Author Archive

Charles Curran who followed in the footsteps of Carl Rogers, the humanistic psychologist, founded Counseling Learning also known as Community Language Learning.  This learning process advocates for and requires deep listening.  This includes listening by the teacher to the students but also and equally importantly by the students to each other.  It highlights how important it is for learners to say what is true and meaningful for themselves; to look at and share with each other their own worlds.  When students share true and important experiences and ideas, magic happens in the classroom.

Mary Rose O’Reilley also talks about this,  “When people sit around in a group and share experiences, the universe of possibility begins to change”.  I personally know this to be true from time spent with students in many places of the world, as O’Reilley continues, “when people sit and tell each other what the world is like for them, the air becomes electric with both danger and hope”. (p. 41).

Deep listening and sharing is also a core idea of the group communication and learning process known as Council.  The Council process advocates for learners and their guide or teacher to be seated in a circle where every individual can clearly see every other individual.  It provides space for each person to have a voice and to be heard.  Taking the time to listen deeply yields amazing results which cannot to prescribed or predicted.

The power of deep listening is something that we educators must not ignore.

In this ongoing conversation it is important that we also revisit some of the pioneers of alternative ways of viewing teaching and learning.  I will refer to some of the pioneers who contributed to the genre of language teaching pedagogy, as this is an area I have worked in for many years.  I find that these ideas have profound relevance for other content areas which is why I include them.  This is only a beginning and much of my writing from here on out will come back to and deepen my own understanding of these important ideas.

The first set of ideas I will explore briefly for now  is that of Caleb Gattegno who developed The Silent Way.  Silent Way was originally a mathematics pedagogy that was later applied by Gattegno to language teaching.  One important idea is to examine what it means to subordinate teaching to learning, to make your students’ learning more important than your teaching.  Another of Gattegno’s core ideas was to not do for the learner what they can do for themselves.  After twenty years of working with these ideas, they are still provocative and meaningful for me.  Gattegno was deeply inspired by the philosophy of J. Krishnamurti so these philosophies and ideas run deep with deep roots that are extremely well grounded.

I also continue to explore Gattegno’s invitation to look at our use of praise and whether or not it is necessary or even helpful.  O’Reilley concurs with this question saying, “. . . many of us still define our success as teachers by our skill at ‘marking’. . . such an approach to teaching inhibits students’ ability to find their own strength” (p. 49).  This is in contrast with developing what Gattegno called students’ Inner Criteria, meaning developing their ability to know for themselves if they are correct, not correct, or where they are on the continuum.

O’Reilley continues with her exploration on the question of praise by saying, “Even our positive responses often merely addict students to repeating their most successful tricks.  Both praise and blame set students looking for other people for definitions of the self.  Both discourage create problem solving because you can’t solve problems in new ways when you have an eye on what ‘they’ might think.”  When students are wondering “What is the answer I’m supposed to come up with?” their creativity and full potential is diminished.

A final thought from Gattegno who also said, “Only awareness is educable”.  We can only help to train our students’ awareness of what they know or don’t about the subject, of themselves as learners, of themselves within a learning community.  This idea has profound implications for what we will do or not with our students.

Shakti Gattegno, Gattegno’s wife, built in meaningful and sustaining ways on his work.  One of her core ideas which stays with me is that we must be good to our students rather than be nice.  By this she means when we make the road too easy for our students, we do them no service.  Rather we must do that which will develop their full potential for human goodness.  This means challenging them in appropriate ways, holding their feet to the fire, making them work hard, not for some external standard but to develop their own internal criteria and a knowledge and skill set that allows them to achieve great, human goals.

More on these ideas soon.

Teachers teaching within any teaching system, systems which are nearly always fraught with issues about money, curricula, mission and goals, might feel as if they cannot make a difference.  They absolutely can, however, help to bring about progressive social change – through the transformation of one student, one person at a time.  I am intrigued, however, by this not-quite-intuitive description that Greene uses – this is the “seeing big” and seeing small” imagery.  When she talks about “seeing big” that means being up close and personal with the student in front of us, close enough to smell their perfume or the scent of coffee on their breath as they articulate the ideas important to them.  We can see the color of their cell phones and maybe even know what earrings they are wearing or what color ink they prefer for writing.  When we see our students big, we cannot diminish them.  It has often been said that by reducing people to statistics, numbers a quantity – we diminish their humanness.  In that instance yes, we are seeing them small, as just a point on the bell curve.

Seeing big requires courage as seeing our students for who they are can make us more vulnerable.  Greene again, (p. 109)  talks about teaching for openings.

We teachers have to be willing to “break ourselves open and begin again”.  We have to be that vulnerable and awake to our students and their learning.  Knowing ourselves and our own prejudices is part of this.  Staying awake and aware of the same in our students is another part.

I am not proposing that any of this is easy.  It is, in fact, among the most challenging things that we could ask of ourselves and our colleagues.   Robert Kegan, formerly of MIT and now with the Harvard School of Education wrote a fascinating book in the 90s, In Over Our Heads:  The Mental demands of modern life (1994).  In it he explores in a very accessible manner, how difficult it has become to function effectively in our modern world.  Kegan discusses different levels, what he calls orders, of consciousness.  His system includes six orders, each allowing in more information about our surroundings, people around us, and indeed ourselves.  The main thrust, however, is whether or not the individual has any perspective on themselves, their situations and their relationships with others.  Being able to reflect, to step back from and out of one’s immediate circumstances to varying degrees is how one moves from one order of consciousness to another.  In this model an infant and young child who only wants to nurse at the breast or to have the cookie is seeing the world from the first order of consciousness.  Adolescents thinking about how to pass the test with the least amount of effort or how to get to know some special boy or girl are probably at the third order.  Kegan points out that most adults only make it to about stage three or four.  Modern life, however, and solving the world’s problems requires more and more people to operate at at least a 5th Order of Consciousness which involves the ability to hold multiple perspectives and to weigh them against each other.  This requires the skill of and willingness to reflect not only on one’s own circumstances but how those circumstances affect others around you.  This is a far from straightforward demand.

Critical thinking is a skill that can be developed in ourselves and in our students.  I see the need for this with increasing frequency when I visit classrooms or training centers.  Many educators around the world are highlighting how important it is that students (and, of course their teachers) develop the ability to think critically, to examine situations from many perspectives, not jump to the first conclusion, to challenge easy answers and look for complexities and nuances. The so-called higher order thinking skills are becoming something of importance to all students worldwide.

And so I’ll continue exploring this in my next post.

I have found it useful to revisit the ideas which helped launch us on to the humanistic route.  We remember Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a paradigm still completely relevant today.  We can only achieve higher needs such as the need for self actualization if we have met some of our “lower needs”, having enough food to eat, clean air to breathe, being able to sleep at night without fear, to feel part of something, cared for somewhere by someone, to hold a sense of self-confidence and of feeling valued and finding one’s place in the world.

And so in additional to understanding how the human psyche is structured we also have to embrace ways of understanding, describing, engaging with and then resolving the challenges we face as teachers working with fellow humans.  Teachers need to be concerned with both their own personal work with students AND how the systems of education operate.

Maxine Greene, professor at Teacher’s College, Columbia university, has talked about a way of looking at educational systems/schooling and the individual teachers, administrators and students within these systems.  She talks about seeing small as from a distance; and seeing big – close up, personal, detailed.  Greene is interested in how teachers engage with both systems of education and individual students.  She says,

“How can teachers intervene and say how THEY believe things ought to be?. . .Interested in shifting perspectives and different modes of seeing,” Green continues, “I find myself turning to Confessions of Felix Krull, Confident Man (1955), a novel by Thomas Mann. . .at the start young Felix asks himself whether it is better to see the world small or to see it big.  On the one hand, he says, great men, leaders and generals, have to see things small and from a distance, or they would never be able to deal as they do with the lives and deaths of so many living beings.”  Yes, in this reference Felix is talking about generals and leaders but I see this as relevant also to curriculum planners, text developers, administrators and others who deal with lots of people and ideas.  In the next section Green says, “To see things big, on the other hand, is to ‘regard the world and mankind as something great, glorious, and significant, justifying every effort to attain some modicum of esteem and fame’.

To see things or people small, one chooses to see from a detached point of view, to watch behaviors from the perspective of a system, to be concerned with trends and tendencies rather than the intentionality and concreteness of everyday life.  To see things or people big, one must resist viewing other human beings as mere objects or chess pieces and view them in their integrity and particularity instead.  One must see from the point of view of view of the participant. .

When applied to schooling, the vision that sees things big brings us in close contact with details and with particularities that cannot be reduced to statistics or even to the measurable. . .  The vision of seeing things small looks at schooling through the lens of a system – a vantage point of power or existing ideologies –  – – most frequently these days, it uses the lenses of benevolent policy making with the underlying conviction that changes in schools can bring about progressive social change.”  (Greene, p.9-11).

So we’re supposed to trust those who “see things small”, those who design system-mandated curricula and standardized testing to bring about social change?  Maxine Greene doesn’t believe this and neither do I.  I’ll explore this more in the next post.

Earl Stevick, a mentor and inspiration in the English language teaching field, described in his seminal classic on language teaching, A Way and Ways (1980) a notion he referred to as “the inside and between maxim”.  He said, “success or failure in a language course depends less on linguistic analysis and pedagogical techniques than on what goes on inside and between the people in the classroom.”  I would assert that this is not only true for language teaching but also for all other subjects as well.  Learning has less to do with pedagogy, texts, testing, clever classroom activities than it has to do with the relationship between the teacher, the students, the students’ relationships with each other and, all the relationships that all of them have with the content itself.

What this suggests is that there is much more going on in learning environments than immediately meets the eye, as I’ve already discussed.  If we only focus on instructional strategies and not the inner life of our students (and ourselves) we are missing so much.  When Stevick reminds us of the “inside and between” maxim he is inviting and, perhaps, requiring us to think about these dynamics in new ways.  He is telling us to pay attention to those aspects of the learning process that really matter.

Holding a curiosity about what goes on inside and between people in the classroom is often not easy, but it is always worthwhile.  Deciding to pursue these ideas through classroom-based research, conversations – both formal and informal – with students, and a commitment to careful observation demands rigor.  I think this is what good educators need to be doing.

A colleague, Sean Conley formerly based at the New School in New York City and the School for International Training in Brattleboro Vermont, has described for us the concentric circles of peace.  These are the circles within circles of connections and community that form the basis for individual, community and societal peace.  The vision you must hold is of a series of concentric circles, defining an ever-more-personal view of how peace can be fostered through aware and sensitive (i.e. humanistic) teaching.  Thus, the peaceful self is at the center and gradually we make our way out to a peaceful world.  As Conley has written on his website (www.explorepeace.org),

“The circles of peace are a lens, one of many, for viewing the areas in which we can investigate the dynamics of peace and conflict and act to influence those dynamics.  The interconnectedness of each circle in our image of circles of peace is captured by this poem by a Cambodian Buddhist, Venerable Maha Ghosananda,

A prayer:

The suffering of Cambodia has been deep.

From this suffering comes Great Compassion.

Great Compassion makes a Peaceful Heart.

A Peaceful Heart makes a Peaceful Person.

A Peaceful Person makes a Peaceful Family.

A Peaceful Family makes a Peaceful Community.

A Peaceful Community makes a Peaceful Nation.

And a Peaceful Nation makes a Peaceful World.

May all beings live in Happiness and Peace.

We live within circles surrounded by circles.  I’ve discussed briefly how the circles envelope us all as a unifying theme.  I have described two positions on the circle that feel healthy and affirming; that of being on the circle and that of being in the center.  I do not doubt that you can imagine the devastating image which is to be outside the circle, to be excluded, to find oneself not able or not being invited to participate.   Working as teachers to avoid this experience for our students is embracing a pedagogy of peace.  This pedagogy of peace requires that as teachers, we are concerned with the inner life of our students, our own inner lives, and the interpersonal lives we create and recreate daily with each other in our classrooms and through our teaching.

What are possible solutions to the issues I’ve been discussing?  How do the teacher and teaching matter?

If you are a teacher, consider the classroom or classrooms in which you teach and the learners you see before you each day.  Do you stand in front of them or with them?  What do you know about them?  What do you know about their goals and aspirations; their dreams and their fears?

What control do you have over what you teach each day, according to the curriculum?  What do you know about how to expand upon it, exchange items within it or make choices?

Are the desks in your classrooms bolted down or is it possible to set up the class as you wish?  Can you move your chairs around?

There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, but it is crucial that we each examine our own teaching contexts as we explore the various possibilities inherent in the important role we play as teachers.

Humanism, as an approach to education, is not a new idea.  It had its last resurgence in the 60s and 70s, as a reaction to other ideas and probably as an outgrowth of that time in the world, especially the west, when many outmoded ideas were being challenged.  But although the ideas seemed new at the time, many were borrowed from other traditions that had long-preceded the turbulent 60s in the United States.

One key image from humanism and from many of the traditions that I think bear re-examination is the idea of the community of learning formed as a circle.  We know that many indigenous groups in the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia and the Pacific saw the circle as an important phenomenon in that those circles were inhabited by real people, sitting together talking, listening, learning from each other and from the stories being recounted.  The circles were also, however, an image that would represent the importance of being able to see every other face in the group; not the backs of heads but the faces and the hearts of friends, neighbors and fellow learners.  These circles are still common in places where people live together and share their common humanity.  They are an image and a metaphor that we can all share.

The individual can see her or himself at two healthy and comforting places potentially on the circle and one devastating one.  The most comfortable spot, for most individuals, is on the circle in an equal place with peers.  No one is higher or lower; all faces are visible; every voice has a chance to be heard.  In some native traditions, the individual is viewed as inhabiting the center of the circle.  This view sees that every individual inhabits that place as their birthright.  In the center, all directions are available; the individual becomes the source for their own journey and for their own story.

O’Reilley talks about it this way, “We began to discover that as teachers, one of our jobs is to help a student find her ‘sacred center’ the place where she stands at the crossroads of human experience.  Beyond that, we needed to help her see that she exists within another circle:  a community.  To find voice and mediate voices in a circle of others is one of the central dialects of the peaceable classroom”. (p. 40).

What are the other dialects of the peaceable classroom?  More thoughts on that coming soon.

A brief comment about adolescence feels relevant here.  Current research in developmental psychology has told us that adolescence, as a phase, extends at least through age twenty-five.  It is important to recognize that when we talk about adolescence, we’re not just referring to gawky teenagers, but to university students as well.  This research should be influencing, to a much greater extent than it is, how universities work with students.  Instead of being gate-keepers adhering to archaic notions of “rigor”, universities should be encouraging exploration and innovation.  Instead of a reliance on tests and grades, they should be trying to encourage creativity and risk taking.  I believe that the university of tomorrow will get rid of grades or completely alter evaluation processes and will focus, instead, on the positive psychological, emotional and spiritual development of students.  This, obviously, will be in addition to their being able to apply critical thinking and creativity to their work.

When we talk about creating playful learning communities with heartfelt communication as the norm, some people worry that we’re turning the classrooms in to some kind of therapy.  This worries teachers as they typically feel unprepared and unwilling, quite rightly, to take on any kind of therapeutic role as teachers.

O’Reilley, however, counters this fear by meeting the concern about “turning the classroom into some kind of ‘group therapy’. She observes that good teaching IS, in the classical sense, therapy.  Good teaching involves reweaving the spirit.  “Bad teaching, by contrast, is soul murder.” (p. 47).  When O’Reilley talks about reweaving the spirit she is referring to such nuances of teaching as asking questions when you actually care about the answers.  She is challenging us to cultivate genuine inquisitiveness about our students, their thoughts, their ideas, their struggles and their issues.  We are now talking about engaging with our students as fellow human beings and welcoming who they are and what their lives are like now in to our classrooms.

At the same time we also have to create ways for our students to interact with each other and themselves reflectively.  As O’Reilley asserts, “If we can get our students to listen to what they are doing (themselves) we will have taught them a great deal.  Yet I make these suggestions about classroom practice with great trepidation because we as teachers have so long evaluated ourselves on conscientiously ‘correcting’ every single student mistake.  Teaching English (for example) has become a branch of the police.” (p. 48).

Good teachers don’t want to “police” their students.  This is a given.  So.  What can teachers do to transform their practice?

I have been a teacher educator for twenty years and before that a teacher.  I am still constantly learning about teaching and learning about learning.  One thing I know from these years is this:  EVERY TEACHER everywhere in the world feel constrained by things external to them, outside of themselves, outside of their selves as teachers:  the curriculum, the test, standards, the administration, student motivation, their own knowledge, skills and awareness.  Every teacher, everywhere in the world has constraints upon her and his teaching.

But, but, but. . .

Every teacher, regardless of the constraints or limitations can always exercise her or his will, intention, philosophy and hope in their classes.  Each teacher still has those precious 30 or 50 or 80 or 120 minutes together with their students.  The power of these precious minutes is inestimable and immeasurable.

Rachel Kessler, an American educator, has long been a proponent of, as she calls it, welcoming soul (back) to our schools.  We can debate whether we are welcoming soul back or soul in.  Did schooling ever have an element of soul?  From my understanding of it, modern-day schooling, since the early 1900’s in the US and at varying times in other parts of the world, was designed to “norm” students and to create an obedient citizenry.  The goal was not an inquiring, nor necessarily critically thinking student, but a “normed” student.

Kessler says, “When students feel genuinely listened to they begin to sense their significance as human beings”.  She also says, “When soul is present in education, attention shifts; we concentrate on what has soul and meaning.  Kessler’s work has been primarily with Middle and High School students, an age where, around the world as far as I can tell, students often times suffer a crisis of soul and spirit.  They begin to wonder and ask the question of “who am I and what is my place in the world?”  This is a question with which most adolescents suffer.  Part of this suffering can be alleviated by what Kessler refers to as the hunger for joy.  This hunger can be fed by, as Kessler reports, “inviting humor”, teaching through play and fostering moments of heartfelt communication, as a beginning.

I want to encourage educators to think about bringing soul in to their teaching so as to make education deeply meaningful to their students.  Let’s think about how to do that.

You might be asking:  Why do I care about this?

My own education is a reason for inspiration.  Why?   I am inspired because in the early days of my educational journey it was mediocre and in later years it became inspiring.  I grew up on a farm in Minnesota in the USA, went to a rural high school, was not asked to work very hard and graduated in a class of 33 students.  I went to college, one of the few students from my graduating class who considered the idea and had the opportunity to do so.  I went to three colleges and seven years later got a BA degree in Psychology.  Seven years is a kind of family record and I’m proud of it.  It took so long because early on I was struck with wander-lust and so could not bear to stay at university for very long at a time.  I studied French in university.  The teaching was not very inspiring but learning the language was.  It is potentially my interest in a foreign language and a realization that it could bring me to the possibility of traveling and living in francophone countries and, hopefully, communicating with people there in that other language that was the reason I stayed with it long enough to graduate.  But overall, these were not inspiring years of education.

In retrospect I can see that using my French language skills to travel and stay in France to live overseas in my twenties was probably the best education I had had to date.  At this stage in my education I come two engaging and fully humanizing educational experiences.

The first inspirational education was the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) Program at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont, USA where I was first a graduate student and then a faculty member for the past twenty years.  This was my first encounter with a truly humanistic education; whole person; learning filled, growth filled.  Experiential in its pedagogy, the program made sense to me and I felt whole and embraced within it.  The School for International Training had its early roots in providing training for outgoing Peace Corps volunteers in the beginning years of that service opportunity.  The education provided was and still is experience-based and focused on the development of the individual on all levels of growth based in a group learning environment.

Patrick Moran, a colleague in the MAT Program, careful thinker and scholar, in remarks at a recent conference, was reflecting on his own young adult years in finding himself in an education that went beyond “training” and was truly formative and life changing.  Moran said after sharing some of his early experiences also as a graduate student at SIT, “these memories came easily to me, mainly because they had to do with moments of awareness and insight. . . they mark the beginnings of my path toward teaching in a different way than I had previous understood, toward teaching that centered on learners, on their experiences and on engagement with their experiences.  These were moments of transition for me.”  Moran described an experience of working with elder teachers, mentors and luminaries in the field of language teaching at that time and his own challenge – to their faces – of the ideas they shared.  And these master teachers’ reactions.  Moran went on to say, “I asked myself:  What kind of teacher can listen without judgment to a student criticizing his ideas?  What kind of teacher welcomes and accepts student resistance?  Something shifted in my thinking, something about students’ feelings.  Something about resistance.  Something about suspending judgment.”

Moran’s reflections and my own mark an important learning experience which was rooted in SIT (http://www.sit.edu) and the unusual and still progressive way in which education is held and fostered there.

A second important experience for me was doctoral studies at the California Institute for Integral Studies (http://www.ciis.edu).  This was another “alternative” and completely inspiring education.  I was encouraged to bring my entire self to the study, to explore my thoughts alongside my experiences, my instincts and intuitions and my spirit and soul.  Every part of me was present at that table of learning.  And instead of feeling “spat” out after completing the degree, I felt energized and enthusiastic.

My husband and I were careful in choosing educational opportunities for our children.  Some of their educations occurred in the USA and some in Botswana and Thailand as they accompanied us on tours overseas.  They ended up, therefore, with some wonderful experiences in their educations until now.  But even with our careful planning and attention and a significant investment of time and money, we and their teachers and, therefore, our children, have sometimes totally missed the mark and education has become for each of them at various times, a violent education in the way that I have already defined it.  No, none of them has ever been hit by a teacher; as has already been made clear, this is not what I am referring to when I talk about violence in education.

When I think about their educations, especially during the teenaged/adolescent years, there was a sense for each of them of biding their time.  I felt it strongly as a parent.  My stepson and daughter were “waiting to graduate”.  They have each felt the sense of “jumping through hoops”.  We have discussed with each of them their sense of being given a limited time in life and how does education make these lives more worthwhile?   I cannot deny, but do not like, the key high school and university trick for survival which is “find out what the teacher wants and then give it to them.  Follow the rules”.

As Seniors in High School my two elder children had serious crises as they tried to navigate the bizarre and disconnected terrain of schooling.  The youngest at age 17 is still in that disconnected terrain and we do what we can for him to come out of it safe and unscathed.  I believe this is an unfortunate truth for many learners in all reaches of the earth.  And I believe that it shouldn’t have to be this way.