Monday, August 2, 2010

Beauty and Learning

One of the things that strikes me about conventional school-based education is that it's mainly about "have tos", which turn learning into drudgery, and drudgery (especially with respect to learning) is both unnecessary and rather unattractive.

Children are not trusted to figure out for themselves how to spell, so they have to memorize lists of words (even words they may not use on a regular basis and may soon forget) and regurgitate them back. Children who may be naturally mathematical may not spontaneously learn their basic addition or multiplication facts, so their lives become about flashcards and drills that occur outside the context of real purposes for learning those facts (where they would figure out their own strategies to remember them).

Adults decide which topics are important for children to learn and when, and a child has to set aside his or her own thoughts and interests in order to attend on demand. Even when children are presented with topics that are fantastic and interesting and exciting, the natural enthusiasm a child may feel about these ideas is quickly dampened when he or she is expected to demonstrate evidence of their learning: writing a report, passing a test, giving a presentation, etc. If the idea and impetus for sharing doesn't come from the child, then it's not really sharing at all - it's regurgitation. And if a child did his or her best on a project and feels good about it, even that is robbed by the fact that someone else assigns value to it (which often doesn't match the child's own assessment and is harmful to his sense of self).

So when I think about "a curriculum of beauty" (as coined by David Albert), I think more about a curriculum of delight. In fact, let's skip the word curriculum altogether and just focus on delight. David talks about how the institutional starkness and coldness of schools, as well as the methodologies employed, have nothing to do with beauty. A link to his Life Learning article on the topic is here. Be warned: they only give you a teaser (unlike the good old days when all the back issues were available online for free). I'm sure he goes on to other things and I also imagine he says this or something like this: as humans, we need the beautiful in our lives to feed our souls and nurture our minds, and that the true path to learning is to see and feel and experience the beauty in everything around us.

For me, as much as I love Shakespeare, I'd like to share that love with my child by going to a Bard on the Beach production or watching a Kenneth Branagh version (or others) on DVD so he can see the beauty of the play off the page. I truly don't understand why we make Jr. High and High School students slog through, line by line, of Elizabethan dramatized English language in order to experience a play (with the video at the end). It doesn't help most of them see the beauty in Shakespeare, it only makes it tedious and difficult and boring. I always loved Shakespeare and I was one of those kids who didn't mind slogging through it line by line, either at school or during University, as I saw it as poetry (which is my first language). But it wasn't until I went to see Kenneth Branagh's Henry V that I saw how the language could be spoken in such a way that it makes complete sense to the colloquial ear. And it was so beautiful and moving that I cried... not because of the plot, but because I was moved by the beauty of the language.

School-based math and physics did not delight me, although I could use the phrase books well and did just fine in school. I did not enjoy either until I started reading books like the Tao of Physics and the Dancing Wu Li Masters. Now, with the various Nova and PBS and BBC shows available, as well as wonderful books about the great ideas at the core of these disciplines (and fabulous activities/kits and toys), it's possible to learn so much about math and science in ways that are engaging and thrilling and fascinating and beautiful, without having to crack open a dry text book or write a test or complete an assignment. When I was studying sciences at University, my favourite parts were the labs - isolating the chromosomes of a fruit fly, discovering the structures of a mammalian brain, identifying bacteria and other microorganisms I'd cultured on petri-dishes, using pipets and Erlenmeyer flasks and burets... There is a beauty in rolling up your sleeves and getting hands-on with the world we live in.

I've also always enjoyed history because I love story... but history really came alive for me when I explored art and music history. Art and music became my anchors for remembering what happened when and who was involved. I have a better memory for periods of art and music than I do historical dates. I think that's interesting and I have no idea what it means, but I adore history now. It's a thing of beauty to me, especially when I'm at the symphony or at an art exhibition or even when I read about it because I can picture in my mind what things looked like, sounded like, and, a tad more risky, smelled like at that time.

To me, learning through beauty means bringing more of those delight-filled, fascinating things into our lives with our children, following and supporting their interests (and what delights them), sharing those experiences together in real and heart-felt ways, always attending to what is beautiful and intriguing first and foremost.

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