My Vision of Education
Meaningful education has its basis in psychology. What children learn has little meaning without connection to how they learn. We begin with a brief comment on how education has used and misused psychology.
The Tyranny of Normal
Normal. Its history in education and psychology chronicles the predilections of the dominant aspects of a culture. Normal means stability and predictability. It has less to say about the health of people than it does about the security (and attendant fears) of the vested interests of institutions and the people who profit from them. Normal’s pernicious effect on children and education has been trumpeted by many including Illich, Szasz, Foucault, Adler, and Friere…I could run this list all day and not be finished.
Normal in psychology is excruciatingly defined in the DSM. Have you ever seen it? There is a diagnoses waiting if you have 5 (or 3 or 8) of a possible 10 (or 12 or 18) behaviors of a certain type. Some diagnoses make sense as there is mental dysfunction. Others, such as seasonal affective disorder, make me cringe. Really? The weather is the cause of sickness and needs drugs to cure? I ask: who profits from the DSM going from a slim paperback (first published in 1950 with versions of normal and abnormal and described 60 disorders)—to two volumes the size of War and Peace (2012 version)? I leave it to you to answer. What was once considered emotional change is now called a disorder. If you can’t adapt, adjust, or learn to navigate change, then you have 5 of the 8 behaviors of Dependent Personality Disorder. Don’t worry. There is a pill for you in psychiatric drug treatments.
The problem with normal is objectification. In the psychology proselytized through the DSM health is objectified. We are sick if our behaviors don’t meet the norm. The bitter irony is that objectification is a leading contributor to dysfunction in mental health. The DSM even recognizes it. (For example, V61.10—“Partner Relational Problem”).
Public school pays homage to behavioral psychology and cognitive psychology. The student is judged by his or her behavior. Normal is the behavior the school needs to accomplish its goal of meeting cultural criteria which, in our times, is competing in the global marketplace combined with no-child-left-behind standardized tests. Academic normal (cognitive ability) is defined by testing. Children are then sorted (objectified) according to the results. Character normal is defined by behavior norms so that the teacher can transmit the curriculum to the greatest number of students, and especially to those who succeed academically.
Testing is a psychological event. Normal becomes the ability to perform on a par with peers (within standard deviations) in the testing environment. This objectification is not just about data retention and regurgitation, or about the “intelligence” to solve problems. It is also about the ability to perform in a containerized pressured environment. The child has been made into the receptacle for the larger cultural narrative of competition, isolation, and individualism. Each child’s fate is in the hands of the testers; the locus of control is external. The not so subtle message is that a secure future and our place in the culture depend on success in the testing environment and the approval and beneficience of others.
Despite many program reforms such as cooperative learning, use of technology, hands-on projects, and community college for high school students the objectification continues. Why? Because while testing (IQ, academic, aptitude, MMPI) reinforces and celebrates objectification, testing is not its cause. That lies in deeper waters.
Alternative education lives outside the public system for the most part. Though its roots in America trace back to the earliest colonial days, alternative education hooked up with Humanistic psychology and took a great leap forward in the 60’s. Led by in education by John Holt and many “free-schoolers” and in psychology by Carl Rogers alternative educators add concepts such as democracy, multi-age learning, and the child’s right to be heard and treated with dignity and respect in the school environment. Testing minimized or abolished, a rebellion (as fit the times) against everything associated with normal, alternative education had many guises springing from similar underlying principles of listening to children, respect for diversity, consideration for curriculum relevancy (often including student interests) and connection with the larger community.
And I say, Hooray!…And I say, not enough.
My 30 years of experience indicates that elimination of objectification occurs more often in alternative education. However, normal is insidious. For instance, devising a program as a reaction to a problem is the normal course of action. Problems originate in the consciousness of the participants. Responses must speak to that depth in order to generate effective change.
Alternative education has, for the most part, not incorporated the advances in psychology and contiguous disciplines. (More on this below) It has chosen a social positioning instead of a consciousness position. This is, in my opinion, a mistake that leaves alternative education on the periphery of the new paradigm that is unfolding in some many areas of life.
We need a comprehensive vision for all education that transcends normal, allows educators to create the programs that make sense for their constituency, and maximizes the learning community as central to education.
This vision must extend to the whole of society. In other words it must be the education component of a paradigm shift. We cannot view education as an isolated discipline for the misconception of separation and isolation is the essence of normal.
Enter optimal well-being.
Optimal well-being starts with these questions: Who is the child? Pure and simple: who is the child?
The inquiry into who is the child dissolves all objectification. The inquiry takes us into fields of transpersonal psychology, holistic education, and beyond. For example, through Noble prize winner Ilya Prigogine’s work in the Brussels Free School (a university) we know that humans, indeed all life, self organizes to greater complexity when in open communication with their environment. What does this mean to child development? What does it mean for relationships with children? Couple this with the insightful and persuasive work in the field of the evolution of consciousness by luminaries such as Gebser, Jantsch, and Wilber and patterns emerge that tell us much about the unfolding nature of the child’s consciousness. One insight: Objectification denies complexity. Many more insights await those who engage the inquiry.
There are similar contributions from anthropology, spiritual philosophy, brain research (e.g., interpersonal neurobiology), and other branches of science. The synergy provides insight of such magnitude that sometimes the term “optimal well-being” seems an understatement. The scope and breadth broadens to an open-ended participation in evolution and knowledge of self and universe.
Optimal well-being depends upon knowledge and relationship to the child’s consciousness in the same way that a bountiful and beautiful garden depends upon knowledge of soil, amount of sunlight, type of drainage, fertilizer, and respect for individual plant/environment needs. Knowledge of a child’s consciousness means awareness of how the child organizes his or her world—how the child perceives time, space, identity, respect, community, love, death, aesthetic, meaning-making, sex, and values.
This knowledge includes the realization that in every one of these qualities is radically different for a 5, 10, 15, and 20 year old. And it includes creating relationships that nourish the whole of the child’s consciousness in the same way as fertilizing a garden brings forth its blossoming fruition and beauty. (Click here for a quick overview of Natural Learning Relationships—consciousness based engagement of children).
We have expanded psychology to the breadth of the child’s consciousness. Only now can optimal well-being emerge. When it does, what happens?
Everything changes. Relationship becomes more intimate. We enter being –to-being relationship. As the environment and relationships become more and more developmentally appropriate (refined) new perspectives awaken in both adult and child. There occurs the shaping and learning of primary values in the child as well as the further development of these values in the adult. Values learned include trust, compassion, integrity, resilience, and awareness of the sacred. Achieving this takes time, commitment, and sensitivity. Engaging this with careful attention can both prevent and solve many problems with children.
At the moment we act with intention, we end the chauvinism that we are bringing up our children. Nothing less than our own self knowledge, our spiritual and interpersonal growth, and our cognitive and emotional competence develop in tandem with the child’s consciousness.
Everything changes. We are free of blindly acquiescing to agendas based on culture and tradition. We are not trying to heal wounds, though many psychological wounds do heal when engaging the child’s consciousness. We insist that our community be based on commitment to consciousness. We have the confidence that the best outcomes for children and ourselves emerges with optimal well-being. Outcomes are not fixed (which scares some) and we realize that impositions of normal only retard the outcome expression.
Everything changes. Normal is long gone and takes its insidious shadow of pathology with it. Fear about what’s wrong, what’s broken, what’s sick lessens. Change is embraced and navigated in relationship. Well-being emerges and the natural capacities of spirituality, social justice, and community as well as rightful place, trust, autonomy, and interconnectedness manifest according to developmental opportunity. We don’t have to teach for these precious qualities of self to come forward. These qualities are of our being, our very selves. We just have to nourish consciousness.
The aim of education changes. The content of the curriculum is seen as a way of nourishing the consciousness of the child. We teach civics to 15 year olds but always in way to help the children actualize autonomy. Democracy? It’s an inevitable outcome. We include ecology for 11 year olds but as a way to talk about relationships and foster trust. Prejudice? No chance to take root. Respect for diversity is not taught because it is lived. Curiosity, relationship, learning? Never not there—because it is ever-present.
Society changes. Added to the synergy of all of the above is the value that a focus on optimal well-being brings to therapy, to social service organizations that serve children, and most importantly to families. Optimal well-being is the leverage point from which we can reclaim a healthy society. Consider that for the first time in recorded history we have the opportunity to know and participate in relationships that nourish consciousness. Imagine a world where that happens. The great poet Blake said “What is now real was once imagined.” This is not idealism when the knowledge and means are at hand to live in optimal well-being.
Knowledge itself changes. Josette’s PhD committee at Fielding Graduate Institute insisted that her data revealed that wisdom best described the changes emerging in adults who had consistently used Natural Learning Relationships. These were graduates of programs and clients of ours from over 10 years ago. In that respect, hers was a longitudinal study of adults who made intentional effort to nurture children’s development of optimal well-being. The guidance that she was witnessing the emergence of wisdom came from the rigorous academicians of her dissertation committee.
Aristotle, a great naturalist, coined the term entelechy to describe how wisdom expresses itself in humans. Distilled to its essence, entelechy means the essential informing principle of a living thing.
The list of “entellectuals” is long and distinguished. Gottfried Leibniz, a founder of calculus and originator of the notion of the perennial philosophy, used entelechy extensively to describe an organism’s self-sufficiency and as the source of their “internal activities.” Adler used the term to help describe the child’s inexorable movement towards greatness. Froebel, and later Montessori, referred to entelechy to help describe the vital nature of the child and then developed pedagogies designed to maximize this vitality. Carl Jung, Gregory Bateson, Thomas Merton, and many others have used entelechy as a springboard to deepen appreciation of the source of knowledge, awareness, and the ability to self-reflect.
Wisdom is not something we put into a child—it is already there. In his book The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, Abraham Maslow asks, “What if the organism is seen as having ‘biological wisdom’?” In every stage of life, there is wisdom that is present and available to the human. In every stage of childhood, wisdom is present and available in the child.
We are born with it. The wisdom we are referring to is the same as that which Gregory Bateson called “systemic wisdom.” In his book Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Bateson defined wisdom as an awareness of the interlocking circuits that connect the elements of the natural world. He said, “I use ‘wisdom’ as a word for recognition of and guidance by knowledge of the total systemic creature.”
In Natural Learning Relationships, we refer to wisdom that is in the moment—the simultaneous knowledge/action that optimizes the wellbeing of the organism. Wisdom is right-action of a person’s developmental moment in relationship to the context. In a state of optimal well-being, a person can experience that which is most meaningful, beautiful, and true for their developmental stage and their moment of life.
My Vision of Education
Entellectual, not intellectual, educators are called for. Only entellectuals will be able to design the programs and curriculum that support wisdom-based relationships in the communities in which they teach. Only they will expand into the disciplines of spiritual inquiry, anthropology, evolution of consciousness, science, family dynamics, nature of wisdom and all psychological discourses. Their abiding inquiry will center on the consciousness of the child and the relationships that support it.
Any educator in any system can be an entellectual. They might not have the opportunity to bring all their wisdom to the fore, but they will find many opportunities to do so.
My school has a specific statement of its approach to the consciousness of children. Relationships rule; all relationships serve optimal well-being. Curriculum is designed according to individual and family values. The child is included in the design of education within their developmental capacities. Families enroll and there are many points of intersection between home and school. Values emerge that have meaning for school and home. Teacher Training includes full scale inquiry into the disciplines named in the preceding paragraph as well as how to engage parents and siblings of students. It also includes inquiry into self knowledge. “Do our actions serve optimal well-being” is a legitimate question and part of the staff culture.
My school four simple goals:
- Academic excellence and a mastery of all the important skills needed to maximize their educational potential.
- The social ability to bring greater perspective, understanding, compassion, and problem-solving to the world we live in.
- The ability to self-reflect in a way that builds confidence and helps a child know their place in the world.
- An enriched— never diminished—ability to find joy and wonder in themselves, the world, and people around them.
Impossible? The Summa Academy will open next fall. And I have done prototypes over the past 30 years.
I realize that I raise many questions. Can educators take responsibility for understanding human consciousness? Can we get away from our addiction to programs? Can we care more about how learning occurs than our agendas, no matter how socially just they are? Can we see that organizing around our wounds is the normal reaction but often leaves us in an “anti” position? Can we commit to optimal well-being as the basis for our work?
Most importantly, can we include ourselves, our knowledge base, our epistemology—are we willing to answer the question: How do you know?
These questions are integral to my school. Answers are emergent, not fixed and so the school evolves.
That’s my vision of education. What’s yours?