Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Shallow Optimism, Deep Hope: a quick formula for resilience in education

"I am not an optimist, but I am a prisoner of hope." --Cornel West

Three quick points:

1. Apparently only 31% of students nationwide agree that "I can find many lots of ways around any problem."

2. We always ask: why aren't students more invested in their own education? The answer is because they don't own the goals that are set for the educational system. As Jessica Lahey put it in a recent tweet: "we don't wash our rental cars."

3. Hope is another word for resilience. Hope comes to us, and it sends us over and over again into situations where failure is possible. It is grounded in a durable concepts like justice, goodness, truth, and love.

Students are optimistic that they will do well on the next test because they studied over the last few days. [low resilience]

Students hope that their education makes them genuine human beings, capable of carrying out full, just, and independent lives. [high resilience]

Our school system is designed for optimism, which is fleeting, external, and dependent on that minimal thing called the human will.

We need schools and communities that are focused around hope, which draws on deeper, more spiritual resources in the human -- and hopefully exposes students to these resources, teaching them that human strength is founded in our internal capacities. These are designated by concepts like joy, friendship, truth, justice, and freedom.

Looking for resilience in kids? Simple way to find it: ask whether your interactions with them are based around resilient concepts.

Is our pedagogy founded in a shallow optimism which says that "for this kid, in this situation, given these skills, she might find her way in society that is fundamentally hostile to her growth?"

Or are our educational practices and relationships with students founded in a deep hope that says, "together through the work of community, we can make a future that is more just, more free, more true, and more connected?"

Students intuit very quickly the sort of future that our relationships with them predict -- our ways of relating to them can undermine or generate hope in them and through this process either sap them of resilience or open them to the deep stores of strength and possibility that liberal education at its best sustains generation after generation.

What is liberal arts education? Put simply: it is a community practice of deep hope.

Monday, October 26, 2015

How things generally go

Mornings feel best to me. The vagueness of consciousness mirrors the early dawn and portends lucidity. There is a wariness to morning, the small fear that we all feel when at the beginning of something. I like most the mornings that stretch out not quite timelessly before days that have not yet been planned. No one else is up; no one else would be moving; the relaxation that is possible in the morning is the unearned kind and thus most itself, most fully present.

The coffee is finished, the scraps of reading are read, and into our day clothes we step, one leg at a time, like putting on armor. On opening the door, the day makes itself known -- the first breath, autumn smells, leaves scattered and thrown across the driveway.

Day is so much interaction and movement. The people come at you with their faces and their lively eyes. Small requests uttered, and the larger tasks always left unsaid. We walk by each other, holding ourselves somewhat tightly to our chests, not letting too much of ourselves leak out, and then finally losing ourselves to chore, to tedium, to fatigue, and if we are lucky to occasional joy or romance or more. All the beginnings not yet begun become real and resist; this is day.

Afternoon comes, as always, and energies wane. HacĂ­a el sur son inteligentes y duermen la siesta. Even if we work and do not rest, we work slowly and aim primarily to finish up. The daytime has drained the life out, like clear water poured over the ground and soaked up into roots and earthworms and then to the rocks underneath. If you take a moment in the late afternoon, you will notice that after the energy is stripped all away, you can find a sort of bedrock of the soul, the limestone underneath. That can be satisfying.

Evenings, things depend. Some people get the morning feelings again, in anticipation of the night being another beginning. Others -- like me -- see the night time as a chance to throw one's self absolutely into ending. As the light drains out of the world, so do all the daytime things slowly lose their reality.

Night comes, and we lay in our beds. The mind draws loops around itself, constructing imaginary scenes until the loop skips and eventually becomes a dream and then dark.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

On Teacher Autonomy

"It is ... advisable that the teacher should understand, and even be able to criticize, the general principles upon which the whole educational system is formed and administered. He is not like a private soldier in an army, expected merely to obey, or like a cog in a wheel, expected merely to respond and transmit external energy; he must be an intelligent medium of action." -- John Dewey

Teacher autonomy is critical to good education. This (like everything in education) is of course most obvious to teachers, as they are the ones most intimately involved in the educational process. Students (especially adolescents) are suspicious of contrived situations and most open to connection when they sense there is an authentic person on the other end of the line. Autonomy is the path to authenticity, as only the teacher who is free to explore and experiment can find the pedagogy that allows full expression of the self in practice.

However, autonomy is poorly understood by many teachers who advocate for it and also by the administrators who are suspicious of it. The reason for this is that autonomy is really different from being left alone. 

Sure, the first step to developing autonomy is freedom from. Freedom from arbitrary constrictions. Freedom from micromanaging. Freedom from forces and interests that are obviously mis-educational. Administrators have a basic duty to protect teachers from these things so that they can explore and create.

Unfortunately, most conceptions of teaching autonomy stop there, but of course that sort of autonomy for teachers is not enough. Autonomy is more than freedom from constraint. Autonomy is positive freedom -- it is the freedom to act with purpose. Teacher autonomy (like individual autonomy) only finds its full expression within a purposeful community, and it is fuller yet when teachers are able out of their own practice (alongside students) create that purpose and feel responsible for the school community.

What then, is the role of the school administrator? As clear as I can figure it is to identify the ways in which the community is not yet autonomous or lacking purpose -- and also the teachers as individuals who have not yet found the full expression of their autonomous practice (or who have lost it somewhere along the way.) The administrator cannot ex nihilo create this purpose or autonomy, but must instead, through modeling, encouragement, listening, and communicating help teachers into autonomous community, actively and boldly clearing the path for it, and sometimes perhaps tracing the first steps.

If students are to learn to be free, active, bold, joyful, and creative, they must have in front of them on a regular basis adults who possess these qualities. Schooling is difficult work, and many adults lack the stamina or resilience to do this work and manifest these qualities. The best schools quickly identify the impediments to teachers being their full, best selves for their students, and eliminate them without pity.

Friday, October 16, 2015

On Vitality, Schooling, and Training

An acquaintance told me a week ago that there is a deep connection between training for a marathon and good schooling and encouraged me to draw this connection.

The connections at first seem obvious. Perhaps school is like training. You put the work in and then get results out. Effort over the long haul leads to incremental changes in the body, mind, and spirit that allow the runner/student to do something which perhaps seemed impossible. I suppose this is the association my friend had in mind, and it works at a certain level.

Runners recognize, however, that equating training with effort and work takes an external view of the whole thing. From the inside training never feels primarily like a goal-oriented activity. In order for it to work and work well, it must mostly be immediately satisfying.

Sure, there were moments when there was a lack of satisfaction and I could invoke an external goal (running under 2:30 in the marathon was mine) to get myself out the door. But my training at its best was an almost wholly present-oriented activity. The training works when it is integrated and flows and feeds the rest of your life, through friendships, being outside in nature, and the pleasurable feelings of bodily movement. If we have to be inspired to get out the door on a frequent basis, and if it's not the doing itself that is inspiring, then the effort that marathon training requires can't be sustainable. The running must be based in a sort of  joy in movement, one that is pleasant in itself and flows out of experience with the vitality and force of Nature.

Learning is the same in this sense. As living beings, it is as natural for us to learn and grow as it is to breathe and eat. Schooling, like training, has to feed that natural impulse and work in it and through it. The purpose of schooling is to make the human animal most fully what it can become. Too often we think of the work of education as the construction of an artificial self, manufactured through external effort and work. So long as the work of education fails to engage with the natural impulse to grow and learn, it will be absent vital force. If running and training must be based in the joy of movement in order to be fully effective, so education must be based in the natural joy of growth.

One of the great dangers of marathon training (perhaps the single greatest danger for the highly competitive runner) is overtraining. Overtraining happens when instead of working in concert with vitality, training begins sapping it. The consequences to the runner are loss of joy, constant fatigue, depletion, etc. Yet, often the runner ignores these signs, attempting through sheer effort to will the body to follow the despotic trainer. The error of overtraining is a consequence of too much artificial effort and too little listening to the body.

When our schools fail today, they fail in two ways.

1) Focused too entirely on what society needs from its young people, it forgets entirely that the process of education is founded in student growth. The "training plan" -- having been crafted by political interests -- is implemented and executed with complete disregard for the individual undertaking it.

2) Schools, teachers, and parents intentionally trying to maximize student growth, very much like the marathoner in training pushing herself to her absolute limit, disregard the natural ability of the child to grow and the natural source of growth, which is joyful play. They push the child too hard, effectively overtraining them so that they lose touch with their natural capacity for growth. Here schooling becomes based in effort, work, and achievement rather than the internal qualities of curiosity, will, determination, and freedom.

Schools work only when they are founded in and working through the natural impulse to growth and association that are a byproduct of being living beings. Any other approach to education is necessarily artificial and external -- usually founded in ideas or demands that are only weakly attached to the relationships of community out of which the school draws all of its life.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Twin Cities Marathon and the Black Lives Matter Protest

Black Lives Matter in St. Paul has planned a protest to block the finish this weekend at the Twin Cities marathon. Here are my thoughts and hopes for how this goes.

* * *

We all know that running is an expression of great individual freedom, which is why we value it so much.

A marathon race boils down so many of our values and creates a pure space for their expression -- hard work, execution, effort, risk. Because all distractions have been cleared away, and the course has been marked off from the chaos of life and the politics and all of that, the individual runner is freed to maximize his or her potential.

It's interesting to reflect on how artificial the conditions of a big city marathon are: how many roads have to be blocked, how many policemen enlisted in the effort, how much work and resources goes into creating this clean slate for achievement, especially when it is mapped out over a normally chaotic public space, as in the case of the big city marathon.

Reflection brings the realization that the expression of great freedom, the maximization of individual effort, depends on a prior effort that requires social coordination and agreement, and it takes very little to disrupt that organization. Marathon races show what becomes possible for individuals when like minded people work together.

It's for all of these reasons that a blocked or disruptive marathon works well as a metaphor for blocked social justice and disrupted democracy. But of course it is just a metaphor; life itself is not at stake in a marathon, only the expression of life.  A marathon is a medium through which we work out our relationship to life. It's not "real" in the way that life is. It is constructed.

The constructed and metaphorical nature of marathoning, however, is what gives it great power for life. We need artificial forms and media through which we can work out our relationship to life. This is why art -- and marathoning is art -- is so precious. When life itself gets into these artificial forms of understanding life and messes them up, we feel a loss of control and understanding.

The protest is positive in the sense that the BLM is inviting runners into reflection on these things, and helping us draw connections between ourselves and the communities that we only run through, and often times do not even run through.

However, I hope in the end they let the runners run, not because marathoning is more important than black lives, but out of a sense of empathy for and kinship with the marathoner and the community that makes marathoning possible.

Black Lives Matter has a chance to say something like the following -- "though black lives are often disrupted, and though we have the power to disrupt as well, we will choose not to disrupt the lives of individuals or the organization that gives them meaning." This choice would be highly meaningful and richly demonstrative as well. It would not only raise awareness, but do so in a way that builds the empathy and understanding that is the necessary precondition for the forms of community upon which deep social justice depends.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

On the necessity of anxiety for education: the wild and unholy learning of adolescence

I've just finished Jessica Lahey's The Gift of Failure, and it inspired this post in a sideways sort of way. It's a great read for parents and educators, highly readable and very wise -- but what if the failure she writes about is really just a means to an end that looks more like play...

* * *

Anxiety is a condition of learning. It's a feature of adolescence, not a bug.

Schools these days are worried about anxiety, and with good reason. Young people are very anxious, and it's impeding their learning. We've been asking how to reduce that anxiety, using techniques like mindfulness with some effectiveness, and rethinking emotional support in schools so that we can keep anxious young people tracking down the path we've set for them.

While anxiety is a real problem that must be addressed by schools, it's also clear that we haven't gotten a grip on the problem. Perhaps this is because the whole idea of reducing anxiety is problematic. Maybe the problem is not anxiety at all, but the forms in which anxiety is allowed to exist that are the problem.

Anxiety is fundamental to adolescence. It's the sense that things must change, and urgently. Or, as Camus wrote, it's the "tremendous energy spent in just being normal." Anxiety is the great driving energy that funds this incredible period of reaction, freedom, intense experience and growth. Without anxiety, there would be no first kisses, no deep insight, no wonder. Anxiety is the intensity, the shimmering, that gives adolescence its life.

In my work, the problem I see is not that students are anxious. Indeed it would be strange if they weren't. Teenagers should be anxious because they are experiencing freedom and growth. The problem is that they are anxious about the wrong things -- they have had their anxiety stolen from them. We ask that their anxiety be quelled and that they submit to a known and tamed future. The goals we set for them are of an adulthood that is already understood. The world we present for them is one in which the path to happiness is much too clearly defined. Anxiety does not want clear goals or need calming. What it wants, what it needs is wildness and openness. Anxiety is a panther pacing the cage. It can only be its full self in the wild.

We think that students are anxious because they are worried about an uncertain future or afraid that schooling is not going well. But this is an adult projection. Adults worry (and rightfully so) about the future for young people. But the natural attitude for adolescents towards the future is disinterest and unconcern. The intensity of youth is founded in the way in which it is totally present in its becoming.

The problem that students experience today is not that they experience anxiety, but that they are not allowed to release it. Parents, schools, culture, college pressure -- these things bottle up student anxiety and attempt to direct and channel into mechanical, law-abiding, and future-obeying forms something that is fundamentally wild and living and anarchic.

So, maybe the answer to the problem of anxiety is not really deep breathing or relaxation or mindfulness, but instead something that looks more like play, joy, or wildness. So long as we are intent on teaching students to "manage" anxiety, we are misunderstanding the proper function of anxiety. Adolescent anxiety can't be managed -- that's the whole point. It operates outside of the whole concept of management. What we need are school and family spaces that allow for wildness and play. We need to release anxiety into its full power.

Until that moment, until we adults realize that the structures we have built are fundamentally hostile to the practice of adolescence in all of its wild and unholy learning, anxiety will be an impediment to learning and the mental health of our young people. Let's not be content to manage anxiety in the off-base hope that eventually adolescence will just go away.

Here's the heretical claim: maybe it's only by rethinking anxiety as a feature of adolescence, not a bug, that we can begin to glimpse a different sort of schooling, wilder, freer, less adult -- a school that doesn't just tolerate anxiety, but puts its tremendous power to use on behalf of learning. It's strange but we always talk about anxiety as if it were a quantity rather than an existential reality. We say: she experiences a lot of anxiety. But the problem of anxiety is not how much there is -- but the ends to which it is (or worse, is not) put.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

On Education as a Human Act: a report from the trenches

The process of learning is call and response. It's back and forth. It is flow and rhythm. It's a method of measuring -- how much can I take in without being overwhelmed. You can't gulp the glass; you have to drink deeply but breathe while you are doing it. You have to digest.

In short the process of learning is a process of relating. In learning we establish relationships with each other and with the object of study.

Much of the contemporary discourse around education forgets this basic fact. When we think of students, we think of individuals with clear boundaries, as disconnected wholes, and our educational system tends to consider itself as the accretion of many isolated data points. Each individual accrues a transcript, which marks the ascension of a single atom through a clearly defined path. When we speak of whether our educational system is working or what it is doing, we understand the whole "system" (we are in a mechanistic metaphysics) as an accretion of thousands of isolated data points. We take the data as primary and try to derive relationships from the data.

This way of thinking is literally backwards. Every educator knows that individuality is constructed out of relationality -- not the other way around. An atomistic way of thinking about students forgets what teachers know: learning is about making boundaries of the self open and permeable and could never be measured by any test whose function is to close off a self so that it can be determined.  Tests make static a process that is dynamic. They attempt to define a river by casting a line into it. Learning is fluid -- it demands breaking open the self and interacting with the world and with other people. The isolated atom cannot learn. It can only be sent mechanically from one point to another along a line that is already clearly laid out and determined.

These are things I have learned in my educational work: good teaching begins and ends with good relationships. Those relationships are founded in trust, and trust is a binding agent that functions between individuals. A school is not a system of transcript assembly. A school is a place, which exists in a world, and it is made out of people.

The social function of a school is to be a place where human relationship can be maintained and protected, where habits of human relationship can be built while they are still open and in-process. A school protects young people from the repetition and deadening that undermines relationality and de-sensitizes the human animal. These relationships -- of friendship, of respect, of joy, of concern, of self, of inquiry -- are the material of education.

A school is, therefore, a type of utopian space, where people come together to attempt to preserve the best in each other against the social forces that would undo and mechanize the human element. Schools succeed when they protect our ability to be vulnerable, to be exposed to each other, to encounter the world, to think and to feel. Openness, exposure, and vulnerability are the conditions of possibility of relationships and indeed of sensitive inquiry itself. Without these qualities there is no inquiry, there is only violence.

All educators must resist the factory model of education. The factory model, with its atomistic and divided conception of the child and the educator, its linear conception of curriculum, and its hierarchical characterization of social structures strips the school of its essential function, which is to maintain our humanity and to construct a vision of the human that is worth pursuing. It makes the school a machine instead of a place; it gives it functionality but not relationality. It deadens and makes mechanical a process that is organic and living and can only function in organic conditions.

For these reasons, the basic function of a teacher is to simply be humane -- all educational practice stems from the humanity of the teacher. The teacher's ability to relate to the world, to the material, to herself, to her colleagues, and to her students is the sine qua non of educational practice. All pedagogy is variation on this theme, and no pedagogy can substitute for it.

So, yes, let us measure our educational practice. Let us test and revise and innovate. But when we do, let us be sure we are testing the actual material of education. Such tests are not impossible to construct or carry out -- but their implementation demands qualities that cannot be factory-produced: empathy, respect, care, concern, attention. The testing and the analysis of education can only happen at the level of life itself, and those who know how to inquire at that level remain in short supply and appear not to have their hands on the levers of the educational system.

Until we have a society capable of taking the measure of a life in a full way, we will never have an educational testing system that leads us out of the factory model of education. We will have to rely on the human element in the factory and their counter-practices within and against the machine to keep the human spark alive. Green grass breaks through the cracks in the hardest concrete, and so still in the margins and through great effort does learning and genuine education happen.

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