PsycholARTSical: Psyched about the arts/Teaching for Compassion & Wisdom
TEACHING FOR COMPASSION AND WISDOM - (Andrea, Jamie freakin' McB., Grace, Laura H., Philip, A.J.)
When discussing teaching for wisdom and compassion, a great number of forms and methods emerge as to the best practice. One particular organization has developed many strategies and theories to educate teacher and parents on ways to incorporate wisdom and compassion into their practice and everyday lives. This organization is called Essential Education and has developed out of basic Buddhist principles, which they have transformed into a method called “The 16 Guidelines”.
These guidelines are divided into four spectrums that encompass everyday life and behaviour and within each of these spectrums are four of the guidelines the will lead to a wise and compassionate way of life. The spectrums cover: how we think (humility, patience, contentment, delight); how we act (kindness, honesty, generosity, right speech); how we relate to others (respect, forgiveness, gratitude, loyalty); and how we find meaning (principles, aspiration, service, courage). (www.16guidelines.org) Though, these principles were drawn from Buddhist teaching, Essential Education has made them universally accessible. The essence of the Guidelines have basis in almost every religion around the world and have been adapted so that they can be applied in every cultural circumstance.
There are many developmental assumptions that underlie this approach to teaching for wisdom and compassion. Essential Education has a strong focus on educating adults to become instructors and in turn, transferring that knowledge to youth through modeling and formal education practices. Their youth programs and partnerships focus on youth in their concrete operational to formal operational stages of development, based on Piaget’s theories. Also, their techniques seem to draw from ideas and theories from people like Erikson, Marcia, Kohlberg and Gilligan.
During the concrete operational stage of development, youth are in the later elementary to middle school years and are beginning to develop their sense of identity. This would be when Essential Education recommends beginning infusing the practice of teaching for wisdom and compassion into the curriculum. It is best to begin in this stage of development because as youth move into the formal operational stage, they begin to make firm connections using hypothetico-deductive reasoning; which is the ability of the formal thinker to consider a hypothetical situation and reason deductively. (Woolfolk, page 36) If the basis for wise and compassionate living has already been instilled by this stage of development, a youth is more likely to put it into their common practice and use the guidelines as basis for problem solving when using deductive reasoning.
The Essential Education system also has assumptions that relate to Vygotsky’s socio-cultural perspective; especially the idea that higher mental processes are co-constructed through shared activities. (Woolfolk, page 43) Co-constructed means “constructed through a social process in which people interact and negotiate (usually verbally) to create an understanding or to solve a problem, the final product is shaped by all participants.” (Woolfolk, page 43) This idea is key to teaching for wisdom and compassion. If a student is raised and educated in a culture that puts a major emphasis on the 16 Guidelines to a peaceful contented life, this will become part of the natural behaviour of the student. Using activities and practices that support these guidelines allows the students to incorporate the learning into all of their practices.
Some of the theories that seem to be a basis for the application of the Essential Education are Erikson, Marcia, Kohlberg, and Gilligan. Though these theories are not directly referenced within the documents relating to the Essential Education System, their principles and applications are more than apparent in comparison. Erikson’s theory of the Eight Stages of Psychological Development suggests that at various stages of development the individual faces a developmental crisis; “a specific conflict whose resolution prepares the way for the next step.” (Woolfolk, page 62) These resolutions can be positive or negative and will affect their later stages of development. The focus on “how we relate to others” and “how we act” have basis in providing positive outcomes to the crises and help to increase the self-esteem of each of the students by encouraging an accepting and supportive atmosphere in the classroom. This will allow the students to feel free to move through their personal development and feel safe to share with their peers, knowing that everyone is operating under an attitude of cherishing others and making a better world.
The theory of James Marcia suggests “that there are four alternatives for adolescents as they confront their identity choices.” (Woolfolk, page 65) These alternatives are identity achievement (“strong sense of commitment to life choices after free consideration of alternatives”), identity foreclosure (“acceptance of other life choices without consideration of options”), identity diffusion (“uncentredness; confusion about who one is and what one wants”), and moratorium (“identity crisis; suspension of choices because of struggle”). (Woolfolk, page 65) This ties in directly with Erikson’s theory that most adolescents go through a phase of moratorium during that period of life. Teaching for wisdom and compassion allows the freedom and opportunity for students to safely journey through this phase of their development. The focus on finding meaning in life within the 16 Guidelines focuses on the fact that everything is changing and anything is possible. This is especially poignant for students in the midst of their adolescence, when they are being faced with many life altering changes from physical development to choosing career paths.
The theorists that most closely relate to the principles emphasized by Essential Education are Kohlberg and the developments by Gilligan. Kohlberg believes that all people move through stages of moral reasoning, which will ultimately lead to “post-conventional moral reasoning” which is guided by social justice and decisions based on the standard levels of individual rights. Gilligan challenged this idea, saying that studies based on Kohlberg’s theory showed that women did not achieve this higher level of moral reasoning whereas men did. Gilligan suggested that this upper level of moral reasoning that focuses on “universal principles of justice and fairness” (Woolfolk, page 80) is achieved by the “principles of responsibility and care for all people” (Woolfolk, page 80), which can be achieved by anyone regardless of gender. Essential Education’s goal is to aide people in moving into this higher level of moral development and through teaching for wisdom and compassion, students have the opportunity to internalize the standards and practices that are being demonstrated to them daily through their teachers and parents.
Lipscomb, MacAllister and Bregman discovered that children who had been more exposed to caring, generous adult models were more likely to adopt those same qualities and principles and demonstrated greater concern and caring for the rights of others. (Woolfolk, page 80) This study shows the effect of teaching for wisdom and compassion. Youth emulate that which they see, and as a teacher, you have a fantastic opportunity to shape the future behaviour of the students you work with. The Essential Education program gives guidelines and strategies as to how to incorporate this idea fully into life and interactions with youth. Creating a better world, begin with creating a more compassionate society.
“The tendency for a person to behave morally is largely dependent on the extent to which moral beliefs and values are integrated in the personality, and in one’s sense of self. The influence our moral beliefs have on our lives, therefore, is contingent on the personal importance that we as individuals attach to them – we must identify and respect them as our own.” (Woolfolk, page 81)
How Teaching for Compassion and Wisdom is used in the Classroom
- Many teachers in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) are actively incorporating the principles of teaching for wisdom and compassion into their classroom teaching methods. For example, a drama teacher in Toronto implemented a strategy that incorporates many core elements of improvisational theatre to develop wisdom and compassion in his students. Although this strategy informs many elements of his teaching, this section of the essay will look specifically at his strategy for teaching for wisdom and compassion in a grade 10 drama unit, dealing with children’s theatre. While other teachers in the school who were teaching the same unit focused on creating a “hierarchy” for their units, with each student taking clearly defined roles (director, stage manager, script writer, etc.), this teacher actively fostered a spirit of collaboration, allowing students to work together to create all the elements of the play by themselves. There was a lot of preparation that was needed before he could have the students begin work on the assignment, but it was all done with the intention of creating an atmosphere where students could learn for wisdom and compassion. He planned the unit for later in the year, so he had a good sense of which students could work well together, and he also allowed the students to select a myth from any culture in the world to dramatize and stage. This allowed the students to have a proper foundation to begin working on the project.
- Through the assignment, the teacher incorporated many of the key elements of teaching for wisdom and compassion. At various times through the rehearsal process, the students were required to write a journal, reflecting on their group’s progress, and how they feel they added or detracted from the group, and what they can do to help their group in the future. This is an example of a reflection technique that is designed to help the students develop a sense of compassion, through introspection, and considering how they interact with others. After the students completed the journal assignment, there was a noticeable shift in group dynamics, as students were made more aware of their positive and negative behaviour within a group dynamic through this assignment. Aspects of improvisational theatre were also actively used by the instructor. Acceptance of ideas is a core principle of improv, and in teaching the students to respond to new ideas with a “yes and …” or a “let’s try it, and see what happens,” instead of refusing the offer, students gained an understanding how the mental environment they create in a group can allow all the group members to function more effectively. In having the students perform children’s theatre assignments, the students had to reflect on learning and development, as they were required to think about to engage a group of younger students with their performances. This idea of understanding learning and development also appeared in the elements of mask and shadow puppetry that were also brought into the assignment. The myths that they were adapting all had fantastic elements that were impossible to stage in a traditional manner, so in having the students think in the abstract, about different ways to represent reality, but to do it in such a way that a younger audience would be able to understand.
- While this assignment has many aspects that are designed to teach compassion and wisdom, there were still areas where the teacher met some difficulty. The main issue was motivation. Students would often come late to class, or if they were in class, would occasionally “zone out,” and not be active participants in the rehearsal work going on that day. This would happen most often after many days of straight rehearsal, with nothing to break up the rehearsal routine of “come to class, rehearse and leave” over a span of several classes. However, if a new aspect of children’s theatre was introduced to the rehearsal, simple musical instruments for example, a sense of group focus, energy and willingness to work together returned to the group dynamic. This speaks to the value of using variety, and specifically different forms of motivation, to properly engage a class. While the unit plan incorporates elements from the behavioural approach to motivation (preparation for an upcoming performance, the desire to do well on he assignment) and the sociocultural approach (journals, reflecting on one’s role in a group), the inclusion of the humanistic and cognitive approaches might help not only break up monotony in the rehearsal schedule, but allow the activity to “hook” students who are affected by different forms of motivation. Activities using different forms of motivation, for example having students reflect on their cultural and personal connections to the myth in a short written assignment, might motivate students who respond to the humanistic approach to motivation. Bringing in different elements of children’s theatre frequently (for example, musical instruments) that the students can play with, and use in their rehearsal if they choose, would be a good way to attract naturally curious students who respond to the cognitive approach to motivation. Trying different motivation methods throughout the rehearsal process might allow students to become more engaged in the material, and become more motivated to participate in the collaborative aspects of the group activity, and through this collaboration, be in a position to become more open to the opportunities to learn for compassion and wisdom.
- The teacher who designed this unit has a very strong sense of teaching for compassion and wisdom. The idea of collaboration, community, introspection and critical thinking informs all areas of the classes he teaches. Giving students the opportunity to direct their learning, and choose the path they would like to take with the material, and allowing students to reflect on their behaviour, and the ramifications of positive and negative behaviour is a great first step to successfully teaching students the principles of wisdom and compassion. Although there are still areas of this unit that can be improved with some application of a variety of motivational techniques to keeps students interested, there’s no doubt that students in this class are well on their way to learning elements of wisdom and compassion that will benefit them in the future. Students in his classes learn not only drama and performance skills, but skills that will help the students become wise and compassionate individuals both inside and outside of a classroom.
Suggestions for Improvement of the Program
Improving Teaching for Wisdom and Compassion through Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development
Teaching for wisdom and compassion can be improved by Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development. Although both Piaget’s theory and the holistic curriculum applies to students in all levels, this section will be focused on students in high school level, since there is strong need of teaching for wisdom and compassion in adolescents. Piaget’s theory provides characteristics of adolescents, which enables educators to understand the importance of holistic education, the advantages and challenges in applying the holistic curriculum.
Characteristics of adolescents
In Piaget’s theory, there are four stages; and the students follows under the last stage of the four, the formal operational stage. Students in this level have some charateristics that has significant meaning in education. First, they are able to think in abstract concepts. As the name ‘formal operation’ suggests, they are able to do mental tasks involving abstract thinking and coordination of a number of variables (Woolfolk, 35). Also, they are able to identify all the factors that might affect a problem and then deduces and systematically evaluates specific solutions (Woolfolk, 36). This ability of hypothetical thinking enables them to imagine things, and imagination leads them to be very focused the ideas and beliefs that they have. This makes teenagers egocentric; which means that they assume that everyone else is interested in one’s thoughts, feelings, and concerns (Woolfolk, 36). Moreover, adolescents have imaginary audience- the feeling that everyone is watching them (Woolfolk, 36). This explains why teenagers are often sensitive about how they look. How these characterstics of adolescents can be helpful towards teaching for wisdom and compassion?
Importance of holistic education
Adolescents are perfect for holistic education. They have ability to think hypothetically which is a great tool to compassionate with the others, yet their egocentricism calls for the need of teaching for wisdom and compassion. It is important for them to learn how to be thoughful and compassionate about the others in both individual and social aspects. For individual growth, holistic education provides the best way of effective student learning. How do students learn? Piaget’s fundamental insight was that individuals construct their own understanding learning; learning is a constructive process (38). Accodring to him, students have to be actively involved in the learning process, including both physical and mental manipulation of objects or ideas (39). This idea enties with the focus of holistic curriculum- to step out of the plain lectures and focus on building relationship between body, mind, and spirit. Holistic education fosters individual growth by stimulating the contstructive learning of the students. However, If teaching for wisdom and compassion means to devleop how to be thoughtful of the others, it would be meaningless to think of holistic education apart from the social context. Although the adolescent egocentrism is part of students’ development, they cannot stay in the egocentric point of view for the rest of the lifetime. It is one of the key roles of the education to help them break out from the egocentric view and be able to think about the others; in other words, be compassionate to the others. Teenagers know that everyone has their own thoughts, feelings, and concerns; the educator’s job is to transfer them from knowing to respecting and understanding.
Steps of applying holistic education
If holistic education is that important, a teacher must know how to apply them in classroom. There are steps to do so. The first step is to know what it means to be holistic. Miller said that holistic curriculum means to focus on relationship; between linear thinking and intuition, mind and body; various domains of knowledge; and individual and community (Miller, 73). The second step is to know some characteristics that can be used toward the holistic practice. For example, Miller suggested to use visualization and metaphors to help the students explore the relationship beween linear thinking and intuition, and this is where teenager’s ability of hypothetico-deductive reasoning, which is the ability to generate different possibilities for a given situation can be useful (Woolfolk, 36). With this, a teacher can easily lead them to visualize or to imagine ‘what if I were this person’, which is the first step of forming compassion for the others. The next step is to be aware of the challenges in applying holistic practices and find strategites for them. There are various challenges, and the first one is that although Piaget divided stages according to the ages, it is not necessarily that everyone is in the classroom are in the formal operational stage. Piaget suggested that his theory is not universal, and even adults can use formal-operational thought in only a few areas where they have the greatest experience or interest (Woolfolk, 37). A teacher may find some students having difficult times when a problem involves hypothetical thinking. In this case, the teacher needs to help the students to develop the formal operational skills. Woolfolk suggests some strategies to help students to use formal operations such as using visual aids, or teaching in broad concepts using materials and ideas relevant to the students’ lives (Woolfolk, 37). Another challenge is the case where students refuse to participate in holistic practices. For instance, Miller suggested meditation, yoga, movement, and dance to build the relationship between mind and body. However, students might not concentrate, interrupt the class flow, or making fun of the others who is participating. This can be explained with the teenager’s imaginary audience; feeling that everyone is watching what they are doing. It is natural for them to refuse to participate in something that they think they might look silly. Therefore, the teacher has to make sure that the degree of the activities is on the level that everyone feels comfortable participating.
From The Student's Perspective
There are various branches of educational philosophy and perspectives incorporated into holistic teaching. They each existed prior to the definition of holism, conceived at various points during the twentieth century. It wasn’t until the 1970s, however, that different strands of the work of educators such as Montessori and Steiner, among others, were woven together under the name of holism, a belief in fostering the development of the student as a “whole person with body, mind, emotions and spirit” (J. Miller, ascdnetwork), not just a brain with a memory centre. Robin Ann Martin has asserted that teachers choosing to work in a holistic manner are finding opportunities to act as community leaders (2000). In fact, those who teach for wisdom and compassion are practicing what they preach by becoming wholly involved in educating their students instead of simply functioning as an information conduit. So what can the student on the receiving end of holistic education expect?
First of all, there is no one type of child to which teaching for wisdom and compassion applies. Any student would benefit from having a teacher who encouraged them to have opinions about their course material, who showed them the interconnectedness of all parts of the world, and who accepted that creative thinking is equally important as analytical thinking. One necessary trait for the student is openmindedness. Depending upon the cultural and family background of the student, breaking away from the transmission model (R. Miller 2004) of learning could be difficult. However, it is an approach which can be learned. Given the emphasis on process in holistic teaching, one individual’s need to take the time to adapt their mode of thinking would be accepted and not penalized. On the other hand, an immigrant student adjusting to the traditional Ontarian educational setting would not be treated differently as they adapted to those parts of Canadian education that are different from that in their native country. However, if the student is not open to change, their success with this style of learning will be limited. Without their commitment, the teacher is stuck reverting to the traditional methods of “I talk. You listen. You memorize. I test. You regurgitate.” While entrenched within the system and successful to a certain point, the transmission model does not encourage holistic growth and will not result in the creation of fully engaged young citizens. Teaching for wisdom and compassion will.
If a holistic teacher can convey to their students that “who [they] are, what they know, how they know it, and how they act in the world are not separate elements, but reflect the interdependencies between our world and our selves” (Martin 2000), they have succeeded. The range of development for students exposed to teaching for wisdom and compassion becomes nearly infinite. So long as the intrinsic motivation of both teacher and student remains at a high level, the end result of the school year becomes fluid. Classes would need to strike a balance between the more freedom-based educational philosophies (allowing children to set their own learning paths) and critical pedagogy, with the teacher taking a leadership role and provoking students into realizing the moral perspectives related to their field of study and viewing the world through a critical eye. A child experiencing a combination of critical pedagogy and Montessori philosophy, where the aim is “to explore and experiment according to their own pace and interests” (R. Miller 2004), learns to value their teacher’s input and guidance of the educational experience while simultaneously building confidence in their own thoughts and feelings as well as trust in the reliability of their motivations.
To make a more specific point, the range of development for students taught for wisdom and compassion would have to vary depending on the individual. After all, this is an educational philosophy that highlights the developmental process of each individual student. Especially during their teens, people develop the different aspects of their selves at different rates. One Grade 10 student might gain great benefit from learning to view ideas from the perspectives of others but not make the connection that this learning tool applies to personal growth as well while one of their classmates does.
Ron Miller has stated that a holistic approach to teaching “aims to cultivate the emotional and spiritual life of the growing human being, and to deepen the young person’s awareness of his or her place in nature.”(R. Miller 2005) and that education as an entity should strive to be “dynamic, spontaneous, self-organizing and emergent” (R. Miller 2005). Those four adjectives sound suspiciously like a description of an ideal life where people respect one another and support each other’s development. On a cognitive level, the biggest advantage gained by students who experience teaching for wisdom and compassion is learning the skill of critical thinking. Because of holistic education’s focus on questioning and discussion combined with experiential learning, students learn to reflect on both their own thoughts and actions and those of others. This skill is often sorely lacking in traditional school systems that focus on rote learning. On an emotional level, students experience twofold development. The focus on discussion forces students to listen to the opinions of others who may hold very different opinions or simply come from different family structures or cultural backgrounds. With equal respect given to all sides of a topic (hopefully modelled by the teacher), students start to empathize with those who are different from them and also get the chance to start developing critical distance. Put bluntly, it is okay to hate the idea but that does not mean you hate the person putting that idea forward. Not only does teaching for wisdom and compassion provoke compassion for others, it also encourages emotional self-development. The encouragement to develop critical distance applies to one’s own thoughts and feelings as well. A student who can start operating at this level of emotional maturity while still in their teens has a great advantage over their traditionally-schooled peers. On a spiritual level, the ever-present push to reflect on their own thoughts and feelings and to learn through questioning encourages students to really get to know themselves, to define their own beliefs (fluid though they may be), and to recognize how they connect to their evolving world. The “flowing interrelatedness of all life” (R. Miller 2007) becomes clear as these three levels of development intertwine, creating a whole student and a whole human being.
Miller, John P. The Holistic Curriculum OISE Press: Toronto, 1943.
Woolfolk, Anita E.; Winnie, Philip H.; Perry, Nancy E. Educational Psychology Pearson Education Canada, Inc.: Toronto, 2006.
Martin, Robin Ann. “Teaching as a Profession: Historic, Public, Union, and Alternative Perceptions”. 2000. Prepared for: HPC 690: Special Topics on U.S. History and Redefining Public Education with Chris Lubienski, Iowa State University. http://www.pathsoflearning.net/resources_writings_Teaching_Profession.php
Miller, Jack. “What is Holistic Learning”. http://www.oise.utoronto.ca/field-centres/miller-ascd.html
Miller, Ron. “A New Culture Needs A New Education.” January 2007. Originally published in online journal Global Intelligencer. <http://www.pathsoflearning.net/articles_A_New_Culture_Needs_a_New_Education.php>
Miller, Ron (2004). Educational Alternatives: A Map Of The Territory Paths of Learning, 20. Found at <http://www.pathsoflearning.net/articles_Educational_Alternatives.php>
Miller, Ron. “What Are Schools For? Alternative Philosophies of Education” November 2005. Presented at First International Conference on Educational Alternatives. <http://www.pathsoflearning.net/articles_What_Are_Schools_For.php>