Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Empirical
Most of our ways of doing things–our priorities, processes, and systems–are increasingly dysfunctional. We face huge problems environmentally and economically, and we don’t seem to be able to collaborate to solve them, or even agree that they exist. We urgently need to break our habits, to disrupt our patterns. We need a new paradigm.
I’ve spent nearly 50 years working as a teacher with all age groups in countries all over the world. For most of my life I have, like all teachers, been working to create the future. I now believe that if we are to have any future at all then two things must happen: There is a worldwide, spiritual revival. We revolutionize our schools.
A worldwide spiritual revival is God’s business. A revolution in our schools is way beyond my aegis, but I do want to talk about it. I don’t have major answers to propose; I intend rather to raise some issues, consider some possibilities, and include ideas I’ve come across in my reading.
Currently I work as a poetry-teacher member of California Poets In The Schools. Most of the schools I teach or have taught in are organized and run in ways that no longer work. The factory-style school is obsolete. As Diamantis and Kotler suggest in Abundance: “The industrialized model of education, with its emphasis on the on the rote memorization of facts, is no longer necessary. Facts are what Google does best.”
Children learn best when they have at least some freedom to decide what they are doing, when they’re interested in what they are doing, and when they feel safe and valued. Most schools, however, give students little or no freedom to choose what they do, and most students most of the time aren’t interested in what they’re doing in the classroom. (According to the research, boredom is the primary factor behind the rising drop-out rate among American high school students). Most teachers like their students (if they don’t they shouldn’t be teaching!) but at the middle and high school levels particularly, because of the increasing size of their classes, they are unable to give individual students the time and attention they need. Also, most teachers I talk to are less motivated than they used to be. Their freedom to choose what they teach according to the abilities and interests of their students has been drastically curtailed, and their effectiveness as teachers is measured largely by test results, a totally inadequate criterion. Additionally, children are spending more time in the media-rich, addictive world of cell phones and video games and TV than in the much less stimulating environment of the classroom with its tests, grades, and homework assignments.
So our schools aren’t working. I believe that even if they were working within the parameters imposed upon them by schemes like No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top, they’d be failing, because the parameters themselves are no longer relevant. Our systems of education are based on what Sir Ken Robinson, in Out of Our Minds, calls: “… one dominant way of thinking–the verbal, mathematical, deductive and propositional…. intelligence as a linear process of rational thought.”
When I stand in front of a room full of teenagers for the first time I ask them what they think the purpose of writing poetry might be. “You have the right to know why you’re expected to work at something in a classroom,” I tell them. Often someone says that poetry is a way of expressing feelings. I agree, and ask them if their feelings are important–“Yes!”–and if their feelings are often acknowledged in classrooms–“No!”–Then I ask if anyone knows the differences between the left and right brains. Usually someone does, and we put together a description of the two hemispheres and what they do. “Which hemisphere do you think is dominant in school?”–“Left!”–“What happens to any part of your body you don’t use?”–“It doesn’t develop.”–“So now you have two reasons why writing poetry can be of value.”
I talk about answers to left and right brain questions. “A left brain question usually has only one right answer. How do you spell because? Who is the president of the United States? Right brain questions don’t have single correct answers. Here’s a right brain question: What happens on page 27?”
I ask the question, and wait. And wait. Silence. Students gaze at me blankly. “There’s no right answer. You create the answer. You decide for yourself what happens on page 27. It’s no good looking at me and telling me you don’t know. Of course you don’t know . . . ”
Finally someone says something like: “Joe dies.” Laughter ripples around the room, but I take this answer seriously and explore it. “Joe dies” is the opening of a door. Our purpose is to step through the door and find out what’s on the other side. “How old is Joe? Where is he when he dies? Why does he die?” Almost invariably the moment arrives when the student takes charge of the story. Joe becomes real. The tale becomes real in its unfolding, and everyone in the room is absorbed.
The spirit of creativity is indestructible.
But, like curiosity, it’s buried more and more deeply the more time children and young people spend in school. Tony Wagner, in Creating Innovators, writes: “Anyone who has spent time in an elementary school classroom knows that every student starts school with unbounded imagination, great curiosity, and creativity–until he or she learns that knowing the right answer is far more important than asking a thoughtful question.” It’s alive, yes, but its potential is far from being realized. Creating a character, for example, working out how the needs and circumstances of that character generate tension and therefore a story…thinking deeply and writing a poem about a tree or a hand, discovering metaphor or symbol… these are unfamiliar acts for most students, and I find that my students’ early efforts are mostly thin. I remember teaching in an elementary school in North London in the mid-sixties. It was the era of the Open Classroom. I had a big room up at the top of the school; there was an art center, a music center, a science center and a writing center all in the classroom. There was no boundary between play and work.
The level of the children’s creativity was extraordinary, because they did creative stuff every day. They exercised and developed their creative muscles. They got good at it because they worked at it. Such work, I’m convinced, should be an integral part of the school life of all children and young people.
Why? Daniel Pink gives us part of the answer in his book, A Whole New Mind. Work that involves left brain linear thinking, he says, is increasingly being taken over by automation or by relatively low paid, technically adept workers in developing countries like China and India. What the economies of developed countries like America, Japan, and most of Europe need are people who can innovate, who can think outside the box. The success of the big Silicon Valley companies attests to the truth of this. We need young people who ask good questions, who are willing to risk failure, who collaborate rather than compete, who have higher aims than acquisition. Pink adds that “creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and problem solving” are the skills that “have been repeatedly stressed by everyone from corporate executives to education experts as the fundamentals required by today’s jobs.
They have become the new version of the Three Rs–the basics of what’s been recently dubbed “21st-century learning.” I often tell students the story of Rene Descartes–one of the pioneers of modern left-brain thinking–waking up from a dream in which he saw (or experienced) himself bent over to the left, as though his left brain with its self-referential–“I think, therefore I am”–was so monstrously developed it pulled him physically off-kilter.
Creative work should be an integral part of our education system, because without it children and young people develop lop-sidedly. I’m always grateful to be invited into classrooms and to be given time to do what I do, but I also feel uneasy, because administrators and teachers are thereby allowed to believe that they’ve ‘done’ creativity. Creativity isn’t a subject, it’s an approach, a way of thinking. It seeks connections, relationships, wholes. “We need a new Renaissance that moves beyond . . . old categories,” says Ken Robinson in Out of Our Minds, “and develops the relationships between different processes rather than emphasizing their differences.”
So, for the sake of their balanced development, AND for the sake of the healthy growth of our economies, we need to give children ample opportunity to exercise their creativity. Just one of these would be reason enough to revolutionize our educational system. But there’s a bigger reason…If the new paradigm is to emerge, I believe it must be shaped by young people. The world has changed too much for middle-aged and older folk like me to see clearly what needs to be done… or, if we do see it, we’re not visionary enough, not idealistic enough, not fierce enough to bring about real change. We’re too deeply ensconced in the box to be able to think outside it. We can see, many of us, what’s not working; we see what needs to be changed, but I really don’t think we can do it. We can pass along some practical, worldly advice. We can, at best, help young people avoid making some of the mistakes they need to make to learn from… but I believe that the most valuable thing we can do at this point is get out of the way.
If it’s true that young people will need the qualities we’ve considered above–creativity, curiosity, collaboration, etc.–to play an important role in shaping the new paradigm, what else will they need? In his book Future Shock, written in 1970, Alvin Toffler looked at how our educational system would have to be modified to meet the challenges and needs of the future. Young people, says Toffler, must learn to trust their inner “steering,” or power of guidance, which will make possible the right choices out of a wide range of new concepts and values. With this firm footing, in a world full of constant change and unforeseen situations, they are able to put information back in order, or in new order; verify information; move from the concrete to the abstract and back again; consider problems from many different sides.
I’ve known many students who had this quality of “inner steering.” They like and respect themselves. They know who they are and where they’re going, partly because they know their talent or their talents. I consider this characteristic of inner guidance to be crucial.
Can schools help young people discover or develop this inner guidance? Is this a matter of respecting what A.S. Neill, founder of the famous Summerhill School in England, calls “the god in each child”? I remember talking to a young Scottish teacher who visited a school in Ecuador years ago because she was impressed by what she’d read about it and wanted to witness it for herself. She said, “Being with children who were so strongly themselves brought me closer to being who I really am.”
I think the inner evolution of children is beyond the scope of what a school can properly influence. This domain is too subtle and, in a sense, too vulnerable for ‘outsiders’ to enter. What’s important is that we be aware of and respect the inner space of the child. As children grow in strength and purpose, as they become familiar with their environment and trusting of the adults around them, then they will be free to follow their will, their impulses. This, I believe, is how they develop the inner guidance Toffler spoke of. “For the activity that makes its way from inside to outside, we as educators must provide a corresponding outer room and learn not to stand in the way in it.”
Rebecca Wild, who, with her husband Mauricio, founded and ran the aforementioned school in Ecuador, wrote a brilliant book, Raising Curious Confident Creative Children. I quote this passage from her book because it crystallizes much of what I’ve been exploring: When children are truly occupied, involved in an activity, each shows his or her individual character; in the manner of movement, in way of talking, laughing, expressing pain, or making contact with others. If we try to suppress the strong sides of a child, to convert it to our adult perspectives as quickly as possible, to get it to become an analytic and reflective thinker, the child comes to lose its natural curiosity. The child’s senses become dull, apathetic, “insensible”; its inborn practical intelligence goes undercover, only to reappear later in undesirable ways.
To sum up: we need to bring about a drastic change in our public education system. We need to nurture creativity and curiosity, the ability to think critically, ask searching questions. We need young people who have developed the ability to think both logically AND creatively, and who have an inner strength, a capacity for self-guidance. We need to awaken (or rather not put to sleep!) what Rebecca Wild calls “the active search for comprehension.” I think this is doable. Reforming the public school system will probably take too long, but establishing schools (or, as I’d rather call them ‘learning centers’) within the Charter School movement is quite possible. They’d be schools based on what I once heard described as the “theory of diminishing crutches”–to the extent that students show that they are able to direct themselves and take responsibility for their own learning, to that extent the supervision and control (but not the authority) of the teacher is withdrawn. We need to be around. They need us there, for support and encouragement. But we need to get out of the way.
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