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Teaching for Inspiration

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Paper Three: Teaching for Inspiration


The simple answer to the question of whether the findings of the neural and cognitive sciences can be utilized to the benefit of educational theory and practice is yes, of course. The really puzzling question is why this is still a question, because even taking into account the ordinary human foibles and bureaucratic inefficiencies that always make change difficult to effect, it seems as though we have been getting education wrong for a pretty inexcusably long time. In a brief survey of some of the findings that might be useful for brain-based education and their reception over the past several decades, Eric Jensen takes aim at absolutists on either side of the debate. Those who reject brain-based education as hocus pocus are irresponsibly, he says, ignoring the preponderance of new evidence attesting to the likelihood that we can improve education by making classrooms more hospitable environments for the brain. But neither should we embrace the technocracy that would result from the opposite approach, people remote from the action trying to choreograph the learning process down to the level of neurotransmitters. 


The key thing to remember, Jensen wants to make clear, is that different people think about things in different ways, and this is a good thing. It is good to have neurobiologists doing neurobiology and teachers teaching. If scientists and educators are going to learn from one another, they will have to do so by engaging in their own version of co-constructive inquiry. There are genes, and there is environment. Nature versus nurture. It is now commonly understood that these terms oversimplify the problem, and that to make advances towards a more helpful and nuanced understanding, we ought to be thinking about “gene expression.” This seems to suggest that teachers, the “experts” here on the classroom environment, have to have a say in the matter of how the “hard science” gets implemented. But they have an equal obligation to entertain the neural and cognitive science findings, and I would argue an obligation to experiment, given the abysmal status quo. Their experiments will, I think, prove immensely valuable, as they can participate in a kind of experimentation that is impossible for scientists in laboratories. 


Some of the findings Jensen brings up are new, but much of what he highlights are molecular accounts of molar theories that have been accepted as common sense or theorized in different contexts for some time. So again, why is this taking so long? There seems to be a critical place where we are failing to get traction, failing to bring the practical and theoretical together. And even this is a false binary, given the site of a thousand variables that is the classroom.  How can we know everything that neuroscientists should be looking for if we’re still largely stuck with the dominant model to prove inefficient again and again and again? So for example, research shows that enhanced physical activity can aid neuron generation. This is a relatively sophisticated reiteration of a notion advanced by developmental psychologists like Piaget decades ago. Only Piaget was somewhat more civilized in his understanding of the place of body-knowing, seeing it as a stage children passed through, the stage in which they first became aware of the autopoietic feedback loop through which they acted on the world around them and the world around them acted on them, modeling the way they would find themselves eventually engaging in abstract thought that could change them and change the world. Or we can go back to (pseudo)scientific pioneers like Rudolf Steiner, founder of the Waldorf schools. Steiner insisted that a special form of movement (Eurythmy) be incorporated into the daily curriculum for students from early childhood all the way through their secondary schooling. For Steiner, the interest in nurturing multiple intelligences had nothing to do with using movement or art education as a tool to help students perform better in their “real” academic subjects, the subjects in which we can administer nationally standardized exams today. “This new art of movement,” he wrote of Eurythmy, “can be performed only by those who acknowledge and live in the conviction that human beings consist of body, soul, and spirit” (10).  Though the new science is saying essentially the same thing, that people function best and flourish most when their physical, intellectual, and emotional selves are all being regularly engaged and exercised, the integration of this kind of movement work into the curriculum is today relegated to alternative schools that are mostly only available to the children of the wealthy. 


These schools, Waldorf being just one particular model, have stunning success rates in terms of sending students on to higher education. But let us examine the other ways in which they choose to quantify their success as educational institutions. “The Survey of Waldorf Graduates indicates that Waldorf Education is achieving the following in its graduates: Multiple Intelligences and Cross Disciplinary Learners, Global Consciousness and Sustainability, Basis for Moral Navigation, Creative Problem Solving, High Levels of Social Intelligence, Environmental Stewardship, High Levels of Emotional Intelligence, Thinkers Who Think Outside the Box” (whywaldorfworks). This is the important difference. These are institutions where the educators have communicated clear goals and there is an unambiguous (if occasionally grandiose) vision of how education should be transformative for their students. Step one is articulating goals that are more meaningful than simply giving every student the basics they need in order to make a painless transition from the average classroom to the average workplace. The rubric cited above includes areas of excellence that would be very difficult to test for indeed, and therefore very difficult to mandate federally. So the growth and exploration that can occur in these areas has to happen locally. Especially with young children, everything is going to depend on the teachers actively seeking to cultivate these characteristics. This is where the obligation to experiment comes in. Without instating a version of the corrosive “publish or perish” culture that can plague teachers in higher-education settings, there ought to be professional development expectations/opportunities for primary and secondary school teachers as well. They too should be encouraged to think of themselves as creative researchers in the field, not middlemen charged with distributing and collecting standardized test booklets, not peons in a system. If this means a radical decentralization resulting in California high school graduates looking totally different from New York high school graduates, or one member of an eighth grade class looking totally different from another member of that same eighth grade class, then all the better. Diversity is positive, and diversity of thought is actually more powerful and interesting than gender, racial or socioeconomic diversity, the only issues the public education system can really afford to be focused (still inadequately) on today.


But teachers cannot force anything. The most compelling thing about Waldorf education, to me, becomes apparent in studying the arguments for teaching reading relatively late. Rather than exhausting students by charging them with absorbing a lot of developmentally inappropriate material (mastering the signifying system, the letters, the written words) and thereby stunting their natural curiosity and delight in sensuous language and storytelling, Waldorf educators work first to stimulate the imaginative appetite that produces a voracious reader who emerges only a few years after traditional school children. Just as those traditionally educated students are tiring of reading, coming to see it as an arduous task, a newly independent Waldorf reader, now able to interpret the code, is picking up books that she has been learning how to plug into emotionally, imaginatively. Her ability to decipher the interpretive code is the tool she can confidently use to complete her own projects, books she wants to read, experiences she wants to imaginatively engage with. Her reading experience will not be forever tainted by the painful technical process that tyrannizes some of our earliest experiences with stories. Student motivation, hunger, love of learning, is ultimately the X factor, and it is the thing that really can’t be taught. 


It can, however, be nurtured, fostered, encouraged. And this ought to be the teacher’s primary task. The famous Russian theater director and acting teacher Stanislavski wrote a great deal about “inspiration,” about those marvelous moments in a performance when something unexpected happens, when the actor’s body is so in tune with the character that she can respond spontaneously, make choices, reach emotional states that could not have been planned for rationally or predicted in advance. But Stanislavski stressed the importance of working obsessively to build up the optimum conditions for these moments, to “create a context in which inspiration can occur.” So the actor does all the sometimes tedious foundational work, imagining the details of his character’s childhood, training physically, building trust and intimacy with scene partners. But he does all of this only in the hope that the performance will one night lift up and become alive in this inspired way for which the workmanlike preparation can only lay the underpinnings. This is how neuroscientists can help teachers. They can show teachers what science suggests might be the optimum conditions for creating a context in which inspiration can occur. With this information about nutrition, about physical activity, about developmental-stage-appropriate material, teachers can become intelligent experimenters. They can create contexts in which genuine, enduring student motivation and curiosity might flower. And a student who has caught this spark is going to be just fine no matter how dull the lecture hall is that she finds herself in down the road. 





Works Consulted:


Bardt, S. (2008). Eurythmy, A Creative Force in Humanity: Experiences from Pedagogical Practice. Ghent, NY: The Association of Waldorf Schools of North America.

Inhelder, J. P. (1969). The Psychology of the Child. New York: Basic Books.

Jensen, E. (2008). A Fresh Look at Brain-Based Education. Retrieved December 13, 2010, from Phi Delta Kappan:

Why Waldorf Works. (n.d.). Retrieved December 13, 2010, from