Life Lessons from Bergson

My dogears from Michael Foley’s excellent “Life Lessons from Bergson”

Time

“Time” is now the most-used noun in English, whereas many primitive peoples, for instance the Amondawa tribe of the Amazon and the Australian Aborigines do not have a word for it. (p.24)

Chance

The corollary of predictability as comfort is randomness as threat … We would almost rather accept gross injustice than randomness. At least with injustice there is someone to blame. And good fortune is just as rarely recognized. For bad luck, we blame others and for good luck, we take the credit ourselves. (p.32)

Habit & Old Fogyism

Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state. (p. 40, from William James’ Psychology: The Briefer Course)

Old Fogyism begins at a younger age than we think. I am almost afraid to say so but I believe that in the majority of human beings it begins at about twenty-five. (p.40, from William James’ Talks to Teachers)

Comedy

It is the function of comedy to repress any separatist tendency, to convert rigidity into plasticity, the readapt the individual to the whole (p. 43, from Bergson’s Le Rire)

Artists

How can the eyes be asked to see more than they see? Our attention may enhance precision, clarify and intensify; but it cannot bring out what was not there in the first place. That is the objection – in my opinion, refuted by experience. In fact for hundreds of years there have been people whose function was precisely to see and make us see what we do not naturally perceive. These are the artists. (p. 49, from Bergson’s La Pensee et le mouvant)

Character and Attention

According to James, our experience of life is nothing other than what we have chosen to pay attention to, and the choice is decisive because experience is character. (p64)

Ripples, Systems and Effects

If everything is connected to everything else then every action propagates its effects for ever, and if feedback loops are the method of propagation then every action also modifies the character of the actor. Many of these nano-modifications are below the level of perception but they eventually add up to a cumulative change that is all too perceptible. One day you may wake up and realize you have become a shithead – or, more likely, your partner wakes up and informs you of this in a loud, outraged tone, en route to the door. (p.75)

[Photo: Edinburgh University]

Mohini The White Tiger and Learned Helplessness

I’ve been watching a lot of TED talks recently (part of a NY’s resolution), and have been struck by the number that say something along the lines of “school is broken” and “how do we make children like school?”.

There’s a sad story about a tiger called Mohini that Tara Brach tells as follows.

Mohini was a regal white tiger who lived for many years at the Washington D.C. National Zoo. For most of those years her home was in the old lion house—a typical twelve-by-twelve-foot cage with iron bars and a cement floor. Mohini spent her days pacing restlessly back and forth in her cramped quarters. Eventually, biologists and staff worked together to create a natural habitat for her. Covering several acres, it had hills, trees, a pond and a variety of vegetation. With excitement and anticipation they released Mohini into her new and expansive environment. But it was too late. The tiger immediately sought refuge in a corner of the compound, where she lived for the remainder of her life. Mohini paced and paced in that corner until an area twelve by twelve feet was worn bare of grass.

This could be read in different ways, I suppose.

In one, the cage might represent school, and Mohini’s retreat might equate to that adult refrain that students have lost the “ability to think for themselves”, have an overreliance on spoonfeeding, or even have had their creativity killed and the like. In this, like in many of those TED talks, it’s the cage that’s the problem.

In another, though, it is not the cage that is the problem but the adults. The cage might represent what a student thinks they know and like, and the habitat a world of unfamiliar but more rewarding opportunity. The sad part for me is not that Mohini retreated, but that the staff do not appear to have kept on trying to bring Mohini out.

[Picture: Smithsonian Institution]

24 Books for Teachers

There’s probably a more graceful way to put this list up and there’s certainly a catchier title for this post but for the moment/in no particular order here are some titles that might be of interest. I’ve certainly found them useful pointers in some shape or form.

A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra)  Barbara Oakley
An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students Ron Berger, Howard Gardner, Deborah Meier, Kate Montgomery
Assessment for Learning Assessment for Learning: Putting It Into Practice Putting It Into Practice Paul Black, Chris Harrison, Clara Lee, Bethan Marshall, Dylan Wiliam
Effective Teaching: Evidence and Practice Daniel Muijs, David Reynolds
How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens Benedict Carey
Improving Schools from Within: Teachers, Parents, and Principals Can Make the Difference Roland S. Barth
Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, Mark A. McDaniel
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success Carol S. Dweck
Seven Myths About Education Daisy Christodoulou
Teach Like a Champion 2.0 Doug Lemov
Teacher Proof: Why Research in Education Doesn’t Always Mean What It Claims, and What You Can Do about It Tom Bennett
The Abolition of Man C.S. Lewis
The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence Josh Waitzkin
The Elephant in the Classroom Helping Children Learn and Love Maths. Jo Boaler
The Hidden Lives of Learners Graham Nuthall
The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing Alfie Kohn
The Learning Game: A Teacher’s Inspirational Story Jonathan Smith
The Schoolmaster: A Commentary Upon the Aims and Methods of an Assistant-master in a Public School Arthur Christopher Benson, Jonathan Smith (Foreword)
The smartest kids in the world: And how they got that way  Amanda Ripley
Trivium 21c: Preparing Young People for the Future with Lessons From the Past Martin Robinson, Ian Gilbert (Foreword)
Visible Learning for Teachers John Hattie
What Connected Educators Do Differently   Todd Whitaker, Jeffrey Zoul & Jimmy Casas
What if everything you knew about education was wrong? David Didau
Why Don’t Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom Daniel T. Willingham

An Epidemic of Listicles

I like this excerpt from Krista Tippett’s interview with Maria Popova, curator of the wonderful Brain Pickings [Thanks to the Centre for Teaching]

Culture needs stewardship, not disruption.

We seem somehow bored with thinking. We want to instantly know. And there’s this epidemic of listicles. Why think about what constitutes a great work of art when you can skim the “20 Most Expensive Paintings in History?”  … there’s a really beautiful commencement address that Adrienne Rich gave in 1977 in which she said that an education is not something that you get but something that you claim.

And I think that’s very much true of knowledge itself. The reason we’re so increasingly intolerant of long articles and why we skim them, why we skip forward even in a short video that reduces a 300-page book into a three-minute animation — even in that we skip forward — is that we’ve been infected with this kind of pathological impatience that makes us want to have the knowledge but not do the work of claiming it. I mean, the true material of knowledge is meaning. And the meaningful is the opposite of the trivial. And the only thing that we should have gleaned by skimming and skipping forward is really trivia. And the only way to glean knowledge is contemplation. And the road to that is time. There’s nothing else. It’s just time. There is no shortcut for the conquest of meaning. And ultimately, it is meaning that we seek to give to our lives. 

Gentling

Bonnie explains that there are two basic ways of taming a wild horse. One is to tie it up and freak it out. Shake paper bags, rattle cans, drive it crazy until it submits to any noise. Make it endure the humiliation of being controlled by a rope and pole. Once it is partially submissive, you tack the horse, get on top, spur it, show it who’s boss—the horse fights, bucks, twists, turns, runs, but there is no escape. Finally the beast drops to its knees and submits to being domesticated. The horse goes through pain, rage, frustration, exhaustion, to near death . . . then it finally yields. This is the method some like to call shock and awe.

Then there is the way of the horse whisperers. My mother explains, “When the horse is very young, a foal, we gentle it. The horse is always handled. You pet it, feed it, groom it, stroke it, it gets used to you, likes you. You get on it and there is no fight, nothing to fight.” So you guide the horse toward doing what you want to do because he wants to do it. You synchronize desires, speak the same language. You don’t break the horse’s spirit.

My mom goes on: “If you walk straight toward a horse, it will look at you and probably run away. You don’t have to oppose the horse in that way. Approach indirectly, without confrontation. Even an adult horse can be gentled. Handle him nicely, make your intention the horse’s intention. “Then, when riding, both you and the horse want to maintain the harmony you have established. If you want to move to the right, you move to the right and so the horse naturally moves right to balance your weight.” Rider and animal feel like one. They have established a bond that neither wants to disrupt. And most critically, in this relationship between man and beast, the horse has not been whitewashed. When trained, he will bring his unique character to the table. The gorgeous, vibrant spirit is still flowing in an animal that used to run the plains.

Source: The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence by Josh Waitzkin

Gramsci’s “Optimism of the Will”

9e1e044f-3265-4807-8d48-362c4d4016ca-1868-0000017276d741f9_tmp

Isn’t it pointless to fight back? Antonio Gramsci, the Italian political writer jailed by Mussolini’s Fascist regime, believed in “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.” In other words, you can know your clapboard house is on fire, and you’re a long way from civilization. But you have to call 911, get out your garden hose and bucket, and keep acting as if the firetrucks are on the way.

Washington Post

A Little Game for Roald Dahl Day

I’ve rejigged a little adjective game I made so that it can be used for Roald Dahl Day.

It’s pretty straightforward:

  1. Load this webpage:  fantasticadjectives
  2. Read the text with the class
  3. Ask them to add their favourite adjectives in the boxes below
  4. Click “Fox It Up”
  5. And reread.

Happy to make some more if people like them.

Navigating Education

I almost never go back to the things I highlight on my Kindle.

So a mini-holiday project was to stop me being quite such a knowledge tourist. I’ve built a little tool to make it easier to export, browse and actually think about my Kindle highlights.At the moment it’s set up to randomly send me a highlight by email every day and am kind of enjoying that.

Today’s quote was from Wade Davis’s wonderful book, “The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in Today’s World”.

And it made me think about how we use feedback as teachers, the quantitative and the qualitative, and balancing a focus on the particular with a focus on the whole.

Expert navigators like Mau, sitting alone in the darkness of the hull of a canoe, can sense and distinguish as many as five distinct swells moving through the vessel at any given time. Local wave action is chaotic and disruptive. But the distant swells are consistent, deep and resonant pulses that move across the ocean from one star house to another, 180 degrees away, and thus can be used as yet another means of orienting the vessel in time and space. Should the canoe shift course in the middle of the night, the navigator will know, simply from the change of the pitch and roll of the waves. Even more remarkable is the navigator’s ability to pull islands out of the sea. The truly great navigators such as Mau can identify the presence of distant atolls of islands beyond the visible horizon simply by watching the reverberation of waves across the hull of the canoe, knowing full well that every island group in the Pacific has its own refractive pattern that can be read with the same ease with which a forensic scientist would read a fingerprint.

All of this is extraordinary, each one of these individual skills and intuitions a sign of a certain brilliance. But as we isolate, deconstruct, even celebrate these specific intellectual and observational gifts, we run the risk of missing the entire point, for the genius of Polynesian navigation lies not in the particular but in the whole, the manner in which all of these points of information come together in the mind of the wayfinder. It is one thing, for example, to measure the speed of the Hokule’a with a simple calculation: the time a bit of foam or flotsam, or perhaps a mere bubble, takes to pass the known length separating the crossbeams of the canoe. Three seconds and the speed will be 8.5 knots; fifteen seconds and the vessel slogs at a mere 1.5 knots. But it is quite another to make such calculations continually, day and night, while also taking the measure of stars breaking the horizon, winds shifting both in speed and direction, swells moving through the canoe, clouds and waves. The science and art of navigation is holistic. The navigator must process an endless flow of data, intuitions and insights derived from observation and the dynamic rhythms and interactions of wind, waves, clouds, stars, sun, moon, the flight of birds, a bed of kelp, the glow of phosphorescence on a shallow reef — in short, the constantly changing world of weather and the sea.

What is even more astonishing is that the entire science of wayfinding is based on dead reckoning. You only know where you are by knowing precisely where you have been and how you got to where you are. One’s position at any one time is determined solely on the basis of distance and direction travelled since leaving the last known point. “You don’t look up at the stars and know where you are,” Nainoa told me, “you need to know where you have come from by memorizing from where you sailed.”

There’s a rich metaphor in there somewhere.

[If you want some more snippets, the rest of the highlights I made from the book are here: The Wayfinders – Wade Davis. The image is from Elizabeth Lindsey’s National Geographic series]

 

Delivery mechanisms for values

Two interesting things I’ve seen recently have got me thinking.

The first was Mark Slouka’s comment that

The humanities, done right, are the crucible within which our evolving notions of what it means to be fully human are put to the test; they teach us, incrementally, endlessly, not what to do but how to be…. They are thus, inescapably, political. Why? Because they complicate our vision, pull our most cherished notions out by the roots, flay our pieties. Because they grow uncertainty. Because they expand the reach of our understanding (and therefore our compassion), even as they force us to draw and redraw the borders of tolerance. Because out of all this work of self-building might emerge an individual capable of humility in the face of complexity; an individual formed through questioning and therefore unlikely to cede that right; an individual resistant to coercion, to manipulation and demagoguery in all their forms. The humanities, in short, are a superb delivery mechanism for what we might call democratic values. There is no better that I am aware of.  This, I would submit, is value-and cheap at the price.

The second was Lee Bryant’s fascinating talk about instiutions as delivery mechanisms for our values.

  • Humanities are a great delivery model for democratic values
  • Institutions act as delivery models for our values

Given that, doesn’t it make sense to keep the humanities in schools and for organisations to actively encourage that? If institutions are actively looking to act as stewards for values, then should they be trying to encourage the humanities in education as well as STEM and the like?