being, then it is less likely that the “teacher” would act compassionately. The second experiment demonstrates that even one biographical detail can allow us to identify with another person and act compassionately toward them.

 

I think we all need to consider that we are possibly participating in a form of these experiments right now. We teachers are being asked to give standardized tests to students. (In fact, such tests began last week.) The state and federal government and local school boards are saying to us that these tests serve valuable educational purposes. They supposedly improve education and make it more equitable by revealing poor schools and poor teachers. But these claims are highly questionable. As I documented in an earlier blog, no standardized test has ever helped create equity. There is no research to show that a student from a school who undergoes standardized testing will do better in college or in a job than one who never took a standardized test. Teachers can see in their classrooms the negative shocks administered by the tests. The tests and test preparation take time from valuable instruction and cause anxiety. They undermine the trusting relationship between teachers and students by turning the motivation to learn from a natural joy in learning to a fear of negative judgment.

 

So, what will any of us do? Will teachers and administrators obey the authority and administer the “shocks”? Or refuse? Parents can “opt out” and not allow their children to be tested. However, if teachers “opt out” they can face the possible loss of their jobs. What else can be done? What will you do?

A Compassionate Curriculum Part A: Teaching Our Nature

Mindfulness and compassion practices are wonderful, but what’s even more important is embedding compassion in the structure of the school and the curriculum. So, how do you do that? What needs to be included in a curriculum so students are more likely to graduate as compassionate human beings?

 

A curriculum that teaches compassion should start with “big questions,” especially those chosen or verbalized by students. In that way, students will feel heard and thus more inclined to listen. They will then look at the school as part of themselves, not as something totally separate. As discussed in an earlier blog, creating a curriculum out of big questions gives students not only an understanding of issues they consider important but the sense that they can figure out for themselves how their actions can serve a useful purpose.

 

Next, the curriculum needs to directly face a question that students in several of my classes often raised: what are we humans? What is it in our nature to be? We say things like, “it is just human nature to do x, y, or z.” What could that mean? Students often assume that humans have a “nature” and having a “nature” means that you can’t help but enact that nature. Your nature is fixed, in your DNA. But what exactly is fixed? And what would having such a fixed nature imply? Since there is so much violence and suffering in the world, how can it be our nature to be compassionate? This question is a mirror of another old philosophical question: If God is good, why is there evil and suffering in the world?

 

One book that could be a resource for a secondary school curriculum on compassion is The Compassionate Instinct. This book explores scientific evidence and philosophical arguments for compassion. In the first essay, Dacher Keltner makes the point that “human communities are only as healthy as our conceptions of human nature.” When you assume something about your nature, you act in accord with that assumption. To talk about human nature is to talk about who you are as a person, who you are as a friend or loved one, parent or child. It is not simply an intellectual question. It affects the whole way you relate to others and live your life. Students need to look for the larger dimensions and implications of their questions, and teachers need to understand the implications of the material they teach and their pedagogy.

 

Keltner argues that compassion is “rooted in our brain and biology, and [is] ready to be cultivated for the greater good.” It is in us, as a possibility. It can be developed—or subverted. Our brains are plastic in that they are continuously rewiring to some degree. We change according to our experience and education. Learning means change. Even the expression of DNA depends on experience. Maybe how we think about our nature is both a result of our nature and at the same time helps form that nature.

 

How do you relate to suffering, or to the awful, the holocausts, genocides, wars, and death? When students, and teachers, read about something awful like violence, murders and even the devious manipulations of political leaders now or in the past, they might say, “Ah, yes. Just what I expected.” Others, “I don’t want to hear about it.” It is difficult to allow yourself to be in the middle between assuming the worst of people and wanting to hide.

 

In history, it is easy to overemphasize the horrors that humans have perpetrated and to leave out the good. To talk about Hitler and forget Asoka. The good is often seen as inconsequential, banal or everyday; yet without this everyday counterweight to what we consider evil, we could not go on. This is not “inconsequential” but the most consequential. For example, students in one of my classes claimed that humans are not cooperative. I then asked them, how did you get to school this morning? Why didn’t all the cars on the road crash into each other? I continued: Name all the different people you can think of who contributed to making your lunch. In our school, this was a very visible subject as one group of students helps cook the lunch for the school and another grows some of the food. Students went on and on, surprising themselves with the result, naming teachers who instructed students on how to cook the food, farmers and truckers and people who made the forks and spoons. After just a few minutes, it seemed that everyone and everything contributed to their lunch. Instead of disconnection, students learned about interdependence, which in turn opened the door to the possibility of compassion.

 

Teachers might claim they value compassion and have empathy for their students and others. Yet, if they teach that selflessness is a myth, that we are born to put competitiveness and greed before other ways of being, they undermine that claim. For example, take science or social studies teachers who discuss evolution and have students read portions of Darwin’s  The Origin of Species but not The Descent of Man. Psychologist and evolution theorist David Loye points out that Origin spells out the theory most people associate with Darwin, that through random variations in genes and “natural selection” the best organisms are picked out to survive while the rest are discarded. Such a choice has led to theories about humans being naturally aggressive, that competition is necessary for survival, even that there is such a thing as a “selfish gene.” In Descent, Darwin applies his theories to human beings and, I think, leaves us with a very different message than he did in Origin. He speaks more about “mutual aid,” ethics or morality, and love than about “the survival of the fittest.” He speaks about helping others, even the weak, out of “sympathy.” So, should we teach both books? And which book gives us more incentive to act in an ethical or a compassionate manner?

 

We need to let the light in. Especially when the subject is difficult, we need to hold the reality, even the difficult and painful reality, in our arms for a second; to listen to what has to be said without jumping to a conclusion or running to hide.

 

There are specific characteristics of being human, for example, our shape, the fact that we normally have two legs, two arms, and two eyes. Our brain and senses obviously allow us to do some things but not others. We can walk on our own two feet but not fly with (just) our feet. Most of us can perceive a variety of colors but none of us can perceive ultraviolet light. If we could see ultraviolet, just think how our experience might change. But is our nature something different from a description of what our mental and physical equipment makes possible? Or should I ask: Does our physical and mental equipment make it possible for us to have meaningful choices in how we act? Is the most important thing about our nature the possibility that we have a choice about how we use our equipment? That we can choose to be either compassionate or hurtful?

 

The question of what does it mean to be a human being is a crucial question for students to raise in our classes and for teachers to address directly. Hidden in the question is the recognition that who we are is about who we choose to be. Who do you choose to be? What would you choose to teach?

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.

Is Governor Cuomo Supporting Education or Undermining It?

Last week, according to the New York Times, Governor Andrew Cuomo attacked New York State education officials for an “attempt to water down his new teacher evaluation system that was one of his earliest legislative triumphs.” The context is that the New York Board of Regents, due to mistakes in the rollout of the Common Core, proposed a two-year moratorium on holding teachers accountable for student test scores. The governor opposed the moratorium. He said it was unnecessary; the existing policy already allowed teachers to ask that the test scores of their students not be counted in teacher accountability ratings if the students were unfairly affected by problems with the rollout. The real issue here is why have such an accountability system at all? This system is more of a threat to education than a triumph. Does the Governor sincerely believe that this system would improve education in New York? That it would force teachers and schools to “do a better job” and thus create more equity between how richer and poorer school districts educate their students?

 

Standardized testing has never helped create equity and never will. The increased testing brought about by the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind legislation did not lead to equity in school funding or improve education and neither will the Common Core assessments. Fair Test, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, published a report on NCLB in 2004 clearly stating that making the boosting of test scores a priority in schools does not improve education. In fact, it detracts from education. Sanctioning schools that do not improve test scores is “counterproductive.” Holding teachers responsible for such scores is likewise counterproductive. To teach in any classroom, let alone a very challenging one, teachers need to be able to be creative. They need to feel trusted by the administration and community so they can adapt their methods to the individual students. The scrutiny and pressure of “raise scores or lose your job” undermines trust and creativity.

 

Linda Darling-Hammond takes my argument further. She points out that when school reform is used as a lever for external control of schools, as Cuomo’s system does, these strategies are “unlikely to be successful and the assessments are unlikely to be equitable because they stem from a distrust of teachers and fail to involve teachers in the reform process.” Tests should be used to provide teachers with “practical information on student learning,” not rate students and teachers. Instead of a top-down system, she calls for measures in which teachers and their communities work together to self-reflect, critique, correct, and renew their programs.

 

According to Fair Test, young people of color unfairly suffer from standardized testing. They point out that “the use of high-stakes testing in an overall environment of racial inequality perpetuates that inequality through the emotional and psychological power of the tests over the test-takers.” The inequality of resources in many districts which primarily serve people of color hits those students very personally. It leaves the message that the political system doesn’t care enough about them. If they want an education, they must work even harder to get it.

 

The Common Core says that one of its goals is College preparedness. Fair Test argues that standardized “tests provide no social or educational benefit. They do not improve college or employment readiness.” Furthermore, as I argued in an earlier blog, high stakes tests increase the level of fear in education and undermine creative thinking. Diane Ravitch points out in The Reign of Error that no nation tests as much as the U. S. now does. Supposed reformers claim that we are falling behind other nations, one of which is China. Yet nations like China and India look to the U. S. as a model for teaching how to think independently and creatively. Vivek Wadhwa, an Indian American technology entrepreneur, wrote in Business Week that “the independence and social skills American children develop give them a huge advantage when they join the workforce.” American students “learn to experiment, challenge norms, take risks… This is why America remains the world leader in innovation.” Does Governor Cuomo want to undermine that independence of mind by testing students (and teachers) into submission?

 

In my history class several years ago, I had a student with severe anxiety. The class was portfolio based and required an assortment of assessments. For the first quarter of the year, she could sometimes write a paper, do research, collaborate with other students to some degree, but rarely passed a quiz and failed the one test I gave. By the end of the year, she had completed her portfolio and passed the difficult final exam with a score of 75%–the passing score was 70%. Yet, when it came to the New York State Regents (a standardized test in Global Studies), which most students thought was easier than the final, she froze and did not pass. She faced more personal obstacles than I would wish on anyone, made more progress with her skills and learned more material than most of the students. Yet, according to the state, she did not do enough. She had to re-take the test and finally passed. Some people might say that the experience made her stronger or that students need to learn how to face adversity. She had enough adversity to face just coming to class and doing her work. Unreasonable adversity is institutionalized suffering. Such tests tell students that compared to their test grade, all else is secondary. That’s just wrong.

 

According to the Albany area NPR station WAMC, the governor’s new budget increase of $608 million falls short of the $1.9 billion called for by many legislators and education advocates to simply “maintain current programs and restore others that were cut over the last five years.” If the Governor was truly in support of public education he would be searching for ways to raise the revenue to fulfill these needs. Instead, he called for reducing many taxes, for example corporate taxes, and raising the cap on estate taxes.

 

So, I ask Governor Cuomo: Are you sincere in claiming you support public school education? Your support for standardized testing, and the evaluation of teachers partly based on those tests, argues otherwise. Failing to commit to raising the money to maintain current programs, restore ones recently cut, and reduce inequity in school funding argues otherwise.

 

And unfortunately, I think that too many politicians need to be asked the same questions.

 

Critical Thinking Part Two: Imagination and Visualization

 

Visualization is a natural capacity of the mind. It can be defined as “the conscious, volitional creation of mental sense impressions…” We generally think in images. To go beyond the superficial meaning of language we use mental imagery. The imagination connects us to our emotions. When you read fiction, or daydream or night dream or remember something, it is easy to notice images running through your mind. But it is not always obvious how you use imagery in possibly all of your thinking.

 

You could practice visualizations on your own, lead or be led by others. In my book, Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching, I also describe inquiry practices which directly use visualization for examining evidence, finding solutions, revealing hidden attitudes, synthesizing material or gaining insight. The process I will be describing today is not mindfulness. It strengthens the ability to create and apply imagery. For teachers, it helps students be more relaxed and focused in class. It directly connects course material to student’s lives and so provides intrinsic motivation for learning. With enough experience, you can do a visualization in about ten minutes.  In order to lead others, you must practice on your own first. Read hyperlinked or other resources.

 

The method begins with progressive relaxation and then proceeds to a mental journey. The relaxation section will last two to four minutes. Unlike mindfulness, students can sit back or rest their head on the desk in front of them. I usually play calming music in the background. You can center attention first on the feet and work your way up, or start at the forehead and work your way progressively down. Before you begin, tell the students what topic you will be exploring. The following is a sample visualization on the novel Demian, by Herman Hesse.

 

Today, we will meet Sinclair in a new light, as we are first introduced to him in Demian. First:

 

When you are ready, sit back and relax. Assume a position that is restful, comfortable and that you can stay in for five minutes or so. Close your eyes when you’re ready. You could close them now or in a few minutes, when it feels right. Put your attention on your forehead. Calmly, breathe in, taking it nice and easy; then breathe out. As you breathe in, can you feel the subtle sensation of your forehead expanding very slightly? Just notice it as you breathe in. Then, as you exhale, notice how  your body naturally relaxes, settles down. You might settle more into the chair or feel heavier or warmer.

 

Keep the voice calm yet natural. Relaxed. You are teaching a relaxation method. Pace yourself so you introduce a new image or question just after the previous image has formed for your students.

 

Move you attention to the muscles around your mouth. As you breathe in, the area might expand a little; simply notice it. Then relax, settle down, let go as you breathe out. Pause. Move your attention next to your shoulders. You might find it easier to notice the effect of breathing on your shoulders. Breathe in, feel the expansion. Then, just let go as you breathe out. Notice how your body relaxes even more deeply. Your shoulders might drop. Do you feel any warmer, heavier? Just allow yourself to relax.

 

Now allow a flower to come to mind, any flower will do.

 

If not a flower, pick something that you think will be considered safe, familiar and of interest to your students. A tree? A quilt? A butterfly? A stone? An animal? One point of the flower is to get the mind ready for something more complex by starting with something simpler. This simple experience can be great fun. However, always remember that when people are relaxed and trusting of you, their minds will move instantaneously, at a mere hint.

 

Some students expect one thing, like a rose, and get something different, like a dandelion. It is important that there are no wrong flowers. In some cultures, the colors or specific animals have a meaning. This can be an interesting topic for research. For now, just notice and relax with what comes.

 

In teaching about primal cultures and religion, I had students visualize first a flower, then an animal. Visualizing an animal can be very revealing and exciting. Early humans, as in the art caves, extensively portrayed other animals with remarkable detail and aliveness. Humans, if portrayed at all, were stick figures, except for the shaman figures which were part human, part animal. Early humans obviously felt very connected to these animals. Most students even today easily bring to mind an animal.

 

Just notice what flower comes up for you. It might be one you know or have seen at your home. It might be one you imagined or read about.  Either way, it is fine. What shape do you see? Feel? What colors? Sometimes, you will simply see the flower. Other times, your mind will give you words that describe a flower or feelings. Just notice what comes to you. Is there a fragrance?

 

How big is the flower? Notice how delicate it is. How does the flower attach to the stem? What color is the stem? What is its feel, its texture?

 

The first time you lead a visualization, just do this much. After you’ve done this a few times, students will need less time to relax. Use mostly simple questions to develop detailed, concrete images. As much as it makes sense, refer to multiple senses. Transitions are important. They require the most sensitivity to how students might take your words.

 

Behind the flower is a beautiful path. Sinclair will soon emerge in the distance, from down the path. Can you picture him? What words come up for you about him?

 

Here are some sample questions you could use to guide such a visualization. Use those which best fit your goals. Remember to make the visualization clear and concrete.

 

 Notice how he walks. Does he stand straight? Does he stride, slouch or look calmly around him? How tall is he? What color hair does he have? How is he dressed? When you see him, what is your response?  When you hear his name, do any feelings arise?

Are you happy to see him? Are you upset with him? Do you want to tell him something? Is there someone on his mind? Who? What might he want to say? If Sinclair were a flower [or an animal] what would he be? Does he remind you of any other literary characters? Is he like you in any way?

 

Return attention to the classroom gradually. Proceed in reverse order of how you left, but in less detail.

 

Now, say goodbye to Sinclair. Remember that you can return any time you want. You can remember anything you want that happened here. Once Sinclair turns and walks down the path, notice the flower, its shape and color.  Pause. Then return your attention to your breath. With each breath you will be more and more aware of the room and the people around you. Your awareness will return fully to your body. Feel its weight on the chair or your hands on the table. Can you hear the music? Other people in the room? Pause. Move your fingers. Your toes. As you take a deep breath, gradually sit up. Open your eyes. Stretch. Notice the room and how it feels to be here.

 

Eventually, you will be able to simply ask the students to relax, close their eyes, settle down. Do the warm up exercise, then go to the visualization that ties to your class material. After the exercise, always process the experience with a journal prompt or a small group or whole group discussion. The processing will hopefully lead right into the heart of the lesson.

 

How was that? Were you relaxed? Did a flower come to you? Share with us the name and color of the flower. Did you learn anything about Sinclair? Name one thing.

 

I used this type of exercise over several years and with very diverse groups. If a student says that nothing came to them, that’s fine. If you sense something is bothering the student, talk one-on-one. Everyone is different. Years ago, before I started using mindfulness or a writing exercise before each class, I had a class of mostly middle school, active, even hyperactive boys. I thought they would never be able to do the exercise; I was wrong. They loved it. They relaxed and images came readily to mind. At least once a week after that, they asked to do a visualization.

 

There are other great methods for strengthening student ability to use the imagination in thinking critically. What do you do?

 

**One book I recommend is: educator and author Kieran Egan’s wonderful book Imagination In Teaching And Learning: The Middle School Years,

Critical Thinking Part One: Critical Thinking And Imagination

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. My former principal, Dave Lehman, wrote a series of articles which get to the heart of the matter of critical thinking and how to teach it. He quoted Daniel Willingham, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, as saying: “From the cognitive scientist’s point of view, the mental activities that are typically called critical thinking are actually a subset of three types of thinking: reasoning, making judgments and decisions, and problem solving.” Dave argues that this statement is a good beginning but incomplete. I agree. Other elements need to be included, like imagination, emotional regulation, and self-reflection.

In the 1960s, Roger Sperry and others carried out experiments on the human brain. They cut the corpus callosum, which is a large bundle of neurons connecting the right and left halves or hemispheres of the upper portion of the brain. His experiments disclosed differences in how the two hemispheres functioned. These differences seemed at first to be consistent with earlier theories about rational thinking and creativity. The left was thought of as the critical thinker, the languaged brain, analytical and sequential. The right was thought of as artistic, holistic, creative.

More recent brain research has shown this early conclusion to be inaccurate.  Both hemispheres have been found to be involved, in some way, in all human activities. The differences between the functioning of the two hemispheres have been found to be more subtle. The different areas of the brain work in a more interrelated fashion. You can’t understand how the brain works by only studying it as distinct parts. Likewise, you can’t understand how a person thinks critically without studying emotion, creativity, self-reflection and imagination.

‘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 the truth.

How does critical thinking utilize imagination? For example, how would you proceed to answer this question, which frequently comes up in my 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 empathetically place themselves in the world of ancient humans. They could start by visualizing, for example, a world without any buildings. They need to immerse themselves in more information. One form of art created 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 different groups various aspects of how the cave painters lived: their food, religion, other species populating the world back then, tools, possible origins 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 students line up. And one by one they entered the stairwell. It felt like 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 cave 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 history classes. 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.

My next blog will be about an enjoyable way to strengthen and teach with the student’s natural ability to imagine. Other elements of critical thinking and mindfulness will come up in future blogs.

 

Sources:

Lehman, David. “Thinking About Teaching Thinking Part 1, What’s The Urgency?” Connections. : 10- 14. NSRFHarmony.org/connections/2013.May.Connections.pdf

Lehman, David. “Thinking About Teaching Thinking Part 2, How Can We Do It?” Connections. : 7-15. NSRFHarmony.org/connections/2013.July.Connections.pdf

McGilchrist, Iain, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, New Haven, Connecticut, : Yale University Press, 2009.

The photo is of my student’s cave art.

WIll Common Core Standards Lead to a Standardized National Curriculum?

ira-home-studyIn November, on NPR, there was a program on how an educational corporation was trying to provide low cost education for areas in Kenya where there was little money to pay for it. The educational approach worked by having all the teachers in each grade read the same lesson, from an E-Reader, as every other teacher. At one point in the radio program an American educator said, “If somebody suggested that kind of an educational model in this country, they would be laughed out of the educational community.” I gulped. I wondered if this is a lower cost model of exactly what is being pushed by educational corporations in the U. S..

In my local and other Gannett Company newspapers there was an article stating a goal heard in several school districts: “One Common Core goal is standardizing the sequence of the curriculum so students will be able to switch schools, districts, even states and not be out of sync in a new classroom.” Anthony Cody, in his blog on the Common Core quotes Bill Gates, “When the tests are aligned to the common standards, the curriculum will line up as well.”

Some officials and educators disagree and say the standards just set the goal, not how to reach it. The goal of having schools use the same materials at the same time is not an agenda necessitated by the Common Core. Yet, if there are grade level expectations for each child and these expectations are specific and comprehensive enough to be tested, don’t we wind up with a standardized curriculum? If teachers have to coordinate their instruction so students from one classroom could easily jump into another, isn’t this a push for a national curriculum? In order for the standards not to prescribe a curriculum, they would have to be greatly simplified. This hasn’t happened as yet.

Even if the standards do not necessitate the implementation of a prescribed curriculum, there might be other pressures for this to occur. Two different teachers I know from New York State, one from an elementary and the other from a middle school, said their administrators gave them teaching modules to use. These modules included standardized lesson plans produced by an educational corporation with a script to read to each class. I quickly scanned a module for Middle School English. It was complex and offered some diversity in teaching methodology. It certainly did not fit my style of teaching. If teachers are pressured into using mass produced and prescribed modules, isn’t this an example of standards being used to create mechanization of instruction? Where is the support for teacher creativity? Besides helping kids, the creativity is one of the most satisfying aspects of teaching.

I think the emphasis in the standards on critical thinking is a positive step. To develop critical thinking, however, takes time, energy, and creativity. Teachers need to be able to adapt instruction to individual needs and pacing. If the Common Core is used to push an agenda of schools marching in lockstep, it will undermine such instruction and teacher satisfaction. Since when do all teachers teach or students learn at the same pace or need the same approach?

kid

Testing Teaches, But What Does It Teach?

I recently talked with a teacher who said she felt stressed and boxed in at school. The problem was a familiar one: testing recently enacted with the Common Core.  Standardized testing contributes to a climate of anxiety and fear. This is not just a response to something new, but is inherent in the psychology of such tests. Any test can be stressful, but when students know that their grades, the school standing, and teacher evaluations are based on them, the level of anxiety is raised considerably.

Continue reading…

Concentrate on the Quality of Mind

When you do something, if you fix your mind on the activity with some confidence, the quality of your state of mind is the activity itself. When you are concentrated on the quality of your being, you are prepared for the activity. Shunryu Suzuki

We need to teach ourselves and our students that if our quality of mind is good, what we do will be good. We feel more at ease with learning, more focused than confused, more peaceful than agitated, more energetic than lethargic, more open than resistant. The ultimate result I think most teachers look for is not the essay or test score or work of art our students produce: it is the emergence of a young adult. But, can we teach in this mindful manner and keep our teaching jobs? Yes. Students will be able to concentrate, score better on tests and learn more when they find the work meaningful, enjoyable, and connected to their lives. To enjoy learning students need to feel heard and be seen as people, not as test scores.

Continue reading…

The Corporations Create the Crisis and then Sell the Solution

Reign_of_ErrorI have been reading Diane Ravitch’s book Reign of Error. It is an extremely illuminating book. The title evocatively sums up her analysis of the implementation of a new wave of educational change including the privatization of schools, the Common Core Standards, the standardized tests based on those standards and the accountability process based on those tests. Instead of serving the educational needs of students, Ravitch claims these changes as a whole undermine those needs. One clear example is the proposed spread of standardized tests to children in kindergarten through second grade — grades where such tests are developmentally inappropriate.
Continue reading…