Monday, July 20, 2009

Ubiquitous Philosophy Paper

I guess every young graduate student gets a chance to express their opinion on what it means to be a great teacher. I got mine last week and I took it and ran. I have been thinking about these ideas for years, I guess every parent does, or at least the ones who want to be good at it do.

I have been so blessed to have had many great teachers that I hope I can do them justice when I talk about what it means to give back to our kids and communities.

The Way You Do the Things You Do

This paper will examine the values and philosophy I have about education, what philosophies support these values, how children learn, and the role the teacher should play in the classroom.

Values of a Teacher
My Philosophy about teaching starts with the assumption that all people seek happiness. Animals seek pleasure and avoid pain and almost all organisms seek to find a balance in the surroundings in which they exist. In our quest to find happiness humans use knowledge, reason and the process of education to develop a sense of joy. It is through this formal education process as well as our individual informal and reflective assessment, access to different principled ideas, personal experience and relationship to others that helps us define who we are and what makes us happy.

Our motivation to find happiness leads us naturally to question our world and how it works. This leads to my second assumption about education; people want to understand the world around them. As a teacher, making the assumption that children want to learn can change the entire dynamic of the class. Smith (2003) points out in his book, Conscious Classroom Management “There is an invisible covenant between Teacher and each of her students. The student covenant says: “Please teach me appropriate behavior [and content] in a safe and structured environment. I may act out, I may behave in ways that suggest I am not interested, but in truth I really want to learn appropriate behavior [and content] and I won’t be satisfied unless you are holding your ground teaching this to me.” Teachers who hold this assumption and effectively facilitate learning can help form the framework that people use to develop their personality and sense of self.

As we develop our personalities we are at the same time manifesting certain assumptions about the world and either reinforcing those assumptions, questioning them, or changing them based on the continual flow of influences in our lives. If the variety of influences is low, assumptions are harder to question or analyze and tend to become solidified and reinforced. However, if one has the capacity, willingness and opportunity to question our reality, one can develop a stronger understanding of the surrounding world and create tools that can lead to long-term happiness in and around them. Good teachers who can understand the interdependencies and intra-dependencies in the world are in a great position to impact students with whom they work.

In an attempt to deepen our understanding of our interdependence with each other Thich Nhat Hanh (2002) has a created the term Inter-being. Inter-Being is the idea that people do not exist in a vacuum but develop as individuals based on the relationships they have in their lives. The manifestation we have in our lives is a result of these relationships that, in turn, affect others in our lives and the kind of future influences and relationships we have. Happy people draw others into their lives that seek the same, and in doing so, further increase the likelihood that they will help others find happiness. Conversely, those who find themselves surrounded by violence and ignorance tend to repeat the examples shown to them. In both cases we are the results of our influences. At times humans seem to be able to escape the influences in their lives: children of abusive homes can develop loving relationships, and those raised in poverty can escape it. I would claim, however, that in every example we would find a significant person that was able to support, encourage and facilitate this seemingly impossible transformation.

How People Learn
Both children and adults learn from playing. The educational process is a highly personal activity and to become an effective learner (or a teacher facilitating learning) it is necessary to have a context or relationship with the content being learned. Play is the key component giving context and meaning in our lives. I would argue that people only learn something when it has relevance to them. Giving meaning and relevance to a teaching is the role of both the teacher as well as the student.

Vivian Paley writes in her book The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter (1990) “The fact that all children share this view of play makes play, along with its alter ego, storytelling and acting, the universal learning medium. Children, of all ages, expect fantasy to generate - indeed they cannot stop if from doing so - an ongoing dialogue to which they bring a broad range of intellectual and emotional knowledge at a very early age.”

As ego-centered children, our play provides us a sense of power by generating an opportunity to have control over our soundings. In addition, as our skill sets of body control and language grow, we gain the reinforcement and acceptance from our parents that we so clearly desire. Finally, play provides us a medium to work out concepts, which are not clearly understood. As we grow we also develop a deeper sense of balance and can understand that our happiness and joy cannot exist without the context of those around us. We still seek personal pleasure through the mastery of skills and acceptance of others but we widen our definition of joy and play as we widen our understanding of our place in the world. We are then able to delay gratification as we set longer-term goals. For example, some high school students may develop a mastery of mathematics, not for an affinity for the subject, but because she knows that this will lead to a college degree and a job in the future, which may bring about eventual happiness. Younger learners vary in their relationship with delaying gratification and understanding the long-range consequences to action taken, but the motivation is the same, which is to seek out happiness and understand the world around them.

There is no one piece of knowledge that is most important when discussing how we learn or what we teach but rather it is our relationship with learning that should be at the forefront of learning and teaching. Making a subject relevant to the learner is a far more important tool than any body of knowledge. Wisdom can be defined as the balanced application of one's knowledge. As critical as it is to understand how things work, far more important is the application of that knowledge. Being able to prescribe the correct action for a given situation is the domain of wisdom and I would suggest it is the most important component of learning.

Role of a Teacher:
“To enjoy good health, to bring true happiness to one's family, to bring peace to all, one must first discipline and control one's own mind. If a man can control his mind he can find the way to Enlightenment, and all wisdom and virtue will naturally come to him.”
~ Buddha

It is critical for instructors to be both a role model for their students as well as someone who can provide the tools of critical examination, understand the interdependence that exists throughout our world, and facilitate the expanding definition of play that can be utilized during a student’s lifetime. For the teacher, this takes proper motivation, a sound understanding of the subject matter being taught as well as an intuitive psychological appreciation for the learner's needs.

Although the sweeping generalizations made by Piaget's Stage Theory have not withstood rigorous scientific scrutiny over the years ( I believe his underlying assumption that people do progress in stages is sound. To be a good teacher requires an accurate assessment of the child needs and abilities followed by the understanding of the next appropriate step for the student. This is the art of teaching where great teachers can gracefully combine expectation, theory and practice (and a bit of cajoling) to facilitate growth in the student.

The Ayurvedic modality of healing includes the idea that an organism operates at maximum efficiency when its individual parts are in balance with its surroundings. Humans are healthy when their elements (earth, air, fire and wood) are in balance with the forces in and around them. The role of a healer in this tradition is two-fold. The first is to understand the patient and apply activities and remedies that will facilitate balance throughout their system. The second is to act as a role model or mentor to the patient. For the healer (as well as the patient) being able to manifest the expression of health is the result of applied wisdom and a true understanding of this type of medicine. Reflecting this flagrant lack of wisdom for balance in our lives, doctors in the West face some of the highest rates of addiction, stress levels, obesity and depression.

I think it would be prudent to apply some of the wisdom found in the philosophy of the Ayurvedic philosophy when defining the role of the modern teachers. There is much in common when comparing the healing modalities of the body to that of the mind. As teachers, we must also understand our patient, that of the student, and know what information they need. To achieve this we must know where they are and where they are going. Furthermore, we have the opportunity to provide for them an example of what it means to incorporate that knowledge, perhaps even wisdom, into their lives. No doubt, this is a tall order. Luckily, we are blessed with the examples of great teachers and tools that can help us meet this challenge.

Meditation is a tool that teachers should use on a daily basis to counteract the stresses of teaching and for guidance in potentially chaotic situations. The ability to develop an “inner authority” (Smith, 2003 p27) is key in maintaining a calm and safe environment in which to learn. Having the ability to stay calm yet firm in a stressful situation is the result of practicing, watching one's mind and being able to control its reactions (either physical or verbal). Understand the relationship we have between our mind and body is also important. A relaxed mind facilitates a healthy body. Those who develop a balance of mind will find corresponding joy and balance in the body.

It is important to take into account our society’s attitude and understanding of what mediation is, and its negative associations with religion. As we engaging others or as we develop programs that encourage change in our schools, I would encourage those wishing to affect change to concentrate on scientific data and concrete evidence that illustrate the positive affects of mediation, especially as it relates to academic achievement in schools. Using different language such as “deep and daily reflection” or “relaxation and stress-reducing techniques” can help others understand our relationship with meditation in a different way, which will help to facilitate change in our schools, and in our students.

A prerequisite to understanding the subtle and profound needs of students is an understanding of oneself. Teachers work in a high pace and demanding profession. Teachers who search for balance in their lives must incorporate tools like daily meditation into their lives, both to meet these demands gracefully and perhaps more importantly, to gain a greater understanding of how all minds work, what needs all people have and thus develop a greater capacity for understanding and empathy towards our students.


Paley, Vivian Gussin (1990) The boy who would be a helicopter.
First Harvard University Press p10

Smith, Rick (2003) Conscious Classroom Management.
California, Conscious Teaching Publications, p13, 26

Thich Nhat Hanh (2002)
No Death, No Fear: Comforting Wisdom for Life
Riverhead Books (P. 41)

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