No matter what we are teaching, we can employ neohumanistic strategies that address howwe are teaching it, which can make teaching that subject, no matter how mundane, transformative! Let’s discuss each of those strategies.
1. Joyously Pursuing Activities of Interest
Since liberation and freedom from physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual bondage is our Mission, education must facilitate freedom.
Maria Montessori believed no one can be free unless he is independent. The learner will progress from a stage of dependence to independence and from independence to interdependence. As the learner moves along this continuum, inner feelings of joy and bliss increase. This bliss is of a permanent nature, whereas pleasure is a fleeting emotion always balanced by corresponding pain. To facilitate freedom, the learner should be encouraged to joyously pursue areas of special interest to him.
Educational research shows that learners tend to pursue learning activities of special interest to them, and this optimizes educational benefits to the learner. Intelligence theory asserts that each of us has multiple intelligences –kinesthetic, linguistic, spatial, musical, mathematical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal, among perhaps others. We tend to have more of an interest in some intelligence area(s) than others, and will usually be more apt to pursue those areas of interest. The interesting point is learners generally benefit more by pursuing intelligences they are already “strong” in, rather than focusing on developing areas they have less aptitude in.
Traditional ideas have asserted that we must give instruction in areas where the learner is “weak” and needs further development. Since it is a natural tendency for the learner to avoid these “weak” areas and pursue areas of interest instead, it is necessary to impose external motivations and/or punishments to coerce the learner to learn. Not so. By facilitating the learner to pursue areas of special interest, there is little need to coerce and motivate the learner externally. The learner is internally drawn to these areas. The learner is “following his bliss.” Learning is not only maximized, but it is joyful.
Therefore, a classroom environment should facilitate the pursuit of areas of special interest. It should help the learner to follow his bliss. It is quite natural and healthy for a learner to pursue an activity repeatedly, and the learning environment should facilitate this. Another reason for facilitating the opportunity to pursue areas of interest is that it allows the learner to make choices, rather than have choices imposed.
The mind of the child in particular is inclined towards play and games. Engaging in play and games is more than just a diversion. It brings joy and bliss to the learner, and thus creates an ideal environment within the mind of the learner whereby learning effortlessly flows. Shrii P.R. Sarkar has commented frequently about the importance of Games and Stories in education.
2. Purposeful Movement
Having noted that the learners seek to pursue activities of interest, we can refine what qualities these activities should possess. It is best when an activity involves the hands and the body, especially for younger children. Even abstract thinking can be expressed through the hands by drawing a picture, through the vocal cords by speaking it, through the limbs by signing it (sign language) or dancing it. While joyous vocals, subtle mudras (dance movements), and uplifting instrumentals are wonderful by themselves, when combined they became truly inspirational. In this way, the physical, the emotional, the mental, and the spiritual are better integrated. So if a young child performs an activity, the whole range of movement from locating the activity, picking it up, transporting it to the floor or to the table, setting the components of the activity out, executing the activity, cleaning up the activity, and putting the activity away all constitute additional beneficial movement.
Not only does all of this create additional movement, it creates Purposeful movement. The activity should fulfill some purpose. This purpose might entail:
* Care of Self – the child brushes his teeth after eating. A teenager takes up bodybuilding to increase his fitness* Care of the Environment – the child gets a mop and mops the floor, or places his banana peels into the compost bin* Yoga can be seen as purposeful movement of the body to balance energy flows and meditation as purposeful movement of the mental waves.
3. Making Choices
With a myriad of activities hopefully available to the learner seeking to follow their bliss and engage in purposeful activity, they will be required to make choices. This allows them to pursue areas and activities of interest to them. It gives them a chance to be proactive rather than reactive. By being proactive and taking responsibility for their choices, the will and self-discipline are exercised, and thereby developed. So the opportunity to make choices fosters not only independence, but self-discipline as well. Independence and self-discipline are intertwined, and developing one develops the other. Self-discipline is an essential trait for ethical and spiritual development, and one of the best ways to develop it is through encouraging an individual to make choices.
The learner should be accountable for those choices. All choices have consequences. If Michael chooses to bully the other boys in his class, he will only succeed in making himself feel worse. A learning environment can be structured that puts limits on choices, while still encouraging them. Scissors are freely encouraged to be used, but only if the students walk when carrying them.
The environment can also be structured so that each of the choices is a “positive” choice, and any “negative” choice does not even exist within that environment. Scissors are present in the classroom, even cutting knives, but switchblades are not. When this is not possible, instructions or ground rules will be laid whereby a particular activity or behavior is not an option because it may be a threat to the individual, others, or to the environment. The rationale for the ground rule is not to constrain choice, but to facilitate the welfare of the individual and the collective. Choices that do harm to self, to others, or to the environment are not permitted within that learning environment, and these activities are either removed from the environment, or not permitted within the environment. At a young age, these ground rules will usually be simply accepted as coming from a greater authority. As the learner gets older, they will approve of the rules, and when they are still older, they can assist in formulating and enforcing the rules themselves.
4. Solving Problems
Educational activities are themselves problems to be solved. How to pour beans from one glass to another is a problem, as is how to write a program to respond to emails. A child should be motivated to read in order to solve a problem. Ideally they are surrounded by beautiful books, and teachers joyfully read to the children regularly. The problem for the child is “how do I recreate this joyous experience of reading for myself” The answer of course is by learning how to read. This also answers the question of how best to get children to read: by making the experience of being read to a wondrous and joyful one! Then, independently chosen activities that develop reading proficiency will be joyfully pursued by the children. They will also welcome group reading activities they are invited to join.
Trying to solve a problem starts with hope, hope expands into intention, and intention grows into striving for mastery and self-completion. “Fullfillment comes most frequently in self-discipline and self-mastery in service to others.” Patrice O’Neil Maynard
Problem solving and completing tasks is also a way of developing the will. Will is essential so that the child not only learns, but has a desire and a capability to actually use that knowledge in a purposeful manner.
5. Teacher Example
Students will model their behavior and beliefs upon the teacher. For example, a teacher was demonstrating an activity to a three year old girl, and while demonstrating the activity, the teacher swept her hair behind her head several times. The child watched intently, and then did the activity on her own. While doing the activity, the child would repeatedly take her hair and sweep it behind her head. It is not what we say but what we do. There is the story of a woman who takes her son to the doctor an hour away by foot. When they finally reach there, the doctor asks them to come back next week. They return the following week, once again walking for an hour. The doctor sees the boy and tells him he must stop eating sugar. The mother is very indignant, “why did you not tell us this last week. You made us walk for an extra two hours.” The doctor replies, “I know, but last week I was still eating sugar.”
If we want to teach the children to be self-realized it would be nice if the teacher is herself “self-realized,” but this is not possible. However, it is important for teachers to adhere to a strict ethical code, to understand what spirituality is, how to develop it, and for they themselves to be actively striving for self-realization. If the learner simply wants to learn say C+ programming language, then this requirement is not as essential, or maybe not important at all. That is up to the learner. But if the learner seeks more than just mere knowledge, and seeks a teacher who might be a mentor as well, the spiritual development of the teacher is invaluable.
6. Surrounding Learner with Love and Beauty
The learning environment or classroom should manifest love and beauty. The most important aspect of any learning environment is the teacher, so the teacher should be an example of love and inner beauty. It is also valuable if the learning environment or classroom also has a vibe and an appearance of love and beauty. It may be the architecture of the school, the paintings in the classrooms, the school lunches on placemats in baskets, the beautiful materials and books attractively displayed. The observation of children joyfully interacting as a community of learners is a beautiful sight as well.
The classroom environment should help inspire and facilitate the child’s innate desire to learn, collaborate, and serve. Rituals whereby the teacher lovingly acknowledges and greets each child are invaluable. The children can also learn to acknowledge, greet, and interact with each other with the utmost courtesy and respect. This makes the classroom a place where both teacher and student want to be. With intention comes striving, and with striving comes transformation.
Waldorf classrooms put a great emphasis on classroom materials that add beauty and enchantment to the environment, be it gnomes, elves, teepees, hats, natural art materials, soothing pink walls, plenty of windows, low hidden spaces, niches, elaborate gardens, etc. The net effect is to facilitate a joyous sense of wonder or one-der. Children in Montessori classrooms are drawn to the classroom materials, which are finely constructed and themselves works of art.
7. Developing Appreciation and Respect for Nature
This is a logical outgrowth of surrounding the child with love and beauty, and could be considered a part of that strategy, or a separate strategy onto itself as is done here.
What is to be gained by developing appreciation and respect for nature? When we develop respect for nature, we are really developing respect for ourselves. When we respect ourselves, then we can respect others and all living beings. We understand that nature is not something separate from us, but it is the matrix within which we live and breathe. We see how animals care for their young and we strive to care for our children with tenderness. We see the struggle animals undergo just to survive and we are grateful for our existence. We see how animals are dependent on their environment to survive, and we realize we are just as dependent. We observe the changing of the seasons and become aware of changes in ourselves. We feel the majesty and grandeur of nature stirring in our own hearts. We see the great heights of Himalayas and understand the meaning of persistence. We see the distant galaxies and glimpse the vastness of the universe. We study the eco-system in our backyard and understand the importance of communities. We study the interaction of pest and host and understand how we are all mutually dependent. We study the rain cycle and sense we are like drops of rain returning to the sea.
Nature provides us with the ultimate learning environment, if we will just observe it, appreciate it, respect it, and invite its many lessons and observations into our hearts and minds.
8. Affirmation of Learner’s Innate Goodness and Creativity
The enchanting beauty of the external environment mentioned previously will help affirm the child’s recognition of his own inner beauty and goodness, and draw out his own inner creativity. It is from this internal space, reaching into the deep aesthetic and spiritual levels of mind, that creativity and inner enchantment emanates.
The teacher will also facilitate this by continually affirming the self-worth and inner beauty of each child. This may be done by conscious interaction, by a simple touch on the arm, by an empathetic glance, by a brief verbal encounter and an encouraging word, by repeating affirmations and mantras affirming peace and joy, by visualization of loved ones, through guided visualizations under the sea or galaxies far away, and through inner journey’s to ones “quiet place.”
An affirmation of the learners self worth will also come in less esoteric ways as well. Whenever a child completes an activity, the child will get a deep sense of inner satisfaction, and the teacher can reinforce this by simply restating something like “you finished that puzzle all by yourself and you never gave up. How does that make you feel?”
Suppose a child takes out a puzzle but can’t complete it. How can the teacher acknowledge the success of the child? Perhaps the teacher can acknowledge that the child is striving to finish and making a great effort. That is the important fact anyway. Whether the child actually completes the puzzle is really inconsequential. What is important is that the child is striving to complete it. Now what if the child is not even trying? That child may have an intention to finish the puzzle. That is usually a safe assumption. The teacher could acknowledge that the child really wants to complete the puzzle, and this would also be encouragement. The teacher might redirect the child to another activity more appropriate for this child’s skill level, and do this without imparting any shame or guilt. What a wonderful and uplifting lesson for the child to learn. Indeed any scenario is an opportunity to inject encouragement, and still more encouragement. With all of this encouragement, the teacher should have little time for any threats of punishment, nor any wasteful displays of fear, guilt, shame, and discouragement that mark many classrooms. Furthermore, the teacher does not have to resort to motivating ploys, rewards, and other external carrots. The ultimate reward she can give to any child is to acknowledge the inner joy that child experiences from completing, or striving to complete, a purposeful activity. Secondly, the child reaffirms that the only true reward is always internal, and no external reward can take its place. Thus the child rejects the external rewards and gradually becomes more motivated by internal rewards.
By external rewards, I don’t just mean cookies and gold stars. Grades and diplomas are the most ubiquitous external rewards, as is learning in hopes of landing an attractive job. We have wandered way off course, and must get back to the experience of learning being its own reward.
9. Affirmation of Cardinal Human Values and Hope
It has often been said that the effort of self-completion is impossible without following a timeless and universal ethical code. Thus an essential strategy of NHE is to instruct why an ethical code is essential, why it offers freedom rather than constraint, , why it is inviolate, why it is non-sectarian, what its principles are, and how it can be followed in everyday life. A learner can be encouraged to take oaths and make commitments that they agree to, repeating the oaths regularly to reaffirm these principles.
Some parents may feel teaching about ethics is akin to religion, and therefore inappropriate in a non-religious school environment, or that ethics and religion are best taught at home. The astute teacher will see this as a golden opportunity to ask what values the parents would like to see reinforced at school, and establish a dialogue, rather than get apprehensive. Stories like the Ramayana, Job in the Old Testament, or Siddhartha, give inspiration and hope that moral individuals may have to undergo many trials and tribulation, but will eventually emerge victorious. They provide spiritual sustenance to us all. Fairy tales provide similar benefits, and this is why children want to hear them over and over again.
10. Service to others
It is not enough for the learner to become enlightened. He must utilize that wisdom in service to a greater cause, in service to other living beings. Knowledge is truly empowering when the learner feels compelled to use that knowledge to serve others, or share that knowledge with others. Only then does the knowledge itself become purposeful. A learner may be quite proficient in physics and splitting the atom. This profound knowledge could be used to cleanly power entire cities or to destroy them at the flick of a switch.
When we share what we know with others, it clarifies our own understanding of it, and magnifies our own proclivities towards pursuing it. We thus come away with a heightened understanding. On a practical level, having older children share their knowledge by instructing and mentoring younger children assists the older children even more than it does the younger children.
By serving others, the learner accelerates his speed and desire to know even more, as he realizes how this knowledge will be utilized for good purposes. Knowledge feeds the desire to serve others, and the service of others feeds the desire to learn still more. Service and knowledge thus drive each other.
Service to others is an important component of a universal ethical code, but when it comes to education, it is also the manifestation of altruism and knowledge uncovered. It is the culmination of leading an ethical and principled life. It is through wishing to serve others that education perpetuates itself.