For the last four years I have taught the capstone course of the International Baccalaureate Program, Theory of Knowledge. To be surrounded by amazingly talented and incredibly intelligent young people on a daily basis has fostered so much personal and professional growth, most especially in my own epistemic humility. On any given day I am bound to be asked questions that will be met with what what appears to be an uncommon answer in today’s day and age: “I don’t know.”
Since the COVID-19 global pandemic began, armchair infectious disease specialists, backyard barbecue virologists, and yard sale epidemiologists have come crawling out of the web’s woodwork. Apparently all it takes is reading a few articles about herd immunity to become a self-proclaimed expert on the subject, and then SHOUTING DOWN opponents in all caps to demonstrate why one’s opinion is more valid than the other’s.
Here’s a tip: don’t have an opinion on something that is well outside one’s “circle of competence”. But if an opinion must be held and declared, perhaps put an asterisk on it if there is no expertise to back it up.
Over the last four months, I’ve read about 25 books. All of them have taught me one thing: I am far more ignorant than knowledgeable. Like Socrates, the longer I live the more confident I become in my ignorance–my intellectual humility–not my knowledge. Considering the nature of the pandemic and the pronouncements I continue to see on social media and the web, here are two incredibly powerful pieces of knowledge that can help any person cultivate epistemic humility.
Annie Duke’s Thinking in Betsis an excellent read on decision-making when all the pertinent information is unavailable. The key takeaway I will share is this: human beings are evolutionally hardwired to believe what we hear. As Duke states it, we cannot afford a “false negative,” so for thousands of years when we heard a rustle in the bushes we looked, believing a predator was behind us. Most of the time we get “false positives”, just as our ancestors figured out it was wind-rustling the reeds and not the feared saber-toothed tiger.
But now think about what that fact means in relation to how crazy coronavirus conspiracies are spread by word of mouth before becoming manifest on the internet and proliferating wildly from there.
The other book is Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile(the author himself recommends this as a standalone, but I would encourage all to read the entire Incerto series). One of his most interesting ideas is akin the logical fallacy known as argument ad ignorantiam, but much better sounding when Taleb pronounces “the mother of all mistakes: mistaking absence of evidence (of harm) for evidence of absence.” Although he is specifically discussing iatrogenics in this context, we can see it in the flawed thinking of others. For instance, consider COVID naysayers in the world who claim the virus is a hoax because no one they know (absence of evidence) has gotten sick from it, equating this as “proof” (evidence of absence) for why the coronavirus is not real.
When taken together, these two ideas should make us very cautious to claim to know anything about what is going on with the pandemic. Annie Duke specifically offers a wonderful technique about how to challenge one’s own beliefs, which often go unstated: “Wanna bet?” When our family and friends casually say this phrase after we make a claim, it typically unnerves us and makes us think about how we came to believe what we said aloud in the first place. This mental pause is enough to make us reassess the belief and perhaps give it a quantitative ranking; the lower the percentage, the less likely the person is to be certain the belief is correct–and certainty is amassive cognitive challenge in and ofitself (the “I’m Not Sure” above is a nod to Duke herself).
So when you hear our elected leaders or even next-door neighbors claim that they will send their child to school despite the coronavirus, “knowing” that transmission rates are low among kids because they’ve read an article or two, ask them (if possible): “Wanna bet?” (the central question that drives inquiry in Theory of Knowledge is “How do you know?”) When thinking about whether or not to send Florida’s children to a brick and mortar setting, parents must make the ultimate bet because the wager is the lives of their children or their own lives if the kids bring the virus home to them.
I’m not willing to make or take that bet. Are you?
In the end, what we claim to “know”–especially regarding all things related to the coronavirus–should be suspect and constantly re-evaluated, both in light of new findings and an awareness of our inability to truly understand them beyond the literacy required to read the words on the page. Every single one of us is far more ignorant than knowledgable about what is happening, and perhaps that epistemic humility will have us all saying my favorite three words a whole lot more…
P.S. – If you are even remotely curious about Nassim Taleb, please read this wonderful recent profile from The New Yorker.He is the ultimate contrarian and made me realize that I am far more conservative/risk-averse than I ever imagined possible. Back in late January, he and a few other mathematicians were growing concerned about the coronavirus outbreak in China, and published a paper in a journal effectively stating that we should shut down the country, begin social-distancing, minimize movement, and wear masks to slow/stop the transmission and save our economy. As he now laments, “we could have spent pennies and now we’ve spent trillions.” Like me, he is no fan of all this debt, which we will ultimately have to pay for now that the “skin in the game” of corporations has been transferred from Wall Street to Main Street.
What began as a conversation between the two authors in 2014 evolved into a jointly published article in The Atlantic under the same name in 2015; if you’d like to get a taste for the book, the article can be accessed here, but it is a mere primer compared to the six explanatory threads that they review in the course of the book itself.
The book is largely focused on a number of emergent phenomena in our culture over the last 20-25 years and how these are intertwined in ways that helped produce these outcomes despite our best intentions in creating them. In essence, the shift in our parenting strategies beginning in the mid-1990s, combined with a number of other factors such as screen time / social media usage, “concept creep” within what the authors have dubbed “a culture of safetyism”, increasing political polarization, and other detrimental forces have led to an exponential rise in mood disorders (depression and anxiety in particular) among iGen (or Generation Z) and a number of other challenges arising out of an over-structured childhood.
Although the entire book is riveting for a host of reasons, the chapters on education were particularly alarming and yet wholly unsurprising for any teacher who has been in the classroom over the last decade (the first iGen students turned 18 around 2013) and could see the difference first hand between the later Millennials and the kids who started showing up on high school campuses circa 2010 or so. Here are three subheadings for sections in one chapter alone that will resonate with any teacher or parent who has been raising a child during the last 20 years, all of which the authors argue have been incredibly detrimental to our students and their abilities when it comes to thinking, settling disagreements with one another, etc, etc, etc.
Loss of Unstructured FreePlay
In essence, the average American born before 1985 had parents that allowed them to go outside on their own at roughly 6.5 years of age, give or take one year. This builds independence and autonomy in the child. Moreover, “kid societies” based on the democratic concept of free association was quite common, and children who played together engaged in creativity when coming up with novel games or learned about fairness through adjudicating their own disagreements. Virtually all iGen children grew up with a heavily structured childhood without these features, which has bred a lack of resilience and self-advocacy in many young people.
Childhood as Test Prep
The teachers who read that line alone need to look no further. We have known how much all the testing is pointing us in the wrong direction and doesn’t produce meaningful outcomes, which the authors review ad nauseam. Far worse than our kids not actually learning anything of value, the focus on testing actively erodes creativity and curiosity, dampens the desire to learn in general (because the incessant burden of studying for meaningless tests only stresses students out, creating a feedback loop), and leaves far too many of our future citizens feeling worthless because of a single–and BAD–measure.
Childhood as Academic Resume Building
For my fellow high school teachers, this is where it comes full circle. Due to the nature of the over-structured childhood, parents feel the need to push or plug their child into any and all extra-curricular activities that may help the student “succeed” by getting into the best colleges/universities. In effect, it is a laundry list of activities that typically give students no physical rest and only adds to the mental anguish of trying to keep up with everything.
* * * * *
In the end, there are a number of actionable steps we can take to address these challenges, but it will take every education stakeholder to read this book and encourage others to do so. As someone who has been teaching students about mindfulness meditation to help decrease stress, improve attentional stamina, and better regulate one’s emotional responses, I know first hand that these techniques work and would be beneficial to introduce at a young age before getting too deep into school and life. The authors actually list this as their second suggestion, with the first being to teach all students the basics of CBT, or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. There are a number of very real and incredibly practical steps that we could take to help our kids moving forward, but the first thing you or anyone can do is read this book, think seriously about its implications, and then share these ideas with others, especially policymakers who could implement these ideas as we begin to re-imagine what education could and should be for the future.
P.S. – If you’re not a book reader, I would highly encourage you at least listen to this episode of The Knowledge Project, which is perhaps my favorite podcast of all time. Although Greg is not part of the interview, Jonathan (the other co-author) covers the highlights of their research in this riveting 75 minute interview. Just click this link below:
I hope that all of you had a wonderful extended Spring Break, cultivated your curiosity, and took some time to get adjusted to the “new normal” that will be our lives for the immediate future. Now that “eLearning” is officially here and everyone is returning to “school”–albeit in a very different sense–I wanted to share a bit of advice about your academics.
Don’t worry about them too much.
I know that may sound strange coming from a teacher, but juxtapose the following two facts for a moment: 1) as a species, the current anatomic form of humanity has been around for approximately 200,000 years; 2) by comparison, compulsory education here in the United States has existed for roughly 170 years.
Clearly, human beings have made a great deal of progress without the aid of formal education.
But that’s not to say you can or should blow off what you need to get done for the International Baccalaureate diploma. Instead, it is simply to suggest you focus on your humanity first during this challenging time. As I mentioned before we left for Spring Break, one of the best things any teenager can do during this time is try to get as much sleep as possible. This is a critical window of time for brain development, and experts recommend between 9 to 9.5 hours per evening. Getting lots of sleep will leave you feeling refreshed and ready to perform your best during the day.
Beyond sleep, the best thing you can do is organize your day by chunking out time for certain activities. Human beings are creatures of habit who thrive on routine, and establishing a schedule will help you stay positive and productive. On average, home school students spend 2-3 hours per day on “school work”; while you may need more time to accomplish what needs to be done for school, don’t spend your entire day focused on that alone.
Instead, take time for the more important matters. At the top of your list should be your family. During this trying time, do whatever you can first and foremost to help your parents/guardians in any way possible. If they need you to watch your siblings, do it; if they need you to clean up, cook dinner, do laundry or anything else to help around the house, do it. Don’t quibble about when or why, just be of service to others.
But even with these requests you will still probably have time on your hands, and this is where the real learning begins. Did you know, for instance, that much of the time Cambridge was closed due to the plague Isaac Newton developed Calculus? Or that Shakespeare composed King Lear? My point is that now is the perfect time to tackle those passion projects you didn’t feel you had time for due to the hectic IB schedule and all of its extracurricular demands. Why not use the coming days to earmark time for something you genuinely love or are curious about? Perhaps you’ve always wanted to try your hand at something new or develop another skill?
The truth is we should all be learning lessons every. single. day. Life is one giant lesson if we are lifelong students who are always willing to learn. But now the time is calling us to be human. I’m not one for labels or being reductionist, but if there is common ground we can all agree to in this moment, it is our shared humanity. When we strip away the political identities, the religious affiliations, the claims to certain ethnic or cultural backgrounds, we are 99.9% genetically the same. We’ve all been given this gift of life. We’ve all been blessed in ways we often do not recognize on a daily basis.
And perhaps this is the most important lesson of all.
In closing, I hope that you use this time to learn as much as you possibly can, especially about what it means to be human in trying times. Lean on one another. And never forget my favorite quote from Gandhi that you looked at every day when we met in room 824.
The most difficult aspect of working remotely, for me, at least, will be not seeing my students on a daily basis. I have been in communication with a number of them throughout the break, and each week we are not in school I will be writing a letter to them that will deal with “life” issues more than academic ones. I am posting them publicly in the hopes that they will also help others who are struggling through this difficult ordeal.
I realize that many of you are struggling with what is happening across the world and in our lives right now, and the first thing I wanted to you know is that this is perfectly normal. In speaking with a few former IB students over the past week, the one piece of advice I keep sharing is that “you will get through this.” For someone like me who is in my mid-forties, I have already lived through a number of large events that cause the world to pause and reassess its current cultural or economic trajectory (end of the Cold War, 9/11, Housing Collapse, etc). COVID-19, however, presents a slightly different wrinkle in that it is also forcing us to stay within our homes and keep distance from others, sometimes even those whom we love the most.
My first piece of advice is to be curious, not fearful. As Theory of Knowledge students, this is an exciting time to take the concepts studied in TOK and apply them broadly to the events of today’s world. Think about the claims being made by various entities, agencies, and individuals. Take time to consider how the various Ways of Knowing may impact how we receive and interpret emerging phenomena. While the juniors have not studied Areas of Knowledge yet, our first unit when eLearning begins will be the Natural Sciences and goes hand in hand with what is happening now; for seniors who have already completed the course, reflect on the other AOKs and how they impact our burgeoning understanding of the novel coronavirus. Ultimately, we are all witnessing the unfolding of a major event in history, which is why we should all be cultivating curiosity to stave off the fear and let it subside.
But how do we stave off fear? Fear is a natural reaction in times of great uncertainty, and I’m sure all of you remember that fear is one of the six primary emotions that have been evolutionarily hardwired into us all. But how do we turn fear–or any emotion–into curiosity? Through a simple three step process that begins with introspection, but the trick is to treat this process like a detective carefully investigating the scene of a crime.
When you feel a sudden surge of emotion, recognize it but try not to react to it.
With calm detachment, investigate what sensations the emotion generates in the body (e.g. tightness in the chest, lump in the throat, etc).
Ponder what has allowed that emotion to rise within you–was it internal? Another thought (or cascade of thoughts) that brought up the emotion? Or was it external? The events of your day? The stress of the pandemic? Acknowledging the source itself will help the emotion subside, typically steadying the mind in the process.
Granted, this may be easier said than done for someone who has been meditating for over a decade, but this extended break from school is a timely opportunity to begin or continue to work on your own personal practice. (Can’t find the sheet on Edsby? Click Basic Mindfulness Practices here to download the PDF) Beyond the proven benefits such as increased focus, attentional stamina, and emotional regulation being extolled by neuroscience, developing a meditation practice will increase the self-awareness of one’s own mind, providing more personal freedom in the present moment because we can actively choose how to respond to our current situations.
In conjunction with further developing one’s self-awareness through introspection, the other reminder I wanted to share is from the wisdom of Stoicism. You may remember this very brief TED Ed video I shared in class that distilled the philosophy down to its central tenets and how these mental skills will prove invaluable moving forward in life.
As I’m sure you recall, Marcus Aurelius (no, that vector drawing in our classroom is not Childish Gambino) is my favorite Stoic philosopher and his Meditations is easily one of the most accessible and practical texts in all of philosophy. I would highly encourage all of you to read it during the extended break from school, as the wisdom contained therein will serve you well for the rest of your lives. As a leader who spent the last fifteen years of his governance in the midst of plague across the Roman Empire, his thoughts about how we are to face the uncertain or unknown really resonate now in our own time of outbreak.
I will close this first letter by unequivocally stating that I am here for you. For the juniors, TOK will trundle onward and we will begin exploring the various Areas of Knowledge. For the seniors, I realize many of you are preparing for final exams and your pending graduation. But, at the risk of sounding like an irresponsible teacher, put your humanity and family first. Many of you have siblings to care for or other responsibilities that require your immediate attention. The current situation we face together is a far greater lesson that will truly prepare you for life, and employing the concepts you have learned or are currently learning is the real value in this moment in time.
You are ready. Cultivate curiosity. Believe in yourselves. Rise to this occasion in the same way you have risen to previous challenges. As Marcus notes above, whatever the future may bring you will be able to handle.
And always remember that each day is a blessing and gift.
P.S. – Juniors, anything I post on social media I will also share on Edsby; Seniors, I will share more frequently through Remind now that I no longer have you in class. Much of what I will be sending along is for your own personal enrichment and better prepare you for the life that lay ahead. Want a great place to start? Check out one of my favorite podcasts, The Knowledge Project. Listen to this amazing episode about the power of habits, happiness, resilience, and how much of these are dependent on the narratives we construct about ourselves and the world.
P.P.S. – Need additional positivity in your life? Check out my first blog, Letters of Encouragement to Nobody in Particular. Although any of the letters can be read as stand alone piece, many of them are thematically related to the previous or next letter. Enjoy!
“[He’s] a saint, even though you can’t see his halo.” – Marina Pilcher, former chief of Hillsborough’s juvenile probation program.
My next door neighbor and friend, Wali Shabazz, has been advocating on behalf of the African American community–and young males in particular–here in Tampa for over 30 years. Though he readily admits that he has no control over the color of his own skin, he has “all the control over my excellence as a human being, and that needs to be more of our focus in the 21st century.” During this wide-ranging conversation about his advocacy work, we discuss the cultural changes that have shaped the African-American community since the 1960’s; how his program scaled up with a $1.2 million grant from the Kellogg Foundation; as well as the work he has done here in Hillsborough County Public Schools.
If you’d like to learn more about Wali and his work, below is list of articles that have profiled him and his work over the years. Wali specializes in Cultural Integrity Training for teens and adults, Group Sensitivity Training for educators, as well as individual coaching. He can be reached directly by email at email@example.com or calling him on his cell phone (he also provides this in the podcast) at 813-363-6385.
Thanks for listening, everyone. Please be sure to share with others who may be interested!
For roughly two weeks I have taken a social media sabbatical. The swirling madness that is constant (and quite often, negative) interactions via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc can be so toxic and draining, and I needed to just shut it all down and retreat into reading and reflection.
What I really pondered the most is how much effort I expended during 2019, with the latter half of the year feeling like a whirlwind that brought few moments of peace. Only when I truly slowed down and took the time to review my advocacy efforts did it really hit me that I am not my best when I stray too far from center. I was constantly overextending myself. The closing months of 2019 saw me sleeping little, people constantly asking me “Are you okay?”, and generally feeling like I was behind in all that I was trying to accomplish with each day. I did my best, but by the time the winter break arrived I was ready to just pull the plug on my public education advocacy altogether.
Everything in life has a cost, and I now realize that I must take a significant step back in my advocacy efforts moving forward. I need to do this to better balance my time among my students in the classroom, my own learning, and my home life, all of which were diminished in some sense by my seemingly overzealous defense of our students and profession.
The focus in 2020 will be “The Year of the Advocate.” In an effort to lighten my load, I am hoping that this is the year that Teacher Voice, as originally envisioned, will become a platform for other voices and not simply my own. There were some wonderful guest contributions in 2019, and I hope to get those more regularly moving forward. Although I may write posts occasionally, I will probably save what little I will have to say in 2020 for the Florida newspapers that are willing to publish my pieces as op-eds. When it comes to podcasts, however, they will resume monthly in a couple of weeks, and they will alternate between public education advocates who already hold and/or are seeking elected office, whether at the local or statewide level, and parent advocates in the broader community who represent groups or issues involving public education here in the Sunshine State.
Thank you to all who have supported me since I started this project two and half years ago. Although this is not the end of Teacher Voice, the prolific posting on the blog will no longer be the norm unless many guest posts start rolling in (ideally, I would like to publish pieces bi-weekly–any takers?). Podcasts will be published roughly in the middle of each month, and I can be contacted through this website or directly at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to submit an article. Hopefully, the better balance between my personal and professional lives and activities will allow me to be the best advocate possible for all of Florida’s children and my fellow educators.
P.S. – FLFIRE will continue in 2020. Although it never took off the way I had envisioned it would (failing = learning), we are hoping to re-launch officially on 1/14/20 and use the momentum of the new legislative session to continue to build our grassroots network for future actions.
Some people have questioned my motivations since I began the Teacher Voice project. All that I can say is I went to the University of South Florida intending to double-major in Philosophy and Mathematics and graduated with a Religious Studies and Classics degree instead. Everything in life shapes us somehow, and my reading and reflection has a great deal to do with who I am now as well as who I aspire to be in the future.
I love teaching. Can’t imagine doing anything else during my working years, but everyone keeps telling me to run for office. Don’t think I’m there yet, mainly because I cannot imagine a workday without kids in my life. It wasn’t in the cards for Erin and me, which is why I think we love our students as if they were our own children. Plus, as a lifelong learner and restless nerd, I don’t think I would survive being around more adults when I learn more and stay relevant by being around amazing students each and every day.
I have a massive favor to ask of all of you. As an NPA who tries hard to be centrist on every issue, I am sick and tired of living in a state (and country, at this point) that consistently puts politics over people. We all suffer for it, and we all deserve so much more from our elected officials, most especially our children.
As some of you know, I have become increasingly outspoken about the state of education here in Florida through my project Teacher Voice. I really can’t explain my advocacy beyond a heartfelt feeling for kids and how we, as the “adults,” should be leaving a legacy that provides them with the brightest future possible.
Make no mistake—we are NOT doing this here in the Sunshine State.
When I moved here in 1998, Florida was 27th in public education funding and 29th in average teacher pay. Still below the national average, but not terrible.
Now? Florida has a $1 TRILLION economy that ranks 4th in the U.S. and 17th on the globe—how on earth could we have fallen all the way to 45th and 48th for these same stats respectively?
Politics over people, that’s how…
Having spent the last 25 years of my life with my face in philosophy books and sacred texts from around the world, I cannot help but speak out on behalf of my students and profession. I am compelled on principle to speak truth to power regardless of personal risk. I do not care. This cause is far bigger than me or any single person.
This is about kids. This about their future.
For too long, intelligent, passionate, dedicated educators have been sidelined, ignored, and marginalized. For too long we’ve had politicians who micromanage our daily existence despite knowing ZERO about what we do or how we care about our students in SO many ways that go well beyond “instruction”.
It is time for this to end. It is time for our “leaders” to talk to teachers.
I know this is long and a risk in an age of TL; DR (too long; didn’t read), but if you are a former student, a friend new or old, a family member—or some random stranger who happened to run across this post because I made it public, I hope that you will please help me—help every educator in the Sunshine State—to have a seat at the table. Our voices are crucial for helping fix this completely broken, inhumane, data-driven, test-stressed BS that now passes for education. But I—we—need your help to get us to the table.
I started this petition yesterday morning and it has almost 2500 signatures already (now nearly 5K!). But we need to make this go viral. I’d love to put 10K+ on this thing within a week before sending it to Governor Ron DeSantis. Can you help by reading, signing and sharing this petition?
Thank you in advance for helping all teachers across Florida!
And far more importantly, thank you for being a part of my journey. It is difficult to put into words how grateful I am for each and every day I get in this amazing life, mainly because of the relationships I have with all of you.
P.S. – For the last 5-6 years or so, I’ve really taken a deep dive into Stoicism. I’m not one for labels in general, but if anything has helped me survive the vicissitudes of the legislative nightmare of Tallahassee the last several years, it has been a constant reminder that what they or anyone else does is beyond my control. What is in my control is my response, my attitude, my perspective. If you don’t know much about Stoicism (it often gets mischaracterized because of how the word is employed culturally now), check out this short TED Ed Talk on YouTube.
From the moment I began the Teacher Voice project just over two years ago, one of the first people who immediately came to mind as a guest was Derek Thomas, a local English teacher whom I never met yet felt a connection to because of his positive tweets. Much like myself, Derek struck me as a person and teacher who values relationships with his students over virtually every other aspect of being in the classroom with kids.
But he’s also one heck of a writing teacher, and as someone who also reads a great deal of student writing in my role with the IB program, I wanted to discuss how he gets kids to grow as writers and, ultimately, communicators. This conversation, then, largely revolves around those two ideas and I savored every moment of this talk, both in the moment and while listening to it again before publication. I hope that you enjoy it as much as I have.
Thanks for listening, everyone! Enjoy the first back week with your students!
P.S. – Although this is not one of the tweets I read at the end, I intentionally skipped this one in the feed because I thought it would be a great post script/first day message from Derek. If you are on Twitter and need a burst of positivity relating to the kids or classroom, you can follow him @derekjathomas
This has been an interesting summer full of reading and reflection. A few weeks ago at a recent HCPS board meeting, I spoke about all that I believe is wrong with public education in its current manifestation (watch here). Whether it’s getting kids to pound obsolete facts into their heads to be regurgitated on a meaningless state assessment or any number of other pointless activities we put students through so that they can receive a so-called “education”, none of what public education here in Florida (or the United States, for that matter) will truly help students thrive in life. Instead, as noted previously, our students succeed despite the system, not because of it.
But where do we go from here? What should the future of education look like? Well, I start to speak about it here, and I hope to convince you, dear reader, as to why mind training through meditation should be the foundation to not only a more holistic, human-centered public education policy, but something that you should begin in your personal life today.
As a lifelong lover of wisdom, most of my favorite philosophers hail from the Axial Age, a period from roughly 800 BCE through 200 CE when the world produced some of the most influential thinkers whose thoughts and ideas have stood the test of time. For me, the top five who have influenced my thinking and humanity the most are (chronologically): Siddhartha Gautama (the historical “Buddha“); Socrates; Aristotle; Jesus; and Aurelius. All of them in their own ways deeply inform who I am trying to become and, more importantly in this context, who I am as a teacher and exemplar in the classroom.
Beyond these sages from antiquity, very few other philosophers loom so large in my mind and worldview than my two 19th century favorites: Friedrich Nietzsche and William James, the latter of whom I hope to introduce you to and have you think about, especially if you are a classroom teacher.
William James is an intellectual giant for numerous reasons, chief among them being widely recognized as the “Father of American Psychology” after publishing his seminal work, The Principles of Psychology. Within this work, two chapters should be of particular interest to all educators, as they would be the ideal bedrock upon which to erect the edifice of an education: attention and habit. Both chapters are hyperlinked and are worth reading for a deeper understanding of James’ ideas, but I hope to demonstrate why these two critical facets would / could / should be the basis for any public education system as they are both foundational to a life well lived.
As mentioned in the second set of comments, most people do not fully appreciate the amount of cultural disruption that will stem from technological innovation, radically changing how we interact with our environments and, far more critically, with each other. Take a moment to think about this fact: the iPhone, which I believe is widely acknowledged to be the first true “smartphone” debuted in 2007. That was only twelve years ago; what will the next ten, twenty, or thirty bring?
Now think about how much our attention has been fractured during that same twelve year period. How much our devices beckon us. How much the siren song takes attention away very often from those who matter most–the closest people in our lives. Even now I have to admit the ironic use of this particular medium that is, statistically speaking, being read on said device or some similar type screen. Perhaps there is a reason we have witnessed the rise in diagnoses of ADD and ADHD in the last 30 years. Perhaps there is a reason we are all so constantly stressed by the demands that compete for our attention, which, in reality, is the currency of our personal time, life’s most precious resource…
And yet, without the proper habits, without the proper mental training to consciously develop the good habits of mind we want in all people, the brain has a tendency to hardwire much of what our environment and lack of self-reflection and self-awareness ingrain into us. William James, as a medical doctor at Harvard, became deeply interested in the human brain, and he was the first (that I am certainly aware of) in the West to diagnose the problems caused by bad habits and a lack of attention.
Among many other famous aspects of his great psychological work, James coined what is now an everyday phrase: stream of consciousness. He was deeply curious about how our waking experience could be used to shape our daily realities. As a philosopher, James is known as a Pragmatist (the chief reason he is one of my favorites), which focuses more on practical experience rather than theoretical or abstract ideas. So when he realized that our stream of consciousness could be nudged to develop better and better habits, he began to develop a philosophy around that idea.
And what better way to achieve this than by the willful use of attention. If we know how to rein it in and use it proactively, the attention can be used to direct the stream of consciousness to what is most important in any given moment. Moreover, the long term effect of this mind training–something that has conclusively been demonstrated by neuroscience in the last twenty years–is an increased ability to focus as well as greater attentional stamina.
Why is this not something that is slowly taught to every single student starting Day One?
So how can we can train students to maximize this ability? I believe the entry point into this mind-training is through meditation. The word meditation itself admittedly has baggage, because people hear the word and Buddhism automatically comes to mind (interestingly enough, Christianity had a very long and storied contemplative tradition that was de-emphasized during the Reformation and Enlightenment); my entry point to meditation ten years ago, however, was through the lens of the emerging neuroscience, yet tempered by my general skepticism with which I tend to approach most weighty claims. Like James, I realized that I had to become my own experiment. I had to live out the experience in order to see first hand if this could be beneficial.
As a Type A personality who always feels compelled to be moving, active, engaged, etc, asking me to sit down, close my eyes, and focus on my breath was an absolute insane idea. I distinctly recall trying to make it through one cycle of deep breathing and by the second inhalation my mind exploded with thoughts: I can’t do this! I’m wasting time! I have to send that email! What’s for lunch? How much longer?, and on and on. If you’ve ever tried meditation, I’m confident you had a similar experience. But that first step has taken me on journey I never would have expected or believed had you told me I would be this person a decade later.
The inward focus that meditation requires effectively asks us to step into that stream of consciousness, and one of the most interesting things I have learned and would be so beneficial to every child in the world is that you are not your thoughts. Here’s how I pitch it to students:
We all have a voice in our heads, right?
But sometimes it can be more than one voice, right?
And when there’s more than one voice, it’s usually a debate of some kind, so which voice is the real you?
*Most students are smiling, laughing, or deep in thought by this point, as most human beings have never had their attention consciously directed to the interior experience of their minds*
FINAL QUESTION: WHO OR WHAT IS WATCHING THESE VOICES ARGUE IN THE FIRST PLACE?
One of the most important discoveries that William James intuited through his own experience is that the thoughts are not consciousness itself. Setting aside the more metaphysical dimensions of what the consciousness may or may not be (we still cannot pin down physical correlates to consciousness with brain function at this point, but it would seem to be an emergent property of the entire neural network), we can at least use this simple set of questions to pierce the illusion of thoughts-as-consciousness and understand the metaphor of the stream that James was using in his psychological framework. Consciousness is always there, flowing like a stream; some times it is calm, some times it is raging torrent that is overflowing with a powerful emotion such as anger. Thoughts and emotional states are like rocks being thrown into the river, some of which are large enough to divert its flow and carry us off in a new direction*. The trick is to realize that, through mind training, we can better control the stream, so to speak, because the more meditation wears down the identification of consciousness with the thoughts themselves, the more we realize we have the power to choose and cultivate the thoughts that will benefit ourselves and each other.
The ultimate goal of any education should be to produce lucid yet malleable minds that are able to keep pace with the coming cultural and technological change. Education should focus on the ancient Greek concept of eudaimonia, or human flourishing. We should be teaching our students first and foremost how to navigate their daily experiences by providing the mental tools that have been scientifically proven to: 1) decrease stress and anxiety; 2) increase mental acuity, focus, and attentional stamina; 3) enhanced executive functioning, with great access to fluid intelligence/working memory; 4) improved well-being in the form of a strengthened immune system, better emotional regulation/impulse control, and an increase in pro-social behaviors.
Who would not want this to be part and parcel of every child’s education in preparation for life? Is the goal not to produce human beings who have the capacity and freedom of thought that results in lateral, critical and creative thinking that will produce innovative solutions to our most vexing problems? Because I guarantee training children to fill in bubble sheets all the time will not get us there. While meditation should be the foundation, ideally each level would focus on different aspects of education:
Elementary: constructive play for the earliest ages with a focus on communication and collaboration. This seems to be the critical ages at which the innate curiosity and creativity are ground out of children in the name of the factory model. Scrap standards based learning and go back to holistic, content-rich thematic units that provide the basic building blocks of our world, with a focus on literacy across all curricula.
Middle: continued emphasis on relationship building and empathy, while allow students to explore ideas within generalized domains that they may find personally interesting. Provide more robust project-based learning that allows students to demonstrate their knowledge of the world in various ways, especially through demonstrations to further enhance communication abilities.
High: beginning of specialization for those who demonstrate the aptitude and desire to focus on a particular path in life. For those who are still unsure, a continued open exploration of topics of any choice with continued emphasis on producing evidence of learning and problem solving in novel ways.
These are only some ideas about how our education system could be radically altered for the better if there were the political and cultural will to do so. As it is now, our system fails a great many students. If you have read this longer piece to the end, thank you for taking the time and interest in thinking about these things. I honestly believe, as nearly all teachers do, that being successful at this craft is really all about our relationships with the students. My meditation practice has helped me bring a palpable presence into my room each and every day, and I do my best to infuse that space with love, compassion, gratitude, generosity, and patience, five of the key values that motivate my life and with which I feed my mind thoughts on these subjects every day.
May you have a wonderful year with your students!
P.S. – I realize this piece is a little light on sources/links, but it’s only because in the ten years I have been meditating I have had a love affair with neuroscience. On the low end, I would venture to guess that in that same decade I have read at least 50 books on either the brain, meditation, or how the latter impacts the former. And I still continue to read at least 3-5 books on these topics every year.
So have a piqued your curiosity about possibly beginning your own meditation practice? I hope so. If you are interested, here are some essential resources that I recommend to others with some frequency.
Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World– written by Oxford professor Mark Williams and award winning journalist Danny Penman, the book is written as an 8-week course of MBCT, or Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy. They provide all the rudiments of basic mindfulness meditation while reviewing much of the basic neuroscience that speaks to the efficacy of these mind training practices. Even 10 minutes per day in as little as 8 weeks will create both functional and structural changes in the brain. The associated website with a few guided meditations can be found at franticworld.com.
Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment–and Your Life– Jon Kabat-Zinn was a practicing Zen Buddhist in the 1970s who understood the power of meditation; he was also a physician working with terminally ill cancer patients at UMass General, so he developed what is now commonly referred to as MBSR, or “Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction” to help his dying patients make the best of their end of life experiences. This book is best listened to rather than read, as the audio version contains several guided meditations.
Mind in the Balance: Meditation in Science, Buddhism, and Christianity – For those of you who may be interested in the more traditional, spiritual dimensions of meditation, B. Alan Wallace’s text is a wonderful blend of the science behind the brain, various meditative practices, as well as a history of how meditation developed within two different spiritual contexts of the East and West.
Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion– This is an excellent read for those who are agnostic or atheist. Regardless of how much I try to share the power of meditation through neuroscience, a few friends still write it off as religious mumbo-jumbo no matter how many fMRI scans I show them or information I quote from the many books I’ve read. Sam Harris, though, is both a neuroscientist and an atheist, so his book, which is both a personal exploration of how his own meditation practice developed as well as the neuroscience explaining the changes to the brain, has won over a few of my irreligious friends.
And if you’re feeling really nerdy, you can watch my “Neuroscience of Mindfulness” presentation that I delivered at USF Health five years ago. Word had gotten around that I start my classes with a “Mindful Minute”, and I was invited to be a panelist discussing the use of mindfulness in education settings. Between professors, principals, psychologists, counselors, and social workers on the panel, I felt a bit out of my element, but it made for an engaging discussion after the presenters had delivered their respective sections. The PowerPoint is below the video as well.
This is my most recent set of comments delivered to the HCPS School Board. Make no mistake, it is a lament about our test-and-punish culture that is destroying creativity and initiative in its wake, leaving many students dissatisfied with their education and experiences related to it. As noted previously, “the kids who succeed do so despite the system–not because of it.”
And the greatest sacrifice laid on the altar of lobbying interests in this entire travesty that has become our public education system here in Florida?
A love of lifelong learning for far too many children…
The overuse of standardized tests to generate the almighty data for the false god of accountability has virtually destroyed an entire generation’s innate curiosity. As so eloquently stated among innumerable ways throughout her acerbic piece, writer Anastasia Basil recognizes the urgent need to revolutionize and reconfigure our entire educational enterprise when she bluntly states, “The time for radical change was yesterday. (You’re late. Here’s a tardy slip.)”
What is happening to education now also happened to what once used to be another non-profit/public good in the past: medicine. Much of the privatization began in the 1970s and now we have created a system that equates to roughly 20% of our entire nation’s GDP. The public education sector started trickling down this revenue stream in the 1990s, and now it seems like the Education Industrial Complex, led by Pearson first and foremost, is an unstoppable waterfall that will pummel every aspect of education until it is completely commodified and monetized.
Tests are a natural part of education as formal assessments used occasionally by classroom teachers–the actual experts in the room working with children that lobbyists and think tanks continue to micromanage with campaign contributions. But all of the ridiculous state level tests that students must endure–as well as the nearly constant “progress monitoring” at the earliest ages–is creating a toxic environment that is riddled with chronic stress on every human being involved, most especially our children.
Take my high school as an example. We began testing on May 1st as decreed by law and it was a logistical nightmare. From 5/1 through 5/23 our school was administering some sort of standardized test every. single. day. Students had to take the FSA, EOCs (End of Course exams for graduation requirements such as Biology and Algebra I), AP exams, or IB exams. Most students end up testing for consecutive days, especially ESE students with accommodations for additional time. Many IB students took multiple exams on multiple days due to the scheduling conflicts and, in some cases, even took makeup AP exams after graduation. Furthermore, the scheduling was compounded by the lack of computers in the school, which had numerous teachers and students having to move to alternative classrooms so that the computer lab or media center could be taken over for testing.
Beyond the logistics–and far more critical–is how much all the testing truly stresses out students. For the Sunshine State to claim that it cares about the mental health and well-being of its children on the one hand, it makes for a comically absurd paradox that Florida’s reliance on standardized tests crushes the creative spirit of many children while simultaneously heaping undue stress and anxiety upon them on the hand. Our students need love, attention, and encouragement; they need to feel cared for and nurtured by the adults in their school house. What they don’t need to is to be told they’re inadequate by being reduced to a number…
The reductionist view of seeing kids as merely data to be mined is deplorable and demeaning. While this might not necessarily be the intention, it certainly leaves many of them feeling dehumanized if nothing else. In virtually every aspect of the testing regime that begins May 1st, kids must know their student number, the school code, the testing site digits, and on and on.
Worse than this, the focus on the almighty tests that determine the fate of would-be graduates all but eradicates any true desire to learn for its own sake. In the last decade or so, the students who have survived the test-and-punish model leave in one of two states: roughly the bottom half leave with a false sense of confidence due to inflated district and state exams, while the top half walk away knowing how to “pump and dump” as the kids call it: memorizing facts to regurgitate on some test, all so that they can get an easy A.
And regardless of the half, all of them are glad that it is over.
Education has become so transactional and formulaic: Memorize stuff. Spit it out on a test. Get the grade needed to move on. Repeat. There has to be a better way, and it begins by lessening the focus on testing. Two main suggestions:
– Reduce or eliminate as many tests as possible, preferably all of the FSAs and EOCs; instead, rather than using it as an alternative graduation requirement, allow an SAT or ACT baseline concordance score in its place. The state already has every student taking the SAT, so perhaps the adversity index could even be used in the mix. Currently, there are several states in the U.S. that solely use concordance scores in lieu of any state test, and this would provide a better gauge to compare Florida’s students against the rest of the U.S. on a norm-referenced test rather than criterion-based and otherwise meaningless exams with opaque sliding scales that tell us nothing useful.
– If the tests must stay, return to paper testing for all exams. It may be more expensive, but it saves time to administer the tests all in a single day in any given classroom rather than the few available computer labs or the school’s lone media center. If the school is even fortunate enough to have a full time teacher-librarian, he or she should be opening new vistas for children, not watching them get the joy of learning sucked out of them like the Pod People in The Dark Crystal.
Commissioner Corcoran and the Florida Board of Education claim to want the very best for our children and their education. What parent or teacher would not want the very best education for their child so that he or she may continue to be lifelong learners with a passion for constantly getting better as human being while living as well as possible? Should that not be our aim? To help recognize, encourage, guide, and nurture the potential and passion within every child? The educators working with kids in classrooms all over this state certainly want this for their students–and do their best to provide them despite the current barriers–why not take away all these tests and stressors so that we can flourish together?
Because if we don’t, the more we double down on this failed test and punish “accountability” scheme, the more the state of Florida–and by extension the entire United States–will get results like this…
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