As a student of the public school system and, later, as a university professor, I failed to question the authoritarian nature of education systems and the methodologies they employ. It wasn’t until I began researching the writings of Paolo Freire for a project unrelated to my field that my eyes began to open. His work, while certainly calling attention to the colonial mechanisms that have driven pedagogy, primarily empowers students and teachers with healing solutions. Since that time, my intentions and ideas have changed drastically. Along with the opening of my own heart, it was a shift in methodologies I used that transformed my classroom into sacred space.
We tend to think of education either as institutions that administer learning—public or private, higher, secondary or elementary or as a process by which we integrate knowledge (i.e. incorporate data from outside authoritative sources). Yet the word “educate” from “ex-ducere” in Latin means literally “lead forth” or “draw out” emphasizing that the source of learning and education is found within us.
Jack Canfield wrote: “People have two philosophies about education. One is that you come into the world as empty, or even negative, with a tendency towards evil and therefore children have to be shaped, developed, contained, and made into a good person. The other is that you are naturally life affirming, learning oriented, and cooperative.”
One viewpoint sees students as blank slates, in need of programming to fill their emptiness with “accepted” knowledge, opinions, principles and values using a hierarchical model. The ability to take in and apply these external packages is considered learning. The other philosophy sees students/learners as complete, perfectly curious, innovative, and creative. In general, the fundamental skills we develop in the spirit-based educational programs described below include flexibility, openness, awareness, self-empowerment and a wisdom that transcends information absorption.
Holistic Education—Holism is the recognition that 1) there are multiple parts to the whole, 2) no one part is more important than another, and 3) an understanding of the sum of the parts does not necessarily explain the whole. Holistic education sees the student as a complex individual comprised of biological, ecological, social, psychological, spiritual, and emotional parts living in an equally complex cultural and ideological environment. These complexities are addressed in holistic education by not ignoring or over-emphasizing one particular aspect of the student, as post-industrial, reductionist models used in public education tend to do today. Each facet of the student is honored, drawn out, given voice, allowed and encouraged to develop. Each of the approaches below fall under the larger umbrella of Holistic Education—more reading can be found at: http://www.holistic-education.net/articles/articles.htm.
Contemplative Education—Contemplative learning used to conjure up visions of isolated mystics and monastic monks for me. I was first able to move beyond those stereotypes when I read Santa Teresa de Ávila’s El castillo interior in which she proposes that union with God is attainable by moving deeper into the interior of one’s own soul. It raised the notions for me that there was an inner realm to explore and that sacred experience could be found there.
How does this apply to education? Mainstream education systems emphasize acquisition of knowledge about an external reality as fixed packages of unquestioned, scholastically-proven facts. By contrast, contemplative processes emphasize “not-knowing”, in other words being aware of and open to the images, emotions, sensations that are present while in contemplation without using them to form fixed conclusions about the world. This openness or mindfulness is achieved through the contemplative practices of meditation, journaling, yoga, painting, music and service to others. These practices inform one’s ever-changing personal truth. Programs that deploy contemplative methods do not ignore scientific method, scholarship, and ends-based knowledge; rather they ground left-brain learning and seek to create balance between the analytical mind and intuition. One of the best examples of contemplative programs in higher education is Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.
Experience-based learning—Seems like a no-brainer, yet textbooks, standardized testing, and classroom-enclosed learning spaces dominate the landscape of both public and private education. Experiences that engage the senses, that liberate students from robotic roles, that say yes more than no can only breathe energy into the learning process. Even within a traditional classroom, I have used music, dance, clapping, role-playing and charades to teach Spanish to first and second-year college students. Not only do these collaborations between body and mind wake students from passivity but they also boost memory and cross-brain learning.
Even more compelling are “real world” experiences. Multiple semesters of traditional university classes cannot provide the same personal and cultural growth and social curiosity realized by most students in three or four days of immersion abroad. As a director of different study abroad programs in Cuba, Ecuador and Puerto Rico, I have seen eyes and hearts open, ideological barricades fall, lifetime friendships forged and adolescents become adults in a matter of weeks. These same life-altering encounters happen in our cities and neighborhoods for those participating in service-learning/volunteerism experiences. Discussion groups, journaling and meditation enrich students’ understanding of the significance of their experiences.
Learning as community—There are two ways to look at community-based learning: 1) nurturing community within the learning space and 2) learning through interaction with the community at-large. With regard to the first, fostering authentic and safe learning spaces enables student autonomy, creative dialogue and a testing ground for developing ideas. If classroom communities are soul-centric, they teach conflict resolution, healthy belonging, civic and ecological responsibility, and relationship building.
Regarding the latter, opportunities to learn by interaction with the community means students take lessons from the microcosmic classroom out into the larger world. In my experience, this is an intense, unpredictable, and at times messy moment because students’ sensory systems that may have been dormant in the classroom come online suddenly. Emotions, psychological issues, repressed memories, and coping skills activate in the face of new realities. I remember counseling college students on how to acknowledge their emotions and be present for the children they tutored in the Hispanic barrio of Philadelphia. In spite of the challenges, the life-changing lessons those students integrated that semester brought growth on levels no textbook or concept-based learning methodology could touch.
Conclusion—Since all of these methodologies most certainly overlap—what do they have in common? They seek balance: between individuality and the community, between analytical and intuitive knowing, between secular perceptions and sacred living. They honor and celebrate all facets and flavors of humanity and nature. They are inclusive, open to new learning, willing to take risks, always evolving and see sacredness everywhere. And finally they see the student as a sacred whole and the world as an inseparable collaborator in that whole.
Other soul-centric educational approaches:
- Integrative Education—
- Eco-centric education—
- Rite of Passage/ Education—
- Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy and Civic courage. By Paolo Freire.
- The Heart of Learning: Spirituality in Education. By Steven Glazer.
- Schools with Spirit: Nurturing the Inner Lives of Children and Teachers. By Linda Lantieri.
- The Soul of Education: Helping Students Find Connection, Compassion, and Character at School. By Rachael Kessler.
- From Information to Transformation: Education for the Evolution of Consciousness. By Tobin Hart.