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Friday, May 20, 2011

The Mindful Computer

In yesterday’s blog post I argued that IT is here to stay, and that the focus for futurists like me should be upon how to employ the technology optimally, so that it enhances the development of Deep Futures, and does not perpetuate the shallow materialism of Money and Machine Futures.

To use the technology wisely, we have to allow human wisdom to flourish. This may sound obvious, but it seems to me that many educators and futurists do not appreciate that wisdom involves healthy self-reflection and the development of a capacity for equanimity and inner peace. It is certainly possible that IT may assist in this process, but as far as I am aware, the best ways to foster a peaceful mind are through simple, direct first person methods like meditation and mindfulness; and through various forms of embodiment via yoga, mindful walking and even swimming. The key to embodiment is that - regardless of the exercise - attention is brought into the body in relaxed presence.

In my understanding, this development of peace and wisdom should ideally be the foundation of any decent education system.

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of understanding of this getting around. I would like to refer to just one recent example which illustrates this perfectly.

In a recent South China Morning Post (Hong Kong) article, Robert J. Bahash wrote a timely column arguing that in today’s education systems teaching is just as vital as the tools of technology we employ. I agree with Bahash, but I do not believe that he goes nearly far enough, nor does he identify the essence of what is wrong with modern public education.       

Bahash writes:

Students must be prepared properly for a digitally connected world. The web and mobile connectivity have been undisputable agents of change across a range of industries, bringing our global economy closer together and providing opportunity for business to thrive where it would previously have been impossible… In the education sector, mobile connectivity, digital capabilities and intelligent software are the catalysts for making quality education available to students who may not have access to it otherwise.

There is not much to dispute here, except for the use of a single term: “quality education”. Bahash makes no attempt to define what such education might be. He seems to be implying that it is already here, merely awaiting some fine tuning. 

He goes on to elaborate the point, writing that online learning and IT tools are vital for young learners because they “build critical thinking through games, encourage collaboration and provide real-time assessment and remediation.” Bahash also argues that online course work, and especially independent study and virtual collaboration, help students to become independent thinkers and enhance self-motivation. Students also learn time management, prioritization and practice important community-building – skills. So far, so good. Not many would argue with all this. These are all very necessary skills in today’s world.

Bahash then quite rightly goes on to state that IT and online learning are not sufficient in themselves if we are to see a genuine improvement in modern education.

The road to universally raising the standards of education starts with the instructor. They are responsible for keeping students properly engaged and challenged throughout their school years. The profession as a whole needs to be held at a higher level of respect and regard in order to develop exceptional teachers.

According to Bahash the key in all this will be in granting teachers more respect. Upgrading teacher respect levels will transform teachers and bring out the best in them. Now, I am not going to argue that respecting educators is not important, nor that it cannot possibly improve the system. I am all for respect.

However there is something missing from Bahash’s arguments, and it is something that is not only important, but vital. It is this ‘something’ which so much of today’s critiques and analyses of education fails to address. The way we are going about trying to ‘fix’ modern education is something akin to gazing upon a dry ocean, looking at the fish floundering and dying upon the dry ocean bed, and deciding that the best way to help the fish is trying to teach them how to swim. In such a scenario, failing to grasp that fish need water would be incomprehensibly dumb. Yet there is a pervasive stupidity in modern schools and society which is equally dopey. We are throwing away billions of dollars trying to teach fish-out-of-water how to swim.

The basis of education – in the broadest sense – must be developing the right relationship with self. For this to happen, both teachers and students need to do self work. They need to develop wisdom, equanimity, and the ability to be fully present wherever they find themselves. The teacher's role is most important here. A teacher with a scattered psyche cannot possibly hope to instil equanimity into young people.

I am a teacher and spend a lot of time in front of students. If there is one quality in a teacher that surpasses all others in its capacity transform the classroom, it is his capacity to be fully present with the students. When I enter a classroom I make sure that I am fully present with the students. It is an act of love that surpasses in value any curriculum objective. Students know when the teacher is present, and they know when the teacher is not really “there.”

When I am present in front of a class I can ‘read’ the energy of the students. I can see beyond the faces they put forward as part of social discourse. I am able to connect with a stream of consciousness which grants spontaneous ‘intuitions’ about what is needed in the moment. Most importantly, it allows me to have unconditional love for the students. In true presence, judgment ceases (but not critical discernment), and  love is spontaneous.

When I first began teaching I was barely present at all. My mind was so scattered and uncentered that virtually any disturbance in the classroom was enough for me to lose any sense of self-esteem or equanimity. In short, fear dominated my teaching. It dominated my teaching because I had not done the inner work required to understand why I was afraid. I did not understand why at a deep level I felt inadequate as a teacher and human being; why I was terrified of losing control; and why I believed that the young human beings before me were untrustworthy and hostile. In fact, I didn’t even fully realise that I carried these attitudes and thought processes into the classroom, because I was largely unconscious of what lay within my psyche.

The only way for a teacher to be fully present is for her to engage in an inner journey. A healing journey. There is no genuine wisdom while fear dominates the personality. A frightened, mentally scattered sage is a contradiction in terms.

Is this what we are hearing from most educators and curriculum developers? No. Robert Bahash exemplifies a typical analysis.

Changing classroom teaching techniques will also improve student learning. The development of hi-tech learning applications and digital content delivery has transformed the learning platform. For successful 21st-century learning, classrooms need to embrace the power of data to create learning paths that will help shape students and prepare them for the digitally driven world (my bold type).

What concerns me about so much of what appears as ‘critique’ of modern education is that it is in fact not critique at all. It permits no vertical expansion of the human experience, merely horizontal shifts in foci. Regardless of whether we are using a text book or a computer, unless we emphasise it, there will be no genuine inner journey. There is no silence and there is no reflection.

Computers, IT, and mobile devices contain no intrinsic qualities which necessitate the facilitation of wisdom, equanimity and presence.  If employed with the same industrial age mentality as, say, a text book, they merely exacerbate the dominance of what mystics like to call ‘the monkey mind’. They merely become another medium via which the mind becomes distracted and disembodied, and dissociated from the psyche – and from the human spirit and its innate intuitive wisdom. Saying that classrooms need to “embrace the power of data” without any reference to grounding the individual in the body, is to fundamentally invert what is required to permit a psychologically and spiritually healthy human learning to develop.

Perhaps it is true that we live in a “digitally driven world,” as Bahash states. Yet this development is an extension of the same neurosis. What he is describing is a world where information increasingly comes first, and wisdom and self-reflection are given little or no value.

Connection to the body and psyche must come first. In a sane and truly rational world the capacity for equanimity and presence must take precedence over running data through minds. This foundation must take precedence over technical training, including IT instruction. Note I am not advocating abolition of information technology and career development. IT and mobile technology are exciting and powerful developments which will be essential aspects of almost all probable human futures, as I argued in yesterday's post. These things simply have to be taught in schools as well. I am simply suggesting beginning with embodied wisdom first, then exploring the other domains thereafter.

To be given value, these things must be assigned curriculum time. ‘Spiritual’ education must be permitted a space in modern education systems, and developed syllabi must allow self-exploration and quiet time. Yet for this to happen we need teachers who embody quiet equanimity. Teachers who are vitally present in the classroom.

This is not happening.

How can we make it happen?

First we have to admit that there is a problem, and that the monkey mind is not going to deliver us from the problems we are facing, regardless of how many gigabytes of data we strap to it. It will simply create more of the same problems we are seeing in today's school and in today's society.

Information Technology must be recognised for what it is: an exciting and powerful medium, but not the goal.


1 comment:

  1. Such an important point this - and so far from the minds of all the gung-ho gadget freaks who seem to dominate discussions of future education. You helped to inspire an entry in my own blog, about expressing the truth of the body.

    Screensavers of waterfalls and tropical fish are no substitute for self-presence in the body and in the physical world. Would you want to upload your consciousness into a computer (if it was even possible, which it almost certainly isn't?) Anyone who thinks that dancing and f***ing with a virtual body would be the same has never properly experienced either.