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Soulful Learning in a Wired World

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Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship, Bellingham, Washington, September 2012 Sermon.

Do you know, has Lee told you, that Aloha means that I breathe in God from your breath and you breath in God from mine? In that spirit let me say: Aloha!

You are the people who are with my husband while I am an ocean away working on my education projects. So when Lee invited me to share with you my passion, the education urgency that I feel for the welfare of our children, our country, and our world, I jumped at the chance.

I do what I do because I think it is the best use of myself to further the values you and I hold in common, our 7 principles. And Lee does what he does here with you for the same reason.

The most likely people to understand, agree, expand and create needed education changes that lift our young people and protect human dignity and value, I believe, are Unitarian Universalists, and nowhere better than here at the Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship.

It is in our genes. It is in our beliefs. It is in the highest moments of our history as a movement, like when with these words Emerson addressed the 1838 Harvard Divinity School seniors, about to become Unitarian ministers:

But when the mind opens and reveals the laws which traverse the universe,
and make things what they are, then shrinks the great world at once into a mere illustration and fable of this mind.

What am I? and What is?
asks the human spirit with a curiosity new-kindled, but never to be quenched.
 

Emerson says that once we truly open ourselves to learn principles, laws and science, which guide the universe, we then wonder, “What am I” and “What Is?” and then our learning is ignited without end.

Yes! My forty years in education affirm his view. I see that ontological and existential questions of being are a vital part in the virtuous cycle of mindful engagement and learning.

But, because I write in 2013 instead of 1838, and because I am looking at learning for the broad spectrum of learners, rather the highly educated group Emerson addressed, I see this virtuous cycle turned around. Emerson sees that if we learn widely and deeply, we ask questions about our own being.

I think that if our learning addresses our being, if I, the learner see the relation between my self and the knowledge or skills I seek to learn, my learning accelerates and deepens and I have a higher likelihood of mastery. If I engage this way, the laws of the universe are then penetrable to me and I am urged forward in learning.

When the student is asked to memorize the state capitols, some will do it quickly to prove they can and because it elevates their sense of self to prove it. If a student sees no relation to their self, and sees no hope of acknowledgement of them personally, they will likely not be successful.

Personalizing learning makes it more effective and bonding teacher with the learner, accelerates the learning.

We now have the ability through technology, connectivity, cognitive science, learning media, and reorganizing resources accordingly, to give each child a customized learning path and personal attention.

Can you imagine when you took your first step?

The first feel of a square of jello or a piece of ice?

Riding your bicycle and staying up?

Mastering the reed in your clarinet?

Making a perfect pudding?

Learning was a delight. 

We learn what interests us …
Thank you, Socrates and Plato, for engaging us, with inquiry, in learning.

We learn when we are respected …
Thank you, Jesus, for proving our worthiness to learn by sharing your parables and proverbs with all.

We learn where we find peace and focus …
Thank you, Buddha, for teaching us mindfulness and to resolve suffering with happiness

We learn by doing …
Thank you, John Dewey, for bridging learning from academic to authentic

We learn when we have dedicated, bright, professional, inspired teachers …
Thank you, teachers, for giving generously of your concern and talent regardless of pay or conditions

We learn when we are in nature and see ourselves in nature …
Thank you, Thoreau, Darwin, Richard Louv—writer of the Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle—and all the environmental educators working to teach us to save the planet and ourselves.

We learn in environments that promote learning …
Thank you, to those local communities who have found a way to build and sustain modern, comfortable, connected schools. Let’s fix the rest of them!

We learn when we have the current tools …
Thank you, IBM, Apple, Google, and even Twitter for inventing these.
Let’s get them to all students!

We learn when we are connected …
Thank you, President Obama, for pushing for “ConnectEd” the new E-Rate program to get high band-with Internet connectivity to schools.
Thanks to the FCC who voted for it in July, but seeks comments. Communities will need to support this initiative which addresses the problem of the average school having about the same connectivity as the average American home, but serving 200 times as many users.
Let’s turn on the juice!

We learn when we have effective standards and tests …
Thank you educators, governors, and state chief school officers for 10 years of struggling to develop and agree on Common Core Standards. For the first time, our standards now may have the depth and rigor to raise performance instead of driving it down. And using national common core standards may direct otherwise wasted funds into more advanced assessment and instruction to benefit students.
Let’s support the implementation of the Common Core!

In spite of the old philosophers’ deep thinking about learning, today’s connectivity and technology, and common core standards now being implemented for the first time, which offer affordable forward movement, despite all that, enormous gaps in education persist in our own country and around the world.

And we have no assurance that those making the decisions will do so from values that support each learner.

Public attention has been riveted by media’s report of the U.S. plummeting math and science scores relative to developed and even some developing countries. After ignoring education for decades, the public is riled up by scores that evoke a world cup competition in which we are losing.

But where is the interest in serving the needs of students and our global common interests with advances in education not measured by those math, science and literacy tests?

And who will stand up for providing the support to each student so that they can develop their own individual gifts, enjoy harmonious lives, and become innovators for tomorrow?

Will we ignite and satisfy curiosity in our students?
Or will we dampen interest with our one-size-fits-all curricula, graded to reward those most gifted?
Will our tests and our instructional design support our students’ learning?
Or will we continue with the classroom model developed in 1780, of large classes lead by one teacher, grouped by age?
Will we educate our populace to achieve rewards in their own and shared accomplishment?
Or will we persist in a competitive model that undermines collaboration?
Will we humanize our education model to advance against the twin evils of ignorance and greed?
Or will we continue the education model that matches our economic model of inequity?

What got us to our current slump in education?

For twenty years education in the US has backslid
We thought we were leading the world
That our scientists would invent more
Our businesses would thrive more
Our schools would educate young people better
The world would continue to come to America to get educated.

We let ourselves get into squabbles about state standards
We underpaid our teachers
We failed to honor teachers and students
We did not bring talent into our schools as our top priority
We were stuck in old learning models

As technology entered the workplace--and the play place-
We did not keep up with it in our schools.
Many of our teachers were afraid of technology
And we slowed teacher progress by miring technology in bureaucracy
Kids who had computers at home
Had to work at old desks at school with pencils
Kids who had no computers at home
Were sent to computer labs to drill, drill, drill

Lessons bored students
Violence and discipline sapped resources
Gone were the arts and sports
Gone were music and drama
After sputnik’s science surge,
Gone were budgets for science.

Harvard’s Project Zero found US schools erode genius:

Of 4 year olds 98% rank genius in divergent thinking – being able to combine things in new ways

9 year olds are down to 32%

14 year olds drop to 10%

and by 25 years only 2 % are divergent thinking geniuses–

The kind we need in today’s economy.
No wonder US patents are now issued to more non-US than US inventors!

Math and reading, reading and math
Skill and drill and drill and kill
We took the students’ time
We removed the joy from learning.

With the US 20th of 28 developed countries in HS graduation rate
Dropout rates reaching 50% for urban blacks
Yielding a 54% jobless rate for all young high school dropouts
Who are 63 times more likely to be incarcerated than college grads
$82 billion in lost lifetime earnings
$37 billion in decreased tax revenue
$12 billion in losses due to poor health
$8 billion in losses due to increased crime rates…
The ROI (return on investment) to give every child an effective education is estimated at 250%

Lee and I built an inquiry science program – Galaxy Classroom–and delivered it to the lowest performing schools in Miami. The results of our project were stellar and the students and teachers loved it.

But the budget was cut, so the program and others like it, were cut.
We run pilots and contests to encourage innovation,
Then we de-fund innovation that works, along with the rest.

Imagine the gap between what is and what our kids could have done,
if they had great schools.
If we actually put our future first,
Put our best efforts into guiding the minds that will guide our destiny,
Put our children first,
Investing in learning and innovation first.
Imagine teacher time spent on the student.
Not the paperwork.

Imagine assessment, from the French “to sit beside”,
As a serious, personal and learning interchange.
Sitting with the learner to see what they know,
Breathing the same air, dignifying the student work,
Learning how they learn, knowing what they want to know, and caring about what they care about.

We know how to ask questions to discover not just what a learner knows,
But what critical knowledge the learner missed 2 years back.
Fill the hole and enable the student trajectory to rise!

We can ask questions via computers in many different ways,
In a video game, or in an audio interview, or in an essay, or multiple-choice question—discerning how our learner learns.

We can examine the student’s work to infer the student’s knowledge and perspective as well as writing and other skills.

In fact my team and I built online courses with teachers, partnered with the Ohio Learning Alliance,
Delivered by teachers who spend no time lecturing,
The best lecture, recorded for anytime viewing
No time collecting, little time correcting papers
Little time on discipline
Much time coaching group projects
Much time one to one—with students
Asking and talking
About what the student is learning
About what the student knows.
About the student’s interests.

With computers grading essays,
Media providing outstanding teaching of a physics principle,
Our teacher’s precious time is spent on personal conversation with the student.
Each student can feel respected, have access to personal feedback, and imagine themselves participating in the future.

The student in this “blended learning” project said
“I never had a teacher talk to me about how I think before”

If the lesson is authentic,
If it represents learning of value to the student,
If the link to the student’s context is made explicit,

Then the student can come to care about the lesson,
And the student will realize we care about her.
We can build personal relationship into learning.

A national trial attorney, Carole Bos, uses the same techniques she uses to research cases,
And the methods she uses for presenting cases to juries,
To create the Awesome Stories website that bridges stories to learning.
I’ve been working for the past year to support and extend this breakthrough in online learning.
Teachers and students explore the “story behind the story”, whether the story is fiction or non-fiction, Awesome Stories provides non-fiction original written context and a plethora of primary sources.
Students are interested, compelled by the story, to cut their own path through the wealth of provided, vetted, reliable, related content.
Students delve deeply, think critically, collaborate, and respond to essential questions and common core tasks, meeting 21st-century research standards.

Our support of the student in the lesson,
Collaborating in their exploration,
Observing his growth and
Communicating how we see his growth,
This will convey our care and respect and love
Engendering the student’s sense of self and love of learning.

In this time of classroom depersonalization,
With bullying amplified by social media, results each in
16% of teen students report seriously considering suicide
13% report creating a plan
8% report trying to take their own life
157,000 youth from 10 to 24 are treated in ERs for self-inflicted injuries.

91 schools in 13 states have daily meditation practice, reporting
25% fewer absences
30% fewer suspension days
50% fewer rule infractions
But most schools have not made time or budget for meditation.

Studies on Yoga now practiced in elementary, middle and high schools point toL

  • fewer fights and arguments among students;
  • better student decision-making;
  • increased self-awareness and self-esteem;
  • improved concentration and retention; and
  • more efficient use of class time—

Yet yoga is banned from many districts out of concern for religious freedom.
And meditation and yoga champions are not a match for test score alarms.

Industry seeks innovative thinkers for new careers,
Careers we do not even recognize today.
In these times of stress, digital cacophony, and familial complexity,
Students need more than a basic skills and knowledge curriculum to reach even yesterday’s goals.

In order to wrap their minds around the growing universe of knowledge and to prepare themselves for roles in the economy and social system of tomorrow, our students need more soulful support.

Even if we cannot use the word “soul” in schools,
We need to see that each child’s essential self, each child’s soul is respected.
Standardized test scores should not be allowed to define students—regardless of percentile.

That approach is backward for the child, and it is backward for our society.

Learning is autobiographical.
We learn to the degree we see a relation between the lessons and ourselves.
Sometimes we struggle to see that relation.
For some of us the relation to almost all learning is quite clear.
But I have seen students who cannot read a simple primer,
but quickly grasp the meaning of a car repair manual.
That car repair manual is Greek to me.

Learning is autobiographical.
And if we learn much across a wide spectrum with an open mind,
if we learn deeply with attention and rigor,

if we learn from our daily life as well as school with alertness to natural as well as academic lessons, if we integrate our learning from multiple sources, then this learning is integrated into our being. Then as we learn, more and more is in our frame of reference.
More knowledge is accessible to us.
We can master more skills.

Socrates believed in the reincarnation of an eternal soul, which contained all knowledge.
That we lose touch with that knowledge at every birth,
and so we need to be reminded of what we already know (rather than learning something new).
Approaching each learner with loving respect,
Using technology, media, and assessment in new ways,
Supporting each student to respect her own consciousness,
Learning can be delightful like our first time.
And each learner may access knowledge from her deepest self.

Plato said that he did not teach, but rather served,
like his mother, as a midwife to truth that is already in us!
Making use of questions and answers to remind his students of knowledge is called dialectics, or the Socratic method.

Luckily, with learning management systems, flipped classrooms, blended learning, adaptive assessment and great teachers—if we use them with radical respect for the learner—we can provide a level of Socratic method that Plato and Socrates could never have imagined.

Emerson’s last words in the Harvard Divinity School Address were:

I look for the hour when that supreme Beauty,
which ravished the souls of those eastern men, and chiefly of those Hebrews,
and through their lips spoke oracles to all time, shall speak in the West also.
The Hebrew and Greek Scriptures contain immortal sentences, that have been bread of life to millions. But they have no epical integrity; are fragmentary; are not shown in their order to the intellect.
I look for the new Teacher, that shall follow so far those shining laws, that he shall see them come full circle; shall see their rounding complete grace; shall see the world to be the mirror of the soul; shall see the identity of the law of gravitation with purity of heart; and shall show that the Ought, that Duty, is one thing with Science, with Beauty, and with Joy.

We can:
Provide a safe and encouraging environment for learning.
Know what our learners know.
Learn how our learners learn.
Care as our learners care.
We can fix education.
We can teach every human on the planet what they want to learn, in the way they learn best,
Approaching each learner with loving respect
Using technology, media, and assessment in new ways
Learning can be delightful– like our first time.

May we unite, invigorated with our freshest thinking, most strategic views, steadfast commitment, innovative re-casting, and soulful connection, to change the world through personalized learning for all.

Closing Words:

Visionary Unitarian Buckminster Fuller saw our current conundrum then:
Only the profound inertia of ignorance… now withholds the practical realization of successful physical survival of all of humanity, all at higher standards of living than have as yet been conceived by any man.

It is indeed a comprehensive educational problem.


Buddha taught that the twin sources of suffering are ignorance and greed and we are struggling against them now.

For as Channing said “There is but one essential good, and that is the health, power, purity of our own soul.”

And so let us bend our efforts to protect our souls and all souls from ignorance and greed, with education as our best means to do so.
Let us bring a message of radical respect for each child to the children of the world.
Let us put that reverence for individuals in our learning system…
To reinforce that most important component of learning—the unique value of each individual.
Seeking knowledge and inspiration to overcome ignorance, understanding the impact of overuse of our planet, abuse of humans and animals,
Let us overcome greed,
and savor the pleasure of connecting with those unlike us
enjoy mindfulness and peace
and unite in tolerance and love.

Amen.

 

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