Transforming Education

Having spent years teaching and training teachers including helping to develop the skill of giving and receiving feedback, I know it is not an easy process.  In fact it is far easier to give lousy feedback than skillful.  We all make mistakes.  But feedback is a fundamental aspect of life and is particularly critical in the teaching and learning environment.  How do we learn best?  I would propose we all learn best through experience, personal reflection on that experience coupled with feedback from others.  We can’t do it all by ourselves.

Larry Porter has a classic article about the subject of effective feedback.  Here’s the URL which, for some reason, I am unable to make live right now:

I have learned quite a lot about the art of feedback through my own experiences and mistakes (and reflections on both) and have settled on the idea that feedback must be asked for, delivered skillfully and be rooted in a context and a relationship, including an educational one, in order to be relevant.

As difficult and delicate the process of giving and receiving feedback is let me explain, briefly, why I think anonymous feedback is especially irresponsible in our current time.

Like it or not, we live in an age of instant communication on multiple platforms including live, reality shows and online chat commentary.  Individuals are invited to offer their thoughts and opinions in every possible sector:  politics, entertainment, food, religion, popular culture and so on.  Almost anything goes and almost anything can be said in one forum or another; the more direct and unfiltered the comment is often considered the better.  Honest opinions are good.  Let it all hang out.  Sniping seems to be OK.

Recently I was participating in an online chat space sponsored by a major sports television network during the US Baseball World Series.  I observed that as emotions ran high individuals using mere handles as names (e.g. “Boston Bob”) were given license say anything they wanted.  The facilitators of the chat seemed to encourage rabid, angry and insulting comments.  Granted, this was a sports venue where insulting the other team is seen as part of the game.  Meanwhile, in another online venue, You Tube, one can simply sign in, again using an anonymous name, and say whatever you want about anything at all; whether you are qualified to have an opinion about something matters not at all.  The point is to have and express your opinions, no holds barred.

I did a little tour around the internet and found countless cases of individuals being asked and encouraged to spout off, with no responsibility for what was said nor for what the impact might be on the recipient(s).  More often than not, the anonymous feedback is rather ruthless and mean.  It is rare (and somewhat uplifting) to see anonymous feedback filled with positive, unconditional regard for another human being.

While this type of ruthless feedback might be acceptable and fine for the process of kicking someone off the island or for commenting on an individual’s home video of themselves singing ‘I have a Dream”, if is not appropriate nor acceptable for educational environments.

Feedback is best when it is rooted in a relationship and in an environment where everyone wants the other to learn and succeed.  This includes a student being able to hold the idea that the teacher is also a human, who makes mistakes and who is still learning.  Yes, the teacher needs to be ready to hear what has not worked or where we have fallen down.  We need to have some tough skin and enough self-awareness, compassion and empathy not to take our hurt feelings out on the student.  Meanwhile, the student needs to develop their capacity for giving and receiving feedback from a place of integrity, care and human decency.  When feedback, whether positive or critical, is delivered from a stance of care, everyone benefits.

Students need to realize that teachers are learning humans just as they are.

I’m taking a stand in any program or situation where anonymous feedback is insisted upon.  At a minimum, it must be coupled with an attempt at honest, owned, respectful feedback that can lead to learning and growth for all involved.

At the end of the day, giving and receiving feedback is a skill that has to be developed.  It is a critical skill, in my opinion, especially in these times when common courtesy and compassionate communication seem to be lacking in many situations in our world.

Some insights from Porter’s Article, cited above:

Effective Feedback
1. Describes the behavior that led to the feedback: “You are finishing my sentences for me…”
2. Comes as soon as appropriate after the behavior – immediately if possible; later if events make that necessary (something more important going on, you need time to “cool down,”).
3. Is direct from sender to receiver.
4. Includes the sender’s real feelings about the behavior, insofar as they are relevant to the feedback: “I get frustrated when I’m trying to make a point and you keep finishing my sentences.”
5. Is checked for clarity, to ensure that the receiver fully understands what’s being conveyed: “Do you understand what I mean when I say you seem to be sending me a double message?”
6. Asks relevant questions which seek information (has a problem-solving quality) with the receiver knowing why the information is sought and having a clear sense that the sender does not know the answer.
7. Specifies consequences of the behavior: “When you keep finishing my sentences, I get frustrated and want to stop talking to you.” “If you keep finishing my sentences, I won’t want to spend much time talking with you in the future.”
8. Is solicited or desired by the receiver.
9. Refers to behaviors about which the receiver can do something if s/he wants to: “I wish you’d stop interrupting me.”

Ineffective Feedback
1.  Uses evaluative/judgmental statements: “You’re being rude.” Or, generalized ones: “You’re trying to control the conversation.”
2.  Is delayed, saved up and “dumped.” Also known as ambushing. The more time that passes, the “safer” it is to give feedback. Induces guilt and anger in the receiver because after time has passed there’s usually not much s/he can do about it.
3.  Indirect or ricocheted: “Tom, how do you feel when Jim cracks his knuckles?” also known as “let’s you and him fight.”
4.  Feelings are concealed, denied or misrepresented: feelings are “smuggled” into the interaction by being sarcastic, sulking, competing to see who’s “right.” Other indicators: speculations on the receiver’s intentions, motivations or psychological “problems:” “You’re driving me nuts;” “You’re just trying to see how much you can get away with;” “You have a need to get even with the world.”
5.  Not checked. Sender assumes clarity or, often, is not interested in whether the receiver understands fully: “Stop interrupting me with ‘yes, buts!’“

6.  Asks questions that are really statements: “Do you think I’m going to let you get away with that?” Or, questions that sound like traps: “How many times have you been late this week?” Experts at the “question game” can easily combine the two: “How do you think that makes me feel?” “Do you behave that way at home too?”
7.  Provides vague consequences: “That kind of behavior is going to get you in trouble.” Or specifies no consequences, substituting, other kinds of leverage, such as “shoulds:” “You shouldn’t do that.”
8.  Is imposed on the receiver, often for his/her “own good.”
9.  Refers to behavioral over which the receiver has little or no control: “I wish you’d laugh at my jokes.”


After a long hiatus, preceded by my collecting and writing about the thoughts that had been percolating at that time, I am back to this blog, Pedagogy of Peace.

Since I last posted here the lack of simple physical safety in our US educational systems has become nearly epidemic.  The anniversary of the mass killings in the Sandy Hook, CT elementary school is upon us.  In the past month there were two other incidents of physical violence in US schools.

National Public Radio, yesterday, shared an interview with several teachers to find out how this has impacted them.

Teachers talk about safety in schools.

These are crucial conversations to be having.  The conversation is certainly nuanced, depending on where you are teaching but is relevant to us all, regardless of your location.  When I talk about Pedagogy of Peace I am referring to both inner peace as well as students being able to study in peaceful schools and communities.

We know, in the case of extreme school violence, there are issues of mental health involved, even though we really do not have a reliable and consistent matrix to use to talk about mental health and biases run rampant.

We know that social media creates increased access for all of our students to all sorts of information (good and bad) and influences (positive or less so).

There are intersecting circles of influences, biases and knowledge or lack thereof  in play. All relevant to the topic or question of Pedagogy of Peace.

We have to acknowledge the potential power of the group, our classes, and the potential that exists there for wisdom and healing.  Students often genuinely come to love and support each other and can provide much to each other, beyond what we can offer as teachers.  This does often happen but must be allowed for and supported.  We teachers have to be able to create space for this.

What do our students need?  What is required for the present and for the future? What do we need to do as teachers for their future and for a chance that the world will be closer to peace?  What can we do for the chance that our world can be restored and renewed and for hope for our children and our grandchildren?  How do I need to alter my thinking about my students and their needs?  How must I change my practices?  What does it mean to engage with my students and their learning in the ways that I have been exploring?

I propose that possibly, probably it begins with adopting humanistic elements back in to pedagogy.  I suggest that maybe it involves loving our students – as a necessity and not a luxury. It is good, common-sense, humanistic pedagogy to love our students and to employ the golden rule with them.  We must treat them as we would like to be treated because we would like to be part of the change that needs to happen on this planet.  Multiply the number of students you work with each year by at least 20, the number of people whose lives they most likely strongly influence.   You can do the math of how many people we can potentially have a positive impact upon through our teaching.  Let each of us do this in whichever ways we feel are right.  But let us, together, teach with a pedagogy of peace.

Angeles Arrien, a cultural anthropologist and writer, talks about different ways of engaging with the world.  She breaks them down in two four categories, the ways of the Warrior, Healer, Visionary, and Teacher.  I’ve come to see them all as elements of what a teacher must be and do in these times.

Arrien describes the way of the Warrior as showing up and choosing to be present.  This means a great deal more than showing up for class and more than getting up on time and “punching in” at school.  It means bringing your full presence to those students there with you.  It sometimes means leaving personal issues behind and sometimes it means bringing them in to the classroom with you if it serves the purpose of learning.

The way of the Healer asks us to pay attention to what has heart and meaning.  By this is meant listening carefully and watching thoughtfully.  It means to find out what is important to these fellow beings with you in that classroom.  What has heart and meaning for our students will also have energy and we are asked to tune in to and pay attention to that.

The way of the Visionary reminds us to tell the truth without blame or judgment. This includes giving honest feedback to your students, your fellow teachers and to administrators.  Say what you see and what you observe going on.  Share your thoughts and ideas and reactions so that change might result.  At the same time we are asked to avoid sitting in judgment of these other people for what they can or cannot do.  This is hard to do.

The way of the Teacher is to be open to outcomes and not attached to outcomes. Teach bringing out your best, give what you can but don’t assume that your students are going to learn what you teach or will do with their learning what you think they might.  We need to remain open to the possibility, indeed the probability, that our students will take their learning and go with it far beyond our own imaginations and knowledge.  This is as it should be.

The Way of Council is a communication and teaching pedagogy.  It was borne out of Native-American and other traditions as a way of communicating in a group and the process, again, involves a circle.  Every voice has its time. No agenda is forced.  The process is egalitarian and supportive of all learners.  In a Council people often find that there is much more to be experienced and heard than the words that people say.  By employing a practice of speaking from the heart and deep listening new understandings emerge.  Participants find that they can feel connected to others through this process and that there is great power in this.

Similarly, I want to add that for teachers and students alike, collective practices, group practices of all sorts, practices that collect and coalesce energy are rich and important.  We cannot underestimate the power of individual and group intention and the insight and wisdom offered through coming together in a circle or via individual or group meditation.  We can also harness these processes to help create coherence in our classrooms so that what we say and what we do as teachers connect and resonate with our students.  The energy, motivation and intentions of the teacher matter.  The intentional use of practices and of monitoring our own energy makes a difference in the teaching and learning process.

Maria Montessori’s approach, usually thought of as a pre-school educational process, has important implications for our work as well.  A careful exploration of Montessori’s ideas suggests that there are other, critical, factors to consider in planning for quality education.  Some of them have been incorporated in to certain mainstream classrooms.  Sometimes, however, it feels like lip service rather than a real commitment to the transformation of education.

Montessori said that learning had to be meaningful and relevant to the learner.   There are specific guidelines for teachers at every phase of the educational process which invite teachers in to the process of thinking carefully about all aspects of their classrooms including how activities are described, who is in charge of the completion of them and how that happens and the use of tactile elements in teaching.  Montessori’s banner call was to follow the learner.  Don’t lead, but follow.  See what the learner is interested in and how each one is engaging with the material.  Make your decisions as a teacher based upon that information.  More on what this will look like in a classroom to follow.

Waldorf  Education developed and promoted by Rudolph Steiner advocated for the inclusion of the arts and an attention to the periphery of things; beauty in the classroom, according to Steiner, is not considered a luxury.  From a progressive school’s literature, I found the following  “. . . at this juncture I would put forth the question, might not beauty, and the love of the beautiful, perhaps bring peace and harmony?  Could it not carry us forward to new concepts of life’s meaning?  Would it not establish a fresh concept of culture?  Would it not be a dove of peace between the various cultures of humankind?”  (The Unknown Craftsman, Soetsu Yanagi).  These ideas provide another question we must consider, how do we include the love of what is beautiful in our work?

To Wonder at Beauty… By Rudolph Steiner

by The Novalis Ubuntu Institute on Thursday, November 4, 2010 at 3:22am

To Wonder at Beauty…
By Rudolph Steiner

To wonder at beauty,
stand guard over truth
Look up to the noble,
resolve in the good
This leadeth us truly,
to purpose in living
To might in our doing,
to peace in our feeling
To light in our thinking,
and teaches us trust
In the working of God,
in all that there is
In the width of the world,
in the depth of the soul.
These thoughts cause me to reflect that all too often educational environments don’t consider beauty.  I was just in a couple of classrooms this week where beauty could not have been further away.  Instead there was a drive towards spaces that are sparse and perhaps easy to clean.  Can’t we and shouldn’t we be thinking about lovely colors, simple, elegant decorations and the goal of creating a space where we and our students want to spend time?

Paulo Friere, the Brazilian educator and activist has forced so many to look at what is chosen to teach versus what students need to learn in order to gain power and status to really make differences in their communities.  Freire talked about the banking method of education and its pitfalls.  This refers to the idea that teachers know what students need and it is, therefore, the students’ “job” to swallow and absorb what has been directed their way.  Freire was one early proponent of radically transforming education so that it would reflect the true nature of the relationship between education and those power and status dynamics.  His work with poor illiterate Brazilians shook things up.

Still much of education seem to continue to rely on a banking approach, even though it is at times disguised as something other than that.  Curricula often relies on it and standardized testing usually does.  In 2008 we saw the house of cards that is the United States and international financial system we educators really don’t want to be in to banking, do we?  We want to invest, rather, in the souls and spirits of our students.  We want to give them access to all of the power and mystery that is available to them.  As educators we should be concerned about shaking things up in our classrooms and communities.

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.

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