One of the things I would do if I were going to teach a child, I would as quickly as possible get out of any model that I was going to teach this child. That is, by hanging out with this child and saying, ‘OK, now what?’ You see?
Baba Ram Dass (1970), from Doing Your Own Being.
I come back to Baba Ram Dass in my reading. I’ve been thinking this week on teaching and learning, and from several perspectives: there is my own journey of learning (and here I’m not talking about academic learning); there is my role as a teacher, of sorts, of adults; I think of my adult learners; I think of children at play and what they receive from this play.
There is a tension of adult and child in the dynamic of play-based relationships. There is a tension of humility and assertion in the dynamic of adult/adult ‘teacher’ and ‘learner’ relationships. I’ve often felt these tensions and have a need to explore, to think as I write.
In his lecture at the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas, in May 1970, Baba Ram Dass (formerly the psychologist Dr. Richard Alpert) discusses teaching and learning. He adds, regarding his thinking on if he were to teach a child:
‘I am now under the model that the child already knows everything, and my job on myself is to thin the veils that keep me from knowing it all, and to not contribute to increasing the veils that keep him from knowing it all, right?’
This ‘work on the self’, it seems, is critical. It feeds into all aspects of the perspectives and tensions I list above: my own journey of learning (or wisdom); my skills as a teacher (both academic and as an open being); the journey of my adult learners, and my interactions with them; children at play, and my interactions with them too.
Ram Dass discusses how, in an ideal world, he’d like there to be a programme for ‘teachers to work on themselves.’ He says:
‘I think I would be inclined to surround children with as high a consciousness as I could find . . . I would put [these ‘teachers’] in an environment with these kids where whatever the vehicle [the moment of learning possibility] was, the teacher saw that as merely a vehicle for us to become conscious together . . . I’ll play for the long shot that they [the children] will open to the universe, which is within them.’
When I’m with children, I’m not teaching them as such: playwork isn’t about this. I have heard the argument, however, that there is a necessary dynamic of ‘informal teaching/learning’. Perhaps this is true. Perhaps the flow of what the adult knows can’t help but be passed on to the child. However, I’m not necessarily the ‘highest consciousness’ at any given time. I have learnt a great deal from children, and I’m not talking about ‘knowledge’ the way the education system sees it. Ram Dass also concludes:
‘Sometimes [the highest being is] the teacher and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it’s a kid.’
We shouldn’t read ‘highest being’ as something or someone aloof. We should read it in terms of ‘being wise’. Wisdom is not the same as knowledge.
Recently, I read a beautiful comment on another blog post. Laura Grace Weldon writes, in her blog, about the concept of educating too early, which is itself an inspiring read. However, one of the comments to that post also caught my attention:
‘What these high-minded early education experts don’t recognise (or don’t care about since all they want is to feed the education system) is that our civilisation is best served by people who have learned how to love, how to direct themselves, how to enjoy their own company in quiet, how to discover and create and imagine, how to be within the real world not some fake environment where sitting still is more important than anything their bodies and beautiful brains inspire them to do.’
This speaks to me of the acquired wisdom of children, but also of the acquired wisdom of the writer.
So what of my perspectives and tensions on teaching and learning?
My own journey of learning (or wisdom)
If I’m open, here and present, I’m able to see the way others inspire me. When I’m closed it’s because I’m ‘stuck’ in cycles of not understanding the self, of ego, of past and future thoughts. If I’m open I may see high consciousness in any other, irrespective of age. There’s a tension even here in the writing of these thoughts: these are notes for my own work on myself; these are notes that may read as directed at the reader. I write them in order to think them out. I keep the rest to myself. You find your own way.
My skills as a teacher (both academic and as an open being)
In his prologue to the transcription of Ram Dass’ lecture, Ernest Scott writes that the former Dr. Alpert began to feel ‘the pretence that those who were teaching, knew’.
If we teach, or try to teach, do we really ‘know’ at all? The tension of humility and assertion is always there. How much more can I help my adult learners, by standing back and being the medium through which their own desire to find something out is played?
The journey of my adult learners, and my interactions with them
If I input information directly, will it stay in there as well as if the learner who is ‘ready’ absorbs such things? Reading books is all very well (of course, the playwork literature is important), but ‘information’ is not the same as the experienced feeling of the moment in playwork. It is ‘knowledge’ and ‘wisdom’.
How shall I guide and not pollute that journey any other is on?
Children at play, and my interactions with them too
If I’m privileged to be invited into children’s play, I feel I’m invited in because of who I am, at that time, in that moment. I’m usually not invited in as a teacher, though sometimes children have asked questions because they want information. (‘What’s that?’ Gack said to me recently, as he got in really close to a yellow and black version of the ladybird family crawling over a wooden bench). Mostly, in play interaction with children, I feel I’m in it because I’m not teaching, because I won’t teach, because the children seem to sense this. I feel this because, the moment I slip into a more widely understood adult-child dynamic (a small frustration, or a more assertive request of mine to the child), there’s often a subtle (or not-so-subtle) shift in their demeanour towards me.
If I think it to be a good idea to input some ‘knowledge’, directly, into an interaction of play, I’m often ignored. It’s because the child isn’t ready. They come to learning of their own accord. These are notes to remind myself of constantly.
Things the ‘thinking whilst writing it’ has shown me
Teaching and learning has its tensions, as does work with other adults and with children. It is my learning, my absorption of information, that tells me that play is play because it is play: it is of the moment, and the moment is all. However, much more than this, in words I can’t really write because I don’t know how to, my experience shows me that play is the feeling of now. Play is the wisdom of now. It may not be a feeling or concept I can adequately teach. It may just be a concept that has to play itself through me.
Baba Ram Dass concludes:
‘The whole history of knowledge is as a drop in the bucket compared with wisdom. We’re trying to preserve something and what we’re doing is preserving at the cost of something much, much higher than is what we really want. We would like to train for wisdom, not knowledge. And what we’re training for is knowledge, because we can measure it. But knowledge is not convertible, necessarily, into human happiness or well-being. Wisdom is, because wisdom is learning to live . . . in harmony with the world at the moment it is.’