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A Truly Nurturing Education: Part 1

(Published as: Seaton, Andrew 2012, 'A truly nurturing education: Part 1', Nurture: Australia's Natural Parenting Magazine, Issue 1, Winter, pp. 46-48.)

hat is the aim of education? Well, that depends on who you ask. This is the first of a series of articles for parents and grandparents about the education of children. (With apologies to teenagers, for simplicity's sake I will use the word 'children' to refer to young people up till adulthood.) However, these articles are not about how every child should be educated. The ways in which it would make sense to educate a child are as different as the aims different people might have for education.

To begin with, then, I will briefly outline what I have come to understand about what well-functioning human beings can be like. Some readers will see this description as a desirable aim for the education of their child. Others may not. I will then go on to discuss in this and future articles the kinds of activities, experiences and relationships that are helpful (and some that are unhelpful) in nurturing this kind of functioning. This is important because, as the saying goes, "As the twig is bent, so grows the tree".

What can a human being be?
We can educate our children in such a way that they keep into adulthood their sense of joy, enthusiasm and intense wakefulness. We can educate them so that they strengthen their ability to research, think, learn and do for themselves. We can educate them so that they are able to know people, objects and phenomena freshly, not through rigid patterns of memory, labels, definitions, expectations and judgements, but by a delicate yet profound relatedness or identity with them. We can educate them so that people, things and events lose their power to trouble and manipulate them.

We can educate our children so that they keep and strengthen their sense of their own 'beingness', a sense dependent on their ability to stop thinking. Their uniquely individual expression of talents and abilities can come to reflect a creativity that taps the depths of life. We can educate our children so that their expression arises, not from a conditioned mind, but from their inner core, from a deeper aspect of self than their intellect is able to fathom. We can educate them so that they live and act out of a kind of 'deep intelligence', a deep sense of self-as-connected-with-all-life, rather than out of a sense of self-as-separate.

Schooling is not able to nurture this type of functioning. The people running schools try, of course, to do a good job of educating children. However, schools operate on quite different assumptions about human functioning and, therefore, with quite different aims. In this article, let us look at the idea of 'knowledge', for example.

School knowledge
Schools operate on the completely inadequate assumption that knowledge is a copy of reality. The thinking goes something like this. "The public sharing of concepts about the world makes them 'true'. We should collect all the most important and 'true' conceptual knowledge. Teachers can learn it in specialised subject areas. Then they can pass enough of it on to each child so they can live a successful life. Children can learn about the world by hearing about it from teachers, by reading about it, and by discussing, thinking and writing about it. Knowledge can be made a substitute for reality, a substitute for direct experience in the world and for acting on the world."

However, knowledge is not really like this at all! Knowledge is not a copy of reality. It is merely an abstract interpretation of some aspect of the world that is constructed in an individual's mind. It is undoubtedly helpful at times to label, define, categorise, analyse, evaluate and apply logic to elements of our experience. But we do not know something just because we have named and defined it.

Schools require children to engage day after day, year after year with this abstract kind of 'knowledge', torn out of context. The dominance of intellectual and linguistic processes in schooling reduces the dynamic aliveness of the world to crude abstractions. Combined with the constant pressure of assessment and grading, the forms of daily experience in schooling inhibit children's perception, behaviour and ability to attend to internal sensations, emotions, intuitions and personal insights. They disconnect children from objects, the natural world, other people and themselves.

Knowledge in context
So where does 'knowledge' fit, in an education that nurtures the fuller kind of functioning I described above? The knowledge or understanding an individual has of anything, is only one inseparable facet of experience. It cannot be meaningfully separated from the context of experience or from the individual's aims. In fact, every experience that involves some 'knowledge', also involves not only an individual's aims, but also selective perception, emotion, judgement, action, memory and biochemical processes throughout their body.

To grow into an adult such as I have described, a child needs lots of opportunities to engage in self-selected activities in real-world contexts. With lots of such rich and authentic experience, a child is much better prepared to live intimately and dynamically connected with the world.

Real world projects
You may be sending your child to school, or you may be educating your child at home. Either way, there are many things you can do as a parent to provide a nurturing education for your child. One of those things is to encourage and guide your child in investigating and acting on the world around them.

Encourage your child to reflect on their talents, the things they love to do with their talents, and the ways they can give to the world of their energy, creativity and caring. Encourage them to nurture and pursue those talents, interests and inclinations that come with a feeling of peace, rather than of agitation and strong attachment. Support them in choosing, defining and exploring a real world purpose, and in developing, evaluating, explaining, and where possible pursuing, a course of action in relation to that purpose. Before taking up their project each new day, encourage your child to clarify their intentions, consider their likely consequences, and let go of anticipated outcomes. Then they can go about their activities with full attention and presence.

A child may have a deep interest in a particular kind of animal, for example. It might be feasible to allow them to breed, raise and train some of those animals. They might do it on a personal scale, or even on a commercial scale, right through to marketing the animals. In the process, a child will certainly learn a great deal about the many things involved. More importantly, though, they will be able to live out their inner creativity, love and enthusiasm.

Real world projects may also be proposed by a parent, who inspires a child to undertake a project. You may nudge, guide and inspire your child to engage in a wide variety of pursuits, over time. These might include projects in 'our natural world', 'our technological world', 'our social world' and 'our personal world'. Whether they arise spontaneously, or through the inspiration of a parent, it is important that these investigations are not self-indulgent or insipidly politically correct. They must have grit. They must confront realities, and most importantly confront the necessity of obedience to the deepest reality, the deepest promptings within the individual.

The child's involvement must, in the end, be genuinely voluntary. They must have a genuine sense of interest and ownership, and their involvement must not be coerced. Even when inspired by a parent, these projects are undertaken in such a way as to lend themselves to as much self-management by each child as they are capable of, with parent support, rather than high levels of parent-directedness and control. Some years ago, I read a good summary of a principle of progression that parents can sensitively apply when helping a child to engage with and master any new activity or part of an activity. "I'll do it, you watch. I'll do it, you help. You do it, I'll help. You do it, I'll watch."

In guiding one or more children in their undertaking of a real world project, it is important that a parent gives careful consideration to the nature, interests, needs and circumstances of the young participants. Consider, according to the nature of the project, the possible need for activities relating to orientation and clarification of the intention, to observation of conditions, to information-gathering, and to examination of beliefs and emotions previously associated with the situation. You might also provide for some analysis, for comparing and contrasting, and for hypothesising and testing causes and effects.

Seeing things freshly
Also be mindful of assisting your child in putting aside assumptions and viewing the situation, or elements of it, passively and receptively. This allows creative and intuitive processes to come into play that may reveal deeper insights and new connections that move the child beyond existing patterns of perception, thought, emotion and action. Activities may then move to the drawing of conclusions in relation to the project's aims, to identification and location of resources, to application and engagement in the undertaking, and to monitoring, evaluation and reflection. These activities can be drawn upon in a very flexible and dynamic way that is responsive to the unfolding of the project and to the child's engagement and responses.

An important role of the parent is to sensitively support the child in changing and letting go of beliefs, emotions and attitudes that have become habitual. Young people (any people) consider alternatives to a view they hold, only when they are convinced of the inadequacy of their existing view. They only let go of old patterns if (1) they understand why new experiential or logical evidence represents a contradiction of some aspect of their existing viewpoint and behaviours, and (2) it is important to them to resolve the contradiction. Real world projects lend themselves to such liberating changes, because they are generally of enough interest to the child that it will be important to them to let go of inadequate or inconsistent beliefs and behaviours.

Parents can help a child, in explicit and implicit ways, to see that they are not a fixed set of beliefs, but can be in charge of their own minds and lives. Show them how they can see, know and respond more freshly and authentically when their habitual ways prove inadequate. There are several explicit ways parents can do this. For example, you can sensitively ask questions to elicit your child's conceptions and misconceptions. You can encourage your child to elaborate on their misconceptions and delve into the thinking, memories and/or emotions behind them, rather than being pre-occupied, as school teachers typically are, with eliciting from children, or giving them, the 'right' answer or method.

Show your child how to support or critique their own and others' points of view on the basis of experiential and/or logical evidence. Parents can sensitively guide a child to activities, experiments and texts to create conceptual conflict (for example, experiments whose results are likely to differ from the child's assumptions or predictions). And a parent can suggest that the child stop thinking, and just give sensitive attention to the object, phenomenon, belief or whatever it may be, passively, receptively, non-analytically. The child can try to liberate themselves from what they think they know about it, and open themselves to a feeling of its patterns.

The point of it all... conscious living
Encourage your child not to be preoccupied with what they might see as the eventual outcome of a project. Be sensitive in any situations of disappointing or unexpected outcome, and explore the situation with your child non-judgementally. Explore questions about contexts, priorities, budgetary constraints and the different points of view people often have about particular things in life. It would be a great shame if a parent conveyed to their child a sense that any real world project had been a 'failure' or a waste of time! Rather, in the context of this nurturing kind of education, a parent would support such activities because it is living, without the primary concern being attachment to a particular outcome.

There will be legitimate occasions for appropriate forms of assessment. For example, you may need to know, on occasion, the capabilities of your child, so you can give appropriate guidance and recommendations for suitable activities or more effective performance. And it will often be helpful to a child to give them sensitive but honest feedback regarding the activities and procedures they are engaging with. But the kind of education we are talking about here has no place for grades. It does not involve assessment for labeling or ranking children. Rather, let the feedback you provide for your child be descriptive and constructive.

It will also be helpful to your child to encourage them to reflect on the effectiveness of their own activities, expression and creations, when appropriate. What difficulties did they have, if any? How did they overcome them, or attempt to? What new discoveries did they make about how to use various forms of speech or writing, or perform particular tasks? How might they do these things more effectively next time? In what ways have their thoughts and feelings about the matter at hand changed?

Many valuable skills can be developed in the context of such real world projects, including literacy and numeracy skills. In the next article, we will consider some of the ways this can be done.

.../Part 2

Andrew Seaton