Transformational Education

Consider the problems today’s young people will have to face: global warming and other changes in climate, disastrous ups and downs in our interlinked financial markets, worldwide unemployment, more than a billion people living in deprivation, disappearing soils and forests, oppressive governments and corporations, a stratified economic system that rewards the most greedy among us. As we confront these challenges, we must ask ourselves: What kind of education do we need to develop the skills to cope with a world in which so much can go wrong?

It would be the greatest of tragedies if now, in the midst of the golden age of brain/mind research, when we are discovering the full range of what we contain and what we yet may be, we agree to limited vision of our possibilities amped up with new technologies. Education that is hands-on, sensory-rich, and experience-laden, which calls forth the whole mind of the whole child, can develop our human potential and give us the tools to cope with whole system transition. Moreover, schools can lead the way in providing the model for education that is continuous throughout life, so that adults can be and know and discover human wonders that exceed even the most far-out technologies. This is what schools at all levels can teach. In so doing, they prepare us to be possible humans who are equal to the task of navigating the shoals of a time of grave challenges. The whole mind of the child may well be the key to our continuity as a species.

In the course of my work with United Nations agencies and other international programs, I have observed many schools and many styles of learning the world over, and the best of them, the ones to which children run in delight and expectation, are those where learning is creation, performing, thinking across subjects, exploring ideas through images, sounds, songs, dances, and artistic expression. There, children become conscious participants in their own unfolding. Yes, they continue to read, and write, and cipher, but they are also encouraged to imagine, dream, and expand the limits of the possible.

The more we learn about the ways students learn, the more important arts education becomes. Recent research indicates that less than 15% of students are auditory learners—that is, they process information primarily through hearing it. Visual learners, who process information primarily by seeing pictures, account for 40% of students. Kinesthetic learners, who respond best to hands-on learning, are the largest group; fully 45% of students need immediate sensory stimulation to learn effectively. Kinesthetic learners often have trouble in traditional verbal-based classrooms, where opportunities for high-touch learning are rare. Arts help visual and kinesthetic learners—in fact, all students— to learn more quickly, retain what they have learned, and feel more positive about learning.

Other research shows that if children sing songs, they learn math and languages better. The mental mechanisms that process music are deeply entwined with brain functions such as spatial relations, memory, and language. Give children singing lessons and keyboard instruction and their mathematical abilities soar. At the Northwest School in Seattle, students in grades 6-12 are required to take two arts courses at all times. Offerings such as dance, drama, music, and the visual arts are taught by practicing professional artists that are also strong teachers. Frequent informal performances and exhibits encourage students to feel proud and confident about their work. When nine college admissions directors and independent college counselors were asked to rate local high schools, the Northwest School was ranked second overall among all Washington high schools and highest among private high schools in student achievement during their first year at the University of Washington.

Music instruction even helps students learn science, as is demonstrated by high science achievement scores for eighth and ninth graders in Hungary, which until recently had the most intensive school music program in the world. Dance energizes and stimulates the entire mind-body system. Another study of 250 elementary students showed that they improved significantly in language arts when movement and dance activities were expanded, test scores rising in correlation to the amount of time spent in movement activities.

Results like these underscore why arts programs are so critical. A child can learn math as a rhythmic dance, and learn it well, for rhythm is processed in the brain in areas adjacent to the centers for pattern and order. A child can learn almost anything if she is dancing, tasting, touching, hearing, seeing, and feeling information.

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She becomes a passionate learner who delights in using so much more of her mind/brain/body system than conventional schooling generally permits. So much of the failure in schools stems from boredom, which arises from the system’s larger failure to stimulate and not repress those wonder areas in a child’s brain that give her so many ways of responding to the world.

I am a passionate advocate for the use of theater in the classroom. In theater, the child becomes ‘the possible human,’ using all skills—music, dance, rhetoric, expression, feeling—to tour the landscape of human experience. If all the world’s a stage, then all stages of life, all grades of human aspiration, all levels and layers of human expression and emotion are scaled when drama comes to school. Walt Whitman once said, “I become what I behold.” Childhood is that special time when the margins of the self are leaky. Theater allows children to try on the many parts of the human comedy and the full range of human knowing. What’s more, what one enacts, one remembers.

New Skills for a New World

All children need windows of opportunity that will open them to a world that they will partner in new creation. Never has the time been so ripe for change, and never before has education been more available to new strategies.

Neuroanatomist Marian Diamond at the University of California at Berkeley has shown that the human brain can change structurally and functionally as a result of learning and experience—for better or for worse. When we are in environments that are positive, stimulating, and encouraging of action and interaction, the human brain continues to develop throughout our lifetime, growing new neural connections that enhance our capacities for learning, creativity, and problem-solving. In effect, we make our brain as we use it.

In needed possibilities for the new millennium, we must use what we know to educate ourselves for the next civilization, the one that exceeds our expectations. In a sense, what is needed is training for the unknown and inexplicable. We must discover ways to ‘cook on more burners’ and to democratize skills that in the past belonged to the few. This challenge takes schools into areas of human potential that assume as a given the education of the whole mind and body. It also spurs them to embrace capacities and sensibilities that traditionally belonged to mystics and mages, high creative folk, and world servers.

The goal of this kind of education is what I have called ‘the possible human,’ the fetus of the emerging self. Perhaps this full expression of human potential has been coded in us since time out of mind, but only now have so many been called to its realization. What skills this possible human can evince, what use of the tremendous palette of our given but forgotten nature it implies, may be key to our stewardship of the Earth and to our continuity as a species, as well as to our future as star-goers, explorers, and creators in a universe both real and visionary. Let us look at some of the skills we might need to grow the possible human.

Body Skills

The first group of skills is engendered through an emphasis on dance, sports, and physical training, giving children an enjoyable experience of being in their bodies, flexible joints and muscles, and a physicality that is fluid and full of grace. A fine-tuning of body senses and physical abilities assures a greater appetite for delight and for the pleasures of being human—the sheer enjoyment of being corporeal.

The stimulation of a multisensory education gives children acute senses. Since their sensory palette is so colorful and wide ranging, if encouraged, children can begin the journey toward engaging the world as artist and mystic, seeing infinity in a grain of sand and heaven in a wildflower. This perceptual style can blossom into a capacity to recognize the patterns that connect the forms of life and thought to each other. It grants an acuity of observation that gives meaning to randomness and the ability to see emergent order where to all appearances only chaos resides.

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The splendor of their sensory life graces children with an accompanying gift, an excellent memory, for so present are they to the perceptual richness of everyday life that all is stored in their memory banks for later review and delectation. They also can learn to become time players, able to speed up subjective time when they need it to go faster, or slow it down so as to savor lovely moments or have more time to rehearse skills or review projects.

With a growing understanding and appreciation of their own bodies, children gain regard for the bodies of others as well. The moral consequences of this connection can be enormous: people are no longer seen to be abstractions or statistics, but partake of an embodied glory that makes killing or violence unthinkable.

Consciousness Training

An education for this new time would also require that children learn to self-orchestrate along the continuum of states of consciousness, traveling interior highways through realms of fantasy and imagination, spelunking through caves of creativity. We have discovered that consciousness has many states, apart from that half-awake state we call ‘normal waking consciousness.’ Some states are hyper-alert, allowing one acute focus and concentration. Others grant access to states of high creativity. And then there are those states in which the personal self seems to disappear and one enters mind at large—a unitive condition in which one discovers oneself to be the knower, the knowledge, and the known.

An arts-based education greatly facilitates the capacity to travel in inner space. Drama, music, and the potent richness of language teach children to think in inward imageries and to experience subjective realities as strikingly real. They discover with delight that self-creating works of art are always budding out of the fields of their minds and that they can capture and rework them as they wish. In essence, they are discovering one of the main secrets of being human: that we contain within us many cultures, many worlds.

Education in the Appropriate Use of Technology

Education these days goes hand in glove with technology. The challenge is to teach children to control the machines and not the other way around. So seductive is the new technology, so expert and computer literate are many children, that the computer is fast becoming an extension of their bodies. There they are, little proto-cyborgs, manipulating electrons before they can parse a sentence. Information is out there, a disembodied ‘fix’ to be downloaded without much struggle by little post-humans with flying hands and screen-lit faces. Math is a matter of hitting buttons on the calculator, and art is moving preset graphics into place. The juicy world filled with the blood music of its people and their passions risks becoming an abstraction to be viewed from a space more suitable to the gods of Olympus than the life of an 11-year-old. Like the mouse that eventually dies from pushing the pleasure button and forgetting to eat, the only life some children lead is on the screen. As much as I love computers and the technological utopia they portend, I for one am not interested in marrying my humanity to a machine. Marvin Minsky, MIT computer scientist, believes that the next stage of human evolution will be the merger of humans with electronics. If he’s right, our descendants might be able to transfer memories, thought patterns, even personalities clump by clump to neural nets contained within the electron circuits of a robot. An entire consciousness transferred and the myth of the Golem is realized in a body of silicon and steel. That is why I believe that our time holds the key to our future humanity: Do we become post-humans or deeply realized humans?

What schools can do to influence the outcome is increase children’s experiences of high touch to balance the seductions of high tech. A high-touch education—holistic, integrated, arts-centered—calls forth the natural splendor inherent in every child’s mind and body. Human beings contain far more images, ideas, stories, information, feelings, and, of course, consciousness than any computer. In a sense, we humans are meta-computers with the entire cosmos as our hard drive and our body-minds the screen for its unfolding. Western dualism that has split mind from body, body from nature, and self from universe has tended to increase the chasm between what we think we are and what we really are—thus, our dependence on machines for our reality. Thus, too, the importance of high-touch education to bridge the great divide and bring us home to the universe that resides within.

Properly balanced by high touch, computers and the Internet can, without question, be adjuncts to self-discovery and exploration of the many worlds in which we live. Technology democratizes information and encourages the growth of noninstitutional, evershifting networks of self-organizing learners. Computers free students from the constraints of linear, word-based reports and allow them to express their understanding of a subject through multimedia creations, incorporating a rich composition of visual and auditory devices and providing pathways and links to other knowledge resources on the Internet.

Schools can modulate technophilia by teaching children to use computers to enhance their experiences of reality rather than to substitute for it. A few snapshots from the frontier: A 13-year-old with cerebral palsy uses a computer to help track weather patterns and shares the results with meteorologists all over the world. Astronauts on the space shuttle and explorers in the rain forests of Peru relay the excitement of their discoveries as they happen to students all over the world via the Internet. Students at an Omaha school use the Internet to identify countries that are violating human rights, create multimedia projects, and send them to governments with pleas for reform. The humane use of human beings demands that embodiment be central to all educational experience, and that artificial intelligence, however fascinating, be our servant and not our surrogate.

Ethics and Values Education

It is a truism that moral education begins with creating a caring community within the classroom. A warm and supportive teacher-child relationship makes all the difference in the emotional climate of the classroom as well as in the cognitive development of the child. We all have memories of Mrs. Toad-Faced Horror who had us shaking in our shoes and peeing in our pants in expectation of chastisements that left us stupid and stunted. The chemistry of fear is one of the best ways to block the development of both heart and mind.

One well-known stratagem for creating a positive climate is encouraging children to discuss ‘the way we want our class to be,’ which opens into an exploration of the principles of fairness and kindness that make this goal achievable. Children themselves develop class rules that support these principles and are responsible for seeing that they function well. Classrooms can model a civilized society—a community of responsible, moral people who have zero tolerance for racism, sexism, violence, and psychological abuse. Cooperative learning, as when third-graders help first-graders with their reading, also encourages responsibility and consideration for others.

Enriched by a high-touch education, children are better equipped to appreciate values and make moral decisions. Being more, they come to feel and care more deeply about decay and degradation in the world around them. Storytelling drawn from folktale, literature, history, and biography is an important part of this training in moral wisdom. Children should be encouraged to dramatize traditional stories and to make up new ones that celebrate virtues. The enactment of an ideal is always one of the best ways to make it second nature. Storytelling can also help children develop an inner voice of conscience, one that can and will speak up for worthy behavior.

Another critical component in ethics training is understanding the consequences of actions, even establishing a Department of Consequences within the classroom. Here children can discuss and enact the shorthand long-term results of behaviors they experience. Teaching children to understand how their behavior impacts the well-being of others encourages empathy and the development of ‘leaky margins’ to others. This sense can easily be expanded to a feeling of kinship, not only with other children, but with all creatures and forms of Earth life. Older children can be provided with opportunities for social artistry—youth parliaments, for example, which establish the context and the training for future leaders. Parliament members can be observers and even participants in local and national governments.

Finally, we might consider as a radical antidote to bored and disillusioned youth the alternative of some children finishing high school by age 14 or 15. The next two or three years would be spent in service activities, a kind of youth corps devoted to cleaning up inner city neighborhoods, helping out in hospitals and convalescent homes, improving parks and recreation areas, and coaching and mentoring younger children. Such training in active compassion could give young people hands-on experience of the world. It could also be an extended rite of passage, a transition from childhood into adulthood, which channels the energies and idealism of adolescence into activities that enhance moral development rather than prolonging a period in which too many young people find themselves in a rootless limbo. Deepened by experience and practical wisdom, 17 and 18-year-olds can go into jobs or on to higher education, bringing with them a breadth and depth of experiential learning.

In conclusion, so much is now known about the nature of learning that, if applied broadly, could potentially transform civilization and create, within several generations, people who are endowed with the skills and moral courage to navigate in this, the most challenging time in human history.

Note. Excerpted and adapted for Kosmos from Jean Houston’s 2004 book, Jump Time: Shaping Your Future in a World of Radical Change (Sentient Productions: Boulder, CO).