Students and Identity Building

The final of the three questions:

In your opinion, how do students build an identity?  What kind of learning experiences are necessary?  What is a school’s responsibility (or a teacher’s) in helping students develop character and identity?

“There are three ways of trying to win the young. There is persuasion. There is compulsion. There is attraction. You can preach at them; that is a hook without a worm. You can say “You must volunteer; that is the devil. And you can tell them, ‘You are needed.’ That appeal hardly ever fails.” Kurt Hahn

Parable of the Good Samaritan
Parable of the Good Samaritan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kurt Hahn’s genius was collecting together ideas surrounding helping young people be their best possible self. He was inspired by three things: A mother who implicitly believed in the innate goodness of people. The work of Plato who insisted it was more important that education build character than transmit knowledge. Finally, the parable of the Good Samaritan. Character is observable and based on behaviors. What do you do when faced with a given situation? The Good Samaritan obviously is a demonstration of impeccable character. Hahn like most teachers asked what allows someone to act in this way?

English: Simon Sinek speaking at TEDx Maastric...
English: Simon Sinek speaking at TEDx Maastricht in the Netherlands (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, I have enjoyed reading a book by Simon Sinek called Start with Why. Sinek suggests that there is a simple formula (the Golden Circle) that leaders can use to inspire others. He explains that while most people will tell you what they do and occasionally how they do it. Great leaders start by explaining why. They tell you of their values, the single cause or belief that serves as a unifying, driving force for them as an individual or organization. They then tell you how; the principles or actions that will bring their why to life. These are strategies and actions to be performed. Finally they tell you what. These are the results or measures which are tangible and obvious to others on completion.

English: A diagram of what Simon Sinek calls '...
English: A diagram of what Simon Sinek calls ‘The Golden Circle’. In his TEDx talk, he says ‘People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I like the model because it is a simple way of looking at something quite complex. How do you make sure that people understand you? How do you help a group to achieve significance? It also is a neat way of exploring identity and its result; character. Ultimately, identity is your why. When you know your values, when you understand your beliefs then, and only then can you make things happen in a meaningful way. Without them you are paralyzed. This paralysis is Erik Erikson’s Identity Crisis, a condition which seems to be currently rampant. The how depicts your character and the what measures it. Traditionally we think of identity as being who you are. It is framed by occupation, culture, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation. My belief is that we know who we are when we know why we do things and we align with people and cultures when we see similarities in our belief systems. Traditionally belief systems have been handed down to us by parents and communities (school, religion). At a later age we choose to accept or denounce them.  Increasingly, children are faced with defining their own beliefs at an earlier age because they are exposed to so many through television and other media. As Barry Schwarz suggests, choice is supposed to bring about freedom and yet the “Paradox of Choice” is that it is overwhelming and does exactly the opposite. We know who we are only when we understand why we feel the things we feel.

“It is not easy to construct by mere scientific synthesis a foolproof system which will lead our children in a desired direction and avoid an undesirable one. Obviously, good can come only from a continuing interplay between that which we, as students, are gradually learning and that which we believe in, as people.” Erik Erickson

IMGP1295So how do we help young people build their identity and what exactly is the responsibility of the teacher in this arena? For me the most important thing we can do is ask why? In the spirit of Toyota’s manufacturing process (the Five Why’s), exploring the answer to why with another why draws out richer thinking. When you ask why five or more times then usually the topic is explored more fully and a kernel is reached. I never want to force an opinion on a young person, I do however want them to explore their own ideas.

“Without self-discovery, a person may still have self confidence, but it is a self confidence built on ignorance and it melts in the face of heavy burdens. Self discovery is the end product of a great challenge mastered, when the mind commands the body to do the seemingly impossible, when courage and strength are summoned to extraordinary limits for the sake of something outside the self–a principle, an onerous task, another human life.” Kurt Hahn

IMG_0199I also align with Hahn concerning self discovery. I have learned the most about myself when I have had to struggle. Erikson and James Marcia; who developed his work, also agree that “crises” are required to move along the continuum of developing an identity. The groups that I have joined and found identity within were often based on developing large amounts of trust because I had to. When a student is rock climbing belayed by his / her classmates he / she is faced with addressing his / her trust of the people holding their rope. When they are safely lowered to the ground it is easy to know why they can trust them. This is a good time to ask the belayers why they wanted to be trustworthy and everyone how trusting and being trusted felt.

Will095.tifRobust identity is built when a variety of identities are experimented with and then one committed to. It can also change significantly given sufficient external influence. For instance value systems and beliefs are likely to be modified following a parental divorce or a violent assault.

As a teacher I am particularly interested in three sets of identities: the identity of the individuals in the group, the identity of the group / class and the identity of the school. Anything I can do to help pupils understand why:

  • They do the things they do
  • The group is valuable to them
  • The school reflects what the individuals like about themselves

IMG_0152Is a valuable lesson. The more experiences I can shape that have them reflect on these questions either formally or otherwise will help them figure out who they are and what they are going to do to show people who they are. If I ask how they want to be known and why and then what do they need to do to be seen that way, it will help them make good choices. I have always liked Steven Covey’s activity of thinking about your 80th birthday party, you are surrounded by those you admire and love. They are saying wonderful things about you. What do you hear them say? Likewise I often ask students to provide bullet points of what they will want me to write as a reference for them. I then hold them to the behaviors that reflect what they wrote.

My experience is that outdoor activities and nature always accelerates the process of creating identity and make it more poignant. Service especially when it means hardship for the person serving provides a realistic framework for exploring values. Given less time then well designed games and activities can serve as kinesthetic metaphors which help explore these ideas in a meaningful way, especially when I have chosen them using Sinek’s Golden Circle.

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Aikido and Teaching:

Teaching is an art. The thing is it was often explained to me as a power game where the teacher is always looking to control the students. This has never sat well with me. I will always remember my first weeks as a trainee teacher as my mentor and I did not see eye to eye. I heard his concept of discipline from the other side of the campus and I knew the student who was receiving the full force of his reasoning also felt the sweat from his nose due to the proximity of their faces. This was never going to be the way that I “encouraged” learning and years later when I started to be informed by the findings of neuroscience it became patently obvious that the brain does not create learning in fearful situations – except in the instance of moments of fight or flight.

What I have grown to recognize is that the teacher / facilitator needs to hold a space for learning. It is a safe place, where mistakes are not only ok they are encouraged. It is a place where we are open to the outcome of the learning rather than dictating what the learning will be. Searching for a metaphor for teaching I have come up with the martial art of Aikido. While most of the martial arts center on the concept of combat this was not originator Master Morihei Ueshiba‘s desire. “Aikido is not a technique to fight with or to defeat the enemy. It is a way to reconcile the world and make human beings one family.” Wikipedia suggests that his philosophy was one “of extending love and compassion especially to those who seek to harm others. Aikido demonstrates this philosophy in its emphasis on mastering martial arts so that one may receive an attack and harmlessly redirect it. In an ideal resolution, not only is the receiver unharmed, but so is the attacker.” This also strikes me as a good philosophy for education.

Where I love the concept of Aikido is that the purpose is to maintain balance and through turning, pushing and drawing you lead the other person to a place of imbalance. It is not a forceful action and strength is not a requirement. So a teacher / facilitator strives to maintain equilibrium regardless of what comes in their direction. Also, with time while they can predict what may happen, they are actually better off being present. The imbalance that we encourage our students / participants to experience is cognitive dissonance; a place where they have to reason and are motivated to find meaning, as it is from this that the learning grows.

What is a good metaphor for what you do?

Freedom is Kayaking Upstream

I am currently reading a book by Michael Howard called Educating the Will; the basic premise being that a well educated child is provided with experiences and reflections that develop the head, the hand and the heart. This is somewhat counter intuitive to contemporary practice that increasingly focuses on the head to the exclusion of the other two faculties. As a sculptor Howard particularly concentrates on using art to develop the feeling will. He also talks about children needing to witness teachers striving towards wholeness, i.e. they themselves are working towards developing their own balance of thinking, feeling and willing. Rudolph Steiner who has shaped Waldorf teacher Howard’s thinking believed that freely chosen ethical disciplines and meditative training would help a person to become a more moral, creative and free individual – free in the sense of being capable of actions motivated solely by love. Steiner is basically a proponent of people being able to experience their higher nature and also that of others.

For me this whole arena is fascinating yet teeters on being hokey and while I have read various accounts of what will is, in particular in relation to the idea of “free will” it is a concept I have struggled with until Michael Howard posited an analogy that spoke to me. Early in the book he paints a picture of the mind being like a river where we are treated to a constant flow of thought that we do not really control; I like this image because I think of what happens over time when we humans try to do just this with dams. He also tells of a time when he watched a group of white water kayakers. “As they paddled downstream they displayed incredible mastery, going wherever and however they fancied. There seemed to be no limit to what they could do, including paddling upstream against the raging torrent. I was captivated as I watched some of them move slowly upstream – 10, 20, 30 feet. Incredibly, some could paddle as much as 100 feet against the current, but sooner or later, even the strongest and most skillful paddlers would run out of steam. Instantly they would be swept back downstream by the relentless force of the current.” Howard goes on to explain that a skillful thinker can navigate the constant stream of thoughts, choosing (will) which ones to engage. Logical thinkers can move freely within the flow and thinkers who grow the inner will to build thought upon thought without being swept along by random thoughts are comparable to the kayakers paddling upstream.

So here are a few random thoughts from someone who used to kayak a fair amount. Firstly, there was once a time when kayaking / canoeing upstream was a necessity, now if I really want to go up river I put my kayak on the roof of my car, it is a lot easier. I think the same is probably true of thinking skills now that we have google. Yet, I was compelled to paddle upstream and there was a reason, it was an opportunity to learn more about how a river works, mainly because I could see what the water was doing in front of me as I worked against it. Kayaking upstream is less about brute force and more about understanding the river, I need to understand how the shape of the bed dictates how the water will flow, I need to feel the pulses that occur naturally and therefore as I learn this I also learn how to feather the angle of my boat, use the river features and time my strokes to gain ground. The exercise gives me a far better understanding of the mechanics of efficient paddling when I am going downstream and cannot see what is behind me or I am accelerating quickly towards something and have to understand what will happen based on the water I am traveling through and what I can see ahead. Likewise meditating, where I spend my time kindly ridding my mind of thoughts as I focus on my breathing, allows me to think much better when I am trying to maintain a modicum of control of a creative process that can look like a heavy handed Jackson Pollockesque canvas with no grace.

Nowhere is the concept of paddling upstream more apparent than going against the tide in a sea kayak, by using features and being aware of the subtleties of hydro dynamics you can gain significant ground in certain situations. There is no way you can fight a current if you do not understand these things.

So the main take home of all this for me is that you are never going to be truly free of your thoughts unless you spend time understanding how the flow of your thoughts come about and this takes graft and a willingness to be spat out. And while you cannot stem them, you can learn the skills necessary to navigate them and freely choose what is good for you and others if you take time and engage in a meditative discipline. No wonder the Dalai Lama can smile while witnessing the wake of destruction in his country, through significant practice like an expert kayaker he has spent more time than most learning the true art of choosing which line (of thought) he is going to follow and use. Also, as Steiner suggests he is exceptionally free, because this discipline has ultimately meant he can shape his actions so that they come from a place of love.

How are you going to shape your freedom?

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Networking: Opening Lines of Communication

“Si hoc legere scis nimium eruditionis habes”

This morning as I was walking Cai to school, he started a conversation on languages and I was reminded of a story.

Around my 17th birthday I was hitch-hiking through Europe stopping at various climbing venues. For part of the journey I was accompanied by a friend. Somewhere in the middle of France we were picked up by an Italian in a VW Bug, neither Tom or myself spoke Italian and so we were expecting the next few hours to be a rather confusing mix of feeling rude and exasperated. I do not know why but when our benefactor tried conversing one of us responded in Latin. Being the product of English private education we had been brought up on a diet of dead language and had received many homework assignments translating vast passages of the original Cicero, Lucretius, Horace and Vergil. All of these were dished out by fusty old men in capes and mortar boards, sat at heavy oak desks carved with graffiti from the 19th Century (I kid you not).

Now let me make it clear that they are not the same language and yet they are suitably similar that we were able to understand one another. The atmosphere in the car lifted and all three of us became excited by the opportunity to talk; if only in a somewhat confusing melee. The great thing though is that we heard each others’ stories and parted as friends even if somewhat fleetingly.

This brings me to my point. How often do we see barriers to communication? How often do we just not make the effort because it does not seem like it is possible or worthwhile? How often do we let opportunities to connect slide by?

In this job market, networking is the going to be the biggest source of real job leads. How are you going to bridge the gap, make meaningful connections and find the hidden gems out there?

Oh and the approximate meaning of the Latin quote – “If you understand this you are over educated.”

Originally posted in http://denver.jobing.com/Community_Blog.asp

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A case for abstract thinking

Today I was asked what people think of me and I responded with the most common feedback I gain from students. “At the time I did not realize I was learning anything; it was just fun. Now I recognize how much you have taught me.”

Now I love this feedback but I realize that it does not always work in my favor. So here is an example of when it can.

While teaching at Colorado Mountain College (CMC) I was asked to instruct a “Canyon Orientation” class. To be honest I knew nothing about the natural history of canyon country, neither did I like it. A place filled with as many hard, sharp and biting things as that filled me with fear and probably loathing. Thankfully the class took the form of two three day weekends and some evenings. I meditated on what to do and drew a complete blank until I read the Map That Changed The World by Simon Winchester.

It became glaringly obvious how to create something from nothing. On arrival in the canyon I spread the group out and asked them to sit alone for 20 minutes. I wanted them to be aware of their surroundings – I asked them to be silent, to listen, feel, smell and look. They were to come back and describe some of the things that they sensed and then to describe some of the feelings that they had.

It was enlightening, most of them were initially as frightened as me and yet as they surrendered to the place, they warmed to it – something I could understand.

Then I told them the story of William Smith; the father of modern geology. How there was no names for rocks, no categorization and no recognition of patterns until he came on the scene. How through working in mines and canals he had seen repeating layers of rocks and how he had mapped these layers. I then asked them to walk through a canyon imagine that they were William Smith and look for patterns. Firstly alone for 15 minutes, then with a partner, with whom they would share their initial observations and then develop some ideas further. Then they walked in groups of four, again sharing what they saw and perhaps why it might be that way.

Finally I set them off alone again to come up with a few compelling questions – if they had access to expertise what would they want to ask them. We then came together to share all we had seen and thought. We decided on a list of questions that we really wanted to know the answers to and then split them up, so everyone had something to research. We followed the same pattern with other subjects; based on their observations and experiences what did they want to know?

During the following week they researched and then at the weekend they came back armed with answers.

It was one of the more productive classes I taught at CMC, not merely because the students defined their own learning and it was greater than if I had done so, the additional reality was that they changed perceptions of place. Something that had appeared barren and hostile became alive and inviting. This to me is good education and highlights how clarity is often more impressive when it develops from something opaque.

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Thoughts on Physical Education

“We’re on a mission to make self-reflection hip for just a moment, just long enough to save us.” Jamie Catto

I have a thought that if the word diversity refers to looking for difference then university can be about seeking unity. For me education works best when it moves to bring people together through learning. Two men who have taken this concept of seeking similarities a great deal further are Duncan Bridgeman and Jamie Cato of 1 Giant Leap http://www.myspace.com/1giantleap; a concept band and media project that travels the globe collecting music and video images on a laptop. What makes this wonderful project so distinctive is that they layer music from around the world onto a track having provided an initial beat. Through this we hear both the similarities and the unique nature of each artist performing within a whole while knowing that they are separated by continents and cultures. This surely is a wonderful metaphor for education.

When thinking about what Physical Education can be I am also drawn to 1 Giant Leap, watching their videos something becomes apparent. Humans were made to move. Naturally we are movement literate, we are made to walk, run, jump and dance. Somehow through a sedentary and mechanized western lifestyle we educate ourselves out of this natural state.

When I look at it from this perspective physical education becomes a different paradigm. I no longer wish to focus on teaching “how to” sports classes or even an interest in lifetime activity. Suddenly I find myself passionate about encouraging reconnection with movement and experimenting with its subtlety; I want students to play with timing and balance, and to examine their range of motion. It fills me with excitement when I can suggest a holistic outlook and examine philosophy through movement. Take an activity like Le Parkour; a contemporary, viral and frequently urban discipline, which is based on the idea that obstacles are ramps into a new world of opportunity. As part of the activity a traceur (practitioner of Parkour) replaces the concept of obstacle as barrier and substitutes it instead with the obstacle being something to be played with, explored and ultimately as providing a chance to develop a new skill. A traceur will experience this reality many times in their average “jam” and suddenly it becomes their truth when transferred into life in general.

As a physical educator I want my students to feel rhythm through their core and be so moved by it they spontaneously erupt in movement that fills them with joy and a sense of satisfaction. I want them to remove rules from this movement and just let themselves go and be happy in their expression. I want them to create community through their sharing of this expression.

It is important to me that students see movement for what it is an integral part of life, one that has ramifications on their whole. Fitness is about far more than looking good. Thinking of it purely in terms of cardiovascular disease is limiting. Movement allows all parts of your body to function better; it promotes happiness, learning and a healthy mental state. It is the lubricant for a life that is balanced and fulfilling.

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Some Thoughts on Sustainability

I have been thinking about the word “sustainability” a great deal recently and more importantly about the meaning it adopts due to the cultural context that surrounds it. I also find that I am concerned with a parallel thread that seems completely inter-relatedt; health and wellness.

Let us start by looking at a historical perspective of health and wellness. Until recently health was considered as an absence of disease, during the 1980’s it took on a larger mantel. This new vision of wellness incorporates achieving and balancing physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, social and environmental health. By changing the way we look at health and wellness we make it easier to achieve because we understand it more. The very definition also allows us to move towards something attractive rather than away from something that we do not want which ties in with contemporary thought on goal setting.

What has this got to do with sustainability? Well for starters, to be sustainable a body or organization has to be healthy. I think this is something that has yet to be given sufficient significance within the discussion on sustainability. I also believe that the definition of sustainable needs to be expanded beyond Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (Brundtland report 1983) Ultimately, sustainability could be about creating healthy people, organizations, environments, learners etc. which go on to (pro)create more healthy…

Another aspect that can be incorporated from the wellness movement is how to incite motivation that changes behavior. When a person is obese they need to see that they are overweight, there is no need to judge oneself, there is though the need to make a change. It is about being honest with oneself and making small changes that over a period of time create big results. It is about seeing something for what it really is rather than either being a conspiracy or for someone else.

The similarities go further still. Both are holistic concepts; a situation will never be truly healthy / sustainable until all the components are taken care of and nurtured. Therefore all the components need to be identified.

For a university to be sustainable there is a need to have healthy students who are able to achieve their optimal state of learning in the same way that there is a need for a small carbon footprint. Encouraging exercise and good and local nutrition is as important as recycling. Aiding students to feel a necessary part of a thriving society is as relevant as energy efficient buildings.

My thoughts then turn to what should a University Sustainability Club do. Obviously all the mentioned areas need to be incorporated and there is a lot more examples of Universities that have been focusing on environmental sustainability who provide an extremely good model. I believe though that where possible we can focus on initiatives that marry as many concepts together as possible. For instance:

·         Encouraging self powered commuting  – which might involve cheap / free rental of equipment (bikes from bike club, skis from student union), organizing leaders / guides (from clubs such as PE majors club), encouraging facilities to groom trails on campus rather than scrape them, prizes for people who are involved, more safe & covered storage and showering facilities on campus

·         Socials that involve exercise, education, networking and fun

·         Lobbying the food providers on campus to really consider the food that they are supplying and ensuring that there is information on all the food sold and that it is also measured for how healthy and local it is. All while working under a tight budget to reduce the costs. Perhaps, this would be more easily done if UAA provided the food on campus rather than contract it out.

I know that this is not really original thinking and yet I am inspired by a man I was lucky enough to spend some time with. Bill Mollison; the originator of permaculture, once said to me, “by myself I can do nothing, with one friend I can change the world.” Bill does not have many new ideas he has though taken lots of well proven ones and strung them together in a package that has been making a real difference in the world. I suggest that we do the same.

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