ANLAGEN: THE POWER TO BECOME: Towards a new form of schooling

November 30, 2006

an·la·ge also An·la·ge (änläg)
n. pl. an·la·ges or an·la·gen (-gn)
1. Biology The initial clustering of embryonic cells from which a part or an organ develops; primordium.
2. A genetic predisposition to a given trait or personality characteristic.
3. A fundamental principle; the foundation for a future development.

The power to become yourself; your complete self of mind, body heart and soul.
Allow yourself to learn, have confidence in yourself and your capacities. Remove the “stories” you create to avoid confronting this reality.
Learn to listen, drop your prejudices and expectations; remove judgement.
Become absorbed in process and the present moment.
Confront and except difficulty as the path to satisfaction.
Create structures that help advancement, but remain flexible: do not mistake structure for absolutes.



November 26, 2006

In his book “Lila”, Persig talks of static and dynamic quality: too much static quality leads to atrophy and death, too much dynamic quality lead to chaos. The dialectic of structure and creativity; of limits and freedom.
I come from a culture that puts high value on individual freedom and creativity and registers a high threshold to risk in tests. I work in a culture that values stability and efficiency and has one of the lowest thresholds to risk taking in Europe.
I can understand both points of view – but it is more difficult to reconcile them.
I see power and control kill motivation in both teachers and students.
I also see students who fail to make progress because of a lack of structure and discipline. Problems with writing, drawing and the creation of multimedia projects all have their origin in a lack of coherent structure.
Much of what we consider highly creative necessitates enormous discipline; playing an instrument, drawing, writing or cooking.
The fact is that these qualities of structure, discipline and clarity do not have to be equated with power, control, fixity and closure.
It is the dominance of an individual, one-point perspective that creates problems; where, as in modernist doctrine or standard operating procedures in companies, an individual, or group of individuals, try to imagine every possibility contingency and create procedures that dictate the response of everyone.
Life is fluid and reality in its wholeness is unknowable; our powers to explain are limited. We create models of reality that we share; these models are in constant evolution according to the metaphors and understanding of our age and our cultural perspective.
The fear of uncertainty, the desire to dominate or the lack of imagination to see that the world may be different from another point of view: these things lead to a simplification of life that can threaten our very humanity and our capacity for adaptation and for subtlety. “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility, humility is endless”, wrote T.S.Eliot. The simple thought “what if I am mistaken?” could regulate many evils of the world.
In terms of teaching this requires listening to the student rather than imposing upon him. John Holt wrote:
“We cannot know at any moment what particular bit of knowledge or understanding a child needs most, will most strengthen and best fit his model of reality. Only he can do this. He may not do it very well, but he can do it a hundred times better than we can. The most we can do is try to help, by letting him know roughly what is available and where he can look for it.”

Neil Postman wrote:
Certainly, anyone who has worked with children in an inquiry environment knows what a delightful, fitful, episodic, explosive collage of simultaneous ‘happenings’ learning is. If the learning process must be visualized, perhaps it is most authentically represented in a Jackson Pollock canvas- a canvas whose colours increase in intensity as intellectual power grows (for learning is exponentially cumulative).

The research of Sadler leads him to the conclusion that “student development is multidimensional rather than sequential, and prerequisite leanings cannot be conceptualized as neatly packaged units of skills or knowledge”. And yet, most assessment of the student is what he terms “Convergent: “‘In convergent teacher assessment the important thing is to know if the child, knows, understands, or can do a predetermined thing.”
There is another approach which Pryor and Torrance term “divergent” which “emphasises the learners’ understanding rather than the agenda of the assessor. Here the important thing is to discover what the child knows, understands, or can do.”
Such an approach equates with that of Oliver Sacks’ approach towards his patients:
“One must drop all presuppositions and dogmas and rules- for these only lead to stalemates or disaster; one must cease to regard all patients as replicas, and honour each one with individual attention, attention to how he is doing, to his individual reactions and propensities; and in this way with the patient as one’s equal, one’s co-explorer, not one’s puppet, one may find therapeutic ways which are better than other ways, tactics which can be modified as the occasion requires. Given a ‘policy-space’ no longer simple or convergent, an intuitive ‘feel’ is the only sage guide; and in this the patient may well surpass his physician.”
We do not need to impose; we need to listen and to guide. We can help the student to create his own education. To do this we need to teach our young how to structure their time and their thoughts: how to analyse, evaluate, compare induct and to synthesise. How to follow and create an argument. How to create connections; to understand a point of view in relation to the circumstances that gave rise to it. How to evaluate and assess his own progress.


November 21, 2006

“All that is implicit cannot be made explicit”
Dunstan Martin: “Shadows in the Cave”

We have many more ways of knowing than are open to the intellect; try skiing with your brain; listen to someone play Beethoven with technical proficiency, but without soul…
I come back to this question of soul: we lose touch with our very nature if we reduce everything to the explicit. We try more and more to explain, order, control; we move out of time, not into it and we become stressed and unhappy and we do not know why.
Intuition, instinct: magic. Words for our capacity to relate to the world ontologically, through all our senses. I can neither cook, nor teach, to a formula; It is more like surfing than anything else – feeling the wave, the body: going with it.
It is raining today; the students were subdued and they did not seem happy. I through my prepared lesson in the bin and let them work; they have a structure; a project to finish for next week and a list of stages to go through. I wrote on the board:

    • What is the aim of this project? Why are we doing it?
    • How can you do it well so that you feel satisfied with it? What are your criteria of evaluation? Are they the same as the teacher’s?
    • What existing examples can you find of this sort of work that are good?
    • Why are they good? Analyse them!

Now they are working – they are communicating, sharing and they are involved. Arriving at this involvement is the difficult part (and I don’t pretend that I always manage it) afterwards it is sufficient to get out of the way and to keep learning keep your enthusiasm that will provide the example.
Understanding takes time and presence. It takes listening and watching. To our reactions to situations as well as the situations themselves.
It takes allowing ourselves, and our students, to be.


November 18, 2006

When I was the age of my students, I wrote this poem:

My soul is exhausted from breaking,
My heart is tired of beating-
My mind aches of not understanding,
My body trembles from loving;

And you say simply: ‘it will pass’.

At the time this represented for me a cry of suffering and of anguish.
Now it touches me with its irony and its deeper perception. Youth and age speak from different perspectives and you cannot see both at once.

In this drawing one can perceive either a young girl or an old woman, but you cannot see both at once:
Youth and age are dialectical; the wisdom of age is (hopefully) a growing humility; an appreciation of the subtlety, complexity and nuance of the patterns of perception and an appreciation of the limits of our power to explain. While youth rises up and grasps the world in all its freshness and newness. Age can be impeded by the thickness of its glasses and the rigour of its habits, youth by its failure to see beyond itself.

Only through listening to the descriptions of that other world which we cannot see can we encompass the pattern of the dance and grasp life in its wholeness.

We must respect the values of innocence and experience and be ready to listen in the classroom – and outside.

“Amuse me, teacher!”

November 17, 2006

It is clear that intrinsic motivation is at the heart of learning; I can think of few experiences more exhilarating than to work with a class that is inspired by a project. And I know nothing so depressing than to be in front of a class that is not interested.
The Internet, books, television, DVD and email give us access to almost unlimited opportunities to learn. This allows for a student-cantered approach to learning in a way that was never before possible and I see my students take full advantage of it: “Where did you learn that?” – “Oh, on the Web”.
I got depressed this week because I saw school as an institution that is actively preventing learning rather than encouraging it.
Yet this is one side of a more complicated story.
We, and students with us, are faced with too much information:

“We are a culture consuming ourselves with information, and many of us do not even wonder how to control the process. We proceed under the assumption that information is our friend, believing that cultures may suffer grievously from a lack of information, which of course, they do. It is only now beginning to be understood that cultures may also suffer grievously from information glut, information without meaning, information without control mechanisms.”
Neil Postman, “Technopoly”

Moreover, we are faced with the seduction of a sophisticated commercial system that encourages us to consume; and information becomes a product to consume like any other, rather than to process. Students now compare school against entertainment – that which does not amuse is of limited interest. Being a teacher is becoming a stressful and difficult profession.
It is difficult in these conditions to persuade students that satisfaction is not amusement and that it is the result of great effort and difficulty that requires attention to detail and rigour; and that clarity of thought, structure and expression requires endless reworking the same thing.
This blog is a discipline for me and coming back the same theme day after day is bringing me closer to an understanding of my ideas.


November 15, 2006

This morning I gave three choices of project to do and then added a fourth; go out and get a job!
I approached a student; “I’m doing the fourth” he said – “I’m redoing my folio – since I did my site ( I receive about four projects a week – mostly logos – I work with my friends and its beginning to take off. The site? I had it done by a company that does the coding for you; for about a hundred francs they code your design. I don’t see why I should learn all that. I take advantage of the situation.”
– “And school”‘ I ask, “what do we do for you?”
– “A piece of paper” otherwise I learn from doing, on the forums”.

I here this over and over again; school blocks, we learn in spite of school and not because of it. Unless why can we not embraced this energy instead of working against it?

We need to harness and ride the power, not hobble it. Yet institutions put in place more and more controls to desperately hang on to their power and control.

I painted two versions of Icarus, one chained and one free, because I see him as a symbol of education:

Icarus died flying; ignoring his father’s admonitions, exultation and lack of caution sent him too high, where the rarefied atmosphere would not support his weight and the wax of his humanity melted, plunging him to oblivion.
Yet it is Icarus, not his father, Dedaelus, that we celebrate. His father flew and survived to shed tears for his son’s wasted life.
My Icarus is not allowed to fly; the wings of his imagination and possibility are firmly tethered. It is for his own good; he would kill himself. It is the condition of the artist
Yet, again, it is that very aspiration, the attempt that makes man occasionally noble. Tied down his muscles become weak and his feathers will lose their colour: his glorious anger will become tepid acceptance and disillusion-.
As a teacher I watch what well-intentioned systems can do to the fledgling potentials before me; enthusiasm and originality dampened to acceptance and conformity. This image is about my frustration.
But myths are universal, they should not be limited to specific cases; this image is about any moment that you feel that your potential is tied down – with chains or subtle gossamer threads.

Attention Class…

November 14, 2006

I read much of the necessity of coming back to the present; of becoming conscious of now, “of chopping wood when we chop wood and eating when we eat”. Yet we construct more and more ways to seduce ourselves from this present. Our attention is solicited on all sides; we flit around our lives like hyperactive midges and the brain drowns out the soul.

These students seem incapable of concentrating for more than ten minutes on anything; websites.., games, instant messages, music, videos, all compete with me, and with each other, for their attention – is this attention span, as many colleagues claim, really getting shorter, or is it just that the means of distraction are more prevalent?

Each week I give them a series of tasks to complete.
One student that comes to class puts his head between his hands and looks at the floor, doing nothing: around him groups are absorbed in the project I have given. One group is doing the project on a program I don’t even know; most work hard, some waste their time; surf and chat. Two are playing games. It is not always easy to tell where the energy is going in the right direction.

You can lead a horse to water…
What is exhausting is the constant attempt to put myself in the place of the student; how far do you impose to give the student the discipline he lacks and how far do you try to understand?
The student with his head in his hands is failing; he has given me little work and he is not advancing – I open a door: “Show me you are motivated; that you want to be here- write your own project and do it”. He perks up and goes off to look for ideas. I tried this with another difficult student last year and he did some great work for me – yet this year he went down hill again and is out of the school. Did I make a difference?

I have no doubt the work will be done the deadline is there and they will all present their work, they always do.

I believe that my job is to try and bring them back to the present: make them aware of why they are doing the projects I have set and how they can evaluate their own efforts. To render them independent, sometimes to let them fail.

I have to put myself in their shoes – but I also have to stay in my own – understanding is not the same as indulgence.