Friday, April 15, 2005

Some Recent Insights

Pedagogical Teaching View For An Introduction To Tibetan Literature

In creating this course for the Pedagogy 2 class (Marlboro College/Spring 2005) out of my many years research into Tibetan culture and literature, I found a surprising number of pedagogical views that seem to suit the topic at hand. My own line of inquiry grows out of the basic ground that uncertainty leads to the discovery of new or perhaps one can say, fresh ways of perceiving the world and expression. This is a state of mind most poets know well. “Make it New” poet Ezra Pound, proclaimed at the dawn of the modern era. As a poet myself, daily I face the blank page in terror and discomfort awaiting that first flash of insight, seed language, or cluster of thoughts to arise. It has taken me decades to understand how important it is to allow oneself in the learning process, as in the creative, to stand in “bewilderment” as poet Fannie Howe said, and face the unknown.

Beginning this course amid a great deal of personal confusion at entering an unknown discipline for the first time, that of education, I soon found a spark to ignite my interest with D.N Perkins’ illuminating article, “Mindware and the Metacurriculum.” Perkins presents two key observations that framed my final project found in the following quotes:

Mindware does three jobs, all of which concern the observation of thought. It works to pattern, repattern, and depattern thinking.

I am an advocate of what is often called infusion—integrating teaching of new concepts in a deep and far-reaching way the subject matter instructions.

Since how mind functions happens to be the principal theme of numerous Tibetan literary works beginning with the great poet saint, Milarepa in the 10th century, I was intrigued. Perkins’ thesis that we need to know how to know better and that intelligence itself is learnable debunks the reliance on conventional measurements of determining intelligence. For as he points out, reflective intelligence offers the best target of opportunity for education because it is the most learnable of the three -neural/experiential/reflective.

In teaching Tibetan literature, one of the primary questions I ask my students is “Why Tibetan Literature? Or what does Tibetan culture have to offer Western culture at this point in history? For me, the answer is precisely in the Mindware which embodies Tibetan culture where pattern, repattern and depattern are the cornerstone to Tibetan worldview with its long inquiry into the primordial nature of mind in contrast to solidified dualistic thinking. We live in a world bifurcated by dualism—us & them, good & bad, rich and poor. Where such schisms prevail with a limited capacity for a deeper reflective thinking, as a society-- we are “stepping on the throat of our own song,” as one poet put it.

Thus, in this context, education may serve a noble cause in teaching individuals how to think and how mind functions for it is only in our ability to pattern, repattern and depattern, through acts of continuous reflection that we can meet the challenges of the 21st century. Tibetan culture, in general, has something to say to us about how a society can manifest so much wisdom with so little material goods, how the primacy of feeling stands in stark contrast to conventional mindsets. In short, Tibetan culture is a civilization passionate about mind and it might be interesting, if not useful, for us to consider what such a society might be like in terms of human development and to hear what they have to say. In the Tibetan language there are hundreds of words for mind detailing in minutiae its most subtle movements.

An infusion of properly relating to how thinking functions as part of an instructional design can only benefit an individual (and society) by providing an entrée into more creative modes of problem solving which requires stepping outside the box with keen perceptions and a mind willing to stand in bewilderment of the unknown. It is said in the Tibetan tradition that wisdom and compassion are the two wings of a bird. Without one or the other, there can be no flight. In teaching this course or any other, my intention is always to reach beyond course objectives and goals to touch the nerve of more enduring understandings. Like my subject matter itself, I find that educators can, and often do, appeal to the highest and deepest.

The primary pedagogical view point which strongly influenced how I evolved the delivery of this course, it’s syllabus, course strategies, rubrics comes from Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding By Design, particularly-- the six facets of understanding and the “backwards design” model. Here again, we stand on lofty ground as to the human potential for intelligence and wisdom beyond easy conceptual frameworks. To me, the ‘backwards model’ seems to embody a precise methodology for introducing training in reflective thinking to accompany subject matter instruction. Moreover, (according to these authors) the values of a deeper understanding can be transmitted and one’s capacity for them enlarged in how learning is processed individually and in the culture of learning itself—the classroom, whether virtual or not.

In putting together the course overview by means of the UbD template as well as the rubrics (template found at Thinking Gear), I found myself focusing on the ‘six facets of understanding’ in how I shaped the course content to enable well-rounded project oriented assignments allowing for explanation, interpretation applications, perspective, empathy, and self-knowledge. Readings tend to emphasize explanation, interpretation and perspective while the project assignments lend themselves more to empathy and self-knowledge arising out of the applications required for each project.
Needless to say, I come to all this as a novice. I can now see that implementing an instructional course design means spending hundreds of hours dedicated to the task of creating a learning environment which demands presence to the learners themselves, where there is never any one answer but a multiplicity of viewpoints or applications. Where truly the teacher is as much a learner as the learner, a teacher.

Works cited or consulted:

D.N. Perkins, Mindware and the MetaCurriculum fromCreating the Future: Perspective on Education and Change ed. Dee Dickinson

Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Understanding By Design, ASCD, Alexandra, Virginia, 1998

Jon Mueller, Authentic Assessment Toolbox, especially Mueller’s Glossary

Tiffany Marra, Authentic Learning Environments

Thinking About Rubrics