Educating in Nature

Ch 5 Do we define the educated mind?

It is commonly accepted that our schools educate minds. As previously mentioned the majority of this educating of minds is concerned with filling the contents of consciousness with subjects, and "proving" we understand these contents by committing these contents to paper during an examination. Here again we have the dominance of objective proof as a means of assessing intelligence. In the last chapter we began to see how much is eschewed from a self-realising education process by accepting the prevailing paradigm. In some way we must accept that faculties such as intuition, creativity, aesthetics, creative design, intrinsic quality in work, and insight, are part of mind so currently we accept that they are not a priority. So what aspects of an educated mind are priorities? Is filling memory with facts (which can easily be found on a computer) a priority? Is this how we designed our current education system - to fill our memories with facts that a machine can now know better?

In truth there must be a historical acknowledgement here. I have alluded to Bacon so one might consider that contemporary education might have been developed since his time. Obviously the sophistication of calculating machines in the 16th century does not match the global information retrieval systems of 21st century internet usage. It might have been appropriate in those times to develop a good memory as a sign of an educated mind. In those times access to a good library of books might not be immediate and therefore human retention was essential. But a contemporary educated mind needs to know that there is something there to be retrieved rather than to know what it is, or develop an approach that would enable the recognition that there is something to retrieve. The structures and approaches of our minds to solve problems can now be completely different knowing that ability rather than retention produces answers.

However it is clear our education has historical cobwebs, it is held back in the past clinging to retention and a subject curriculum that has not properly recognised the advances in the "calculating machines" we use. Educationalists recognise this but they do not recognise why. Or rather they choose not to recognise why. It requires little analysis to see that only a few get jobs through their education, the majority work in production, and most of our potential for self-realisation is not even addressed. So why do so many educationalists fail to point this out? Quite simply education has its own career, and the paradigm does not encourage exposure of its numerous weaknesses. If such a work as this were to surface it would be labelled alternative. Why is it alternative? It is asking for the education of all children to the best of their ability, and not being straight-jacketed into a conformist education that has little social or functional relevance. However it is alternative because it does not pay any lip-service to the prevailing paradigm ie a job within this paradigm, a usual requirement for educational work to be considered relevant.

It has been pointed out that a number of mental faculties have been mostly eschewed, and that the current education system has been described as a group of subjects taught to fill the contents of our consciousness. But what is the mind in this? How do we define it, or do we attempt to define it? Clearly because of the subjective-objective dichotomy created by the prevailing scientific model and because of science's clear preference for objectivity, it would be tacitly understood that objectively mind is defined within the prevailing paradigm. Yet it is not. Attempting to reach an academic agreement on the understanding of mind is almost an anathema. Many people would attempt to reach consensus and then along would come a series of questions that would scythe through the concord. Fundamentally the academic interests in establishing their own academic boundaries - my theory is better than yours - prevent a consensus.

If academically there is not an accepted view of mind, is there one educationally? And yet again I cannot see one, except for this notion that we fill memories with facts to reproduce in an exam. So if there is no prevailing understanding of what is mind, then in asking the question how do we define the mind to be educated we have a carte blanche? No matter what is proposed someone will knock it down. If academic approval is not a yardstick, what is? Working towards a better human being, towards a caring community? People caring about the eco-system? People seeking some form of self-realisation? These are acceptable yardsticks, aren't they?

So how do we understand mind in connection with these yardsticks? Now we could do the same as the current paradigm by filling the minds with different contents. Within the framework of these superior ideals (superior to the corporate paradigm) we could fill the minds of our children with facts. How does industrial effluent damage the environment? What is the cause of global warming? There will be factual answers to these but there will also be opinions such as human greed as exemplified by the corporations being happy to damage the environment, profit from wars for profit, contribute to the problem of 3rd world poverty, exploit 3rd world labour amongst other actions all in the name of profit. But even with such opinions being delivered within a better system little is likely to change, quite simply because if this information does not become part of the mentality of the child then we have little difference.

It is not necessary for students to recall facts it is necessary for them to understand and internalise such information so that these understandings are a part of their actions within their lives. How many people, including teachers, are prepared to say the right thing but when it comes to action do something completely different? How does this happen? Because there is not a deep internalisation of what they have said or learnt, and other pressures such as career and livelihood impinge on what would be an appropriate moral decision.

And we internalise when we believe it? Mostly we don't internalise for an exam, we recall and then forget. This type of knowledge, more knowledge with a factual basis, might even be termed trivial such as remembering a historical date like the reign of a particular king. But what about solving a maths problem? How do students do this for an exam? Simplifying there are two processes, often but not always distinct, that are used to solve a problem. The first is imitation. In a class a teacher teaches how to solve using a particular technique, then in an exam a similar problem occurs, and copying or repeating this technique yields the solution. The student remembers the technique and there is sufficient similarity for that remembering to give a solution. In "bad teaching" or exam coaching I would examine past papers, note which questions are likely to arise, focus on the teaching of this technique, practice it several times in tests, and then if it comes up students will be able to repeat the technique in the exam. Although this might produce "successful" candidates in terms of exam passes, what has actually been achieved? Of course out of concern for the future of my students I was forced to teach this way as are many others.

But there is a second process that examiners try to elicit from students, and this is more meaningful. Examiners will try to write non-standard questions, never too many on one paper, and these would be more likely to test the "mathematical ability" of students. These, you cannot teach to in the same way. There are however problem-solving approaches that one tries with, and whilst these help in directing the student approach to solving such they can never replace the ability of the student to solve maths problems. A teacher can never teach what makes someone "good at maths". This is something I believe we are born with to some extent, but that is not an issue I want to get into i this chapter. However one can say that at some stage a student becomes good at maths and can solve these exam problems, they have internalised this ability. What is significant about this internalisation process is that it never goes away. It might get "forgotten" but with practice it will soon become finely tuned again leading to the situation where problems can be solved.

One's internalised abilities might become "rusty" but they are never completely forgotten, whereas with much factual-based knowledge recollection would occur in an apparent vacuum ie we would need to be told the fact again and then maybe still be unaware that we ever knew the information.

As a teacher one attribute that is significant about this "good at maths" ability is that a teacher recognises it in a student. With regular testing a teacher, and the student, becomes aware of the level of their achievement. But there can be many factors contributing to this level of success, ability to revise well being a significant one. Test scores are not always a measure of true ability, and there have been a few occasions where I have taught a student and have known they are "good at maths", usually but not always did they have the highest scores. Here I am saying that this "good at maths" ability is what is internalised and is almost exclusively what is needed to be brought out in education.

This sounds frighteningly elitist. It might well be, but it is not meant to be. This is a problem being caused because of working in a skewed education system. There is an interesting word that Pirsig discussed in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance [pp 388 -410] - gumption. What is this? It is defined as a sound practical judgement with fortitude and determination. It is an internalised ability that someone has to solve a problem, it might also be considered common sense. Is this internalised ability taught in our current education system? Far from it. There are many leading academics who do not have common sense, occasionally it is lauded as a "virtue" such as absent-mindedness because the mind is in such an abstract arena. This gumption might also be considered as part of what Buddhists term "mindfulness". But is gumption an elitist attribute? As it stands it clearly is but it is not an academic elitism. A few people possess this gumption but academic success is not a pre-requisite.

In ZAMM Pirsig describes gumption through a series of attributes which he brings together in a course he calls gumptionology 101 [pp388-410]. He describes this gumption in relation to motorcycle maintenance but there is much that can be gained from consideration with respect to learning. He begins with enthusiasm which he describes as rooted in being "filled with God". Isn't that how we as people develop motivation? As infants we are filled with motivation, it is natural. Children are enthusiastic in play. Look at them, they do such pointless things but with enthusiasm. Tremendous. What has education done to drive that enthusiasm away? Education needs to work with that natural enthusiasm but point them in the right direction. And the keynote to that right direction is maintaining enthusiasm. How can we maintain enthusiasm when the purpose of that education is to discard the majority of children who start on the process?

With enthusiasm these children learn. However they learn, this enthusiasm cements in them what they need to learn, what they learn is internalised. Without this motivation internalisation cannot happen, and the essence of learning cannot occur. Initially it matters little what this enthusiasm is related to as children are naturally enthusiastic. But as the level of learning in current schooling increases the enthusiasm wanes, it is therefore necessary to determine a path of cognitive and curricular development in which this waning does not occur.

I remember an incident when I was travelling. I stayed at a resort with an interesting woman in Cambodia but was horrified when she sat with me and started calling her staff stupid, the problem with Cambodians is that they are stupid she would say. Every anti-racist shackle inside me started to rise, how can she describe her own people in such a way? But with talking to her I realised that she was talking about her people being uneducated. Here we have for me the hidden curriculum again but in a positive way. Through education we learn organisation, remembering, reading and writing, without education where are these? What this lady was saying was that everyday she would tell her staff what to do - she said everyday she told them to do the same thing. Now in truth there is human interaction and perception involved in this. The staff probably found it easier this way - no mistakes, but what was clearly lacking was gumption? Why didn't they have the gumption to do this themselves? Why didn't they use their gumption to work out what was needed and do it. This can come with education but in a functioning society, working in the interests of all its people, everyone needs gumption.

Can everyone get this gumption? That is a fascinating question, and it has elitist connotations. But what is extremely clear is that in our current education model, not everyone gets gumption. I certainly did not have gumption when I left university, although I had a number of qualifications. If I have gumption now I have learned it through the school of hard knocks, life, but need it be that way? And if perhaps gumption is not within the natural cognitive development of our students of school age, is there not "preparation for gumption" that could be taught at that age? But thinking about enthusiasm, if the source of gumption is enthusiasm for what we do then it is common sense to think that young children have natural enthusiasm and if we can maintain that enthusiasm through natural cognitive development then gumption will be a natural product or end result.

This brings me to the rest of Pirsig's gumptionology 101. Throughout this section he talks of the need to have "peace of mind" to fix the motorbike; having "peace of mind" is essential to internalise. He describes gumption traps that come up when fixing the motorbike, and these gumption traps drain enthusiasm. Avoiding gumption traps is integral to the process of fixing. He describes two types of gumption traps [p392] "the first type is those in which you're thrown off Quality track by condition that arise from external circumstances .... The second type is traps in which you're thrown off the Quality track by conditions that are primarily in yourself". Quality is fundamental to the whole of his book (2 books), and on the same page he had previously described a gumption trap as "anything that causes one to lose sight of Quality, and thus lose one's enthusiasm for what one is doing". The external circumstances described here are not normally considered the realm of education but "conditions that are primarily in yourself" certainly are especially if you are genuinely seeking self-realisation.

So let us consider some of his gumption traps. Boredom [p 406 ]. If you are fixing something and are getting bored, then stop. Imagine that in our current schools, students would be stopping permanently. But aren't they anyway? This opens the door for teacher-bashing again. "Teacher, I'm bored". But of course they are bored, education is not for them, it is only for the few who join the corporate ladder. And as non-participants in education boredom is an important pre-requisite for the kind of work they do later, work that in general lacks gumption. In general workers need to accept boredom but still work - accepting that the pay packet is a sufficient rationale for life. Perhaps this is about education for nihilism as it is completely undermining our daily way of life!! This is legitimate only if an alternative is provided, much that occurred in the 60s knocked down established traditional practices, did not replace them, and paved the way for the current increased level of corporate exploitation. I even thought Pirsig was one of these, until you think about the title of ZAMM and his approach to meditation.

At this point I only want to barely mention some of the other gumption traps as there is a fundamental reason for gumption not being taught in schools. Anxiety [p405] is one which diffuses the clarity of mind in which gumption occurs, how can one's judgement be sound when one is anxious? Consider schools. The exam system itself is designed to create anxiety, and that is if the students get that far in the cauldron of ill-discipline western schools and classrooms are. Ego [p404] is also a trap he mentions. The whole corporate paradigm is designed to create people who consider themselves better than the "herd" so ego will interfere with gumptious judgement. In truth I could probably choose any of the reasons our education system is failing and show why gumption will not be created, but the fundamental reason is that schools are not real. They are not designed to be the World of Work. Do students have to learn? Do they have to solve the problems they are presented with? What does it matter if it goes wrong? This basic failing is very destructive in attempting to provide a learning environment. A lesson is delivered, and a student is asked to complete a task. They tell the teacher "I can't be assed!" What does the teacher do? Usually the system criticises the teacher and says the teacher cannot motivate students, but fundamentally what is there that should make the student do the task? Absolutely nothing. That reason in itself is enough to seal the death knell of schools as a means of teaching all students. Of course it suits a system that only requires a few to be successful.

Consider the world of work. Someone is told to fetch the coffee, who wants to do that? Yet how many do it? Quite simple, a cup of coffee is not worth losing the money for. Extrapolate this approach to all the tasks one is asked to do in the world of work. At the back is always the fear of the sack. "I can't be assed" is a pre-statement for resignation, the first step to walking out the door.

It is necessary to bring this imperative into our education system. Teachers need the power to make students work if education is to be successful, not that these tasks be performed at the whim of an adolescent or even younger. The empowering of this imperative is essential for successful education.

I remember at a 6th form college I was required to keep an attendance register, if this register was not correct a student did not get a grant/allowance. What a wonderful opportunity to create the imperative? You cannot get your attendance mark, because:-

a) You did not do your homework.

b) Your behaviour in class was poor.

c) The standard of your work was below your norm.

The three above could be reasons for an employee to be disciplined, maybe not get their pay. So why not in this 6th form college? Some would argue that teachers are not employers, do not have the attributes of employers. How many people think their bosses are fair? Employees just do as they're told or lose their money. Professional jobs have conditions of service, there is no reason why similar could not be created for the classroom. Students will be told by the teacher they will not get their mark if .... And that is it, end of discussion as in the world of work. How much would this improve education? I think that particular 6th form college completely lost an opportunity to greatly improve education because to be quite honest there were many problems with the level of students' work and effort. And students perhaps shout the loudest if teachers were given that level of control. Yet many of those 6th form students were doing part-time work cleaning etc., and were being pushed around by employers with whom there were no clear conditions of service or discipline procedures; they knew if they didn't do as they were told they lost their money. But in the 6th form college no such discipline applied and so long as they attended they got their allowance - ridiculous.

This imperative is needed in our education system but do we want to recreate the problems of the workplace? Do we want the level of intimidation in our schools as we have in the workplace? Certainly not, but we do need the imperative, we need our teachers to be able to issue instructions and expect them to be carried out wholeheartedly - with enthusiasm. We can only establish this through the parent-teachers' bond, and even that is not enough in the West with the poor level of behaviour children exhibit to parents.

But along with the need for internalising there is a lo a requirement that student imperative has to be established as well.