Heaven on Earth

- a new vision of teaching and learning

Have you ever thought that the basic principles underlying our current school system might just all be one colossal blunder?

In the first two years of life, children acquire motor responses and language at a staggering speed. By the age of four, children know who they are, they have discovered the power they have and the limits of that power, too; they have mastered the psychology of the people around them and have learnt to communicate in a socially acceptable way.

And then we send them to school!

Within a year or two - for most children - the excitement of life and the “miracle of discovery” begin to dry up and wither away.

Should our school system be doing things differently?

At present, most schools seem to be making three fatal errors:

  • They tell learners how their brains should be working in order to suit the school system rather than adapting the school syllabus to how the human brain really works.
  • They reduce things to simplistic structures, thereby depriving the brain (which is a highly sophisticated device that excels at making order out of chaos and at detecting recurring patterns) of the details that create natural associations, fix memories and give everything emotional meaning.
  • They exercise stifling control, instead of setting the stage for “miracles of discovery” to happen.

But what concrete changes to our present system would a more fruitful approach involve?

It might require a total redefinition, on the part of teachers, of what their job consists of. Teachers would have to give up the flattering self image of being experts in their subject and take on the more challenging role of being specialists in communication. Teaching, after all, entails the successful transferring of skills and understanding to others. For this reason, teachers find themselves in a peculiar paradox: they are totally dependent on their students’ ability to learn, since if nobody is learning, then nobody has been doing any real teaching!In order to provide effective teaching, teachers would have to learn about the human brain, its different memory systems and the different “learning styles” students can have. They would have to become skilled at “packaging” knowledge and presenting it in a way that is meaningful to very different types of learners. Ideally, teachers would instil positive emotional associations with everything they teach and present their material both directly and indirectly. This is crucial to success, since our long-term memory best retains information that has been emotionally charged and perceived only through “the corner of the eye.”

If teachers hope to have any real impact, they must realise that it is very difficult to teach students who suffer from low self-esteem. They will have to accept that the crucial task of raising that low self-esteem is an integral part of their job, since reasonably high self esteem is a pre-condition for any successful learning to take place.

The designing of activities that raise self-esteem is simple enough. This involves devising challenges that are sufficiently easy for students to succeed at but more difficult than what these students think they are capable of. A simple game where learners are asked to remember the favourite objects of 12 different people is one example, since most people are convinced that they could never do this and are very surprised when they actually pull it off.

Once students have succeeded at something they thought was beyond their ability and been forced to acknowledge that they have been successful, they will be obliged to reappraise upwards the level of their capacities and readjust, accordingly, their concept of who they are – especially if classmates have witnessed their achievement! Furthermore, since nothing succeeds as well as success, these new “winners” will quickly get caught up in the thrill of being successful and increasingly seek out other situations where they can exercise their newly discovered talents and skills.

For any of the above to work, however, the learning environment must be a very safe place. Students must be encouraged to take chances and experiment with new ideas and processes, even if this temporarily causes them to feel off-balance and vulnerable. For any learner, opening up enough to entertain new concepts can be destabilising and threatening: this might even necessitate a readjustment of everything that is already known and a change in world outlook. For example, a 4 or 5 year old, who understands for the first time that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, will have a lot of serious “reorganising of reality” to do, pursuant to this somewhat shattering realisation.

A similar kind of flexibility, trust and openness will be required of learners who allow themselves to be swamped with huge amounts of information without becoming defensive and shutting down in an attempt to remain in control.

A secure environment is one where students know they will be protected from any form of criticism or irony by both the teacher and their classmates, all of whom are mutually supportive and committed to fostering a safe atmosphere. Let us think about this for a moment. Why would any student, afraid of being ridiculed by a teacher or classmates for having given a wrong answer, ever voluntarily take the risk of saying anything when it was not necessary? Isn’t it more likely that that student would focus all attention on remaining as invisible as possible, in the hope that no-one would take any notice of him or her? In doing so, that student would be unlikely to assimilate anything during this camouflage manoeuvre, as is shown in studies on this well-known brain mechanism known as “downshifting” . (See the 2nd paragraph below.)

In his triune theory of the brain, Paul MacLean explains how the human brain contains three levels, each the result of a different stage of neuro-physiological development. The earliest brain, the reptilian, looks after survival, responding to hunger, thirst, needs for sleep, air and physical space, as well as certain reproductive instincts. The second brain, the mid-brain, is present in all mammals and is best known for being the seat of emotions, such as fear, anger, jealousy, happiness, etc. The third and most distinctively human brain is the neo-cortex where all reasoning and pattern recognition takes place.

From a pedagogical viewpoint, the “downshifting” concept is a pivotal one. It explains how when people perceive that they are in danger, adrenalin and cortisol are released, inhibiting blood from reaching the upper levels of the brain. This means that when a student feels unsafe, no learning can possibly take place because the seat of learning (the cortex) is not getting enough blood for it to be able to function.

For the past 25 years, I have been working with a teaching approach called Suggestopedia, which focuses on activating the reserve capacities of the unconscious mind. This system enables most students to learn 3 times as fast as before, largely because they feel safe, are highly stimulated and find themselves in a “flow state”. This highly desirable form of concentration eliminates almost all outside interference and learning seems to take place through instant osmosis. This “flow state” seems to come about most easily when students are given tasks that require about 120% of their normal maximum capacity.
To give an example of this “flow state”, imagine yourself on a motorcycle, tearing along at 220 km an hour. The scenery is flying by and you feel totally confident in your ability to pass the other vehicles that seem to be standing still. You feel exhilarated, but are aware that your total attention is required. You will not, at this time, be trying to remember the name of an old friend or the brand of perfume some aunt once wore: you are in the moment, consumed by the excitement of what you are doing; your awareness is heightened and your senses are sharpened.

The essence of the Suggestopedic approach is the attention paid to detail, since it is the details – especially the invisible ones – that will shape the attitude of a learner to the subject matter and fashion his or her self-image as a learner. This, in turn, will result in greater or lesser confidence and receptivity. Let me give examples:

  • If a classroom is well organised, aesthetic and stimulating, students will feel privileged and experience what they are doing together as important. If, on the other hand, a classroom is unimaginative, messy, dirty and uncomfortable, students will feel that they are being garaged there in order to keep them out of mischief and they are more likely to behave as if they were “social cases” picked up off the streets. (Remember: according to BBC research, in any communicative situation, 55% of what is retained is the Context, while body language, facial expressions and attitude constitute 38% of what will be remembered. As regards the content of what is said, this will only make up 7% of what is later recalled.)
  • If a teacher arrives at the first lesson with a small number of papers or a very short text, this will suggest that the subject matter is very difficult and that the teacher does not expect the students to be particularly gifted; this is a highly negative suggestion. If, on the other hand, the same teacher arrives with a long text, this communicates a confidence in the ability of the students and conveys the idea that the subject is not that difficult for them. This is a positive suggestion.
  • If there are few activities planned and done in a session, this suggests a poverty of imagination on the part of the teacher, a lack of adequate preparation and a boring monotony that all must endure (or react against). However, if activities change every 5 – 7 minutes because there are so many other exciting things to squeeze into the time allotted, and if energy is managed so that it keeps building on what has been done to attain higher and higher levels, then enthusiasm will be enormous and time will fly.
  • If a teacher wears indistinguishable streams of uninspiring clothing day after day, the suggestion is one of routine and tedium; this numbs the senses and deprives visual learners of memory hooks on which to hang what they have learnt. Noticeable variations from a rich range of elegant clothes, on the other hand, suggest that the class is an important occasion and that students are worth looking decent for. This affords a festive air to the class and helps students better remember everything that transpires, against an unforgettable backdrop of memorable colour.

Similarly, if Indirect Correction techniques are used that emphasise how intelligent each mistake made by students has been – rather than stressing the inaccuracy of the information volunteered; if Presentation techniques are used such that students can tune into the teacher’s thinking processes and telepathically participate in the unfolding of the various class activities – rather than having to submit to some class plan made beforehand without regard to students’ tastes and interests or the mood of a class at a specific moment; if specific types of vague and open-ended formulations are used by a teacher that put students in contact with their own inner thoughts and values – rather than imposing normative behaviour through judgmental injunctions… then, and only then, will we have a nurturing learning environment.

Possible standards by which any kind of teaching might be measured could be:

  • Is the class a life transforming experience for everyone in it?
  • Are students utilising their potential in the most effective and efficient way?
  • If so, are they aware of this?
  • Does learning seem to be pouring into them?
  • Are students being recognised for who they are and for what they have always been?
  • Are students taking cognisance of the particularities of their own thinking and feeling processes and understanding what characterises them – as opposed to everyone else?

Like any list, it might seem difficult to use this inventory in any practical way, as there are so many different considerations to bear in mind at the same time. But, there may be a shortcut to all of the above – one thought that would enable teachers to get it all right without having to juggle with so many parameters:

Perhaps we should stop trying to bring each other up in our own image and instil our personal values in each other; instead we could lend each other our experience and expertise and create environments where we can all reveal ourselves – and each other – to each other.

Or, put even more simply,

If a teacher really looks after the learners, the learning will look after itself.…..

And wouldn’t that be Heaven on Earth?