Questions for The Good of The Whole

Our current educational system places emphasis on testing and data. Many states have adopted the Common Core and are moving toward a standards based education. Everyone, it seems, is calling for an improvement of our educational system. Much of the motivation for change in the educational system seems to come from our country’s desire to remain competitive in the global market. We are concerned about being productive economically. I recall sitting in teachers’ conferences and hearing presenters say that the research does not show that class size affects the quality of learning. Class size alone may not improve student learning, but the question raised in my mind is what is learning? What is the mind, and what is the mind we are hoping our education system is creating?

Currently, an abundance of research is coming out about the brain, and through this we are gaining a better understanding of the mind and how the brain functions. A few years back I read John Medina’s Brain Rules, a book giving new insights into the brain with direct implications for teachers and for the educational system. For example, we know that the brain doesn’t function as well when we are multitasking, and that emotional arousal helps the brain learn. We know that stress affects learning. Also, if more of the senses are involved, the brain will improve our ability to learn something. The brain also mixes new knowledge with what we experienced in the past. These, and other insights about the brain will help us better understand how we learn and can help teachers and schools construct activities and learning environments that utilize this information as teachers create and deliver curriculum.

A question that is niggling at my mind in the midst of the current educational emphasis on collecting data and our country’s shift to measuring students learning against a standard, however, is what about the other part of our minds–the part that makes us revel in the wonder of life, that makes us feel alive and whole? Who is looking at this as a way to help us improve learning? What are we doing in our educational systems that recognizes,  gives attention to, and creates a way of teaching and learning that acknowledges the connection of  our relationship of our inner life and way of thinking to learning?

Vygotsky taught us that learning is social. Our relationships to and with others matters to learning. It seems that the better a teacher can get at listening to and understanding his or her student as they interact, the higher the potential for learning in that classroom. That quality of attention would be very difficult to attain in a large classroom where testing drives the curriculum. When Dickens wrote Hard Times, he opened the novel with the voice of a teacher, Gradgrind, telling the reader what mattered most in his schoolroom and in life,

“NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”

Gradgrind continues on, explaining that “In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!” He sees his students as “little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.”

How far beyond this form of education have we actually moved as a nation? Do we reduce our definition of success in life or an educational system to that of how well we do on a test, how well we can arrange facts? Does improvement in education best come through emphasis on constant measurement and test scores? And even if it does, to what end is this improvement? Sometimes the quickest way to an end goal isn’t the most direct route. Maybe we need to be asking questions about the contexts in which qualitative learning occurs and what it is that actually enhances learning. If a child is hungry or his or her family is experiencing some kind of emotional or economic stress, for example, won’t that affect learning? Even a small amount of stress affects the executive functioning of the brain researcher Adele Diamond tell us. Students do not all come to school with the same backgrounds that allows the learning field to be equal for all. Howard Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences showed us that we have different types of intelligence, yet we demand the same end results for all.

Even if students do well on their tests, what is success on a test if they have not found their own connection of that learning to their personal awareness of what it means to be fully alive, fully human? What if we achieve the high test scores but have lost the love of life, lost our ability to notice beauty or to find wonder in the world around us? Perhaps we are so focused on the end result so much that we don’t know how to fully live. Maybe we are so focused on achievement, on raising the bar and attaining high test scores that we have lost sight of the context needed for deep, meaningful learning to occur. How do we actually create contexts where we can both discipline our minds and connect physically and emotionally to the subject so learning is optimal? Deep learning requires acknowledgement of the importance of the relational context of learning– the quality of our social interaction with our teachers and with each other in that learning process, as well as an awareness of own inner thought life and emotions within the context of the learning environment.

I want to be an educator that keeps the spirit of wonder and love of beauty alive in my students. This means I myself need to find the ways to continue to return to the part of myself that is alive and full of wonder. This requires time not spent trying to achieve a goal. It requires Sabbath time. Time of rest and renewal, of play and wandering in the creative realm so I can become whole again. This is why the arts and physical activity are essential to education, not mere fluff and frill.

How could our educational experiences better acknowledge and enhance the social aspect of learning and how might educational institutions and educators help us to activate the mind as a whole? How might our educational system nurture the inner life and qualities of gratitude and compassion so that the well-being of the world improves? These are questions a variety of people and organizations are currently exploring such as Tobin Hart and his organization, Child Spirit Institute, and the Garrison Institute , which I only learned about today. On the Garrison Institute site are many links to other sites for those interested in how contemplative practice helps improve learning. You might want to check out some of these links here.

All of life is holy, every day acts can be full of wonder as Carrie Newcomer sings about in her song “Holy as the Day is Spent.” This is also what long relationships like a marriage, or contemplative practices that we return to on a regular basis can teach us. To come back to the awareness that most of us had as a child when we wandered out into the grassy hillside behind us or stood between the sheets on the line inhaling the clean white of sunlight, or when we played in the mud for hours without an awareness of time, this is a knowledge deeply important to our own well-being and that of our nation’s and the world. How can we better connect and enhance this innate wonderment of life to our teaching practice? That is a question I am living.