When I was 7 years old I jumped into a Lion’s Club pool in Hoffman Estates, Illinois and learned two things indelibly:
- Things are not always what they seem. In this case, the deep end looked just as inviting as the shallow end, and I had not yet learned discernment or how to swim.
- You’re on your own. In this case, all of the well-meaning people around me did not recognize the flailing kid as drowning. Luckily, I thrashed back to the pool edge.
In my life, meaning, focus and direction only emerged through doing. Perceiving, feeling and thinking (or perfinking as David Kresch calls it and Gillian Judson describes in this TedX talk): they were certainly a critical part of the mix, but these functions were so abstract that they left me perpetually at sea. Everything felt the same: like water. Like drowning. It was only in action that I found emotional engagement and purpose. It was only by doing that I found grounding. Thinking felt pointless without feeling and doing.
I left high school near the top of my class, drowned in the abstraction and flunked out of Cornell in 2 years, and lit out for Africa on a bicycle borrowed from an uncle in the Netherlands. There is nothing abstract about 10,000 kilometers on a bicycle, about rain and snow and not enough money and where do I get a job. There is nothing abstract about hunger, or sometimes meeting a cute girl, or climbing the Pyrenees in first gear or picking oranges in Spain. There is nothing abstract about a quest for Africa. There is however a profound sense of emotional engagement and purpose and meaning and accomplishment that school never gave me.
That, in a nutshell, is why I believe we need to re-invent school. In its current all-too-typical manifestation, school nurtures thinkers instead of Perfinker-doers. It offers endless abstraction, but nothing meaningful to do. All those papers and projects and discussions and examinations: they don’t affect change. All too often, they nurture passivism instead of activism. They turn kids into obedient recipients instead of empowered participants. I suggest that we retire the belief that school will teach our children just to think. We need to reconsider the feeling and the doing of school.
Let’s think about what we’ve built.
We set out to build a risk-free environment for our children, a place free of real consequences, what psychologist Erik Erikson1termed a “moratorium” in which kids could experiment freely with adult roles. We created an unrealistic environment of certitudes, in which everything was known and only needed to be learned. We smothered all our emotions with “dispassion” and “professionalism” and “rationalism”, and exiled expressions of real, disruptive feeling to the office. In the most egregious cases, we called in security. We removed so much risk that asking someone to the prom might be the scariest challenge of high school. We turned an environment that could become a tool for creativity into a tool for alignment. All those nasty, gnarly, and strange bits, the exceptions and uncomfortable and disruptive emotions: instead of nurturing them for their exciting potential, we discard them as waste. This approach is practical, it is efficient for crowd control, it keeps the gears greased and operational, but it yields a bland and oppressive environment removed entirely from the real world and anything of actual consequence. Risk, emotion and meaning all got sucked out together.
The model begs reconsideration.
With the exception of those parents who just want their kid to get into college and the politician who just wants to win the international technology race, I suspect most of us hope to nurture fully-realized, completely self-actualized adults. The work of Dr. Gayle Privette2is exceptionally inspiring to me in this regard. His Model of Experience (see diagram below) published in the early 80’s identifies the self-actualized person as performing in a zone of flow to achieve both Peak Performance and Peak Experience.
Joy and Meaning, in this model, derive from trying your hardest (Peak Performance), but also having amazing experiences (Peak Experience). Joy and Meaning: are these not exactly what we would wish for our children? Yet all we foist upon them is Peak Performance, a recipe for high performance and driven workers but not for joy and self-actualization. Why was that year on a bicycle in Europe so consequential for me? It offered exceptional experiences even as it required uncommon performance to survive. It offered Beauty and Risk and Adventure and a Quest. It offered Magic. It was these Peak Experiences that offered me what school had never succeeded in delivering: hope and joy and meaning. Let us re-imagine school as a locus brimming with peak experiences.
There’s plenty of conversation around 21st Century Learning these days. All those C’s presumably hold the keys to our children’s future success: We say that we need Critical Thinking and Creativity and Collaboration and Communication (or Cooperation, Connection, Character, Caring, Contribution, Competence, Commitment, Concentration, Confidence, Compassion, Culture, Connection, Citizenship…), but we keep offering our students the same basic educational experiences, expecting different results.
We promote Creativity: but where is Meditation in our schools to teach students intuition? Where are Caves and Nests to encourage concentration? Where is the focus on Magic, to set sights higher than mere competence? Where are the Workshops to offer tools and skills in making? Where are the Safaris to promote empathy? When do we champion Subversion as a path to invention?
We exalt Curiosity: but where is Adventure to confront, body and mind, the unknown? Where are the Shrines and Media Arrays and Big Maps to inspire imagination and a sense of possibility? Where are the Quests to imbue questions with epic significance? Where are the metaphoric Bullfights to show how questions tackle problems?
We strive for Collaboration: but where are the Apprenticeships to honor mastery? Where is the focus on Passion, to inspire Leadership? Where are the metaphoric Sandboxes, to offer Agency? Where are the sustained Climbs to build teamwork? Where are the ambitious Projects like Gardens to demonstrate the beauty of teamwork? Where are the Games, to link learning to Joy?
We emphasize Communication: but where are lessons in Conversation to teach students how to Listen? Where is the Speaker’s Corner, to teach them to speak? Where is the focus on Storytelling, and where are the Campfires, to teach the power of authenticity and the ability to create meaning? Where are the experiences poignant enough to inspire Writing worth reading?
We focus on Critical Thinking: but where is Demolition, for lessons in shattering clichés? Where is dynamic Listening, to insure understanding? Where are the small Round Table conversations to challenge preconceptions? Where are the Puzzles, to teach endurance and a growth mindset? Where is the Market of ideas and resources to promote comparison and diversity? Where are the carefully managed challenges, the Races and Duels that promote Resilience, in order to thrive on critique?
The point is not that School is devoid entirely of these rich, emotional experiences and environments: only that they are few and far between. They should be the core of the enterprise: every day. We take the most fundamental years of our children’s lives, and offer them air and abstraction and dispassion. We suck the emotion out of their lives. How about an entirely different conception of school? How about a place devoted to intense experience, powerful peak experiences, finding joy and meaning and purpose and effecting change? We don’t need to throw our kids into the deep end of the Lion’s Club pool in order to offer them emotional learning experiences.
We just need to re-imagine school.
About The Author
Roel Krabbendam is an architect and author focused on education.
His collection of essays re-imagining the experiences and environments of school (school, Ludovicus, Boston, 2018, 280p) is now available on Amazon and at www.futureofschools.com.
- Erikson, Erik, Childhood and Society, “Eight Stages of Man” (W.W.Norton, New York, 1950)
- Privette, Gayle, “Experience as a Component of Personality Theory”, Psychological Reports (1985, 56) pp 263-266.