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Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

Surfin’ USA

Ahh, Spring break.  A moment to pick my head up, take time to reflect.  Smell the breeze, full of life and hope and promise.  And then return my gaze to my work and its place in the broader educational landscape.  And this spring’s reflections have led me here (with much owed to the work of Parker Palmer and J. Krishnamurti.)


What I see is this: we are a culture of surfers.  We cruise across surfaces, channel surfing, surfing the internet, crossing vast terrains without ever, or at best rarely, scratching these surfaces.  Don’t know if it is cause or effect, chicken or egg, but schooling seems to either reflect this culture or else it is perhaps where we become acculturated to the game of surfing.  We teachers are obsessed with surfaces, how much ground can we cover, before handing our charges off to the next leader who will continue on the quest.  Fatser, faster, further, further.


I looked up the origins of the word surface and found that is closely related to the word superficial.  It is defined, partly, as the extreme outer boundary or layer where an object meets the world around it.


Anchors away!

As a teacher I am not interested in surfaces.  Yes, edges and boundaries are interesting places, places where two beings (the knower and the known) may meet, but can we engage with deeper elements of each? From the depths of one being to the depths of another?  Is it possible that the encounter with one’s learning can be a deeper experience?  Can a deeper part of one’s self, one’s interiority reach towards a deeper aspect of the living subject?  How deep can we go?  What if the educational mission were not about covering subject areas, not about brushing past surfaces with the least possible affect on either knower or known, but rather exploring and exposing the hidden wholeness of ourselves with the vastness and complexity of our study, with the goal of emerging from the encounter transformed?  Possible?  Idealistic?  Too “touchy-feely” for you?  Or does this strike a chord and touch the hollowness, emptiness and sense of alienation that too many teachers (and students) feel.


I live on an island in north Puget Sound, and I am often struck by the visiting tourists that start to arrive this time of the year in our area.  They are driven to cross the water and gaze over it without ever getting wet.  They cross surfaces and think they have seen the ocean, think that they know it.  But with our limited access to the top insignificant layers of the sea, we know nothing of its wonders, its diversity, its power, and fragility, grace and wholeness.

Let's get wet!


As we guide our students over the terrain of Algebra 1, Civics, and Language Arts, are we guiding them to know these subjects or just surf over them?  I want to heretically urge you to try to cover less territory and dive deeply into the particularities and complexities of your studies.  Let us embrace a single poem and explore it with passion, depth, openness and wonder.  Can we, with our students become absorbed, engrossed, rapt, and fully engaged with our learning (and with one another while we’re at it)?  As William Blake wrote, let us “see the world in a grain of sand.”  I truly believe that it is through the study of the microcosm that the universal is revealed.


Martin Buber wrote at length about what he called the Ich-Du or I-Thou encounter: “It is a relationship that stresses the mutual, holistic existence of two beings. It is a concrete encounter, because these beings meet one another in their authentic existence, without any qualification or objectification of one another. In an I-Thou encounter, infinity and universality are made actual (rather than being merely concepts).”  Real education can be conceived of as a series of such I-Thou encounters, leading to transcendence and transformation.  This is what I would like to aim for in my classroom.


Krishnamurti wrote: “Let us go into it deeply together.  Not I see it and you don’t see it, or you see it and I don’t see it.  But we both go into it.  Deeply. Together.”  So simple, so beautiful.  Let’s go!!


And, as long as I’m ranting, if we must explore surfaces, can we possibly give up our obsession with “covering” everything.  “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to cover the whole curriculum this year.”  “But Sam, we already covered that; let’s move on.”  “Don’t worry about that yet; we’ll cover it next year.”  To cover something is to hide it from view, to prevent light from reaching it, to overwhelm or obliterate an object.  One covers a corpse after all the life is gone from the body.


Let us start to use the life-giving metaphors of “uncovering” and “illuminating,” and stop using the cold language of death to describe our work.  Let us explore, dive into, illuminate, elucidate, breathe into, wonder about, and dare I say, enjoy and revel in the living subjects with which we engage our students.


Leopard Girl in half-lotus

So, have you ever allowed your classroom to be a place to “go into it deeply. Together.”  Have you ever experienced this as a learner?  Have you known a teacher who could nurture the learner’s capacity for depth of understanding, and knowing and transformation?  I have been privileged to witness my share of such enlightened teaching and learning moments.  I would truly love to hear your story.  Tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine.






About Paul Freedman

I am the founding Director of The Salmonberry School in Eastsound, WA. I have taught elementary school in public and private settings for the past 19 years. I serve as a contributing editor for Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice (Formerly the Holistic Education Review.) I also serve on the faculty of the Self Design Graduate Institute. I hold an MA in EDU from Goddard College.


4 thoughts on “Surfin’ USA

  1. Paul, As always a beautiful and thoughtful post. Do we value depth culturally? Is education often associated with the cultivation of depth, at least in an American context?


    Posted by Kirsten | April 8, 2011, 3:00 pm
    • Thanks, Kirsten,

      In short…No. We don’t particularly value depth as a culture or as an educational system. But we could. And, just maybe, if kids’ daily learning experiences assumed a depth of engagement, one that teachers tried to maximize, maybe the resulting sense of meaning and relevance could be a step towards curing certain social ills that are symptoms of the post-modern cultural miasma and individuals’ sense of alienation and hopelessness. And, you know what, as well as potentially transformative to move towards “deep education”, it might be a really fun new challenge.

      A very small example: In my multi-age elementary class we are studying the Middle Ages as a multidisciplinary integrated thematic unit (inspired by many kids’ obvious interest and enthusiasm – a good place to start.) The kids are working in cooperative groups as they move through simulated experiences designed to help them understand what it might be like to live through different aspects of medieval culture (Manor Life, Monasteries, Crusades, etc.)

      In addition, for the next ten weeks, they will each spend several two-to-three -hour blocks each week as “apprentices” under the supervision of a “master craftsman” in a “guild” that they have selected. One of these groups, for example, working three kids-to-one adult volunteer will be making paper, learning about and practicing printmaking, studying calligraphy and illuminations, and leather bookbinding. Other guild groups will include medieval woodworking (with real sharp tools – drawknives, foot-powered lathes, etc); there will be a cooking and apothecary guild, cooking on outdoor open fires, and there will be a needle-craft guild that is beginning with a field trip to help shear sheep, and will include tapestry weaving, embroidery, etc etc.

      The kids will be using their hands and heads synchronously. They will be doing applied math. They will be reading essays and writing reflections as well as scholarly essays. They will be researching the history of their chosen craft and they will actually be using skills. Guess what, the kids are absolutely bursting with excitement about their school work. They are eager to do extra homework. They are talking endlessly with parents, friends and relatives about their studies. And the teachers are just as excited as the kids.

      This is not a trade-off as we sacrifice important curriculum in favor of fluff. In fact the kids are doing their best writing of the year, for example. We are still finding time to “cover” (yuck) everything we “need” to.

      I should maybe say too, as an aside, that I am very aware of the potential eurocentrism of this unit of study and also the potential for glorifying the hierarchy, patriarchy, etc etc that is embedded in medieval European culture. I was heavily influenced by Rianne Eisler’s caveats about “dominator curriculum.” We are making every effort to take a balanced, critically aware and multicultural approach.

      The point is we’re trying to “go deep” into the curriculum – to feel it, taste it and live it. And we are beginning to witness the depths of learners’ selves that are being touched, and that are beginning to emerge. More on that in the future.

      This kind of education takes a lot of teacher time and energy, resources and creativity. And yes it requires a very flexible and supportive school culture. But it is not impossible. I encourage us all to push the boundaries and see what can be done within our unique learning environments to drive the learning ever deeper. Let’s allow the kids to get dirty and to “feel into” the living subjects of their study.

      Thanks for the chance to chat, Kirsten.


      Posted by Paul | April 10, 2011, 4:41 pm
  2. I had a moment like this with my students today when I let a lesson go on longer than planned because of their engagement and interest. I asked them, after discussing examples of what the word “effective” means, what effective readers do or are like. Their list is a gem of ideas better than any I could have come up with on my own. I let go of preconceived notions and allowed their flow of ideas to have loose reign. It was lovely!

    Posted by Elisa Waingort | April 12, 2011, 3:55 am
    • Hi Elisa,

      Sounds beautiful. In so many school moments the structure (bells, scheduled specialist times, the shuffling of kids between teachers on rigid class schedules, and more than anything perhaps, the pre-determined list of learning outcomes and standards) inhibits depth, spontaneity and the likelihood of any real engagement. You are lucky to have found this opportunity to follow the learners. So glad you took advantage of it!!

      Thanks for commenting.


      Posted by Paul | April 13, 2011, 8:30 pm

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