Monday, April 6, 2009

The Power of Seeing Connections

Deep teaching is about exploring relationships and connections and about delving deeply into the processes all around us. We have to examine what we value and what we have placed value on. We have to decide what is important to us, what we would take a stand about, and what we want to be remembered for a hundred years from now. It’s important.

And it doesn’t happen overnight. It is a process. It takes time.

A process? Taking time? That part of you that has been trained to demand the quick fix, instant gratification, and the idea that you are supposed to feel good all the time or you are just not doing it right will be telling you right now to stop reading this article and find one that outlines the steps to get rich tomorrow. That’s OK. Feel that feeling. Feel that resistance. Embrace it. And then categorize it as one of those influences of your life that may need reassessing. 

Every aspect of the universe, every star, every planet, every life form, every rock, every molecule, every atom, everything, is part of a process, part of a series of events that has a beginning, an end, and many steps in between. 

People used to know this. 

Once we were, as a people, more aware and more connected to the natural idea of processes, more connected to the natural world and to nature where processes are obvious and visible everywhere. Morris Berman may have described it best in his book "The Reenchantment of the Earth." He said, "The cosmos, in short, was a place of belonging. A member of this cosmos was not an alienated observer of it but a direct participant in its drama."  

Today, we have few opportunities to explore processes. Mass education and shallow teaching emphasizes the result and the destination, not the journey. History is taught only in terms of what happened when, not how it happened, why it happened, and what forces of society and the individual were at play at the time to make it happen. Students are tested to give the right answer, and they are taught that there is only one answer when in reality there are usually many. Critical thinking and reasoning are rarely taught in school and our children often turn out to be one dimensional, unreflective thinkers, content to get their answers from the TV news, newspapers, or the latest television or DVD prophet.

Disconnection, separation, division, detachment, disassociation - these are all words that describe the way most people view our world and themselves, possibly as a consequence of shallow teaching. So many of us feel disconnected from the Earth itself, separated from the delicate web of life, divided from each other by arbitrary encumbrances, detached from the very meaning of our existence, and disassociated from the awe and mystery of the world and the universe. 

Our daily lives are filled with more events than our elaborate datebooks can contain, we live by the litany “oh, that there were only more hours in the day,” and we bemoan our lot in life. We are scared to death of spiders and cockroaches, consider the natural world as wild, untamed and therefore dangerous, and resist awareness into the intricacies of our world for fear of having to take on one more responsibility. 

We in the Western world have tried so hard for so long to disconnect from the Web of Life but try as we might, we have not and cannot succeed. The embrace of the Earth is too strong. We cannot walk away from the planet of our birth and even when we try to cut those bonds by traveling into space, our bones and bodies wither. Those few human beings who have walked on another world, who have come as close as anyone to breaking the bonds of our home planet (still embraced, however, by the long arms of its gravity), came back so changed, so transformed, that their lives were irrevocably altered. These astronaut/pilot/scientists all became teachers, artists, mystics, healers, farmers, or theologians (except one who became a beer distributor and another who became a defense consultant), but few may have reasoned why they were so transformed. (The Other Side of the Moon Video, Castle and Hendring, 1990) 

We can learn so much from these men who tried to cut their bonds with Mother Earth and failed, who experienced its awesome power from 250,000 miles away in space, who felt the intense power of the place of our birth, who, while standing on an airless, lifeless Moon, felt the great gift of our existence. Yet they were so unprepared for the experience, so trained in the disconnected approach of Western science, so confused about their place in the universe, that the great gifts of awareness, awe, truth, and beauty that were revealed to them as they stood on the surface of the Moon and looked back at their home often turned to dysfunction, trauma, and fear. 

What a challenge we Earth-bound people have to embrace awareness, experience the awe, and feel the beauty of our world if men trained and educated by our culture had such difficulty from 250,000 miles away, seeing the interconnected ball that is the Earth hanging in their sky. Yet in spite of the inability of their training to prepare the lunar astronauts for the full impact of their experience, all of these men were transformed in one way or another. We can break the bonds of our cultural, intellectual, and emotional limitations. We can open our eyes to see our connections and realize our true place in nature, but we need help. The disassociation of the last few thousand years will not erode overnight. But by carefully teaching each other to re-member, re-integrate, and re-associate, the embrace of our Earth can be felt again.

 There are many tools created by many individuals that can aid in this task. All of the tools are simple and can be applied in any situation, whether it be personal, professional, academic, or spiritual. They all have at their foundation one basic tenant: that “the beginning of wisdom is calling things by their right name.” This we must do as we begin our long journey of re-learning. Our very ability to see the world as it really is has been clouded by a long legacy of distraction.  

Developing a relationship with the natural world can have profound effects on our perceptions of the universe. Opening our minds and hearts to include the idea that a tree has rights and that a dolphin may be our neighbor can forever change one’s appreciation for life. Even flushing the toilet with a mindfulness that the waste is, after minimal treatment, going into the ocean and not magically disappearing, can dramatically alter perceptions.

But with an open heart and open mind comes a price – and it is a high price for those living in the U.S. today. That price can be horror, shock, revulsion, and powerlessness. Deep teachers are needed now, more than ever before in our history. Now the opportunity exists to synthesize a few thousand years of experience and to take the next step towards living within the web of life.

 We can become discriminating thinkers – and teach our children, family, and friends to become that way too. Here are some ideas how:

• Realize that you may not have been given the tools to successfully wade through all the complex, mumbo-jumbo out there. Seek help.

• Ask questions. Probe assumptions. This is probably the easiest thing to do immediately. Ask “why” and “how” and “where did you hear that” and “how do you know that?”

• Hold yourself strictly accountable for what you say. Don’t even tell a friend about something you heard about unless you know where you heard it. Don’t contribute to the growing mythology we all have about what is going on in the world, how the world works, and who is good and who is bad. Find out for sure. When you read something in the newspaper, realize that it is a very incomplete picture of what is really happening. When you talk about it, preface your statements with words like “well, I don’t know what is really happening, but I read in the Times that . . .” This is a very important step in keeping your mind and heart open. Say what you mean and mean what you say. 

• Reject stereotypes. Watch your language. We reinforce our own flawed learning everyday when we are sloppy with our thinking and our language. Don’t participate in the assumptions of our culture that continue to isolate us from each other. Don’t say things like “women love to shop” or “men love sports.” Don’t accept any of the assumptions that are often made about Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, Jews, or whoever. When you hear someone say “oh you know them, they are so lazy” when referring to some other culture, STOP THEM. Tell them that such a statement is inappropriate and unfounded. If you listen and laugh, you are participating.

• Don’t watch the television news AT ALL. There is nothing you can gain from it. Nothing.

• Seek alternative information sources. Seek out alternative bookstores in your community. Resist patronizing the large chain bookstores. Visit an alternative bookstore and then visit the superstore. Notice the difference in the type of books carried. Reflect on the affect that such selective book offerings in the superstores have on the public. What if everyone knew about alternative bookstores and their selections? Visit a women’s bookstore in your community. Look at the amazing titles they carry. Reflect upon how the world has been affected by the fact that our perception of the universe has been seen from almost exclusively a white class-privileged male perspective.

• Examine your spending habits. Think carefully about what you need versus what you think you want. Are you spending to fill an emotional need, because you’ve been denied something you thought you deserved at work or as a child, or because you are angry or sad? Think about this very carefully. 

It is easy to get discouraged, to feel overwhelmed. But if you realize that the choices you make in what you buy and what you eat can have such a dramatic affect on the world, you can get quite a bit of power back. If you realize how easy it can be to smile at someone or to help someone in need, you will start to see that the answers to our dilemmas lie not just in legislation or politics, but in our hearts. Just figure out what you want to be remembered for and what is important to you. Then, do everything in your power to make those things come true. 

Now let’s begin.

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feed and dark wings.

Wendell Berry

Thursday, February 5, 2009

We Can All Be Genies of the Lamp

I was watching an old Twilight Zone episode, the one where a troubled man finds the famed Aladdin’s lamp. He rubs it and out pops the Genie, offering him one wish (people have been abusing three wishes, says the Genie, so they only offer one now!). The story continues as the man imagines wishing for his wildest dreams and inevitably, he winds up unhappy with each fulfilled wish since his own self-limiting behaviors and poor image of himself and his abilities sabotages him every time. Finally, he decides on his wish – to become the Genie himself, gaining power and self-esteem through helping others.

It was a profound reminder to me that as educators, we can all become Genies in the Lamp for all those who come under our care. But so many students of all ages carry with them self-limiting behaviors and assumptions. Teaching them facts and equations alone is not enough – not nearly enough. We have to come up with ways to give them the tools to think critically, reason rationally, challenge the assumptions that riddle our lives, and to deal with the extreme information overload that plagues us all since the proliferation of the Internet.

Otherwise, the same self-limiting ideas and beliefs that hold so many back will continue to dominate their lives.

Fortunately, a wealth of techniques exist to help us accomplish these goals. Teaching in this way is what I call “deep teaching.”

Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess in the early 1970s spoke of a distinction between a "shallow" and a "deep" ecology. The view that humans are separate from and above the natural world is considered a shallow, human-centered view. Deep ecology recognizes humans as just one of many strands in the web of life and views the earth as a complex collection of interdependencies. Similarly, I define a "shallow" and a "deep" teaching.

Shallow teaching is anthropocentric, striving to create in students a sense of superiority and control over the natural world, whatever the field of study. Teaching human power relationships as defined by modern Western culture is the foundational principle of shallow teaching. Shallow teaching also emphasizes the separation of fields of study, physical laws as the sole basis for all life, the perception that there are unchanging truths in our world, and that knowledge is gained by those who memorize the most raw data. Shallow teaching emphasizes the importance of the individual and reinforces the concept of rigid boundaries in the individual and in society.

Deep teaching redefines our notion of power, restructuring our relationship with the natural world by teaching that one gets the most power by sharing all that they have. Strength comes from sharing, not from taking. [See more on this in my Ed Week interview at]

In this new paradigm, for me to be strong, you do not have to be weak; for me to have all that I need, someone else does not have to go without; for me to be safe, I do not have to build high walls; for me to be secure, I do not have to have large amounts of money. The notions of power, strength, safety, and security are redefined in terms of sustainability, not the attainment of personal isolation and wealth.

In this blog, I will explore the principles of deep teaching and present exciting examples of how teachers around the world are inspiring students to break free of the assumptions that rule their lives and hold them back.

There is much competition for the intellectual attention of everyone today, especially students. Television and print media news teach our children to be satisfied with 30 second soundbites of information and to make global, far reaching conclusions after hearing only a few seconds about a situation. Possibly most damaging is that they teach that after 30 seconds to a minute, the story is over and we don't have to concern ourselves with it any more.

By the time a typical TV viewing child has graduated high school, he or she will have seen over 500,000 commercial advertisements, tens of thousands of violent acts including murder, and thousands of confusing and contradictory sexual messages. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says that children who are developmentally under the age of eight are not able to understand the intent of advertisements and, in fact, accept advertising claims as true.

Look at the results: 31 percent of nine year old girls think they are too fat and 11 percent of eighth grade girls are on diets! TV has contributed in a major way to obesity and diabetes because it is the principle cause of inactivity in kids and adults.

The average 15-year old has viewed over 13,000 television killings by that age.

Studies have also shown that heavy television viewers express more racially prejudiced attitudes, overestimate the number of people employed as physicians, lawyers, and athletes, perceive women as having more limited abilities and interests than men, hold exaggerated views about the prevalence of violence in society, and believe that old people are fewer in umber and less healthy today than they were 20 years ago even though the opposite is true. (Aronson, Elliot, The Social Animal, W.H.
Freeman and Co., Eighth Edition, 1999.)

The AAP recommends that, "Pediatricians should urge parents to avoid television viewing for children under the age of two years. Although certain television programs may be promoted to this age group, research on early brain development shows that babies and toddlers have a critical need for direct interactions with parents and other significant caregivers for healthy brain growth and the development of appropriate social, emotional, and cognitive skills."

For kids older than two, the AAP recommends no more than one to two hours a day of developmentally appropriate, nonviolent television programming.

So what are the effects of all this subtle and not-so-subtle indoctrination? I can’t help but think it affects our students’ attention span, priorities, and beliefs about how the world works, both socially, environmentally, and physically. Deep teaching may be needed now more than ever.

Transforming our teaching from shallow to deep starts with transforming the way we teach by remodeling our lesson plans. Here is a way to start the process.

First, select a lesson plan for remodeling. Start with what you plan to teach tomorrow. Then, write down the fundamental question you hope to have the students answer through the lesson. Then come up with “fundamental and powerful concepts, insights, understandings, and knowledge” that you want students to leave with after the lesson and choose two or three of them. Don’t think you have to accomplish them all in one session.

Now come up with experiential, participatory, discovery-based activities that will allow the students to discover those principles.

For example, supposed you planned to teach a session about why it seems so hard to attain world peace. Here’s an example of how the remodeling process works.


World Peace and Justice

Why is it a “fight” to attain world peace?

1. Achieving “world peace” means different things to different people.
2. When you consider the social, economic, political, and personal points of view, there are many artificial barriers to world peace.
3. Not everyone may want world peace.
4. World peace can only be obtained through the attitudes of people, not laws, technology or other superficialities.
5. To take the student out of their own ego-centered world and think on a broader scale.
6. To demonstrate the importance of the individual’s views and actions.

What is the point of the paragraph?
What do you think about it?
What do you think about her interpretation?

Example: Role play
1. Count off 4 or 5roups of 4 or 5 students each, depending on how many are in class
2. Assign roles in group: a) Congressperson, b) lawyer, c) professor, d) military general, e) mother from a developing country, f) whatever you can think of.
3. Each group has a facilitator/moderator (if you have enough students, the moderator does not participate in the discussion).
4. Each group has a recorder who takes notes and reports on their work.

Instead of spreading around the roles in each group, you can have a whole group represent just one role and point of view.

Taking on your assigned role and point of view, work together to come up with a plan for world peace.

Use any time slot you have. I have done this in just 15 minutes or for 2 hours.

Can be a written group report or just having the recorder stand up and give their report orally.

Students write a couple of paragraphs on what you learned from this exercise.

Trying to create a plan for world peace while assuming the roles of the assignment quickly bring to light the various obstacles that exist when people advocate their own agendas in any group situation.

This deceptively simple exercise is a good example of how you can remodel your lessons to allow for self discovery – the best way for students to learn. It will take some time to switch to this approach, especially if your curriculum has been based on imparting large amounts of data. But it will be well worth your efforts to embrace the classic tenant of critical thinking teaching: Teach less so that students learn more.

Check out the resources below for more help on transitioning to discovery-based teaching strategies and please send me the exciting, discovery-based lesson ideas you use that I can share in this column.


The Center for Critical Thinking
A wealth of some of the best resources for teachers in critical thinking, this site blends the work of Richard Paul at the Center for Critical Thinking at Sonoma State University in California with critical thinking resources around the world. A great resource for remodeling your lessons.

The National Institute on Media and the Family
Lots of statistics on the impact of TV watching on our children – and adults – to give you ideas about how to compensate in your teaching.

The Neil Postman Information Page
A consummate educator and critic of the influence of media on education, Neil Postman (1931 — 2003) wrote over 30 books and countless articles. His classic work, “Teaching as a Subversive Activity,” will influence your teaching for all time.

Jackie A. Giuliano Ph.D. is the President of the Center for Lifelong Learning
(, providing workshops that at least triple reading speed and double memory. He has been teaching critical thinking-based courses for 15 years. He can be reached at