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Alternative Education, Giftedness and Schooling.

November 14, 2011

Recently I had the privilege of spending some time in beautiful kindergarten environment, based in the Reggio Emilio philosophy of education. I was working as an educator without specific direction or curriculum aims, with a child who is so bright he does not fit on the scales available, and who demonstrates profound oppositional defiant behaviours-(perhaps because he is made to sit still and perform inane exercises).

As a five year old-(his current age) he was able to calculate the length of time it would take Pluto to circle the sun, and discuss with a fair degree of understanding, basic plasma physics, life cycles of bugs, and the growth of crystals. This level of intellect/age, is far less common than one in a million.

To top it off, the elementary school also had responsibility two children on the Autism spectrum who displayed savant like abilities, along with several other children on the spectrum who were somewhere around highly to profoundly gifted. All in all, a unusual collection of children, and incredible to be find them in one place.

Spending time with this child, and watching as the divergent desires of the parties invested in this system interact with his life and emotions I could not help but reflect on the words of Maria Montessori, that “We cannot know the consequences of suppressing a child’s spontaneity when he is just beginning to be active. We may even suffocate life itself. That humanity which is revealed in all its intellectual splendor during the sweet and tender age of childhood should be respected with a kind of religious veneration. It is like the sun which appears at dawn or a flower just beginning to bloom. Education cannot be effective unless it helps a child to open up himself to life”

This time, alone in this environment with this child, was a very special time for me in my life.

As a so called precocious child, and as a far more boring adult, one of the great struggles of my life to date, has been how to establish (and perhaps re-establish) a healthy relationship with education and schooling.

Due to my current career direction, it has become an issue I must resolve and cannot simply lay to rest, I am a final year teaching student at university, who has had a unique path to this point in my life, characterized by many years of what I would term as a dysfunctional relationship with schooling, I know that my school era friends upon learning of my studies, found it rather amusing and for some, uplifting, to hear of my choice.

Strangely, my kindergarten teacher-(at a Montessori school) remembers me telling her I would become a teacher, perhaps I had an unusual degree of precognition, because at no time could I have imagined myself entertaining such a choice, until I finally did.

So, how did I end up at this point? where is my thinking going? and what can I possibly offer to children as an educator?

My background, as a young child, was strongly influenced by the ideals and beauty of classical western education. Although born in Australia, my parents were both of upper-middle class English extraction, one a Cambridge graduate, the other Oxford. Both valued education (in the fullest sense of the word) along with many other values. My mother, a teacher herself, tutored gifted students for over sixteen years, taught year seven at one of the worlds most prestigious schools and founded her own Montessori based primary-(elementary) school which continues to this day.

While my cultural heritage was strangely de-contextualised by this experience of growing up in a foreign land, creating some degree of cognitive dissonance, the values of wealth and consumerism that seem to have absorbed my generation, were never values that my family entertained, although they valued success and self-reliance. I grew up without so much as entertaining the thought of earning money, or wanting things, and not because of any degree of relative monetary wealth, I was never given many things, it was simply because the focus of my thoughts and feelings, was on what I found emotionally important, my relationships, my spirituality and my thinking about life with its existential and social obligations.

As a child, I was never one for specifics, linear thinking, or narrow minded selfishness, although I was easily absorbed in my interests to the exclusion of all distractions. I preferring to find happiness through meaning, and meaning through what I would now call systems thinking approaches to understanding life, views that see all human thought as relative and interconnected. As such, the aspects of life that ended up being important to me were those highlighted by questions of meaning… such as purpose, morality and fulfillment, which I associated with schema of a globalized human and ecological citizenship, personal relationships, and spirituality.

My life within the schooling system was not a happy one, I was a highly gifted student, and do not remember learning anything at school unless it was something I had forgotten, until after many years of atrophy it was introduced to my classmates. As result I came to view my schooling experience as a form of imprisonment,  an imprisonment that at that time I lacked the deeper emotional and life intelligence to comprehend or deal with maturely. This experience resulted in the development of oppositional defiant and passive resistant behaviours, such as daydreaming, refusing to do any work I conceived of as bellow my capacity-(read as, just about all work), along with a not an inconsiderable degree of learned helplessness and occasionally, depressive feelings about life in general. At that age, so much of my life was taken up by this experience that I felt appeared so real, and seemed so impossible for me to change or liberate myself from.

After my first year of schooling, as a six year old, my classroom teacher told my parents that she thought I might have a developmental delay, that I had not interacted with or talked to her or the other student all year, or picked up a pencil, and that I might be at serious educational risk. My parents explained to her that I did not want to read “the cat sat on the mat” because at home I was reading the Lord of the Rings, that I didn’t want to count to ten, because I was perfectly capable with algebra. And while they talked, I doubled numbers (starting with one) with chalk behind her on the board until I was in the high millions, eventually she turned around.

My main memory from those years of the days dragging by, sitting mutely up the back, in mind numbing boredom and frustration.

By the time I began my first year of schooling, aside from the hand-eye coordination needed to write, and the experience of practice, I would have been perfectly capable in a cognitive sense, of finishing at least my seventh year. A long and personally damaging process of tuning out, underachievement, and boredom was about to begin.

Had the content alone not been bad enough, the vast majority of the schooling we engaged with was merely meaningless repetition, teaching the elements of each so called discrete discipline via stupefying inanity, abstract and removed from the true context, life itself,  dissociated from meaning, disallowing meaningful experiences of reality and real life. Not exactly the best psychological conditioning for any children who are expected to live.

Despite this dulling abuse, I did well in terms of the relative competition that is the schooling process in primary school. By the time I was mid way through my schooling, I was selected for specialist advancement classes for arts and music, along with extensive in class and out. academic extension. When tested, by the nationwide and state tests, I always performed in the top or higher percentiles they were capable of showing across disciples, perhaps because I was reading prolifically outside of school.  A form of escapism I desperately needed, thanks to that time, today I can read a page of writing full of complex ideas in a matter of seconds.

While escapism was great, I could not help realising that regardless of any academic performance or hoop I hopped through at school,-(with the bare minimum of effort) that I was achieving quantum levels bellow my capacity, and only very rarely felt challenged, and even less frequently inspired. While when I was able, it was nice to be able to choose to participate, repetition or tasks dissociated from meaning, learning or life is not meaningful or challenging. I secretly hoped to find something to challenge me one day, and surrendered my childhood to stupidity.

Sometimes bullied, sometimes popular, I had few friendships in primary school, although good ones and always outside, simultaneously at the same time, as a seven year old, I was discussing the difference between classical Buddhist and Hindu concepts of reincarnation , learning about theoretical physics, dna, sustainability and ecology and trying to learn meditation, interests concepts and conversation that school and my peers were unable to provide understand, or discuss. A rather alienating state to be in at that age.

My transition to high-school was characterized by sub-minimal effort and emotional engagement with education, despite being placed in advanced classes. For the next five years I essentially dropped out, and with peers I took to smoking cannabis at every opportunity, before, during and after school. Honestly, I have no recollection of ever doing any homework in high school, (nor in primary school for that matter), and less than the minimum in class, so ended up being expelled from my first high-school, essentially for my underachieving mix of passive and active non-compliance.

With a certain amount of irony, a few weeks later I was awarded a scholarship for another theoretically “superior” school, after scoring close to 100% on the Australia wide scholastic aptitude test. It didn’t last long, I was summarily dismissed some nine months later as “the school” believed that I had been manipulating the security system, computers, teacher and student files, server and school website across the school’s network of Macintosh’s.

The next high school offered greater opportunities for mindless stupidity and mind altering behavior, “they” determined quickly that “they” wanted to ask me to leave,  but when the time came to inform my parents, “the school” decided to justify their laziness and incompetence by interviewing my teachers in order to demonstrate the “issues” with my so called academic performance and behavior-(compliance). The first teacher interviewed was my chemistry teacher, he was never very impressed by self-satisfied bureaucratic mindlessness and told “the school” that although I had not opened my textbook so far this year -(nor did I have one, far too stoned) I had managed to top the class for my exams. As a result I was allowed to stay at the school for the rest of my course, and finally left of my own volition a week or two before my final exams, after finally coming to the epiphany that I needed to actually live my beliefs, and not just get high from them.

Four years of working and travelling ensured, until one day I finally decided that I would go to university to study primary school teaching,

A surprising decision considering my experience, so I will contextualise this decision,,, my reasoning and the core ideas that led me to this are as follows… firstly when George Bush said “no child left behind” I experienced that as a call to free them from the prison that I experienced in school, and perhaps equally importantly at the time, my existential beliefs. Coming from a religious background-(Anglican) at the age of six or seven or so I was confronted with nutting out the relevance that these religious beliefs would play in my life, the simple inescapable fact is, that if you entertain a concept such as ‘god’ and you choose to believe in such a concept-(nebulous though it is when undefined), then it stands to reason that this ‘higher’, ‘deeper’, or more substantial meta-reality that is in effect, reality itself, must be placed as the central concern of life and reasoning, if you wish to build a logically coherent world view and personal morality.

As it says in the King James Bible, you cannot serve Mamon and God.

Whether it was naive I will never know, but I chose to believe in the meta-reality, as it was the only rational choice based on my experience at that time. From my own experiences of non-ordinary experiences and states of awareness, from the overheard discussions of truly inexplicable and miraculous phenomenon that had touched the lives of friends and family, and from the deep symmetry between the core messages of  the varied spiritual and religious traditions I had been exposed to, it seemed far more intellectually and emotionally satisfying to consider that there was, in the words of Aldous Huxley, a “perennial philosophy” that seemed to indicate the ultimate reality of well, this so called ultimate reality.

Choosing to accept this concept as the core tenant of my thinking processes throughout life, has had and continues to exert a profound effect on my living. For many years I was a seeker after this truth, attempting meditation, prayer, and study to experience the sense of fulfillment and purpose it gave me to grow and learn in this, as such this tenant became the staple by which I chose to analyse and synthesise and internalise my thoughts and critiques of human activity, institutions and thinking.

When I was fifteen this searching culminated in a long series of classical mystical experiences, including deeply meaningful meditative experiences of “inverted awareness”-(for want of a better term) an experience that left me permanently changed, assured of my understandings, and no longer looking. Through my direct experiences, both subjective and objective, and the ongoing experience of life it had become apparent to me beyond a doubt that there was more to reality of consciousness and the universe, than my current understanding of western atheistic scientific reductionism could explain.

While many of these experiences in consciousness could perhaps be explained away as a fascinating epiphenomenon of the brain, the extreme bliss, deeply meaningful emotional states and heightened aesthetic and intellectual acuity were so deeply satiating and fulfilling that it seemed and seems still, difficult for me to imagine how any other states or life experiences could possibly ever do anything other than pale into insignificance in comparison, and that is without applying religious interpretations to these experiences.

It seemed apparent to me that if human life revolved around our search for a fulfilling and beautiful life, society, culture, community and relationship to others, nature and the universe, that only the so called mystical states of awareness could be considered the true developmental fulfillment of our desires and implicit focus, which looking around at what I saw and had read of as our historical and current environmental cultural and human apocalypses, seemed to have become not just a personal calling to each of us, but a racial survival and evolutionary imperative.

At the start of this particular blog is a photograph, of the engraving on the floor outside the reading room of the British Empire,  found inside the British Museum, the repository of many of the greatest archaeological and cultural treasures of the nations of the world. By Tennyson it states; “And let they feet millenniums hence, be set in the midst of knowledge.” The question I was forced to ask, was can we truly understand the knowledge we acquire through thinking and sciences, without contextualizing experience in the reality of consciousness, as the Hindu sage, Ramana Maharishi, stated, there are radically different ways of learning and knowing; “When the mind, one pointed and fully focused, knows the supreme silence in the heart, this is true learning.”

These spiritualising experiences and contemplation left me disinterested in ‘mamon’, my primary conversation was spirituality, and my life goal was to understand and deepen my experience of these states, ideally through becoming a monk in order to have the freedom to pursue them to the depth that such a worldview logically and emotionally demands.

Unfortunately or perhaps fortunately, I may never know, my mother and father are Christian-(Anglican) and that aside, would most definitely like some grandchildren from more than one child. Had I become a monk, (bearing in mind I would have chosen at the time a meditative tradition stemming from Buddhist or Hindu thought) it would have resulted in my mother spending the rest of her life praying for the salvation of my soul, and in her words, feeling very upset.

The question became instead, if I have to participate in life and society, what could be the most productive and useful thing for me to become for humanity and the planet as a whole. The obvious answer was to become a teacher, and to by that to try and influence the dialogue surrounding education, to liberate children and the soul. A rather naive but well meaning and genuine desire.

My rationale was this, any so called problem or suffering in the world is a result of the states of awareness, understandings and thoughts that are employed, these in turn are a result of the physical, emotional and intellectual infrastructure, systems and culture that we exist within. I cannot myself change these structures, but I can change my emotional and intellectual relationship to them, and that experience can allow me to transmit that shift to others.

Education can be, (and it is tempting to see it this way) a panacea for a wide spectrum of social, human and environmental ills, it transmits ways of thinking, feeling, knowing, living, knowledge, understandings, along with providing a vast proportion of the psychological conditioning that forms the backdrop to our lives and the functioning of our society. The skills and knowledge it more ostentatiously aims to deliver are perhaps equally important, but perhaps secondary.

The grave danger of this view of education, is that through this appeal, it becomes a battleground of competing ideologies, each vying for the power to influence the souls and minds of our children. It is in effect, The One Ring, from the Lord of the Rings.

Education, or schooling at least, must be contextualised to be understood, it is a system that shapes society, and in turn is shaped by society, a gestalt that reflects the meta-context of the structural environment, economically, and institutionally that our culture exists through and is determined by.

As such, it serves the dominant ideology and academic dialogue that exists within that content, and at least to the populist eye, is essentially a tool to propagate the economic system, and by association the academic and ideological dialogue in vogue.

As such, the purposes of modern education can be summed up in the following categories (Alexander Inglis, 1918)

Adaptive- (to establish habits of reaction and behaviour.) Integrating- (make children alike and conform). Diagnostic, (to determine each students “proper social role”) Differentiation- (make children become this social role, and not one iota more) Selective -(to stratify society) Propaedeutic- (a small proportion are taught how to manage the masses)

During my studies, I have read the equivalent of completing multiple Phds, in academic papers, and books. Something quite unusual I can assume for a prospective primary school teacher. Appropriate to its function (As discussed above, (1918)) my course provides the materials and activities that demonstrate that the prospective teacher meets the criteria for competency in the key areas identified as useful for effective teaching, and not one iota more, and unfortunately. It seems evident from my observations over four years of shared study, that the capacity and inclination for critical thinking and meta-cognition will be lacking in yet another generation of standardised teachers, at least in my state.

Regardless, after a not inconsiderable time and commitment , due to my personal reading and university granted access to the academic journal databases, I can with great assurance state that extensive evidence exists to demonstrates that the schooling system has been in fact immensely damaging to the development of the human being’s true potential, and in turn to the formation of a truly democratic, educated and just society, and the values that we would hold for our children to develop, were we to articulate them freed of the economic imperatives that enslave so much of our thinking.

Worse things exist, but, life could become considerably better for children and for our race.

This fact is well established, it has been explored extensively be famous educational theorists who critiqued our schooling practices and systems from a wide range of ideological and sociological viewpoints. Some of these, like Paulo Fiere, were nominated for the Nobel Prize. Unfortunately this seemingly pertinent fact, does not form a part of the university studies my colleagues and I undertake.

To a significant extent the ongoing dialogues of the educational critics has influenced mainstream education, the philosophies and teaching methodologies of critics such as Maria Montessori, have largely been incorporated into the tertiary transmitted theory of mainstream teaching practice,  as a rule with a renamed providence, a practice that has enabled the acquisition of funding for many academic careers and by default, the marginalisation and stagnation of alternative educational systems and educational critics in the minds of each new generation of standardised teachers mass-produced in the educational factory of university.

Perhaps the problem is one of unquestioned assumptions. When studying a system as irreducibly complex as the schooling system, not only does the meta-context continue to direct its practice and aims, regardless of our acknowledging it -(or not), and due to this overarching information, any research into effective teaching practice-(at least publishable research), nearly always results from the inherent unexamined and silently assumed metaphysical philosophical superiority. As such, any attempt to test students to understand if a particular experience allows them to perform better on one measure, such as efficacy with numbers, does not reveal any data about the irreducible complexity of each child, the planet, or the system, and the long-term effects of that experience on any number of other interconnected and inter-effected measures.

For example, while the child’s work with numbers may improve in one study, there are a variety of other learning taking place simultaneously and contextually. The varied Social, Emotional, Physical, Intellectual, (and other) dimensions of that child and of that society are being shaped, and when studied in the unexamined and un-critiqued meta-context of this now globalised world of forced standardised schooling, it seems apparent that studies performed cannot hope to identify a truly relevant control group, and cannot hope to significantly acknowledge the longitudinally self-reinforcing contextual and evolving holism of a child.

As a result, even when studying purely academic measures, a reductionist analytical quantitative research methodology, as per western science traditions, is increasingly recognised in educational research as unable to provide significant and important data, such as that is needed to understand, contextualise and gain insight into the practice of teachers and learners in schools, and, while qualitative research can to some extent provide those insights, it still carries with it the generally unexamined meta-context that shapes and determines research, discussion, and interpretation. Not to mention the accumulated burden of the accepted wisdom and immense longevity of established practice methods, and the associated intellectual weight of the many hundreds of thousands of highly intelligent minds who collectively researched, comprehensively and systematically, to build the system and practice of schooling and education into a science and art, through millions of pieces of honestly excellent work that create this truly impressive, extensive, compelling and vast academic dialogue.

This meta-context with its ideological power and educational aims, turns schooling into a means to an end, and as such disallows a wide range of alternative worldviews and values from taking root in our dialogue and examination of schooling systems.

This is in my opinion a significant and inherent flaw, one that flies in the face of cutting edge research into human psychological states and neurological research, both of which demonstrate without doubt that non-ordinary and profound states of awareness and functioning that school does not address exist. States that all human beings are theoretically capable of accessing, developing and establishing, states that provide vastly deeper levels of competency, expertise, intelligence, fulfillment and emotion than contemporary schooling seems capable of nurturing, and states of vast historical significance to the cultural, intellectual and scientific progress of the human race, as embodied by our greatest luminaries. (Indeed, that there is not inconsiderable evidence that contemporary schooling may inhibit the development of these states.)

If we are going to require so much of a child’s life, and that of their family, at such a young age. We need to seriously reconsider merely turning their life into a means to an ideological end, and instead discover if the experiences our community can offer our children will result in them becoming empowered and deeply fulfilled human beings that are capable of understanding and developing their innate potentials and if not, seek other alternatives for our race.

If I have learned anything useful through University and School it is this, any relatively unusual intellectual capacities any child may demonstrate, are both, (but less) the product of inherited traits, and more importantly the product of circumstances and environment, I truly believe that schooling as I knew it, it is as potentially irrelevant and multi-nefariously damaging to all students as it was to me. -(If the possibility exists for children to be given the appropriate circumstances and environment for real learning to take place.) And furthermore, that students who are lucky enough to naturally possess circumstances and environment which will allow unusual precociousness to develop, will be greatly damaged by schooling.

This is very important for all of us and for life on this planet as a whole, while human society, culture and even science, has been shaped in large part by the effects of seemingly nebulous concepts such as genius, intuition, insight and mysticism, these central influences upon our history, are aims that are missing from our educational provision for our children. Perhaps because we have little agreed understanding of what they are, and even less of how to nurture them.

This is challenging, but beautiful, the frameworks we could use to understand and integrate them have been historically often been religious and as such carry with them the accumulated cultural baggage that has historically have cumulatively resulted in the oppression and deaths of billions. It is tempting to turn to other theories, however while so called alternative education does perform significantly better on the psychological markers and cognitive traits we have associated with the development of these aptitudes, they do not demonstrate comprehensively the capacity or comprehension to truly develop the human potential inherent in every child ever born, at least not as we understand that potential today.

Perhaps the problem is deeper. In education we turn life into a means to an end, an end that does not define meaningful answers to mysteries, or include any model of the cutting edge understandings of the development of the human being, as an independent entity separate from the dominant ideology of economic rationalism. In light of this, alternative approaches to schooling are not really very alternative. Just as it would be hard to understand true diversity in individuals, in a society where all people have been exposed to extended periods of forced standardised schooling throughout childhood, so too is it be hard to understand what true diversity in education might mean, when all schools, born within that rhetoric and worldview, must teach to achieve the same curriculum outcomes, and are born from the same cultural and economic context.

What is needed across all educational institutions is a radically different approach to thinking about life, about education and about our biological, emotional, spiritual and cultural humanity, a new schema that translates into radically different approaches to providing childhood to children.

My experience of university has been both disturbing and informing, to begin with I have benefited by being exposed to an educational environment again, this time as an adult and this time with the self-awareness and understandings to be able to examine and hopefully to some degree re-establish my relationship to schools, and by that I mean, to have the opportunity to take responsibility for and evolve my unconscious response to these environments, and thus come to terms with the personally damaging effect it and the unconscious choices and behaviors that I acted out as a child have had on the development of my personality, values, and life.

It has been frustrating to see how much has changed, how much is and was known, and how much has stayed the same, and liberating to grow to an age, within this context, where I can see a bigger picture and without loosing any passion, no longer feel the need to free all children from the prison like experience school was for me, in effect robbing twelve years of my life, and more, through the enduring influence of my maladjustment to my life. Perhaps I am burned out, perhaps I have come to understand the power of giving up.

Historically, I have been quite vitriolic towards the so called education system and all involved in it, spouting quotes such as “it is no measure of good health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society”-(J Krishnamurti), however despite my cynicsm, through the direct testimony of others I have learned that for some people in some situations, school has been whatever they conceive of as a tremendously positive experience. This holds true regardless of the purely philosophical comparison that any situation may have to what could have been any theoretical optimum childhood.

I have also realised that I was immensely naive in thinking I might have something significant to add to educational dialogue, I have discovered to my delight and disappointment that a wide range of people far more intelligent and qualified than I am, have already researched and critiqued education with great acuity and depth over the generations. And that every insight I had into the flaws and benefits of schooling, while at school or while studying it as a student, was already known long before I was the victim or student of it.

Regardless of the disappointments of my course, and my dawning realisation that within the structure and content of current schools I will find it incredibly difficult to live up to my ideals for education, I am excited to finish and finally begin teaching, I’ve been where I am long enough and learned enough for now, its time to return to prison and free myself, I’m hoping that as I read, grow and deepen, that simultaneously I will be able to complete future studies and hopefully a Phd looking at other ways of knowing, exceptional learning and performance through flow states, because it all seems awfully interesting.



From → Education, Personal

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