“to allow freedom for the individual - each one being able to take their own path in life, and following their own interests to develop into the person that they personally feel that they are meant to be. This leads to an inner self-confidence and real acceptance of themselves as individuals.” — Summerhill
We are born into the world that is not fresh for us to start. We come into the world with its history given to us as a baggage. Often we end up embodying and reproducing systems that pre-exist us, when in fact we need to consciously sort this inherited baggage out: what can stay and what needs to go. Times are changing, and it is clear that “factory model” of education doesn’t fit into our new worldview anymore. This text explores what education could be if it were to become an ally to creation of a healthy sustainable society and foster each person’s well-being in a broader sense of the word.
There are three main reasons as to why the current education model doesn’t fit into our contemporary worldview anymore. First of all, it leaves much of human potential undeveloped: many people feel alienated by current systems of standardisation and are left behind. This has far reaching consequences for a society as a whole (unemployment, high rates of depression and anxiety, crime, and other human issues that call for human responses). Talents of lots of people are not being acknowledged and developed, as they are not recognised by the value system of the current educational practices. And even those who feel supported by the current model, often learn to hide a half of themselves, leave it at home, in order to fit in - their lives are normal but not their own. Personal integrity is often missing. In standardised model, we are obsessed with productivity also when it comes to human beings. We want to train them, to "produce" this or that kind of people. In reality, we don’t train human beings. Human beings develop. They are their own agencies. We can support this development. So today’s education helps develop specific skills or fill people with specific information, but fails to develop a more balanced individual, with their own hopes, talents, fears, passions, and aspirations. Engaging people as individuals is at the heart of changing the way we think about education towards a more personalised approach.
Second reason is the neglect of the body inherent to the traditional educational system. Children are taught to look at bodies in a reductionist way that undermines them. They are taught to have opinions, win arguments, solve abstract puzzles, or make decisions to please others much more than to learn to listen to their intuition, be attentive to others in a sincere way, or find what’s true for them and express it. For this to happen the view of the body needs to change. The world of the body is one where physicality, emotions, spirit, intellect and connection to the environment are united. Embodied cognition science changes our basic assumptions about our own nature, about human intelligence. It shifts the view from the little “I” inside one’s head who rules the whole organism and gives it orders to a much more holistic perspective of a body being an interrelated system, where the brain, the heart, the kidney, all the inner players are important and intelligent. The entire human system is self-organising. What people contribute to the world around them has everything to do with how they engage with the world within them.
Ken Robinson writes in his book Creative Schools: “As human beings, we all live in two worlds. There is the world that exists whether or not you exist. It was there before you came into it, and it will be there when you have gone. This is the world of objects, events, and other people; it is the world around you. There is another world that exists only because you exist: the private world of your thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, the world within you. This world came into being when you did, and it will cease when you do. We only know the world around us through the world within us, through the senses by which we perceive it and the ideas by which we make sense of it.” In fact, the two worlds that we have learned to separate (objectivity and subjectivity, facts and values, thinking and feeling) are in fact quite connected. “How we think about the world around us can be deeply affected by the feelings within us, and how we feel may be critically shaped by our knowledge, perceptions, and personal experiences. Our lives are formed by the constant interactions between these two worlds, each affecting how we see and act in the other,” - Ken Robinson continues. The conventional education pays very little attention to the inner world of the learners, as it is almost entirely focused on the world around. As Anais Nin once said “I do not see the world as it is, I see it as I am.” What we contribute to the world around also has much to do with how well we belong in the world within.
The third trouble with the current approach is a consequence of the previous two - it is a mindset of unsustainability as well as segregation and de-contextualized knowledge. As integrated bodymind organisms, we contain ecosystems within us and participate in the broader ecosystems of nature in an interconnected complex world. As humans so well equipped technologically but disconnected from our own inner worlds and the natural world of our planet as a whole, we are equally capable of making this planet unliveable, destroying much of natural beauty, making it only a suitable living place for cyborgs who do not need forests and rivers, and couldn’t care less of the healthy natural food, clean air and water. But only humans completely disconnected from instincts, governed by the mind ideas alone, would really be capable of creating such a place. So we need a kind of a mindset that acknowledges both our individuality and interconnectedness, and therefore also a practice that, on the one hand, shows interconnectedness, that is based on phenomena connected to real life where disciplines are interrelated and not separated into departments, and that, on the other hand, supports everyone in finding their own path, way of being and contributing in their own way to make life more meaningful and flourishing .
Change of values
Innovative endeavors often come after the melting down of the old forms, into which life has hardened itself. They might be chaotic, like all transformative processes are, but are still better than the dead order of a rigid doctrine. Ken Robinson in his book Creative Schools compares education that is a living process to agriculture. “Gardeners know that they don’t make plants grow.” He proposes to look at education from the four principles of organic farming. The first one is health: “organic education promotes the development and wellbeing of the whole student, intellectually, physically, spiritually and socially”. The second one is ecology: “organic education recognises the vital interdependence of all of these aspects of development, within each student and the community as a whole”. Third is fairness: “organic education cultivates the individual talents and potential of all students, whatever their circumstances, and respects the roles and responsibilities of those who work with them”. And the fourth one is care: “organic education creates optimum conditions for students’ development, based on compassion, experience, and practical wisdom”.
As individuals, we create our lives through the perspectives we develop, the choices we make, and the talents and passions we may discover and pursue. People are different. Everyone ticks differently. One of the features of human life is the variety of individual talents, interests and temperaments. Human intelligence is rich and diverse. In fact, intelligence is better understood as getting things done that have meaning to an individual, that matter personally, and that’s often is rooted in coordination of mind and body, action and reflection, feeling and cognition. Each person needs to have a chance to find out what is important for them as an individual.
Our understanding of values emerges from going back to the roots, to basic questions, like: “who am I”, “what do I care for”, “am I present in my environment”, “who am I walking through life with”, and “where am I going”. Ignoring these one risks entering into a lifetime crisis. We are like trees, whose roots when entangled don’t nourish leaves, nurture flowers nor bear fruit. Working with people in one-on-one mentorship sessions for the past nine years, I often saw a correlation between the states of stress, anxiety and depression that people suffer from and the mismatch between their natural inclinations and learned ideas, disconnected from their own reality of how to construct their lives. When our roots are entangled we become confused, we get out of touch with our personal common sense, the understanding of what we need and what we don’t, what is good for us and what isn’t. We then feel the urge to consult experts for every step. Losing touch with our inborn compass we become disempowered.
Much of this is due to our rather restricted notion of intelligence, that we usually identify with the logical, verbal and quantitative measures. Often we undervalue the many other ways of knowing, including intuition and the intelligence of the body. It is through the body that we find our inborn compass. Body has a sense of coherence and inner integrity. In the The Divine Within Aldous Huxley writes that “although for hundreds of years we have been talking about mens sana in corpore sano, we really have not paid any serious attention to the problem of training the mind-body, the instrument which has to do with the learning, which has to do with the living. ...We pour this verbal stuff into them <children> without in any way preparing the organism for life or for understanding its position in the world — who it is, where it stands, how it is related to the universe. Moreover, we do not even prepare the child to have any proper relation with its own mind-body.” Knowledge speaks to us in a variety of ways, so education’s role could be to embrace that, to teach to notice those ways and be able to integrate them.
The purpose of education could be to give a large “portfolio of capacities” to the learners, that would allow them to be better equipped to be tuned to themselves and the changing world around. Such education would include rationality, intuition, imagination, and somatic awareness, as components that can all contribute to informing our decisions and point us to new solutions and practices. In such an approach it is important that those who teach or guide the learners are also continuously learning and living these values themselves. Embodying this approach ourselves, becoming more and more emotionally and intellectually intelligent, present in our own bodies and environments, aware of our personal qualities and of those of others, being individuals for whom the logical mind and intuition become equal allies, by living these qualities ourselves we support the growth of people learning from us, who belong in their world, and therefore are able to act consciously and aware of consequences.
Educational philosophy and practice
Embodied Learning: Our vision and practice at Foresta KIDS
There are plenty of wonderful examples of people changing practices around what education can be about. To interview those people and collect best practices is a separate project of Foresta Collective. We also want to create the overview of different best practices of educational initiatives worldwide. It's coming, so stay tuned. For now I want to describe in more details the educational philosophy of embodied learning that we set off to practice at our own educational initiative — Foresta Academy, and specifically its part dedicated to working with children — Foresta KIDS.
Growing up in the post-Soviet Latvia my education was so far from lived life that from the beginning on I wanted to build a studio for learning experiences that would be rooted in complexities of everyday life. From personal experiences came a realisation that to deal well with life’s demands requires a full body presence. Often it’s not enough to be smart, and know many things. One needs to acknowledge and value different ways of knowing, as well as to find the balance between doing and reflection, activity and contemplation. This search for an approach to learning that is more integrated, attentive and tuned-in to lived life is a lifetime endeavour, and we are just at the beginning. We started designing learning experiences for people, adults and children, four years ago, with a wish to combine creativity and somatic awareness in our projects. We called it embodied learning dedicated to creative expression. Not just for the sake of being creative, but as a possibility to develop a personal way of doing things, to live a life of one’s own, to continuously expand attention to the world around and find joy in all this.
It’s an ongoing adventure, through which we also recreate ourselves over and over. We see our role in creating and holding the space, the environment that is inspiring people to learn, grow and be alive. A kind of flexible structure that can support people in being present, being honestly themselves, and attentive to the world. Attention is at the core of our mores. Attention as both — respect towards life as it unfolds, not trying to impose from outside but rather being facilitators holding the space, as well as care — an ability to be involved, to give what is needed in different moments, to guide, to share our knowledge and experience when required. An example of such attention in action is education of the senses through experiences. For instance, instead of looking at a tree in a book, we find it much more interesting to go to the tree, feel it, touch it, smell it, climb it, and then we can come back and draw, sculpt, or talk to share our experiences. It is a sensitivity that goes both ways - to the world around as well as to oneself, and the processes of one's own body. Here are the principles in which we ground our work:
* Bringing theory and practice together.
The limitations of theories is that they tend to make people cling to a learned mental model, even when it’s not working in the present conditions of real world, or even people try to fit the new world into an old system of thinking. Practice is extremely important. It invites people to be present in whatever the situation is, and act as the situation requires, to be attentive, to find solutions.
* Holistic worldview and view of the individual.
Humans are complex embodied organisms, where everything is connected with everything. We understand wellbeing in a sense that includes physical, emotional, mental and environmental wellbeing, and strive to include these different aspects into our projects. We are also part of larger complex systems of society and nature. Therefore we are interested in a more interdisciplinary worldview that allows to see connections between things and to explore the world around, both natural and human-made, through them. In such an approach the learning process is structured not around a concrete discipline, but around a chosen subject, and disciplines provide a meeting of distinct perspectives on this subject.
* All processes are based on tuned-in attention.
Process of learning is a process of self-discovery and development of sensibility towards one’s perception. Self-awareness is a key to wellbeing and finding one’s own voice and place in the world. Well-tuned attention also allows to build deep and honest relationships: to listen and hear, look and see, be and let be. It also relates to the philosophy of flow. Supporting the flow instead of trying to fit reality into a fixed structure is a training in being comfortable with the unknown.
* Inquiry-based approach.
It means that everything starts with a question and not with a ready answer. It develops personal agency and critical thinking. Critical thinking involves interpreting what’s intended, understanding the context, hidden values and feelings. In the age of information it means to separate facts from opinions, sense from nonsense, honesty from deception. It also includes engaging with knowledge as opposed to “having” it. We do not own knowledge. We build on it. Everything changes continuously, what we know today will be different tomorrow.
* Manifold self-expression.
We are multitudes. We explore our multifaceted versatile qualities, like a craftsman learns to balance strength and gentleness, speed and patience, working alone and asking for help. We experiment with expressing thoughts and feelings in a range of media, forms, and materials, such as clay, paint, words, wood, food, sounds, photographs, our own bodies.
* Focus on creativity.
Creativity is an inherent drive to experiment, inquire, ask questions, develop original thinking, generate new ideas and apply them in practice. It enables people to respond imaginatively to life and the world, to be uniquely themselves. Healthy developed creativity helps us in life - in situations we cannot predict, in the unknown ever-changing circumstances of the river of life - it helps us to stay open-minded, to adapt, to find new ways for being and doing. It’s a basis for smart decisions in life.
* Fostering cultures of collaboration.
Trust and empathy are the base. That is true for learners and educators alike. We value encounters on eye-level. Education is an encounter between someone who knows something and someone who knows something else. Everyone is a teacher and a student. Another aspect of cultures of collaboration are mixed age groups based on interests and wishes to explore together. Educating children by age group assumes that the most important thing they have in common is their date of manufacture. We don’t think so.
* Learning is fun!
Through and with enthusiasm, brain creates new connections so that we are able to learn, grow and feel inspired to live. Gerald Hüther has researched this subject extensively and formulates it very well.
Our understanding of fun includes a lot of space for Free Play. Free play as an unstructured time and space to explore the world without any external guidance. It’s an extremely valuable and necessary activity for any age group. It develops curiosity, willingness to try, to experiment, to make mistakes, and try again. It fosters autonomy of an individual - through independent action to find out what works for them and what doesn’t, what they like and don’t like, until they understand who they are in this process, and what is their way.
Free play is improvisation, but it still gives a framework, within which people can experience different situations, try things out, explore, create, learn about the world around, communicate with others, handle different situations, be changed by each other, and also discover things about themselves, their different reactions, emotions, abilities. They learn to develop different feelings and ways of being, and in this process also to own themselves through playing those different roles. They learn how multifaceted and versatile they are. Everyone involved into a play can be many things. For example, in stories about animals, each animal is a kind of crystallization of a character, a certain aspect of a personality: the rabbit, the bear, the wolf - everyone stands for something, has different qualities and ways to relate to the world. In play anyone can try out a myriad of roles. They learn to listen, to express themselves, to develop their creative impulses, to sympathize, to contribute to the common process, to take responsibility according to their curiosity. From such responsibility, intention and purpose are born. Different roles, different reactions, different plots, different characters - everyone has their own voice and right to exist. So in play individual’s personality, range of developed feelings, consciousness, their whole world is expanding. This description is true for children just as much as for adults. Grown-up’s work and play are two sides of the same thing unwilling to exist without one another. Most authentic play is built on work, on something real and committed. Deepest work is built on play, on something light and fluid.
Children by their nature are explorers of the world around. Curious of all life, natural learners, interested to try, experiment, and experience. In free play children have the space to follow their own curiosity, find their questions and form their own intentions, to develop freely as their individual growth requires. Adult is a reference point for a child. Many times children learn their ways of being from who we are and how we act, and not from what we say or want them to be. Adults responsible for a child day to day of course influence the world of a child and bring their own order to it. That’s important of course. However we see it as equally important for kids to be in a structure that takes seriously their needs, ideas, wishes, and acts, and doesn’t try to interfere into those. In free play adults's role is shifting between co-creator and attendant, accompanying children in a journey, but leaving them to invent, create, and act in their own reality.
Education for any age group is, in fact, a way to explore varieties of perspectives and possibilities in life. Whether meant for adults or children, education needs to inspire mojo (the soul), inspire people to live and support them in finding a path towards life that is their own. Personalising education has deep roots: in the 17th century John Locke advocated the simultaneous education of the body, character and mind. Throughout history many different individuals engaged in creation of more personalised and holistic education that follows the natural grain of children’s development, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, John Dewey, Michael Duane, Kurt Hahn, Dorothy Heathcote, Jean Piaget, Maria Montessori, Lev Vygotsky, Rudolf Steiner, Vasyl Sukhomlynsky, A.S.Neill, Elena Makarova, and many others. Are you also carrying a torch of reinventing education, or researching the importance of these forms of education for more equitable and sustainable societies? We want to hear from you! Do get in touch with us. We want to create a network to support and learn from one another.