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Archive for December, 2015

Certain faith-traditions believe in an ‘after-life’ life. Atheists, not. Humanists, perhaps not. Unitarians, maybe so. Reincarnates, no need. I am sure there are others that I am not aware of and even those I have listed embrace many ‘gray areas’ (whatever that means). It does seem to me that each is asking: What is the real point of life? Given the increased local and global violence resulting in more and more deaths, I have been spending some time reflecting upon this question.

I was raised in a Christian family, my father was a staunch Presbyterian and my mother was a staunch Polish Catholic; I morphed into a Christian Ecumenical. A major message I heard, from many Christian authority figures, was that the ‘real point of life is to go to heaven.’ Is it? Is this the ‘real point of life’? I am not so sure. First, it seems to me that each of us is challenged to blossom where we are, here, on earth. Consider Psalm 115:16 – The heavens are the Creator’s, the earth has been given to the children of the earth. ‘The Children of the Earth’ – That’s us folks.

The great theologian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was concerned that the traditional ‘heaven-bent presentation of Christianity actually forced us to choose ‘between’ the things of God and ‘urgent’ earthly concerns, rather than choosing ‘with’ God to love what we humans have been entrusted to care for: Earth. In 1972 Chardin wrote in his stimulating and intellectually stimulating and challenging book, ‘Human Energy,’ the following: [T]he powers that we have released could not possibly be absorbed by…the narrow system of individual or national units… The age of nations has passed. Now unless we wish to perish we must shake off our old prejudices and build the earth. Today, almost 44 years later, his words still resonate with power and they challenge us as never before.

For Chardin, to ‘build the earth’ was God’s mandate for us humans. For Chardin, any heaven-fixation that separates spirit and matter and makes us think Earth is not central to our destiny as creatures of God is an immoral fixation. Talk about upping the ante. Another voice, Isaiah, reminds us that our earth-life is full of God’s radiant presence (if you are awake and aware and seek to be disturbed a bit I invite you to spend some time reading, reflecting upon and studying ‘Isaiah’).

Gentle reader, you, I and we are made out of the stuff of this earth (think ‘ashes to ashes and dust to dust’). The ‘earth’ – that is all that exists on this planet – captured God’s heart. Genesis reminds us that God found all on the earth to be ‘delectable’ and that God ‘grieves in his heart’ at everything we do to harm the earth. As the great Rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, reminds us ‘some are accountable; all are responsible.’

We are made of the earth and we are made for the earth (to hold it in trust, not to consume it). Again, Genesis reminds us that we are put here to ‘serve and keep it.’ We are made, Genesis reminds us, to serve the ‘earth’ as the representatives of God’s purposes for the earth. Consider that the task our first parents arrogantly rejected was to realize God’s presence and reign here and now ‘on earth’ rather than to reign ‘like gods’ in heaven.

The Real Point of Life is to embrace being the care-takers of the earth that God has entrusted us with. We – especially the People of the Book – will be held responsible by God for earth’s care. It is a bit ironic, I think, that many atheists and humanists are more faithful care-takers than the Christians who continue to refuse to be the care-takers that God wants us to be.

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Given certain ‘realities’ – rapid changing and developing technologies, globalization, emerging industries and careers, increased complexity, and multiple systemic challenges – we now know (if not fully understand) that our traditional educational focus on ‘knowledge and skill’ does not prepare students well enough for both the known and the emerging unknown (it is possible to help students prepare for the unknown – think Scenario Planning, for example).

As I continue to seek to understand what might be educationally beneficial for today’s students I have learned that there are four major areas that educators need to focus on (NOTE: I do not know how long these four will be primary given the continuous rapids – or is it tsunamis – of change that are washing over us). These are not the only areas; they are today, it seems to me, to be four of the essentials, however. I list them in no particular order.

• Focusing the curriculum around the ‘big ideas’ that need our understanding. For example, in 1968 I designed a high school-within-a-high school around the following ‘big idea’: What is the measure of mankind? The curriculum was rooted in ‘experience, inquiry and reflection.’
• Within the curriculum, one major commitment is to discern and name a few, focused number of specific goals for understanding (this helps the educator and the students move beyond the goal of merely ‘knowing’).
• Emerging a curriculum that engages the educator and the student in ‘experiential learning’ via gradually designing ever more and more complex tasks/challenges that require both the educator and the student and student with other students to use their skills – and developing skills – to develop more broadly and deeply their capacities, knowledge and understanding by their engagement with traditional and novel content and contexts. This requires that the educator and the students develop their capacity for reflection: Experience plus Reflection is the learning.
• A major tap root that feeds, nurtures and sustains the educator and the student, as they seek to understand, involves both ongoing informal and periodic formal feedback. The feedback includes an assessment process that informs and supports the educator and the students as they strive to learn, understand and ‘improve.’

We know this is no easy charge. At minimum it requires that the educator and the student think differently about education and it requires that both embrace, and over time, develop a familiarity and comfort with a new or expanded role. (Note: Which is why I have used ‘educator’ rather than ‘teacher’ – an ‘educator calls forth’ and a ‘teacher disseminates knowledge/information.’ At times the ‘educator’ will ‘teach’ but the goal here is to shift the primary focus from ‘teaching’ to ‘educating’.) Teachers and Students know the game of acquiring knowledge and skills and in this new context both will – with varying levels of intensity – seek to return to the ‘old game’ (there will be some – if not a great deal of – resistance to change).

At times both the educator and the student will experience frustration. Frustration emerges when one of two things happens: (1) When one does not get what one wants or (2) When one gets something one does not want. This new experience will provide both experiences to the educator and to the students; the level of frustration for each will vary. How they, alone and together, manage their frustration becomes crucial to the initiatives’ success. By the by, ‘frustration’ morphs into ‘anger’ when one shifts from ‘wanting’ to ‘demanding’ and ‘anger’ morphs to ‘rage’ when one shifts from ‘demanding’ to ‘must’ as in ‘This MUST HAPPEN!’ Given this, it is imperative that both the educator and the student develop, or develop more fully, their capacity to embrace and cope with frustration.

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As a depth-educator, I am more drawn to ‘educating for understanding’ than I am in ‘teaching for knowledge.’ The words ‘understanding’ and ‘knowledge’ are a bit ambiguous and hence at times confusing especially among folks who think they mean the same thing. Consider the word ‘knowledge.’ It can refer to the accumulation of facts or the development and integration of skills: Do you know how to change the oil in a car? ‘Knowledge’ can also be used in a broader sense: As a mechanic, she really knows her way around a car.

‘Understanding’ is also used in different ways. A teacher, for example, often ‘checks for understanding’: Do you understand the theory I just outlined for you? ‘Understanding’ can also be expressed in a broader, deeper and more complex sense as one strives to move beyond ‘knowledge’/information – this requires reflection. One will take the time to reflect in order to search more broadly and deeply. As many of us know today the ‘enemy’ of reflection is, for some, fuzzy thinking, and for others it is ‘speed’ (as Kundera notes, we are addicted to speed and suffer from ‘hurry sickness’).

All of the various meanings for ‘understanding’ and ‘knowledge’ are ‘correct.’ Because of this alone ambiguity exists. Because of the ambiguity it seems to me that it might be helpful to understand ‘understanding’ in order to see how it is different from knowledge. For the differences actually impact what happens in a classroom (both the formal school classroom and the informal ‘classroom of life’).

Understanding is rooted in knowledge and goes beyond knowledge. When I seek ‘to understand’ I move beyond what I know and look for connections, different perspectives, and more complex implications. As noted earlier, this requires that I take the time for reflection. My reflection is rooted in inquiry so I also need to develop my capacity for framing certain questions. For me, these are the questions that come from a place of not knowing and questions that I believe are ‘essential’ to my seeking in order to understand.

For me, ‘knowledge’ and skills can be held in isolation. When I hold them in isolation I am not able to use them flexibly, adaptively, or creatively. Gentle reader, you might remember that my son is an artist and my daughter is an event planner. What contributes to their being ‘gifted’ is not their knowledge but their understanding – their ability to use their knowledge and skills in flexible, adaptive, and creative ways. They not only understand their craft, they understand themselves. Perhaps more importantly, they are committed to searching and seeking in order to develop both their knowledge and their understanding. They know that knowledge and skills are not enough.

Consider that knowledge focuses on possession, storage and retrieval. Knowledge is a commodity. Knowledge is something one has. Understanding focuses on applying, performing, adapting, creating, and flexing. Knowledge is often the ‘end’ – the goal. Understanding is the ‘never-ending story.’

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Consider that when teachers employ a ‘work metaphor’ they are actually framing and shaping the student’s educational experience. They are, for example, focusing the students’ attention on completing the work rather than helping them focus on the learning (completing the work and learning are not necessarily the same thing). As H.H. Marshall noted in 1990: Metaphors structure both the way classroom problems are perceived and the solutions that are proposed. . . If classrooms are seen as workplaces, many people believe that their “productivity” can be improved by rewarding greater efficiency and better products, that is, higher test scores. The solution suggested by this metaphor, however, disregards whether what is produced is meaningful learning. For some teachers, meaningful learning seems to be secondary to maintaining the work system.’

Marshall noted that in work-oriented educational experiences teachers and students focus on work completion. Here are some common indicators provided by students: ‘How long does this essay have to be?’ ‘Will this be on the test?’ Consider that these common questions are not about the ideas or about the learning – they are about the work. Teachers are monitors, overseeing the students’ work and are managers as they hold students accountable for working hard. The deep tacit assumption held by many teachers for many years at all grade levels is that it is a given that the work will result in learning.

In work-oriented classrooms the teacher-as-monitor strives to make sure that all of the students are ‘on task’ and are ‘getting things done.’ By the by, this ‘monitor-role’ is also embraced by many of the folks who train teachers: How many workshops have you participated in where the ‘trainer’ checked to make sure that you or that ‘your table’ was ‘on task’?

An educator focused on learning will be intentional and purpose-full as they seek to discern the learning: ‘Tell me what you have done so far?’ ‘What questions are surfacing for you?’ ‘You have that result, what does that tell you?’ ‘Mistakes’ are valued – no mistakes means no risk-taking. In work-focused classrooms mistakes are to be avoided; too often a student is labeled as ‘incompetent’ because he or she makes ‘too many mistakes.’

Learning-focused educators seek to provide feedback that stimulates and informs learning. Work-focused teachers tend to provide feedback that focuses on task completion.

I continue to be thankful for a 9th grade student who ‘educated’ me in 1967; his feedback was the motivator for me to radically change how I approached teaching and learning. On Mondays the 9th graders took a spelling pre-test (100 words) so that they would know how many words they needed to learn how to spell by Friday. Early on in the year a student approached me after class on a Friday. He said that his friend knew 98 words on Monday’s pre-test and that he knew 7 words. On Friday his friend spelled 96 words correctly while he spelled 60 words correctly. The student asked me what grade his friend would receive, even though he ‘lost’ two words and what grade he would receive even though he learned 53 words. To say that his feedback gave me pause is an understatement. His feedback motivated me to transform the way I thought about ‘learning’ and the way I taught. Within a month I shifted from a ‘work-focused’ to a ‘learning-focused’ way of teaching.

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The metaphor ‘school as work’ is deeply imbedded in our cultural psyche. Consider the following: learning as work, students as workers and classrooms as workplaces. These are well entrenched in our collective notions of schooling and education. The metaphor ‘school as work’ began to emerge shortly after the advent of the industrial revolution when child labor laws began to be enacted. In 1936 the first U.S. Federal Law regulating children’s work was instituted.

‘Children’s Work’ moved from the factory’s floors and the farmland’s fields to the school’s classrooms. Teachers became the new managers and overseers. Since then the ‘school as work’ metaphor has been alive and well – if not always thriving.

If one pays attention to the language used in schools we remain robed in the garb of work and work-related metaphors. Principals continue to be referred to as ‘Chief Academic Officers;’ we continue to ask ‘What is the value-added in terms of student output?’ Emerging teachers are ‘trained in classroom management’ and all teachers are held ‘accountable for results.’

Consider the following: Students are taught ‘work-habits’ and receive ‘rewards’ for a ‘job well done.’ They are provided ‘workbooks’ and they are given ‘time to do their work’; they are also assigned ‘homework.’ Few of us, it seems, stop and pause and reflect upon this powerful metaphor. How many educators or parents actually question this metaphor?

Wait a minute Sparky! Why should this matter? What’s wrong with ‘work’ or with being a ‘good worker’? Don’t we all have to ‘work in order to learn?’ In questioning this metaphor aren’t you coming close to vilifying the very notion of work? Isn’t work ‘noble’ and ‘worthwhile’? In our culture don’t we strive to do good work? Aren’t you being more than a bit picky regarding this metaphor stuff?

What difference does it make if a teachers asks: ‘Is your work done?’ What difference does it make if a teacher says: ‘You did not work hard enough’?

Let us pause a bit. In order to respond to these, and other ‘school as work’ questions, it might be helpful for us to do a bit of searching and seeking in order to understand (or to understand more deeply and broadly). What is at issue here is more than merely a selection of words and phrases. What is at issue here is a fundamental choice we (that is, we educators and our school culture and our national culture) are making when it comes to deciding how our energies and how our students’ energies are channeled.

I became interested in literary metaphors in 1964. In 1980 I became interested in the power of metaphors; the metaphors we live by. My mind was stretched and challenged by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson with their seminal book: ‘The Metaphors We Live By.’ This is a book I continue to re-visit, re-read, and re-savor. The authors tell us that metaphors help us organize our experience and they help us create our realities. If a particular metaphor is used over time and if it ‘sticks’ then it becomes embedded in the person, in the relationship, in the organization, in the community, in the culture. The metaphor then moves to the unconscious and shapes the way one sees the world. These deep tacit metaphors, Lakoff notes, ‘structure our actions and thoughts. They are alive in the most fundamental sense: they are metaphors we live by.’

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