There are certain mundane facts that miraculously enable our human existence and yet we tend to take them for granted. In the world of education there are opportunities for these immutable truths to turn into gifts that keep on giving – or become vortexes that swallow up creativity, curiosity and courage. The spectrum of possibility spans from miracle to catastrophe.
These are truths I believe to be unassailable: The fact of Learning, the fact of Relating and the fact of Awareness.
We cannot but learn. It is in our nature. We cannot avoid learning. It has nothing to do with the content of our learning or the goals of our learning. It is a simple fact, like breathing. We learn all the time. That’s how we become, and we are always becoming our being, from birth through death and beyond. Learning is what makes evolution possible.
We cannot but relate. It is in our nature. We relate all the time, personally, spatially, kinesthetically, temporally, dimensionally, allegorically. In fact relating is the glue that binds together our existence. Our greatest discoveries in science lead us ever on to the realization that our world is made up primarily of space, and it is the relationships between particles that provide the energy signature of our experience. That is to say, our physical and metaphysical reality is a relational experience.
Awareness is the means by which we can consciously process the experience of life. Awareness gives us the ability to distinguish stimuli, to receive the gifts of the senses, and to locate our experiences in a meaning-making process. Awareness is not bound by conscious experience, and our awareness extends well into the unconscious spectrum, absorbing, associating, learning and relating. Learning and relating are made magical through awareness, especially conscious awareness.
A child cannot do other than learn, regardless of whether she is in school. A child cannot do other than relate. A child cannot avoid being influenced by their own awareness. These gifts enable humanity to evolve. Children learn from adults through observation, testing, feeling and being their own learned experiences. They always learn from adults, and they always engage what they learn in the manner they relationally understand is most helpful. Learning is always relational, and seldom transactional. And perhaps most importantly, the unconscious aspects in relationships are powerful channels of learning.
For teaching to succeed, it needs to be consciously relational too. The quality and form of the learning experience is overwhelmingly defined by the inner states of both learners and teachers, not content or institutions or teachers’ qualifications. Accepting that learners are aware on multiple levels can help us receive the gift of conscious relating as the key medium of learning. Acknowledging how learners feel and subsequently relate releases the possibility for all parties to learn in a conscious relational way. As a teacher, your students notice how you feel, or are at least aware of the energy with which to engage, and not only the parts you wish were visible. Your students are aware of how much you are learning, especially about them. Your relationship to yourself, your calling, and your students defines what the overall quality of experience will be.
When you as a teacher feel stressed, worn out and inadequate to the task, children pick it up – totally independent of the lesson content or goal – and believe you the teacher are feeling judged, which affirms their role as judges. Being placed in that position – being responsible for another’s negative experience – is supremely unlikely to lead to anything other than confirmation of the experience: children will help you feel inadequate. By contrast, experiencing positive feelings may bring out experiences of security and calm. In both cases, the experiences are unconscious: learners have not been included in the deeper democratic transparency of conscious awareness.
Possibly the most powerful learning that is conveyed by adults to younger learners is fear of failure. Failure is held up as a measure, an absolute experience to be avoided. In their relationships with teachers, institutions and society, learners are consciously and unconsciously schooled into the habit of prioritising fear of failure. Adults help perpetuate that belief into a seemingly pervasive culture. This is done partly through consciously emphasizing specific social values, but more powerfully through adults’ own unconscious behaviour, which is in turn learned and imitated as ‘desirable’. Tragically, risk and failure are precisely the greatest resources we have for achieving excellence. Risk aversion as a strategy is directly counter-evolutionary. As John Gardner wrote in Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society:
“We pay a heavy price for our fear of failure. It is a powerful obstacle to growth. It assures the progressive narrowing of the personality and prevents exploration and experimentation. There is no learning without some difficulty and fumbling. If you want to keep on learning, you must keep on risking failure — all your life. It’s as simple as that. “
The apparently silent, invisible inner critic that rages in a hard-pressed teachers inner space is heard and seen resonating through generations. But the opposite vision is equally possible. Learning cannot be avoided, and through consciously relating it is possible to dramatically influence the quality of learning. The euphoria that being empowered by learning brings, is available to everyone, everyday. And toward that vision, working on yourself and your relationships is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself and others.
So, what to do? Relationship skills are the source of excellence in learning experiences, and can be improved formally through coaching, counseling, training and collegial learning. By opening up and exposing vulnerability, by being open and curious about other learners’ experiences, by bringing into awareness the whole spectrum of the learning process, you will activate the energy of this most wonderful gift: learning in conscious awareness through the medium of relating. It’s love, actually.
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