Archive for the ‘Pedagogy & Education’ Category

There are many simplistic definitions of a CULT that provide a very broad and general meaning.  I’ve researched the material and come up with a more narrow and specific definition, which I think points to more dangerous cults more effectively than a broad definition.

It rests on 7 essential principles:

  1. It has a very strong leader, based on personal, emotional identification and an extreme feeling of allegiance and compliance.
  2. There are demands, pressures and pledges of allegiance to that extreme leadership figure or group of people.
  3. There is a central religious or ideological foundation that is rigidly adhered to.
  4. Some form of impending doom is involved, whether it be apocalyptic or some other sort of catastrophe.
  5. That impending doom is used as a vehicle to mobilize fear as a strong motivator.
  6. There is a routine suspension of reason and a dismissal of facts, with severe rationalization being obvious.
  7. There are paranoid tendencies dismissing all sources outside of the cult as conspiracies opposed to their one right way of seeing things.
  8. There is a strong pressure and often serious consequences forcing members to not leave the cult.

 

[postscript]   There’s one other characteristic of most cults that I want to add after watching some of the televangelists this Easter Sunday morning.  (I’m normally not in the habit of doing that, but GPS was a rerun, so I ended up flipping through channels.) Cults present arguments in calculated increments that are designed to convince people with weak reasoning skills to go deeper and deeper into ideological or religious beliefs.  They’re half reasonable (if appealing to a more semi-rational group) or deal in gradations of emotional ecstacy with the less rational and more emotional group.  They believe that if you repeat something, however ridiculous, often enough eventually many people will believe it.  The facts around it aren’t important, but you still have to pull the con job in gradual increments so that cognitive dissonance can take hold. Whichever strategy is present (and sometimes all are), it is calculated and deliberately designed to inch the potential cult member towards the desired goals.  It is different from “education” per se in two ways.  First of all the strategies are diabolical and designed to minimize personal awareness rather than maximize it.  Second, it is done in the context of the eight characteristics mentioned above.

 

Do with that what you will.  Personally I have no trouble seeing Donald Trump’s supporters as falling in line with most of these to a rather extreme degree.  Granted, you could make a case for any political movement being a cult, however by comparison I honestly don’t see Sanders supporters in the same fanatical light.  There are some pretty easily identified differences between charisma and fanaticism.  There are some pretty easily identified differences between speaking purely emotionally and putting forth rational arguments.  Easy, at least, for those that are not embraced by the cult.

More and more, as I’ve watched Trump surrogates on news talk shows, I see blank eyes and totally uncritical minds.  I’ve talked to many individuals who have come from bonifide cults, and Trump surrogates most certainly have “the look”.  It has gotten to the point where some of their advisories on these panels seem like they want to physically go over and shake sense into them, and I can’t blame them.  Recently several panel discussions actually cut the mike of Trump supporters because they just couldn’t stand the nonsense that they were spewing.  I think that marginalizing reason and suspending critical thinking are a slippery slope for some people, aided by incremental brainwashing and the calculated use of logical fallacies.  Once you start doing it, cognitive dissonance takes over and you end up going all the way down the rabbit hole.

 

Fortunately, a cult leader who is an outright narcissist is likely to consume himself and the cult in time.  Also, unless there is some kind of societal psychosis, the cult should have a ceiling, reinforced by the aversion to that narcissism.  That’s starting to happen now.  But watching these people embarrass themselves as they are drawn into this hypnotic state is almost too weird to believe.  I am hoping that it will be a socially transformative experience when it is all over, …and in a positive way.

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About 30 years ago my first serious exposure and training in meditation came from the Native American Shamanic tradition as taught by Tom Brown Jr. in the Tracker School. It was the model that I used when integrating meditation skills into my youth wilderness programs, with about ten groups and one hundred youth having gone through the process. I won’t take time here to outline the original program. If you went through it either with me or at the Tracker School, you know what I’m talking about. Others will be able to follow along without too much difficulty.

Very briefly, The Tracker meditations involved guided meditation that walked down a path, stairs and eventually through an archway to a spiritual domain. The path was the realm of the unconscious mind while the stairs and beyond had a more metaphysical focus. Tom Brown spent little time developing the skills of the path, spending most of his training time on the more spiritual skills. I found that the skills associated with the path were the easiest and most practical skills to teach, so while I still spent a lot of time on the farther reaches, I had a strong interest in developing those of the path. Not only were they more down to earth and less controversial, but they also seemed, to me at least, to form a prerequisite for the more advanced skills. Balance and harmony within one’s own mind might be a necessary foundation before examining the balance and harmony of the rest of existence. Originally you walked along the path encountering a series of clearings or stations, each of which allowed you to exercise a particular skill. Beyond a cursory explanation, I don’t remember any course material that focused on these subconscious skills.

And so in my own research and reading over the years I began to piece together additional exercises and extensions to the existing skills, trying always to remain faithful to the original teachings. From Dan Millman I learned about Huna traditions and the power of the subconscious, which was very consistent with the things Tom Brown taught. From Dr. Hal Stone I learned about Divided Self Theory, which has since been adopted by the American Zen Association as a major focus of meditation. Other people such as Jon Kabat-Zinn and Dr. Dan Siegel extended the value and domain of meditation even further, reaching into an integration with neuro psychology and biology.

And so, after 30 years of working with the original meditations and being afraid to violate their structure, I finally decided that I could alter them to include many of the lessons I’d learned. As I began to do that, I noticed a flow that ran through some of the new skills that I wanted to add. What follows is a description of that new structure and the associated flow.

*    *     *     *     *

The heart of basic meditation is an inner stillness, uncomplicated by thoughts, emotions, judgements and physical sensation. To accomplish this we focus on breath and surrender. One of the first meditation exercises I like to use to introduce the practice is to simply count your breaths in loops of four, exclusively thinking about the counting and nothing else. When other thoughts or feelings arise, you push them aside after acknowledging them. Accept and dismiss. This is the heart of meditation. Later the counting can be replaced just by attention and awareness of breath. Guided visualizations are also used in meditations. The aim when using these is that the act of visualizing something becomes the single focus of attention, replacing breath (although the breath can be returned to at any time in order to reinforce the meditation).

When first entering the meditation I ask subjects to visualize themselves at the beginning of a familiar path, retaining this structure from the original Tracker practice. (A path and a journey is a useful archetype.) The beginning of the path can have two purposes. The first is just the basic grounding of pure meditation and the values that come with it. The second is that it is a place to do the basic meditation based on Siegel’s Wheel of Awareness meditation (the modified version of which I described in the previous entry). The beginning of the path means the journey has not begun and the meditation has not yet been involved with any sort of intention other than to experience the silence of meditation. This silence or pure meditation has its own value, often overlooked or skipped by Shamanic traditions. Never in any of the Tracker classes was this pure meditation either practised or valued. As I state in the previous entry, doing this version of the Wheel of Awareness meditation has its own benefits, and is essential in both deepening the meditative state and forming the mind body integration which will continue to trend through the other stations on the path.

The second purpose that can be employed at the beginning of the path is as a visualization staging area. In order to begin the transition of focus from breath to visualization I will often have them imagine picking up an object and experiencing that object using multiple senses. Not only what it looks like, but what it feels like, its texture and temperature, what it sounds like if you tap it, even what it smells or tastes like, if appropriate. The idea is to engage and strengthen the visualization before heading down the path.

Moving down the path to the first actual station/clearing means leaving the complete silence of the breath oriented focus and introducing some intention into the meditation. It becomes like a lucid dream, still connected to the silence, but also accepting the impulses from the subconscious in a non-judgemental way. That first station is the place of All Personal Memory (again retaining the original structure from the Tracker school). APM can have several roles in meditation. It can be a place where you retell yourself a story of an incident in your life, re-experiencing it in memory but also depicting it in words. This is particularly valuable with an emotional incident that you may have trouble accepting or understanding. By reliving it and retelling it in words, according to Dr. Siegel, it becomes integrated into various parts of the brain’s neurobiology, including the Pre Frontal Cortex, which is the rational part of the brain that makes sense of things. This is not to say that all emotional experiences need to be rationalized or reduced to rational components. What it means is that experiences need to be made available to all parts of the brain in order to best understand and learn from them. Putting the experience into words helps the brain integrate the experience more completely. (And, as I outlined in another previous entry, this is very similar to an exercise that Tom Brown suggested called Tree Preaching).

The second function of this station is a more direct connection with memories and past experiences, allowing you to revisit them and benefit from them. Examples of doing this might involve finding lost items or remembering the particulars of conversations. Using a screen on which to project your memories and thoughts is a good device here, which was used by Fool’s Crow in his shamanic visions.

The central theme of the APM station is the vividness of memories. In order to both elicit and integrate memories it is important for them to be fully vivid and multi-sensory. (In some of the more advanced uses of this station, which I’m still exploring, using it with various NLP techniques will involve the manipulation of the vividness of the memories.) The energy of the vividness of memories is then carried along to the next station on the path.

Moving down the path to the next station or clearing brings you to the place of Body Control. (This is a change from the original setup done for several reasons which will be explained later.) In Body Control, you communicate with your sub-conscious in order to get its assistance in controlling autonomic responses in your body. This can be anything from increasing body temperature and metabolism in the cold, to visualizing yourself as healthy and healed in the case of sickness or injury. I firmly believe that everything from metabolism to immune responses to phobias can be influenced by the conscious mind if it knows how to get the subconscious mind on board.

Effective communication with the subconscious mind rests on proper visualization of the outcome and empowering it with positive emotional intention. That proper visualization rests on the work done with memories in the APM station. To visualize a warm body, for example, you have to have a strong memory of a time when you were warm, drawing that memory forth to use it. When I want to be warmer, I will visualize myself standing beside a campfire or, better yet, slipping into a hot tub. In order for those visualizations to work, it is very helpful to have actually had those experiences and to be able to call on them. Memory facilitates my intended visualization of feeling warm. The skills of APM are an important foundation on which to build the visualizations of BC.

Self Healing, which was a separate station in the Tracker format, is combined with Body Control, which I don’t think Tom Brown would actually be upset with as he’d many times referred to self healing as just a form of body control. It uses the same kind of envisioning and, to my mind, the same level of intentionality.

Farther down the path, we come to the third station/clearing, which I’ve chosen to modify considerably from the original format. For lack of a better name, this is the place of Selves. As memories and intentionality combine, they create patterns of response which create the multiplicity of Selves that often rules our minds. We are not one Self, but many, having a different set of responses, attitudes and values depending on external stimuli. There is a self that tries to be responsible and another that strives to be fun-loving and wild. There is the self that is the parent and another that is the child. There is a self that is confident and another that is a critic. These, in turn, create alliances within our mind to produce Meta-selves. The Selves and the Meta-selves arise in our lives, often automatically, to rule our actions and desires. (This interpretation of mind comes from Dr. Hal Stone and a lot of Ken Wilber’s work, including the Zen applications developed by Genpo Roshi and “Big Mind”. It can also be traced back to the works of Georges Gurjieff and P.D. Ouspensky, who insisted that man was a mechanical manifestation of multiple selves way back in the beginning of the 20th Century.)

The station of Selves offers a lot of opportunities to work with these selves. By using techniques pioneered by Dr. Stone in embodying isolated selves, and learning to use them within a meditation, one can have a board meeting of selves, to discuss events or plans from multiple perspectives. One can have a conversation between one’s own Child Self and Adult Self, or between a Critical Self and a Confident Self. Just recognizing that they exist within a broader framework is often enough to create a better perspective on things. This is very similar to those old visuals of the angel sitting on a person’s right shoulder and the devil on their left shoulder, but this is more specific and individual. I have many times identified an emotional reaction to a situation as my Child Self sulking, thereby allowing me to address and hopefully resolve the situation. You can do this at a boardroom table or a court room or whatever other method of dialogue works for you.

Two additional Selves are important within this station. One is Primal Self, which was jumped over earlier on the path. Primal Self is the animalistic, lower brain function, unencumbered by higher reason. It is the one you want to bring forth when there is an emergency survival situation, or you have to build a shelter in record time, or you have to carry a person to safety even if you feel physically unable to. I like to empower the Primal Self with an animal totem (or several). Moving and reacting the way a majestic animal would can help you connect with the primal powers of your mind, which are still very much present even though we keep them chained up much of the time. Unleashing Primal Self becomes a conscious decision when it is done in this way, although Primal Self can also emerge when someone is drunk or angry, unwanted and uncontrolled. Learning to bring it forth consciously will make it much less likely to pop up in unwanted or random situations, as you learn to develop a positive relationship with it.

The other facet of this station is the Shadow Selves. One of the most important components of mindfulness and mental awareness fostered by meditation is an awareness of Shadow Selves. These are the repressed and buried selves collected through life that linger and fester within the mind, waiting for the time that it can slip in and cause trouble. When you are dealing with a situation and suddenly have an intense emotional reaction against a decision or a person, a reaction that seems disproportional to the situation an which you can’t quite figure where it came from, that is very often a Shadow trying to break out of its confines. If you do something irresponsible, out of context with your normal personality, and you are confused as to how it happened, that’s a Shadow. When you should be able to make a relationship work, but keep finding ways to sabotage it (or feel that the other person is sabotaging it), the Shadow may be putting in an appearance.

This is a huge and important area of work, pioneered by Carl Jung but brought into its own in Divided Self Theory and also in Ken Wilber’s work. There’s a lot more to be said about it than I can easily include here. But this station of Selves is definitely the right place to do a lot of the work. Shadows need to be confronted, accepted and reintegrated into the mind’s consciousness. A person who goes out and gets into trouble at wild parties may be dealing with a repressed “Wild Self” that wants to have fun, but is constantly kept in check by a more conservative or sedate set of Selves. Figuring that out, and thinking of ways for the Wild Self to manifest itself in ways that are acceptable to all or at least most of the Meta-Selves is something that can happen within a meditation.

 

These are the new stations on the path that I am currently using in meditation training. I like the way that it flows, with each station resting on skills practiced in the previous one. I like its richness and its ability to connect with real life problems and situations. I like that it also connects with modern neurological and brain research. It provides a whole arsenal of tools to use balancing the mind and reconnecting with all aspects of mind body and spirit. I see it as an essential prerequisite to the more spiritual tools and skills that can be found on the stairs and beyond. So many of those skills depend on Inner Vision and the kind of deep intuition which can only be found in the harmonious mind. Dan Millman and the Huna tradition actually say that one can only access the Higher Selves through the Subconscious. The Higher Selves don’t respond well to the Logical Mind. That’s an embedded part of the Tracker meditation training as well.

The final thing that I like about it is that it takes the woo factor out of meditation. Spiritual skills are controversial and often rub people the wrong way. These skills are very grounded and scientifically based. They shouldn’t grate against the rationalist or the religious. It gives skeptics a chance to familiarize themselves with meditation before approaching more controversial exercises, -if they ever do. And if they don’t, well they have still accomplished some very important things at this level.

This is the first of two entries in which I will attempt to revise some of the meditation exercises that I’ve been teaching for the past 20 years or so, which were originally based on the teachings contained in Tom Brown Jr’s Tracker Philosophy courses.

A major part of the revision comes from the neuropsychology work of Dr. Dan Siegel, and I would like to start here by examining his Wheel of Awareness exercise.

When I first read about it, I felt that it would be valuable addition to the Tracker “Path” meditations (which I will explain more in the second entry). However, after attempting to use and teach it I came to the realization that, while it is a great exercise, the perspective it uses would benefit from a little tweaking.

Siegel’s Wheel of Awareness exercise has you meditate from a calm, peaceful centre, which he regards as the hub of a wheel, and then focus outward to senses, thoughts, emotions and interconnectedness on the rim of the wheel. Personally, I found this very difficult due to the fact that the conscious intention of focusing outward to specific stimuli interfered with the openness of the meditation. It was too much thinking. And yet, I knew that within the exercise was a very valuable lesson.

So I tried flipping it inside out. Meaning that instead of going from the hub to the rim with an active intention of identifying distractions in different categories, I allowed the distraction to come from the rim to the hub. Instead of looking for particular distractions to your calm centre by cycling through the various categories as Siegel’s exercise suggests, I just stayed in the silence and acknowledged the distractions as they arose on their own, calmly recognizing each for what “type” they were, -emotional, thinking, sensory-, before accepting them and then dismissing them. I know that this is really just a description of a classic meditation technique, but it has the slight twist of acknowledging the distracting impulses as coming from a particular place of origin, whether it be a physical or emotional irritation, or just a stray memory. That’s important in that it plays to the neurological integration goal that Siegel intends for his exercise. While this is definitely meant to be a meditation exercise (or “mindfulness” as it has been rebranded in the past while), the explicit goal is to encourage neural integration and plasticity. That’s just a scientific way of saying that the goal is to get in touch with all parts of your mind and body. The activity builds links which eventually allows for more awareness and more self control.

So, to summarize the new exercise, I begin with the standard “breath to surrender”, which is basically centering on awareness of your breath as the single focus of your awareness to the exclusion of all other distractions. This centering on breath is a trigger that has been established in prior exercises linking breath to deep states of relaxation. Of course, unless you are highly proficient in meditation, that focus on breath is going to be interrupted by various distractions. As the itch or the distant sound or the memory of an argument pop up, I briefly recognize them as coming from my senses or my body or my emotions or my mind’s activity. In a sense, I’m recognizing from which part of Siegel’s Wheel of Awareness the impulse or distraction has arisen. Then I let it go and return to the silence and focus on the breath. And I do this for all of the distractions as they arise, allowing them to arise on their own rather than trying to go and look for them. I recognize them, dismiss them and consciously return to the quiet of my breath, over and over again.

In doing this I not only strengthen the various benefits of meditation such as building powers of concentration and learning how to calm my mind, but I also become acquainted with that mind and the facets that are constantly striving for attention and dominance. I get the benefits of the meditation and I also become more connected to the fact that I have a body, a mind, emotional impulses and interpersonal concerns. The package gets tied up with a nice bow of mindfulness, which leads to a more mindful, aware self.

 

 

Let’s start with some facts. Something which some news media outlets don’t consider important.

  1. There is very little specific information about the content of the new curriculum available to the general public. That is not surprising as it has been made clear that it is still in the formative stage, with parent input still being sought and utilized. With such a politically and socially charged topic, parading it too early in the media would only lead to a circus which would hinder any kind of intelligent discussion. It eventually must be presented to a wider audience, before implementation and as a final formative stage, but at this point in time it would be counterproductive. Take the Sun Media pouncing on the “Anal 101” graphic behind one of the posters, with absolutely no context or explanation involved. Sex education is an easy target for sensationalism. Case in point, the Charles McVety attacks back in 2010, supported and advanced by the Ontario PC part, subsequently condemned by the Canadian Boadcasting Standards Council as shamelessly bigoted. Currently we see the same kind of shamelessness. It is interesting that a thorough Google shows that only SUN News and the various blogs that have simply cut and pasted their article, have any mention of the “Anal 101” issue. I find this unusual in that SUN is not the only conservative media outlet in Ontario, …just, I guess, the only tawdry one.
    The fact seems to be that parents are still being invited to provide feedback and input regarding this curriculum. If there are suspicions that this might not be a fair vetting, then address that and ask for a better representation of parents in that process. One parent from each school seems to be a good deal, although I can see how some religious groups might fear being left out of the process. There is a Catholic School system in Ontario, though, so they should easily be able to manage adequate representation. The truth of the matter is, though, that many of these religious groups would not be satisfied with anything less than abstinence based education and little more. Their cries of “secrecy” at this stage are not valid, and weren’t with the 2010 document where, clearly, enough was revealed about it to result in protests leading to its cancellation.
    However, I admit that after proper vetting, the provincial government does have a responsibility to release the final document to the public for more general scrutiny. There’s no scenario where that will go well. We live in a social structure with too many divergent values and world views. However, if the majority agrees (-not a majority of parents, but a majority of our society-) then moving ahead with it is the nature of social progress.
  2. This is an old story. As part of Wynne’s campaign when becoming leader of the provincial Liberal Party, she made it clear that she’d supported the scrapped 2010 curriculum document and that it was her intention to reintroduce it in some form. There are news articles to that effect prior to the last provincial election, and yet the Liberals won a majority. There are no transparency issues here. One can’t help but wonder to what degree Wynne’s own sexual orientation may be playing a role in the views of some more conservative critics.
  3. Most educators agree that the 15 year old Sex Ed. curriculum is woefully outdated for the changes that have taken place in that time. A little statistical research (not to mention anecdotal) shows how much of a shift there has been in the level of access to sexual material as a result of social media. Sexting and cameras on everything from home computers to laptops to tablets to phones are a game changer. Attitudes towards sexual engagement have changed and become more open, with the very definition of sexual activity having changed with terms like “wheeling” and “friends with benefits” becoming common place for lunch room banter. Access to pornography has become progressively easier and more commonly sought out than ever before, with most parents powerless to block it short of simply denying kids access to any form of technology. (And then they still have to contend with access that friends may have, -or as I’ve often hear, kids finding it on their parents computers, not realizing that kids are more tech savvy and better able to investigate search histories and hidden files than are the parent.) Having been a teacher (now retired) and a leader of several youth groups, I can say with a degree of authority that I’ve noticed a dramatic and significant shift in this whole area specifically over the past ten years.
  4. When creating and vetting a curriculum guideline, while parents certainly have the right to provide input, so should education experts and teachers. The indication is that most education experts feel that the new curriculum is largely a good thing. Now, I can hear the protest out there, the old adage of “What do experts know, anyway.” Well, I’m sorry but I’m reluctant to bow to the right wing, anti-intellectual movement that seems to be so prevalent in the U.S., and give experts the respect that they are due. It is too easy to disagree by simply dismissing the words of those who have made it their life’s work to study and understand education. What do you replace it with; folk lore and religious dogma?? I can assure you that while such people might be busy asserting such “values”, it will make no difference to the sexual activities of their children. The states in the U.S. with the most dogmatic and repressive attitudes towards sexuality and sex education are also those with the highest incidence of teen/unwanted pregnancy. In Canada it’s Quebec, which, coincidentally, has a largely Catholic school system.
    It is a sad fact that many parents, and especially the parents of kids that are in the highest risk category for early sexual activity, pregnancy and STDs, do not adequately exercise their responsibility of providing information and guidance in sexual matters. At the same time, they are often, though not always, the same people who object to sex education in schools. In many cases this is because they feel that exposing children to information about sex will encourage them to become more promiscuous. As stated above, the statistics are clear the ignorance about sex is directly related to unwanted pregnancy and STDs. By contrast to more conservative areas in the United States and Canada, in The Netherlands, where attitudes about teen sexuality are very open and liberal, teens are 15% more likely to use protection when having sex and the teen pregnancy rate is one sixth what it is in the States. There is one third the STD rate and The Netherlands has less than 1% the incidence of Gonorrhea. Ignorance does nobody any good.

I some ways it can be said that the need for the schools and the sex curriculum to step in is necessary for the very reason that many parents are ill equipped or often unwilling to do it themselves. If they were, the school curriculum would be less essential in properly equipping students to cope with the social media world. It needs to be done tactfully and with a measure of consensus and sensitivity, but it needs to be done.

One of the insights that hit me a short while ago came as I was reading a part of Daniel Siegel’s book, Mindsight.  In it he talks about how younger children and teenagers (and I would suspect adults as well) can help to integrate feelings and other mental experiences into a wider awareness in their brains/minds by verbalizing them.  Siegel calls it “Telling The Story” when relating the technique to kids, but that about sums it up for anyone.  By going over an emotional incident and relating it in words to others or self, it provides the brain/mind with the opportunity to integrate the experience into the more rational parts of the brain, thereby giving that rational part more control over both the experience and the consequences of the memory.  Or in plain terms, it leads to better understanding and self control.

After reading this I immediately thought of a story told by Tom Brown Jr. in his Tracker classes, where his mentor, Stalking Wolf, would tell him to do something unusual whenever he turned up angry about something or emotionally preoccupied. Stalking Wolf would direct Tom to “go tell the trees”.  So Tom would go to a secluded place in the forest and proceed to rant at the trees, expressing his emotions, sometimes yelling at them.  It would, he said, always make him feel better.

It is interesting that this practice, suggested by someone following an ancient aboriginal tradition, is so similar to a practice suggested by a modern neurologist.  The practice and the outcome are identical.  It is only the conceptual perspective that is different.  In “tree preaching” the understanding was likely that the trees would listen to your problems and provide you with soothing understanding and energy.  The trees were seen as animate and helpful in and of themselves.  In the verbalization practice suggested by Siegel the explanation is a neuroplasticity and an integration of brain function.

From an Integral Studies point of view I find this fascinating.  It is an example of a single practice that functions the same at different world views.  The “tree preaching” is looking at it from a Mythical or Magical perspective, while “telling the story” is from a rational and scientific perspective.  The truth of the matter, though, is probably that the mythical practice predates the scientific one by centuries.  A lesson to be learned that those ancient practices deserve great respect in spite of the fact that their context may no longer seem valid in our scientific world view.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Recently a friend and colleague made an interesting comment when saying, “You can’t teach wisdom.” We were talking about the idea that parents and teachers who are concerned with the developmental evolution of young people, had a responsibility to seek the same kind of evolution and development for themselves. They needed to both work on the rough edges that they themselves might have as a result of their own past development, and also should embrace the idea of personal development by recognizing that it continues throughout life. But when I suggested that this be a required part of teacher training and ongoing professional development, that’s when the “You can’t teach wisdom” comment came up.

I don’t agree. I think there are at least three methods available for “teaching wisdom”, specifically in so far as it applies to personal development and understanding the development of others.

 

1. While lecturing and instructing about wisdom may not be effective, it is generally understood that life experience is the main way that life wisdom develops. Such experience can be random events, or can be directed by carefully considered events. When a young troubled person is sent to a demanding program like Outward Bound, which forces them to confront personal challenges in a controlled environment, it is the experience that does the teaching as that person grows new insights. This is why corporate training activities including everything from laser tag to teambuilding games are persued by companies. It is why the social climate and day to day process of interaction should be carefully considered in schools.

Authors such as Jon Young and Mark Morey have done a lot of work concerning Rites Of Passage and their importance as people progress through the stages of life. They have identified several through childhood and adolescence, but have also pointed to many others spanning lifelong development. Each important life stage, they say, should be accompanied by a rite of passage that symbolizes and celebrates the new skills and responsibilities achieved. We often think of the adolescent rites of passage, with some cultures having maintained them, like the Jewish Bar Mitzvah, but often these are anchored in religious responsibilities rather than societal ones. For many adolescents, the only rite of passage that they experience is getting a driver’s license, getting drunk or losing their virginity, -of which only one comes anywhere near the defining requirements of symbolizing and celebrating new skills and responsibilities.

I am speaking about adolescent rites of passage because it is the one we are most familiar considering, but there are many achievements both earlier and later in life that equally demand such recognition.

 

2. Related to the engineering of experience is the role of the mentor. A mentor is a person who has already achieved some of the qualities of development which may still be lacking or weak in the person being mentored. A mentor not only engineers experiences which might assist a person in their development, but also can be a sounding board and feedback system in day to day life. It is generally accepted by psychologists and sociologists that people develop more effectively if they have good feedback that encourages them to reflect on their progress. In many arenas of life we call this a coach.

Mentors are used a little in the teaching profession, although my experience is that they are not used effectively or deliberately. They are sometimes introduced in situations where a teacher is experiencing difficulty. The idea that all teachers, even the best ones, might benefit from mentors (and may act as mentors) is dealt with very superficially. The idea that parenting might benefit from mentors is all but absent, except maybe for the sometimes good, sometimes bad advice that might come from grandparents. It’s basically a crap shoot.

Both teachers and parents would benefit from formal mentoring programs with established standards and goals.

 

3. Those standards and goals could come from a variety of sources, but there are a few that I’ve come across in my own development which I think are extremely valuable.

As I’ve noted in previous posts, there has been a lot of brain and neurological research and discovery done in the past two decades. In addition, and in a way that compliments that work, there has also been a surge in the consideration of mindfulness and meditation, largely spearheaded by Jon Kabat-Zinn. His book, Wherever You Go there You Are is a foundational block in this work. Over the past few years I have been researching a lot of material on these two subjects, most notabley Eagleson’s Incognito and some of the work done by the Integral Life people. Also, I’ve been strongly influenced by the work of Hal and Sidra Stone on multiple self theory.

So it was a delight to find a psychological writer and theorist who combined all of these different facets into one main model. Dr. Dan Siegel has written a several books over the past decade on an approach that he labels “Mindsight”, including The Mindful Brain, Brainstorm and Mindsight. In this model Siegel combines recent advances in brain theory and neurology with theories about the mind and how we experience influences and impulses from different parts of our brain. To that he applies the practices of mindfulness and meditation, noting their relationship to the idea of neuroplasticity, which is the ability for conscious intention to have an impact on the neural connections in the brain. Reading this material was like a vindication of so many of the ideas that have guided my own teaching over the past decades. It seems to be a distant cousin of NLP theory, although Siegel never mentions it.

The application of this model and its well laid out techniques and practices, would be a formidable tool for self development and evolution. It is also a demonstrated method of encouraging empathy. I would easily argue that these kinds of personal advancements qualify as a way of “teaching wisdom”.

 

Ken Wilber’s Integral Life theories and techniques are also relevant here. Integral Theory, based on Spiral Dynamics, is a road map for personal evolution. Siegel’s work actually dovetails excellently with Integral Life Theory, although he doesn’t mention it at all in his writing. Integral Theory lays out stages of personal development in a hierarchical fashion (which some people find hard to accept) and describes ways in which to advance through those stages. Here, mindfulness and meditation are also important to the process, although Siegel does a better job (for me at least) in providing the specifics of the means for doing this. An advantage that Integral Theory has is that the larger model can be applied to almost anything imaginable. It is relevant to personal development and world economics, equally. In addition, another facet of Integral Theory is the 4 Quadrant view of epistemology and reality, which Siegel uses extensively, although never really describes it.

Here, then, are the maps and means of “teaching wisdom”. It is perhaps the most important thing to teach, and it is seldom given the priority that it deserves. School curricula pay lip service to it if they don’t outright ignore it. Parents are expected to absorb these kinds of parenting skills as if they were genetically implanted, which we all know they are not. For the most part, random experiences rule, when deliberate consciousness is what is needed.

I think any 21st Century initiatives in education have to seriously consider these issues and practices.

In my teaching career there were many years where as a Gr. 6 teacher I had the “pleasure “ of administering the EQAO tests to my students. Today the Ontario results are released to the public and to students. Lists ranking schools become public knowledge, and placing students on percentile ratings are released to parents. All of this is done in the name of “accountability” and feedback, but that hinges on whether the tests are actually accurate indicators of student performance.

In light of that question, I wanted to relate one story from my classroom, during preparation for the test where we were using the questions from the previous year’s test. The math question seemed fairly straight forward. A man wanted to dig a hole in the ground with certain dimensions and move away the soil. He had a truck, also with dimensions provided, with which to drive away the soil. The question was how many trips would he have to make with the truck in order to remove all the soil. The question specified that the truck would be loaded so the top was flat, which was a good idea as without that info it would not be a doable question. The idea was to divide the volume of the hole by the volume of the truck and recognize that any remainder would require an extra trip. But there was no remainder, -a fact that became an issue. So we did the problem and it worked out handily that the truck would have to make eight trips. Problem solved.

Except that one boy’s had shot up and said, “That’s wrong.” Now, this boy was one of several in my class who was receiving Special Ed. assistance for math, but I like to think of myself as an enlightened teacher, so I was curious as to what he wanted to say. He said, “Everyone knows that if you dig a hole and then fill it up again, the soil takes up more space because it is not packed down. The truck would have to make more trips because the dug up soil would take up more space than it did in the hole.” Dead right!! And after that I began to look more closely at many of the questions that were included in the test, both in the Math and English sections. I noticed that there were always questions that had slipped by whatever passed for quality control and the EQAO writers.

Add to this serious concerns about the marking process for the more subjective parts of the test and the whole question of the suitability of standardized testing to measure anything accurate, and you begin to understand why many teachers are skeptical of EQAO. Add to that the fact that the process often removes two weeks of instruction time, for testing and preparation, from the school year. Add to that the philosophical question of what we are doing to our children by rating their schools publicly and individual performance privately.

Some may argue that this kind of feedback allows schools and teachers to focus resources on needy areas and schools. This has not been my experience. And when it does result in resource allocation it is often in the wrong way. For people obsessed with statistics, it is odd that EQAO proponents haven’t taken into consideration the Bell Curve. As teachers we all know that there are waves of classes that are either more or less capable. The random distribution of academic ability, social or family stability and other factors fluctuate on the Bell Curve. There are classes that have a mix of students who cause the class to be more challenging than others. Teachers know this and try to mobilize the available resources both for individuals and for the class in general. But if this class takes an EQAO test, feedback usually applies to that teacher and that grade rather than following the class as would be practical. I’ve seen EQAO results for the same school and teachers which have varied widely from one year to the next.

In short, the tests don’t really work and take up a lot of time that could be used for valuable instruction in something other than how to take a test. Whatever feedback that arises from the tests is often misunderstood or misplaced. However EQAO tests do benefit one group of people. The businesses that publish them have made a fortune. Publishers have benefited from selling new textbooks and resources that supposedly address the concerns raised by the testing. It’s quite the industry.