The Pedagogy of Perception

Last Friday, I attended a fascinating forum on Liberal Education put on by Benedictus at Blackfriars in Oxford. Its title was The Liberal Arts -Education and Society.

Every guest was invited to offer a 5 minute reflection on one aspect of Liberal Education. Anthony Radice, for instance, offer these thoughts on Memory and Liberal Education.

I wanted to make a few exploratory remarks about Knowledge and Perception, and ended up speaking mainly about horses…

I started by looking at how Bitzer defines a horse in Hard Times (“Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth…etc”) and said that those of us who defend a “knowledge-rich education” are too often lampooned as calling for this sort of desiccated approach.

I contrasted Bitzer with Sissy Jupe, who is unable to ‘define’ a horse because she has grown up amongst them. Knowledge, for her, in this domain at least, is entwined with Life – and is vivified as a result. This, I argued, is essential for a cultivating a rich, healthy perception of the world. C S Lewis makes the same point in Abolition of Man, arguing for an education that has “some blood and sap in it—the trees of knowledge and of life growing together.

I then used C S Lewis to say that not only should knowledge be conveyed vividly, but affirmatively too:

Of Ruksh and Sleipnir and the weeping horses of Achilles and the war-horse in the Book of Job—nay even of Brer Rabbit and of Peter Rabbit—of man’s prehistoric piety to ‘our brother the ox’—of all that this semi-anthropomorphic treatment of beasts has meant in human history and of the literature where it finds noble or piquant expression—

I wondered what effect a presentation of knowledge in such a way – Vivid (memorable) and with a Positive / Affirmative Disposition – has on students’ Perception. I marshalled Blake (“I look through [the eye], and not with it…”); Coleridge (“We receive but what we give…”); Owen Barfield (“…if quantum physics is true, we see reality not as it is, but as we are…”) to make the point that we have a choice about the way we attend to the world, and that the world responds in kind.

I finished by saying that it was an under-explored job of teachers to aid this effort so that their students’ world is more animated, more enchanted, more pulsating (and by extension less alienated) than it would be otherwise. I said that teachers could perhaps put more thought into whether their lessons were going to have the same effect on their students as the experience I have recounted by Toynbee, who “still retained, some forty years after one experience of the kind, an abiding sense of personal participation in the war of 90-80 B.C. between Rome and her Italian allies…” 

Could there be more thought, analysis and experimentation to develop a Pedagogy of Perception?

 

Exam Results and League Tables

UK independent schools are in a bit of a bind when it comes to exam results and league tables. They know that their parents are in one sense “customers” who like to know what they’re “buying”, but they also know that it is the most important aspects of a good education that are the hardest to measure. So I was very heartened to read the Headmaster of Malvern College’s line on public examinations, which seemed to strike the right balance between the pragmatic and the romantic:

If you have been looking for Malvern in the so-called League Tables, you are not likely to find us as Malvern, along with about half of the other independent schools in the country, does not voluntarily participate in an attempt to rank schools solely on the criterion of perceived success in public examinations. In no way does this mean that we do not celebrate the academic achievements of our pupils; indeed, the academic cornerstone of Malvern is central to much of what motivates us and we are extremely ambitious for our students… At Malvern, we make special provision in a range of ways for those who are academically gifted and have every intention of continuing this programme.

The principal reason for our being unwilling to enter league tables is that we do not wish to support a system which becomes the raison d’être for many schools and limits and influences, to a disproportionate extent, a focus on a broad education. In simple terms, we believe that there are a range of other factors of enormous importance in assessing the education offered in a particular school and we do not subscribe to the view that schools can be assessed in the same way as, for example, football clubs.

Secondly, the criteria used to determine where schools lie on such tables are, in essence, the construct of newspapers and different criteria may be applied by different newspapers in any particular year: for example, A*-A, A*-B, A*-C and A*-E may all be used depending upon the newspaper.

Our pupils are aware that they will move into a competitive world and it is vitally important that each one of them has a keen academic focus and builds the strongest academic profile possible. But we do not wish to be an ‘academic factory’ and the rounded education which attaches significant importance to music, art, drama, games, Duke of Edinburgh Award activities, as well as work in the broader community and beyond, are also at the heart of our overall programme.

(http://www.malverncollege.org.uk/Exam-Results)

Oundle Trivium

I recently came across this initiative from Oundle School, and was so heartened that I think Mr Gunson‘s words need quoting in full! What a wonderful example of a school actually enacting that well-worn phrase: “education for its own sake”.

Will follow with interest…

It is vital that pupils do not equate all learning with assessment.

Trivium has no syllabus and no prescribed content. It is a course based on ‘interestingness’. The brief is to educate; to introduce pupils to ideas and culture, to sow seeds and to broaden the educational experience.

The topics explored vary from group to group; whilst one class is studying the works of Koestler, another may be immersed in the art of Berlin. One set of pupils may be discussing ethical aspects of technological advance, whilst another is introduced to the poetry of Yeats.

Many of the themes will overlap, and this is important: one’s appreciation of a work of art is enhanced by an understanding of historical context.

The close relationship between the teacher and the pupils develops during the course of the year. Small set sizes allow for the classroom atmosphere to be similar to that of a tutorial. The philosophy of the course can be summed up by E. M. Forster: only connect.

Rudolf Steiner’s Blackboard Drawings

I’ve just finished Gary Lachman’s very enjoyable biography of Rudolf Steiner, which I hope to summarise in a later post.

For now I thought I would share a few of Steiner’s rather haunting and childish blackboard drawings with which he illustrated his lectures. Loads more available online of course.

(source: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2014/03/26/arts/openings-in-tokyo/rudolf-steiner/#.VyDnKvkrKUk)

(http://visualmelt.com/Rudolf-Steiner)

Toynbee: How History can enrich perception

Arnold Toynbee, in A Study of History, digresses to muse upon…

“the experience of a communion on the mundane plane with persons and events from which, in his usual state of consciousness, he is sundered by a great gulf of Time and Space that, in ordinary circumstances, is impassable for all his faculties except his intellect. A tenuous long-distance commerce exclusively on the intellectual plane is an historian’s normal relation to the objects of his study; yet there are moments in his mental life — moments as memorable as they are rare — in which temporal and spatial barriers fall and psychic distance is annihilated; and in such moments of inspiration the historian finds himself transformed in a flash from a remote spectator into an immediate participant, as the dry bones take flesh and quicken into life.

He then gives this example from his own life:

“The present writer, for example, still retained, some forty years after one experience of the kind, an abiding sense of personal participation in the war of 90-80 B.C. between Rome and her Italian allies as lasting consequence of the instantaneous effect on him of a passage in the table of contents (periocha) of the eighty-ninth book of Livy’s history upon which he had stumbled one day when, during his reading as an undergraduate for the school of Literae Humaniores at Oxford, he was unexpectantly ploughing his way through the surviving précis of the lost books of Livy’s work in the faint hope of gleaning some additional scraps of knowledge of the appalling history of the Hellenic World in the last two centuries B.C… As the student read this quickening passage of an arid epitome, he was transported, in a flash, across the gulf of Time and Space from Oxford in A.D. 1911 to Teanum in 80 B.C., to find himself in a back yard on a dark night witnessing a personal tragedy that was more bitter than the defeat of any public cause.”

(my emphasis)

Sehnsucht – C S Lewis

The German language has a word for the longing that C S Lewis evokes in much of his work: sehnsucht. The Wikipedia article describes it as a feeling of nostalgia for a time that we did not necessarily experience.

Here is C S Lewis giving voice to that “piercing joy” of sehnsucht.

“Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside is . . . the truest index of our real situation…”

“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

Primal Trust

I’ve just discovered, and am hugely enjoying, Gary Lachman’s work on esotericism. I’m feeling myself becoming ever more interested in Steiner’s spiritual education and its hopes of resisting the rising tide of materialism. I particularly liked this comment about cultivating a positive disposition towards life:

So it would not be an exaggeration, I think, to say that I have devoted my life to trying to get a decent grip on those fundamental existential questions: who am I, why am I here, and what am supposed to do now that I am? I do not consider myself a particularly “spiritual” person. I don’t like the term particularly, because it has acquired connotations that I find unhelpful. The historian Jacques Barzun—another mainstream thinker whose work has influenced me—once made a handy distinction between “spiritual” and “things of the spirit”. Barzun feels himself to be ”obedient to ‘spirit’, knowing that from it alone come the things that justify life —things, in Nietzsche’s words, ‘transfiguring, exquisite, mad, and divine’”. I know how Nietzsche and Barzun feel. Part of this “obedience” involves developing a trust in life, a bottom-line knowledge that, although it is a grim and difficult business, life ultimately means well by us. Gebser called this trust Urvertrauen, “primal trust”, as opposed to the angst we feel most of the time. You can say that I try to make this primal trust the default setting for my attitude toward life. This doesn’t let us off the hook. We still have to do the work. I’m not a believer in “letting go and letting God”. God has enough on his plate and passing the buck on to him only makes us lazy. Anything of value is achieved through our own efforts, including our own evolution. Having a primal trust in life helps us to make those efforts.

(from an interview with Aaoron Cheak here)

Children and the Use of Technology

(I published this piece on the Keystone blog a few months ago, and reprint it below.)

One topic often discussed in my conversations with parents is the impact of technology on family life.

Context – how common is technology in children’s lives?

The pervasiveness of technology in children’s lives is undisputed. The Connected Kids Report last year showed that children aged 5 – 16 spend an average of six and a half hours a day in front of a screen, compared with around three hours in 1995. (UK adults spend even more time). Smartphone and tablet ownership amongst children is at an all-time high; did you know that more than one in 10 children aged 3 – 4 now have their own tablet (11%, up from 3% in 2013)?

Few areas of modern life are technology-free and teenagers in particular perceive themselves to be at a social disadvantage if they do not have a smartphone. Combine this peer pressure with an educational environment ever more in thrall to the use of technology in the classroom (the growth of BETT even during the years I have been running Keystone has been staggering) and the occasional concerned voice raised in opposition to this omnipresent technology is, if heard, rarely listened to.

What is wrong with technology?

Technological improvements have liberated and enriched whole areas of human activity in ways that the most visionary alchemist of yore could never have predicted. Few of its critics fail to recognise these contributions. Nonetheless, there are three particular concerns that parents have as they see the relationship their children have with technology.

  1. Social media – a shallow form of communication. Perhaps the most popular form of technology in children’s lives is social media, particularly Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. One of the most eloquent critics of the impact of social media on children’s social development is Sherry Turkle, whose books Reclaiming Conversation and Alone Together are well worth reading for parents who want to explore the issue further. She points to the fact that children have started to prefer digital communication over in-person / face-to-face communication, in part because it is easier to control. Children, especially in their teenage years when many are so nervous about how they are perceived, prefer to present more perfected selves via digital means rather than face the messiness, stumbles and mistakes of real-world, real-time communication. Of course, though, it is exactly this older form of face-to-face communication that is so important to the development of the self, and the development of such attributes as empathy. A 2011 University of Michigan scan of studies of American college students found a 40-per-cent decrease in empathy in the past four decades, with the steepest declines appearing in the past 10 years. These figures lead Professor McGilchrist to comment last year that smartphones were making children “borderline autistic” – though this was critiqued well in BigThink. But Turkle is surely persuasive when she says: “The predictability and ‘friction-free’ nature of virtual worlds is compelling to children, but it doesn’t teach them about relationships — conversations do.”
  2. Modern technology is distracting. A completely obvious point, you will say – butthis article by technology scholar Clay Shirky made me see just what a problem distraction has become, even for extremely able NYU undergraduates. In it Shirky reminds us how bad humans are at multi-tasking; draws our attention to the sinister pact made between smartphone Operating Systems and app companies to ensnare children’s attention neurochemically; and – perhaps most interestingly – shows that even students who do not bring smartphones to lessons can be distracted by the “secondary smoke” of a neighbour’s phone.  In my own experience of watching teenagers, I so often see evidence of that cruel tug placed on children by an unread message or status update, to the extent that some seem almost powerless to resist.
  3. Modern technology mediates and diminishes experience and perception. In a related concern, such technology has begun to invade experience to such an extent that children’s perception of their childhoods is in danger of being dulled, alienated and diminished. This is, of course, equally a problem for adults, and Turkle’s work is full of sad – but all-too-recognisable – stories of, for instance, the parent who reads his emails while giving his son a bath or who finishes a text as she greets her child at the school gates. Our relationships have started to slip into what researchers call an “absent presence.” We live in what Nicholas Carr calls The Shallows. In one telling statistic, although 82 per cent of adults acknowledge that using your phone during an in-person conversation hurts that interaction, 89 per cent keep doing it anyway. In my own experience, I fear that even technology use that is focused on the child (e.g. using your smartphone to record your child’s sports match or play) acts as a barrier between parent and experience – thereby draining it of some of its meaning.

What can parents do?

If the above three concerns strike you as plausible (and I’d love to hear from you whether they do or don’t), here are a few suggestions from the literature on what could be done in response – some easier to implement than others…

  1. Be strong. One of the most interesting comments I read in Turkle’s work is that children both longed for more conversations with their parents and peers (saying they turned to their own devices because others were similarly plugged in) and appreciated the liberation from them when firm rules were put in place. Even Steve Jobs, amongst other technology entrepreneurs, was firm in the limits he placed on his children’s technology use. As in many areas of bringing up children, parents should help children delay gratification and resist temptation in the secure knowledge that “they know better.”
  2. Model a healthy relationship with technology. As Turkle has pointed out, if a child sees their parent obsessed with a “shiny object” from the moment they’re born, they will want one for themselves as soon as they have the words to ask for it. “In parental slang, it has become known as the ‘passback,’ passing back the iPhone to quiet your toddler in the rear seat of the car.” Turkle recommends cultivating “sacred spaces” in family life, such as the kitchen, the dinner table and – a surprise for me – the car, in which no technology is allowed and conversation (even messy grunts and half-articulations) is fostered. If you need a hand, a friend from New Zealand points out that there are now apps to stop you overusing apps! The novelist Zadie Smith used a site called Freedom to help her avoid distraction and finish her novel.
  3. Encourage the experience of solitude and hands-on activity. Turkle convincingly points to studies showing that it is “only when we are alone with our thoughts — not reacting to external stimuli — that we engage that part of the brain’s basic infrastructure devoted to building up a sense of our stable autobiographical past.” Some schools have built in wilderness / craft experience, such as Australia’s Timbertop programme or the UK’s Forest Schools, into adolescent education. However, most parents will find that simply encouraging their children to get out into the natural world or pursue quiet individual activities like modeling clay and sketching will help to achieve the same goals: slow children down and counteract the distractibility of technology. Turkle again: “When you watch children play with them, you see how the physicality of the materials offer a resistance that gives children time to think, to use their imaginations, to make up their own worlds. ”
  4. Interrogate the school’s policy on technology use. If you have found any of the above convincing, send some of the articles and books mentioned to your school. What is their policy on smartphone and tablet use? If they agree with the three problems mentioned above, how do they help their pupils overcome them?

Kidzania and the growth of a child’s imagination

My office happens to be near Kidzania, the “Educational Entertainment Experience” that has recently opened in Westfield, so it has been the subject of some speculation amongst the Keystone team. I have spent the past few days reading more about it, and confess to some unease about its educational vision.

Kidzania is built over a whopping 75,000 square feet and is conceived as a “child-size city where kids are in charge.” Rather than the sorts of games and rides found in most theme parks, this child’s city offers a range of 60 jobs and activities that mimic the adult world: there’s a newspaper office, a hospital, a bank, a supermarket and even a nightclub. Children are paid for their jobs in kidZos, the local currency, and can spend their hard-earned salary on the activities. They are paid Z8 for being a policeman, Z9 for being a model in the fashion studio, Z12 for being a surgeon in the hospital etc (full list here). The facsimile of adult life is not confined to the city’s market economy. As you can see from some of the family videos that have been shot there, the city has all the meretricious features of modern mall life that will be familiar to anyone who has been to Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai etc. – from the low-lit boulevards lined by fake trees and sculptures to the ceaseless soundtrack of half-familiar Club Classics.

The educational philosophy underpinning Kidzania is self-explanatory. It is role-play, “a universal form of play enjoyed by children all over the world. Role-play is fun and has very positive educational, psychological and motivational benefits.” Kidzania’s form of role-play “is an exceptional education and entertainment city which stimulates creative thinking and boosts levels of self-esteem and confidence.” Educators and “play experts” have ensured that children learn “creativity, critical thinking, communication, confidence, and collaboration.” Of course, schools are being offered large discounts to entice them to Kidzania for next year’s school trips.

Children have always loved to pretend to be adults, and role-play is surely one of the most time-honoured of children’s amusements.

So what are my misgivings about Kidzania?

They are two:

  • Its environment leaves little room for the imagination. As anyone who has ever held a stick aloft and declared en garde to a friend or sibling knows, children do not actually need realistic toys or environments to lend verisimilitude to their play. In fact, I wonder whether there might almost be some sort of law of diminishing returns – whereby the more realism that is supplied by a toy or environment, the less a child actually derives in imaginative output. When a child is transplanting very life-like organs, like she might in Kidzania, or flying in a real cockpit, what exactly is the imaginative or creative merit? Where is the potential for imaginative growth? This equation can’t be exact of course; a completely desolate environment would not provide much imaginative fodder either. But I have a hunch that the various “Adventure Play” initiatives like The Land are striking a more humane balance. By supplying just enough material (hideouts, small hills, swings, discarded toys etc.) to get children started, such initiatives exhibit so much more faith in the generative power of children’s imaginations. My own tastes would run to something more like Maggie and Rose’s Village Nursery, whose imaginative landscape (a traditional English village green) is thoughtful, harmonious, natural but – crucially – limited. It is not a detailed, realistic picture of an English village, but rather one that leaves plenty of room for the development of a fertile imagination. Rudolf Steiner no doubt goes too far in the quotation below, but I think his insight is so much richer than that offered by Kidzania:

You can make a doll for a child by folding up an old napkin, making two corners into legs, the other two corners into arms, a knot for the head, and painting eyes, nose, and mouth with blots of ink. Or you can buy the child what is called a “pretty” doll, with real hair and painted cheeks. We need not dwell on the fact that the “pretty” doll is of course hideous and apt to spoil the healthy aesthetic sense for a lifetime; for education, the main question is different. If the children have the folded napkin before them, they have to fill in from their own imagination what is necessary to make it real and human. This work of the imagination shapes and builds the forms of the brain. The brain unfolds as the muscles of the hand unfold when they do the work they are suited for. By giving the child the so-called “pretty” doll, the brain has nothing more to do. Instead of unfolding, it becomes stunted and dried up.

  • The content of its role-play is banal. Given that Kidzania has chosen to fill its child’s city with content (and not let children invent much for themselves), I wonder whether they could have chosen jobs and activities with a bit more of the marrow of life in them? There is something curiously anodyne about offering children the chance to be a banker, dentist or air conditioning technician; something more shallow than their grandiose educational promises would suggest about offering children the chance to be a model, beautician or flight attendant – especially in the synthetic way they are presented at Kidzania, with limited opportunities for children to manipulate the experience. It used to be that children would imagine themselves as a knight, a pirate, a Robin Hood. Can’t the burdens of finding a career with a good wage be postponed, at least until after the age of 14? The ages 4 – 14 are a never-to-be-repeated opportunity for children to fill their heads with stories, images and genuinely fertile experiences. Couldn’t a Kidzania be devised, such as this one in the US, that fed such activities rather than taking time away from them?

The question of how far the adult world should be allowed to impinge on childhood receives frequent attention. As I have argued elsewhere, now that primary children are being introduced to financial literacy and a whole host of other adult concerns, it seems that precious little time is being left for genuinely exploratory and imaginative pursuits that were once the joys of growing up.

 

Some (no doubt rosy-eyed) pictures showing the inventiveness of Victorian children’s typical games..