Teacher as Philosopher?

Greek philosophers

The difference between schoolteachers and philosophers is that schoolteachers think that they know a lot of stuff that they try to force down our throats. Philosophers try to figure things out together with the pupils. Sophie’s World , by Jostein Gaarder, page 70

I wonder if, 2413 years after Socrates, whether the world is yet ready for the philosopher-teacher, a pedagogue whose task is not so much to lead a pupil to a place of knowledge that has been mapped and visited before but instead to help the pupil to prepare for the journey of inquiry and reflection and questioning of all that is accepted as knowledge, and all that is yet unknown.

With oceans of information and knowledge readily accessible to anyone with an Internet connection in even the remotest parts of the planet, the role of teacher as “content deliverer” has become defunct. It’s now time that role is replaced with a new role of teacher as co-pilot, as navigator, as logistician, one who anticipates what might be needed on the journey, and travels part of the learning journey with the student.

A teacher-philosopher/co-pilot would not participate in what Ken Robinson calls the greatest suppression of creativity in human history that occurs in our schools when teachers do what incenses Sophie so much. Instead, teachers would be as curious as her students, wanting to learn and to discover what is not yet known.

But for this paradigm shift in the role of schools and teachers to occur, there would need to be a huge shift in our  current socio-cultural  “centre of gravity”.

A modern philosopher,  Ken Wilber suggests that each society has a centre of gravity around which its morals, ethics and worldviews coalesce. This COG acts like a magnet: if you rise above, the centre of gravity pulls you down, if you are below the centre of gravity, it will pull you up.

A very simple example of this is the widely accepted practice of recycling beverage containers in our society. If you don’t recycle aluminium cans and plastic bottles, you will be “pulled up” to this practice by being admonished and persuaded to change your habits through personal encounters, public service ads and incentives such as being paid to return cans to recycling depots.   But if you point out that the manufacture of these bottles and cans is a problem in itself, far greater than recycling can solve, you will be “pulled down”, seen as being “intense” or “extreme”.   You  would be on the outside of society’s centre of gravity around the idea of recycling.

Socrates was on the outside of the centre of gravity in Athens in 399 B.C.E.  By questioning the “wisdom” of the city’s elite, he was undermining the status quo. In order for it to retain its power, he needed to be “pulled down” to the Athenian centre of gravity and its views on “education of the young”, a centre of gravity that held the view that the young should not be taught to question authority or to look too deeply into what was considered “truth”.

Education of the young has long been the site of these gravity tensions since it is seen as the most powerful lever for societal change. But the nature of this change is always contested.

As long as education is performing the function of preparing students to take their place within the status quo, and to accept the current wisdom, then all is well. But should a teacher get the notion that education should be about more than that, there is tension and the COG will “pull down” those attempts in ways both personal and political.

This process of “pulling down” can be like my experience of being accused of “breeding rebels” by colleagues in South Africa during the Apartheid era when I taught my students to ask questions about their learning experiences.  Over the past 18 years of teaching in Canada, I have continued to cause “trouble” in my teaching practice when I allow students to nap, when I invite them to dance, when I encourage them to question, to negotiate,  and especially when I suggest that they look at textbooks as not holding the “gospel” truth about any subject.

Another example of this “pulling down” process is the recent experiences of the teachers of Ethnic Studies in Arizona state schools where  legislation was passed in 2010 to stop them from teaching about the historical and literary contributions made by African-American, Native-American and Hispanic-American people. The centre of gravity of the United States public is not yet ready to accept or to acknowledge the injustices of the past and accuses these teachers of inciting racial hatred. Or perhaps they mean,  that those teachers are “corrupting the youth” when they teach them how to reveal the truth.

In the 21st century, teachers who behave like “gadflies” on the horse of the corporate-state may not share the same fate as Socrates if they are lucky enough to live in judicially strong countries and if they are lucky enough to belong to a strong labour union. However, world history of the recent past is woven with numerous stories of teachers risking their lives (and sometimes losing them) in states where there is no access to a functioning justice system. In some respects we have not moved much further than Athens in 399 B.C.

I hope 21st century teachers do not have to be prepared to risk their lives before we see a shift in modern western culture’s centre of gravity with regard to the role of teachers in our age of information, a shift that would provide students like Sophie with philosopher-pilots instead of human  force-feeding tubes.

Learning to Fly

cedar waxwing

When I’m not pondering how much knowledge and what kind of knowledge I should have as a teacher in a 21st-century classroom, I’m thinking about what ‘good’ teaching is. Reams have been written over centuries about what makes a teacher ‘good’ but I confess that I find the whole debate utterly exhausting. What is ‘good’? For whom? When?  What does it even mean to ‘teach’?

A few summers ago, my friend Skylark and I were on one of our regular  walks through a nearby fragment of forest when we noticed a baby bird on the pathway.  The bird still had downy feathers and seemed quite content to be just sitting there.  But sitting where it was would put it in the direct path of any one of the many dogs that also love to walk the trail. And so we had a dilemma on our hands.

I immediately announced that I did not know how to look after a baby bird but Skylark’s childhood had included experiences with her father rescuing birds and butterflies.  She began talking softly to the bird while she thought about what to do. After a few minutes, she gently picked up the bird the way her father had taught her, and placed her/him in her purse.  We walked on. When we came to a stream, she dipped her finger into the water and fed the bird droplets of water, all the while patiently talking to the bird.  Then she decided we had to find some worms so that we could feed the bird.  So there we were, scratching around the dirt looking for worms to feed the baby bird all the while mosquitoes were having quite a midday meal on us. We didn’t find any worms and so continued our walk, wondering all the way if the bird would be okay.

When we got home and Skylark went on the Internet to find out what to do about the bird, she quickly realized that we had done all the wrong things.  A bird-rescue website had helped her to identify the bird (a cedar waxwing), corrected her on what the bird actually needed to eat (berries, not worms) and advised that the bird should be returned to the place it was found so that its mother could find it and show it how to get back to the nest.

And so we followed the advice which included setting the bird back in the same area but not the same spot and waiting from a distance for the mother so show up.  We did as suggested and after waiting about 20 minutes, we realized that the bird had been safely rescued by its mother.

For me there are so many dimensions of learning and teaching revealed in this incident. There is the learning and teaching between the baby bird and its mother.  Apparently baby cedar waxwings learn to fly by first dropping to the ground which is why it was not scared to be where it was. It had not, of course, realized that its forest home also accommodated lots of humans and dogs. Although it had been born with the instinct to fly, it still  needed guidance from its mother. The ‘teaching’ by the mother bird and the ‘learning’ by the baby bird were processes that had evolved over millennia so that there are specific skills learned and taught for a specific environment.  Baby birds need to learn to  fly in order to feed themselves so that they can go on to do more bird-like things: sing, procreate, participate in an ecosystem.

To gather data about the bird as an entity separate from its environment (temperate rain forests) would provide a poor and incomplete picture of the bird, its bird behaviour (eating berries) and bird skills ( flying, nest building).  In addition, to gather data about how the bird learns and is taught without looking at the environment would be a ridiculous notion. And yet proponents of standardized teaching and testing use just such a lens when they look at students in classrooms.

What the bird needs to learn is directly connected to specific needs in a specific environment.

And when that environment changes, as it is currently for many Arctic birds, there is a level of change in that learning in order to adapt to the new environment. Many birds have adapted to living and thriving in urban environments. How did they learn how to do this? How long did the learning last?  Who/what  were the teachers of that learning? How did they realize that their environment was changing and that they would need to adapt?

Ecologists tell us that we humans too are inextricably part of an ecosystem, that without our environments, we would die; spiritual mystics tell us that there is no boundary between what we see as our separate selves and what we call our environment.  And yet we persist in seeing teaching/learning as a separate issue, extricated from the multiple places and spaces to which we belong.

Each morning we all awake to different selves (biologically, chronologically, psychologically) in a different world (seasonally, technologically, historically, politically) both outside and inside the classroom.  And yet we continue to rely on textbooks that captured what was true in an environment long-changed by new discoveries, and new ways of seeing the world.  We continue to focus on the past to prepare students for the future. If birds did this, they’d never survive!

The Information Age has exponentially generated not only vast oceans of information but also a multitude of possible places of belonging and ways of being. What determines what is ‘good’ to learn and teach in an ever-changing world?  Is it enough to know how to navigate oceans of information?  Should we learn how to live in a world of imminent nuclear devastation?  How to live in a world of dramatic weather events and climate change?  Should we teach our children how to live in a world of perpetual war? How to make a living during economic recessions and depressions? Should they know how to thrive in whatever economic system is going to replace capitalism?

What do we prepare the next generation for when we are not even certain what the future looks like?  Whose agenda do we choose and what are the implications of that for the child, for society,  for our collective future?

Next September schools will begin to educate 6 year olds for the world of 2028… who knows what they’ll need to know for the world they will face when they enter adulthood?Will we have prepared them enough so that they know how to fly in the forests of the future?