Hardly a day has gone by since attending the Krishnamurti summer educator’s retreat in Ojai, California, that I don’t anticipate how the experience will factor into my work with students, or recognize how it’s already impacting my work with educators. As I write this post, two weeks remain before students return to class. But teacher training and work with colleagues has already begun.
One of my fellow retreatants sent an email reminder of homework given to us by our facilitator, Dr. Gopal Krishnamurthy. At the closing session he asked us to complete the following:
If learning is __________ then teaching is ___________.
If learning happens __________ then teaching happens _________.
In my current environment this means _______________.
Here’s how I fill in the blanks:
If learning is to be transformational then teaching is a continual cycle of inquiry and self-reflection.
If learning happens through self-reflection then teaching happens when I honor multiple ways of knowing.
In my current environment this means I will listen and watch for more opportunities to “take myself out of the way”, so to speak. I will know I’m practicing this when I step back, remain silent, listen with intention, and allow students or teacher-professionals to explore a concept and express understanding in ways I might not have conceived of or “planned for”.
An unexpected result for me from the Krishnamurti retreat has been a resurgence of my inclination toward ways of knowing rooted in intuition, contemplation, and self-reflection – all of which factored heavily into my Master’s thesis about ways of knowing. When I first arrived at Creighton University I took to the study of mystics and spirituality like a duck takes to water. But at some point after graduation, I couldn’t get past the sign-posts used by even the mystics I loved the most. I came to a point where it didn’t matter whether I was encountering Christian symbols, Buddhist symbols, Jewish imagery, or Sufi metaphors…the very use of any one word or concept concretized the communication in such a way that I couldn’t get past any negative notions I connected to a particular vernacular (i.e. God, Christ, the Buddha, Lord). Without realizing it and for various reasons, I had come to the Krishnamurti retreat having thrown the baby (a mystical learning style and intuitive way of understanding the world) out with the bathwater (religious symbolism).
So I’m surprised to find myself at home after the retreat, digging out my Thomas Merton books, re-reading Buddhist sutras, and pondering Rumi with renewed interest. Why now? After seven days devoted to the intense study of one of Krishnamurti’s most essential writings, Learning and the Significance of Life (which is filled with exhortations against organized religion among other things). Why has the California retreat led me back to a path and way of understanding the world that I was certain I’d left behind – outgrown, if you will. Am I Krishnamurti flunky? (Is that theoretically possible?)
Partway through the retreat I found it impossible to ignore the connections I was making to Krishnaurti’s thoughts and those of Cistercian monk and writer, Thomas Merton. Merton’s essay “Learning to Live” was the basis on which my entire thesis rested. “The least of the work of learning is done in classrooms…whatever you do, every act, however small, can teach you everything – provided you see who it is that is acting.” (Merton, p 366-367)
Whereas Krishnamurti seems to have eschewed religious (and spiritual) influences, Merton chose to study, appreciate, and integrate perspectives from traditions far beyond his Catholic interpretations specifically to expand his ways of knowing. This allowed Merton to understand “the wisdom of the human family.” (Cunningham, p 6) Merton didn’t abandon himself as I had, but rather he seemed to find himself through an inquiry of monastics and mystics in vastly different contexts.
Or was Krishnamurti not quite as sterile as I thought? In the course of writing this post, I stumbled upon this YouTube of Krishnamurti entitled What is a Spiritual Life? https://youtu.be/xXnbH6v7pWg in which Krishnamurti gives a nod toward “monks” as not religious.
But do I need to give up Krishnamurti for Merton, or vice versa? Can I deepen my understanding of the world around me by embracing both? And more importantly, what concepts from each can I practically apply to broaden the scope of my work in public education? Short answer – no I don’t, yes I can, and let me explain how I plan to do it.
I love the way the Universe works! Since returning from California, a colleague in Kansas City shared a deeply meaningful and practical article about critical teacher reflection. Authored by Tyrone C. Howard, Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: Ingredients for Critical Teacher Reflection provides a rich discussion supporting contemplation and self-reflection as practical and necessary to the craft of teaching and learning. I highly recommend reading it in full text. Paste this link into your browser to access it: http://onnetwork.facinghistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Howard-Culturally-Relevant-Pedagogy.pdf
For Howard, “The term critical reflection attempts to look at reflection within moral, political, and ethical contexts of teaching.” (Howard, p 197) Merton sought to unite “head and heart, philosophy and contemplation” (Cunningham, p 6) in his writing and in his mentoring of novitiates. And in the two I see that “transformation of mind and heart is the issue…” (Cunningham, p 7). Krishnamurti also recognizes that without self-reflection little may change in the relationship between teachers and students, “By being fully aware of ourselves in all our relationships we shall begin to discover those confusions and limitations within us of which we are now ignorant; and in being aware of them, we shall understand and so dissolve them. Without this awareness and the self-knowledge which it brings, any reform in education or in other fields will only lead to further antagonism and misery.” (Krishnamurti, p 85)
Returning to the practical approach that Howard describes as, “The willingness on the part of teacher educators to share their own lived experiences, expose their own human frailties, and reflect on their ever-evolving identities within a community of diverse individuals”, he offers suggestions on “how to translate critical reflection into culturally relevant teaching.” (Howard, p 200).
For example, this summer’s retreat has given me an opportunity to reconsider aspects of certain tools I use, like rubrics. At present I find them useful and valid within the context of my environment primarily because I create rubrics to keep myself accountable for ensuring equity when evaluating student work. However, I can also appreciate the necessity for examining whether a specific rubric might end up being more limiting than equity-building if it restricts the expression of knowledge to a stringent model that I have created from my worldview or limited understanding of the content. This is particularly challenging given that I work with students from a vast number of cultures and a variety of languages in an education system that demands knowledge be expressed in only one language (English) to be valid!
This year I am committed to exploring some of Howard’s questions along with many of my own. Howard’s suggestions for reflective questioning include:
- How frequently do I differentiate instruction?
- Do scoring rubrics give inherent advantages for certain ways of knowing and expression?
- Do I allow culturally based differences in language, speech, reading, and writing to shape my perceptions about students’ cognitive ability? (p 200)
In addition to a commitment to answer these questions, I will add a commitment to:
- Reflect on my current practices in order to understand the difference between instructing, educating, training, and teaching.
- Incorporate less conceptual knowledge into my practice and increase experiential ways of knowing.
- Unite head (pedagogy), heart (empathy), philosophy (inquiry and ethics), and contemplation (critical reflection and deep listening) in my teaching practice, and integrate them into the learning atmosphere I offer students and colleagues.
In my search for practical examples of self-reflection as teacher practice, I stumbled on a recent example posted by a former professor of mine, Dr. Andria Stokes at Avila University. In a post on her blog for the Center for Transformational Learning, she applies self-reflection to her role as a student advisor:
“I had to ask myself if my advisees were taught from the beginning to build their learning and social experience at our university, or did I simply share the “required classes” within the time structure that was offered? After a lot of thought, I believe I attempted to accomplish the use of discussion and questioning during advising, but what I did not have was [anything] created by the student to show their thinking during our sessions. What I had was a bank of notes I took to show I covered the needed content.
AHA! As a faculty member, my job during advising should help the student create a draft of his or her story of learning, make intentional edits along the way, and support each student in creating his or her own voice as a learner at our university.” (emphasis added) — Dr. Andria Stokes
It’s my hope that through a contemplative, self-reflective practice which includes writing my “story of learning”, that I will better support students and fellow teacher-practitioners this year in finding their learner-voices.
Thanks for reading!
 You can find Merton’s essay “Learning to Live” in the anthology Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master: – The Essential Writings edited by Lawrence C Cunningham.