You've heard it a bunch: Fall 2021 is go time. Now or never. Make it or break it.
In this article, I want to argue that:
- In K-16 education, we tend to lack a clear conception of what students are, and that needs remedied;
- In K-16 schools, we tend to lack a clear conception of what our role is in the promotion of student long-term flourishing, and that too needs remedied; and
- The heart is the first and best path to the head, and we understudy it at our peril — especially in Fall 2021.
Sounds fuzzy (and a bit ominous there at the end), but I promise it's practical and good. Hang with me a bit.
More than brains on sticks: the trouble with myopic methodologies for understanding our students
Something that drives me crazy about education is how foggy our thinking around students is. For example, a few years back I remember seeing a large volume of books and trainings and articles on the brain. I started hearing people say things like, “My brain just doesn't want to do that,” or “That makes my brain happy,” or “My brain doesn't work like that.” We started taking brain breaks. In order to develop growth mindset in a person, we were supposed to teach them about the brain and neuroplasticity.
And here's the thing — all sorts of that was good! Some of my most valuable insights as a teacher have come from cognitive science, a sub-domain of which is the science of the brain.
I'm down for some brain talk.
The trouble was just that we got to this place where there was an unspoken sense that people are brains on sticks. It was myopia — near-sightedness. We lost the forest for the trees.
And so then came all kinds of writing and talk and training on social-emotional learning. We had to take care of the “whole child” — not just the brain. We needed SEL — the definition of which expanded as rapidly as its popularity. At one point, I remember seeing a Mr. Rogers clip on YouTube that started with a screen that said, “Social emotional learning.” (I sort of died that day.)
But again — there is all kinds of goodness in seeking the social and emotional maturation of a human being. I want such maturity for my own children. I want it for myself.
My trouble with it all is only this: I'm unclear on some basic questions. What's a person? What's my job? Where can I make my largest contribution as a teacher of young people in a public high school?
As is too often the case, the fundamentals were obscured by a fog.
But fog makes me work. I need clarity and context. How does the brain fit with the SEL fit with my job as a secondary educator? And so began yet another quest for coherence.
A five-part creature
The start of COVID gave me a chance to head down the research rabbit hole into just what people are. I needed to understand this for my inner work, and I needed to understand it for my work with students and adults.
So I'll spare you the twists and turns of my learning journey and take you straight to where I landed. What follows is most directly attributable to a late USC phenomenologist philosopher named Dallas Willard.
Basically, we're five parts:
- The intellectual part — that is, our thoughts
- The emotional part — that is, our feelings
- The physical part — that is, our bodies
- The social part — that is, the ways that other people make us who we are
- The volitional part — that is, our will, our heart, our executive center
The weaving together and interworking of these five parts is called a soul.
But Dave, I don't like that term soul. Sounds too religious.
Well feel free to call it a person if it makes you more comfortable. What's important for our purposes is this old-fashioned, cross-cultural idea that people are mostly invisible creatures comprised of five parts. We're not just the bodies you see but are very much comprised of intellect, emotion, will, and relationship. Development in these five areas is what promotes the long-term flourishing of a person.
Which brings us to the fun, practical part: what's this got to do with school?
Know thy lane
I was watching a 400m, four-person relay the other day. I noticed two beautiful things:
- The way each person contributes something critical to the team's success — delete a single runner's contribution, and the team only makes it three-quarters of the way home.
- The way the initial runners have to remain in their lanes, and the final runners get to use the fullness of the track.
It reminded me of a question I love to ask: In education, what's our lane? What is our critical contribution?
Here's my take: in every student's life, there are myriad adults who in some way love them — meaning, who work for their good, who will their good. There are parents and guardians and aunts and uncles and neighbors and pastors and mentors and coaches and troop leaders and event organizers and teachers… just all kinds of people who seek, in ways big or small, to develop young people. You can add in all the caveats you'd like — and I'll grant you plenty — but the zoomed out picture is that the promotion of a child's long-term flourishing isn't just up to us.
In short, long-term flourishing is a group project.
So what role do schools uniquely play in this project?
We develop the mind by helping students to grow in mastery of the disciplines and the arts.
Yep, our job is the head.
Now, I'm not giving license here to ignore SEL — by all means, seek the social and emotional development of the young people in your care. Nor am I saying that the mind is just the brain — I think it's more than that. I'm just saying, the mind is our spot. It's our lane. If we miss it, we harm the relay.
- Plenty of people in a student's life will seek to teach them healthy conflict resolution — few will teach them literature or history like you do, though.
- All sorts of folks will contribute to a child's understanding of how to process difficult emotions — but how many will make it their mission to teach health or physics or phys ed or geometry?
Now come on, Dave — life's not all about the head!
Of course it isn't! And a 400×4 relay isn't all about the second lap. Nonetheless, the second runner must run their race, striving for excellence in it alone, seeking to eke every last bit of performance they can from it for the sake of the goal.
What this means for strategy in Fall 2021 and afterward
So here's the deal: I want schools to be good at the development of the mind; I want to be good at this in my own classroom.
But we must go deeper: the best path to the head is the heart.
More on this next time.