Creating a Healthy and Happy Education Ecosystem ~ Making Learning Come Alive in Schools and Professional Development

Creating a Healthy and Happy Education Ecosystem ~ Making Learning Come Alive in Schools and Professional Development

“If an audience only listens, they take away 12% of your content. By making it more visual you can increase audience comprehension and remembrance to 26%. But when you actually get them involved and responding, their understanding and ‘take away’ goes to 51%.” ~ Mark Lavergne

After presenting a breakout session at a conference recently, one of the participants pulled me aside and told me that the way I lead—with a healthy balance of audience participation, inquiry, open discussion and practical application—was the exception at professional development events she had attended, not the rule. She wasn’t telling me anything I hadn’t heard before. I have been told this a number of times. I have also seen how delegates learn in breakout sessions at conferences—primarily while seated either around round tables or in lecture style seating, and with the teacher speaking most of the time. While this teacher-led didactic model may seem quite familiar, and somewhat comfortable, it does not represent what education is about in its truest sense.

The Dalai Lama said, “It is vital that when educating our children’s brains we do not neglect to educate their hearts.” I would add that this must also be true when educating teens and adults. Lecture, especially when missing compelling stories, images or metaphor, primarily engages the mind, and struggles to reach the heart. To teach the heart, we must bring in a new and highly underused practice: Drawing information out.

“It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.” ~ Eugene Ionesco

The etymology of the word education comes from the Latin educere, which means to draw out. Education, at its root, is meant to be a co-creative, or co-constructive process where teachers proactively recognize, explore and include the voice and innate resourcefulness of students. Both students and teachers play an active role in the learning process by expressing feelings, sharing ideas and concerns, and being open to the new and unexpected.

In ancient Greek times, the philosopher Socrates aligned his teaching and learning practices with educere. He believed that lecture was not an effective means of teaching. He saw students as having inherent wisdom within, and believed that expressing this wisdom was essential in advancing the learning process. Known as the Socratic Method, students and teacher would engage in discussions that strengthened critical thinking and problem solving. The reciprocal nature of learning meant that education was more student-centered, rather than focused solely on the teacher. And it meant that teachers had to be good explorers—they had to look beyond the limits of their own minds and agendas to consider and include the ideas of others. As such, the path of education was fluid and had a few curves in it.

“Learning and teaching should not stand on opposite banks and just watch the river flow by; instead, they should embark together on a journey down the water. Through an active, reciprocal exchange, teaching can strengthen learning how to learn.” ~ Loris Malaguzzi

The co-active reciprocal nature of the Socratic Method can also draw inspiration from the intelligence of the natural world. Life moves through a continuous flow of giving and receiving. Breathing out we give, and breathing in we receive. There is the ebb and flow of the tides, and the cyclical process of trees giving leaves back to the earth and receiving their nutrients from the soil. Our planet flourishes only when it aligns with the inherent rhythms of life, and is balanced in an ongoing reciprocal exchange of energy. And it shows us with increasing devastation what happens when we tamper with its ecosystem.

We are not separate from the natural world, but rather an expression of it. Our choices and systems work best when they reflect and align with nature’s intelligence, and operate with a healthy balance of give and take. Individuals are at their best when they both give to others and take time for themselves. Relationships thrive when there is a balance of listening and speaking. Teams are most productive when roles and responsibilities are shared. And health systems operate most effectively when patients have an active say in their healing process.

Life is about balance, and for education to operate effectively there must be a balanced energetic exchange between teacher and student. In other words, the classroom must be in itself a healthy and balanced ecosystem, an extension of the inherent intelligence of our natural world. When the teacher and students are speaking and listening, and giving and receiving with fluidity and equality, and when the classroom is nourished and tended to with care, the ecosystem of education is alive!

We are only now learning to live in harmony with the planet. Rather than pushing our narrow agenda onto the earth, we are listening to it, observing and being curious, and adjusting our impact to best serve the greater whole. The education system is reflecting this global shift in consciousness by changing its direction from pushing an agenda to paying greater attention to the deeper needs of its students. Teachers, such as those in British Columbia, Canada, where I live, are waking up to the importance of educere. The provincial Teachers’ Federation has created a new education plan that demands more listening, curiosity, observation and adaptability from its teachers. It serves to better meet students in their creative reality, and align with their natural learning rhythms.

The shift that we see in the education paradigm has been a slow process, and there is still much work left to do. The teacher-led didactic model of education has been our primary experience of teaching and learning for a long time now. It has been an extension of our collective belief that we know what’s best for others, and of our conditioned impulse to inculcate and control, all engrained mindsets and behaviors circulating for centuries. Indeed, civilization has granted more power to the answer than the question, because so long as we know we have power and control.

But the moment we practice a dose of inquiry, we surrender a degree of control and rest in the idea that perhaps we don’t know, something we are highly uncomfortable with. Maybe that child or adult knows the answer, not us. Perhaps they are more resourceful than we think. Maybe they know more than we do!

When we were children, few adults ever asked us, “What does that mean to you?”, “What does your intuition say?”, “What do you think?”, “What would you do?”, or “What does your heart tell you?” And specific to the school system, few teachers spent much time in inquiry. Most granted much greater power to the answer and the standardized approach than to the question and the emergent approach.

Humility and letting go of control is necessary if teachers are to practice educere, and co-construct a healthy and happy education ecosystem. They must start by seeing their students as naturally creative, resourceful and whole in the same way Socrates did—as having something to contribute, as having value to share, even as young children. Only then can learning come more from the room, and less from the teacher. Only then can we teach and nourish the heart.

‎”Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how. The moment you know how, you begin to die a little. The artist never entirely knows. We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark.” ~ Agnes de Mille

Context. Experience. Debrief.

“Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I’ll remember. Involve me and I’ll understand.” ~ Confucius

Here is a simple model to design and lead a class with. Traditionally, teachers, certainly those who teach professional development, spend about 90% in context, 5% in experience, and 5% in debrief. The model I am suggesting is to spend 10% in context, 55% in experience, and 35% in debrief. This is a radical shift in how we teach, but following this model helps to ensure that more information is drawn from the students and that learning comes alive.

1. Context ~ 10%

Context, also known as content, is simply the topic or focus of a class, or class segment. For instance, for me a context could be imagination, listening, or curiosity. If I am teaching curiosity, for instance, I usually start with a quote, story, fact or statistic to introduce the topic and its importance. You could also show a picture and ask people to comment on it, or you could ask the room a question, such as, “What does curiosity mean to you?” and then build upon and create context from their answers. There are many ways to introduce a topic, but the key is not to hang out in context too long. It’s important that you go to the experience as soon as possible otherwise you will be speaking more than your students!

2. Experience ~ 55%

Experience is the part of the model generally missing in education. Here students learn about the context by involving themselves in creative auditory, visual and kinesthetic activities. I have hundreds of activities that I lead that are based in movement, storytelling, art, dialogue and more. These activities are fun and interactive, but more importantly they give participants an embodied sense of the context. The in-the-bones nature of the learning helps to have it retained not just in the minds of the students, but in their cellular bodies as well. When learning is felt, it is most remembered. Your favorite movie of all time is not one that provided you with the best facts, but one that stirred your emotions most deeply. It is through the emotional body that our attention is captivated, and it is from the emotional body that we feel inspired to act upon what we learned.

3. Debrief ~ 35%

The final step is debrief. Debrief is where you explore what the participants learned about themselves, each other and life in the experiential activities. It takes place on two levels:

  1. Debrief deepens the learning from the activity. By asking questions such as, “What did you learn by doing that?” or, “What did you notice or experience in the activity?” you help the students deepen their understanding and felt-sense of their learning, explore their insights from multiple angles, and learn from other people’s experiences.
  2. Debrief begins the process of applying the learning. For instance, you could ask, “How do you think you could apply that at work?” or “Where in your life do you need to practice that more?” This second layer of debriefing would only happen once the first part of the debrief has occurred—first you deepen what the learning was, and once that has happened you naturally move to how it can be used.

Debrief can happen in small groups and with the entire class. For instance, after an experiential activity I often have the participants debrief first in a small group of anywhere from two to six people, and then I invite everyone to share together, and to build upon each other’s thoughts and ideas.

Once the debrief is completed, you then go back to the context stage again with a new topic, ideally building upon, or segmenting from, the last context. This way you build learning incrementally, and meet the students slowly where they are.

Extra tip #1: Semi-Circle Chair Arrangement

“Children understand and remember concepts best when they learn from direct personal experience.”~ Joseph Cornell

The way I arrange the chairs in my playshops is in a horseshoe shape, and with no tables. The semi-circle is meant to represent a full circle (only it has to be half a circle otherwise some people cannot see the flip chart or screen). I tell everyone at the beginning of the session that in a circle everyone is a leader and no one is a leader; we are all at the front of the room, and no one is at the front of the room; we are all leaders learning from one another. Although I may be the main leader, I make it clear that I am there to learn from each person in the room. They are my teachers; we are all each other’s teachers.

I also set up the room this way because it creates space for us to move and engage. I want space for my participants to do the various experiential activities in the center of the horseshoe, and to see one another when seated. Sitting around tables can create silos, distraction and boredom, all of which we don’t want in schools and organizations.

If you have to use tables, you can still arrange them in a way that is more semi-circular. I was a guest at a Waldorf School grade four class, and the teacher arranged the desks and chairs in concentric horseshoes rather than in the traditional lecture style. He spoke of how it promoted more togetherness and engagement in the classroom.

Extra tip #2: Fun

The best teacher of children, in brief, is one who is essentially childlike.” ~ H. L. Mencken

If you want to engage your students, be playful and have fun! I regularly ask teenagers, “What is the number one thing you’d like more of from your teachers?” The most common answer is playfulness / fun. If you lighten up a bit, you will loosen your grip on how learning ought to look. The openness and flexibility that comes from being playful will help you tune into the room, dance in your students’ reality a bit more, and co-create a healthy and happy education ecosystem. Just cracking a joke here and there can wake the room up and keep them engaged.

So play, and let the room lead you. Let yourself move with a degree of uncertainty as to what the learning should look like, and how the day must unfold. Let yourself move into an interplay of teaching and learning until they blend into one indistinguishable fluid ecosystem.

“To lead, one must follow.” ~ Lao Tzu

*                   *                   *

Check out Vince’s book: Let the Fire Burn ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit of Children, A Children’s Book for Adults

Posted in Education and tagged , , , .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *