Tuesday, August 5, 2008

My Working Philosophy of Education (as of July 2008)

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Mahatma Gandhi

I am interested in the expansion and realization of human potential—for myself and for others. I am a person who has done a lot of work on myself. I have led and continue to lead an examined life. I am serious about working to create balance, depth and health in my life. Still, I have suffered and continue to suffer from the limited beliefs about myself that came to me through the usual conduits: family, school, and society. It is very difficult to break free of these bonds on the mind. I struggle with these daily. My main purpose as a teacher is to expose my students to their potential beyond these bonds.

I find the story of the elephant and the rope illustrative. The baby elephant’s leg is tied to a tree with a thin rope to keep him from wandering off. He grows up and his owner still uses a rope; it is one that he could easily break. But he never does because he thinks he can’t, even when the jungle is burning around him. To me this epitomizes humanity. We are stuck in what passes for normal, mired in habits, rarely able to break free from our figurative ropes. Not only does this cause individual pain, I believe it has led us to the glaring global problems we are facing. Microcosmically and macrocosmically, we need a shift.

Though I am grateful to be a woman born in the second half of the 20th century in a relatively tolerant country, I believe the Canada we live in is still quite a backward society. When my first daughter was two I had this realization that societally we are at the emotional maturity level of a two-year-old. Give me. Mine. Shiny. Pretty. Sweet. Bigger. More. And do we ever need somebody to clean our diaper (think tar sands, for instance). For the sake of my children, and all children, I want the human race to grow up. I would like to see the often frightening speed of change that we are witnessing in the world become a whole paradigm shift—from competition to compassion, from separation to connectedness, from ego-based living to soul-based living.

Because of my life experiences I have acquired a wisdom that I would like to share with others. On the other hand (the less evolved hand), I get very impatient. What seems obvious to me is not obvious to others. This, for instance, is obvious to me: we live in a world that is radically out of balance. I choose to use the terminology of energy; I believe we live in a world that, although there has been progress, is the continuation of millennia of masculine energy systems. By masculine energy I mean the hard energy of build! fight! achieve! win! as opposed to such feminine energy qualities as softness, openness, acceptance, nurturing. Push vs. flow. Intellect vs. intuition. (In my rational moments, I do not find it useful to blame men or even use the term “patriarchy.” Humans embody both of these energies.) That overbalance to the masculine has brought us to where we are today.
By where we are today I mean the deep trouble we are in: global poverty, engrained and systematized misogyny, disintegration of families, addiction, sexualization of children, war and insanely advanced weaponry, violence, greed, pollution, global warming, etc. There are, of course, also examples from where we are today that indicate progress. In my world, one manifestation that I find very heartening is that of the involved and loving father, a rare animal when I was a kid. We just have such a long way to go. It’s a big job, a job that feels seriously urgent to me, and I consider it my personal mission to be part of the solution.

In my teaching life, for instance, I consider it my responsibility to address these problems, although I often find it wiser to do so indirectly. While the subject of global ills does come up in my classes (I am a contract instructor at Lethbridge College and occasionally at the U of L, mostly teaching public speaking and writing), I don’t find it constructive to make my concerns the main focus; to persuade I have to understand my audience. In other words, I have come to the conclusion that passing on my knowledge is not necessarily useful. Knowledge does not necessarily change behaviour and I do see my role as an agent for that kind of change. What is more useful is finding ways—what might be called curriculum—of getting people to expand their minds. When people have more clarity and openness in their thinking, whether you would term it critical thinking, creative thinking or caring thinking, this is when changes can occur. Critical thinking: why do I think this? Can this idea be supported? Creative thinking: why don’t I try this and see how this might work? Or caring thinking: how might this affect others? Even just for a moment, they get beyond their small world and look at a bigger picture. When small worlds shift, so does the big world.

Clarity and openness are difficult to attain and maintain—there are many conflicting and loaded messages out there. Even with clarity, learning is not simple. Learning is an ongoing, lifelong process. Learning is about constant reevaluation. A simple example is that of the 46-year-old mother of two young kids (okay, me) who knows she should exercise and eat vegetables (I mean, who doesn’t know this?). She even believes she would probably feel better if she made better dietary choices and walked around the block once in a while. But her current habits work for now for various reasons. Her learning is ongoing as is her life. Her kids will grow and she may figure out a way to fit in more time for self-care, she may feel so crappy after eating too many spudnuts that she goes on a salad binge, who knows where this learning process will go? Learning is a lot about muddling along and finding what works. With my students it’s about giving them experiences that change how they look at themselves and the world; they find new ways to make things work, literally and figuratively.
I had no conscious intention of becoming a teacher; I was a freelance journalist and an artist living on the edge. Very strong inner urgings, however, drew me to deepen my yoga practice and in the mid to late 1990s I went to do that at Kripalu Center, in Lenox, Massachusetts, which is (or was at the time) the largest holistic health and yoga studies institution in the US. Through what I consider to be karma (which is a kind of knowing that comes from a deeper source than the conscious mind), but what other people might call coincidence, I began leading yoga classes and experiential workshops there like it was what I was born to do.

I led yoga sessions; I led groups in creative activities like writing, drawing and painting; I led partner massage and conscious communication workshops. I am able to let go of needing something specific to happen; I can hold the space, set an intention and let whatever happens happen. “Holding the space” is about trusting the integrity of the moment and the group; it’s also about paying attention and guiding, not getting off track and keeping firm boundaries. For these types of activities, I don’t require a “right way” to do things. But it is sad to see how brainwashed we are to think there has to be one. Much of what I do is about helping people let go of their fear of making mistakes. In the beginning of my art workshops, for instance, I’d get participants to chant, “I’m allowed to fuck up! I’m allowed to fuck up!” In partner massage workshops, I used to tell the participants, “If you have a kind intention, you are giving a gift.” When I lead yoga classes, I encourage people to focus on what their own bodies need rather than feeling they have to follow everything that I do. Giving people permission to not be perfect and to do what feels right to them is extremely empowering. Indeed, these preconditions are essential to allowing creativity. Sadly, they are missing from any mainstream educational institution that I’ve been part of.

Still, I have come to teaching in more traditional environments with my imported attitude that I am there to hold the space and facilitate. I have also come to the traditional post-secondary environment with a kind of depressed shock and awe to see that so many of my students are like zombies. I find it particularly depressing because I was just like them when I did my undergrad and I graduated 25 years ago. So little progress!

I was 17 when I arrived at university; I had a scholarship; I had been the top student all through school. Getting kudos for my high marks was enough reason for me to do what I’d been doing. But at university a) there were lots of other smart people and b) spewing back information and knowing facts didn't quite cut it and c) I had no idea what I wanted "to do" once I realized that the routes for "success" fed me nothing. Suddenly, I had NO IDEA why I was there.

Many of my students also have no idea why they are on their way to a post-secondary degree or diploma. All they think they know is that they have to get a degree to be competitive in the job market, which is in many ways a lie. Some of them are lucky enough to have some clue about what they want to do and they head into more technical training. But so many of them are drowning—in family trouble, in addiction, in debt, in roommate crap, in job/school juggle, and/or just trapped by media/parental/peer messages about who they "should" be. I see NOTHING telling them about what awaits them when they leave school. In fact, I see the opposite. Getting a career for real? Ha. Good luck.

THIS is what the education system needs to address! My eldest daughter is going into grade two. She is in an ostensibly more enlightened program, the Montessori program, which is based on allowing children to follow their own curiosity and creativity. Yet much of her curriculum is about learning facts (know! be right!). From a young age we stifle the natural creativity of children by getting them to rehash, emphasizing correctness and measuring them (which always ends up pitting them against each other—win!). What is missing from so many of my college kids is any sense of knowing or trying to know answers to questions like: “How is this meaningful to me?” or even “What is meaningful to me?” or especially “Why is this meaningful to me?” This has been sucked out of them by our present education system and by the ease with which they are influenced by messages about what is “normal” or “valuable.”

First and foremost, we need to address what are sometimes called higher order needs: humans need love and joy; they need to value themselves; they need meaning and beauty in their lives. When people feel good about themselves, they are able to thrive and even ride out many tribulations (e.g. recently, in a Globe and Mail special report on mental health, a man said something like: “I’d rather be paralyzed or lose a limb than be depressed.”) Our lower order needs (food, shelter, etc.) are being met to the extent of global disaster because the higher order needs are hardly acknowledged. When these higher order needs are not addressed, learning also becomes difficult. Like my drowning students struggling to make sense of things, how can they take anything in when their worlds are upside down?

Ironically, there exists a set of humans who have an innate ability to access these higher order feelings. They are called children and we are busy screwing them over as I write. Why is it that we bring children to maturity without their childlike beauty and joy intact? We tell ourselves this is life. Our adult worldview does not let us see that joy and an open heart are part of our human birthright. Do I feel ripped off? Big time. I’d very much like to see the cycle stopped.

Pretty much every non-child walking the earth today operates out of a sense of self-worth that is attached to their ego (I am not exempt, of course). Healthy self-worth is childlike, i.e. not about what a great person you are but about feeling comfortable in your own skin. The actions that have brought us to the problems of today’s world were not created by people who feel comfortable in their skins but by people who need to make up for that lack of comfort, i.e. all of us.

I actually have a prescription. I cannot claim to know exactly how it will work but I do believe that if enough of us practice it that norms will change. I have actually created an interdisciplinary lifelong art project (The Human Body Project) that is my own take on how this prescription might look. Here it is: we need to viscerally feel and accept our own vulnerability as flawed, physical, mortal beings. I believe that the more that we allow ourselves to understand and accept this in the felt sense, the more we will treat ourselves, each other, and the earth with care. I believe that this understanding will also lead us closer to the return of such childhood abilities as openness and joy.

Real learning requires vulnerability; no one can learn without making mistakes. Everyone has to begin where they are in the moment. One of the reasons that I know I’m meant to be a teacher is that I am a better person in the classroom. I am very tolerant and patient in a way that I am not outside of the classroom. I also understand the struggle of wrestling with my own preconceptions and habits. I know in a very deep, personal, and often painful way how difficult it is to go beyond my comfort zone.

Every time I walk into a classroom, I am operating from the point of view that these people, like me, deserve to feel their humanity. In other words, my first job is to love my students. My second job is to be a model for them. I allow myself to be vulnerable; I am one of them, not some infallible authority. My own vulnerability allows them to feel safe to explore their own. My third job is to provide experiences in a safe environment where they are able to take chances, make mistakes, and open up to a bigger way of thinking. A way of thinking that is critical, creative and caring. A way of thinking beyond limiting and deceiving norms or preconceptions. People learn from example and experience, not from being told—just look at the world.

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